Great Family Destination Vacation Resorts
by Mitch Kaplan
Family skiing’s come a long way in the last two decades. Used to be that kids were an afterthought. Now, you’d be hard-pressed to find any sizeable ski area that doesn’t have terrific kids’ programs. And, nearly all major destination resorts offer day care, comprehensive on-snow learning, terrain parks for all abilities to go along with trails for everyone, and a variety of on- and off-snow alternative activities.
So, when searching for a destination vacation address, you’re not likely to go too far wrong. Probably the greatest variable will be snow and weather conditions - and those rely mostly on luck. Otherwise, success largely depends on your budget and how far you’re willing to travel.
With those things in mind, we off a quick look-see at some of our favorite family destination resorts, based on programming, alternative activities and commitment to family fun.
Bretton Woods, NH (www.brettonwoods.com): The combination of the Mt. Washington Hotel, Mt. Washington itself, a full range of other lodging options, New Hampshire’s most expansive terrain, 100K-plus of Nordic trails and wonderful seasonal celebrations at the hotel and on the slopes make this a gem. Bretton Woods is known for its groomed blue runs, but recent expansions have provided some nifty gladed trains, and a state-of-the-art base lodge. Kid programs are top notch here, as well and you can actually ride the Mt. Washington Cog Railway part-way up, and ski down alongside the tracks.
Lake Placid, NY (www.orda.org; www.lakeplacid.com: No matter how many times you’ve been there, you’ll always find something new to do. Or something worth repeating. Consider all the Olympic venues: bobsled and luge ride, ski jump visit, skating on the Olympic oval, skiing the Olympic downhill, Nordic and mogul venues, visiting the Olympic Museum and watching an event where the storied U.S. Hockey team won in 1980. Our favorite pastime is the old-fashioned toboggan slide on Mirror Lake, but there’s plenty of fine dining, fast dining and ample shopping to keep everyone amused. Or, head down the road to the Adirondack Museum, a true gem.
Sunday River, ME. (www.sundayriver.com): Sunday River can farm snow with the best of ‘em, and they’ve gone out of their way to keep everybody entertained. Without an overwhelming vertical drop to boost things along, the resort has instead expanded horizontally, and focused on snowmaking, grooming and a superb ski school. Lodging here, too, runs the gamut from a ski dorm to a pair of signature American Skiing Company Grand Summit hotels, each with its own day care facility. In town, a few B&B-style
and motel properties allow you to create old-timey New England-style vacations, highlighted by the grand old Bethel Inn. Nighttime activities, plenty of terrain parks (including a
fine mini-park), and shuttle service around the resort and into town highlight the family-friendly aspects, as do the on-snow kids’ programs.
Smugglers’ Notch, VT (www.smuggs.com): We rank Smuggs among the best of the best. They’ve created a family paradise, with a self-contained base village, programming for everyone and all-in-one pricing that’s flexible - if you overlap weekends or high-season days, you only get charged high-season rates for those individual days. Their low-season (pre-Christmas, early January, late March) packages offer incomparable value. Nobody has better day care, and their programs - for all ages from baby John to grandpa Jack - set industry standards. Apres-ski, the shopping’s lame, but the kids’ entertainment is super.
Okemo, VT (www.okemo.com): The opening of the Jackson Gore base area/base lodge/hotel complex has changed the dynamics of an Okemo visit or vacation, which already ranked among the best for families. Jackson Gore is more remotely located on the mountain than the main base area, which makes it much less crowded and calmer, and it's logistically easier to handle. Jackson Gore is very well served by high-speed lifts, and the number of trails centered on this base facility is gradually increasing annually. Meanwhile, Jackson Gore contains all the facilities that a good base should hold - food, ski school, day care, rental shop, repair shop, retail and parking. Okemo, of course, continues to be a family Mecca, where the intermediate level skiing/riding is second to none, the grooming immaculate and the on-snow programming creative. The choices of ski-and-stay packages are mind-boggling, albeit a bit confusing. The town of Ludlow is cute, but doesn’t qualify as a shopping Mecca. Still, Okemo family ownership knows what families are all about.
Boyne Mountain, MI (www.boynemountain.com): Boyne’s sizeable - 67 slopes for all abilities, served by 12 lifts, including the Midwest’s only high-speed, The Mountain holds a food array of parks and pipes, and there’s night skiing. Ultra-cool is Avalanche Bay Indoor Waterpark, new for ‘05, which adds spectacularly to the off-snow options. Lodging at The Mountain Grand Lodge is most comfortable, supplemented by a full spa.
Crystal Mountain, MI (www.crystalmountain.com): The 45 slopes here serve everyone, even mogul mashers. Excellent day care is available for infants through 3 years old, and the Adventure Cubs Ski & Play Program starts ‘em on snow at ages 3. In addition to 40K-plus of Nordic trails, there’s an indoor pool and spa, skating rink, fitness center horse-drawn sleigh rides. On-site lodging runs the gamut.
Banff-Lake Louise, Alberta (www.banfflakelouise.com): Banff is so pretty it's almost hokey. But, when you walk across the bridge at the far end of town, or travel above town to look out on the classic view of the Banff Springs Hotel, you'd have to be made of calluses not to be charmed. Be not fooled - it's a tourist town, but so warmly done we don't care. And, talk about terrific snowsliding: Lake Louise, Sunshine and Norquay make choosing a daily destination difficult. See the Columbia Icefields by snowcoach, or do the waterslides at Douglas Fir Resort & Chalets.
Panorama, B.C. (www.panoramaresort.com): Another family-style resort that’s grown up; nicely laid out base village; good day care/kids facilities; good terrain for all; on-site heli skiing for true adventurers; excellent lift/lodging packages all season. It’s a bit isolated, however, so offers limited shopping/dining options.
Silver Star, B.C. (www.skisilverstar.com): Ski Silver Star was conceived as a family place, and it's grown into a full-bore resort with terrain for everyone. It’s got a fun "western" themed base village with family entertainment some evenings, good day care and kids programs, tons of snow, combination packages with sister resort Big White, night skiing, world class Nordic and significantly lower pricing than coastal BC resorts.
Steamboat Springs, CO (www.steamboat.com): Steamboat invented the “Kids Ski Free” program, and still do it wonderfully - you buy it (lift tickets, rentals, lodging, etc.), you’re kid does it free. And now, with United Airlines, they do “Kids Fly Free.” There’s an excellent ski school and day care, special kids-only lifts, a real town in which to play, shop and dine - or watch ski jumping competitions, fantastic tree skiing, a full range of lodging, slopeside or otherwise, and a free bus system that goes everywhere.
Winter Park, CO (www.skiwinterpark.com): Big changes have been happening at the Park over the past couple of years, thanks to an alliance with Intrawest and the expansion of The Village at Winter Park and base area facilities. Zephyr Mountain Lodge offers accommodations in one, two or three-bedroom condos; and shops like Boxcar Deli, West Portal Rentals, Winter Park Junior and Sunspot Mercantile have helped make the entire base area experience more user-friendly. Few major resorts handle families as well. Period. The full range of terrain - from the gnarliest to the most gentle to high bowls and terrain parks - is at hand, as is an equally full range of off-slope activity options. One of the best kids’ facilities anywhere, a super disabled program - just seeing all those folks on the slopes will open your child’s eyes; excellent self-contained novice area; good terrain for all; spectacular advanced terrain; a low-key town that’s not too pricey and very friendly; and a free bus system.
Vail, CO (www.vail.snow.com): Little Vail Village has evolved into a massive spread of 5,200-plus skiable acres and valley-wide, low-profile development. Everything that you can ask for at a winter resort is here, albeit sometimes at a high price. There’s high-elevation action - including snow tubing, ski biking, snowmobiling (complete with kids’ track), skating and dining - at Adventure Ridge, set overlooking Vail Valley, a vast array of pampering lodging choices, superb shopping, art galleries, and all expected off-slope options from horseback riding and snowmobiling to sophisticated dining and more than a dozen art galleries. Zip over to sister Beaver Creek Resort, for opera, Broadway shows, children's theater and concerts at The Villars Center.
Breckenridge/Keystone, CO (www.snow.com): Breckenridge, home to Colorado’s largest historic district, presents a bustling Victoriana-and-modern mix. Main Street’s busy, but the quieter side streets are populated with Victorian homes turned eateries and shops. Kids love the Fun Zone (with X-Boxes, Internet café, and table games) and the Mountain Top Children’s Museum. Calmer Keystone’s "Adventure Passport" includes ice skating on a five-acre rink, wine-tasting seminars, yoga classes and scenic sleigh rides. Or, there’s fly fishing, Energy Alley kids’ activity center, Pilates, indoor cycling, fireside storytelling, night skiing and scenic gondola rides. Keystone offers fantastic lift/lodging packages, as well.
Sun Valley, ID (www.sunvalley.com): One of North America’s most venerable and historic resorts, it’s got class, glamour, and a heavy dose of je ne sais qua. The new base lodge and child care center at the separate beginner mountain (Dollar Mt.) Is magnificent. Bald Mountain is a super main ski hill, with terrain challenges and long runs for intermediates on up. Ketchum is an active ski town with excellent restaurants, galleries, etc., and you can obtain good low season package rates, kids-ski-free offerings and good air access from California and Seattle. There’s good Nordic skiing on-site, superb stuff nearby, on-site skating, swimming, bowling, movies and more, and wonderful on-hill lodges.
Park City, UT (www.parkcityinfo.com): Park City sprawls suburb-style. But, since that includes three major ski areas (Park City Resort, The Canyons and Deer Valley), the Olympic Park, history, the arts and shopping galore, everyone from granny on down will be grinning. Historic downtown oozes culture. Join "Arts & Eats Gallery Strolls." Hear the Utah Symphony. Click into skiing mining tours. The Utah Olympic Park features bobsled or luge riding, a zipline, slopestyle or ski jumping lessons, and the Alf Engen Ski History Museum and 2002 Olympic Museum. You’ll also find horseback riding, resort-to-resort skiing, and just about any other diversion you can think of. But, remember - no snowboarding at Deer Valley.
Grand Targhee, WY (www.grandtarghee.com): Our favorite “small” Rocky Mountain ski resort, it’s cute-as-a-button, with a self-contained base village and overall manageable size. Kids 14 and under ski/stay free to play in the incredible amounts of high-quality snow that falls here. There’s fine day care and ski school programming, zero crowds (even on weekends), on-site snowcat skiing and the ability to ski Jackson Hole for a day or two.
Whistler/Blackomb, B.C. (www.whistler-blackcomb.com): Size matters and there’s plenty of everything here. It’s best for folks with teens and older kids, but the programming and facilities are top-notch for any age. Offers plenty of apres-ski/off-slope options, dining, shopping, whatever, and excellent low season package values. Two huge mountains anchored by multi large base villages.
South Tahoe, CA/NV (www.bluelaketahoe.com): A whole new world has been born at Heavenly in recent seasons with the advent of the Park Avenue Project, the Village at Heavenly and the new gondola that runs from it. Now there are more than 5,000 rooms within walking distance of the lifts - not to mention upscale shopping, an outdoor ice skating rink, and a multi-plex cinema. Heavenly, of course, has size - 4,800 acres, 86 trails and three bowls. Adventure Park, atop the gondola, offers high-elevation snowtubing, snowshoeing and Nordic skiing; and the off-hill activities can include a Lake Tahoe cruise. On-hill are all the expected facilities (although make your day care reservations as far ahead as possible). And, if you pack a babysitter along with your entourage, parents can go play at the casinos on the Nevada side of the state line. Then, there are the views of Lake Tahoe, which are second to none. Toss in a day or two at Kirkwood and Sierra-at-Tahoe, and you’ll have it all.
North Tahoe, CA/NV (www.tahoefun.org): There are so many resorts in the area it will be tough to get to one every day for two weeks! Count 'em: Sugar Bowl, Donner Ski Ranch, Boreal, Soda Springs, Tahoe Donner, Northstar, on the Truckee side; and Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, Homewood, Diamond Peak - on the North Tahoe side. There are tons of world-class terrain, multi-day interchangeable tickets to north shore resorts. Take advantage of the smaller resorts during peak periods. Northstar offers creative options, like parent-and-child classes and a family terrain park. Phase one of their new base village premieres for 2005-6, with a new ice rink.
Mammoth Mountain, CA (www.mammothmountain.com): Big? Oh my. Diverse? Oh yes. Mammoth lives up to its name. With a new base village pretty much fully on line, the resort that Southern Californians flock to now offers pretty much everything, from ski in/out to plain old motels and a classic mountain inn. The scale of the terrain matches just about any major resort on the continent, and the scale of the on-hill programming does, too. There’s any kind of skiing/riding you prefer. In town, there’s enough shopping, dining and alternative diversions to keep most of us occupied. For those who want a hill that’s a bit more approachable in scope, little sister June Mountain is just up the road.
Mt. Bachelor, OR (www.mtbachelor.com): Mt. Bachelor has incredible terrain for kids of any age. Lots of rollers, intermediates, and great parks. The topography in general is very cool - you're skiing on a crater! It's a bit of an adventure. You do have to stay in Bend, and travel up to the mountain every day. Mountain amenities are fairly basic as well.
...... Mitch Kaplan
is the author of The Unofficial Guide to the Mid-Atlantic with Kids, The Cheapskate’s Guide to Myrtle Beach and The Golf Book of Lists. He is a contributor to The Unofficial Guide to New England & New York with Kids and to the annual guide Ski America & Canada.
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