It’s the Easter holidays and half my Facebook feed seems to be full of friends posing on skis at the top of scenic, sunny mountains. You’re probably wondering what the point of this post is. After all, if you’re going on a ski holiday, surely that means you are going with the express purpose of hitting the white stuff just as soon as your already boot-clad feet touch the ground below the airplane?
There are many occasions when ski holidays don’t necessarily involve skiing. For those travelling with young children, childcare may put a limit on your slope-time. Snow conditions, especially at the start and end of the season, can be unpredictable, weather may be too inhospitable to stay out long for beginner, fair-weather or junior skiers, high winds can close ski lifts or you may just fancy a change of pace and scene for a day or two.
Having started skiing around the age of 18 and my experience including the odd day or two a year and no formal ski lessons, I have resigned myself to never being a realistic prospect for representing Team GB at the Winter Olympics. I am fond of big, wide and uncrowded blues and reds and the occasional fluffy snowed black run on calm, clear skied days, preferably without ice. As a result I was already familiar with the idea of looking elsewhere on poor ski days well before the added challenge of children in snow came along. These days, with two pre-schoolers, we spend just as much time off the ski slope as on it during our snow holidays. Here are some of the things we have come across to keep us occupied on non-ski days:
1) Winter walking
It is no secret I’m a fan of exploring by foot. If it weren’t for the invention of skiing, walking in stunning snowy mountain scenery would be a major holiday craze in its own right I’m certain. For those taking a day / half day off from skiing, there’s no need to feel like you are not getting value for money out of your lift pass. A lot of resorts have winter walking routes up near the ski slopes at the top of a cable car ride so you can go for a short stroll, enjoy beautiful views and still grab the best seat in the cafe with your hot choc before the hoardes on boards come in for lunch. Some locations also offer the chance to try glacier walking with older children.
If you are walking with young children then hiring a toboggan with a kids’ seat on it is a really nice idea. You should be able to get them from a good ski hire shop; It will make walking easier towing the kids on a sledge and they will love every minute – just take plenty of layers and blankets and maybe check out the walking routes near cross-country skiing tracks for wider, flatter options than up on the mountain tops.
2) Snow shoeing
If walking is too ordinary for a snow holiday then consider hiring snow shoes. By spreading weight over a larger area snow shoes allow you to get out into the deep, untouched snow and to access some mountain walking tracks that would be impassable in winter otherwise. There are often dedicated snow shoe routes around or near a ski resort so do check at the local tourist information, ski resort or winter sports rental shop. Both snow shoeing and walking are good activities if another group are off skiing or cross country skiing as you can often – to meet up for coffee or lunch.
3) Cross Country Skiing
If down hill skiing is not your thing and walking is too slow then how about cross-country skiing? It’s also a great activity for when the weather is too bitter or visibility on the mountain tops too poor to make downhill skiing enjoyable. There are two types – classic and skating. Classic is the easier to pick up as your skis go in two pre-made tracks and you have to concentrate on keeping up momentum and speed control. Skating uses much the same action as the sport its style is named after and your boots are free at the heel – an unnerving thing for those used to downhill. It is harder to pick up but which style you go for is very much down to personal preference – I am fairly rubbish at both (but still enjoy it) but prefer the illusion of being in control of which direction I go and option to snow-plough which skating skis allow.
4) Ice Skating
If you are at a loss as to why you would skate on skis when you can do the real thing on ice, then head down the the nearest frozen lake to check out ice skating options. Ice skating is great for kids a bit too young from cross-country skiing too. Many ski resorts have dedicated ice rinks, many of which are on frozen waterways for a truly unique and traditional experience. Do be sure to get advice locally though – wild ice rinks can be unpredictable and very dangerous if ice conditions are weak.
Consider timing your ski holiday with a local festival to add some extra family interest to your trip. Our last snow trip to Switzerland coincided with Fasnacht – a huge series of spring celebrations and massive street parties in the run up to Lent. New Year is always a good time to travel for fireworks and festivities or check out major winter sports events such as the Engadin Ski Marathon. Check out the local events calendar before you go although also remember any big events may have an impact and price and availability of accommodation.
6) Snow Play
Kids had enough downhill skiing for one day? Then release your inner big kid and take to the snow drifts with a spade and an old ice-cream carton and have a go at building a snow sculpture or igloo! No spade? Use snowballs as bricks! Deprived of snow as any child from the SW of England typically is, even before I had my daughters I still had enough big kid snow wonder left to build massive toboggan runs, ice bars, igloos (see above effort), snowmen and all manner of other not quite successful but incredibly fun snow constructions! If the snow is too dry and powdery to build (why aren’t you skiing?!) then you can always spray it down a bit and mould it into shape before leaving overnight to freeze if you’re really desperate or just give up and make snow angels! Lots of changes of clothes and gloves required!
7) Head to the spa / swimming pool
Don’t forget to pack your swimmers for an indulgent day away from the ski slopes! Exactly which of the above locations you find yourself in may depend on whether you have the kids with you and what the local spa’s policy is on children (often restricted hours or areas). Many ski resorts have a good spa though and often with outdoor pools and/or fantastic views to enjoy. A particular favourite and a unique experience of my Swiss ski trips has been Hotel Therme in Vals. Made entirely from dark quartzite stone, the spa is dark and enveloping and includes baths laced with jasmine petals and echoing walls. Try Conde Nast Traveller’s suggestions for more idea.
8) Horse Riding
Riding in the snow is a whole different experience to horse riding during the rest of the year and there is something magical about exploring the white carpeted forest tracks and valley views by horseback. It’s also a great activity for the older families to enjoy together. For younger children there are often options to take a horse and carriage ride through the snow and in St. Moritz you can take a horse drawn sleigh up into traffic free Val Roseg to the hotel for lunch, with an options for walking or for the skiers in the group to get there via the cross-country ski tracks instead. Contact the local tourist board to find out local horse riding options.
9) See the sights
Skiing may be the main attraction but many ski resorts are also located in or near some fantastic cultural centres. Museums, art galleries, shopping, great restaurants, major sites of historic, architectural or other importance are all things people forget about when caught up inside their ski resort bubble. Hop on a bus or train and spend a day exploring what is on offer locally with the kids.
Another great snow activity for those wanting a non-skiing option to pass a morning before meeting up with the rest of the group is sledging. Most town and ski resorts have dedicated toboggan runs, some of which can make use of lifts and cable cars to get to them. For a different kind of date night you can also go night sledging at many resorts on illuminated sledging tracks. Take care though, particularly with younger kids on busy toboggan parks and when crossing ski pistes – some people go extremely fast! You can always opt for a walk on quieter walking tracks towing very young children and babies on a sledge instead. For a different experience, why not look out for husky sledge rides and ski-doo safaris – both of which are available in some ski resorts.
11) Wildlife spotting
When the snow comes down, animals and birds are forced lower down the mountainsides to find food and water. This means some excellent opportunities to spot local winter wildlife. In the Alps look out for Golden Eagles, deer, chamois, ibex and, as the weather warms up and snow retreats, marmots. In Canada elk are common and there are many opportunities to take longer trips out to search for larger wildlife such as wolves or marine mammals such as whales.
Cycling is a great activity for when the season starts with a very high snow level or for Easter skiing when snow has often cleared from the valleys and lower resort towns. By this time, the cycle tracks down in the valleys will be free from snow and ice and you can easily hire bikes and kids’ seats/trailers from local hire shops to explore the local area on two wheels, taking in some of that lovely spring sunshine!
13) Adventure sport
For those not willing to give up the adrenalin rush of the ski slopes lightly, there are all sorts of options for adventure sports for adults in ski areas. Paragliding is a common one whilst when the lakes are still frozen, some places offer snow kiting – kit surfing on skis/snowboards! For the extreme adrenalin seekers, why no try skeleton luge at the Cresta Run at St. Moritz? Base jumping is also a possibility in some places and ice climbing. Perhaps don’t invite your spouse and children to watch though…
14) Learn to ski
If the reason you aren’t on the ski slopes is either because you don’t ski or your children are very young then don’t give up on skis completely. For children of walking age there are often some really relaxed and informal snow school activities to get them used to having fun on skis at a really basic level. Roo, at the age of three years and four months, tried the hour long lunchtime snow garden sessions at Brunni in Switzerland recently for her first taste of skiing. Whilst she did get to put on skis most of the time was spent on very flat snow, making snow ‘ice creams’, rolling around on the floor (so they learn how to get up from a tumble with skis on) and really basic balance and maneuvering through fun games. It’ a great way to learn before properly starting ski school or the ‘big’ slopes.
For adults there are also plenty of group and private lessons too and just because the rest of the group may be doing dawn to dusk black runs, it doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy an hour or two skiing on some wide blues instead. Make your own rules and have fun!
What are your favourite non-skiing activities for snow holidays? Did I miss something amazing? Leave a comment and let me (and everyone else) know.