Children's ski lessons: In at St Anton's steep end

Would a busy programme prove too much for Stephen Wood's children?

Stephen Wood
Friday 28 November 2014 12:12 GMT
Nasserein is where Esprit bases its St Anton operation
Nasserein is where Esprit bases its St Anton operation

Separation anxiety: that promised to be a theme of the trip. "I will miss you when you are not with us in Austria," my seven-old son, Stanley, told me the day before we left for St Anton. I was bemused. Could he have misunderstood? Did he think his mother was taking him and his sister skiing, rather than I?

Actually he was just alarmed about Esprit Ski, with whom we were to travel. To him, its philosophy seemed to be that children should be neither seen nor heard. He and his nine-year-old sister, Lily, were signed up not just for morning ski lessons but also for Esprit's afternoon "Snow Club" and the "Cocoa Club" sessions after supper. Stan figured that I would have breakfast with them, conduct a quick de-brief at the end of the skiing day, and then put them to bed.

But who was more concerned about the degree of separation, him or me? Of course I was the one who had committed Stan – often unenthusiastic about new experiences – and his more adventurous sister to total immersion in the Esprit experience; I did so, though, with a heavy heart. I wanted them to learn to ski, and I knew it was best to hand them over to Esprit for that job.

In Austria, we wouldn't be apart much longer than on a normal school day, what with the after-hours clubs and play-dates; but factor in the high altitude, extreme weather and slippery surfaces, plus the absence of classmates, and the holiday sounded a little too character-building. Would I be able to keep my resolve to throw the kids in at the steep end, to sink or ski? Probably not.

Big and boisterous, St Anton might appear an unsuitable place for children to learn to ski. For competent adult skiers it ticks important boxes: extensive, snow-sure terrain; vigorous nightlife; reasonable prices; and a name to impress the neighbours.

These things are irrelevant to children, of course. Their experience of ski resorts is limited, but for Lily and Stan the essential facilities are a couple of wide and gentle slopes, hot chocolate on tap, and the best possible swimming pool. St Anton meets those requirements. And although its signature feature is the on-piste après-ski scene around the Krazy Kanguruh bar, where skiers get legless before making it down to the resort, it also provides the opposite: a quiet place where children can safely learn to ski.

Just less than a kilometre east of the main lift base is the Nasserein area, which has its own lift access to the ski area. Being a sort of dormitory suburb, it is quiet by night and by day; only when the lift opens does it get busy. A good place for learners? I can vouch for that. Many years ago I had snowboarding lessons here, sharing an instructor with the very game-for-a-laugh mother of singer-songwriter James Blunt. The nursery slopes were so quiet that virtually nobody witnessed our ignominious efforts.

Nasserein is where Esprit bases its St Anton operation. And what an operation it is. Getting your own two children ready for ski school is a daunting task; mobilising a group of 64 in one of Esprit's busiest weeks was a military-style manoeuvre involving a dozen Esprit staff, seven instructors from the St Anton ski school, and most of the children's parents.

Chaos reigned at the rendezvous point which was a parking area alongside the lift, until an Esprit staffer called the meeting to order and got the children involved in a game of Splat – a sort of quick-draw, finger-gun shoot-out. But that was just the warm-up man; the star was Alex Watkin, a big but gentle man blessed with a huge voice who was Esprit's Head Snow Ranger for the season. After his call-and-response interplay, nonsense songs, and very physical games, the discomfort of ski boots and the shame of being smeared with sun-cream were forgotten, and the children trooped off happily to the snow. Except Stan: as I gave him a quick hug he informed me that he would like to go home, please.

The kids' routine was demanding. After breakfast at the Markus, one of several Esprit chalets in Nasserein, we caught the 9.10am bus to where the suiting and booting took place. After their lesson, they had lunch; then there was the Snow Club session, an afternoon of activities such as riding the lifts up to the 2,650m Valluga peak, visiting the town's playground, and playing indoor or outdoor games.

High tea was served back at the chalet at 5.45pm; afterwards, if they were still feeling energetic, they were ferried to the Cocoa Club (at another chalet) where games and videos for the up-to-12s continued to 10pm.

I had an easier time. My wife gave strict instructions: "Be tough on the kids and easy on yourself," she had said. So, I toured the slopes in the fabulous late-season weather and lingered over lunch. Except for some slightly too-fancy evening meals, the Esprit experience was impossible to fault.

I didn't watch the kids' ski lessons until mid-week, when something – probably guilt – weakened my resolve to stay away. It was a mistake. Lily was doing well, benefiting from previous ski experience half her lifetime ago; but Stan was struggling, though his sense of humour remained intact. "What kind of pet should you take skiing?" he asked. "A salopette."

The final day of ski lessons ended with races. That morning, the children assured me that they were not taking part. OK by me; but not by their Esprit minders Georgia and Jordan, apparently. When I turned up at the prize-giving ceremony I was amazed to see them being presented with medals, both bronzes (a perfect result, for sibling harmony).

Better still, we all went skiing the next day, Lily out in front, Stan in her wake, and me at the back shouting "Slow down, slow down!" It wasn't separation and anxiety that marked the holiday, rather the unexpected thrill of skiing together.

Getting there and staying there

Esprit Ski (01483 791900; is offering a week's catered accommodation at Chalet Pepi Gabl in St Anton from £1,299 for a family of four (two adults and two under-12s), including return flights from Gatwick to Innsbruck and transfers, as well as wi-fi, babysitting and access to the sauna and wellness area. Children's lift passes and equipment hire are also included, but not adults'. Located just 50 metres from the Nasserien gondola and five minutes' walk from the town centre, this chalet features in the new "Xtra Chalet" collection that offers a residents' bar, enhanced wine selection and extended menu. Esprit Classic Child Care is available from £215pp for a week of Esprit children's ski lessons.

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