We’ve had a slow, dry start to winter here in the southern Rockies. So dry that doomsday scenarios began to creep in. Was winter dying? Would it ever snow again? Would our kids forget what skiing is? Would we burn through a whole winter without using a single day of our season passes? Then the storm track began to set up and dumped 16 inches in the Sangre de Cristos in a day. Things were looking hopeful, but when it comes to snow, you can’t be too superstitious. So we did the only natural thing to ensure it keeps snowing in New Mexico: Ten days before Christmas, we drove north to ski in Colorado.
Usually when we go north, we stay south: Telluride, Crested Butte, Wolf Creek. But this time we set our course for Vail and Beaver Creek, figuring that in iffy conditions, Colorado’s largest resorts would have more off-snow options to keep us and our daughters, ages two and four, entertained. As luck would have it, we wouldn’t need to hedge our bets. On the morning we left, a storm roared in from Arizona, coating northern New Mexico in thick, wet snow, while a second system made aim for the Vail Valley, where it would storm—and we would play—for three days straight.
The swankiest family base camp in Vail is the Four Seasons, on a prime piece of real estate in Vail Village. It’s not exactly slope-side, but the ski concierge will tote your gear back and forth, and if you don’t want to walk the seven minutes to Vista Bahn chairlift, you can catch the free, on-demand resort “shuttle” (a.k.a. Mercedes SUV). The hotel seems born to cater to kids, and when we arrived in the room there were personalized welcome notes for both girls, tot-sized fluffy bathrobes and slippers, and two plates of cookies with their names drawn in liquid chocolate. We would have felt like afterthoughts had the whole place not been so luscious: down beds with hot water bottles, hot tubs and salt-water heated pool in the courtyard below, and a marble bathroom big enough to become the living room after the girls went to sleep. Everything we could possibly want, and stuff we didn’t think to want, was on offer. It felt exactly like being home, only much, much plusher.
Even though it snowed on and off for most of the night, the conditions were still early-season marginal the next morning, so we kitted out the kids for a snowshoeing expedition with the good people from Vail Nordic Center. Our enterprising guide, Farnham St. John, met us with snowshoes for all, a thermos of hot cocoa, and a secret stash of pink marshmallows for a trek up Sprattle Creek, a snow-covered jeep road that climbs the slopes across the valley and offers giant views of Vail Mountain. I didn’t need to warn Farnham about the limitations of snowshoeing with little ones. He has two of his own, and seemed at ease strapping Pippa, four, into her tiny Atlas shoes and teaching her how to walk with her feet spread apart like a duck.
It was Pippa’s first time on snowshoes, but she was soon clomping through drifts, kicking up a spray of snow as she ran, as Farnham kept pace, picking service berries off branches for the girls to see and pointing out fox prints in the snow. Although we probably only made it half a mile at most before we took a hot chocolate break and turned around, it was still farther than I’d expected—and no doubt farther than Pippa would have traipsed had Farnham not been there to cheer her on. He even brought tiny snowshoes for two-year-old Maisy, who spent most of the time on our backs, except when she was tripping over herself, trying to make sense of the unwieldy rackets on her feet.
Back in town, we swam in the Four Seasons’ 80-degree outdoor pool and went out for pizza at Pazzo's in Vail Village, a pedestrian zone modeled on Alpine villages, with ritzy ski shops selling Italian brands and candlelit Austrian fondue restaurants. We'd barely scratched the surface of Vail—the big daddy of North American resorts, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year—and I would have liked to sneak in a few after-lunch runs on the mountain, but we were due in Beaver Creek. So we reluctantly bid farewell to the child-friendly nirvana that is the Four Seasons, its ever-tolerant breakfast waiters bearing mod Ikea plasticwear and tiny, tantrum-taming jigsaw puzzles, and unexpected 8 p.m. phone calls offering room-service cotton candy (?!) for the kids.
Fifteen miles west, over in Beaver Creek, the Park Hyatt wasn’t exactly hardship duty. It was the magic apres-ski hour when we checked in, and the hotel was celebrating in style like it does every afternoon, with a giant thermos of hot chocolate, s’mores happy hour for the kids, and a requisite crooner soothing frazzled parents with James Taylor lullabies and handing out lollipops to the little ones. We had ice skating on the brain, though, so we bypassed the comfy, bustling lobby and its happy chaos of families, still decked out in ski gear and sprawled out across upholstered couches, for the ice rink just outside.
Opened in 1980 and now owned by Vail Resorts, Beaver Creek is a planned, Euro-style community, right at the base of the ski lifts, where every detail seems geared to achieve maximum skier-satisfaction and minimal hassle. If you’re staying in the village, you never have to haul your gear more than a couple hundred feet to the lifts. And forget about your car—this is a walking village. It's a nice perk, especially when kids in snowsuits and ski boots are involved. And the Park Hyatt has arguably the best location in all of Beaver Creek, steps from the chairlift, overlooking the ice rink, and next door to a ski school.
It was snowing lightly when we got to the skate rental window, and jolly Christmas carols filled the air. Neither Pippa nor Maisy had ever been on skates before, but they took to the ice with freakish beginner’s luck, minimal wipeouts, and huge grins. An official Beaver Creek skating Samaritan in a Santa’s hat showed us how to hold Maisy by her jacket rather than her waist so we wouldn’t waste our backs, and pretty soon she was teetering along on her own. Back and forth and round and round they wobbled, lurching off the ice every now and then to warm their hands by the gas fire pits and lounge on the couches, before coming back for more. A brother and sister from Indianapolis adopted our girls, showing them how to kick-kick-glide and scooping them up when they fell. Even though the unthinkable had happened in Newtown the day before, as darkness fell and the snow with it, Beaver Creek felt like that rare, forgotten enclave where you can let your children play free, without having to shadow their every move.
Like Vail, Beaver Creek is family-oriented without feeling like a theme park. Kids may be the future of the sport, but it’s clear that the folks at Beaver Creek know who’s footing the bill, and everything about the resort is tasteful and accommodating—geared for families but styled for the parents. After skating we slurped back oysters and osso buco at the Park Hyatt’s own restaurant, 8100 Mountainside Bar & Grill (that's B.C.’s elevation), an elegant dining room with an impressive wine list. I panicked a little at first, thinking about our tired girls and their dubious table manners, until I saw a boy of about five conked out in a nearby booth. When Maisy tried to follow suit and stretched out on the carpeted floor under our table, no one batted an eye, not even the executive chef when he came out to greet us after our meal.
The first day of family ski season is always a bit of an organizational nightmare, but we had location going for us and only had to walk next door to drop the girls off at ski school. Still, we were rusty; we’d forgotten the system: Boots, jackets, goggles, skis. Who carries what? How many layers? Beaver Creek Ski School starts at age three, but they graciously agreed to let Maisy, potty-trained with one ski season under her belt, join their ranks. But as I left her with a swarm of cheerful, capable instructors and staff, in her oversized helmet and tiny mittens and Salomon skis the length of my forearm, I couldn’t help but wonder if we were pushing her out of the nest too soon. Was she too little for ski school? Would she have a hard day and hate skiing because of it? Would she be ruined forever on the sport?
There was no time to fret, though, because outside a powder day was in full effect. Steve and I never get to ski together, sans kids, let alone when it’s snowing, so we hit it hard from the get go, doing laps in Rose Bowl before heading over to Golden Eagle, a steep shot off the front side where the resort hosts the World Cup Downhill races. It was dumping hard up high on the mountain and I wondered about what kind of teary scene was unfolding down at the Magic Carpet, but my phone hadn’t rung so I figured Maisy was hanging tough. Pippa, I wasn't worried about.
I’m not sure how many kids the Beaver Creek Ski School teaches in any given day, but it’s easy to get the impression that your child is the only one. When we returned at the end of the day, instructors escorted both girls out to greet us with a full progress report. “Maisy got a little sad before lunch,” a freckly young woman told us with a smile, “but then she got right back out there and had a blast.” She paused while Maisy beamed, then added enthusiastically, “She had a little trouble pushing her legs out into a wedge, but that might just be because of her size.” I felt a flicker of pity for little Maisy—yeah, when you’re 26 pounds and less than three feet tall, it might be hard to push your skis around on a powder day—but the instructor assured me she’d get the hang of it soon. “She loves animals!” said a second instructor, appearing out of nowhere to demonstrate. “So we told her to trap the lion!” She put the toes of her boots together, before opening them again. “Then let it go!”
Beaver Creek may know the way into your child’s ski brain, but it also knows the way to her stomach. Every day at 3 p.m., it's cookie time in the village, when staffers appear carrying trays of just-baked, still-warm chocolate chip cookies for everyone and anyone who happens to be walking by. Last season's count: 500,000 cookies made and served. You can smell them before you see them, and we all but assaulted a friendly woman in a chef's hat with a plate piled high with free cookies. Is there a better way to wrap up a long day on the slopes?
It was our last night in Colorado, and the girls, old pros that they were, insisted we squeeze in one last ice skating session before dinner. Santa was holding court in a tent next to the rink, and he greeted Pippa as he had the night before, like a long lost friend. “Oh, Pippa!” he drolled, “I remember you from last year! Have you been a good girl?” But she was more interested in showing off her new skating skills than in lobbying for the gifts on her list. “Watch me, Santa!” she called as she twirled around the rink toward his tent. He appeared in the still-falling snow, wearing a green cape, and ho-ho-hoed right back, booming, “I told you you’d be so much better tonight than last night!”
After such a full day, dinner at Toscanini, an Italian place next to the skating rink, seemed destined to be a train wreck. But, like 8100, it’s classy without turning its nose up at kids, and as soon as we were seated, a waitress appeared with miniature Etch-a-Sketches for each girl. When, after picking at a plate of antipasti, Maisy collapsed on the floor in a pile of down jackets, they just smiled knowingly and stepped around her. Pippa we placated with a movie on the iPod—bad manners most nights, but after a full day in ski school, anything goes. Plus, a kid at the next table had his iPad propped up on his placemat. Hey, we were just going with the Beaver Creek flow.
The truth is, skiing with kids can be a production. No matter how swanky the resort, there’s a lot of gear, expectations, and tired little bodies to manage, and we’d all but sworn off ski vacations until the girls are older. But Beaver Creek was trying hard to change our minds. As we snuck in a quick swim in the heated outdoor pool the next morning before our long drive home, I started fantasizing about future trips. Pippa would graduate to the gondola, and Maisy would master her wedge. Steve and I could ski Birds of Prey by day and maybe even snag a babysitter for a night. My mother could come out, too, with a brood of East Coast grandchildren, and snowshoe on the golf course. We could skate and take a sleigh to Beano’s Cabin for dinner and never once set foot in car. We could come back to the village year after year.
But ... I was getting ahead of myself. First we had to pack our gear and get home to Santa Fe. It was shaping up to be another outstanding powder day, and the road over Tennessee Pass to Leadville would be snow covered and slow. We loaded the girls in the car and were about to drive away when the Park Hyatt bellman stopped us. “Didn’t you have a third pair of skis?” he asked. Yes, yes we did. Maisy’s. Left behind at ski school. We’d need a few more days at our little local mountain to get our system dialed. In the meantime, the good people of Beaver Creek would take care of us. “Let me just run over to ski school and get them for you,” he said.
He came back with Maisy's miniature sticks in hand. Good thing, too, because we'd need them. Back at home, it was still snowing.
Four Seasons Vail, doubles from $1,125; www.fourseasons.com/vail. Park Hyatt Beaver Creek, doubles from $399; beavercreek.hyatt.com. Children's lessons at Beaver Creek Ski School, from $110. Lift tickets, valid at both resorts, $109 per day.