The most memorable part had nothing to do with the skiing.
It came when we were exploring the hotel spa and the children wandered towards the sauna.
There sat a corpulent Austrian, glorying in his own sweat, palming his gleaming flanks, his manhood sizzling in its own juices on the wooden bench. I ushered the children urgently towards the salt therapy area, pretending not to hear their questions. (Them: ‘Why was that man naked?’ Me: ‘Look, isn’t it amazing what they can do with salt?’)
To this day, if you ask my kids about the Austrian alps, they will describe a naked man in a sauna.
But there was, of course, more to the holiday than a penis scalding on a wooden board. This was the Vaya St. Zeno hotel in Serfaus, an alpine resort that I had selected because of the ‘underground train’ that promised to herald a sense of peace and tranquillity. (At the time, it struck me as an ingenious and typically European way of reducing traffic congestion and pollution. Why couldn’t Britain learn from our sophisticated Continental cousins? Then I realised that London had had a Tube since 1863.)
Serfaus is a smallish, family-friendly resort 1,429 metres (4,688ft) above sea level in the central Alps. Jake reveals that it has 133 miles of pistes, 68 lifts and lots of wide, blue runs and friendly reds
I say hotel. The Vaya is not a hotel, not really. It is more a honeycomb of self-servicing apartments enrobed in luxury, with a decent restaurant and bar, perched on the collarbone of a mountain. It’s a ski place, and that means that everything is made of wood and is designed to be comforting, a hospital for the insane who believe that ordinary families can train like Olympic athletes for a week over the winter and call it fun.
But it is fun, isn’t it? It is the best fun.
Thus I attempted to invigorate the children on the first day, when I defied the travel fatigue to wake them up at seven on the dot and command them to get into their Olympic kit. OK, so not Olympic kit. I doubt that Charlie Guest or Billy Major buys their stuff from Decathlon. But you know what I mean. There’s something military about it – that scene in war films where the naive recruits file into the storeroom and are issued their uniforms and equipment before they are herded onto the battlefield and massacred. Ski trousers; ski jackets; gloves, two each, matching ones, itself a challenge of its own; thick socks – yes darling these are hiking socks but I promise you there’s no difference, just PUT THEM ON – and goggles. The b*****d goggles.
The problem is that all the kids want to look like the Power Rangers. One wants to be blue, the other red, and my oldest daughter, who is 15, is determined to be kitted out in white. Those are my goggles! No, they’re mine! You said I could use them! They’re too tight, I can’t wear them,they dig into my nose! Those ones make me dizzy! They’re designed for blizzards and it’s sunny, I’ll be literally blinded! Literally! He wore them last time, it’s my turn! But you literally agreed last year that those were mine! I’m not wearing them! And so on.
Vaya St. Zeno hotel in Serfaus has an ‘extensive’ spa, says Jake
Jake describes the spa at Vaya St. Zeno hotel as being like a ‘rabbit warren’
Ah, ski holidays with four children. You know what it’s like. We wrangled with salopettes and snoods and those fiddly dials on the back of helmets; we dealt patiently with the fact that the snowsuit assigned to one of the girls pinched her nether regions (by taking it off and stretching it); we zipped ski passes into the little sleeve pockets, times six.
All of this took place in the apartment, which was fragrant with alpine wood, with a kitchen made of slate and steel and plate windows looking over the mountains. The central heating was excellent and while those of us who had been dressed for some time waited for the final complications of costumery to be resolved, we sat and sweated, looking out at the distant snow. Ants could be seen on the slopes already. Time was marching on.
A further delay was occasioned by the cheerful arrival of one of the hotel staff, who was delivering our packed lunches. Right. One in each rucksack or shall I take them all? It makes more sense if they are all together, but what if there’s an avalanche and we get separated? You would all starve and I would feast. They contain boiled eggs. They’ll get obliterated in the bags. The children won’t eat them anyway. DO NOT TAKE OFF YOUR SNOODS, we are literally about to go. Where’s your other glove? No it doesn’t pinch. And so on.
The skiing, when we finally got going, was excellent. Serfaus is a smallish, family-friendly resort. It is 1,429 metres above sea level (4,688ft) in the central Alps, a little off the beaten track and very pristine, with 133 miles of pistes, 68 lifts and lots of wide, blue runs and friendly reds. It also – did I mention? – has an underground railway, and draconian restrictions on cars means that it is very quiet and peaceful and pristine.
Our Skischule Serfaus instructors, Marcus Of Infinite Patience and Anna The Efficient, who took a shine to the youngest and nicknamed her ‘mouse’, were attentive and easygoing and full of good advice. The most valuable was the injunction to enter ‘holiday mode’; that is, to let go of the Olympic training vibe and bear in mind that this is supposed to be fun. That made the whole experience much lighter. Looking back, it would be pretty good advice for life, if only it were human nature to take it.
Sometimes there is something rather philistine about skiing. You go to a foreign country and spend your time slipping down the slopes, bubbled from the culture and guffawing to other foreigners. But from time to time, it hits you in the face, and that is when it’s all worthwhile. On the final day of our holiday, when we were all in that limbo zone between loving the skiing and rather needing a break, a drunken head popped up over the balcony. It was an Austrian from the apartment next door, inviting us for a party.
‘Everything is made of wood and is designed to be comforting,’ Jake says of the hotel’s interior
The staff at Vaya St. Zeno are ‘attentive and multilingual’ says Jake
The kids needed sleep. We declined. Then came the Europop. By 11pm, when the children were all struggling to sleep, I saw red and marched round. The door was ajar in the style of the ‘open house’ so I walked in. The place was half lit. At least 50 people were standing around and drinking, with music pumping from an eyewateringly large speaker in the middle of the table. Apres ski my a**e.
I found the woman in charge and demanded that she turn the volume down. Then I stalked out. To my amazement, within two minutes a deadly silence fell. A short time later, I heard the guests creeping away down the corridor, conversing in whispers. This isn’t Britain, I thought, where people reduce the volume by a half-turn for a bit, then crank it up again. Finally, on the last day, we had arrived in Austria.
So between the raucous parties and the naked sauna men, we got our share of cultural immersion. We got our share of wonderful food in the Vaya restaurant, and excellent service, and many happy hours in the extensive spa, which is like a rabbit warren and has chairs that heat up your spine after a day’s hard skiing. And we certainly got our share of that.
Jake was hosted by Vaya St. Zeno hotel in Serfaus, where rooms start from £403 (at the time of writing).
PROS: Luxury private apartments with an excellent view of the mountains. Fabulous spa for recuperating after skiing. Attentive, multilingual staff. Comfortable restaurant with a good and varied menu.
CONS: The apartments are not always cleaned or serviced as frequently as you’d like. A 20-minute walk from the slopes (though there is ski storage at the pistes).
Rating out of five: ****