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Family skiing in L’Alpe d’Huez

A first-time family ski trip to France’s L’Alpe d’Huez, with a 9- and 11-year old, and two tired parents… a recipe for disaster or a stone-cold win?

Family skiing in L’Alpe d’Huez
Marcel's Farm. Image: Laurent Salino

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A young boyish face is slowly going red, the heat climbing up through his chest, on to his neck and grabbing his cheeks. He huffs and puffs in irritation. This is physical exertion on a level he’s not quite used to. The undertone of a whinge is forming, and he’s finding it hard not to give in. Pulling with both hands he finally manages to yank his rigid plastic boots on. He still has the clasps to do up. It’s hard work, this skiing business.

There are helmets, and gloves and goggles to hold, wear and adjust, poles to carry and skis, too. Just getting out of the VIP Club Chateau chalet is proving a mission. Not least because it’s so super comfy: chalet catering offers a cooked breakfast, freshly baked cake daily, and a three-course meal on six nights. Plus there’s a hot tub and sauna too. Dragging everyone out is actually hard work.

But we do make it out the door and the fresh crisp morning blasts us into wakefulness and the white takes over. The magical, sticky, newly fallen snow takes our breath away. L’Alpe d’Huez has spun its spell.

An hour-and-a-half drive from Grenoble, it’s the main resort in the Grandes Rousses Massif, at the centre of the Oisans region of the French Alps. Covering an area of 10,000 hectares, L’Alpe d’Huez has 154 miles of linked pistes (ranging between heights of 4760ft and 10,925ft), with 84 ski lifts accessing a good spread of green, red and blue runs with a few gnarly blacks. Its highest point, the Pic Blanc glacier, has stellar views of Mont Blanc, Mont Cervin and the Meije. On a clear day, it’s said a fifth of France can be seen from here — we give it a go but foggy, gloomy weather is against us. Joining the Pic Blanc to Sarenne Gorge, the Sarennes ski run (labelled black mainly due to the length rather than difficulty) is Europe’s longest at 10 miles. A starting point for many off-piste itineraries, it can also be skied under a full moon.

The gentle slopes on the outskirts of the resort provide the perfect terrain for us beginners, while two snow parks, a boardercross park and a halfpipe give freestylers their kicks. L’Alpe d’Huez is really able to cater for every level of skier or snowboarder, and has been awarded the ‘Famille Plus’ label by the French Tourism organisation noting its family-friendly qualities. There are ice rinks, indoor and outdoor municipal pools, and in the summer months, it transforms into a cyclist’s hub, regularly featuring as a stage on the Tour de France.

Even in winter its nickname, I’Isle du Soleil, is fitting. ‘The island of the sun’ delivers for us during our week with glorious weather, while its varied slopes, wide and long, seem ideal for families and beginners with good snow conditions even in the sun.

Fast forward a few days and it feels like we’ve gone from beginners to pros. At ski school the kids have mastered skiing without poles and navigating the buttons and chairlifts. On day two, we even manage a family ski group excursion up to Marcel’s Farm, located at Signal, near the top of the Villarais chairlift (from Villard Reculas 1500). Opened in January 2017, its gentle children’s trails, pipes and rails are sure-fire hit, accompanied by a series of ‘farm friends’ — animal-themed runs with bumps, mini slaloms and fun turns. This year Chez Roger ski area opened in Les Bergers, with a giant games area where you can slalom and play leapfrog.

We decide skiing is a little like riding a bike. You’re pretty wobbly at first, until you find your balance and legs, get a little confident, sometimes overdo it and come back down to earth (with a bump). But we get up again, and kids are fast learners. Sessions at the ESF (Ecole du Ski Français) kick off at 9.15am every morning and finish at 12pm sharp. We’re all signed up in different groups, but it’s arguably the kids who’ve come on best by the end of the week. Dad, too, is something of a pro, soon paralleling down the slopes. Our son takes the straight down, daredevil approach, while our daughter is more Driving Miss Daisy but with excellent skill. And it’s not just technique we learn.

Ski school means we’re able to visit a different slope almost every day, under the guidance of the strict yet friendly instructor William who tells us to ‘relax’ as we follow him, carving groove after groove into the snow. And relax we somehow do. Aching legs, happy smiles, and a few snow angels later, it seems hard work has paid off: skiing looks like it’s going to part of our family calendar, recalcitrant boots and all.

Published in the Winter Sports 2018 guide, free with the November issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)