Committing to a skiing holiday with young children is a leap of faith. Experience tells me that for every hour of cruising down the pistes, leaning in to long sweeping turns as clouds of powder swish off your skis in the sunshine, there is another hour spent managing tears, freezing fingers, a lost glove, an ill-fitting boot and a four-year-old begging to go home.
However, after a day of getting used to wearing cumbersome plastic boots and complaining that the cheese doesn’t taste the same, it is always a fantastic experience. If you can get it right, the combination of breathtaking scenery, physical exercise and fresh air cannot be beaten by any other kind of family adventure.
The ideal hotel
Our recent stay at the Nira Alpina has finally shown us the elusive secret to ski-holiday success, which is to choose where you stay very carefully. There are other types of holiday where you can allow a little more leniency on accommodation, particularly if you are near a sunny beach, or a town that is the main reason for your visit.
But when it comes to a skiing holiday, there is a risk your hotel will be old and tired and prone to the odours of a teenage changing room. Alternatively, the grand hotels and palazzos can be so stuffy and pricy as to make them neither attractive nor affordable. This is why we fell in love with the Nira Alpina, a modern masterpiece just 10 minutes’ drive above the postcard-pretty Swiss town of St Moritz.
On arrival in Zurich at 7pm, our family of five was whisked up the mountain in one of the hotel’s sleek black people carriers, arriving in luxurious comfort and a flurry of light snow at around 10pm. We were met by Patrick Mrozek, one of the hotel managers, as well as other members of the Nira Alpina team, who insisted on carrying our two youngest sleepyheads to our rooms to help us get them into bed. We were urged not to unpack anything except overnight essentials, and assured that the unpacking service would take care of the rest while we were at breakfast the following day. So far, so very amazing, thank you very much.
Gasps of awe
When morning broke the following day, and the curtains drawn back from the floor-to-ceiling windows, the magnificence of the Alps was revealed to gasps from all of us. It was clear from the sight of people skiing past the hotel a few hundred metres away that we were not only well above the snowline, but immediately next to the pistes. Our rooms were spacious with plenty of room for the family to congregate and dress and plan for the day.
In a chalet, a ‘skiing family breakfast’ tends to be much the same as it is at home, all a bit of a scramble and a lot of fetching and carrying. This is where the Nira Alpina’s top-floor dining room has an advantage. The Stars restaurant is a vast open space overlooking the mountains, where we were all seated at a large table set beautifully by the window. There is no sense of haste as orders are taken for crispy bacon and poached eggs with yolks the colour of the sun. Down one side of the long rectangular room is a panoramic view of the lakes and mountains. Down the other side is a hundred yards of buffet options, including cereals, juices, fruits, fresh meats and cheeses. There is even a section entirely devoted to every kind of fresh Alpine honey imaginable. Miel d’Edelweiss, anyone?
Time to ski…
By 9am, we were back in one of the hotel’s Mercedes carriers and whisked down the hill to an impressive ski-hire shop. The staff moved quickly and efficiently to fit us out in the newest equipment, and before we knew it, we were heading back up the hill.
The hotel had kindly arranged some one-on-one tuition for our two little beginners, and the tutors were ready in reception to meet us after breakfast. As with most ski teachers, they immediately put our kids at ease. Once their feet had been encased in their mini ski boots, they hobbled off with happy smiles and a handful of chocolates in their pockets to the top of the nursery slope, just 50ft from the front door.
I can’t throw a ski pole very far, but even I could throw one from the front door of the hotel to the cable car that takes you up the mountain. Alternatively, guests may use the architectural design feature of a glass-covered walkway directly from the second floor of the hotel. In any case, you couldn’t be closer to the transport that takes you to the Corvatsch Mountain Station, which at 3,303m above sea level is the highest mountain-top station of the eastern Alps. The snow is, therefore, exceptional, and from there you can look down on over 120km of groomed pistes and a snowpark featuring a half-pipe and a bag jump. Only the most extreme skier could fail to be impressed at this altitude, on a sunny day, with all the options available.
My husband, eldest daughter and I stepped out of the hotel, across the driveway, and into the cable car, and within a few minutes we were climbing at a brisk pace up to the summit. Corvatsch skiing is excellent for any level up to good intermediate. Advanced skiers may wish to travel across to the St Moritz side of the mountain and perhaps even scare themselves silly on a Cresta Run toboggan, which my husband loved. We can ski most things, although in truth we prefer a swift cruise down reds and blacks, which is what our side of the mountain offered. After a couple of hours’ exploring the runs, we would typically ski down the mountain, connecting with a stunning route through the trees, shimmering with ice crystals, and across to the nursery slope to pick up two rosy-cheeked happy little ski-schoolers.
From there, it’s a 30-second ski directly to a table set for lunch at the hotel. A glass or two of Pinot Grigio to match a fondue, or a bowl of goulash, was all we needed, and the kids loved their handmade burgers or bolognaise.
After exchanging tales of the morning’s activities, and as the temperature started to cool outside, the children would beg to go inside to the Kids’ Club, a combination of arts and crafts areas, a movie screen, video games, an air-hockey table and a popcorn machine. The attentive staff will keep an eye on them there while you zip up the cable car for another couple of hours’ skiing.
Following a quick shot of Schnapps in the Pichalain Hut, the Nira Alpina’s very own Swiss-timbered après-ski cabin, the hotel spa was my next location of choice. The kids loved the giant hot tub, and my eldest daughter and I had a few expert massages, steams and saunas. All this takes place in the shadow of a giant mountain landscape visible through the Nira Alpina’s vast windows. The designers of this hotel have created a feeling of lightness and space, an atrium effect of glass and wood, allowing guests to feel warm and cosseted inside, while being constantly aware of Switzerland’s jagged snow-covered peaks outside.
Conversation turned to dinner, and which of the two dining locations to choose. On the top level of the hotel is a world-class cocktail bar, beautifully lit, with a modern open fireplace and soft animal skins over hand-stitched leather chairs and benches. There is a glass-encased menu solely for ordering bespoke G&Ts, where you can select from the world’s finest gins, paired with your choice of international tonics. Upstairs dining is an excellent à la carte combination of Asian fusion dishes from India and the Far East, as well as expertly cooked local options, such as venison wrapped in pancetta. The hidden gem in the hotel is the Trattoria, which features Italian cooking at its very best from chef Matteo, combined with some pure Sardinian theatre from the energetic front-of-house, Tony Crisi.
Once the kids were in bed, we would allow ourselves a final cocktail or two by the open fire in the Rooftop Bar, where velvety lounge tunes are played by the resident DJ. It is at this moment that you truly appreciate the excellence of the Nira Alpina, an exceptional hotel in a breathtaking location, run by the loveliest and most attentive staff you could wish for. There really was nothing general manager Kai Ulrich and his team won’t do to ensure guests are looked after. I have searched for just one thing I could write that was in some way sub-standard or could use improvement, but I cannot fault this hotel. I would not hesitate to recommend the Nira Alpina to anyone, and we are already looking forward to our return next Christmas.