NESTLED in the Coast Mountain range, about two hours north of Vancouver in far Western Canada, Whistler-Blackcomb is North America’s largest ski resort. It is also one of its best, having hosted much of the Vancouver Winter Olympics last year. Whistler is not just for Olympians, however – it is a wonderful resort for families.
Though it may be a hefty eight hour flight away, 5,000 miles away prices don’t rocket up quite as much at half-term as they do in Europe, and with Canadian charm oozing out of every building like so much maple syrup, can you afford not to go?
Whistler itself is a purpose built, European style resort town wedged in a valley at 600 metres altitude between the two skiable mountains – Whistler and Blackcomb. The vast ski area then stretches upwards to Blackcomb’s peak at 2,436 metres.
The bottom half is where you leave the children. It is dominated by red suited Whistler kids instructors leading packs of small children on skis between play castles and the baby snow-park, where instructors will teach your progeny how to hit jumps or grind rails.
For teenagers, there is Blackcomb’s XL Park – populated entirely by “park rats” (think rappers with goggles), among whom any trendy adolescent should be happy. For toddlers, the resort operates a world class crèche. Parents are given a complimentary pager so that they can be contacted in an emergency.
Not they will welcome the intrusion, given the quality of the skiing. Whistler gets an average of 10 metres of snow a year. All of Whistler’s skiable area is carefully avalanche-controlled, so you don’t need to worry about transceivers. On a big snow day, head to the Peak Chair to watch the resident daredevils leaping off cliffs. Don’t hang around too long though – you will have to compete for the powder.
Really, the only people who should avoid Whistler are the sunbathing crowd. The downside of Whistler’s colossal snow fall is that sunny days are comparatively rare, and in late spring, you risk getting caught by the occasional rainfall. Also, great though Whistler’s many restaurants are, you might struggle to find a decent tartiflette.
IF YOU'RE still looking for a child friendly Christmassy getaway, you could do worse than the Swedish resort of Åre, deep in the north of the country close to the Norwegian border. Condé Nast Traveller declared the resort to be one of the world’s top 10 ski destinations in 2008, and if you have kids, you will probably agree. As well as skiing, the resort offers such eclectic and small person-friendly activities as dog sledding, zipline and ice fishing (maybe avoid the last of those if your children don’t like sitting still in the cold).
The skiing isn’t bad either. Åre hosted the Alpine World Championships in 2007 and the resort has a decent mix of difficult technical slopes, excellent off-piste and gentle, family friendly blue runs. With its relatively low base altitude of just 395 metres, you won’t suffer from the distortions of height that higher mountains can inflict, while the technical, tree-lined runs offer something a little different from resorts in the Alps.
The resort is famous for its après ski, and parents needn’t miss out: they can leave their children in the excellent Barnens Hus childcare centre before hitting the bars. Though darkness tends to set in quite a lot earlier this far north, the resort also floodlights a reasonable part of the resort so you can ski at night. Curiously, night skiing often affords better visibility than day skiing, so it is well worth trying.
Teenagers will also fit in well – as well as the lively après, the resort offers two flood lit “dreamparks”, with a 150 metre half-pipe, as well as several jumps, boxes and rails. They even include a small children’s park: perfect if you want your children to grow up as expert jibbers. And at only 1,760 Swedish Krona (£161) for six days, the lift passes are relatively cheap too. Children under 16 are discounted, while those younger than 8 ski for free.
If you want to try something different to the usual French or Swiss resorts, Åre is an excellent place to ski. The scenery is genuinely stunning, it is not too expensive, the ski schools are excellent and the chance of being crashed into by an out of control oligarch are still, remarkably, very low. And where in the Alps has reindeer?
IN THE Austrian Tyrol, close to Innsbruck, Obergurgl-Hochgurgl starts at 1,930 metres, making it the highest parish in Austria. Thanks to that high altitude, this season the resort managed to open on 12 November and since then, the snow has just kept falling. Children ski for free until they’re nine years old at Obergurgl-Hochgurgl, a higher limit than most resorts, so if you have a young family, that should add to the appeal.
The resort is a lot prettier than most high altitude destinations, with absolutely magnificent views of the Italian and Austrian alps. The centre of Obergurgl is an attractive little square with an old church, a fountain and the esteemed Edelweiss und Gurgl hotel. The main appeal, however, is the certainty of snow, the lack of queues and an abundance of relatively gentle, family friendly pistes.
The 90-year-old ski school is also excellent, with a maximum group size of nine skiers and most instructors speak perfect English. Bobo’s kindergarten takes care of non-skiing children aged three and up, while children aged four and up can join the ski school, which does morning and afternoon sessions for €219 a week, freeing you to explore the plentiful backcountry.
Obergurgl-Hochgurgl isn’t for everyone, however – the restaurants are good, but are mostly confined to hotels, and there isn’t a huge amount to do after dinner, so you will have to hope your kids get enough from the days skiing. The high altitude can also mean that in a midwinter blizzard, there aren’t many places to shelter. For somewhere quiet, family friendly and snow sure, there are few better places though, and for an Easter trip, it might be your best chance of getting a little April powder.
WHEN Ernest Hemingway went skiing, he went to Gstaad. Unsurprisingly, it is now one of the most exclusive ski resorts in the world. Located in the German speaking canton of Berne, in South-western Switzerland, Gstaad hasn’t got any worse since Hemingway was there. Though Gstaad itself sits at an altitude of just 1,050 metres, the resort is one of the largest in Switzerland, climbing up to a height of 3,016 metres in the glacier section.
Like Obergurgl, Gstaad offers free lift passes to children younger than nine. That might slightly mitigate the cost of the town’s incredibly chic hotels, famous for attracting celebrities as diverse as Paris Hilton and Roger Moore.
Helpfully, 21 of them offer free cots or beds for children who stay in their parents room, while many also provide play areas and childcare. It is also possible to get horse drawn sleigh rides and the resort even boasts a small zoo, so if your children tire of skiing, it shouldn’t be too easy to distract them.
They shouldn't tire of skiing though. The resort has countless family friendly blue and red runs, as well as a learning area exclusively for children. According to the Sonntagszeitung (a Swiss newspaper), Gstaad is one of the safest resorts to in Switzerland to ski in, so if you worry about your children being cut down by crazed speed freaks, that might help set your mind at ease.
Not that advanced skiers should be put off – there is good skiing on the relatively snow sure glacier, and for those with deep pockets, heli-skiing is an excellent way to get to the powder. While you explore, children can be left in a designated zone with the excellent ski school, where they might get to network with the children of the rich and famous.
Watch out though – outside of the glacier, Gstaad is not well known for its reliable snow, and it is as much a location for its exclusivity as for its excellence. On the plus side, when it snows, the ritzy regulars often choose the sanctuary of their chalets over skiing, so you might not have to compete for the powder.
SAINTE FOY, France
AN OVERLOOKED alpine jewel, Sainte Foy is a perfect resort for adventurous skiers who happen to be stuck with families. High in the Tarantaise region, Sainte Foy is about two hours from Geneva and sits among the more famous resorts like Tignes and Les Arcs that circle Bourg St Maurice.
But whereas those resorts can be quite large, ugly and forbidding, Sainte Foy is small and pretty. Instead of breezeblock hotels, Sainte Foy is composed entirely of traditional sloped-roofed chalets, interspersed with (mostly) excellent restaurants. And with lift pass prices half of what they are elsewhere in the region, at just €26 a day for adults, it won’t bite too hard into your wallet either.
Premier Neige offers crèche facilities for €195 a week for children older than two, and several chalet companies include childcare.
The Ecole du Ski Francaise (ESF) also runs ski schools for all ages. Small French children on twin tip skis zipping through the trees unaccompanied are a common sight, and with the small size of the resort, you will feel more comfortable letting your children ski on their own – there are only four chairlifts, so you will probably bump into them anyway.
That’s not to say that there’s nothing for the grown-ups. Those four lifts offer access to more terrain than twice as many manage at other resorts. The L’Aguille chairlift takes you up to 2,620 metres. From its top, you can ski down a vast avalanche-controlled free ride back towards the resort, or else if you’re feeling a little more adventurous, get a guide and avalanche gear and drop over the back towards the Lac du Clou for some uninterrupted free ride.
And if that isn’t enough, Tignes, Val d’Isere, Les Arcs and La Rosiere are all only about half an hour’s drive away, and many chalets will arrange transport for you to get there and back. Indeed, the resort is so close to the Italian border that you might even go one further. If you are so inclined, the bureau de guides will happily arrange a day’s heli-skiing in Italy. But maybe don’t take the kids.