The school holidays were well underway, it was in the thick of the festive season. And mid-morning on a beautiful day, with a 30cm blanket of fresh snow carpeting the mountains, yet not a single person waited for the chairlift ahead of us.
“Why is it so quiet?” asked our puzzled daughter, Cara, 11, as the ride up revealed eerily empty slopes and our ears echoed with powder-muffled silence.
“Peisey is often quieter; it’ll be busy up top in Les Arcs,” I answered sagely. “It is Christmas week after all and they haven’t had early season snow this good in a decade.”
But, as we slid off the chairlift, our bafflement only grew. Instead of the packed pistes we’d been braced for, we were greeted with utterly deserted slopes and untouched corduroy. “Merry Christmas!” I grinned at my husband and three children and we all shot off whooping with disbelief and delight.
Yep, if you get as lucky with the conditions as we did, Christmas can be the perfect week to take the family to the slopes. Aside from resorts showing off at their glittering festive best, heading to the mountains during Christmas week means avoiding taking the kids out of school during term time, cheaper prices and (if you opt for a catered chalet or half-board hotel) someone else taking care of Christmas dinner. Now, it seemed, we could add quiet slopes to this enticing list.
It certainly wasn’t what we expected. When we decided to book our first family Christmas away from home, it had felt fraught with risks. Would there be snow? How would we find room for presents? Would Christmas with a chalet full of strangers be a bit weird? Would Christmas crowds result in stressful lift queues? And, most importantly, as my seven-year-old son anxiously asked: “How will Santa know we’re skiing, Mummy?”
One carefully worded letter to Lapland later, containing our address in the French Alps and a request to leave anything big or heavy at home for our return, and the smile was back on his face. Especially once his two older sisters pointed out that France is an hour ahead. “So he’ll come to us fiiiirst!” he yelled with glee.
There’s no denying that booking a Christmas holiday in a ski resort is a risk, but we did all we could to reduce it. First up, we looked for somewhere snow sure. Les Arcs, which links to La Plagne to create one of the world’s biggest ski areas, Paradiski, fitted the bill. We chose to stay at relatively risky Peisey (at just 1,600m) because of its prettier, family-orientated feel, which we hoped would be more Christmassy. Yet, with plenty of easily-accessed higher terrain, peaking at 3,226m on the Les Arcs side, we figured that even if our chalet was surrounded by green grass, there would surely be snow somewhere.
Next, we tackled the faff factor, a priority for any family snow-sports trip, but especially important during the stressful festive period. Family-focused Esprit (whose staff picked the kids up from our chalet and walked them to lessons while singing songs and playing games), seemed the obvious choice. Finally, there was the festive side of things to clear up. We plumped for a catered chalet (the appeal of which is huge for a frazzled mum of three over Christmas), a stone’s throw from both the Vanoise Express to La Plagne and a six-person chairlift up to Les Arcs.
If we were lucky with the snow, we’d be able to get back to within 50m of the chalet and someone else would worry about turkey timings, crackers and trimmings.Father Christmas, it was agreed, would deliver just the stockings to our Christmas address of Chalet Hermine in Peisey and leave everything else at home for us to open on our return on Boxing Day. After all, Christmas Day would be less about the presents and more about the mountains… I hoped.
Thankfully the snow gods were smiling on us and we arrived in Peisey to two metres of fresh snow. Not only that, but our first day dawned bright and sunny – a perfect bluebird day – a pattern that played out for the whole week. These were the best Christmas conditions in a decade.
Each morning, we packed our two youngest off to morning ski lessons, a remarkably relaxed experience thanks to Esprit’s snow rangers collecting them from our chalet, while my husband, our eldest daughter and I finished a leisurely breakfast. Then we hit the slopes – all three of us are snowboarders – ready to make the most of the powder. Having been braced for busy slopes, we were overjoyed to have our assumptions about Christmas holidays smashed. Run after empty run awaited us, along with acres of pristine powder just off piste. The delicious, tree-lined, cruisy reds and blues above Peisey are just made for building confidence and reviving rusty snowboarding skills. It wasn’t long before our usually cautious daughter was tempted into the off piste.
After collecting the younger two from ski lessons each day (enjoyed all the more for being in Esprit’s small, English-speaking groups), we lunched in quiet mountain restaurants or popped back to the chalet for rolls from the Sherpa shop. In the afternoons we hit the slopes en famille, a joyful, bonding experience made all the better for feeling like we had our very own Christmas playground. I’ve been snowboarding for more than 20 years – and skiing for 10 years before that – and, even in the more remote Canadian resorts, have rarely ridden such blissfully quiet slopes. We were getting spoilt.
Come Christmas Eve, the slopes filled up a little, injecting some festive atmosphere into the mountain air, but even in peak Christmas Day queues there were only ever two or three chairlifts of skiers ahead of us.
Off the mountain, choosing a family-friendly, traditional-feeling resort such as Peisey-Vallandry paid off as Christmas approached. On Christmas Eve, after après cake and tea in the chalet, we followed the local Santa, his helper and two real reindeer down to the small Christmas market in the centre of the village.
As we warmed up with mulled wine and roasted chestnuts, Père Noël dished out chocolates to the children and sprinkled around some Christmas magic. It felt all the more special with the crowds numbering tens, not hundreds, and on our walk back to the chalet, the kids were embarrassed but thrilled to be serenaded by a brass band duo singing ’Tis the Season to be Jolly. “Why did they do that just for us?” asked a flushed-with-pleasure Caitlin, our nine-year-old daughter. “Are we just lucky?”
Thanks to tired legs and fresh air-filled children, Christmas morning dawned a little later than it does at home. The kids appreciated and played with their stocking fillers all the more in the absence of any main presents and our three lovely chalet hosts had thoughtfully bought all the children gifts of their own and were brimming with excitement themselves. We spent a cosy morning in the chalet, enjoying the company of our hosts as they prepped Christmas dinner and watching our own kids play happily with the other guests’ children and their new toys. Then we decorated our helmets liberally with tinsel and headed out for another bluebird afternoon on the mountain.
“There’s a giant whoopee cushion!” screamed Calum, pointing down from the chairlift at one of the costumes that peppered the slopes. “And a Christmas pudding chasing that snowboarding Christmas tree! Christmas Day skiing is cool.”
Enjoying snow sports as a family is always precious time, bonding over shared experiences. But at Christmas it feels even more special. Some Christmas traditions come and go year on year. This is one I’d love to try and keep.
How to make a Christmas ski trip work
The best way to guarantee decent snow, is to swerve Christmas commitments, hold your nerve and book last minute. Prices are usually heavily discounted and you’ll snap up a bargain, as well as ensure you go where the snow is best.
If you need to plan ahead, pick somewhere with slopes above 2,500m, such as Val d’Isère, Tignes, Obergurgl or Val Thorens.
Go where it’s festive
Not every resort makes a big deal of Christmas. If you want a festive feel, head to places with villagey ambience.
Take stocking fillers in your hand luggage, just in case your cases go astray, and leave all other presents at home to be opened on your return. There is less focus on presents during Christmas in a ski resort anyway and the kids will still be excited about going home, even though the holiday is over.
Go with a family specialist
They know how much Christmas means to children and go the extra mile to make it special.
Need to know
Esprit Ski offers seven nights in Chalet Hermine, Peisey-Les Arcs, leaving December 23 2018, from £3,524.40 (based on two adults and two children aged 2 to 4). Esprit also has five other chalets close by with similar facilities. Prices include flights, transfers, half-board accommodation with complimentary wine and free baby listening. On Christmas Day dinner includes a visit from Father Christmas with a gift for every child. Esprit’s child care is available from £349 for six full days for children aged between 17 weeks and 12 years.