Here we go down the nursery slopes

Andrew Wilson takes his children skiing in Austria and finds that the instructors' relaxed style is to everyone's liking
"DADDY, DO people here ski every day?" This searching question was the one moment above all others on our first family skiing holiday two years ago that stuck in my mind. It was then that it hit me that my four-year-old, Max, had absolutely no idea what on earth his parents were up to. As he sat on a wall watching the happy hordes clatter back to their chalets, he felt they must be obsessed by some lunacy that would pass, given sufficient time.

But when he spent the next morning in the ski kindergarten, his initial impressions were only compounded. Swathed in a hundred jumpers and over- sized goggles, hateful madames set about cajoling him to enter a Winnie- the-Pooh button lift. On this holiday away with Mum and Dad he had immediately been abandoned. Empty promises had given way to a cacophony of unintelligible French curses.

My advice is that you should not believe what the skiing brochures say: English- speaking means they will only if they really have to. An English toddler alone does not stand a chance. But Max's older brother, James, fared no better. After one day of ski school there was no way he was "going out again with that lot again". French shouting, and falling over, was not what we had promised our sons. Skiing to them was just "stupid".

Providing them with private lessons is the most effective way of bypassing these language problems. But to do that, you need to be able to spend pounds 100 a day per child. We didn't have that kind of money, but our love of skiing persuaded us to try again. On a friend's advice we turned our back on Les Alpes and went to Austria, to Kitzbuhel. The prospect of another week on the "stupid" slopes did not go down too well with the children, even less well the suggestion of the dreaded s-word - ski school.

At six and eight years old they were, of course, older, but the prejudices already ran deep. We agreed on two days at ski school and then we would be a family again. Unfortunately, unlike France, the Austrian schools demand full-day attendance. So we agreed to meet them for lunch.

The Rote Teufel (Red Devils) ski school in Kitzbuhel welcomed the challenge of our boys with those worrying "don't worry" smiles. "Scared are they? They'll be fine." The chief instructor told us that at the Red Devils they taught via the fun method: the children do what they want and don't have to do what they don't want. The gnashing of tiny teeth did little in the way of reassurance as we fought to break free of their terrified grasps. At least they were stoical after the deal we had brokered the night before - classes for two days maximum.

I was cheered by a new invention in the designated area: a travelator that took the toddlers up a minuscule slope while all they had to do was stand. The boys were observed as they played on the travelator and assigned to their respective classes, Max went with Monika, an English-speaking Austrian. "Alle Kinder hier stehen! Komme hier, komme hier! Max, stehe hier!"

My heart made a leap. James, our eight-year-old, went with Atjem, a Russian. "Ja gut, gut, James, hier folgen uns - OK! OK!" This was clearly doomed from the start. Where were the itinerant Australian snow-bums we had prayed for, the British student on a year out? Will they ever forgive us if the scars never heal? Unlike in France, we could stay and watch, but finally we turned away, leaving Max jumping on the spot in his skis in front of the impressive Monika, and James shrugging his shoulders at us as Atjem struggled not with his English, but with his Austrian.

"Wouldn't an English coach be better for James?" I nagged pathetically at the chief instructor.

"Maybe, but all the kids love Atjem. He's so good with them."

I heard a kind of Red Indian whoop, and turned to see the young Muscovite sliding down the hill. "Sooper! Sooper!" His seven young charges followed as best they could.

We skied the whole morning, as yet unappreciative of the gift already bestowed on us by the Rote Teufel ski school. We thought only of our lunchtime return and the inevitable recriminations. Beyond that lay five days of skiing the nursery slopes with two hang-dog, terminally discouraged can't- do-it loved ones. But lunch passed without incident, our questions answered by them with a couple of muted utterances of "fine".

We skied on in the afternoon. The sun was shining, the snow was crisp, and for the first time in what seemed like years, we were alone, and on holiday. At 3.30pm exactly we collected the children, trying not to leap in for the irresistible post-mortem.

"That was excellent," said James.

"Wicked," said Max.

The next day Max was moved up a group, to the class supervised by Steve, who was, believe it or not, one of those elusive, itinerant Australian snow-worshippers. James grew to hero-worship Atjem, whose attempts at German or English became part of his charm rather than his failing.

My wife and I continued to ski the mountain, pulling in for long liquid lunches of Gluhwein and coffee. The children lunched with their classes, leaving us free to sample Knodel (dumpling), Suppe, and discuss matters Tyrolean with passers-by. We consulted piste maps and chose routes together. Circumstances will differ, of course, but this was, for us, a reminder of times we thought had long gone. And at the end of each day, there was nothing but happy enthusiasm: so three days became five.

The secret to this unexpected success was that our children were being allowed to act their age and enjoy the relative freedom on offer. The atmosphere in Kitzbuhel was, indeed, different from that in the French Alps. It was a more informal resort, and the classes were smaller: 12 or 15 reduced to a maximum of nine. This was the place to bring and teach the children eventually to follow us up the mountain.

Cristl Heim, director of the children's section of Rote Teufel, says the only way for children to learn to ski is to let them have fun. They are afraid of being humiliated, not afraid of the snow, she said. "When they're very young we even sing with them," she told me. "We play with them, we take them for a ride on the sleigh just to make them happy, and then we can put the skis back on. They don't even realise what they're doing. They just go up and come down, and all of a sudden they've got the knack."

And, indeed, our children did get the knack. Snow ploughs became stern turns on the last day when they came out with us. Red-runs were slowly but proudly taken on and mastered. No doubt when they become teenagers, they will want to return to the more fashionable resorts of France. But, for the time being, we will be mixing with the happy and relaxed crowds in Austria.


ski school

Getting there

Many operators offer a range of ski holidays in Kitzbuhel, including Airtours (tel: 0541 571162), British Airways Holidays (tel: 0870 2424249), Crystal Holidays (tel: 01235 824324), First Choice (tel: 0870 7542574).

One week's skiing for a party of two adults and two children with British Airways Holidays, staying at the Haselberger Hotel, including return flights, transfers and b&b accommodation, costs pounds 439 per adult and pounds 355 per child, departing on 19 December.

The author travelled to Kitzbuhel with Inghams Travel (tel: 0181-780 4444).

Further information

Austrian Tourist Board (tel: 0171-629 0461); Kitzbuhel tourist office (tel: 00 43 5356 621550); Rote Teufel Ski School (tel: 00 43 5356 621500).