TRAVEL / First steps on the slippery slopes: When a family wants to take to the snow, what about the kids? Jill Crawshaw has some suggestions for how, when and where

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The Independent Culture
WE THOUGHT we'd got it licked - we wouldn't push our son to learn. So the first time we took to the snow en famille, we avoided the children's lessons and my husband spent muscle-straining days skiing down long runs with an inert four-year-old between his knees. Toby decided this form of skiing was fine. 'Faster, faster,' he'd shout, encouraging us to believe we'd discovered a fearless, embryonic Killy or Klammer, and that next season he'd be ready for proper ski school. Next year we hired his gear and were encouraged by him clanking round the chalet in it on the first evening.

Delivering him at ski classes for his first lesson, we sat in a cafe over a gluhwein or two, admired the Continental teenies flashing past in flurries of snow, and waited for ours to metamorphose into a downhill racer. Our fond parental hopes came crashing down - along with half the class he'd tangled with, and his German-speaking instructor.

'I hate skiing, and I'm never going back,' was the reaction that concluded that particular experiment. All we'd done was choose the wrong resort with the wrong type of ski school, at the wrong time of the year. January may be the cheapest month for skiing but it is also the coldest, and there had been an awful lot of hanging about at his Swiss ski school; and, contrary to popular myth, not all children plug into instant multilingual camaraderie, so an English-speaking instructor is now a prerequisite in our skiing rule book.

British parents, it seems, can make more mistakes than most when they plan their Alpine togetherness. 'I used to try to hide in the loo, the only place which was warm and where no one shouted at me in a foreign language,' admits Konrad Bartelski, our most successful ski racer, recalling his first ski holiday.

'British children are not used to the snow, and perhaps some parents try to teach them too quickly,' explained grandmother and Olympic medallist Riki Spiess tactfully, as the following year we entrusted her with the task of picking up the pieces. She runs the children's ski school at Mayrhofen, in Austria, which has become a model worldwide.

The school has 20 specialist instructors, all of whom must speak perfect English, and who are trained as much in wiping noses and putting on mittens as executing perfect snowploughs. The children meet in their own warm hut, far better than on some windy slope, and between lessons go back there for cartoons, games, occasional naps and lunch if requested, to allow parents time for their own skiing.

The aim of the Mayrhofen method is to make skiing fun from the start, and it certainly caught on with our guinea pig. 'I can ski] I can ski,' he yelled after his first morning with an Australian woman instructor, confident that he could take on the whole mountain.

Enthusiasm waxed and waned throughout the week, but only two out of a hundred or so children dropped out. If any seemed particularly nervous or tentative, another instructor would be summoned on a walkie-talkie, and she'd dart across to give the waverer a private lesson to boost confidence.

Before our next offspring, Dominic, hit the slopes, we'd done our skiing homework much more thoroughly. 'If couples with children can now afford only one holiday a year, we don't want them sloping off to some gte in the Dordogne,' said a tourist director, anxious to promote his country as 'child-friendly'. In this year's crop of ski brochures, the children's discounts and facilities are more apparent than ever - even if they do often depend on a shared family room, and probably never apply during the February half-term week. For parents with pre-ski children, there are all kinds of incentives on offer, and creche has become a buzz word in ski parlance.

I can find few companies prepared to take babies from birth, except Snowtime, whose youngest guest to date was 10 days old. Ski Hillwood will accept babies from six weeks old at Hopfgarten, in Austria, Ski Esprit from four months in its French resorts and at Villars in Switzerland. Children from six months or a year upwards are catered for by many more operators, often with qualified nannies.

It is the slightly older children, beginning to turn mutinous at being dumped all day while their parents enjoy themselves, who can pose the biggest problems. As we discovered, few four- to five-year-old British children can cope with all-day ski classes.

Among the larger firms, Ski Thomson offers 11 'Family Choice' resorts, plus the Peter the Polar Bear Club (costing pounds 50) for three- to eight-year-olds in St Johann, Risoul and Val Thorens - with full supervision from 9am to 4.30pm, evening stories, some babysitting and extras such as sleigh rides and picnics.

Some smaller specialist ski companies offer more extensive services; on its Meribel chalet holidays, Meriski's nannies will pick up over- fours at the end of the morning class, give them lunch and play with them in the afternoon. In Puy-St-Vincent, Snowbizz offers the Toton Ski Club where younger children are taught for an hour each day by their own ski instructor. Ski Esprit, one of the creche pioneers, has launched Ski Sprites, a club for four- to seven- year-olds in Morzine, France, with a maximum of eight children in a class, run by the British Alpine Ski Club at pounds 80 a week per child.

The most child-concious ski firm is France's Club Med, which has designated Chamonix, Les Arcs, La Plagne, Villars and Zinal as 'family villages', with a variety of Baby Clubs, P'tit Cubs and Cadets, catering for children from four months to 15 years. (Child haters might care to take note that the company describes Val d'Isere as its most non-family village).

Our own experience of a Club Med holiday in Tignes was mixed; we felt they could well learn a few welcoming Austrian techniques towards their British adult guests, but their children's facilities, supervision and entertainment were exemplary. Our sons' English-speaking instructor, Frederic, was helpful, sympathetic and much adored, and his instruction must have been pretty good too, because it was this particular holiday that shattered forever yet another parental dream: 'Won't it be nice when we can ski together as a family?'

The four of us started off one morning, one parent going first to lead, one going last to monitor the descent. The children were reasonably co-operative until the final descent, when we finally conceded 'Well, wait for us at the bottom then' as they bounded off like puppies let off the leash, accomplishing in three minutes what would take us the next 15.

Once children have been bitten by the skiing bug, the parental role changes to one of sherpa to hump their gear, and social secretary. For this reason we've tried to find resorts with nursery slopes in a central position and near our accommodation. Traffic-free resorts rate highly, too. And if flying, go for one that is not too far from the airport.

There's probably no perfect family resort, only those that please most of the family most of the time. Our forays have been largely divided between Austria and France, the former because the villages are so friendly and picturesque (for us) and the tuition so thorough (for them). Many of the French resorts are hideous and not particularly welcoming, and the children's classes variable. But they have good snow, user-friendly button lifts instead of the dreaded T-bars, and they are accessible by car.

The children's ultimate dream would probably be a ski resort in the United States, such as Vail or Breckenridge, where there are no cosy chalets for long, boring lunches - only fast- track eating and accommodation in 'condos' with colour television in every room. Still, skiing's the one family holiday idea that always meets with unreserved enthusiasm. So we must have done something right.-

RECOMMENDED RESORTS: Austria - Alpbach, Mayrhofen, Niederau, Saalbach, St Johann in Tirol. France - Avoriaz, Les Arcs, Flaine, La Plagne. Switzerland - Saas Fee, Villars, Wengen.

CRECHES AND CLUBS: Many of these are organised by the resorts themselves, and should be prebooked, particularly at peak times such as Christmas and half-term. The best facilities are in the US. Austrian and Swiss kindergartens are usually friendly and efficient. The ESF Kindergartens in the purpose-built French resorts sometimes put their emphasis more seriously on teaching the children to ski rather than 'having fun', which suits some children but can be daunting for nervous beginners. Some tour operators offer their own childcare facilities and classes, with charges ranging from pounds 49- pounds 130 a week.

These firms include: Ski Esprit (0252 616789); Snowbizz (0778 341455); Meriski (081-682 3883); Simply Ski (081-742 2541); Bladon Lines (081-785 3131); Ski Peak (0428 682272); Ski West (081-789 1122); Snowtime (071-433 3336); Ski Hillwood (081-866 9993); Club Med (071-581 1161); Ski Scott Dunn (081- 767 0202); Ski Thomson (081-200 8733); and Crystal Holidays (081-399 5144).