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The ski season starts here

Travel | December 2016

If you want to ski over Christmas, Zermatt is the perfect place

Adam Ruck rounds up the best places for the two- or three-generation ski holiday

Skiing is a fine family holiday and the three-generation version can work particularly well because generations one and three usually get on better than generation two does with either of the others. There may also be cost savings, but grandparents have rights, too, and the goalposts should be erected before the holiday deal is struck – and not moved. 

Of course every family is its own pressure cooker. The following recommendations are entirely subjective, but they are based on first-hand experience except those dealing with skiing at Christmas and New Year, which my family and I have rarely attempted.

First thoughts 

-A child who can ride a bike will be able to handle skiing. Before that, it will be about playing in the snow.

- If childcare is to be shared, a small resort with a compact ski area works best. 

- Other people’s children are as tiresome as your own are enchanting, and most ski chalets and apartments are designed to maximise the number of bedrooms at the expense of living space. All families need space, and in a hotel you can be as sociable or self-contained as you like.  

- Chalet hotels or clubs with crèches full of infants are hothouses for sickness. 

- If the young generation is small enough not to be restricted to school holidays, ski in January or March. The holiday price is lowest in January, but March is usually better for picnics, which are a useful economy. But more likely, you will be trapped in the vice of school holidays.

Christmas/New Year 

The fact that Christmas and New Year’s Days fall on a Sunday this year may explain more availability than usual. The exchange rate and disappointing early snow for the past two years may also have something to do with it. 

Resorts are quiet until Boxing Day and Christmas week is easy to book. A catered chalet holiday is a good way to combine a familiar Christmas atmosphere complete with brandy butter and weak cracker jokes; all work done by others, no bar bill and no need to go out. Zermatt has the dream combination of sleigh-bell village charm, the highest skiing in Europe and an English church. Matterhorn Chalets (www.matterhornchalets.com) includes an instructor or mountain guide in the price and free lift passes for children and teenagers in its Christmas offer.

At New Year the resorts are packed and if snow is thin on the ground skiing is an expensive battle. Erna Low (www.ernalow.co.uk) specialises in high-quality, high-altitude apartment holidays in France and has suggestions in Val Thorens and Tignes, two of the highest.

The right-sized group could party as long and loud as it likes and sleep it off in great luxury at Chalet Merlo (sleeps twelve, www.chaletmerlo.eu), which sits in a rustic spot and shuttles guests to ski at nearby Les Arcs, La Rosière or Sainte Foy, the last two being ideal for family skiing. Merlo has a spa/fitness annexe and a basket on a pulley for delivering champagne to the hot tub in the garden. The New Year offer here is a nine-day holiday from 29th December.

Half-term 

12th–19th February is the busiest week of the season and if there are any chalet holidays left unbooked at this stage, you have to wonder why. Tour operator package prices and flights to Alpine gateway airports are prohibitive but hotels don’t inflate prices to the same extent, so it makes sense to book direct. It may not be too late to book an affordable rail journey (www.voyages-sncf.com); otherwise go by car. 

Mürren, Switzerland The Bernese Oberland has the closest serious ski resorts to the Channel. Being small and accessible only by cable-car, Mürren does not seem crowded even when full. Its clifftop setting opposite the Eiger is unbeatable for scenic skiing, skating and walking and the ski school has been teaching British children for many generations. Other attractions that span the generations include the mountaintop James Bond experience and 007-themed revolving restaurant, as well as a giddy new walkway across the cliff face. Recommended hotels: Eiger (family apartments, play/cinema room, pool with a view); Bellevue (close to the nursery slope); Alpenruh (close to the cable-car, good food); Eiger Guest House (cheap bunk rooms, pool table); and the Pension Gimmelwald, in a quiet hamlet linked to Mürren by cable-car, footpath, toboggan run and off-piste ski itinerary. www.muerren.ch

Valloire, France Easily reached by car or train (to St Michel de Maurienne), this old village is a good all-rounder with plenty of skiing in the 1,500m–2,500m range, affordable hotels and apartments, and family-focused activities – llamas, farm visits, igloo evenings, snowshoe trails. www.valloire.net 

 Yllas, Finland When our children were six and three we stayed in a log cabin and pulled them through the forest on sledges to breakfast and supper in a nearby hotel. Yllas’s downhill ski area and ski school are fine, its cross-country trails inexhaustible. Après-ski adventures involved reindeer, huskies, costumed Lapps and, one evening on our way back to the cabin, the Northern Lights. www.inghams.co.uk

Geilo, Norway A similar holiday cocktail to Finland, but not quite so cold, with better hotels and an easier journey (by train from Oslo). Junior ski school is outstanding. www.inntravel.co.uk

America No half-term crowds over there. For yeehah cowboy excitement it has to be Jackson Hole: the skiing is terrific (and not all as terrifying as often portrayed) and there is lots to do on a Western theme: wildlife tours, line dancing, shopping. Aspen’s appeal is equally wide-ranging, and Snowmass is its family-friendly base, unrivalled for Disneyesque junior ski adventure. Both have an airport a few minutes from the resort, and one-stop connections with the UK – via Salt Lake City for Jackson Hole, Dallas or Chicago for Aspen. If tempted by Delta Air Line’s non-stop service to Salt Lake City, consider a condo at family-friendly Solitude (www.skisolitude.com), 35 miles from the airport. 

An East-Coast holiday would be easier on the body, and Tremblant (Quebec) would be a little easier on the wallet thanks to Canada’s friendlier dollar. 

Holidays from Ski Independence www.ski-i.com

Rifugio Ciao Pais, Sauze d’Oulx, Italy www.ciaopais.it

Screaming up the piste on the back of a snowmobile was for us an exciting start to half-term week in this old mountain restaurant (est 1931), after an easy train journey to Oulx via Paris. Bedrooms simple, welcome warm, food copious: bubbling pizzas, thick hot chocolate, jugs of fizzy white wine. There’s space outside for mucking around in the snow after the pistes close, and a TV/computer room. The bedrooms have been upgraded since our visit and the price has rocketed to €90 per person per night, half board, with reductions for children – still tremendous value. The piste that runs past the restaurant is not a nursery slope: if you have beginners in the party, the Orso Bianco at nearby Sportinia would be more convenient.www.sportinia.it

Easter holidays 

A late Easter means many low ski areas will close at the end of March, but availability in high French resorts will be easy to come by if not afford. Courchevel 1650 works well for families, with broad boulevard pistes and the nearby Aquamotion pool complex a holiday destination in itself. Chalet holidays here and in Val d’Isère from Le Ski. www.leski.com

Gargellen, Austria Tucked away in its snowy niche in western Austria, the Madrisa is one of skiing’s best family hotels. Its many star qualities include the food, a nursery slope on the doorstep, no queues, a listening ski school and a no-nonsense approach to managing children if their parents don’t. Skiers with itchy feet can explore the Montafon region’s other resorts with their bigger network of lifts and pistes. From Zurich, get the hotel to organise a taxi transfer, or hire a car, or go by train to Schruns. www.madrisahotel.com 

Grimentz, Switzerland High above Sierre and the Rhône Valley vineyards, Grimentz is a showcase for Swiss Alpine charm. It has a sunny nursery area at mid-mountain, plenty of grown-up skiing above that, and reliable late snow. The Alpina is the most conveniently located of its few small hotels, and the most expensive. www.valdanniviers.ch

Skiing with older children 

Fledglings that have flown the nest have a habit of turning into homing pigeons when there’s talk of a ski holiday. They will probably not be slow to tell you where they want to ski but in case you have any say, suggest a Collineige chalet in Chamonix. You will be staying in peace and comfort with a view of Mont Blanc, they will be in walking distance of the bars and clubs of a ski town. By day, they can tackle the famous steeps and powder runs while you enjoy gentler sport on the sunny side of the valley. Fly to Geneva; let Collineige do the rest. www.collineige.com

Cross-country skiing 

There is no more beautiful setting for cross-country than the Upper Engadine’s high valley with its string of frozen lakes beneath the battlements of St Moritz. Hotels well placed for the 220km of trails range from the sumptuous Kronenhof at Pontresina to the simple Seraina in Sils Maria, far removed from the glitz of St Moritz in price and atmosphere. Sils works equally well as a base for Alpine skiing and to take the sting out of Swiss prices the Engadine is offering discounted lift passes for hotel guests and free travel on local buses and trains. www.engadin.stmoritz.ch

Cogne in the Val d’Aosta is a different proposition: a valley dedicated to cross-country, with only a token Alpine area. The Hotel Bellevue is the last word in Alpine rustic chic taken to extreme refinement. Or try the considerably more modest Bouton d’Or. www.cogneturismo.it

More help: Ski Solutions (www.skisolutions.com) and Momentum (www.momentumski.com).


This story was from December 2016 issue. Subscribe Now