Taking children on a ski holiday – especially their first ski holiday – is a major step and not one to be considered lightly.
Often the huge high altitude domains can be intimidating for little ones finding their ski legs, as the pros zoom past in search of piste and powder to keep them occupied until lunchtime. As a result, runs can be inundated with high speed travellers for much of the day, while freezing weather conditions can add to the culture shock.
But this is no reason to entirely discount the big ski areas from your holiday plans.
‘Les Trois Vallees’, for example, is made up of many small villages, several lying in the shelter of valleys away from the biting winds – among them Meribel. Despite its international reputation, this resort never seems overloaded with snowbombers and the pace of skiing is more akin to that of a low altitude Austrian destination.
There are other, less obvious, advantages too. Every resort has its ski schools, but the geography of Meribel makes it very easy to feel at ease when leaving the youngsters in the care of the instructor. For a start, the schools/crèche meeting place is situated in the Chaudanne area, central to the surrounding ski runs and something of a cross-roads for skiers travelling round the mountains. This confers a major benefit: unlike many Austrian and other low-lying resorts, there is no need to abandon your children way down in the valley in order to reach the open piste. For the same reasons,the location makes it very easy to meet up for lunch or for pick-ups after lessons, with little interruption to the skiing day.
Thus, the PiouPiou class, the snow crèche for budding skiers under the age of four, operates in a safe area within La Chaudanne where instructors teach the basics. The fenced off area includes a ‘moving carpet’ to help tiny children up a slight incline where padded obstacles, cones and inflatables for honing control and technical skills ensure that the kids have a fun and exciting time on their first skiing experience.
For developers, Mottaret, lying just above Meribel, has a much longer magic carpet, newly opened in 2010 and an easy way of helping novices get to the top of a very gentle beginners area. After a few confidence building turns there, the easy green run named “La Truite” (the trout), twists its way picturesquely through woodland for the two kilometres from Mottaret down to Meribel – the perfect place for practising proper turns and edging.
But the benefits don’t stop there: geography again lends a hand in providing a level plateau high above the Meribel-Mottaret villages. Children feel a real sense of achievement when they graduate to these upper slopes, yet this can happen as early as the third or fourth ski day for those aged 7+, since those gentle slopes are reached by a 10 minute gondola ride upwards, rather than an intimidating drag or chairlift. The ski ‘graduates’ disembark onto sunny wide flatlands served by a slow easy rope tow. The thrill of seeing the village far below their feet is not to be underestimated, even if, at the end of lessons, their journey back down is once again by gondola.
Children are looked after with lift passes too – under 5’s ski totally free while those from 5-12 years can get a pass that is drastically reduced in price (from 196 to 147) for the Meribel Valley. In fact, “big kids” as old as 17 are still classed as children when a Family Pass is purchased (2 adults and 2 children for 643). [Current prices for 2011/12]
Food on and off the slopes is another bonus. On the slopes, the huge variety of restaurants means that parents can pick and choose a suitable family orientated lunch venue, and one with piste access that is appropriate to all standards of skier in the party. Off the slopes, the restaurants often have cheaper children’s menus which they serve from early evening.
In Meribel itself there is always lots for families to do together if there is bad weather, after an early finish to the ski day, or simply as a change from skiing.
An ice rink, swimming pool, bowling alley, cinema and live music can all be found in the centre, while sledges are readily available from most ski shops for a change in mode of transport on the piste.For those with no French, it might also be reassuring to know that any additional attention required by the little ones during the week can easily be explained, since Meribel can fairly claim the status of an ‘English’ resort -in fact, it would be difficult to find someone who does not speak the language!
Further afield, Brides-Les-Bains is a pretty small town, typically French and with a picturesque river running through the middle. It is accessible direct from Meribel via a gondola which goes down into the valley – a novelty in itself for the children.From the beginning of March onwards, Brides basks in warm sunshine, so it can be a nice relaxing place for all the family for a break to the skiing week.
In short, Meribel has a reputation for being family-friendly alongside its ‘must ski’ status, and with its geography, layout, ski schools geared to families, range of activities and British feel, it lives up to that reputation – and much, much more.