Well, that’s Christmas and New Year done and dusted. Thoughts now move on to our next adventure as we start to get ready for our annual skiing trip. This year we’re returning to the other side of the pond, we’re off to New England. We got a great deal with Virgin holidays, despite the fact we’re going over the peak half-term week. The kids are no longer beginners, they are getting quite adventurous now, and I thought it was about time they spent some time on the slopes with dad. Somewhere not too difficult, but somewhere that non-skiing mum won’t be too bored either. Cal’s had a bit of a tough year, with continuing health issues, so a nice hotel with leisure facilities, adjacent to tax-free shopping, and with flights from our local airport, is just what the doctor ordered!
All of which got me reminiscing about the very first time I went skiing, back in 1978. A group of us had been away on holidays for the past couple of summers, and started musing about where to go the following year. In a moment of youthful impertinence, I suggested that perhaps we should do a winter trip instead and try skiing. After all, we used to go ice skating every weekend at Altrincham ice rink, so if you can ice skate, you can ski, right? To my amazement, everyone thought it was a great idea, and left me to make the arrangements.
And so, in the middle of a freezing January, we arrived at our rented bungalow in Aviemore, following a nightmare 24 hour journey through snow and freezing fog. I won’t bore you with every detail of our first time ‘on the slopes,’ but it wasn’t exactly what we were expecting. The road to the ski runs was closed due to bad weather (Aviemore is about 10 miles from Cairngorm, no ski-in, ski-out luxury here…), so we took our first tentative turns on the dry slope, and I still have the scars to prove it! The mountain was shut most of the week, so the only snow we got to ski on was the dusting on top of the dry slope. It was rubbish. Little wonder that of the 6 beginners that made the trip, only 1 actually persisted with skiing in later life.
Of course, we’re all wiser with hindsight, so where would I have planned to go for a beginners’ ski trip nowadays? Well, with apologies to the Scottish Tourist Board, it wouldn’t be Scotland (unless you live close to the slopes, which is a different matter). Europe has literally hundreds of ski resorts to choose from, so how to choose one for complete beginners?
A few suggestions follow, but they all have similar criteria for inclusion.
- They need to have ‘nursery slopes’ (runs to learn on) close to your accommodation – there’s nothing more dispiriting than long walks or packed bus trips from hotels to the slopes, and back again.
- They need an extensive range of easy slopes for when you progress on to the mountain itself.
- A good ski school that can communicate in English is a must (especially for children).
- There needs to be plenty of non-skiing activities, just in case you decide skiing isn’t your bag.
- And finally, there should be decent apres-ski. After all, skiing is not just about the skiing. Ask any skier!
So here’s my list, it’s not exhaustive, they’re in country order rather than order of preference, and I’ve not been to all of them myself, but they would certainly be on my short list if I had to start all over again…
- Arinsal, Andorra.
Small, pretty resort in the Pyrenees, with wide open easy pistes into the village, and a good English speaking ski school. It doesn’t attract the speed freaks or tipsy revellers that neighbouring Pas de la Casa does. Great for a first ski holiday on a budget.
- Obergurgl, Austria.
Nursery slopes next to hotels. Good apres ski. Uncrowded slopes through the week. English speaking ski school. We went there last year, and our kids really came on well. Toby could hardly stand upright on his skis at the start of the week, but was managing blues and reds by the end. Hugo was doing blacks, and actually wore the (Irish) ski instructor out to tears on the last day!
- Alpbach, Austria.
One of the prettiest resorts anywhere. Traditional Tyrolean charm, lots of nice walks and good hotels with leisure facilities for non-skiers. Easy tree-lined runs for beginners. Short transfers from the airport.
It’s always worth looking at the resort’s webcams. Alpbach’s are fantastic!
- Les Arcs, France.
Arc 1800 is probably best for beginners, as the slopes adjacent to the accommodations are all easy and ski-in, ski-out. Les Arcs is well known for its excellent, progressive ski school, and whilst the resorts (as in much of France) are purpose-built and a bit lacking in charm, the apres ski and facilities are excellent. If you want a bit more charm (at higher cost), try Arc 1950.
5. Alpe d’Huez, France.
Huge beginners areas adjacent to the resort, excellent ski school. It is high and snow sure, and the town itself is quite large with plenty to see and do apart from skiing.
- Bardonecchia, Italy.
This is a good sized town, not purpose built, and has an authentic lived-in feel to it. The best ski accommodation is just outside the town in Campo Smith, next to the lifts. There are plenty of nursery areas, and tree lined green and blue runs for when you’re ready to take to the mountain proper. The food, both on and off the mountain, is as you would expect in Italy, fantastic, and plentiful. Don’t forget a grappa or bombardino at the end of the day!
- Passo Tonale, Italy.
High and snow sure, with runs radiating out from the long village. Most of the runs into the village are easy, wide and sunny. Quite a large village, and much of the apres ski tends to be hotel based, although there are plenty of bars dotted about.
- Saas-Fee, Switzerland.
High and snow sure, surrounded by a spectacular amphitheatre of 4000 metre peaks and glaciers. The town itself is car free, you get to the lifts by small electric powered buses, or even a novelty train. The beginners runs are extensive, and once you’ve progressed to the mountain, there are long wide blue runs to bring you back to the village. Great apres ski, and plenty of non-skiing activities to keep you entertained, including a long toboggan run, a glacier that you can have a tour through, and the world’s highest revolving restaurant with spectacular 360 degree views!
- Norway (most resorts, but especially Hemsedal, Geilo, Beitostolen, Trysil etc.).
A bit of a wild card this, but many Scandinavian resorts are particularly good for families first time skiing. Don’t worry too much about the lack of daylight in these northern climes, they are experts in floodlighting the runs. Night skiing is brilliant, you can see every lump and bump in the snow. A ski lift up a silent mountainside with the moon overhead is magical. The ski schools are fantastic and they all probably speak better English than you do! The only downside is the price of booze, but if you take your full allowance of duty-free (Norway isn’t in the EU), it shouldn’t be too bad.
Again, a bit of a wild card, but if you want to take the kids to see Santa, or want to see the Northern Lights, then why not combine it with a first time ski trip? Out of season (i.e. after Christmas), the costs come right down. Like Norway, the daylight is limited – but see above about floodlit slopes. It can be very cold (but a dry cold, -30C here doesn’t feel nearly as bad as it sounds…). The runs are mostly gentle, English is widely spoken, and the accommodation is top notch. Plenty of snow related non-ski adventures await, like snowmobiling, dog sledding, or ice fishing. Again, booze is a bit more expensive, but not prohibitively so.
Remember, I haven’t been to all of these places, so please do plenty of your own research. Good luck, and welcome to a lifetime of skiing fun!
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