The complete guide to skiing with the kids

Creches, kindergartens, playgrounds and discounts are luring baby boomers and their charges to winter resorts. Jill Crawshaw climbed every mountain to get the facts

"I used to hide in the loo, the only place that was both warm and comfortable," Konrad Bartelski told me - the recollections of one of our leading skiers on his first ski holiday. We also did everything wrong on our first skiing trip en famille. Buoyed up by the sight of continental tots flashing past us on the slopes, we were convinced that all we had to do was put our four-year-old into a class and he'd metamorphose into a Franz Klammer overnight.

Our fond hopes came crashing down in his first lesson, along with the German-speaking instructor and most of the class of seemingly more naturally talented kids he'd tangled with. Was this to be the end of skiing for the duration of parenthood, we wondered dispiritedly?

"You probably started him too young," said Ricki Spiess, a spry grandmother and former Olympic champion, when we charged her with picking up the pieces the following year at Austria's Mayrhofen, which claims to have the first real ski kindergarten in the Alps.

A successful introduction to skiing for children she reckons is more about putting on mittens, wiping noses, taking kids to the loo and providing a snug gang hut to play in, rather than teaching technique. Ricky's formula with our reluctant first-born worked a treat; with our second son we did better; and as the process continued, we became pretty expert about family skiing holidays. Yes, the ski industry has lagged far behind the sun-and- sand scene on the provision of facilities for families with young children. But as the first generation of package skiers began to produce their own offspring, inducements in the form of creches or kindergartens, playgrounds and discounts did begin to appear.

What to look for

The standards and scope of kindergartens and children's ski classes vary hugely, as does the age at which a child is able to begin, and the numbers in each class. It is essential to find out these details beforehand, and if necessary book ahead, particularly in France, where kindergartens operate on a first- come, first-served basis. But don't knock it, because at least limiting numbers is safer than trying to cram too many children into a creche or class. Ten young beginner-children per class should be an absolute maximum, even fewer for younger beginners.

Resorts that repeatedly came up to scratch for children include Austria's Mayrhofen where Ricki (and now her grown-up children) can still be found every day supervising children's skiing from their hut on the Ahorn Mountains, where five-hour sessions a day for four- to 12-year- olds costs ATS 730 per day (pounds 36.80) including lunch. The kids certainly don't ski for five hours; they have lunch, watch cartoons and play around in the warm. The idea is to have fun.

For non-skiing children aged between three months and seven years, the resort also provides Wuppy's Kindergarten at a cost of ATS 320 (pounds 16.10) a day, plus ATS 50 (pounds 2.50) for lunch if you don't want to collect them to eat with you.

In France's Avoriaz where French ski champion Annie Famose pioneered ski lessons for children, the Village des Enfants has one of the better reputations in France. The ski school accepts children from three upwards at a cost of approximately Fr1120 (pounds 118.90) or six days, including lunch.

In Verbier, the kindergarten Chez les Schtroumpfs comes highly recommended - at a cost of around SFr290 (pounds 126.60) for six days with lunch for children from two months up to seven years - as does the resort's ESS Kids' Club which has its own lift and cafe for three- to ten- year-olds, and costs about SFr240 (pounds 104.80) for six days, and SFr11 (pounds 4.80) per day for lunch. Do check in all these that the majority of children are English-speaking.

In the US, resorts provide exceptional standards of childcare and tuition, and they actually believe that skiing should be fun (not always the case with bored continental instructors), and devise highly imaginative children's ski programmes. It also helps, of course, that there are no language barriers.

Discounts

As with all children's holiday discounts, children's "bargains", "free" holidays and reductions are a minefield. Children are usually entitled to 15 to 50 per cent discounts, under-12 in hotels, under-16 in chalets. It goes without saying that apart from Christmas and New Year, child prices are at their highest and reductions at their lowest during the mid-February half-term. Cold dark January offers the biggest discounts, but a far better bet is to consider the sunny post-Easter weeks when prices in the resorts plummet, and with luck there is still plenty of snow on the slopes, particularly in the higher resorts.

While not perhaps in the premier skiing league, the Scandinavian countries have some interesting options; in Sweden for example, which can boast McSki-McDonald's at Salen, children under 11 (under eight in some Norwegian resorts) can ski free in Are if they wear a helmet (provided by the resort), and children under seven do not require lift passes.

Some of the best children's discounts apply in the French Alps where 27 resorts are offering "Kids Stay and Ski Free" deals, with a week's free accommodation, a six-day ski pass and equipment hire for a maximum of two children under 10 years accompanied by two adults. In addition, Eurostar is offering a free ticket for one child per two adults on its direct services from London's Waterloo Station to Moutiers and Bourg St Maurice. The dates of the offer are from 20-27 December, and 3-24 January, and the participating resorts include Avoriaz and Courchevel, Megeve, Morzine, La Plagne, Tignes and Val Thorens.

Clubs for children

A frequent complaint from parents is of "special kindergartens" or classes that turn out to be run by the resort rather than the tour operator, who therefore has little or no influence on numbers or standards.

Thomson

Among the larger tour operators, Thomson Holidays has pursued an ambivalent children's policy, sometimes offering special clubs, sometime not. This year in 10 resorts the Thomson's Kids Club has replaced the Peter Polar Bear Club, aimed at three- to nine-year-olds who may not wish to ski, or for only part of the time. The children are supervised by NNEB-qualified reps, the price being pounds 79 for six full days with lunch in Europe, pounds 99 in Steamboat, USA. For children who do want to ski, "Arctic Rangers" will provide an escort to and from ski school, as well as lunch, at a cost of pounds 49 for six days.

Crystal

Of the larger operators, Crystal Holidays probably offers the most comprehensive service for children. An English speaking, NNEB-qualified nanny service is available for all six months to five-year-old children in creches in 12 of its resorts for five days a week for pounds 99, or pounds 65 for five half days, with a supplement of pounds 20 for the under twos. Lunches cost an extra pounds 17.50 for five days. In other resorts, certain chalets and hotels have their own nanny services at similar prices. In addition, the Whizz Kids Club for six- to 12-year-olds, provides escorts (pounds 25) to and from ski school, supervised lunches (pounds 25) and half-day activities and supervision for those who don't want to ski for the whole day (pounds 65).

Club Med

Club Med, the original all-inclusive holiday organisation, offers reasonable reductions for families, and its Baby Clubs from four months old to four years, Mini Clubs from four-12 and Junior Clubs from 13 years are included in the price. Its ski schools are open to children from four years upwards, from three at Les Menuires and from six years at Tignes and Copper Mountain. Though I am not a fan of Club Med's "togetherness" policy, and the autocratic behaviour of some of its GOs (Gentils Organisateurs), the ski tuition is exceptional.

Specialists

It is often the smaller specialist tour operators that come up with the most flexible children's arrangements. Simply Ski, for example, with chalet holidays in five resorts, organises comprehensive child-care in two of them (Courchevel 1300 and La Plagne, both in France). In both, fully qualified British nannies look after children aged from three months to four years in Snowdrop Creches, and six days cost pounds 126, while Snowflake Clubs cater for four- to nine-year-olds, taking them to ski lessons, providing lunch and activities later, for pounds 90. For ski school, the company chooses its own child-friendly instructors. They will even provide private nannies in Verbier for pounds 324 a week. Meriski's main area of operation is Meribel where it has its own creche, with one NNEB nanny for every two children under two, and every three to four children between two to six years. It costs pounds 176 for six days, pounds 100 for six half days.

Ski Hillwood operates only in Sol, the lively Austrian resort in the Tyrol, and Les Gets, an old Savoyard village in France, where creches look after younger children aged from six weeks to three years, while an Owl Club for three- to six-year-olds combines ski lessons with indoor and outdoor entertainment, both creche and club costing pounds 80 for six half days, pounds 135 for full days.

A new post ski-school care service introduced this season is designed for parents who want to spend longer days on the slopes. "Owlers" will supervise and entertain children for a couple of hours each day after ski-school, at a cost of pounds 35 for six days, or pounds 10 a day.

Perhaps the model operator for family holidays is Ski Esprit which is so confident of its expertise that it can offer a no-questions-asked money- back guarantee on its child care. "Write to us and tell us why, and what you consider to be fair reimbursement of the child care fee," says Bob Moore, the chairman, to potential whingers. "We will pay back that amount within two weeks of the receipt of the letter."

Ski Esprit offers holidays in Chamonix, Courchevel, La Plagne, Morzine, Verbier and new for this year, La Rosiere, and its children's programme is fine-tuned; the company contracts its own local instructors "all prepared to double up as nose wipers", and insists on a ratio of 1:6 for the youngest skiers, and 1:8, occasionally 1:10 for older children. Five-day Ski Clubs are divided between three- to four-year-olds called Spritelets, and five- to ten-year-old Sprites, both costing pounds 89. This year new half-day activity clubs run by "Snow Rangers" cater for three- to ten-year-olds who can't really cope with a full day's skiing. The cost is pounds 95 for six days or pounds 50 for three days. Qualified British nannies run nurseries for babies aged from four months, which cost pounds 115 a week.

kids' skiing fact file

Further details

Club Med tel: 0171 225 1066

Crystal Holidays tel: 0181 241 5199

Meriski tel: 01451 844788

Simply Ski tel: 0181 742 2541

Ski Esprit tel: 01252 616789

Ski Hillwood tel: 0181 866 9993

Thomson Sk tel: 0990 329329

Ski Beat tel: 01243 780405

Ski Scott Dunn tel: 0181 767 0202

Ski Peak tel: 01252 794941

Snowbizz tel: 01778 3414550

Other companies with kids' arrangements:

Inghams (tel: 0181 780 4444) now incorporating chalet specialist Bladon Lines. Nanny service in 11 resorts for children aged from six months to six years.

Mark Warner (tel: 0171 393 3131) is a long-established children's operator with creches and a flexible child-minding service.

Powder Byrne (tel: 0181 871 3300) with junior and senior "yeti" clubs, creche and private nanny service available. New ski camps for 12- 17 year olds; pounds 210 extra.

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