“Take a video, Daddy, take a video,” says my excitable daughter as she slides down a gentle blue run in the Alps.
Of course I oblige. This is a moment I’ve been looking forward to ever since Zoe was born, doing a ski run together for the very first time. It’s a moment her proud father is keen to capture for posterity.
We’re enjoying uncrowded well-groomed slopes above Les Menuires, France, on a warm sunny day in mid March, following heavy snowfalls the previous week. In short, conditions are perfect, especially handy when wanting to persuade your offspring to love wintersports as much as you do.
It’s the fourth day of our week-long holiday, and clearly the morning lessons Zoe, four, has been having with the Ecole du Ski Français (ESF) are paying off. She follows me down the gentle blue Paturages run just a few feet behind, sometimes holding on to one of my poles for support, sometimes skiing into me when her snowploughing technique fails.
At regular intervals she bellows at me to slow down or speed up. Half way down the run she tires, so I ski with her between my legs the rest of the way back to our chalet in the traditional-style village of Reberty. It’s a couple of hundred metres above the mega resort of Les Menuires and its super-sized apartment blocks.
By the end of the run we’re both tired, and relieved that Chalet Genevieve where we’re staying is only a two-minute walk from where we’ve stopped at the side of the piste.
But my overwhelming emotion is sheer joy that our first ski together is a success, without tantrums or tears – from either of us. Far from it, we’re both cheery. I babble excitedly about the experience to my wife, Vere, who is already at the chalet with our near two-year-old daughter Holly. They’re with the other guests, all eagerly drinking tea or fruit juice and tucking into generous portions of afternoon cake while enjoying panoramic views from the living room of Les Menuires’ slopes.
I did everything possible when planning our family holiday to give it the very best chance of success. With two kids under five, a working mother in need of a break, especially from cooking, this meant going for a fully-catered option in an environment where there were other families.
Cue the Family Ski Company, founded in 1993, whose raison d’être is to cater to youngsters’ and their parents’ needs.
The company runs catered chalets in three small French resorts – Reberty, Les Coches and Ardent – all with easy access to major ski areas and close to ski schools and lifts. As we were going later in the season I chose the highest, Reberty, at 2,000m, to give us the best chance of gaining good snow cover and a Disney-esque Frozen landscape to enchant our children. Also, selfishly for us parents, Reberty is well located for exploring the vast network of runs in the Trois Vallées – the world’s largest lift-linked ski area – and home to the enduringly popular resorts of Méribel, Val Thorens and Courchevel.
I also checked with the Family Ski Company to make sure there would be children of a similar age to Zoe and Holly staying in the Genevieve, which sleeps 20. I even ordered some thoroughly weather-proof onesie skiwear from Isbjörn of Sweden, specialists in winter wear for kids.
Everything was set, so what could go wrong? So, so much. It’s the inevitable answer when you add into the mix the anarchic variables of children. But, miraculously almost everything runs smoothly.
We quickly get into a daily routine. After breakfast with our fellow chalet guests, three other couples plus their six children, we drop Holly off with the enthusiastic young child care team in Genevieve’s downstairs nursery. Here, she joins toddlers from all four of the Family Ski Company’s Reberty chalets. As she’s used to going to nursery back in the UK, she easily adapts.
Once Zoe is all togged up in her ski wear, Vere and I help her put on her boots, helmet and goggles, then take her to the ESF kids’ area a few minutes’ walk away and fenced off from the rest of the piste. It needs military precision to get her to the lessons for 9am. She spends the mornings here with some 20 other children, three English-speaking instructors and Josh, a Family Ski Company rep. He’s on hand to make sure his clients’ children are happy and, if not, smooth out any problems.
For the first couple of days, Zoe and her class spend much of their time walking up a slope on skis and getting comfortable sliding down. They use snowploughs (aka pizza slices) to control their speed and start tentatively turning.
Later in the week, as Zoe’s class gains confidence and becomes more proficient, the instructors take the kids out of the enclosed area. We spy them on a couple of occasions snaking down as a group led by one of the ESF instructors, tail-gunned by another, with the children in varying degrees of control and disorder.
While Zoe is busily engaged learning to ski, Holly is thoroughly occupied by the Powder Pups nursery programme where activities include Lego building, kitchen play and games in the snow.
At lunchtime, Josh or one of the other Family Ski Company reps brings the children having lessons back to chalet Genevieve for lunch, where they join the Powder Pups. There are further organised activities for all the children in the afternoon. Zoe is in the Powder Hounds group for four to six year olds, and during the week gets to make masks, listen to stories and – a particular favourite of hers – paint in the snow.
This means the parents can ski unhindered every day of our week-long holiday, so long as we’re back for the kids’ tea at 4.30pm. It’s a tantalising prospect, and on a couple of occasions Vere and I ski together until 3.30pm, enjoying that glorious sense of freedom gained from whizzing down a sun-drenched slope, surrounded by jagged peaks with a piercing blue-sky backdrop. One day we manage to go out for lunch at a restaurant in Courchevel Moriond, at one end of the Trois Vallées area, and not mention our children once. Another day we ski to the other end of the area on the Glacier de la Pointe Renod near Val Thorens, which gives us a real sense of the vastness of the area, and satisfaction from gaining maximum value from our Trois Vallées lift passes.
However, most days we arrive back earlier, at around 2pm, wanting to spend time with our kids – and those experiences are ultimately the most rewarding, whether we’re taking them sledging, making snow castles or enjoying an après treat at a local café.
One of the things we all enjoy most is going to Les Menuires, a five-minute bus ride or 20-minute walk away from Reberty, where the Boules de Notes festival is taking place. This annual week-long celebration of music for children includes concerts, live music on the slopes and a collection of highly inventive musical instruments near the tourist office, which Zoe and Holly love playing.
Everyday the four of us are always back in the chalet for the kids’ tea at 4.30pm, and as the week progresses all the children become ever firmer friends and the meals become progressively rowdier. By 7pm we parents start getting the kids prepared for bed, giving us enough time to prepare for a slightly more civilised adult dinner at 8pm.
There are only two exceptions to the smooth running of the trip. One is Holly and Zoe’s erratic sleeping behaviour, waking up two or three times a night– I put it down to altitude and excitement. The other is Holly projectile vomiting near the start of the three and a half hour coach journey from the resort to the airport when we leave.
The more enriching and lasting memory, though, is of the final day when after Zoe’s morning lesson I take her to the highest point she’s been all week, the Col de la Chambre, at 2,850m. This overlooks Méribel and the next valley on one side of the ridge and Les Menuires on the other.
I want Zoe to experience the vastness of the mountains from this high point and enjoy the long twisting Mont de la Chambre blue run back to Reberty.
This time as she follows behind me she doesn’t need a pole for support, doesn’t ski into me and uses snowploughs to slow down and turn. It only takes her half an hour to reach the bottom, and while skiing she’s relaxed enough to burst into verses of Coming Round The Mountain. She’s improved hugely during the week and at the end of the run says, “I love skiing.” Result.
A seven-night chalet-board stay at chalet Genevieve in Reberty with the Family Ski Company starts from £559 for adults, £459 for children, including airport transfers. Six days of all-day child care clubs, inclusive of lunches, cost £309 for Powder Pups (three months to just under four years old), £329 for Powder Hounds (four to six years old) and £399 for Adventurers (from seven years old)