Showing posts with label Skiing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Skiing. Show all posts

Friday, April 12, 2019

Planning a family ski trip to Niseko ... Japan?



I am the first to acknowledge that I am not at all qualified to write anything about Niseko.  We spent just under two weeks in Niseko.  When I wrote the blog post about Whistler we had been there five times.  That said, there is a definite lack of information out there about skiing Japan with kids so I am happy to throw my hat in the ring and share what I now know.

Why Niseko over any of the other Japanese ski resorts?

When I investigated skiing in Japan I literally googled Japanese ski resorts and started with that but after much deliberation I made the decision to go to Niseko as I felt that as the resort was very established and popular with the Australian market it was probably the best place for our first visit to Japan.  Shortly after I committed to that decision a lovely family friend got in touch and asked if we were interested in joining them for a trip to Niseko.  That sealed our decision, Niseko it was

Where to stay in Niseko?

The boys and other kids from The Aya playing out the front of the hotel.  (The Aya had a great supply of toboggans at reception. Just ask to borrow however many you need.)


Residence 102 at The Aya, this was our private ski in/out entrance,  From here it was less than 200m to the chair lift and not even 20 metres to the Go Snow ski school drop off.  


Niseko is comprised of four different ski resorts.  Annapuri, Hanazono, Niseko Village and Grand Hirafu.  We picked Grand Hirafu as our location as most of the restaruants that we wanted to checkout were in Grand Hirafu and also the hotel options in Grand Hirafu seemed the best.  We booked The Aya which is positioned in a fantastic ski in/out location at the base of the Grand Hirafu chairlift and it was excellent.  I could not fault the accommodation in any way.  We spent the first half of the holiday in one of the residences, sharing it with our friends, and it was amazing.  We had a view straight onto the base of the mountain from one side and from the other we gazed onto a beautiful snow covered grove of trees.  It also included a private onsen and our own ski in, ski out entry.  The ski room was enormous with lots of storage for all of the ski gear.    The walk in the morning from our apartment to drop the boys at ski school was literally less than 20 metres.  It really was a great location.  We were walking distance to the Seico Market, the local supermarket, Mick's (a fantastic bar and bottleshop), lots of fabulous restaurants and most importantly, the on site restaurant Ginger, had amazing coffee.   

Skis!

The Aya really ticks all the boxes, it has a very funky vibe and great staff that well and truly went above and beyond.  As in the front desk staff helping our friend's 25 year old son clean up a vomit covered bedroom after one of the kid's came down with gastro and we were all out having dinner.  I was super impressed.  For our first time to Niseko, I think we really nailed it with the accommodation.  There were a couple of other hotels that looked like they might be worth  investigating also,  Skye Niseko looked great.  It is positioned a bit further up the mountain and is also ski in/out.  Ross and I had a lovely lunch at the deli here one day and from what I could see of the hotel it looked pretty amazing.  It would just be a slightly longer walk to the village if you wanted to go our for dinner and if your kids were attending regular ski school you would need to either ski them or walk them down to the ski school base.  The Vale is literally next door to the Aya, so again an amazing location in the heart of the village, ski in and out and it also had a very cool vibe about it.


These Villas belonged to the Aya and looked incredible. They were right outside our apartment and   they had the most glamourous young couples staying in them (it turns out that there is a lot of money in online gambling, who knew?) and if money was no object for me too, I would definitely love to stay in one of them one day!

Which Ski School?


Hamish and his friend that we travelled with waiting for their lesson to begin at Go Snow.


Niseko is different to every other resort that we have skied at with children.  There are multiple ski schools and they are all privately owned.  More importantly they are all associated with the different resorts that make up Niseko.  When you are picking your ski school definitely investigate whether it has a base at the resort that you are based at.  As we were staying in Grand Hirafu we picked Go Snow for our ski school.  This decision was also influenced by the recommendations of friends that had previously skied Japan.  My thoughts on the ski school are a little mixed.  Go Snow was in a great location, the meeting area for Yama Riders (8-14 year olds) is just outside the front of The Aya.  The meeting spot for Ninja Kids (3-6 year olds) is next door to The Aya's Ski Valet room so it was definitely the best for us as far as location.  The instructors were also great, Hamish and his mate that we were travelling with even had an instructor who attended the same school as me in Canberra, just 30 years after my time there!  It was more that the ski school levels are pretty lax and there were a real mix of abilities at the advanced level of the ski school program.  We had a fair few complaints from the boys at the end of the day that they had to spend a lot of time waiting on runs as the other two kids in their class were both unable to keep up and struggled with many of the runs.  It is also frustrating as the Ski School were not permitted to take kids aged under 13 years through the Gates (this is where all the good skiing is) and were limited to only skiing the main runs, which are very busy and pretty basic skiing. This rule also applies to private lessons unfortunately.  Definitely do some research before you book into any of the ski schools.  Confirm that the location is convenient and ask lots of questions.  One friend told us that the ski school she booked her daughter into refused to serve lunch as part of the day program, so they had to ski back to the ski school base, collect their daughter, feed her and then return her back to the ski school.   Go Snow did feed our kids and there were no food complaints!

Dressing the kids for skiing Japan


Hamish rugged up against the cold.


It was cold.  The coldest I have ever been skiing.  It is the only time Hamish has asked for glove liners.  Up the top of the mountain it averaged around -12C.  The village was around -6C.  There were times it was colder as the wind up high added a little something extra to the chill.  Hamish wore Ice Breaker as his base layer, added a merino wool top over that and then a light down vest under his ski jacket.  He has Kjus Ski Wear and he said that he never felt cold in his body, only his hands.  I ended up giving him my Ice Breaker merino wool glove inners in order to keep his hands warm as it was that cold.  He doesn't like the artificial hand warmers.  He also for the first time asked to wear a balaclava.  The cold/snow/ice on your face in Japan is quite something.  Do not send little ones out in Japan without their faces covered, buy either a merino wool or fleece balaclava to wear under their helmets.  I would say the same for the adults.  It was soooo cold.  I ended up wearing my Ice Breaker neck warmer as a sort of face mask as at times my face did not feel like it belonged to the rest of my body.  If you are planning to ski Japan often, I would investigate investing in proper heated gloves and boots.  The main thing is dress yourselves and the children in quality ski gear.  Skiing is an expensive enough holiday as it is, there is no point going all that way and not being able to get out and ski because you are too cold.



Our first day in Niseko and we seriously thought we had arrived in skiing heaven.  Incredible powder, bluebird skies, it was magical.  My friend Jennifer and I skied long after everyone else had retired for the day.  I am so glad we decided to stay out that day.  We were able to witness the most incredible pink glow over the resort as the sun set and we also made the most of the good weather.  It didn't take us long to realise that blue skies in Niseko are rarer than hen's teeth.


Ski Hire?

We prefer to hire our skis each season.  The boys do have their own skis and poles but we don't travel overseas with them.  Primarily because, no one wants to fiddle about with oversized baggage at the airport and also because you can then check out all the new demo skis each season as part of your ski hire package.  Another factor to consider when making the decision to travel with your ski gear is whether your travel insurance will cover the cost of any damage to your ski gear.  Ours does not and we have a comprehensive annual policy that includes skiing as part of the extras.  Our ski gear is not covered for damage on snow or in transit, so we have always opted to rent our skis (we do all travel with our own boots though).  These are the two options for Ski Hire in Grand Hirafu that we looked at:

Rhythm Snowsports

We used Rhythm  because when skiing in Australia that is where we have always hired our gear from.  It turned out to be a great decision as they appeared to be the biggest rental shop we saw in Niseko.  They also have a relationship with The Aya and have a small service desk in the Aya's ski valet room.  It turned out extra handy for me as one day when I went to pick up my skis after lunch I found that someone had replaced my poles with their significantly shorter ones.  The Rhythm staff member at The Aya was great and swapped them over immediately for me.  Another reason to hire from Rhythm is that there is a fantastic little coffee bar within the store that has excellent coffee.  Drinkable coffee is always a lovely and welcome surprise when travelling.  Rhythm delivered all our ski gear directly to the Ski Valet at The Aya, when we checked out we simply handed it all to the Rhythm staff member on duty in the Ski Valet room.  Super easy.

Larry Adler

Larry Adler's is basically a Sydney institution, there are multiple stores in Sydney and they always have gorgeous window displays.  The family we travelled with hired all their gear from Larry Adler who then had it all delivered to the Ski Valet at The Aya, but if you want to switch anything over you need to walk back to the Larry Adler store to do it.  Also, once you are done skiing you need to return the ski gear to the Larry Adler store.  It also definitely did not have the range of options that Rhythm had.


Where to eat?

We booked our trip to Niseko is July 2018, so a full 7 months before we travelled.  Friends that had travelled to Niseko in the past and also out wonderful travel agent advised us to make our dinner bookings as soon as possible. Luckily we heeded their advice as I did a quick ring/email around, got a few suggestions and then asked Ari from the Luxe Nomad to go ahead and make bookings.  Incredibly, 7  months before our trip several of the restaurants that had been highly recommended were already booked out.  Almost all the others refused to take a booking without a credit card.  Regardless, we had some absolutely amazing meals out.  These are the stand outs that I would recommend.


Kamimura


Kamimura is conveniently located in the heart of Grand Hirafu and was walking distance from The Aya and... it is probably the best degustation menu I have ever had. Ever.  It was literally astonishingly and mouth wateringly amazing.  If you go to Niseko and you enjoy food, please do make the effort to visit.  It wasn't a cheap meal but it was truly extraordinary.  All the dishes are made with locally sourced ingredients and they literally burst with flavour and texture.


Ross and I were lucky enough to meet Chef Yuichi Kamimura, what a treat. 





Other great local restuarants I would recommend include Abucha 2, Ezo Seafood, Rin and Yukitei.  All of these will require bookings months in advance.  As soon as you have booked your accommodation, book the restaurants you are interested in visiting.
Sea Urchin... so delicious!

Family travel tip... always pack a deck of UNO!






If you are in the mood for something other than Japanese,  we all loved The Barn.  Locally sourced ingredients and a fantastic location.  The staff here were amazing also.

The Barn by Odin, the building was inspired by traditional Hokkaido architecture and was very impressive.  Definitely worth a visit




  If you are in the mood for something cheap the food trucks are also fantastic and the kids will love it.  These are all parked in the heart of Hirafu Village and are right near the Seico Mart.  You can't miss them.

The food trucks offer a variety of cheap, fast and easy meal options.


If you are in the mood for some Apres-Ski, the best option we found was Mick's.  A fantastic little wine bar diagonally across the road from The Aya.  It is a wine bar and also a bottle shop.  We ended up having drinks here most evenings when we were intending just to buy a bottle of wine to go with dinner or a bottle of champagne for some apres-ski drinks.  It is just that kind of place, welcoming, fun and friendly.  That said, Mick's really does have an incredible selection of wine and also some great local beers and whiskies.

  




How to get to Niseko?

We flew ANA from Sydney to Tokyo and then Tokyo to Sapporo (New Chitose Airport).  From the airport our travel agent (The Luxe Nomad) booked us transfers with Sky Express.  We were met at the airport by a lovely New Zealander from Sky Express who helped us with all our gear and explained to the driver that we wanted to stop for food and toilet stops at around the half way point.  Our return transfers were also with Sky Express and the service was faultless.  There were 9 of us and we travelled in a mini bus  that was spacious and comfortable. Also, the seats had proper seatbelts.  Even better,  almost everyone had a nap at some point in the journey.



What to do on non ski days?



We spent one fabulous afternoon snow mobiling at Hanazono.  We booked a taxi to transport us all over to Hanazono and then the boys had a play on the kids snowmobiles (if they have snow mobile'd elsewhere I would skip this.  The "guides" were super strict and the boys got a little frustrated with it.) Afterwards though we all did a proper snow mobile tour and it was amazing.  We were unable to do the Panorama course as the visibility was very poor and the guides considered it too dangerous so as an alternative we did an extended tour of the Rabbit course and it was beauitiful and exhilarating.  The course takes you through what in summer is a golf course and must be incredibly beautiful to play golf at as it was quite spectacular even in winter.  We cruised along icy paths past groves of trees and picturesque mountain views and it was really lovely.  We all loved it, from the 7 year old to the 67 year old!



The boys also loved the snow tubing that was also available at Hanazono.  It is a very kid friendly tubing park and you could easily leave the kids to play for a couple of hours while you enjoy a peaceful lunch inside!

Do we recommend Niseko for a family ski holiday?

I have been asked this a few times and definitely have mixed feelings.

The positives about skiing Japan are:

The time zone is similar.  Realistically it probably took a similar amount of time to get to Niseko as it would to get to Whistler, the extra flight, the transport from New Chitose to Niseko all adds up, but the bonus of no significant jet lag is not to be disregarded.

It was amazing to experience Japanese powder, it really was something else and I have never experienced powder like it elsewhere.  I would also say that it is very pretty skiing Japan.  Some of the runs in the gated areas were exceptionally lovely.

Japanese food! So delicious.

Culturally it was fantastic to experience something different.

Not to say these are negatives, but they are things to consider when making the decision to ski Niseko (also please remember we only have been once and for a very brief time and they reflect only my experiences):

The mountain is busy.  The lift lines are like Perisher on a Saturday in school holidays.  The lift lines are also very poorly managed.  They do not have mountain staff organising the lines into groups of four for a chairlift of four and so on.  It is very frustrating to watch lift after lift go up the mountain with only 1 or 2 people on a 4 seater when there are a hundred keen skiers and boarders waiting in line.  This was the situation at all four of the resorts also unfortunately.

The main ski trails are also very crowded (and a little boring)  and there are a lot of beginner skiers.  More than I have ever seen anywhere.   The gated areas and off piste skiing however is brilliant and quiet but you are skiing at your own risk and there are costs associated with any recovery.  I would also advise that you store all the emergency phone numbers for the different resorts into your phone in case of any incidents.  We spent most of our time skiing in the gated areas and outside of the resort boundaries.  In two weeks of skiing, I only ever saw ski patrol go through a gated area once.  We did come across other skiers of course, but in some spots it was rare and for safety reasons I would only ski in the gates with an operating mobile phone and with another person.  This is all very problematic for family skiing.  If you have children that are accustomed to challenging skiing and have been skiing double black runs and couloirs elsewhere, they will be very bored in ski school in Japan as they are not permitted to ski through the gates.  (Even if you pay for private lessons as we discovered).  We ended up skiing with the boys most days so that they could actually enjoy some decent skiing.

All that powder does come at a price, it is an almost permanent white out.  Our first day skiing was a magical blue bird day and I am truly grateful we got to experience that one day of incredible skiing as every other day had next to no visibility.   It is very, very cold and it is almost always snowing.  Again, this is not ideal for families.  Hamish and I got horribly lost one day and I was frightened I would lose sight of him at some points and we are very experienced skiers.  This is something that I would definitely consider if you are beginner skiers as the legendary Niseko white-out is not for the faint hearted.  The cold and the lack of visibility would not be fun for little kids and I would also be fearful of putting them off skiing for life.  Skiing is not a cheap holiday and to go all that way and with that kind of expense and for the kids to hate it, would be so disappointing.

Niseko is also very expensive.  The entire trip cost us double a ski trip to Canada.  I am glad we went and experienced it but the expense was phenomenal.  We stayed in comparable hotel accommodation, at both destinations we eat out every night and we book the kids into ski school at both.  Niseko was easily double the cost if not more (sorry Ross!).

So would we go back?  I asked Ross this recently and he said he would go back for a boys trip with his mates but not with the family. I would have to agree.  I am very glad we went and experienced Niseko but I probably would not travel there as a family again.  I can see much more value skiing elsewhere in the world as it was so tremendously expensive. I know this will polarise some people, we know some very committed Niseko ski families, so I guess it truly depends upon what you want from a family ski holiday!












Friday, May 19, 2017

Planning a ski trip to Whistler?




Over the years I have written multiple emails to friends with detailed tips about what we recommend and love in Whistler, so I thought that I might collate some of the information that I have gathered over the years to share with anyone that might be considering a family ski holiday to Whistler in the future, and as it is the first thing that I get asked every time:

Whistler, Blackcomb or Creekside? 


The view from our hotel room at the Pan Pacific Village Centre


Whistler is essentially divided into three separate villages.  The largest of which is Whistler.  Blackcomb is a short walk away from Whistler and has a significantly smaller and more intimate feel and then Creekside is situated a short bus or taxi ride away from Whistler Village.  I literally know nothing about Creekside, I have skied down to it a couple of times and yet, I haven't even done that for several years now.   So apart from the fact that I have noticed several amazing houses in Creekside and that we have heard that Creekbread is apparently fabulous and a reason to visit Creekside, we are yet to make it happen.  Although last trip we did do a drive through the village and it looks lovely, otherwise though I know very little else about Creekside so will leave it at that as I am most definitely not qualified to write any sort of recommendations about it.  That said, I also have never stayed in Blackcomb, although Ross (my husband) has stayed there with friends on boys trips and we have had lots of friends stay there.

Hamish outside Crystal Hut on Blackcomb Mountain


Ultimately though we elect to stay in Whistler Village, our primary reasons for this is the easy access to the Whistler ski school, facilities that we use daily like the library and the bookshop and of course to be walking distance to all the great restaurants in Whistler Village.  That said, we travel with several other families every year and most stay in either Whistler or Blackcomb, so we also select Whistler for accommodation as it makes it easier for us to meet up with friends for drinks or dinner and our children do all attend Whistler Ski school together.


Me (Incognito in ski gear!)

Where to stay in Whistler Village:


The creek that runs through the Village frozen and covered in snow.



We have always stayed at the Pan Pacific Village Centre, it is a small boutique hotel centrally located in the heart of Whistler Village. 

Reasons why we love the Pan Pacific Village Centre:
  • The rooms are generous, modern and very clean.  
  • The kitchen is well supplied and has a full size fridge and a proper stovetop and oven. 
  • The 2 bedroom apartments are a true 2 bedroom apartment, not two adjoining hotel rooms with a connecting door (an arrangement that I really dislike!).
  • Some of the upper floor 2/3 bedroom apartments include laundries, otherwise there is a large communal laundry on the ground floor.  The washing machines cost $2 Canadian.
  • The hotel hosts an apres hour every afternoon from 4pm, the boys love this as there is a hot chocolate bar and also chocolate chip cookies for the kids.  Ross loves apres as the bar staff will happily bring him a glass of red to enjoy in the hot tub!
  • On weekends the Pan Pacific this year added a S'mores Bar  to the pool area.  This was enormously popular with all the hotel children as they delighted in toasting their marshmallows themselves and then assembling their s'more sandwiches together.  S'mores are a North American/Canadian campfire delicacy of crackers, toasted marshmallows and melted chocolate squished together.  Surprisingly delicious!
  • The hotel provides kids size bathrobes to wear down to the pool and hot tubs.  For those of us travelling from Australia and lugging ski gear and winter woollens, these are the kind of small but thoughtful details that do not go unnoticed.
  • A buffet breakfast has also always been included with our  room.  It is fairly simple, scrambled eggs, bacon or sausages, hash browns and either waffles or pancakes are the hot selections.  Alternative options are a small selection of cereals, porridge, fruit salad and a selection of pastries and toast.  This is served downstairs in the same room that Apres Hour is hosted in adjacent to the pool area.  It is very convenient having this option, as ski school starts at 8:15am most mornings, so the option of heading straight downstairs and having breakfast organised for you just makes the morning go that little bit smoother!
  • A secure ski locker is provided over at the Pan Pacific Mountainside (the sister hotel), about a 3 minute walk away, literally next to the Gondolas.  The lockers store skis/snowboards comfortably and the room they are positioned in is heated but we still elect to carry our boots back to our room each day.  It is a short walk and the option to dry the boots properly in front of the fire is important to us.  Especially as the boys still manage to get the inside of their ski boots soaking wet almost daily.
  • It is a boutique hotel so there are no restaurants or bars downstairs, room service is provided by Earl's, a Whistler institution!  If you are looking for a hotel with lots of bars and restaurants as part of the experience I would look at staying at The Westin instead.
We are huge fans of the Pan Pacific Village Centre as the hotel staff make every effort to ensure that your stay is comfortable and indeed unique. The attention to detail is second to none.  My husband travels all the time for work and is generally the Platinum or Black level member of multiple hotel loyalty programs and as a I am a former Flight Attendant I have stayed in too many hotels to count and for both Ross and I to feel that the Pan Pacific Village Centre is up there with the best indicates how special it is.  I would not say this about very many other hotels either and no I have not been paid or rewarded in any way for this review.  It is an excellent hotel and I highly recommend it. 


The Westin

We have lots of friends that are regulars here, so over the years we have seen several different combinations of rooms.  The location is fantastic, very close to the Gondolas, Ski School and the day care centre.  As it is nestled at the foot of Whistler mountain, many of the rooms have lovely outlooks straight onto the mountain.  The rooms however are quite old and dated and are of the traditional, adjoining hotel room kind.  The kitchens are also very small, more like a tiny kitchenette, if you are planning to cook the majority of the time I would not recommend the Westin as the kitchen facilities are very basic.  None of the rooms as far as I know have laundries, there is a laundry with one washing machine and a dryer located on each floor though.

The good things about the Westin:
  • Great location near the Gondolas, Day Care Centre and the Ski School
  • They have a ski valet at the base of the mountain to hand your skis to when you are done for the day!  (The only thing that I am envious of at the Westin!)
  • The hotel is huge with a variety of restaurants and bars downstairs to select from. 
  • There is a great restaurant in the lobby of the hotel where the kids can make their own pizzas. We have dined there a few times with friends and although the atmosphere isn't amazing and there are much better places to eat in Whistler, the kids love the opportunity to whip up their own pizzas!
The downside:

The rooms are a bit old and dated.  It is definitely not the standard you would expect of a Westin Hotel.


Pan Pacific Mountainside

This is the sister hotel of the Pan Pacific Village Centre but it is quite different.  It is significantly bigger and is less family focused.   So for those wanting more of a base of the mountain right, in the heart of the village feel, then this hotel would be a great fit.  It is positioned just next to the Gondolas and is a short walk to the Ski School and the day care centre.  The rooms are very spacious and modern but none have laundry facilities, there is a communal laundry located in the basement level though.  The Mountainside does not offer an Apres Hour, S'mores Bar or Complimentary Breakfast either, when I asked Pan Pacific Management why they explained that the Village Centre (the hotel we stay at) is operated as a boutique stand alone hotel and I believe it is the only hotel in Whistler to offer these unique options.  If you choose to stay at the Pan Pacific Mountainside ask to have a room with a "Mountainside" view as they have a great view of the Fire and Ice show that runs on Sunday nights and as there are frequently fireworks over the village, the views from this hotel would be fabulous.  If you opt to stay at the Pan Pacific Village centre you are invited over to the Mountainside hotel to watch the Fire and Ice show from their swimming pool and spa area that looks out over the mountain.  If you are staying at either hotel do take advantage of this opportunity as the view is brilliant and much better than that from down near the Gondola's.  There is also a hot chocolate bar for the kids to help keep them warm.

Other hotels?

Of all the hotels in Whistler Village I have also seen rooms at the Hilton, Crystals and the Sun Dial, if you have any questions about these specifically feel free to email me.  We have never stayed at any of them though and only have had friends stay at the Hilton.  Ross and I just asked to see 2 bedroom apartments or suites at all of these, (plus lots of others) but these listed are the most popular of the accommodation options so I thought that I would include them as we have seen their 2 bedroom apartment options, we just haven't stayed at them!

Blackcomb


Blackcomb is located about a 10 minute walk away from Whistler Village  and has it's own smaller village atmosphere.  It is much more intimate in feel than Whistler Village and if you are seeking a quiet, restful ski holiday with less apres options, I would definitely recommend Blackcomb.  The walk between Blackcomb and Whistler is lovely and is something that I would suggest anyone visiting the area do.  The path is well maintained and includes a covered bridge which always makes me think of Anne of Green Gables.

The lovely covered bridge on the path between Whistler and Blackcomb Villages






Ski School




Whistler, Blackcomb and Creekside run three separate ski schools.  This seems to catch a lot of people out so if you are staying in Blackcomb, make sure you enrol your children into Blackcomb Ski School and so on.  Otherwise you will be walking them over to Whistler Village very early in the morning.  The main reason we return to Whistler year after year is for the ski school and I know we are not alone in making this decision.  The ski instructors are brilliant, so the children love going, it is as simple as that.  Hamish, my now eight year old, has been attending Whistler Ski School since he was three and has loved every minute he has spent at Whistler Kids.  Both Nicholas and Hamish are great skiers for their ages and we credit that primarily to the wonderful ski instructors that they have had at Whistler Kids Ski School.  Nicholas has been skiing double black runs confidently from just after his ninth birthday and Hamish isn't far behind.  In fact this January Nick skied the Couloir Extreme, considered to be one of the top 10 most extreme ski runs in the world, and made it look easy!  Few 11 years olds can add that to their list of experiences and it is something that neither Ross nor I would have been confident to do with him.  We did have to sign a waiver permitting him to ski double black runs but it is something that we completely trusted his ski instructors to do with him.  We have even been lucky enough to have some of the same ski instructors over the years and as a result both Hamish and Nicholas have developed a lovely rapport with their instructors as they have got to know them so well.

As well as seeing the same instructors year after year we have also got to know fellow ski families from around the world.  Hamish has had a  little boy in his ski school group every year for the past 5 years from Buenos Aires.  When they were both 3 year olds Leo was unable to speak a word of English and it has been lovely to watch his English language skills develop at the same time as his skiing.  As they were allocated a Spanish speaking Ski Instructor (the same one 3 years in a row!) Hamish has also picked up some Spanish along the way!

We know families that religiously put their kids in ski school like we do and families that don't.  It is a completely personal decision and probably one for a different blog post but Ross and I are committed to sending them to ski school and believe the many different benefits are worth it. 



Reasons why we love ski school:

  • The instructors will take them to to the terrain park. Both our kids can now pretty consistently land 180s and that is something we would never have been able to teach them.
  • The kids love the ski instructors.  They are generally young and very cool.  One year Nick had a former Italian ski champion as his instructor.  Ross and I came across them on the mountain one day and then watched in amazement as the instructor skied expertly down the mountain, backwards, yelling directions at all the boys!
  • A hot lunch is included.  The younger children always go back to the Ski School Base, older kids often eat out on the mountain.  The ski school caters for all dietary needs and the menu changes daily with various meal options.  Even the fussiest child will find something that they will eat.  I remember one child one year ordering a strawberry jam sandwich everyday for 2 weeks, another family that travel with us each year have a son that is gluten, dairy, corn and egg free and the ski school manage to feed him a nutritious lunch daily.

Tips for ski school:

  • We book the boys into Adventure Camp each year.  They do the 5 day camp each week.  On the weekends we usually take the opportunity to give them a break from skiing,  unless of course it is a cracker ski day!
  • If you book your children into Adventure Camp, start getting organised on the Sunday before it starts.  If you are hiring their gear go and collect it all the day before as it always takes longer than you think.  Choose a hire place that is close to the ski school as it is then easy to go and swap anything that you might discover doesn't fit properly after a few days.  If their boots get very smelly and wet, don't hesitate to take them back and swap them for a clean dry pair either.  Also go to the Whistler Base and pick up their Adventure Camp tags and attach them to their ski jackets.  If you discover any problems with any of the bookings, sorting everything out the day before will be much easier than on the morning Adventure Camp starts.  It sounds obvious but we see families trying to sort out problems on the first morning of Adventure  Camp every year.
  • Tuck a spare pair of gloves or mittens into a pocket for younger kids.  Their gloves can get very wet as small children seem quite unable to stop themselves from constantly sticking their gloved little fingers into the snow.
  • Do you tip the ski instructors?  (We often get asked this one!)  Yes, we do.  About 10 - 20% of the cost of the camp.  We give them cash in Canadian dollars.  We have seen all sorts of tipping from a handful of coins to literally wads of cash.  We have also seen bottles of wine, chocolates and so on.  Do what you want and it certainly is not expected.  Ross and I like to tip them as they are mostly young students from around the world and we are always grateful to them for how well they have cared for our children.
  • For the little ones or the not so experienced skiers they do have dress up days and various themed events, we have never packed any items specifically for these, though I have noticed that some families do.  If you are so inclined perhaps email the ski school in advance and find out what events are on whilst your children are attending so you can be prepared.

Dressing the kids for Ski School:


The most important thing is probably layers.  We dress our boys in a base layer of Merino Wool.  I like Icebreaker the best.  For ski gear we have always bought everything that they wear and then hired the actual equipment.  So, we dress them in a merino wool layer of leggings and then a long sleeve underlay top.  I then put both boys in a second Icebreaker mid-layer long sleeve top that is a thicker version of the base layer merino wool top.  Over the top of this they then wear their ski pants and jackets.  We have used Obermeyer, Spyder and Kjus for ski gear for the kids over the years.  Kjus has been the best as far as wear, warmth and quality goes.

For gloves we have always purchased Gordini Gore-tex gloves or mittens and each child gets two pairs, as they get older we will probably be able to reduce this to one, but at the moment I find that they need a second pair to take to ski school with them to switch over at lunch.  Both pairs somehow come back soaking wet at the end of the day!

 Inside their helmets, again buy these... it's a no-brainer, literally.  We use a very fine fleece balaclava for cold or windy days, on sunny days they just wear their helmets as the helmets are lined inside there is no need for an extra layer.  It's no fun being too hot either.  Don't buy expensive goggles, they seem to scratch these easily and as all their helmets get thrown into plastic storage tubs during lunch, the goggles get trashed fast.  Buy cheap ones that you are happy to replace.  Often.

Socks, I have always bought Smartwool or Icebreaker and always a wool blend.  Buy two pairs of socks as well.

We mainly buy the boys ski gear in Canada, the prices are fairly similar (depending upon how the dollar is) so its not that we are seeking bargains, more that there is a better range. The kids shop in Whistler is fantastic with a huge selection of kids gear. Buying online might work out cheaper but I like the option of being able to actually try the gear on the boys.  We have also had a pair of ski pants split on the first wear and being able to take them straight back into the shop and have them replaced on the spot was definitely worth it.  This was a pair of top of the line Spyder pants and Fun for Kids exchanged them for a new pair. 

Boots, skis and poles we hire and that way we can change things up easily if anything is uncomfortable, smelly or wet.  Kid's ski hire is free with an adult's ski hire at Whistler so that is something to consider, also most travel insurance plans will not cover ski equipment.  We hire it all as it also means that we are not travelling with oversize baggage.

Two Little Powderhounds!




WHERE TO EAT?

In the village:


Located just across the road from the Pan Pacific Village Centre and in the heart of Whistler Village.  Why we love it?  Mainly because the boys love it there as do all of their friends.  Nick loves the hamburger and Hamish loves the ribs.  I am happy with a bowl of the clam chowder.  It is usually the first place we go when we arrive in Whistler every year! 

We might eat first at Earl's but this is definitely our favourite place to eat.  Every meal has been sensational, the produce is locally sourced and the seafood is incredible.  I can't recommend a restaurant more highly.  The kids menu is fantastic for anyone worried about their little gourmand and despite the fine dining atmosphere it is very kid friendly, after all it is a ski resort town.  For wine lovers, the wine list is unbelievable, think short novel kind of length!

We have had some great nights at this place.  All children seem to love it as the chefs always put on a great show.  It is located upstairs above the Fun for Kids Shop.  It is a fun place to eat at in large groups also.

A favourite with the kids and if you are a fan of sashimi, you must try the sockeye salmon.


Grill and Vine in The Westin
Located in the lobby of the Westin, the atmosphere is a bit lacking and the food isn't remarkable (there are much better options in the village) but our kids love the opportunity to make their own pizzas and they then enjoy playing hide and seek in the cavernous lobby of the Westin afterwards with their friends, (something I can remember loving doing as a kid so we indulge them every now and then with a meal here!) meanwhile we enjoy the rest of our meal in peace and quiet so definitely not a bad option.

Incredibly good value and very filling meals.   It truly is a Whistler institution.  It is positioned in the heart of the new part of the Village underneath Crystals.  It gets very popular during the peak ski season so I recommend booking in advance, especially if you have a big group.  The meals are simple,  but hearty and it is extremely well priced.

Another Whistler institution, an enormously popular Ice Cream bar that you will often see queues of people lining up outside for.  If you have kids it is a must do!  It is positioned along the walkway between the old and the new village.

Lovely little cafĂ© and patisserie located across from the Ice Skating rink in the old village.  I highly recommend visiting if the kids are ice skating or tobogganing to grab a hot chocolate and a little treat!

On the mountain:


Rendezvous Lodge (Blackcomb Mountain)
Located on Blackcomb Mountain just near the Peak to Peak gondola.  This is a great place to eat on the mountain as there is plenty of food choices, think Taco Bar, Japanese Ramen Station, a Thai Wok bar and so on. 

Steeps Grill and Wine Bar (Whistler Mountain)
We have had many fantastic lunches here.  It is located in The Roundhouse at the top of Whistler Gondola.  It is a great place to meet for a nice lunch on the mountain if you have anyone travelling in the group that is unable to ski, as it is easily accessible to non-skiers or beginner skiers.  Although some of our lunches here have rendered expert skiers to complete novices!  The Salmon Chowder here is the best in Whistler (I order it everywhere we go!) and the Sockeye Salmon is also outstanding.  If you have a large group you will definitely need to make a booking as it gets very busy.

Crystal Hut (Blackcomb)
A cosy little log cabin perched on Crystal Ridge (Blackcomb).  Famous for it's waffles and also wood oven baked lunches.  It is tiny (cosy!), so the lunch time crowds can make seating a bit tight.  We often find if we pop in around 11am we have no trouble finding a table.  It's the perfect time to share a plate of waffles and have a hot chocolate to warm up.  The ski school at Whistler often take the children here for lunch on the day that they ski Blackcomb Mountain, something Hamish looks forward to all year long!



This is just a short list of places we have visited many times.  There are many other restaurants that we have visited and enjoyed but as we haven't been to them more than once I am not adding them to the list.

COFFEE?


The best Coffee in Whistler for the Australian coffee connoisseurs.  If you are longing for a proper flat white, I recommend making the effort to get your morning coffee from here.



A good alternative to the above and in a great location just across from The Westin.





What to do for kids on non ski days?


We usually give the boys a break from skiing on the weekends, partly to give them some time off the snow and partly because the weekends are the busiest times on the mountain, hence longer lift lines, more accidents on the mountain and so on.  These are some of the things that we have done in the past or are planning to do on our next trip:



Ice Skating at the outdoor skate rink:



  • The ice rink is located in the old village in the Olympic Plaza
  • You can hire skates at the little kiosk next to the rink.
  • There is a huge outdoor fireplace to sit near if you are not skating (go and grab a hot chocolate and a pastry from Purebread, directly across from the skate rink)
Tobogganing:


  • There is a small toboggan park suitable for young kids just next to the skate rink, between the rink and the playground.
  • Most hotels will have plastic toboggans you can borrow for the afternoon, if you have a little one that struggles to walk in the snow it might be worth hiring or buying a toboggan for the week as you can then tow them along any snow covered paths (if it's a bumper season, almost all the paths will have a hard packed snow base). 





  • Visitors to Whistler are able to get a temporary membership to the library for $10.  The library is well stocked, has a fabulous kids section, free wifi and a huge open fire with a tea and coffee bar.  A great place to take little ones for a story time session or just to collect some new reading material.

  • The Inuit people of Canada traditionally used Inukshuks as markers of sacred places and navigational tools.  In the basement shops below the Hilton hotel there is a stonemason who runs Inukshuk making classes for kids.  My boys have never done this one but most of our friends kids have and all enjoyed the experience. 

  • Over near the small supermarket in the new town there is an Indoor rock climbing centre that offers an evening program for kids that lasts for 3 hours from 6pm to 9pm.  It includes a pizza  dinner for the kids and is an excellent alternative to finding a babysitter for the evening if you want to have an adults only dinner!  We have booked this for the boys a few times with several friends and they have loved it.



  • It is easy to get to if you jump on the Excalibur Gondola and get off at the first stop.  It is then a short walk across the snow to the tube park.
  • Children need to be a minimum of 3 years to tube, there is also a mini-kids lane for those that are over 3 but not tall enough to ride the full length lanes.
  • Wear your ski gear as it gets cold and wet and also proper snow  boots (ski boots are not permitted though)


Snowmobile Tour :


Last year we did a tour of Brandywine Falls Provincial Park with Blackcomb Snowmobile Tours and it was tremendously fun.  We booked a half day tour and explored some of the more remote parts of the National Park, where we were able to see beautiful winter scenes and endless mountain views. 

They even have darling kid sized snowmobiles and a kids track that they let the kids go mad on.  Needless to say, my two speed demon risk takers loved every second of this!  Our guide (a lovely young Irish chap on his gap year) ended up letting Nick have a go on one of the adult snow mobiles, I think he missed his little brothers, (he was the eldest of eight!),  and took a bit of a shining to Nick.  Needless to say, this made Nick's day as he raced around a frozen pond at hair raising speeds. 






How to get to Whistler from Vancouver:


The bus:
This is the cheapest option that I am aware of.
Pros: someone else is driving, they collect you from the airport and they drive you to your hotel.
Cons: if your flight doesn't have enough passengers to justify a bus leaving they will make you sit and wait for another flight to come in.  This happened to us one year and is why we have never used the bus again.  The bus  makes frequent stops once you get to Whistler which adds a fair bit of travel time into the journey.  The bus is the longest of the different transport options.

A driver in a private car:
Most of our friends use this option.
Pros: someone else is driving.  You can stop whenever you like to use a bathroom or do some shopping.  You don't do a scenic tour of Whistler Hotels and Lodges. Journey time is relatively fast depending upon how many stops you make.
Cons: The most expensive option.

Renting a car?
This is our preferred method.
Pros: You can stop wherever you want.  You get to experience driving on the Sea to Sky Highway!  We have a child who gets very car sick so we also prefer to drive ourselves as the trip is long and winding.  We need to do lots of fresh air stops and obviously this isn't easy on a bus!
Cons:  One of you needs to drive and in Canada it is Right Hand Traffic.  If you are not confident driving on the other side of the road I would definitely not choose this option.  You need to drive from the airport, through Vancouver and up to the Mountains along the Sea to Sky highway.  The road is excellent  and it is mostly dual carriageway but there are points that it is single lane and it can get icy despite being very well maintained.  Snow will be banked up on the sides of the road and so on.  It is however, the most spectacular road I have ever driven on, the mountains on one side and the most beautiful coloured turquoise ocean on the other.  If you are comfortable driving in RHT then I would absolutely choose this option. We hire from Avis who allow a one way rental to Whistler.  The Avis drop off in Whistler is a short walk from the Village centre.



Please remember that my recommendations are based entirely on our own experiences and what we have enjoyed as a family.  If you have any further questions I will do my best to answer them.  If you are considering a family ski trip to Whistler, do it.  Canada is so incredibly beautiful and Whistler is a truly magical place to ski, you wont regret it!

Magical Whistler sunset






Saturday, February 2, 2013

Two little powderhounds

The last few weeks of the school holidays were spent skiing at Whistler and it was beyond fabulous.  I know, I am very lucky.  I hope the boys realise how lucky they are as well one day. We were blessed with gorgeous weather and fantastic snow and skied almost every day.






From Whistler village you can ski two different mountains, Whistler and Blackcomb.  The two mountains are joined by the Peak to Peak Gondola a record breaking feat of remarkable engineering.  It is the longest unsupported span for a lift in the world and the highest lift system of it's kind in the world.      It was an amazing experience riding in it, although the Captain admitted to me afterwards he felt a little wary, the 4 year old however is a daredevil and as you can see had his eyes trained out the windows of the gondola the whole way.




We stayed in Whistler Village and it was just gorgeous, all the Christmas lights were still up and the atmosphere was amazing.  I felt like I was walking through an illustration in a vintage children's picture book about Christmas.










Whistler for kids is a magical experience.  The ski school was fantastic, great instructors and everything else you would expect from a ski school program.  They even attach Flaik's (a GPS) to the kids so that at the end of the day you can go online and track the runs that they did each day. Probably so the instructor doesn't lose a kid either I suppose.  We couldn't believe it when we saw that the 4 year old had done a couple of black diamond runs.   I mean, he said that he had done them but we, and I know it sounds bad but we didn't believe him!  But with "big brother" watching his every move we discovered he was actually telling us the truth!



There are even a few playgrounds dotted amongst the many runs.  This one is called The Tree Fort!  Hard to believe that they managed to scamper about all over this in ski boots.











The highlight of the holiday? Well for this one it was that he got poles!  Quite the milestone for a little powderhound!




On either side of Canada we squeezed in a few days in the States.  Including a quick side trip to Legoland.








Luckily for the grown ups someone at Legoland has a sense of humour.  Even R and I had a wonderful time.  (I am allowed to laugh at the Volvo thing, my parents have always had one!)

Several weeks away though and we are now thrilled to be home and I am looking forward to catching up with you all.  I have been thinking of all my QLD friends and hope you have all survived the wild weather.  It even made the news in Canada!





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