Taking the easy route

GRINNING broadly, my daughter proudly displayed her Ski Esprit certificate – a Little Miss Sunshine award. All week she had smiled as a child helper trudged up the slopes and made sure her boots and gloves were fitting snugly before she practised her “pizza” turns down the nursery trails at Meribel, in France’s Three Valleys. Six-year-old Eloise chattered happily as she wolfed down hot dinners at the Chalet Hotel Alba and cheerfully whiled away the afternoon hours in a Blue Peter craft-making heaven.

And after a final day of family skiing, when I could watch satisfied as Eloise skied steadily down the mountain and her brother Jake, eight, honed his newly-learned parallel turns, I was feeling more than a little smug. In fact, it’s fair to say I was feeling like Mrs Sunshine myself.

That, in my book, is a perfect family snow holiday, with adults free to ski unencumbered all day, while the juniors crash into each other instead of your knees. You stop for a long mountain-top lunch, if you please, while they quaff their hot chocolate with a table full of children. They learn to ski without picking up the type of “French” that turns the air bleu.

It’s an attitude, I know, that some parents object to. And really, if you prefer the martyrdom of lugging your children’s gear up and the down the hill each day, stopping oh-so-regularly for toilet stops and cafe breaks to warm up cold fingers, and giving up your dreams of black run skiing so you can be off the slopes around midday with your youngsters, who can blame you? At least you’ll have no one else to blame for the bad habits they’ve picked up.

The type of cosseted family skiing I’m talking about, of course, comes at a price. There’s the financial toll of all-day childcare, three meals a day, ski lessons, evening “cocoa clubs” and the babysitter for the big night out (well, the one where you’re not having dinner with other adults while the kids are tucked up and monitored upstairs). And then there’s the cost of being organised enough to book well ahead.

It’s at this time of year that the keenest mums and dads start planning the February half-term holiday – for next year. True, you can still find last minute 2011 season places – for both half term and Easter – and congratulate yourself on not losing all spontaneity in the maternity ward. But you are unlikely to strike the type of discounts or availability, for both childcare and lessons, that early booking brings.

For example, half term week next year in Meribel’s Chalet Hotel Alba would cost a family of four £4,960, with an additional £776 for two children’s all-day childcare and ski lessons.

If you’ve got pre-schoolers, or are willing to risk the wrath of a headteacher for pulling your kids out of school, you can take advantage of heavily discounted, “one child goes free” and “free ski hire” deals from many operators.

The flip side, as my kids like to remind me, is they can end up the only English children in the ski school, with only each other to talk to, an instructor giving English tuition as an afterthought, and foreign-language films every lunch time.

One option is to cut out the hand-holding – and the cost – with a DIY family ski package.

Eurotunnel fares are around £150 return, then add fuel for an eight to 10-hour drive to the Alps, accommodation (self-catering apartments for four cost from €1,400 per week for half term through www.meribel.net), lessons (British-founded ski school New Generation, www.skinewgen.com, runs two-hour lessons for four to five-year-olds for €235 a week or four-and-a-half-hour lessons for over six-year-olds for €395 a week) and lunches for the whole family on the piste (think €5 for a plate of chips). If you need to hire equipment, you can save yourself time and trouble by booking ahead from England, for easy pick up in the Alps (www.intersport.com).

It’s a budget scheme, which wouldn’t work if your children are too young for ski lessons, but could be perfect for families with older children ready to tour the mountains together.

And at least you wouldn’t face the mixed blessing of children so entranced by the promise of an afternoon treasure hunt, they’d rather not be picked up early for family skiing.

That’s what happened last year, when we went as far as to book our family ski trip over Christmas. With a guarantee of the three Ss – Santa, Snow and Someone else to look after the children and cook the turkey – I would recommend it as the ultimate feel-good family holiday. With everything catered for, my biggest dilemma was whether we’d get away from snowbound England. And the kids had only one pressing worry – how would Father Christmas find us in France?

www.espritski.com, www.meribel.net