“Allez, allez” shouts the musher, the reins snap tight, and we are yanked forward, our willing little dogs scamper along in front, pulling us up over ridges and around tight little bends.
I’ve come to Alpe d’Huez, in the Rhône-Alpes region of the French Alps, to experience what’s on offer for fun-loving families. So, to begin with, I’ve squeezed myself into a little wooden sleigh so a pack of huskies can pull me along for the afternoon. The practice of using dogs to pull sleds dates back to 2000BC, when American Indian cultures used them to pull loads.
Dog sledding in Alpe d’Huez, like elsewhere, has now become one of the most popular activities in ski resorts. Sitting just a few inches off the ground, it’s a bumpy ride, but also offers a unique view of the breathtaking alpine surroundings. As we pass the halfway mark, the kids are given the chance to join the musher and stand at the back of the sleigh, which they clearly love, if their wide-eyed beaming faces are anything to go by. After we’ve taken our turn to pose for pictures with our plucky pack of huskies, I return to my hotel, the Petit Prince.
Located just outside the main village centre at 1,860m, the ultra modern, chic design reflects the Scandanavian origins of owners Langley. The lounge is very inviting after a day’s skiiing, with its big comfy sofas, large open fire, and big fur rug, where the kids can sit and play after dinner. The highpoint though is when I step outside for the first time, to be bathed in sunshine. The resort is sat in a sunny bowl, and there can’t be many better places to gaze at the magnificent, gleaming panorama. The contemporary, slick styling continues in the room, where I’m treated to a wetroom and huge wraparound balcony, with the same south-facing view of the immense valley below.
Dinner, served from 7pm – earlier for young children – is equally impressive. Three courses of beautifully presented food is served up daily by the hotel’s superb Swedish head chef Anton, who is just 19 years old. The resort is family-friendly in every respect, and this starts right here at the hotel, with the nanny service, Pepi Penguin for youngsters from six months, and the Whizz Kids Club for children aged 3-11.
The next morning, I step out of the hotel, clip in and ski to the Grand Sure lift, just 50 metres below, which whizzes me up to Signal. From there I have access to 155 miles of pistes and 84 lifts, making Alpe d’Huez one of the largest and highest ski resorts in the Alps. At 3,300 metres, expert skiers flock to the top of Pic Blanc to descend the mighty 10-mile Sarenne, the longest run in the world.
I’m not ready to tame the black runs of the resort just yet, so join the ESF school for some tuition. The groups meet daily by the Grandes Rousses gondola at 9.15. If you are booking in the children, then six mornings cost around £135 or six full days for around £200. Classes will then take the Jeux chairlift, where there’s an array of easy greens and blues, or ski to outlying villages Oz en Oisans and Vaujany, for more challenging, technical reds.
With my confidence levels surging by the end of the lesson – in no small part due to our instructor Oliver – it’s time to head a little higher, into the heart of the ski terrain. Take the Marmotte chairlift and then a cable car up to 3000m, or the Grandes Rousses cable car to reach 3,300 on the top of Pic Blanc.
As I ride back up the mountain, I pass the Piste De Luge, a long purpose-built sledging track. If you are used to taking the kids to the nearest hill in winter, then you’ll be in for a surprise. If they love it here, then consider flood-lit night sledding on the Butte Eclose slope on Tuesdays and Thursdays. A big hit with the older kids and teenagers is the snow park. I pass children queuing up to race each other around a tight, twisty circuit with steep banks and jumps. Below there are rails and kickers where the next generation of daring freestyle wannabes show off to their mates, trying to outdo each other by catching bigger air and pulling off more flicks and twists. It’s not without its risk though, as one or two miss their landings.
If you’d rather steer the kids towards some slightly less hazardous activities, then there are plenty to choose from away from the slopes, too. After picking up my towel and taking a slight detour via the nearest sports shop to buy a pair of speedos (they are mandatory here gents) I arrive at the outdoor swimming pool right in the heart of the pretty village. It is surrounded by boutique-style shops, bars and restaurants, adorned with wood and stone to give that authentic alpine feel.
It’s minus five, so the thought of swimming outside wearing just my newly acquired trunks is not the most appealing. I quickly scamper through the changing area and out into the warmth of the large, heated, steamy pool. It’s a strange sensation swimming in warm waters, when it’s so bitterly cold outside. Families seem to love the novelty though with kids regularly challenging each other to see who can get out of the pool and lean up against the snow for the longest before jumping back in. If you bring along your ski passes, the first visit is free, and so too is the ice rink a little further along the street.
Hop on the free shuttle bus to the nearby sports centre, and the kids can choose one free activity, including football, table tennis, swimming, and even in-vertigo, an adventure trail hanging from the ceiling. If they are brave enough, back in the village there is even a giant zip line that stretches for more than 400 metres.
Once you’ve got them grounded again, head to La Grange De L’Ours, which sells all manner of cakes and sweet treats, hot chocolate and the best mulled wine in the resort. The decor is like something out of a fairytale, with a 10ft cuddly polar bear lurking in the corner. It is a surreal piece of escapism, not unlike Alpe d’Huez itself – a winter wonderland, which you might just enjoy as much as your kids.
Crystal Ski Holidays (www.crystalski.co.uk; 020 8939 0726) offers a week’s half board at the three-star Hotel Petit Prince in Alpe d’Huez from £714 per person (based on two sharing) including flights from Manchester and transfers departing during January. Special offer: 2for1 equipment hire. Dog sledding in Alpe d’Huez from 30 euros.