Sometimes, the fantasy of what constitutes a good family ski holiday seems to have come straight from the Wham! video for “Last Christmas”: big jumpers and playful snowball fights. However, the reality for those with pre-school children tends to involve snotty noses and screaming tantrums on the nursery slopes. (And that’s just from the parents.)
It’s a shame, because it doesn’t have to be like that. The simple fact is that skiing in December, January and even at February half-term is often just too cold for very young children. Instead, consider heading to the Alps at the end of the winter season. This year Easter falls at the beginning of April: exactly when things should be warming up nicely.
John Bassett, owner of the Dragon Lodge, a snowboard-friendly chalet in the French resort of Tignes, certainly thinks it makes sense. “This is the best time to come out with kids,” he says. “It’s sunny; the days are longer, and you don’t have all the paraphernalia to deal with.”
I’m talking to John on the terrace of the Loop Bar, a wooden-decked area where skiers and snowboarders eat, drink and watch others whizz by on the slopes. The paraphernalia of which John speaks includes the thick coats, mittens and hats that we Brits haul to the Alps each winter. To illustrate his point, John waves his hand across the table, which contains nothing more than a sunglasses bag and some lip salve. It is April; we are wearing T-shirts; it’s fantastically warm, and were it not for goggles strapped to our heads, we could be in a beer garden on a summer’s day in the UK.
My wife Rachel, our toddler Harry and I were visiting John’s Dragon Lodge during the last week of Tignes’ 2010-11 ski season. We’d taken Harry for a week in Canada in the preceding January, a trip that presented three fundamental problems: keeping Harry’s gloves on, keeping his goggles clear, and stopping his skin from being exposed to the freezing conditions. We fixed the first problem by sewing a pair of gloves on to the sleeves of one of Harry’s small hoodies (thank you, mumsnet), but the other two issues required our constant attention. He was simply too young to know what to do.
In Tignes, however, Harry was fine in just his hoodie, helmet and mini-goggles. It’s 15C outside. “Have you noticed that nothing has fogged up?” says Rachel, applying another batch of sun lotion, the only thing we now have to keep an eye on.
In Canada, we spent a week going from warm mountain lodges into the freezing outdoor air. Here in France, the shop doors are all open. And with less kit to worry about, and no large swings in temperature to deal with, everyone is more relaxed. With a pre-school age child, we could also take advantage of late-season discounts: not an option for those travelling during the Easter holidays. But all the other advantages remain – including better snow for children.
I’ve always had a certain sympathy for British Rail’s old argument about the “wrong type of snow”. The simple fact is that snow comes in a variety of forms. And April’s snow is undoubtedly the best for young children learning to ski. I take Harry snowboarding on the nursery slope, and ski with him between my legs, holding his arm as he tracks a straight line through the soft, slushy snow with ease. He does the last 50m on his own, his mum ready to catch him at the end. The snow is soft and forgiving. Contrast that with January, when the snow was like ice. One fall was enough to put him off for the day.
Just as he’s getting the hang of it, a woman pops out of the Loop Bar to say hello. She turns out to be pro snowboarder Jenny Jones, a three-times |X-Games gold medalist. “He’s the cutest snowboarder I’ve ever seen,” says Jenny of Harry in his snowboarding get-up. “Can I get a picture with him?”
Harry wants to do more runs, and Jenny is happy to offer a few tips. She has her own view about late-season snow, too. “I love the mountains at this time of year,” she says, “although you do have to be careful you don’t get goggle marks, as the sun is stronger.”
So what are you missing with a |late-season trip? With its 1960s-designed apartment blocks, and tree-less landscape, purpose-built Tignes doesn’t have chocolate-box good looks. At the end of the season, too, the lower runs are beginning to close due to lack of snow. But higher up, the slopes look exactly the same as in midwinter. And we are delighted to discover that, as it’s the off-season, everything from the lift pass to the accommodation is far cheaper than we’d expected.
There are also family-friendly details that make a real difference, such as free lifts in the nursery areas; a fantastic, rustic-built play area next to the cable car and the awesome Tignes Lagoon: a vast leisure centre on the shores of Tignes le Lac that houses a waterpark, kids’ area, and wellness centre.
In fact, from a family perspective the Lagoon is almost – almost – as good as the skiing itself. Rachel and I get entry included in the price of our week lift passes; Harry goes free because he’s under five. We end up spending at least two hours there each day on the slides and in the children’s pool. Although it’s beautifully sunny every day of our trip, the Lagoon would be the perfect bad-weather activity.
The success of the Lagoon, and the family re-brand Tignes has undergone, has not gone unnoticed elsewhere either. Avoriaz has followed suit with its “Aquariaz”, a huge tropical-themed waterpark surrounded by eight new family-friendly apartment blocks. Rachel and I have now agreed that we’ll be trying out Avoriaz this winter.
And by winter I mean April, at the very earliest.