Downhill, in style

September 17, 2001

For an invigorating winter vacation, try these easy-to-reach, family-friendly ski resorts.

 

Downhill, in style

Jump to:Choose article section... Northstar-at-Tahoe, Truckee, CA Big Mountain, Whitefish, MT Deer Valley Resort, Park City, UT Steamboat, Steamboat Springs, CO

For an invigorating winter vacation, try these easy-to-reach, family-friendly ski resorts.

By Risa Weinreb

Carving first tracks through silvery aspen groves. Watching the little ones demonstrate their "pizzas." Showing the younger generation that Mom and Dad can still let it rip.

Sound good? Consider the following resorts, which all honor the golden rule of family travel: Keep it simple. Each destination is easy to reach, and some feature ski-in/ski-out accommodations and shuttles that eliminate the hassle of lugging and losing gear as you clomp from distant parking lots. Mountain operations tune in to family needs, with beginner, intermediate, and advanced runs—as well as kids-ski-free deals and innovative lesson programs.

Since most family vacations revolve around school breaks, be sure to book peak travel dates by October, and don't forget to make reservations for child care and ski-school programs.

Northstar-at-Tahoe, Truckee, CA

Even intermediate skiers will feel empowered at Northstar, thanks to the terrain's impeccable grooming, plus an indulgent rating system (most of the black-diamond expert runs on Northstar's "backside" ski more like blues). And Northstar—located 200 miles from San Francisco and 40 miles from Reno—now gets more respect after the 2001 opening of Lookout Mountain, with serious steeps and bumps.

Mom and Dad can share a lift ticket for the day (ask for the Parent Predicament ticket). At free Mommy, Daddy & Me workshops, coaches give parents tips on how to ski with their 3- to 5-year-olds. Also free: lessons for high-intermediate and advanced skiers and snowboarders who are at least 13 years old. And thanks to the mid-mountain "pizza phone," you can dig into a hot pie at the base village after your last run.

Downside: The schlep factor—it's a long walk from the parking lot or shuttle stops to the lifts.

Kids' program: Minors' Camp offers child care and a learn-to-ski program for 2- to 6-year-olds. Every Saturday, its 5 to 7 pm Happy Hour lets parents step out apres-ski for drinks or dinner. Reservations: 530-562-2278.

Good to know: The free lessons are just what skiers and snowboarders need to hone their skills. With a maximum group size of seven, the hour-and-three-quarters sessions match those that cost $40 or more at other ski schools.

Lunch: The Summit Deck & Grille, atop Mt. Pluto, barbecues a thick, juicy steak and has microbrews like Gordon Biersch and Sierra Nevada on tap. The kids' menu includes quesadillas and stir-fried dishes.

Best deal: The Family Adventure package includes two adult full-day lift tickets, two child full-day lift tickets, tubing for four, a pizza dinner for four, plus accommodations in a two-bedroom, two-bath condo. Priced from approximately $355 per night for a family of four. Blackout dates and minimum-stay requirements apply.

Contact: 800-GO-NORTH or www.skinorthstar.com .

Big Mountain, Whitefish, MT

Whitefish—one of the West's last genuine ski towns—and its Big Mountain haven't been Starbucked into homogeneous glitz. Yakking on a cell phone midmountain is considered just slightly less heinous than kicking your faithful old dog. Often, you'll have 2,000 vertical feet of blissful blue cruiser all to yourself.

Big Mountain offers wide, rollicking runs for intermediates and off-trail powder plunges for experts. When the Glacier Chaser high-speed lift reaches the summit, panoramas burst into view: the Canadian Rockies to the north, Glacier Park to the east. Because of the huge snow dumps (335 inches annually), the alpine firs vanish beneath a blanket of white crystals, earning them the nickname of "snow ghosts."

Other winter pastimes include cross-country skiing in Glacier National Park (25 miles away), plus ice skating, dogsledding, and snowmobiling. Cowboy Doug Evans offers horse-drawn sleigh rides as well as rope tricks, poetry, and barbecued ribs and chicken for dinner.

Big Mountain is just 19 miles from Glacier Park International Airport. More good news: Prices at hotels and condos tend to be lower than at comparable resorts.

Downside: Whiteouts. Often the fog (euphemistically referred to as "low cloud level") socks in the slopes like a white chiffon blindfold.

Kids' program: "Parents reserve for babies who aren't even born yet," says Jen Follett McCaw, director of Kiddie Korner, which accepts infants as well as youngsters up to age 8. For little skiers, parents can arrange lessons with the ski school; an instructor will pick the kids up at Kiddie Korner, then return them there afterward. Child care is available until 10 pm on Fridays and Saturdays during night-skiing season. Reservations: 406-862-2900.

Good to know: "Ski ambassadors" give free guided mountain tours daily, pointing intermediate and advanced skiers and snowboarders to tree runs or trails with the best afternoon light.

Lunch: The 'Stube and Chuckwagon Grill is famed for platter-size "backdoor burgers." Parental note: Although lunch is fairly tame, the place draws lots of afternoon and evening bar action. But everyone is so friendly, and the place is such a legend, kids feel like big shots eating there.

Best deal: The "full family package" covers seven nights in a two-bedroom, two-bath ski in/out condo plus lift tickets for five days of skiing/snowboarding. The rate is $3,585 for a family of four. Blackout dates apply.

Contact: 800-858-4157 (reservations), 406-862-2900 (information), or www.skiwhitefish.com .

Deer Valley Resort, Park City, UT

Here, the peak experience is over-the-top luxurious. Butler-like attendants help unload skis and poles from the car. Washrooms are trimmed in marble. Overnight ski storage is free.

Look for gold dust among all that perfectly manicured Wasatch powder this winter, since Deer Valley will host the slalom, freestyle aerial, and freestyle mogul events for the Salt Lake Olympic Winter Games (Feb. 8 to 24). If you're worried that the games will draw a blizzard of crowds, relax. In fact, Sydney and Lillehammer both saw visitor declines when they hosted the Olympics, and Utah travel executives fear a similar drop. To compensate, resorts are planning special discounts (see below).

Although Deer Valley is soigne, its four mountains have plenty of palpitating pitches to humble even hard-core skiers, especially the chutes and glades of Empire Canyon. If you want to say, "I did that," as you watch the games, swoop down Champion (venue for freestyle moguls) and Know You Don't (slalom). But leave your snowboard home; Deer Valley is just for skiers.

For more Olympics buzz, visit the Utah Olympic Park, setting for bobsledding and ski jumping. Or sign on for luge, skeleton, or ski-jumping lessons.

Deer Valley is just 36 miles from Salt Lake City International Airport.

Downside: Powder and bump enthusiasts grouse about the "Stepford" slopes: "Enough already with the grooming," said one hotshot. And all that coddling doesn't come cheap: Lift tickets cost $65, and hamburgers are $7.50.

Kids' program: The Deer Valley Children's Center offers story time, supervised art projects, toys, and more for children ages 2 months to 12 years. Reservations: 888-SKI-TIPS. Children's ski programs are available for youngsters age 3 and up. Ski school ends at 3:45 pm, so parents can take a few runs with their kids and see what they've learned that day.

Good to know: The Silver Passport offers joint skiing privileges at Deer Valley, The Canyons, and Park City Mountain Resort. Tickets must be purchased in advance and in conjunction with at least three nights' lodging (not valid for the holiday season).

Lunch: The buffet at mid-mountain Silver Lake Restaurant—with entrees such as wild boar pot pie and roast beef from the carvery—is light years removed from the chili-and-hot-dog fare often found slopeside. Save room for the carrot cake.

Best deal: All 13 major Utah ski/snowboard resorts are offering $20.02 off each adult daily lift ticket together with purchase of a three-night lodging package. For details, call 888-957-UTAH or log on to www.skiutah.com.

Contact: 800-424-DEER or www.deervalley.com.

Steamboat, Steamboat Springs, CO

Unfettered powder teams with Wild West swagger at Steamboat, which typically receives more—and fluffier—snow than its Colorado Rockies counterparts. No wonder no other town in North America has produced more winter Olympians: a record 47 heading into the 2002 Games. To encourage the next generation of snow enthusiasts, Steamboat lets children 6 to 12 ski/snowboard free when a parent purchases a five-day-or-more lift ticket (one free child per paid adult; there's a similar deal for rentals).

The stunning view from atop Mt. Werner (10,568 feet) sweeps to Wyoming and Utah and encompasses eight mountain ranges. Since trails interconnect well, you spend less time plodding along cat tracks (side trails made by bulldozer-like machinery). There's even a three-mile novice trail.

Off mountain, families can check out the hot springs that percolate through beautifully landscaped pools and grottoes. Hot air balloon rides are another highlight.

Although Steamboat was once considered hard to reach, you can now fly nonstop from Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Minneapolis, New York/Newark, and Raleigh-Durham.

Downside: Too much of a good thing—condo development is sprouting helter-skelter around the base area.

Kids' program: Children as young as 2 can get private lessons at the Kids' Vacation Center. Here, the one-stop check-in desk allows parents to purchase lessons, equipment rentals, and lift tickets. The littlest learners ride up the mountain on "magic carpet" conveyors. Meanwhile, kids age 6 to 15 learn to ski or snowboard with their peers in Rough Rider group clinics. Reservations: 800-299-5017 or 970-871-5390. There's also an excellent child care facility (ages 2 through 8) at the Steamboat Grand Resort Hotel. Reservations: 877-269-2628 or 970-871-5500.

Good to know: "Are you getting ready to go to the Olympics?" Billy Kidd asks ski-school kids as they wait on the lift line. As enthusiastic about the sport now as when he won a silver medal at the 1964 Games, Billy (Steamboat's director of skiing) stresses the basics while encouraging skiers and snowboarders of all ages in his free tours down an intermediate run.

Lunch: Casually chic Ragnar's, named for a 1916 Norwegian ski-jump champion, features pasta and seafood, plus Scandinavian dishes such as gravlax and fiskesuppe. Located mid-mountain.

Best deal: At the Steamboat Grand Resort (opened October 2000), the three-night early season ski package includes accommodations and daily lift ticket. Rates: $300 per adult; kids 12 and under stay and ski free. Valid Nov. 15 through Dec. 20. Reservations: 877-269-2628.

Contact: 800-922-2722 or www.steamboat.com.

The author is a travel writer based near San Francisco.

 

Risa Weinreb. Downhill, in style. Medical Economics 2001;18:39.