Holidays are more delicate than one might imagine. On the face of it, you pick a destination, a hotel and some flights, on the basis that they fulfil one or more or the criteria you might have listed. I used to write lists of criteria for holidays in order to help me decide, but now tend to use a combination of kneejerk reaction, or nostalgia, or panic at how little time I have left to book. All of these approaches have some drawbacks over considered research and planning, certainly when travelling with young children. When you don’t have kids, none of it really matters that much – if the destination isn’t what you expected, you can get drunk all day long and not think about it. If the flight is delayed by several hours, ditto. With children, a lack of the basic equipment (like a high chair and a cot) is a massive hassle, and flight delays are indescribably awful. Our family ski holiday was somewhat peppered with a selection of these issues.
We went to Chamonix because my sister wanted our 3 year old Conrad to learn to ski, and because we are nostalgically attracted to it, as if just being there will bring back our carefree days of climbing adventures. We couldn’t quite be arsed to learn to ski ourselves. In my head, we’d be recreating the high points of our lives, via some cool winter mountaineering heroics, kicking back relaxing around town or in the hot tub, and hanging out with the kids when it was convenient – we had brought the nanny along to give us that flexibility, so it was the most expensive holiday I’ve ever had. I had not really recognised that Chamonix is either a skiing place, or a serious mountaineering place, and if you’re doing neither, it is nowhere much.
So here are the things NOT to do if you want to go on a skiing/mountaineering/family (picking one is a good start)holiday in the Alps:
Don’t go for central Chamonix
On our previous trips, we didn’t really notice that if you’re not climbing, or mountaineering, then Chamonix is a slightly ugly town with too many high rise buildings and overpriced food options, and an obsession with its own history. It’s lower down than, say Argentiere, so there is rarely snow in the town, and it loses the winter wonderland factor. You also have to get on a bus to get to any of the lifts except the Midi and Brevent lifts, and like idiots we thought proximity to the Midi lift was great – only in Winter you’re fairly unlikely to get the right weather window for the mountaineering routes, and if it is sunny, then every skier in the entire resort is fighting you for a space. On the one day we got the weather, we got all our 20 kgs of ice axes, crampons, cams, boots, ropes and harnesses together, eventually got on one of the very overfilled buses to the Grands Montets lift, only to find that if you get there after 9 am, you will queue for 2 hours to get a lift, even after the 40 minute queue for tickets. You can prebook lift tickets though, which is very, very worthwhile – we just didn’t know it mattered, and stood there like muppets with our gear, having no hope of managing a 3-4 hour route if we were only going to get on it at 1pm. So, lesson is: stay in Argentiere, it’s got a proper Alpine village feeling to it.
Having said all that, it was still a really beautiful chalet, with lovely decor, a hot tub and a sauna. Available here:
Skiing resorts are only set up for skiing in winter
They all want skiers’ money, and are really not interested in making it easy for you to find anything else to do. That’s what the slopes are for, that’s what the ludicrously expensive ski passes are for. In summer, there’s a whole bunch of family stuff set up, there’s walking routes, and if you want to get in one of the lifts to get onto your climbing routes, you just rock up and walk on, without some sort of insane queue of thousands of people trying to get into a handful of lifts. If you’re keen to do mountaineering routes, you have to have a full plan of what lifts you need, book them in advance, and be prepared to get on the first one at 8.30 a.m. if you want any chance of making the route. We probably should have gone for a repeat of Arete des Cosmiques, but the weather window was a little too small, as there was only one day on which the snow was not too heavy to find the route.
Do kids ski school in the afternoon
We had the luxury of being able to ask the nanny to pick up the kids from ski school at lunchtime; the main purpose of this was to allow us to stay out for lunch or skiing or whatever we were planning that day. But that still left the drop-off in the morning, and unless we stayed in the house with the baby, we’d be asking her to get both Conrad and the totally hyperactive baby out of bed, fed and get Conrad dressed in the appropriate ski gear for the weather, and then drag both of them off across a pile of slushy snow in order to get Conrad to ski school for 8.30. That seemed a bit much to ask, and a bit pointless waking the baby up (especially since he barely slept at night), so instead we were getting up at 7 am every day to either do the drop-off, or look after the baby. Doing it in the afternoon would enable everyone to sleep a bit, have a nice relaxed breakfast and then have the nanny do the ferrying. Or we could also have left everyone in bed, and got ourselves straight out to the first lift every day.
Don’t go and watch the kids skiing
We thought it would be fun. It wasn’t. Conrad cried as soon as he saw us, and we felt like the worst people in the world for making him do something he didn’t enjoy. It was daunting for him, as he was mainly with French children, and the instructors only seemed to speak smatterings of English. So his aunt brought him the next day, and he was absolutely fine. When he finished his course, they did a formal presentation, he got a little medal, which he was very happy about. It was pretty good value, as it ran from 8.30 – 1.30 (the lesson itself is only 2 hours, the rest of the time they stay inside playing), and cost about 300 euros for 6 days, with lunch included. ESF Chamonix
Fully consider bad weather plans
When I was planning the trip, I had some vague idea that it was always either going to be cold enough to do good routes, and/or sunny enough to do anything else. In the event, it rained or snowed a lot, so the lifts were shut for several days in a row. We had very little planned for this eventuality. We kept ourselves busy with the Musee des Cristaux, which is quite fun. It has some great interactive climbing displays, and 3D models of the famous peaks, on which you can trace the famous routes. The Alpine Museum on the other hand is a complete waste of time – basically just a small selection of dark photos depicting life in Chamonix in 1912, and virtually no information about climbing at all.
The swimming pool is quite dated, but has quite a fun slide and kids pool that Conrad seemed to love. I should have gone to the ice rink as well, as it’s big and well maintained, but the main feature of the holiday was just constant fatigue, cooking and food shopping, so I couldn’t be bothered.
Swimming was fun, and the walk through the woods behind Argentiere at night to reach La Cremerie for a fondue was quite magical. We had a great lunch up at the top of Brevent on a sunny day. There was some nice wine.
We have now booked an all inclusive beach holiday to Greece with a kids club and a creche. No cooking, no general logistics to deal with, no need to be anywhere at a particular time.