Jane Bolton knows a thing or two about taking pre-teens skiing. The MD of France ski holiday specialist Erna Low has two children of her own, and takes them to the mountains a couple of times each winter. Often, she joins forces with friends, with each family booking a self-catering apartment in the same résidence. “That way, there’s plenty of opportunity to do shared kids’ meals whilst also ensuring we have some time to ourselves,” she says.
Got some tweenagers in your brood? Then add some sparkle to their winter by taking them skiing. Most children between the ages of 7 and 12 desperately need exercise, a sense of adventure, and their first taste of independence. Few places offer all three in such abundance as a modern mountain resort.
They don’t even have to like skiing. There’s so much going on in the mountains these days that you spend a whole week immersed in fun/cool activities without ever whizzing down a piste. Though it would be a huge waste not to try…
I have two children of my own who are now tweenagers: and as a result we’ve started to make big changes to the way we ski. Gone are the days when we used to choose a resort that had its own crèche. Both my 10 and my 7 year olds spend the morning in ski school, and after lunch in our apartment we split into two groups: one on easy pistes, and the other on more challenging slopes, followed by a family splash together in the nearest swimming pool. The only problem is that they never seem to get tired! If it carries on like this, I’ll be one who goes to bed at 8.30pm.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far: not just from my own experience, but the many other families I know and/or work with who look forward to their winter trip.
1. Give beginners a head start
Even for a self-confident, “I’ve seen it all” tweenager, the first ever day in a ski resort can be an overwhelming experience. It’s so different from the world they know – and that’s before they’ve started sliding on a pair of skis, without the foggiest idea how to stop.
If they’ve already had some lessons back home, they’ll settle in much more quickly. So book your brood onto a beginner’s course at one of the UK’s indoor, real-snow slopes. In a friendly, low-key and unintimidating environment, they’ll get used to the feeling of ski boots, learn the basics of the snowplough, and understand how to control their speed.
Stick with it for several weeks, and they might even start making parallel turns on the centre’s longer slopes. But either way, it’ll be a huge boost to their confidence to discover they’re at the top of their ski school class on their first day in the mountains.
Expect to pay £65-70 for a two-hour children’s lesson, which includes equipment rental, At Chill Factore, in Manchester, a one-day, six-hour lesson starts from £95. Lessons are also available on outdoor, dry-ski slopes: it’s well worth trying one if you’re not near a real-snow centre.
2. Persuade your friends to come too
Every parent with tweenagers knows how important friends are to them. So bring some along with you – preferably attached to grown-ups you quite like yourself. Cousins are probably best: but like-minded families you’ve met through school are almost as good – and the instant gang of ski buddies they create will pretty much take care of itself for the entire trip. Meanwhile, you’ll get a warm glow from seeing them enjoying themselves, as well as the unfamiliar pleasure of grown-up conversations that aren’t interrupted every 30 seconds.
Self-catering apartments work really well for this kind of group. Because they’re cheaper than most hotels and chalets, your choice of fellow skiers will be wider, and you can book one large apartment together or several small ones in the same block depending on how much you want to muck in together. (We usually go for the second option: it saves the hassle of a chores/cooking rota.) Setting your own mealtimes – or deciding you all want to go out for pizza – is more relaxing too.
3. Book a ski school that’s full of English-speaking kids
If you can’t assemble a squad of friend, then book your tweenagers into a ski school that’s popular with Brits. Kids enjoy skiing more if they can chat to their classmates, and they’ll be reassured by fact that the teacher speaks exclusively in English too. Targeting a British-run ski school is the simplest way to find this kind of Anglophone environment. But if there isn’t one in your chosen resort, a small, independent “local” school will often do the trick. They tend to be run by younger instructors who are gunning for a more affluent international clientele, and English is often their lingua franca. Check first by ringing them up and asking if they run English-only groups.
4. Look for activities beyond the pistes
The more your kids ski, the more pistes will become the main focus for their enjoyment. Just like everyone else, they’ll love the speed, the scenery and the self-confidence that comes from mastering a new skill. But earlier on their ski careers – while they’re still snowploughing – it’ll give the trip more zip if you choose a resort with plenty to do “off-piste”.
It’s not hard to find one. These days, many ski areas have swimming pools or waterparks that put the average British town to shame. So every day can end with a family splash, even if your own accommodation doesn’t have its own pool. In France, Aquamotion in Courchevel (built at the eye-watering cost of €63 million) is the best, but there are also excellent public pools in Les Arcs, Tignes, Les Menuires and Avoriaz too, to name a few. In many resorts you’ll find floodlit tobogganing, snow-tubing, bowling, trampolining and dog-sledding too. A quick search of the resort’s own website will reveal what’s on offer: in France the “Famille Plus” label is a good indication of family-friendliness.
5. Make food part of the fun
Your kids are going to be hungry. So make food central to the fun of the holiday. If you’re staying in an apartment, send them out in the morning to buy the croissants from the local boulangerie. They’ll love feeling grown-up enough to do the shopping. Get them to choose the restaurant for dinner too, and if it’s pizza, so what? Ask them to choose again later in the trip, and they may well surprise you with something more adventurous. I’m no expert, but a lot of battles parents have with their kids seem to be about who’s in control – and you may well find they suddenly lighten up if the choice of menu is theirs. Get them to try something active too. What could be more fun that a meat fondu, or raclette? It’s a chance to ditch all the usual arguments and fussiness and start eating with enthusiasm.
6. And don’t forget, it’s your holiday too
The morning is your moment. The kids are off at ski school, and there’s bound to be the odd day when the conditions for skiing are, shall we say, “sub-optimal”. So seize your moment, and go back to bed for a couple of hours, book some time together in a spa, or go and eat your own bodyweight in cute little patisseries in the nearest café. You’ll have earned it.