TRAVEL : Skiing can be child's play

In the first of our ski-season guides, Tania Alexander goes in search of resorts where parents can leave the kids with a nanny and enjoy some piste and quiet
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The Independent Culture
When I told friends and family a few years back that we were taking our seven-month-old baby boy on a skiing holiday they thought we were daft. We arrived at Heathrow airport shattered before the holiday had even begun, after spending the midnight hours packing nappies, steriliser, baby alarm, backpack, pushchair, fleeces, baby moon boots, and cursing the fact that it was physically impossible to transport our own boots and skis as well.

But we spent an idyllic family week in Flims, Switzerland, and came home with memories of our rosy-cheeked Alex being marched up the mountainside on the back of the nanny provided by the ski company Powder Byrne. I'll never forget the day we found him sitting on the sun terrace wearing a bandanna and sucking in spaghetti as if born to be alpine. We were able to ski a deux every day of the holiday - apart from the nanny's day off when we took a magical sleigh ride with all three of us wrapped up in a fur blanket, like something out of Dr Zhivago.

A couple of years later, when Alex's little sister, Anoushka was just a year old, we had a disastrous experience on an equivalently active summer holiday. Our mistake was thinking our kids would go into a creche, when they'd never done so before. The two of them created high hell when we tried to leave them, so we couldn't. That week gave us plenty of time to reflect on how terrible this would have been on a winter holiday, for not only would the creche have been a waste of money but we would not have been able to ski at all.

There's no escaping from it - a skiing holiday with children is nothing like those trips before you had them. Remember that blissful time when you return from a hard day on the slopes to sink into a hot fragrant bubble bath and then slip into comfortable clothes before hitting the apres scene? With even one child in tow, however, you come back to do the bathing plus all the usual bedtime struggles. And if you don't always remember where your own lift pass is, multiply this by two, three or four, and imagine what it's like trying to get kids kitted out and ready for the slopes too.

Bearing this in mind, we have chickened out and kept our skis in the attic until this season when, fingers-crossed, we have had enough experience with taking kids away, and they've both started nursery schools, so are more used to being.

Family skiing is big business, as yesteryear's skiers are today's ski parents. So many resorts and companies have jumped on the bandwagon that choosing a family skiing holiday has become almost as exhausting as the holiday itself.

WHAT SORT OF CHILDCARE?

Some resorts have excellent childcare but, unless you go to the States, English is not going to be the main language of the carers. To counteract this there are now many British tour operators who run their own creches, although the standard varies. Clarify before booking what the nanny-to- child ratio is. The average for British companies, depending on the age of the child, is one to four. Some companies such as Ski Hillwood accept babies from as young as six weeks in their creches. Simply Ski takes them from three months, and Mark Warner, Club Med and Ski Esprit from four months.

You also need to check where the creche is located and how easy it is for you to ferry your kids to and fro. A big problem with ski creches is that they are often over-heated so bugs spread like wildfire. If your child gets sick you can say au revoir to the pistes, as you will have to take responsibility for looking after him or her. Most creches cannot care for children with special needs - one exception to the rule is Ski Hillwood.

Creche activity is mostly indoors but usually includes outdoor play with walks, tobogganing, snowman building and snowball fights. Check if the creche provides lunch as it may not always be easy for you to ski back at midday.

The creche's opening hours are another consideration. Most of them open at about 8.30am or 9am and expect you to pick the kids up by 4pm or even earlier. Some companies, such as Mark Warner and Ski Esprit offer an extra hour of childcare (until 5pm) which can make all the difference. Club Med keeps its Baby Clubs (four to 12 months) open from 8.30am to 6pm, and the two-to-three-year-old club is open until 9.30pm.

Private nannies in resorts are becoming increasingly popular as this offers families flexibility and the ability to tailor-make activities to suit your children's interests. Prices range from pounds 250 to pounds 400 per week for a nanny who usually will look after up to three or four children. Families often team together to split the cost.

The nanny comes to your accom-modation in the morning and either takes the children off or stays to look after them in your chalet. They usually go off duty at about 4pm or 5pm but can be paid extra for babysitting at night. Companies offering a private nanny service include Powder Byrne, Mark Warner, Thomson, Ski Esprit and Simply Ski.

A luxurious alternative is to fly in your own au pair or nanny who can look after the kids in the day and help put them to bed at night. This is obviously the most costly option as you have to pay her flight and board though a couple of companies such as Collineige and Abercrombie and Kent offer discounts for accompanying nannies.

Taking your own nanny can raise some interesting employer ethics. I remember being shocked when a couple we met said they would not allow their nanny to ski as if she became injured, she'd be "useless" to them.

CHILDREN'S SKI TUITION

The main reason, of course, that people take their kids on skiing holidays is that they want them to learn to ski. Most ski schools recommend that a child is four or over before they start. In Steamboat, Colorado, children can learn from as young as two-and-half while in Austria there is a resort called Faaker See in Carinthia, which is hosting the first toddlers' European Downhill Championship next March. The resort has a full-time toddlers' ski instructor, and the Hotel Schonblick, is part of Austria's Kinder- hotels chain, which are all in traffic-free locations, offering toy libraries, pet zoos and free child supervision.

If this is the first year your child is skiing, it's worth finding out whether there will be English-speaking instructors. It can be off-putting for a young child to learn to ski with someone who only speaks broken English. To counteract this some British tour operators are offering their own ski schools with local instructors guaranteed to speak good English. This season Mark Warner has a children's ski school in La Plagne. Ski Esprit, Powder Byrne and Simply Ski also operate children's ski schools.

If your child is old enough to learn to ski, don't think your childcare problems are over. Small children simply won't last more than an hour or two in lessons as it's too cold and physically demanding. And check if the ski school offers lunch and indoor facilities. Some companies including Powder Byrne, Simply Ski, and Thomson offer a full service.

CHOOSING A RESORT

Some resorts are more welcoming to families than others, Mayerhofen in Austria offers an excellent kindergarten for non-skiing children, and has children's apres-ski activities such as puppet shows and sleigh rides. In celebration of the tourist office's 100th birthday, 11 to 18 January, 1997 is Party Week with clowns, pantomimes and special foods. Kitzbuhel, also in Austria, is featuring Snow Bunny Package weeks from 15 March to 5 April, 1997, when children under 15 have free accommodation, lift pass, equipment hire and lessons. A similar deal for children under 12 is offered in 28 French resorts, between 4 and 25 January, 1997 (call 0891 244 123). One of the resorts featured in the French "Kids Stay and Ski Free" scheme is Avoriaz, in the Portes du Soleil, fulfils all the family-friendly criteria by being traffic-free with easy access to skiing and a good reputation for teaching children, as well as a day nursery for younger non-skiing children. Not part of the same offer, but still good for families, is Isola 2000 in the France, which offers superb sunny nursery slopes slap bang in the centre of the Seventies shopping centre-style resort, plus just the right size ski area for parents who want to do an hour or two of enjoyable skiing without straying too far from their children. If you're looking for alpine charm, try Wengen, a beautiful quiet Swiss village which can only be reached by train and which has excellent nursery slopes and access to plenty of good intermediate skiing. The ski school has a good reputation for teaching children and there is also a non-skiing kindergarten.

If you can face the transatlantic flight, there are some superb resorts for families in the States. The quality of service, standard of accommodation and guaranteed English-speaking instruction make these an attractive option for families. Two of the best are Vall and its sister village Beaver Creek in Colorado which both offer excellent learn-to-ski programmes for children three-years-old and over and good childcare for non-skiing children. They have special children's ski play areas with Native American tepee villages, Fort Whippersnapper Cowboy Fort and the Hibernating Bear Cave, plus Western characters who ski with the kids. Steamboat in Colorado is suitable for families with its Kiddie Corral childcare centre for kids aged six months to six years (also open at night for babysitting), a programme of ski- school activities with a special "magic carpet" ride - which means children don't have the task of side-stepping up the mountain before they take their first slide down. They also have a Forget-Me-Nots Speciality Store for parents who forget to bring kids' goggles, mittens or gloves.

About an hour and a half away by car is Winter Park, another good resort for families, also with a "magic carpet" ride. Once they've learned the basics they can head off to Discovery Park, a 25-acre learn-to-ski area full of gentle, runs and mini-bumps. There's also a tree trail, a tepee village and Willie's Wonderland. Concerned parents can hire bleepers so they can stay in contact with their kids while out on the slopes.

TIPS

It can be too cold for younger children in the early season. Try to avoid the last two weeks of February as resorts are very busy at this time because of European holidays.

Before you weigh yourself down with equipment, check with the company what it will provide. Many offer pushchairs, backpacks, and the like.

Be extra vigilant about sunburn. Smother young children in high-factor suntan cream or better still sun-block.

Insist they always wear gloves.

Spend some time checking that your children's ski boots really fit properly.

Take Vaseline to apply to your child's feet - it helps prevents blisters if applied before you hit the slopes - and pack arnica cream for any bruises.

FAMILY SKI DIRECTORY

Abercrombie & Kent (0171 730 9600); Club Med (0171 225 1066); Collineige (01276 24262); Crystal (Family Hotline 0181 241 5199); Mark Warner (0171 393 3168); Powder Byrne (0181 871 3300); Simply Ski (0181 742 2541); Ski Esprit (01252 616789); Ski Famille (01223 363777); Ski Hillwood (0181 866 9993); Snow Bizz (01778 341455); Thomson (0990 329 329). !

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