'The best thing about skiing is the snow, although it is very cold," my five-year-old son, William, volunteered. I felt duty-bound to explain this was an important part of both skiing and snow. "Has anyone tried to invent warmer snow though?" he enquired. Not to my knowledge I confessed, but I think this might be rain. "But if they did invent it skiing would be even better, so I think someone should try." I decided to quit while I was ahead, as this was fast becoming a sketch from Outnumbered.
This existential conversation about the relative merits of warmer snow was taking place at the top of a 2,000m mountain, as my son and I waited to catch a button lift in the freezing cold – more of which later. We were standing here thanks to a friend who I believe falls into the category of "ski-bore".
About a year earlier, following his usual detailed holiday debrief, I expressed an interest in taking my own family away skiing for the first time. "Give it a year," was his advice, "when your youngest is five he'll be old enough to take instructions and not spend the entire time complaining about how cold it is." He doesn't have children, otherwise he would have been aware that five-year-olds aren't renowned for their listening skills, or stoicism.
So this winter, we found ourselves embarking on our first ski holiday in the Austrian resort of St Anton. We were travelling with family ski specialist Esprit, which was essential since it turns out skiing requires military-style precision and planning – especially when collecting ski gear.
"Is skiing always this hot?" asked William after 30 minutes of measurements, weighing and sweating. Not when you're outside, I said. "So can I take my jumper and coat off?" No, as I was running out of hands. "I've lost a glove." Helpfully, one of the Esprit team stepped in and located the missing glove.
Our base was the freshly renovated Pepi Gabl, a small chalet-hotel named after local skiing legend Gertrude Gabl, with around 20 other families, all with children in tow. It is part of Esprit's new Xtra Chalet collection which offers holidays built around children, but with plenty to please their parents too – a residents-only bar, extended afternoon tea buffet and a cheese course at dinner. It also enables parents to ski, especially those who are old hands, while their children spend the day at ski school and in a wide variety of other clubs on offer.
We had reservations about handing over Will and his nine-year-old brother, Al, at 9am and not seeing them again for the rest of the day. Our apprehension wasn't shared by William. "It's called ski school, but it's not like school – we go skiing and then do fun things all afternoon. And the lunches are better." Where we all found it a little odd was dinner, this being an important part of our normal family holidays, as parents and children under 12 eat separately. However, it seemed to work for lots of other families very well.
I had some ski experience, albeit 20 years earlier, but the rest of the family were novices. Therefore, the first morning involved us all heading in different directions – my wife to beginners' ski school and me to be "assessed" by the blue-coated instructors. The last I saw of the children on the first day was a group of luminous- bibbed, fully goggled munchkins singing "I'm a little tea-pot" as they made instant friends at ski school.
Somehow I found myself in the more advanced group and spent the next couple of days exploring the mountain in very wintry conditions. Immediately it became clear St Anton is a place for real skiers. The blues are like reds, the reds like blacks, and I've no idea what this makes the actual black runs (possibly a hazardous toxic yellow). If you're proficient, this is heaven, but if you're a second-week beginner it's sink or swim and probably not the best resort for you. I held on for dear life.
While I was off having a midlife skiing crisis, my children were learning how to do it properly thanks to the excellent ski school. Every afternoon I'd get a full debrief. We did the magic carpet today, we've learned a new song, Jake is my new best friend and so on. Each day delivered a new story, improved skills and progressively more tired children.
"I'm racing today," Will informed me with real pride on the last morning of lessons, "and I get a medal if I do well." This proved to be a highlight for everyone, as the specially laid-out course was lined with parents snapping away on their mobile phones eager to capture the next Franz Klammer. "Did I win?" he asked me after his own descent. It was difficult to say. "I think you were in the top three," was my reply, which was good enough for him.
St Anton is a picturesque village in the west of Austria, about an hour from Innsbruck. It has a chi-chi feel to it, packed with expensive ski shops and restaurants (the fact that the deli sells Chateaux Petrus is a pretty good indication of the average clientele). That said, this certainly isn't a sterile, soulless place and eating out is no more expensive than in London, while everywhere seems to be family friendly. Restaurants San Antonio and Dolce Vita offered everything a hungry family needs for around €60 a sitting, with the latter offering "the best pizzas ever" according to my children.
We found the final day, set aside for families to ski together, came round all too quickly. However, it was a high point, as William and I set out to conquer the mountain together. A combination of the gondola lift to the Gampen ski area ("Dad, does the cable ever break?"), and a series of tricky button lifts, accompanied by cries of "I've fallen off again" (him, not me), meant we were beginning to experience real skiing. The moment we carved our way down the mountain together in snow-plough formation was a real joy, as Will put everything he'd learned together in one flowing run.
When we all stopped for lunch, I realised that this was the reason why people fall in love with skiing – it's one of few activity holidays you can all do together. This might mean the first week is spent apart a little more than you'd like on a family holiday, but it was worth the wait.
Would we come back? I'll let William have the last word on this, for fear that I'm turning into a ski-bore myself. "Next time we come, can I go faster?"
Esprit Ski (01483 345 611; espritski.com) offers a week at Chalet Pepi Gabl from £614 per adult (free places for two to four-year-olds), with flights departing 12 April from Gatwick to Innsbruck, transfers, free babysitting and a week's catered chalet accommodation. Free children's lift passes and equipment hire are also available. Esprit Classic Child Care from £215 per week with ski lessons.
The closest airport to St Anton is Innsbruck, served by easyJet from Gatwick, Bristol and Liverpool; by British Airways from Gatwick; and by Monarch from Manchester.
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