The Ultimate Childcare for Skiers

This week, we're exploring the fraught subject of taking small children skiing for the very first time.

Hosted ByPeter & Felice
Ski Famille

3Valleys ski area. Photo: © F.Hardy

Peter Welcome to our travel podcast. We’re specialist travel writers, and we’ve spent half a lifetime exploring every corner of the world.

Felice So we want to share with you some of our extraordinary experiences and the amazing people we’ve met along the way.

Peter This week, we’re exploring the fraught subject of taking small children skiing for the very first time, and we’re going to start and end with a warning to listeners. If you want to book a nanny-service-inclusive holiday for the coming winter, there is really no time to waste. You need to book right now. Demand now far outstrips supply, particularly during the Christmas and Easter school holiday weeks.

For reasons that we’ll come to, there is a desperate shortage of chalet holidays that include full-on childcare. Now, if you’re a skier yourself, it’s surely only natural that you want your kids to share the thrills of your favourite sport as soon as they’re old enough to do so. As far as we’re concerned, there are few joys of parenthood greater than skiing down a mountainside, with your little ones snaking along turn for turn behind you.

Ski Famille

Ski Famille class

Felice It doesn’t last for long. They’ll soon be overtaking you.

Peter The trouble is that in the early learning stages, at least, their presence may seriously impinge on your own enjoyment of that expensive trip to the mountains. Keeping little ones happy all day, both on snow and off, is a time-consuming task that, without some pretty serious help, leaves you and your partner no time at all to cruise the powder or take time out for a long, lazy lunch on a sunny restaurant terrace that, for many of us, is an essential ingredient of a ski trip.

Felice It’s been a while since we first took our children, about 30 years to be exact. So it came as no surprise when Max, our eldest, and his partner Harriet came to us for advice on taking our grandsons on the snow. Leo, the oldest, is four and a half, the perfect age to begin. Arthur is only two and a half, much too young to ski…we thought, but as it turned out, we couldn’t have been more wrong.

Taking the older generation along can be a smart move for parents. A couple of extra pairs of hands is always a help. But where and how to begin? Back in the day, we had some really awful experiences with resort kindergartens. The ESF, the main French ski school, had a harsh view on childcare that contrasted with that of British parents. When we complained about their uncaring attitude, one teacher told us, ‘Your child is not here to have fun. He’s here to learn to ski.’ The early morning sight on day two of the week, of unhappy parents trying to persuade, cajole their crying children into kindergarten scarred me.

Peter But that was then. Fortunately, the ESF has long since moved into the 21st century. However, you still need expert help with travel and childcare. We turned to specialist chalet operator Ski Famille, which has been providing a sophisticated nanny service in their chalets in France since 1990. Sadly, Brexit, followed by the pandemic, has killed off most of its once thriving competitors in this sector of the travel market. Latest to fall is Esprit Ski, the largest of them all. But that’s not operating this coming winter.

Ski Famille

Instructor transporting the kids’ skis © F.Hardy

Peter We went to Ski Family’s new four-star chalet-hotel in Les Bruyères, a satellite village of Les Menuires in the giant 3Valleys ski area of France. The charter flight from Gatwick is really early, not much fun with small children and loads of luggage, but we stayed the night before in a hotel actually in the terminal, which took much of the hassle out of it.

Not that the children seemed to mind at all, but it’s a three-hour coach journey on arrival in France. However, I have to say that the pre-dawn start did mean that we had plenty of time to rent skis and boots on arrival. So after breakfast on the first morning, we were ready to go.

Felice The other thing is when I learnt to ski myself, I was always cold. Clothing wasn’t very good and that has got better and better, although some parents still think that even though they are warm themselves, their children should have mini versions, but in thinner fabrics. We don’t agree with that at all.

Ski Famille

The Hardy family dressed in Helly Hansen. Photo: © Ski Famille

Peter Yes, it’s absolutely amazing when you stand on in the lift queue and you look at the parents magnificently dressed in designer clothing and just a few minutes earlier, you’ve seen them drop their children practically half naked in ski school.

Felice So we were thrilled when Helly Hansen said they’d sponsor us for this trip. And they gave us all ski clothing, and our grandchildren had the amazing Helly Hansen thermals, which we love, and really smart ski outfits, and also gloves.

Peter So Felice tell us about the hotel, the Hotel Cocon des Neige.

Felice It was really comfortable in the past. We’ve stayed in family accommodation with our own children and it used to be pretty basic. Not much space. This time it was amazing. We had a whole suite for our family. So downstairs was a bedroom with en suite bathroom and a nice sitting room opening out onto a balcony, which had a hot tub and a sauna. Now not every suite had a sauna, but they all had hot tubs.

Peter Yes, they were all pretty amazing. In fact the hotel is divided into suites, isn’t it? There’s no individual rooms.

Felice Upstairs from our bedroom and bathroom were two more bedrooms and bathrooms. It was really spacious, like a little chalet within a chalet.

Peter And the position of the hotel was fantastic, wasn’t it?

Felice Right on the piste, literally. You could step outside the door and put your skis on and all the lifts were there. And best of all, the nursery slope was outside the door as well. So if children wanted to come in to go to the loo or whatever, or they’d had enough or didn’t feel well, or whatever the reason, it was just the hotel door was just there next to the nursery slope.

Peter And the main access gondola was quite literally one snowball’s throw away.

Felice So all in all, it’s probably the best family accommodation I’ve ever seen. And we’ve been through it with three children of our own and we have tried all sorts. Obviously the USA is fantastic, but this was the nearest equivalent.

Peter And the number of nannies was extraordinary wasn’t it?

Ski Famille

Les Bruyeres from the hotel door © F.Hardy

Felice Yes, 13 nannies, so never short of staff. There’s always someone to make sure your child is ok. And you feel pretty confident leaving them in their hands.

Peter Yes. I think the whole essential problem with taking small children skiing is that…and that’s often very difficult, you can end up just being the carer for them and you have this expense of the whole ski holiday, but you’re not really getting enough benefit from it.

Felice No, the only way to do it before this, before a good family operator, was to take your own nanny. But that’s really expensive. And then, of course, while you’re there, the nanny has to have time off. They’ll probably want to go skiing themselves.

Peter Yes, it’s kind of self-defeating.

Peter Lucy, you are the manager of the hotel in Les Bruyères. Tell us about the hotel.

Lucy First of all, we have 18 suites and each suite has multiple rooms. And every suite has a hot tub. And there’s two saunas in the hotel. It’s been a really exciting new adventure for Ski Famille. And we have a restaurant as well, which is called La Boulle, which is our pizza shack.

Peter And that is open to the public for lunch each day?

Lucy Yes, yes, it’s open to the public for lunch each day. For lunch we do pizzas, paninis and waffles.

Peter Oh, that sounds good. And then in the afternoon that becomes the children’s tea area?

Lucy So in the afternoon we have kids high tea in there from 5.15 onwards. And yes, it’s a lovely environment to have attached to the hotel.

Peter So you must see from the first day when these people arrive, slightly fraught families who’ve got up very early and lots of crying children, and then gradually they all bond, don’t they?

Ski Famille

Leo and the snowman. Photo: © Max Hardy

Lucy Yes. It’s really lovely to see them all come in and they all start to socialise. And then the kids make friends with all the other kids in the hotel, and all the parents start to mingle as well. And towards the end of the week everyone starts to merge tables and they start socialising with other families.

Peter And you find there are a few grandparents like us who come along as well, probably paying the bill.

Lucy Yes, yes, quite often. But again, it’s great for grandparents as well and we sell a lot of older lift passes, and if they choose to do pedestrian lift passes, I quite often catch them having a cup of tea and reading a book in the sunshine on the balcony and things like that, which is really nice to see.

Felice Which resorts were you in before?

Lucy So on my first season I was in Reberty and then in my second season I started off in Les Gets and then got moved to Bruyères as a resort manager.

Felice So we have better snow here than Les Gets.

Lucy Much better, much better snow here. Much higher, much better snow.

Peter Yes. I think as a result of that, you know, the world is changing. You are finding that it’s busier here in all season than it would be before, because some of the resorts have really had a very poor season indeed. So people come up to altitude. Here you have snow right outside the door. We often write about somewhere that’s doorstep skiing. This is quite literally doorstep skiing.

Lucy So we’re right on the piece here. I have to say that higher altitude resorts are definitely the way to go for going forward. And we now have more higher resorts in the company.

Peter So the secret to success is for the children to be well looked after, and for the parents to be free to go off and have a full day skiing if they want, because they can come back earlier, can’t they?

Lucy Yes, we offer wraparound childcare right from the morning through to night time, so the parents can go out all day skiing. Um, and then they can have dinner and the kids are fed with childcare, or you can just pick for the morning childcare or the evening childcare. We’re very flexible with what we can offer.

Peter After a lifetime of skiing and having three children ourselves, one of whom is here as a parent, we do realise that it’s crucially important that you have real childcare on tap. I mean, you really need some help as a parent, don’t you?

Lucy Yes, the parents have absolutely loved the childcare. The childcare team are absolutely exceptional and it really makes the holiday. And it means that they have the flexibility where they can ski with the kids or they don’t need to. But I found that skiing with kids is much harder, as they can only do the smaller slopes, so it allows the parents to go off and do whatever they want throughout the day.

Peter And do you get beginner parents, beginner skier parents as well? I mean, it’s hard enough after a lifetime of skiing to do with small children, but if you were a complete beginner, that makes it a lot more difficult doesn’t it?

Ski Famille

Peter and Arthur outside the hotel © F.Hardy

Lucy Yes we do. We have a lot of beginner ski parents here, and it’s good. Les Menuires is very good for beginner slopes. And we have a beginner ski slope right next to the hotel, which is really good. Then we also have a hot tub to soothe those aching muscles for new beginners.

Felice And the other chalets in the resorts you mentioned, are they just single chalets, so one family would stay in them? And is there childcare as well?

Lucy So with Ski Famille, we offer childcare throughout all of the chalets. In the other resorts the chalets can sleep multiple families or some chalets and smaller and they just sleep one family. So there’s quite a mix of sizes.

Peter But here you have 13 nannies on hand to look after the guests, which is a pretty high percentage, isn’t it?

Lucy Yes, we have a lot of nannies here, and they’re all very fun and, energetic people.

Peter So how many small children? I mean, now we’re in school time, so it’s pre-school children largely, some children seem a bit big for preschool, but that’s something for them to sort out with their teachers. But how many children have you got this week?

Lucy This week I believe that we have 20, about 23 and about two or three infants. But some weeks we can have around 30 children here.

Felice And what’s the oldest age group you normally get?

Lucy We have all ages here. We’ve had teenagers and lower. It doesn’t seem to really affect whether it’s term time or not, which is quite interesting.

Peter Wow. That’s really good isn’t it.

Ski Famille

Cocon des Neiges. Photo: © Ski Famille

Lucy And then in the afternoon there are lots of activities. They can go sledging and they can go off into town and they go to soft play. They can go up in the gondolas and they go off for hot chocolates. They do all sorts. It’s really quite entertaining.

Felice So they’re never bored and they love it.

Peter Lucy, thank you very much indeed.

Lucy Thank you.

Peter At the end of the day, the verdict on the trip, travel, accommodation and most importantly, childcare both on and off the slopes must lie with the parents. So, Max, what’s the holiday like overall?

Max It was amazing. I’ve been passionate about skiing my whole life, as you well know. I’ve had some amazing experiences skiing all around the world, and so I think it’s been the longest time since I could walk that I’ve been off skis. I’ve actually…since our eldest, Leo, who is coming up for five years old…I haven’t skied since he was born. So I was a little bit worried, firstly that I might not remember how, but secondly that the nature of going skiing and being on a holiday with the stresses of parenthood might take something away from the experience. But that just hasn’t been the case. It’s been a completely different type of experience. In so many ways a more fulfilling one. And that’s been made a lot easier by the childcare that’s provided.

Peter Tell us about the childcare. How does it work at the Cocon des Neige, Harriet?

Harriet Childcare is available from about 8.40 in the morning, and the nannies will help or get your children ready into their ski gear. And they will then take them to their ski lesson, which is right next to the hotel. And if you like, you can leave your children in with the nannies while you ski all day really, up until 6pm.

So what we really enjoyed was the flexibility to have some time to ski or have lunch on the mountain. But then we could come back and take the children for an outing in the afternoon, or we could choose to do something and go to the spa or go somewhere else and pick them up once they’ve finished their tea at 6pm.

They then have a great option called Pyjama Club that runs from 7pm till 10pm, and that’s really a very relaxed environment. The children do some playing or drawing and then often they’ll lay out little beds for them and you’ll come back from dinner and they’ll all be cosy and tucked up in beds watching a movie. It’s really nice to have the flexibility to choose whether you want to put them in all day, or whether you just want to put them in for a morning session, or the afternoon.

Ski Famille

Photo: © Max Hardy

Peter The kids eat in a separate restaurant?

Max They ate breakfast with us, of course. And then lunch times they eat one of the restaurant rooms at the hotel, with the other kids also in ski class. And then there was an option for them to have dinner with us, perhaps if they perhaps if they were a little bit older. But there’s a kids’ tea that was really good, every evening actually. So that worked really nicely. And so we were able to sit with the kids during tea and spend that time with them, probably with a cup of tea in our hands, and then have dinner ourselves later. And the food was excellent.

Harriet Yes, the food was very appropriate for the children. Things like sausages and mash or tomato pasta. So really nutritious. But also, we have two quite big eaters and they both absolutely loved the food and ate lots of it. So, a big thumbs up for the food.

Peter So would you use a tour operator with child care again?

Max It’s hard to conceive of an alternative, at least whilst they’re a handful, which they are when they’re younger, with a ski class to get to and so on. So yes, I mean, I dare say we went with you guys as, as grandparents and of course that’s great to have extra help with grandparents, but it would have put a very different spin on the holiday if we just tried to do it without the additional childcare support. It probably would have detracted from all of our experiences. So no, I think it’s an absolute must really to go with a tour operator that has childcare built into the holiday itself.

Harriet I think it means everyone has a lovely holiday, if you have the extra help and support.

Felice Otherwise you’ll find that one person won’t be able to ski because they have to be on hand to collect them from ski school, take them for lunch. So it really, especially if you’re in a big ski area like the 3 Valleys, it’s quite difficult to get back in time to pick them up from ski school.

Peter Yes, getting them ready for ski school in the morning and getting them perhaps a bus ride away to the ski school. And then you’ve got to go skiing yourself. So you go back and get your own clobber, then get up the lift. By the time you get up the lift, it’s almost time to go down again and pick them up.

Max And actually what I noticed with the Ski Famille ESF classes, is that one of the nannies or the staff would stay attached to each of the nursery slope groups. So yes, they go and take the kids over to the nursery slope to meet up with their instructor, but then they actually stay around. There’s a continuous member of staff with them all day that isn’t a local ESF instructor, or just only in local ESF instructor, which I think is quite reassuring when you’re a young, young child.

I certainly remember some experiences when I was of similar age and that being different languages, language barriers, cultural barriers, which are aided by having an English nanny there if you’re a British child.

Ski Famille

Photo: © F.Hardy

Peter So to sum up a good holiday…

Harriet We had a really fantastic holiday. It was one of the best family holidays I think we’ve had, for sure.

Max I completely agree. Really, really, really fantastic.

Felice And do you think the children enjoyed it as much as we did?

Harriet Yes, Leo asked if we could stay here forever.

Max He did. We’re thinking about it.

Peter I think that says it all.

Felice When we got home, we caught up with Ian Hope, MD, of Ski Family. Ian, your operation in Bruyères is really wonderful. We couldn’t fault it at all. In the past, when we were bringing up our own kids and taking them to the Alps, we had some really bad childcare experiences.

In Meribel, for instance, our eldest son Max was found by my stepdaughter walking along the high street. The tour operator’s nanny service had failed to really work properly and they’d forgotten about him. They hadn’t picked him up from ski school. It was just luck that someone who knew him was walking along and found him.

And then in Wengen, our next son down, Barney, was at the children’s ski school, and we found him as we were skiing down the mountain. We skied through or round the edge of the nursery slope, and there he was on his own.

Peter And they just sort of abandoned him, hadn’t they?

Felice So what’s good about yours is that there are plenty of nannies and accompanying the ski school as well, so that nothing like that could ever happen again.

Ian I think things like that do happen, but it’s incredibly rare these days anyway. I mean, with so much hype around safeguarding and making sure everybody’s safe, but the ski school we work with there are just fantastic.

Peter I mean, ESF has come on leaps and bounds.

Ian In that resort anyway.

Peter So, in a very changing market, explain to me about the childcare operators because they seem to have disappeared during Covid.

Ian Yes, I mean it’s been incredibly challenging for everybody. And you’ve got to you’ve got to remember that Covid’s come on the back of Brexit. And we already had amazing challenges thrown at us just for getting the staff out. And when it comes to the family market, of course, you want…or British families ideally require British nannies, to make them feel more comfortable and be able to understand the children and such like.

And with the extra red tape that was thrown at us because of Brexit, it has made things a lot harder. I mean, finally we’ve managed to get our head around what needs to happen, what you need to do, to get around it. But a lot of people have just given up.

Ski Famille

Max and Leo tobogganing. Photo: © F.Hardy

Peter I noticed you had some. You had an Irish nanny or two, I think, which of course is useful. But is it really difficult now to get a visa for a British nanny to work in France this season?

Ian I wouldn’t say it’s difficult. It’s just painful, because you have to advertise in the local job centres and give the French the opportunity to apply themselves, and then you’ve got to interview them if there are any applications. And that has to stay for a certain amount of time. And then you’re allowed to apply for a work permit. And once you’ve got a work permit, then you’re allowed to apply for the visa.

And they have to go to the embassy, to the agency that works for the embassy, to get their passport stamped. So it’s really laborious and expensive. These things aren’t for free. Brexit was a big pain in the bum. And then when Covid came along, I mean obviously the tourism trade took a massive hit and we managed to steer the company through reasonably successfully and have come out the other side. But not everybody did.

Peter And indeed others are going now, and we’re seeing Esprit in its final weeks right now.

Ian For me that’s a big shock. I used to work there. It’s a company I know really well. And in its day, Esprit was the market leader and they’ve got some superb guests. So I was really surprised that they’ve decided to pull out.

Peter Well, you’re being very modest because you’re the person who actually built up Esprit from really, I think quite a small number of guests, like 8,000 or something. And you built it up to quite a big figure.

Ian Esprit were probably carrying close to 20,000 at peak. I spent 17 years there building the product together with Ski Total. But look, whatever’s happened there has happened. And I know they’ve blamed it on the cost of living and various other difficulties, but you guys have just been to one of our properties and have seen how it works. And it is absolutely possible to run a great operation for people who want that product.

Felice How many people now travel with Ski Famille?

Ian We are close to 5,000 per season, and that’s just part of the operation because we have Ski Vertigo as well. Catered chalets without the childcare, I mean we do get families that go with us whose children can ski, or they want to ski with their parents or whatever. But no, on the Ski Famille side, yes  it’s been growing. I mean, look, I’ve been here five years. This week it is since I’ve been at Ski Famille.

My first season, I didn’t even manage to do a full season because the 15th of March, that was it. The season stopped. Then we had no season, and then since we came back, we had a shortened season again because we weren’t able to start till the 15th of January. But since then we have actually been growing and adding chalets. It has been selling really well and there’s a demand for it before Esprit’s demise. But I guess your next question is going to be, what are we going to do in response to it?

Ski Famille

The nearest lift. Photo: © Ski Famille

Peter That’s absolutely correct.

Ian We’re having a good long look at what is possible. And my understanding is they’re keeping most of their properties in order to, to run under Inghams. And I guess that’s a contractual issue rather than them actually wanting to continue. So there isn’t much there that we can take over. So yes, we’ve had to go out and have a look at what’s out there and see if we can bring something else in the fold. These things take time. I am working on it and hopefully we’ll conclude something that can be launched before too long.

Peter How many chalets have you got?

Ian On the Ski Famille portfolio we have…so we’ve got the one chalet-hotel in Bruyères in the 3 Valleys. And then I think we’re at 14. So we’ve got Les Gets, La Plagne, Reberty 2000, four chalets in Bruyères, near where the chalet-hotel is.

Peter I noticed you’re aiming high. The world is changing. And future investment. It has to be high, doesn’t it?

Ian Yes, it does these days. You know, it doesn’t really matter whether there’s whether the snow suddenly got good or not. If the season has started and it’s been a difficult start to the season, that reputation remains throughout, because people only write about the problems, don’t they?

Ian You don’t suddenly get an article that says there’s too much snow. And you never get ‘Conditions are fantastic.’ It’s only it’s only the bad stuff. Look, we have to we have to respond to that. I mean, the extremes, it looks like the extremes are getting more extreme, but there are periods. I mean, I was up in Tignes two weeks, well, ten days ago, and the conditions were just absolutely fantastic. Tignes-Val d’Isere gets that microclimate doesn’t it?

Ski Famille

Arthur tobogganing. Photo: © Max Hardy

Peter And they had an extra meter of snow last week, you know.

Ian It’s just unbelievable the conditions there.

Peter But someone like Les Gets is having another pretty poor winter again.

Ian That first week of the season that we operated put on the transport to take people up to Avoriaz, and it actually worked very well indeed throughout the season. I mean, they have had some rain, but on the whole they have managed to ski all season in Les Gets. It is such a different a different kettle of fish. It’s such a beautiful village and it’s so easy to push children around in a pushchair. It’s so easy to go shopping and have a look at the shops and there’s some great bars. It’s a completely different resort isn’t it, Les Gets? It’s not your standard 1960s-built, purpose-built ski resort.

Peter But you do want…I think if I’m going on holiday with small children, I want snow at resort level. I mean, the beauty of the Cocon des Neige was that you open the door and you are literally on the snow. And a snowball’s throw from the ESF kindergarten, and about the same snowball throw onto a gondola that gives you main mountain access, so you can’t complain.

Felice I meant to ask you, what age of children do you take in the Cocon des Neige? What age of children normally come? We were obviously there on a pre-school week.

Ian Yes, well we’ll take babies from four months old. We specialise in children, babies from four months up until 12 years in the Cocon des Neiges. And they’ll go in our baby and toddler room and where they’ll be looked after by qualified nannies. And then we’ve got a separate room in the Cocon des Neige  for the older children, where they play games and maybe watch films, and that’s got access to the piste as you know.

We actually have the two rooms in the Cocon des Neige, whereas in the chalet we tend to have just the one, but it seems to work really well, and we put a lot of investment into that hotel last summer and autumn, we spent the best part of, together with the owner, the best part of £1 million between us redoing the public areas and the child care rooms.

And it’s so nice to be able to take a property and do it to your own specification, because you know it’s going to work. And that’s what we did there.

The other thing about the Cocon des Neige, of course, I don’t know if you took advantage of it, but probably 70m down the road there’s the swimming-pool in La Bulle centre. I think a lot of the mums appreciate it when they come back and maybe are not so skiing so much. And you’ve also got that toboggan ride haven’t you?

Felice We didn’t do that. We thought it was a bit scary for our grandchildren. They’re a bit young.

Ski Famille

Hotel Cocon des Neiges is right on the piste. Photo: © Ski Famille

Peter Arthur was two and a half. We didn’t expect him to go skiing at two and a half. But he wanted to go and he went, and he skied down a blue run with the teacher at the end.

Ian Fantastic. For those skiing lessons anyway. I mean, one thing that we’ve decided to do, because usually on the chalet program, when you book the ski school for the children, they we book them into the normal group lessons.

What we decided to do in the hotel was to actually hire the instructor, and we’ve set our own limits on the group size. So it’s a maximum of eight children, so obviously the children get a lot more attention and then progress quicker. It costs a little bit more, but I think it’s probably worth it. And the feedback we’ve had from the hotel this year has just been superb. Really, for a first year, I couldn’t be happier.

Felice If you want to know more about Ski Famille, go to – for further information on its sister company, Ski Vertigo, which does not provide childcare, go to

Peter A final word of warning: if you are planning on a holiday with small children for the coming season, and you want inclusive childcare from a specialist chalet operator, don’t delay in booking – particularly for the key high season holiday dates….they’re are already getting booked out. And if you want to buy warm, cool clothing for yourself and for the children, check out

Felice That’s all for now. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please share this episode with at least one other person! Do also subscribe on Spotify, i-Tunes or any of the many podcast providers – where you can give us a rating. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or any of the many podcast platforms. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We’d love you to sign up for our regular emails to [email protected]. By the way, we’re no 7 in the Top 20 Midlife Travel Podcasts.

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