Q&A: Aim high for your son's first taste of winter sport

The Independent Parent: Your Questions Answered
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Q. I would like to organise a week's winter skiing holiday in January/February 2001 for my husband, our six-year-old son and myself. I haven't skied in years, my husband still needs a bit of persuading and my son hasn't had a chance to try it yet. Accordingly, we would need good nursery slopes and instructors, plus hopefully a villagey atmosphere and the possibility of doing other things such as skating - and all without breaking the bank. Have you any suggestions? Pauline Williams, London

Q. I would like to organise a week's winter skiing holiday in January/February 2001 for my husband, our six-year-old son and myself. I haven't skied in years, my husband still needs a bit of persuading and my son hasn't had a chance to try it yet. Accordingly, we would need good nursery slopes and instructors, plus hopefully a villagey atmosphere and the possibility of doing other things such as skating - and all without breaking the bank. Have you any suggestions? Pauline Williams, London

A. It sounds to me as if you have already figured out the essence of your requirements. However, make no mistake, taking kids skiing can turn out to be one of the most stressful things a parent ever volunteers to do. (And that is without a reluctant spouse!). Many ski operators are already booked up during January and February but I am assuming that you are planning on taking your son out of school, which will widen your options. As I have discovered to my cost, skiing over half-term week is very crowded and comparatively expensive, wherever you go.

Good nursery slopes are very important. But just as crucially, they should offer beginners a seamless transition on to the green and blue runs - the next stages up. The resorts where this sort of arrangement works best tend to be modern purpose-built ones such as La Plagne and Les Arcs in the French Alps. I mention these two in particular because they are both high resorts (La Plagne is the highest at 2,100 metres with skiing at up to 3,250 metres); there are omens that snow may be sparse in the early weeks of 2001, so the higher the better.

You have also identified good instruction as a requirement. When it comes to children, it is hard to overestimate how important this is. You need to make sure that tuition is in English or, better still, by native English-speakers. Do you want your son in ski school all day? There is a good case for not overdoing things with small children, and perhaps just skiing half the day. In which case you will want to make sure that you and your husband either attend ski school at a time to coincide with his, or that some sort of childcare is available. The easiest way to sort out questions like this is to book through a tour operator specialising in the needs of the family. One which I can suggest is Mark Warner (08708 480 480, www.markwarner.co.uk) which runs "chalet hotels" where a childcare service staffed by qualified nannies is offered. It also runs its own ski schools throughout the season at selected hotels, such as Christina in La Plagne, which is conveniently located at the bottom of the slopes, right opposite the lifts. Your son would also be able to take part in all sorts of other snowy activities. However, the one thing you might find disappointing here is the lack of "villagey atmosphere".

Wherever you go, being in a position to pick your week means that you can avoid "breaking the bank" as far as possible. For example, to return to the Mark Warner in La Plagne suggestion, the adult January price starts at £489, compared with £844 over half-term (February 18-25 this year). This is for two people sharing for a week and includes flights, accommodation, breakfast, afternoon tea and dinner with wine. It does not include skis, boots, lift passes, ski school or insurance. Child reductions are according to age; for a six-year-old it is about £50. Other child-friendly operators running their own childcare facilities in the Alps include Club Med (020 7581 1161, www.clubmed. com), Crystal (0870 848 7000, www.crystalski. co.uk), Inghams (020 8780 4433, www.inghams.co.uk) and Ski Esprit (01252 618300, www.ski-esprit.co.uk). An additional, though less certain, way of keeping costs down is to check for late availability by ringing or checking the websites of any of these companies.

Q. We would like to take our daughters, 11 and eight, on a really special holiday this winter. We have never ventured beyond Europe with them before, but feel drawn to the Caribbean. For us, an important criterion is that we should all come back having learnt something valuable about the place we have visited. We would like to go somewhere with spectacular scenery, rather than just classic tropical beach and palm trees. A bit of wildlife spotting would also be an advantage. We are prepared to splash out a bit, but obviously we want to keep costs down as far as possible. Fiona and Aaron Reid, Lincoln

A. I think I have just the place: the Jalousie Hilton resort in St Lucia, which is superbly located between Gros and Petit Piton, a pair of jungle-cloaked volcanic spikes thrusting out of the sea. It is a luxurious place offering the full gamut of water sports. However, the reason I particularly recommend it is the "Learning Centre" where talks are given on the island's volcanology, marine biology and rainforests. These are followed by field trips. On a holiday there with my own youngsters, we came away having had just the sort of experiences that you are looking for. On the field trip to the Soufriere volcano, we stood on the caldera's edge awed by weird scenes of boiling mud craters and strands of stinking sulphur. This was the moment the children fully grasped the fact that the whole of St Lucia is the tip of a giant volcano with its base on the Caribbean seabed.

The marine biology day kicks off with a video of multi-coloured fish and coral, before boarding a glass-bottomed boat to observe the real thing. But the best field trip is the one which takes you into the rainforest that blankets the mountainous central parts of the island. Here, a machete-wielding guide leads you through dark, dripping undergrowth. The air is filled with a cacophony of caws and buzzing; you might catch glimpses of rare St Lucian parrots or even boa constrictors. More likely are sightings of hummingbirds, huge green lizards and carnivorous plants. Tropical Places (0800 0185256, www.tropicalplaces.co.uk) offers a week's stay at the Hilton Jalousie for £1,299 per adult and £449 per child under 17, sharing a bungalow with a bedroom and fold-down beds in the living area. The price is for flights, transfers and room only. Other companies include Cresta Holidays (0870 161 0930, www.crestaholidays.co.uk); and Elegant Resorts, (0870 33 33 390, www.elegantresorts.co.uk).

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