Bring on the Mac 'n' Cheese
... and the Nintendo and Snowboarder Barbie and ...
By Meg Lukens Noonan
If I didn't already ski or snowboard, I think I would have started as soon as I had children. These, after all, are sports that provide child care. Think of it! Disney and Club Med aside, no other segment of the recreational travel industry is as dialed-in to the needs of families. The best snow resorts have a full complement of parent-pleasing features, from quality day and evening care for all ages to ski and snowboard instructors cool enough to impress even the most 'tude-laden teen to unintimidating family-skiing zones and easy kid-sized lifts. They also provide lodges and condos with swimming pools, game rooms, on-call babysitters, room-service pizza, and unlimited VCR movies. The whole family will agree: These places are much, much better than real life. Now, if only we could get this same sweet setup whenever we wanted to take the clan kayaking, biking, sailing, scuba diving, rafting, rock climbing ...
Snowmass Ski Area, Colorado
No need to tell your pretense-sniffing neighbors you are trucking the kiddies off to Aspen for vacation. Heck, no. You're going to wholesome, squeaky-clean Snowmass, the self-contained and perpetually sunny hillside resort about 10 miles up the road, where families rule. Here, nearly all the lodging is in tasteful trailside condos. The bulk of skiing and boarding terrain is of the wide-and-buffed variety, including a new family-skiing zone and terrain garden off the Burlingame Lift that skirts a herd of resident reindeer.
What truly distinguishes Snowmass, though, is its staff of exceedingly game ski and snowboard instructors who operate under the philosophy that younger is better: Ski lessons are offered to 18-month-olds, snowboarding classes accept five-year-olds, and extreme-skiing clinics welcome accomplished nine- to 19-year-olds. Kiss the kids good-bye, head up to Gywn's High Alpine for a late breakfast, then hop the High Alpine Lift to get to the tough stuff in Hanging Valley.
So what if the cultural heart of the resort, The Mall at Snowmass Village, is about as provocative as a Gap? You can always drop the kids at the resort's fine evening child care and head into the A-town for some adult fun. Bunk at Top of the Village in one of its two- to four-bedroom units with full kitchens and a pool; pick the The Silvertree Hotel if being steps from the shops, restaurants, and child-care center (and, gulp, in-room Nintendo) is more important to you than square footage. Just about every restaurant in the Village has a kid's menu; try The Tower for free magic shows. And save a night for the heated snowcat ride up the mountain to Burlingame Cabin for dinner, bluegrass music, and dancing.
Big Sky Ski & Summer Resort, Montana
This isolated, uncrowded resort with the dramatic Alps-y scenery has come up with a complex, highly sophisticated concept designed to attract families: Give them lots of free stuff! Free nightly movies! Free sing-alongs! Free face painting! Free ice-cream sundae parties! Free lift tickets and lodging to kids 10 and under at the Huntley Lodge! It's a formula that works. Happily, though, even as Big Sky goes headlong into let's-lure-the-kiddies mode, it manages to maintain its in-your-face wilderness appeal. And with a 4,180-foot vertical drop, a freaky-steep tram to the top of Lone Peak, 3,500 skiable acres (including some super-expert chutes and couloirs), and Yellowstone National Park less than an hour away, that will never change — even if Barney himself signs on as ski school director.
Getting going in the morning couldn't be easier; the recently built Snowcrest Lodge has day care, equipment rental, ski school, ticket sales, and cafes under one slopeside roof. This winter, look for a new terrain park on Andesite Mountain, and a new beginner run and some fun kids-only runs off the Explorer chair on Lone Peak. Group lessons start at age four. Instructors use a unique "carousel" ride to give first-timers the feeling of the motion of skis.
The 200-room Huntley Lodge, Big Sky's signature ski-in/ski-out hotel, has a free buffet breakfast, an outdoor pool, and workout facilities; there's no charge for kids sharing a room with their parents. Stillwater Condominiums, an easy walk to the lifts, are a good option for families who want more space and the option of eating in. Cabins at the class-act Lone Mountain Ranch, six miles from the ski area, come with 45 miles of groomed cross-country trails, horse-drawn sleigh rides, and shuttle service to Big Sky. Buck's T-4 Restaurant, 10 miles from the Mountain Village, is worth a trip — a fine-dining area for parents adjacent to a pizza parlor-game room for kids keeps everybody happy. Be sure to leave one day free to tour Yellowstone by snowcoach.
No other snow resort pushes the howdy-buckaroo schtick harder than Steamboat, and that's part of what makes the area, set in the powder-rich, round-shouldered mountains of northwestern Colorado, such a gas for kids. That — and all the kid-specific terrain up on the mountain, like the Beehive, a pint-sized rider/skier terrain park, and Rough Rider Basin, a practice area with teepees, mine shafts, and log cabins to ski through. Teens like the competition-level halfpipe — and the fact that they can hang with new friends in weeklong racing and riding camps, then get together with the same crowd at the Night Owls program for outings to the hot-springs pool and an indoor climbing gym. Younger children, ages two-12, have daily supervised day care and instruction, as well as dinner and play options on Tuesday through Saturday nights. The real clincher for parents, though, is Steamboat's kids-ski-free plan. For each parent on a five-or-more-day ski ticket, one child under 13 skis free, and teens ski at reduced prices. (Bring proof of age for your child — the ticket sellers are sticklers.)
The working-ranch town of Steamboat Springs, three miles from the ski area, has character to spare, but you'll probably want to stay in the more convenient, albeit bland, base village. The Lodge at Steamboat has a heated outdoor pool and full kitchens in one- to three-bedroom units. The spacious, luxurious Bearclaw condos are right on the slopes at the top of The Headwall, and have a pool, a sauna, and great views from their balconies. Dining is top-heavy in the red meat department: The Ore House at the Pine Grove Restaurant serves prime rib in a 100-year-old rustic barn, while La Montana does amazing things with elk and serves up excellent Southwestern and Mexican dishes. Your kids will love riding the gondola up for Western BBQ night on the mountain; be prepared to balance a spoon on your nose.
This self-contained resort near Lake Tahoe is the picture of familial tranquility. You park your car, check in, cruise the groomed boulevards, share a pizza, play a little Sorry in the condo, and call it a day. Ticket sales are limited, so the lift
Not that there aren't any surprises at Northstar. Experts will get big eyes on the Rapids and on several other darn-steep black-diamond trails off the Backside Express. Intermediate or better skiers/riders over the age of 13 shouldn't miss the free one-and-three-quarter-hour lessons offered five times a day — surely the best deal in Tahoe. Ski instruction starts at age three as part of the Minors' Camp day-care program (two-year-olds are welcome but won't be skiing). Shredkids accepts five-year-olds, though boarding instructors prefer older children. The resort can help you find a baby-sitter for your infant under the age of two. There is a lift-served tubing hill, cross-country skiing or snowshoeing on 65 kilometers of trails (kids as young as five can rent gear), as well as a swim and racquet club with a teen game room. The attractive base village has some 5,500 beds in condos, private homes, and hotels. Besides the obligatory stop at Pedro's Pizza, you're bound to end up at Timbercreek, the village's airy central gathering and dining place.
Sunday River, Maine
It's not the steepest, or the chic-est, or the easiest to get to, but as a whole, Sunday River, sprawled over eight peaks in western Maine, is probably New England's best and most diverse family skiing and riding area. Transformed in the last decade from the locals' area it once was by imaginative investors, Sunday River is now the quintessential 1990s resort, with clusters of slopeside condos; a web of broad, esteem-building ski trails; an arsenal of designer snowguns; and a couple of steep bump runs like White Heat to give the copywriters something to put in the ads. Add to that a new children's rental/ski school center, daytime and evening child care, a strong instruction program (if you don't learn, you get your money back) and nine terrain parks, and you get the picture — this place is hard to beat.
OK, so the nightlife doesn't exactly blaze, but your kids will be so tickled with the Nite Cap Fun Center with its lit tubing park, halfpipe, and skating rink, and with the snowshoe tours, boardwalk arcade, and fireworks displays, that you won't mind doing yet another night of mac-and-cheese in the condo. The no-frills South Ridge Townhouses are a reasonable choice for families with young children and/or novice skiers in the group — the area's easiest terrain is right out the door. Two resort properties, the Grand Summit Hotel and Jordan Grand Hotel, offer a far cushier experience, with on-site health clubs, concierge service, and even on-site child care. The Jordan also has the resort's best ski-to restaurant, Sliders. If you want to venture off campus, stop in at the Sunday River Brewing Company, a lively brew pub at the foot of the access road.
Copyright 1998, Outside magazine