Family Travel Q&A: I'm right behind you, son

The Independent Parent: Your Questions Answered
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Q. My husband is 50 next March, in the same week as our son is 18. I would like to give them both a father-and-son treat - something sporty, energetic or wacky perhaps, away from home. My budget is pounds 500 for the two of them. Do you have any suggestions?

Name and address withheld

A. OK, here goes. If you want them to let off steam and get rid of adrenalin, how about a Paintball Day, when your two male relatives can splat each other with pellets, and play heroes in a woodland site or urban guerrillas in a village site? This costs pounds 45 each, including 400 pellets, camouflage kit, and goggles.

On another occasion, they could do offshore power-boat driving, ballooning, circus skills, cowboy riding and other adventure days, all from Over the Moon Activities (01603 700706). If your son has a driving licence, though, perhaps the best of these would be a "Wacky Driving Day", in charge of a variety of vehicles from V8 Stock Cars and double-decker buses, to a 432 Armoured Personnel Carrier. The most ambitious of the driving courses (costing pounds 200 each) is a Military Driving Special, involving a Ferret Armoured Car, an amphibious 6 x 6 Stalwart, a 546-tracked Rapier Rocket Carrier, and instruction in SAS Fieldcraft skills.

The overall best driver of the day will get a chance to drive in a Chieftain MBT and crush a car - is that wacky enough?

Another suggestion would be to contact Acorn Activities (01432 830083), which offers more than 150 activity and special-interest days out, weekends and longer holidays. A two-night, full-board weekend, in Wales, for example, during which they could try abseiling and white-water rafting, costs pounds 150 each. Among the one-day activities available are bungee-jumping (pounds 50 each), car-rallying (pounds 145) and microlighting (pounds 60).

They could even have a go at tandem skydiving if they have the nerve, but this costs pounds 225 per person and over-40s (ie your husband) will need a fitness certificate - and neither must be more than 14 stone.

If all this sounds a bit wild and way out, perhaps they might like to jet off together to watch a Continental football team and have a weekend away as well. BAC Sport, for example (0171-456 7100), covers most of the big games and teams, including FC Barcelona, Sporting Lisbon and Benfica; or they could catch up with the progress of Steve McManaman and Anelka (if he's still there) at Real Madrid. The top teams of Italy's Serie A - such as AC Milan, Inter Milan, Lazio, Juventus and Fiorentina - are also a possibility.

Travelscene (0181-861 6566) also offers football weekends. Italian League matches usually take place on Sunday afternoons, so on the weekends in Florence, Turin, Milan or Rome, there's enough time for sightseeing, stadium tours or buying a present for mum to thank her for her generosity. Prices start at pounds 299, including flights, three- or four-star B&B hotel accommodation, match tickets and transfers - slightly over your budget, I know, but then they can't see Ronaldo or Vieri back home, can they?

Q. We have been skiing twice as a family - to Austria and to France; our son and daughter, aged nine and 10, along with my husband are all mad-keen skiers, and want us to go to the US. Is it worth the expense to travel so far and for so long with the children? If so, which resort would suit us best? I'm a ski rabbit.

Maggie Donaldson,

Brighton

A. If you think you can afford it - and yes, it is more expensive than Europe - then go for it. There are resorts for every grade and age of skier, and above all, with children in mind, the accent is on fun. Skiing is a healthy activity for Americans rather than a religion, but it's fun in a safe environment with excellent tuition.

You have correctly identified the main drawbacks - the long flights and the expense. However, the direct BA flights to Denver started last season, taking around 10 hours. Do check the small print, though - some operators charge up to pounds 80 per person extra for direct flights.

Because of the flight and jetlag, you may feel that a week at your American resort is not long enough, but a fortnight is too expensive; so consider tour operators which offer more flexible deals of 10 days. And remember in many American resorts you may need to hire a car since accommodation is spread out, and can be some distance from lifts and slopes.

Other skiing extras that cost more in the States are lift passes and ski school. A six-day lift pass will cost you pounds 180-pounds 195, or pounds 30 a day, while children pay pounds 130-pounds 150, or pounds 25 per day. Ski school can cost around pounds 35 per day for an adult, or pounds 50 for a child, while good-quality ski, pole and boot hire is about on a par with Europe.

There are several other and happier differences between US and European skiing; if you've ever suffered cramped French ski apartments, which can make family life hell, you'll be delighted by the spaciousness of the "condos" or condominiums, equipped with large kitchen, TVs and dishwashers (but beware, there are usually no kettles or teapots).

On the pistes, which are called "trails", safety standards and grooming are second to none, the planning is such that even a rabbit can come down from the same peak as better skiers by taking a much longer, gentler route. So you needn't feel isolated from your husband and offspring all day. The soft, talcum-powder snow of the Rockies should also do wonders for your confidence.

Children's ski schools in general are some of the best we've experienced. As you would expect, standards of childcare and tuition are extremely high, with none of the sometimes bored Continental poseurs you can get taking kids' classes, which again can be particularly the case in France.

In America, there are rarely as many as 10 children in a class, and Stetson- clad instructors invent all kinds of games, from Indiana Jones to Walt Disney myths, as well as slalom races and animal-tracking, to keep the kids happy while putting them through their paces. It helps that there are, of course, no language problems to speak of.

The lack of cosy mountain huts and long gluhwein sessions probably worries parents more than the kids; the Americans go at their skiing with such enthusiasm that a five-minute lunch of coffee in a paper cup and hamburger on a paper plate saves precious skiing time.

Which resort? Main skiing areas in the US include New England and the Rockies but, though holidays to the former are cheaper and flights to Boston are shorter, the real down side is the weather. Temperatures in New England can reach some of the lowest in the world, too cold, in my opinion, for young British children - and the slopes sometimes get icy.

For reasons of access and temperature, I've chosen the Rockies, where you can expect clear skies and sun, but where the snow conditions remain excellent until well into April. The most popular spot for British families is the old picturesque silver-mining-cum- Wild-West town of Breckenridge, which, unlike ski resorts in Utah or Montana, for example, has a life beyond just skiing.

There are excellent snowboard facilities, galleries, shopping malls, cybercafes and restaurants serving everything from Mexican and Creole to Italian and Japanese food. The town is compact and safe enough to allow kids to move about without parents in tow. A separate ski school caters for six- to 12-year-olds, at which they can stay for lunch, and special family ski clinics cater for skiers of different standards. Drawbacks? At peak times, main slopes get overcrowded; and being at 9,600ft can cause altitude sickness.

I have priced seven-night and 10-night holidays for you departing in April from Gatwick to Denver on the direct flight (domestic add-on flights from Gatwick are free). For a week in a two-bedroom condo at Pine Ridge Condos, each adult would pay pounds 789 and the children pounds 539 each. And for a 10-day holiday, the prices would be pounds 859 and pounds 609 respectively, from Ski Independence (0990 550555), which offers 33 resorts in the US and Canada.

Vail and its smart neighbour, Beaver Creek, have a wide range of skiing and apres-ski activities. Vail's mountain is the largest single mountain in the US, with 174 trails of all grades and the famous back bowls for experts who want to learn powder off-piste skiing (your husband perhaps?). In American eyes, Vail is the epitome of a Tyrolean village with its stubes, white chalets and tinkling streams - until they've been to the Tyrol, that is.

There is a separate kids' skiing area, excellent tuition for three- to 13-year-olds, with apres-ski programmes with or without parents, and Wild West shows. Young instructors act out Cowboys and Indians on the slopes, and give the children a hilarious time.

There's a wide selection of gentle, easy green runs for you, while alternative activities include dog-sledding, skating, squash, tubing and snowcat tours. And though there are plenty of pricey eateries, there's no problem finding mega-burgers, pizzas or even fish and chips. The seven and 10 nights' holiday prices with direct flights from the Gatwick to Denver, and accommodation in a two-bedroom condo at the Vail Racquet Club are pounds 819 or pounds 899 per adult, pounds 579 and pounds 659 per child.

Lift passes for the ticket covering Vail, Beaver Creek, Keystone and Breckenridge are reduced in April, and will cost adults pounds 99 for a six- day pass (pounds 53 per child) and pounds 148 for a nine-day pass (children pounds 80). These prices are from Ski Independence (0990 550555). Other tour operators worth trying include: Thomson Holidays (0870 6061470), Crystal Holidays (01235 824324) and Virgin Ski (01293 562944).

Look out, too, for special family deals if you book early; glitzy Aspen is offering a Millennium reduced-price pass if booked before 1 December on the Internet. The skiing takes place on four mountains offering different grades of skiing but linked by a free shuttle bus. Buttermilk is delightfully gentle, Snowmass caters for all grades, and Aspen Mountain and Aspen Highlands are for downhill racers.

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