When is your child ready to go skiing? PJ O’Rourke, the American humorist, dismisses this question as “silly”: “Your child is ready to go skiing when there’s half a foot of snow and you can’t find a babysitter.”
When I recount this wisdom to my Tyrolean-born father, he rejects the idea that a babysitter should have anything to do with it. This perhaps explains why my younger sister and I were fighting our way through snow far deeper than half a foot before we were in kindergarten.
As I curve ungracefully down what I had until now thought of as St Anton’s rather gentle Osthang slope, I am finally forced to concede that I am no different to my father. Hunched in an awkward embrace over my two-year-old son, who is shouting “Schuss!”, I squint through my foggy goggles, straining not to lose sight of the quickly shrinking orange blob of my five-year-old daughter some distance ahead.
Despite being dubbed “the cradle of Alpine skiing”, St Anton is not necessarily the obvious place to teach young children to ski. There is an excellent ski school. In fact, the world’s first ski school was created in St Anton in the early 1920s by Hannes Schneider, the town’s favourite son, who later emigrated to New Hampshire to flee the Nazis. St Anton also has plenty of barely sloping Maerchenwiesen, or “fairy-tale meadows”, for the toddler set.
The problem is that it’s so much more fun to explore the many challenging slopes – almost half of St Anton’s pistes are for advanced skiers – that standing at the foot of a fairy-tale meadow brings the wicked stepmother out in me.
There is a saying about this place – the three main villages knitted together by 84 ski lifts, 280km of marked pistes and many more off-piste slopes to form the Arlberg ski region. It goes: “You take your family to Lech, your girlfriend to St Christoph and, to ski, you go to St Anton.”
St Anton is unabashedly macho, even in its architecture. In 2000, on the eve of hosting the Ski World Cup, the quaint railway station in the village’s centre was closed and a sleek grey modernist one built into the mountainside. St Anton has been adding and updating lifts, restaurants and other amenities ever since. The latest addition is the new gondola to the Rendl, the mountain opposite St Anton’s main slopes.
The entrance to the new lift is housed in glass so you can watch the huge cogs and wires smoothly slotting the individual pods alongside the edge of the platform. My husband Andrew remarks that it reminds him of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. For me, Lang’s grim futuristic mega-city is far too dark an image. I feel like Ayn Rand taking in the Manhattan skyline for the first time. Whereas Rand’s skyscrapers are monuments to capitalism, St Anton’s lifts are the manifestation of the town’s unapologetic commitment to advances in skiing.
Despite all the progress, there is still plenty of homely Austrian Gemuetlichkeit to be found. Next to Haus Tschol, our bed and breakfast, just past the field from which two carthorses watch the skiers zip down the mountain, is the Kaminstube restaurant and small hotel, where the owner Maria wears her smile as naturally as her dirndl. After we finish a delicious meal of Jaegerpfandl (game stew) and Kaiserschmarrn (torn pancakes with raisins and plum compote), she sits down with us for a round of apricot schnapps. She indulges my children as they boast about their achievements on the slopes and gives us an update of her nephew’s progress at the Olympics in Whistler earlier this year. It has been a tough season for the Austrian team, she says.
All the while the fireplace crackles next to us and snowflakes dust the windowpane behind the red-and-white check curtains. Heading to bed, we stop to watch the last few stragglers dodge the huge caterpillar-tracked trail groomers as they ski home after a few pints at the slope-side pubs.
The next morning’s breakfast is made up of fresh rolls, delivered to our door each day, and enough Nutella hazelnut spread to build a snowman. The Galzig gondola passes above us, transporting the day’s supplies to the hilltop restaurants as we get into our layers of fleece and Gore-Tex.
The little one, whose nappy precludes him from ski kindergarten, is heading with his grandmother to St Anton’s fantastic swimming pool, where he’ll be kept busy by waterfalls, a splash pool, a slide and geysers. My eldest is off for a day at ski school so that the grown-ups can explore the back bowls for some guided off-piste skiing. We click on our skis and slide directly from the kit room into the layer of fresh snow that covers the perfectly manicured slope. Ours are the first tracks of the day.
Bruno Koenig, our affable instructor, has until a few years ago spent his summers herding sheep over the Valluga, which, at 2,811m, is St Anton’s highest skiable peak. Given a guide with such precise knowledge about every rock and crevice, I am hoping we will be heading in that direction. But unstable snow conditions and almost zero visibility conspire to send us to the backside of the Rendl instead.
The choice proves a wise one. After three hours of some of the ugliest skiing I have ever done, the only detectable silver lining around our monstrously large grey cloud was that being able to see nothing at least meant that no one could see me.
At ski school pick-up, my eldest makes clear that, though ski school was “nice”, she’d rather continue skiing with us. A similar verdict greets us at the swimming pool gates. It appears I will have to amend O’Rourke’s quote one step further than my father did. In my family’s case neither the absence of a babysitter, nor the presence of fresh snow seem to be a factor.
When is a child ready to go skiing? In winter.
Carola Hoyos is the FT’s defence correspondent
Family -friendly resorts
Don’t come to Ardent for après-ski or the shopping opportunities. It’s a speck of a place, with just a few wooden chalets, a restaurant and a couple of shops – and lots of space for kids to run around in the snow, writes Belinda Archer. Their parents will be happy too – a gondola whisks skiers from the hamlet into the heart of the vast Portes du Soleil ski area, which spans France and Switzerland with 600km of pistes. www.portesdusoleil.com; www.familyski.co.uk
Despite a glitzy, celebrity-spangled image, Aspen is surprisingly good for families. It has an impressive play area for toddlers at the new Snowmass base village, a $17m kids adventure centre called Tree House, which has raised the bar for fancy in-resort childcare. This has a puppet theatre, climbing area and even a napping loft. The Snowmass and Buttermilk ski areas also have specially designed “adventure” trails for kids. Children under six ski free throughout the resort. www.aspen.com
This charming car-free village has excellent slopes for learning as well as some tougher terrain. The nursery runs are right in the heart of the village, where there are two kindergartens, and it has a gentle atmosphere throughout. Access up the slopes is via a cog railway, which children love. The Swiss Ski School also comes recommended, as do the après-ski ice skating and tobogganing. www.wengen.ch
Another fur-coated, luxury resort that is surprisingly family-orientated, especially the car-free Oberlech area on the slopes above the village. A fun toboggan ride down connects it with Lech itself and once the lifts close at the end of the day, it is quiet and safe. The resort lift pass for children up to the age of eight costs just £10 for the season, and there is a miniclub that combines skiing with other snow-based activities. www.lech.at
Whistler has top family-friendly credentials, with a comprehensive programme of activities on and off the slopes called Whistler Kids. There is plenty of accommodation around the bottom of the slopes, handy for walkable, safe access to the skiing. Other treats include an adventure park featuring a magic castle and the Great Wall climbing centre. www.whistler.com
Méribel offers an abundance of English-speaking nanny services as well as English ski schools. Kids are equipped with the Magnestick system – a magnetic bib that sticks them to chairlifts so they can’t slip off. New this winter is the “Acticross” area, with tunnels, banked turns and slaloms. www.meribel.com