Time for your French lessons
A family holiday in the French ski fields has its ups and downs for Jane E. Fraser, but is a hit with the rest of the clan.
Three days ago, they had never seen snow. They leapt off the coach in great excitement, plunging their hands into the white powder piled outside the chalet, whooping with wonder and discovery. Today, my seven-year-old and nine-year-old are zooming down steep slopes on perfectly parallel skis, looking like experts on the white stuff in Tignes, in south-eastern France.
They're travelling at high speed without any apparent fear. After a few lessons, they can confidently ski medium-difficulty runs and have declared skiing to be ''the best fun ever''.
My husband, meanwhile, has spent his mornings flying down black runs, grinning as much as the kids. It is years since he has skied, but it is apparently like riding a bike, and he sets off each morning with piste map in hand, keen to try as many slopes as possible.
Also with us are my sister-in-law, brother-in-law and teenage nephews and niece, who are experienced skiers and nowhere to be seen between breakfast and dinner.
Unfortunately, I have been unable to match the rest of the family's enthusiasm for this cold-climate sport.
It hasn't helped that I've had a nasty stomach bug, that I've been flattened by a snowboarder, and that I fell over and badly sprained my hand (not skiing but - ahem - walking to a bar), but the real reason is simply that I find skiing monotonous and don't get what all the fuss is about. My only previous experience of skiing was a few days at the Victorian ski fields at the age of 16. To my shame now, I was embarrassed to be with my parents, wearing daggy, hired ski gear and taking beginners' lessons while other kids my age were zipping around the slopes in trendy gear and hanging out with their friends.
Watching my dad career down the mountain and take out a large section of the ski lift queue sealed the deal.
My husband had rarely skied since he made the mistake of marrying someone who hates cold weather, and the kids love anything outdoors and active. Two decades later, I decided it was time for me to give it another go.
I am nothing if not determined: having booked five mornings of lessons, I am going to finish them. And while I am not particularly enjoying the skiing, I am soaking up the atmosphere as we ski between cafes serving strong coffee and mulled wine, with brightly attired skiers and snowboarders whizzing around.
Our small group explores far and wide with our funny and patient French instructor, Cindy, and I do get some satisfaction from mastering harder and harder runs. The mountains are incredibly beautiful, and we get a mix of brilliant sunshine and light snow, which coats the runs with fresh powder.
Cindy points out the famous Mont Blanc, and everywhere we look there are dramatic scenes. Accomplished skiers criss-cross virgin snow on off-piste adventures, and we watch a few zoom straight off the edge to float down by parachute.
Many people are dressed up in silly costumes: we see bees, various zoo animals and sumo wrestlers fly by.
At a well-known bar and nightclub at the top of one mountain, magnums of expensive champagne sit in snow-filled buckets on the outdoor tables, waiting for the regular afternoon party to start.
We have followed in the footsteps of millions of Brits by coming on a package holiday out of Britain, flying from London to France's Grenoble Airport on a cheap charter flight, then being shepherded onto a coach for a three-hour transfer to Tignes.
There was nothing glamorous about the journey, which included queueing in the freezing cold on the tarmac because the terminal was too small to handle the arrival of several planes at the same time, but it has otherwise proved an excellent plan.
The deal includes hosted chalet accommodation at Hotel le Chalet du Rosset, with cooked breakfast, freshly baked cakes for when you come off the slopes in the afternoon and a three-course dinner with wine each night.
The staff are delightful, the food is restaurant quality and the wine keeps coming, so we eat, drink, relax and chat to the handful of other guests. The chef happily offers to feed the kids early each night, even if it means preparing a separate meal, and they fall asleep somewhere between the dinner table and their beds.
On the top floor of the traditional stone-and-timber chalet is a cosy lounge, where people gather in the afternoons and evenings. The lounge has an excellent view of the mountains, which are particularly beautiful in the early morning and late-afternoon sunshine, criss-crossed by a variety of lifts and dotted with triangles of snow-laden trees.
Many of the chalet guests have settled into a routine of skiing until mid-afternoon, having a nap, going downstairs for a late afternoon tea and then showering for drinks and dinner. The teenagers head into the village to party hard in the evenings, but those of us without the benefit of youth can think only about our pillows.
The downside of a holiday in a destination that takes its skiing seriously - Tignes has been a host venue for the Winter Olympics and, with the neighbouring Val d'Isere, is a sought-after ski resort - is that there is little else to do if you fancy a break. There's an indoor swimming pool, a bowling alley and a small row of shops but, really, it is all about the snow.
Our accommodation is just a short walk from the village and the base of the main ski lifts, although it takes us some time to negotiate it with clunky ski boots and a tangle of skis and poles. It's amazing how children can find the energy to ski all day and run around throwing snowballs for hours but can't manage to carry their own gear.
For those who are new to skiing, want to brush up on their skills or try something new such as snowboarding or off-piste skiing, there are several ski schools in Tignes, both French and British, although the French instructors speak very good English. Some of the ski schools only do children's lessons during school holiday periods, but it is best to avoid these periods if you can, because it is a lot cheaper and quieter outside the holiday peaks.
I also recommend booking morning lessons, because energy levels often wane in the afternoons and because it leaves the afternoons free for practising, trying different runs or meeting friends to go exploring together.
We have enjoyed the opportunity to ski as a family in the afternoons and see the kids in action, although it is sometimes hard to watch them flying down a mountain without any attempt to control their speed - the faster the better as far as they are concerned.
The trip ends without serious injury and is declared a great success, with pleas from the children of ''When can we go again?'' I suspect it will be only a matter of time before I am going for third time lucky.
Package ski holidays from British company Ski Olympic include no-frills charter flights to France from London’s Gatwick Airport. Emirates and Qantas fly to Gatwick from Sydney and Melbourne. 13 13 13, qantas.com.au; 1300 303 777, emirates.com.
Ski Olympic has packages for arange of ski resorts in France. Seven-night packages including charter flights, accommodation, most meals and wine with dinner start at £695 ($1150) an adult, with discounts available for children. Lift passes and ski hire are extra but can be booked through Ski Olympic, with in-house fitting. skiolympic.co.uk.
Other companies offering package ski holidays out of London include Crystal and Thomson Ski. Destinations include France, Italy, Austria, Switzerland and Scandinavia.
HIKING NEW ZEALAND
Lodge-to-lodge hiking is ideal for avoiding end-of-day meltdowns and having to worry about what to do for dinner. New Zealand has a range of options including the South Island's Queen Charlotte Track, which offers easy walking over four days. marlboroughsounds.co.nz, newzealand.com.
Escorted cycling tours in countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia are popular with families with older children, providing structure and space. Teenagers can plug into their iPods and cycle at their own pace, while vehicle back-up and a pre-planned itinerary take away the work for parents. travelwithkidz.com.au.
The islands and underwater adventures of the Great Barrier Reef can keep kids of all ages amused day after day. Activities range from snorkelling to quad biking, and accommodation includes camping, self-contained apartments and all-inclusive resorts. Base yourself on an island or take a cruise with Captain Cook Cruises. queenslandholidays.com.au, captaincook.com.au.