Outside magazine, Travel Guide 1997-1998
Choosing a ski area for a vacation was easy when my daughters were pre-schoolers. Give us a mountain fewer than four hours of Yugoslav-style backseat squabbling away, a restaurant that serves chicken fingers, a condominium with a dishwasher, and a swimming pool we could bear to share with them, and we were happy — well, at least they were happy. Then, two years ago, when everyone had outgrown the novice runs, I spread out the brochures from the usual suspects, scanned the photographs of flimsy condominium villages, identical pine-paneled lodges, and ski instructors dressed as Mr. Moose, and despaired.
"So, what do you remember from our ski holidays?" I asked.
Silence. Finally someone mentioned an awesome water slide, a condo with cool loft beds, and an instructor whose clowning made them giggle. Clearly these "McResorts" had been long on comfort and predictability, but short on adventure; they had turned them into confident little skiers, but had not provided any lasting family memories.
This changed when, mainly because the Canadian dollar was so weak, we decided to stay at the Hotel Val des Neiges in Mont Ste.-Anne, a sprawling three-sided mountain just east of Quebec City. Ask my girls about Mont Ste.-Anne and they'll rattle on about the kid-sized bumps on the north side of the mountain, eating crepes swimming in Canadian maple syrup on the sunny deck of the Refuge du Nord lodge, trying out their French on the patient Val des Neiges waiters, eating their first frog's legs and mussels, swooshing down the ice slide at Le Chateau Frontenac, and trudging across the snowy Plains of Abraham as we explained why the 1763 battle here changed North American history.
We were so encouraged by this experience that the following Thanksgiving we drove to Tremblant and stayed in a third-floor condominium over the shops and restaurants of the recreated eighteenth-century French town of cobblestone streets and stone houses — "like a village in a fairy tale," said our youngest. We allowed them to wander through the village by themselves, and on the way home we stopped for a night in Montreal, where a display of talking mannequins at the Mus‰e d'Art Contemporain so gripped them that they can still mimic their spooky dialogue.
The next year, after a family from the neighboring town raved about taking Amtrak to Colorado for a ski vacation, we decided to travel by train from Montreal to Jasper in the Canadian Rockies. I hoped the trip would help the girls appreciate the romance of distance and space, and realize that a great continent, not just a carpet of white clouds, separated our Adirondacks from the Rockies. For three days and two nights we hurtled through a silent world of frozen lakes and log cabins buried to their eyebrows in snow. We lingered over pots of tea in the art deco dining car and counted the twinkling lights of farmhouses floating like islands in the flat white sea of the prairie. We looked up from our backgammon games in the rear bullet lounge to see elk grazing along a siding, and watched a sudden snow squall extinguish the lights of Winnipeg while we drank hot chocolate in the dome.
I had worried that living in such close quarters while cut off from friends, work, and the telephone would leave us fractious and exhausted, but the trip had an almost narcotic effect. Squabbling ceased, journals were written, everyone relaxed, and the girls began calling the train the "Polar Express," after the book in which a mysterious train speeds a flock of children in pajamas through snowbound forests to the North Pole. We all seemed to recognize that instead of a vacation, we were sharing an adventure.
The Lake Louise and Sunshine Village ski areas delivered on their brochure promises of uncrowded areas with uncrowded trails, powdery bowls, and scenery so spectacular it's on a par with the Grand Canyon. The girls loved traveling up to Sunshine Village by gondola, and liked skiing its Bye Bye Bowl, so named because if you made a wrong turn you could be stuck overnight.
They still talk about twirling around the lighted ice castle at Lake Louise while a horse-drawn carriage crossed the lake and lights gleamed in the windows of the vast white hotel, and about the time Sophie raised our blinds at the Jasper Park Lodge to see an elk pooping on our doorstep. They can recall soaking in the Sunshine Village Inn hot tub by moonlight, picnicking in shirtsleeves on a brilliant sunny day at a deserted rest stop near the Athabasca Glacier, and having the morning newspaper at Jasper delivered by a dog wearing red saddlebags.
Our ski holidays have taken us to Canada because we live nearby, but the rules they have taught us are universal: Pick a resort or accommodations that in some way are unusual or historic; travel one way by train if you can; spend a night or a few hours in a nearby city or at some non-skiing attraction and learn something about the local history. This could mean budgeting a day in Vancouver to recover from jet lag before catching the bus to Whistler, stopping in Santa Fe after skiing Taos, combining Big Sky with a drive to Yellowstone, taking the new ski train from New York to Killington, or traveling on Amtrak's California Zephyr to Vail, Aspen, Salt Lake City, or Squaw Valley.
And then, 20 years from now, your children may take their own kids on ski vacations that promise to create memories as sharp and distinct as a range of winter mountains silhouetted against a blue sky.