Best Last Minute Ski Deals • Family Ski Holiday Mark Warner Part One
I wanted to entitle this first post “Can your marriage survive a mountain?!” but I thought that wouldn’t be very fair. This is like the start of film where they give away the ending right at the beginning in the title and then the rest of the film is a flashback.
For those of you who know me well, you will remember how much I loved my last two ski holidays. When I say loved, I mean dreaded every single morning, walking around in the most uncomfortable boots, feeling lonely at ski school, feeling guilty at how ungrateful I was resenting this wonderful winter holiday and finding my husband on a new level of irritating and infuriating when he tried to teach me to snowboard. To say it was disastrous would be an understatement!
I remember taking hardly any photos. (A classic sign that I wasn’t enjoying myself, not lost in the moment I am enjoying it too much to get the camera out, in a I don’t want a memento of the tantrums and tears sort of way!) My last family ski holiday was with Rich’s family and if we ever went again I really wanted to like it, prove to myself there was more to holidays than getting a sun tan and feeling the sand between your toes.
So after 2 highly unsuccessful attempts to master a love of the slopes, my in laws almost fell off their seats when they heard we were heading to Méribel just before Christmas for a week’s ski holiday with Mark Warner, I had high hopes for a new love of skiing. We have raved about the Mark Warner magic ever since our week in Kos last summer, which I still have lots more to share about as we come up to summer holiday booking time. Not least because we’ve had the pleasure of representing them as a family ambassador this past year, but because we flew home from Greece, after our first taste of a family holiday resort, absolutely certain we had found the perfect package.
I knew a ski holiday would be different, there’s no doubt about it, it isn’t a relaxing by the pool kind of experience but I wanted to see if this sun worshipper could be convinced that skiing was part of our future as a family. Rich has snowboarded since he was around 7 and can whip past my trembling legs at break neck speed. In the past that had been the problem, our skills on the snow were poles apart and I felt like I was holding him back and he felt I was a terrible listener and learner. He wasn’t wrong, I suppose it felt a little like your other half teaching you to drive… a recipe for disaster in my book! I can vividly remember watching scores of skiers overhead, bobbing along in the chair lift as I wailed at the top of my voice, wet salopets in the snow, threatening to leave him if we ever made it to the bottom of the mountain.
But this holiday was different.
He’s been desperate to take the boys skiing, for them to have that early experience of the thrill of conquering your fears (which turned out for Ollie were almost non existent at 4 years old) and for them to feel and adore the sense of satisfaction and freedom you get gliding down the piste.
The major bonus of staying at the Chalet hotel Tarentaise is the ski-in ski-out option in the heart of the Three Valleys. One of my woes was lugging skis and boots and being able to hop on your skis and literally ski straight out of the hotel's back door was a revelation. A revelation that took me almost all week to take advantage of much to Rich's dismay!
The boys were taken down to meet their instructor, a beautiful young Italian with golden hair and super funky sunglasses who they instantly adored, in the Mark Warner mini bus, whilst Rich bombed straight out of the hotel and I painfully walked huffing and puffing to the bubble lift about 10 minutes down the mountain road. My nerves had got the better of me at the start of the week but by the end we all skied out together! 2 members of Mark Warner staff would help load the boys into the mini bus parked conveniently at the front of the hotel outside the boot room door, and never once were frustrated at us being 10 minutes or so late. It is a challenge getting 2 small boys ready by 8.40am, there's no doubt about it. You can't help but want to eat everything on offer at breakfast. Imagine a more intimate all inclusive buffet with views of a snowy mountain as you eat and the sound of shoo shoo as hotel guests in thick socks, slippers and waterproof shiny ski trousers pottered up and back to the tea and coffee station.
We started most days with the cooked to order french toast, bacon and syrup. A few extras from the hot buffet (hooray for nice sausages abroad not slimy frankfurters) and the boys would tuck into a bowl of English child friendly cereals all washed down with glasses of fruit juice. It was a race once finished, to hare back to the room, quickly brush their teeth and visit the bathroom (I knew they would have toilet breaks but the over anxious mother in me wanted to make sure they'd been before we left - the ski clothes alone are so bulky mine would easily hold on longer than they should because of being to lazy to wrestle with 3 layers in an unfamiliar mountain toilet.)
Getting ready promptly was especially tricky when you have boys who prefer to lie down on the floor of the boot room to have their equipment fitted like Princes. In amongst everyone else trying to get out of the door! The boot room is tucked next to the spa, there are rows of wooden lockers where you store your equipment overnight and a heated rack for your boots. This was new to me and perhaps why my boots had been the bane of my life on the last ski holiday. You want to keep your boots warm overnight! It helps to keep them supple so you wince a little less putting them on and off each day. The boot room door is locked with a key code so everyone piled in and out at different times of the day and we left our lockers unlocked all week.
Luckily for us they were the only 2 out of the 4 young children that week having Mark Warner organised ski lessons with Magic in Motion. The other family (who we loved and became good friends with by the end of the holiday) had a 3 year old in their party so arranged their own lessons with a ski school that were happy to take a younger child on the slopes. It was great to meet them as this was their 3rd visit to the hotel with Mark Warner and the four of our children got on like a house on fire. To the point that they all asked to stay in childcare for the afternoon when we went to pick them up early!
You head to the outdoor terrace of the hotel to a green run which takes you to the bottom of the village of Méribel Mottaret, a quaint little village with a few good restaurants, bars and a handful of nice, not too touristy shops and a small supermarket.
At the bottom are two lifts which give you access to a breath taking network of over 600km of pistes, known as the Three Valleys. For our family this was perfect. A generous number of gentle greens for the boys and I to master during ski school and a vast assortment of blues, reds and blacks for Rich to blast through. In any one day you could ski from the hotel lounge doors to the highest peak in Europe in Val Thorens, to the glamour of Courchevel and back to the buzz of Méribel itself, dominated by scores of outdoor tables at the pizzerias and a pretty stepped high street, lined with boutiques, creperies and grocery stores.
It's picture perfect, lines of skis propped against wooden stands, glasses of wine and beer and steam rising wildly into the crisp air, from coffee cups on bistro tables. Opposite one of the larger cafe/restaurants is a ski school "garden" area. This is where the children normally learn on a magic carpet, a travelator that takes them up a gentle slope that they then ski down. There are fun hoops to ski through, cones to practise your turns around but because our holiday was at the very start of the season, the snowfall hadn't been sufficient to blanket the area in enough powder. It meant the magic carpet was out of action which initially I thought was a shame, given all the lovely photos I had seen online of other people's children learning with all the brightly coloured flags and blow up inflatables to dodge, but actually in hindsight it was a blessing.
It meant that they headed straight up the mountain, got to grips with walking through the turnstiles at the bubble lift (where you stand in pods) and by day 3 were happy getting on and off the chair lift where you physically have to sit on and ski off.
There was just 3 in their group and their instructor completely won them over, carrying their skis in her backpack, stopping for a drink and a snack every half an hour or so and finishing the lesson with a choice of her pocket full of chewy sweets. There's too much to say about the ski school, including my own experience of my lessons for this post, but I couldn't have been more impressed with her attitude and warmth to our boys. She'd thought about bringing them a drink of water, didn't stop engaging them in conversation, and I was so happy to spend an hour or so with them a couple of times being a fly on the wall.
It made my heart race a little, giving charge of our most precious boys over to a stranger. But we couldn't praise the Magic team more.
By day 2, or rather morning 2, we had two skiers! One who seemed destined for speed and one for stamina.
I spent 3 mornings in ski school with a feisty French ski instructor Mu-Mu after a four hour first lesson with a larger group on the Monday morning. It helps to be fit as a fiddle on a ski holiday and in the peak of physical fitness I am not, but remarkably to me, I held my own and by the end of the lesson there were 3 clear ability groups despite us all being very much beginners.
I immediately bonded with a lovely mummy from Surrey, whose husband was flying almost as soon as he put his skis on. She and I became firm friends over the week and in some ways I look back and think the whole holiday wouldn't have been as good if I hadn't had met her and her family.
We spurred each other on, with Mu-Mu laughing at us reapplying our lipgloss and passing across mints on the chair lift. We both had built up this perception of the perfect skiing holiday - everything from the excitement of new hats and accessories to the hot chocolates and log fires. Some runs I would follow the instructor and others she would take the lead and each time we had a wobble, and felt a tear coming on out of sheer frustration or falling over, we'd give each other a boost of confidence and head off again.
I didn't think you could have this sort of camaraderie in ski school with people you hadn't met. In fact that's one of my miserable memories of my earlier attempts to embrace a winter sports holiday, feeling so alone in a group of different nationalities, but this was totally different. We were joined later in the week by another Mark Warner guest and I can honestly say by the end of the week we were strutting around like proud peacocks, skis over our shoulders, so pleased with ourselves for practising runs after the instructor had finished the lesson and waved us goodbye.
There are so many moments that make you take a breath and realise why a skiing holiday is so special. There were times when I actually said out loud, I totally get it now, like I'd had a wave of magic fairy dust sprinkled over me, that washes away any tearful moments of panic on an icy slope or the feeling of your feet pulsating as you heave your aching feet out of your boots at the end of the day.
Rich and I got to spend every lunchtime together, just the two of us as the boys were picked up by Mark Warner mini bus staff and taken back to join their new pals for lunch. We had a chance to ski together, take a minute to admire the stunning views, not talk on the chair lift (which may sound odd), but just take in the calmness and serenity of the resort.
In mid December it feels like you are in a exclusive resort. The slopes weren't crowded, every other bubble lift was empty. As the sun came shining through a gap in the frosty trees it made you say wow. We discovered La Folie Douce, a renowned après ski spot where magnums of Champagne are ten a penny. It is somewhere to breathe in the atmosphere, listen to the chinking wine glasses and the soulful and the hypnotic deep house music.
In my life I have been to one other restaurant that made the hairs on the back of my next stand up in excitement and this is another. I even FaceTimed my sister to show her it was actually real! We sat under glorious blue skies, ate a giant home made lasagne (Incidentally it was no more expensive than down in the town at approximately €16 a main course.) and had to pinch ourselves that we were watching para gliders overhead, sipping a glass of something lovely, then heading back down the mountain to meet the boys. These are the holidays where you get to be you again. It may sound like a terrible cliché but sometimes I forget the person I was before I had the privilege of being a mother. I call Rich Dada when there are no children around, usher him to the car like I am still on the school run and generally take over in a situation, like mother hen! So knowing the boys were deliriously happy getting every single toy and puzzle out in the Mini club, making tea parties with the two girls and making dens with the soft play cushions, we could relish the time we had without them.
Before we'd head out after breakfast we would choose from the children's menu left on the reception desk, and write on the clipboard their choices for the day so we knew what they would be eating. We'd peek at the chalkboard outside the mini club room to see what activities were planned for the afternoon and then trundle down to the boot room.
I've got too many photos to squeeze into this post and quite frankly the standard of child care you receive from a Mark Warner ski holiday deserves a post of it's own, but I wanted to share how flexible they were, how they made our boys feel like it was home from home.
Ours were spoilt in a way that there were only 4 children for the week. And we joked over dinner with the girl's parents (I defy anyone not to find new friends on a Mark Warner holiday!) about how inseparable they were. One of the nanny's even thought they were friends from home, because she couldn't believe how close they were having only met that week.
We would head into high tea together, and as the other guests tucked into a sumptuous afternoon tea, imagine a row of your Granny's best loved cakes and biscuits, plus your favourite hot soup and crusty bread that makes the perfect crackle when you cut it, we'd sit with a cup of tea or something a little stronger as they tucked into pasta and broccoli or fish pie and carrots, buzzing about their day.
By not being with them all day we were really excited to see them! We'd had our time, they'd had their time with their friends, making snow dens with plastic animals, having a hot chocolate date and we all then wanted to listen to each other. This is the magic. A restaurant with lots of talking and no iPads. You save them for the time when you are showering for the evening, before they happily head off to movie club and snuggle down in their camp beds before you pick them up and carry them to bed. And it's why people who we chatted to around the log fire in the lounge, book over and over again. It gives everyone a holiday.
I have a few facts and figures posts to share, so you know what you get and what to expect from a Mark Warner winter holiday, but I hope this gives you a flavour. It's everything that makes the award winning formula. Not just the incredible à la carte style menu, bottomless bottles of wine at dinner, bookcases bursting with familiar books and best loved games, nanny's who happily have their faces painted as tigers week on week and never let on they'd rather not be orange. It's not just the homely atmosphere of a chalet hotel, where you don't have to worry about the children running around, bombing into each other's rooms to watch tv together, exhausted after a day on skis, where you can wander down for breakfast in your socks and no one bats an eyelid. It's everything. Maybe we just got lucky. But I don't think so.
There was a moment when all four of us were skiing together, I thought I was going to burst with pride. And I got it, the feeling that makes you love a skiing holiday, that wraps around your heart and makes you want to go again.
Would we book to go next year? Well Rich actually said on the aeroplane on the way home the ideal year would be a Mark Warner sun, a Mark Warner ski and a week down at our family flat in Southbourne at the beach hut! And all I could think of was absolutely! To see our boys at such a young age take to skiing like they were born to do it was amazing. I didn't think as a grown up, that I would be struggling to keep up with Ollie haring down a slippery slope.
Mark Warner made everything easy. Of course the boys played up a few times, we lived in a room with socks everywhere, over bought on hand warmers that never got used and wished we'd bought mittens instead of fiddly gloves, but these are all things I am going to pass on. We may have had one tearful "I can't do it moment" when Rich tried to take me down a steep blue after my first lesson but I didn't want to divorce him this time.
I want to pass on our experience of the child care, the resort, the food, the instructors to the next family who heads off for their first family skiing holiday or seasoned skiers looking for something different.
So if you are even remotely tempted this half term head to the Mark Warner website and see what great last minute deals they have on offer!
We travelled with Mark Warner to the Chalet Hotel Tarantaise as guests of Mark Warner. We paid for a Three Valleys lift pass and enjoyed complementary ski school with Magic In Motion.