My child is shooting down a red run with the speed of a slalom racer. But instead of gates, she’s weaving in and out of people. This isn’t ideal.
Before the beginning of this week in Serre Chevalier, nine-year-old Ella had barely strayed beyond the nursery slopes and could count just a handful of days’ experience on skis. While you don’t want to crush a kid’s enthusiasm, you also don’t want to see them crushed into a piste marker. Or another person.
I’d been fretting about the free day in our week of group ski lessons. I’d worried about guiding Ella into the mountains, solo — her on skis, and me on a board having to negotiate all the irritating flat stuff. I imagined having to excavate her from smothering banks of snow, and chase AWOL skis off-piste. I’d pictured having to coax her howling onto draglifts, which, admittedly, is how the day had begun. What I hadn’t considered for one second was having to keep up with her. But this is what you get for enrolling her in ski school: they get on with it, so you don’t have to, returning your child at the end of a few days with the confidence of an Olympian.
The thing about ski schools — a truth that parents only whisper — is that kids largely hate them. Unless your child is buddied up with a beloved sibling or bezzie mate, most resent being packed off to ‘school’ with a bunch of strangers. Not so with Family Weeks at the UCPA (Union Nationale des Centres Sportifs de Air), a sort of sporty, French youth hostel association offering year-round tuition in everything from mountaineering to kayaking, diving to skiing.
Up until recently, the remit of these nationwide outdoors activities centres had been firmly geared towards young adults and adults. But three years ago, British outfit Action Outdoors, had the brainwave of filling the quieter winter weeks at some UCPA centres (conveniently during Easter and UK half-term) with groups of ski-hungry British families. The group Ella and I join in Serre Chevalier come from all corners of the UK, and while we start the week as strangers, communal meals, shared après activities and group lessons means we very quickly become friends. Those who knew each other from previous years — Family Weeks are already encouraging serious return business — are wonderfully welcoming.
“Ah, the brats just want to band together. It’s the whole point of the thing,” smiles Paul, our room neighbour. This die-hard skier from Yorkshire is keen that his son, Ben, 10, develops a similar love of the mountains and has become a UCPA regular. He introduces Ella to Ben’s similar-aged gang and they fairly instantly become an independent unit, moving around the centre with tween huffs at any adult interference.
This leaves parents time to kick-back in the bar, drink the (half-decent, wholly cheap) house wine and compare notes on resorts, runs, lifts and tutors. Expecting a rag-tag crowd of have-a-go beginners, I find the group’s level is varied, erring towards the experienced. Along with those keen to inculcate in their offspring an enduring love of snow sports, there are off-pisters, tourers, free-riders and fat-ski enthusiasts — all of whom get expert UCPA tuition.
The centre’s equipment isn’t state-of-the-art but it serves for most; and those who prefer something fancy have packed their own. Kit is included in the price, as are ski passes, ability-calibrated group tuition, no-frills bed and board and, in our case at the centre in the pretty mountain resort of Serre Chevalier, priceless ski-in-ski-out facilities and a swimming pool. All of this transforms the skiing with kids experience from ‘major schlepp’ to ‘no prep required’ — and at a price that suggests someone slipped a decimal point.
Lessons are either morning or evening, which leaves plenty of time to explore, on or off-piste. Located on the borders of Les Ecrins National Park, Serre Chevalier is a leafy string of valley hamlets, populated by carved wooden chalets connected by lifts and a free ski bus. Ella and I hop up and down mountain and valley, exploring cabins selling crepes, hot chocolate and bargain end-of-season ski kit and, one afternoon, grouping together with other families to visit a pretty spectacular indoor/outdoor hot springs — all Roman columns, tepidariums, frigidariums (the children’s screaming favourite), and hot pools reflecting the surrounding halo of snow-capped peaks.
Evenings are given over to the UCPA’s all-out-fun entertainment: treasure hunts, a pentathlon and DJ-led discos that sap the last of the kids’ energy. Yet all the families are up and at ’em every morning, regardless of classes.
“We’re here to ski,” beams Kim from Manchester, travelling with Darcy, 11. And quite right, too. Serre Chevalier is one of Europe’s largest ski areas with 250km of piste. Moderate runs from most lifts mean beginners can really explore the mountain. The bulk of pistes are intermediate blues and reds, while a decent amount of blacks, lots of tree skiing and endless off-piste, means advanced skiers can also test their skills.
Skill, I explain to Ella as she hurtles directly down yet another red run, includes being able to put in turns. This tip is met with a derisive snort, but I’m confident her firm French ski instructor will not be having any of it. Classes are a military operation, nothwithstanding snow, rain (that end of season thing) and, while we were there, a freak dumping of sand from the Sahara that turned the pistes an alarming rusty red and rendered the snow heavy as mud.
But unless safety is compromised, instructors broker no arguments about how and when. And what would be the result at the end of our week? A kid that can ski, turns included.
Easter Family Week in Serre Chevalier (1-8 April 2017), from £500 per person, including seven nights’ full-board accommodation, ski passes, ski or snowboard equipment hire for six days and 12 hours of instruction, which is held in either morning or afternoon sessions.
Skiing is suitable for ages seven up. Children under seven get 25% discount (full-board, accommodation-only). Children under two stay free. Flights and transfers (from Turin/Grenoble), not included in the price. action-outdoors.co.uk
Published in the The Alps Winter 2016 guide, distributed with the November 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)