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Child's play

Austrian ski area puts focus squarely on family fun

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The vistas of the Austrian Alps were glorious, the mountain air bracing and clean, and the snow conditions perfect. In the midst of this winter sports paradise, my daughter was wailing: "I don't want to go skiing!"

Our visit to one of Europe's most family-friendly ski resorts was off to a rocky start. It quickly improved.

We had ridden the Komperdellbahn cable car up from the village of Serfaus to the school, where Julia was booked for three days of lessons, courtesy of the local tourism authority. En route, she had repeatedly claimed with all the certitude of her seven years of life she already knew how to ski, citing a couple of brief lessons on the relatively dwarfish hills of central Ontario.

But when the time came to negotiate a small slope down to the ski school, reality predictably struck as the foreign objects attached to her feet caused her to fall over and over again. As her eyes streamed, we practically carried her over to her lesson, amid hundreds of other children, from toddlers to adolescents, many also weeping.

Luckily, Skischule Serfaus is expert in dealing with the challenges of child wrangling on the slopes. Austrians, after all, claim to be born with skis attached to their feet.

The different age and skill levels were each assigned their own area, with appropriately gentle slopes and beginner-friendly conveyor belts to roll them back to the top.

We delivered Julia into the calm hands of instructor Peter Steinwender, who fluidly delivered enthusiastic instructions in both English and German to his small group of students.

"We try to make it fun," he told me. "The kids learn much better."

The tears stopped.

About an hour's drive west of Innsbruck, the villages of Serfaus, Fiss and Ladis make a combined ski area that is popular with Germans, Swiss and Dutch, but almost unknown to North Americans.

Alexandra Hangl from the Serfaus-Fiss-Ladis tourism marketing agency explained they do little advertising on the other side of the Atlantic. They do not need it, because their hotels are typically fully booked with Europeans, thanks to a decision 30 years ago to focus on the family market.

"We wanted to be different from the others," she said. "The villages are really made for families."

The family theme carries through with the hotels, which are almost uniformly owned by locals. The tourism bureau booked us into the Drie Sonnen, (Three Suns), an elegant but homey place in the centre of the village.

Owner Franz Lechleitner started out as a butcher. But he and his wife Irene could see how alpine sports were transforming Serfaus, so, in 1991, they built their hotel.

"In my time, I can remember when it was a little village with poor farmers who each owned a few cows," he told me in the lobby of the Drie Sonnen.

There are still a handful of people who farm in the summer, but most of them spend the winter months working in the booming ski industry. This formerly impoverished alpine backwater is now a bustling village lined with winter sports shops, small hotels and restaurants.

Despite the steady stream of visitors, the Lechleitners have no plans to expand.

"If a hotel gets too big, it's like a factory, not a family," said Franz.

Every night at dinner, Irene Lechleitner stopped at each table to offer a warm smile and welcome, although conversations were brief, due to the language barrier.

Serfaus hosts the world's highest, and shortest, subway line. The Dorfbahn has only four stops, starting at the parking lot at the entrance of the village and ending at the base of the ski hill.

Visitors are allowed to drive to their hotel, but then the cars are parked and everyone is expected to either walk or take the subway. This unique version of alpine mass transit is a necessity in a village of 1,100 people, which often hosts more than 10 times as many guests in the winter.

Ms. Hangl told me that, during our visit, there were about 18,000 people skiing on the mountains above the three villages. But Austrian efficiency in moving people up and down the hills, coupled with 204 kilometres of runs, meant we never had to wait more than five minutes to get on a lift.

As an out-of-practice intermediate skier, I studied the piste map carefully before venturing onto the Planseggbahn lift, which took me far up the mountain, almost to the 2,400-metre elevation. It felt like the top of the world: Above me was Planskopf peak, and all around, a breathtaking alpine mountainscape.

Below me: the Zanbodenabfahrt piste, one of their blue runs -- easy by Austrian terms, more intermediate by my Ontario standards. After spending a couple of minutes admiring the view, I took a deep breath and headed downhill. Despite the crowds I knew were on the mountain, I was stunned to find myself almost alone on a wide and forgiving slope that wound downhill for three spectacular kilometres.

At the ski school, Julia was thriving, proudly showing off her newly acquired skills. Her instructor was right about the fun part: Every morning, they put on a song-and-dance show for the children, starring the resort's mascot, Murmli the marmot (one of the instructors dresses in a large rodent costume). It was all in German, but somehow Julia managed to sing along.

We had only planned to enrol her for three days, but she begged to return for the final day so she could take part in the "races" and get one of the medals awarded at the end.

"I love ski school!" she proclaimed.

How could we resist?

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 14, 2012 D2

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