Tignes for ski teenies? Just follow the pink bibs
With young children in tow, a family ski trip can leave you feeling snowed under. But help is at hand, as Ben Ross discovers in the French Alps
Ben Ross is Head of Travel at The Independent. He has worked for the paper for over a decade, and began reporting on travel in 2001. Before joining the travel desk full time, he ran The Independent's special projects department. He started his journalistic career at the BBC working for its commercial arm, BBC Worldwide.
Saturday 07 December 2013
There are, of course, no guarantees when it comes to family skiing holidays. It can snow too much or too little. One of your children may twist an ankle or eat too much fondue. A fellow guest in your chalet may hog the claret, whip out their Ouija board, or force you to play hilarious nightly games of Twister.
Some things, then, must be left to blind chance (or at least a very strict policy on fondue consumption). But – to paraphrase the MasterCard advert – for everything else, there's an Esprit person.
I learnt this towards the end of the last ski season, in the high-altitude environs of Tignes, one of the ski jewels of France's Savoie region. Not that any of those disasters actually befell us. The snow was excellent – part of that fantastic glut that arrived in the Alps around Easter – and we survived the week without experiencing either injury or cheese-poisoning. What's more, the other two families in our chalet were lovely: keen, simply, to get the most from their winter break.
But even here, it seems, Esprit can influence things. Esprit chalets tend only to host those travelling with children, so youthful friendships were being forged the instant we arrived. Chalet Charline itself was also a delight. Sturdy yet cosy, it boasted exactly the sort of well-worn wood panelling and heated ski-boot racks that are the hallmark of a proper Alpine holiday. From a grown-up perspective, our shared goal of getting up and down the slopes in one piece and then collapsing with a glass of red wine while someone else did the cooking was all the social lubrication we needed. At no stage did anyone suggest Twister.
Childcare forms the core of an Esprit holiday. The company has chalets and chalet hotels in 10 French Alpine resorts, two each in Austria and Italy, plus one in Switzerland. You can tell if you're in an Esprit resort because you'll see groups of children in pink hi-vis vests singing songs about Tarzan. These are the Esprit Spritelets and Sprites en route to the slopes – and it's unlikely that their parents will be close by. Instead, the children are chaperoned by terrifyingly competent Esprit people, who appear to be able to muster camaraderie among even the most standoffish of youngsters.
Flip through the brochure and you'll see what it's all about. "Esprit Classic Child Care means being able to leave your accommodation after breakfast to head for the first lifts, only needing to return after the last one shuts," it reveals, soothingly. "We look after your children completely throughout the ski day if you wish."
Without proper back-up, the thinking goes, you're constantly concerned with chivvying small people through ski school, picking them up for lunch, and keeping everyone jolly as they toil up button-lifts in the afternoon. You have to locate missing ski gloves, hang on to expensively hired equipment and locate emergency chocolat chaud. As a hapless parent, particularly if your children are very young, the odds of you being able to achieve all this and still enjoy your own skiing are slender. Sure, it's doable. But it's often easy to forget why you came to the mountains in the first place.
Not this time. I sauntered brightly towards the Palafour lift for my first morning's skiing secure in the knowledge that my two sons, aged eight and 10, had already been picked up by Dave, an Esprit person, and taken to ski school. Their skis had been magicked from our chalet's ski locker by another, sadly nameless, Esprit person in the middle of the night. Breakfast, provided by our charming chalet hosts Chelsea and Helen, was already on the table by the time we'd all thundered downstairs: warm croissants, a selection of juices, boiled eggs, cheese and ham. There had even been time for a peaceful cup of coffee before my wife and I pottered over to meet our ski instructor.
While we set out to find our snow legs in the company of the effervescent Cindy Charlon from the Evolution 2 ski school, the boys developed their own skills, guarded by Hayley and Louise, and were then escorted to lunch at the nearby Chalet Yosemite, followed by bumboarding in Snow Club. Minutes after we returned to our chalet, they were tucking into their dinner, supervised by Amy and Becka. Then, while the grown-ups began a hearty evening meal of their own, the children were off for a session with Matthew and Ben at Cocoa Club, which appeared to involve testing the structural integrity of raw eggs. Gunge points were being accrued, we were later told, and one unlucky Esprit person would be dunked on the last day of our holiday. This would apparently be "awesome".
As you will no doubt have gathered, it takes a lot of Esprit people to make all this work. Aside from Chelsea, Helen, Hayley, Louise, Amy, Becka, Matthew and Ben, there was Janey, our ski rep, plus at least one other Dave, a Louisa and a Vicky. Esprit's staff-to-child ratios are industry-leading: one nanny per two infants under 12 months; one per three for the under-twos. There's one instructor for every six Spritelets (under-fours) and one per eight for the under-12s. Tignes is the company's second biggest resort (after nearby La Rosière) and there's such a concentration of Esprit activity here that the zone around its chalets and child-care rooms is known as "Esprit Street". Awesome isn't the half of it.
For the first time in my family's travels, the holiday became disconnected from the destination. The kids' clubs, those splendidly prepared evening meals, the pink bibs, the ski tuition: they could have been offered to us anywhere and still formed a memorable – indeed the fundamental – part of our time away. Nevertheless, few families will want to take advantage of all that childcare all the time. And Tignes – for teenies, or teens – delivers the sort of varied Alpine geography designed to make it easy to head off on your own.
Together with Val d'Isère, Tignes forms the gigantic Espace Killy area, with a combined ski pass that gives access to over 400km of ski runs and 90 lifts. However, the two resorts are very different from one another in temperament. Tignes has a cool, retro-style logo and is all about height (a snow-sure 2,100m) and hurtling down mountains in a stylishly sporty way. The villages of Val Claret, Le Lavachet and Tignes-le-Lac form the heart of a complicated web of lifts and runs that take you to snowparks, up a glacier via the Grande Motte funicular, and to plenty of black-run and off-piste excitement. The blues and reds were more our – intermediate – level, particularly the keenly paced Double M red run off Les Lanches lift, and the cruisey blues down from Chardonnet and Palafour.
Val d'Isère, meanwhile, goes for smart-looking heraldic eagle on a logo that dates back to 1934 – and there's a similarly strong whiff of old money about the place. It's also lower (at 1,850m) and more spread out, with the runs above the village forming the core of the skiing, and the lift system becoming gradually more and more primitive towards the heights of the Glacier de Pissaillas. From the safety of the Olympique gondola, we watched plenty of people wiping out on La Face, Val's daunting black run. Even our hitherto fearless eight-year-old felt that might be just a little too steep for comfort.
Local loyalty, not logos, demanded that our family favour the Tignes side of the mountains. We formed our own little ski safari down through the woods to Tignes les Boisses, which lies in the valley close to the man-made Lac Du Chevril, and then on to Tignes Les Brevieres, where we discovered La Bouida restaurant on a bridge spanning a tinkling river. Here, among tables of pizzas and raclette, the €10 children's menu proved particularly welcome.
Returning via the Sache lift we had a view of the Barrage de Tignes, the hydroelectric dam that forced the relocation of old village of Tignes further up the mountain back in the 1950s.
As a relatively fresh arrival to the Alps, "new" Tignes has a reputation for being ugly. However, I felt there was real beauty in the way Tignes-Le-Lac tucked around its own frozen lake, and there were plenty of pretty, snow-bound chalets to catch the eye nearby. (There's also a smart new complex of self-catering apartments – Tignes 1800 – that's set to add to the options this season.) At night the glitter of lights from Val Claret was framed by the blue-white mountains, the only sound the purr of piste-bashers. One evening we watched as a torch-lit procession of skiers scythed down through the cols of a nearby peak, muffled cheers from the lake below greeting each successful descent.
Our lift passes conferred free access to the watery pleasures of the Lagoon, Tignes's leisure centre, complete with flume and diving boards. And on Chelsea and Helen's night off, we risked a fondue at the cheerful Bagus Café. One day, I intend to return unencumbered by children to sample the tartiflette at the highly rated Clin D'Oeil restaurant, and may even dance the afternoon away at Folie Douce, the super-bling club above the village of La Daille. But for now, we concentrated on the important things: skiing, skiing, skiing. And, er, gunge points.
By the end of our week away, these had become the subject of fierce debate between the children of Chalet Charline. Would it be Dave? Or Amy? Surely not Ben? At a grand gathering of Esprit families on the last day, awards were given out, and songs about Superman's underpants were sung. My younger son was granted a certificate for "most improved skier", which appealed to my competitive side; his sibling was also commemorated, much to his embarrassment, as "best big brother". Even the assembled toddlers won prizes, mostly just for being toddlers.
In the end it was Vicky who got gunged. She took it well – although I'm not sure she thought it was quite as awesome as we did.
Ben Ross travelled as a guest of Esprit (01483 791 900; espritski.com) which offers a week's catered chalet accommodation at Chalet Canvolan or Chalet Chamois in Tignes from £1,499 for a family of four (based on two adults and two children under 12), including flights.
Esprit Classic Child Care is available from £209 per child including a week of ski lessons. Free lift passes are available for children under five; adult lift passes cost from £135pp. For each adult that pre-books skis and boots (from £79pp), one child's skis, boots and helmet are free. Price based on 5 January departure.
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