Star Wars skis. Brilliant. I wish I’d had those when I was trying to lure my little Star Wars fan onto the slopes. You’d feel invincible strapped to Darth Vader and Stormtroopers.
Every parent learns that teaching children something new (from fastening shoes to brushing teeth) is a little easier if the new thing is emblazoned with a beloved character. The 440 pairs of skis lined up in the children’s rental room at Club Med’s new resort in the middle of the French Alps shows they’ve already got that figured out. It’s the first of many hints that Grand Massif Samoëns Morillon, Club Med’s new 420-room resort, is intent on smoothing out the bumps of a family ski holiday.
A vacation here is a game changer for most Canadians: The all-inclusive ski resort (one price for a week of lessons, guides, meals, drinks, child care and entertainment) doesn’t really exist in Canada. At least not until Club Med opens its recently announced resort in Charlevoix, Que., in 2020. Some heli-ski operators give it a try with week-long trips into remote chalets, but they are not as amenity-driven or family focused. “For all you get for the price,” says Jennifer Brousseau, who specializes in selling ski holidays at Montreal travel agency Sportvac, “they offer the best value.”
Views to knock your ski socks off
You’re in France – France! – to ski. Your friends are already envious, so don’t fall asleep on the hour-long drive from Geneva airport. The final approach wends its way through an evergreen forest, passing old stone churches and rough barns, and shaving by alpine chalets perched on the slope. It’s hard to take your eyes off this Brothers Grimm scenery. I keep expecting a troll to step out and block our passage until we answer three riddles. Daydreaming out the window, I find, is less nerve-racking than watching our driver cut blind corners up this long and winding road. Eventually, we pass into a clearing – and the newly built, $120-million (U.S.) resort appears above us, spread out over the Plateau des Saix and into the slope so that every room has a view. Before you even step inside the hotel you’ll note the ski in/ski out access to Grand Massif’s 300 kilometres of slopes and stare, gobsmacked, at the 360-degree views of the Alps.
If the kids are a bit wrangy from the travel, the enormous, light-filled lobby should offer some distraction – cathedral ceilings, furry pillows on sleek couches, even a few sleigh beds to stretch out on. Send them out to the patio in search of the soft “log” furniture to play, er, sit on and stare, again, at more mountain views. And the free hot chocolate starts now; one of the resort’s many espresso/hot-drink machines sits near the front desk.
Family rooms at this Club Med resort swing from basic – two bedrooms with a balcony and more than enough closet space – to larger, fancier family suites. All rooms are sleek, bright and functional (kids’ closets thoughtfully offer shorter clothing racks) but amenities vary: Hand lotion (a staple in even bargain-basement North American hotels) is, for some reason, only available in the higher-priced rooms.
If it’s too late in the day to start skiing, explore the high-design pool area with, naturally, more large windows to let in more mountain views. The unisex change room can work well for families – nixing that six-year-old-boy awkwardness when forced to use the women’s area with mom – but it will take some getting used to for those without kids. Smaller rooms with doors that lock make this a bit easier. Poolside “cabanas” are recessed into the wall to offer privacy, but they’re not as cool as the pillow-stacked tepee hideaways the kids get to hang out in. You’ll see an outdoor pool, too, surrounded by snow drifts that looks great in Instagram photos, but it’s not open for swimming in winter. And while you can hang outdoors in the tiny hot tub, it’s often full of other guests with the same idea.
A buffet for foodies (seriously)
The only thing that beats the view at Grand Massif is the food – and floor-to-ceiling windows in two restaurants mean guests can enjoy both at the same time. During my visit, freshly prepared stations in the buffet featured Marennes oysters, duroc pork, black Angus steak, fresh salmon and trout, beef carpaccio and, of course, foie gras. I counted at least seven types of fresh breads one morning and every meal offers a salt and pepper bar stacked with different grinders of flavour. If your kid is not into fancy food, surely the daily hand-made burger and fries, jasmine rice pots, freshly made ravioli pastas and thin-crust pizzas will fill them up. In the more formal eatery on the hotel’s top floor, two-star Michelin chef Édouard Loubet guides the gastronomy. Reservations are required here, just as they are for the families-only restaurant in the kids’ club area. This is where your children will do the ordering and even some sous-chef prep; families dine a little less formally but, perhaps, have a lot more fun.
The kids are all right
But you really came to get the kids skiing, right? Since the resort takes your rental details before you arrive, your ski locker (the same number as your room) is already stocked with boots, poles and adjusted skis. The kids’ clubs/childcare start at four months of age and, for an extra fee, children as young as 3 can learn to ski with the resort’s ESF (École du ski français) instructors. Children aged 4 and up join the daily complimentary ski classes. The ski clubs extend to the age of 17, with a special après-ski hideaway for teens that includes an Xbox, foosball, a (wishful thinking) crop of board games and a darkened corner full of big pillows where they can whip out their phones and chill.
Parents can ski solo but really should take advantage of the ESF guides who work here to show them around the 265 kilometres of runs and 71 lifts, which connect to five villages. Private guides in Europe are an expense that can cost up to €400 ($600) a day. Beginner to expert groups in both English and French are sorted out on Day 1 and you can stick with them every day of your stay – making ski buddies at your own level is invaluable. No more being forced onto too-easy or too-wild runs just to keep up with your partner. Après-yoga and Pilates class – yes, they’re included too – help work out the kinks after a long ski day and make dancing at the nightclub all that much easier.
Get off the resort
One of the best reasons to come this far to ski is to revel in the Haute-Savoie culture, practise your French, eat real cheese and drink glorious wine (here, even the house wine is incredible). You can do most of this by just eating at the Club Med restaurants but you really should get off the resort at least once. Just outside the ski room door, a gondola heads down the mountain to the medieval village of Samoëns. (Watch for chamois nibbling on the bushes during the eight-minute ride.) At the bottom, there’s a shuttle you can catch into town, but why? It’s a lovely 15-minute stroll along a tree-lined route that lets you appreciate the majesty of the mountains. Samoëns is renowned historically for its stonemasons, artisans whose work is on display all over the village and which was once commissioned by Voltaire and Napoleon. The stone church in the central square is a must-see, with sections that date to the 13th century. Pick up local treats at the boulangeries and cheese shops, and if you need more snow gear, ski shops in all price ranges abound. But what you should really do is sit back in one of the bistros with a steaming mug of vin chaud. You deserve it: You’ve just brought your brood to the Alps to ski and experience a new culture: “#familygoals,” as my teenager would say.
A week of all-inclusive skiing at Club Med Grand Massif can start at $2,343 a person (double occupancy). If the resort books your return flights, expect to pay around $3,149 a person, double occupancy, and the airport transfers will be included, too. Ski and snowboarding equipment rental is not included in the price.
Got teenagers? Try Club Med Val Thorens, also in France. If they’re old enough to look after themselves (no kids clubs here), this resort offers a climbing wall for fun and a nightclub vibe. It’s the highest ski resort in the French Alps, so there’s always snow, but the resort town is more functional than pretty. For more details, visit clubmed.ca.
Club Med also opened a new resort in Japan in December. Skiers eager to sip the champagne powder of Hokkaido should look into Club Med Tomamu.