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Skiing Europe

Guest article by Family Travel Forum

It's hard to imagine a family with more skiing interest or experience than the Crystal clan. Grandparents Fred and Phyllis Crystal started skiing in the late 1950s, and brought their three children onto the slopes as soon as they could handle it. Their son Bruce, now in his 40s, has followed in the family tradition, skiing over every holiday from his teens onward. With three girls of his own (Sarah, 13; Danielle, 11; Anna, 7) in tow, Bruce and his wife Ellen have adapted their ski passion to the realities of family life. These three generations have skied all over North America for many years, yet ended up favoring European schussing. This is their story.

FTF: You guys are both highly skilled skiers, with almost three-quarters of a century of skiing between you. When did you first ski Europe and why did you go there?

FRED: I took up skiing in my forties and really took to it with a passion. After we had skied all of the Eastern mountains and quite a few of the Western ones, we decided to try Europe and just fell in love with it. We went every February for 3-4 weeks from the early 60s until we stopped skiing in the late 1980s. Our first trip was to Zermatt. It was beautiful, but on the slopes we quickly found ourselves in over our heads. So, we hired a guide to help us acclimate and then really loved it. We were certainly drawn by the skiing challenges, but even more by the gemutlichkeit, the special European flavor of the whole experience. Instead of just skiing down the mountain, going up, then down the same mountain again, we found that we could ski really long runs (up to half a day) to wonderful mountain restaurants, and, in some areas, could even ski from village to village, have a superb meal, then take a bus or train back to our hotel. We would even ski from France into Italy and back again. As good as some North American skiing can be, these kinds of experiences can only be found in Europe.

FTF: Bruce, when did you first taste European skiing and what is your favorite area?

BRUCE: My folks took us to Davos and Zermatt when we were in high school and college, and I went back with a cousin after college. In 1980, I moved with my wife Ellen to London and from there we skied all over Europe -- Zermatt, Chamonix, Davos, Verbier, Val d'Isere, Trois Vallees. My favorite is Verbier, in Switzerland. It's easy to get to (2 hours by car from Geneva) and, though there has been lots of building, the village hasn't been spoiled. The trails have a good layout, with lots of runs for a wide range of difficulties. You can't ski so much from village to village but there are wonderful restaurants on the mountains. The ski school is generally good, but not aggressive enough for my taste for kids under eight or nine. They are slow to get them up on the mountain, unlike the approach in the better ski schools of America.

FTF: Freddie, your favorite?
FRED: It depends on what you are looking for -- nightlife, pure ambiance, challenging skiing? We really love the Swiss resorts, for both skiing and environment, and Verbier is also our top choice. Everything is built chalet-style, not with the big purpose-built apartment houses that you find in some French resorts. Most of the Swiss and Austrian resorts are quite beautiful. In France, we like Chamonix, but it's not charming, like Verbier. In Austria, it would have to be the Alberg region.

FTF: Since the Crystal clan has also traversed almost every major slope in North America, can you give us a quick history of pre-Europe skiing?

BRUCE: As a kid growing up in New Jersey, I went with my parents first to Vermont --mainly Mt. Snow and Stowe where I learned to ski. Then, we moved on to Sugarloaf in Maine, which was my favorite in the East. In our early teens, we started going out West and have skied almost all of the major ski areas out there.

FTF: Now that you've been back to some of these areas with your kids, which ones do you recommend for families?

BRUCE: If you prefer to be in a larger town, then Vail is a great choice for a family resort. The skiing is good and the town is sophisticated, with lots of restaurants, movies, shops. But for my taste, even better are Steamboat Springs and Taos. Steamboat is a good family mountain, with a fine ski school, a quiet town with a real Western flavor, and even hot springs for post-ski soaking. Taos is my real favorite. But it's a tough mountain and better suited for highly skilled skiers. It's got a bit of European flavor, and, arguably the best ski school in the West. Unlike Vail or Steamboat, the lodge is really isolated and far from the town, which I happen to like. There are no Japanese restaurants, no movie houses -- just skiing and the lodge. Fortunately, the food is great and so is the skiing. Taos is one of the few mountains in America to limit the number of skiers. They stop selling tickets when they reach the daily limit.

FTF: What about the economics of skiing Europe versus the US?

BRUCE: Well, in the mid-80s, Europe was cheap, but with the decline in the dollar, it's no longer such a bargain. It is a bit more expensive to ski there but it can be worth it for the special experience that's available. I figure that a week of skiing with my wife and three kids will cost $8,000-$10,000, no matter where I go. We book everything a la carte, though we could probably save by trying the airline tour packages. I would also recommend renting skis, rather than buying. The boots are the most important part of the gear, so I buy very good ones. Unless you ski more than 3-4 weeks per year, it's cheaper and more versatile to rent the skis. You can then respond to changing snow conditions on different days, and can always try the newest designs in skis. Traveling is also much easier without the skis and poles.

FTF: Final question: what's your approach on teaching kids to ski?

BRUCE: I want it to be fun for my kids. If the elements are uncomfortable, if the weather is bad, I just cancel and bring them back another day. I think five is the earliest age to start ski lessons. I took my kids skiing down the hill between my legs at an earlier age, but didn't start them in ski school until age five. I like a ski school that is serious about getting the kids on the mountain early. I want them to be taught to ski, not to play games.

FTF: Bruce, have your children changed your ski habits?

BRUCE: Well, we can't make every vacation a ski trip, like we did before they were born. Now we have to take into account what the kids want to do, which is not always skiing. That's just part of having a family. It's still great, though.
Bruce Crystal, an investment banker with Lehman Brothers, lives with his family in Boston. Fred Crystal, a retired retailer, lives with his wife Phyllis in East Hampton, New York.

Ski Season Savings
* The most cost-effective way to ski Europe is with an air/land package through one of your destination resort's trusted tour operators or Europe-based airlines like Air France. Check with your travel agent, the tour operators, or airlines directly. You can also check with Switzerland Tourism (212/757-5944).
* Check out the hotels included in any package. Cheaper is not always better and a few additional dollars can get you much closer to the lifts in more comfortable accommodations.
* Book early and be advised that the Christmas-New Year period will be the most crowded at both European and American resorts.

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