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Family Vacation Value Destinations - Vol. 5 (2007/08)
by Mitch Kaplan
***** See 2009/10 Value Vacation Destinations HERE
Our ongoing search for resorts that offer the best value in a
family ski/ride vacation continues. How do we define best value?
The "value" of a winter family vacation lies in the quality of
the experience, the overall sense of satisfaction and the
creation of great shared memories. While price remains important
always, value is not all about price. In judging a potential
vacation for its value, we remind you to look at the big picture,
imagine yourself in that picture, and try to best evaluate the
Keep in mind the qualities that make a family-friendly resort:
ski terrain appropriate for everyone in the family; acceptable
lodging (both type and location); half- and full-day ski
programs; day care; and apres-ski opportunities. The destination
should fit your family.
And, remember, time of year directly affects cost and can affect
snow conditions. Skiing at Thanksgiving will be cheap, but
conditions might well be dicey. Skiing during Presidents' Week in
February will more likely mean great snow, but at peak cost. The
best value of all may be late-March and early April: the weather
warms, low season prices return and, because March is generally
the month that brings the most snow, there's plenty of white
In truth, most ski resorts of significant size now fill most
families' needs. We personally prefer less scale and more
content, but many folks want the size and variety that a Vail or
This year, we've added some new resorts to our list and revisited
some of our past favorites. Please bear in mind our past
Vacation Destinations Vol. 1, Value
Vacation Destinations Vol. 2 and
Value Vacation Destinations Vol. 3, and Value
Vacation Destinations Vol. 4.
Here are this season's recommendations divided geographically:
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. And, the programming, both on-
and off-slope, is consistently creative and of high quality.
Downside: It's a fair piece to drive from many northeast
population centers, getting from the main base village to Madonna
and Sterling Mountains can be cumbersome, and ageing lifts might
Le Massif, QC (www.lemassif.com): First of all, this is
Quebec, and to travel here is to get a taste of Europe without
the overnight flight and jet lag. But, more than that, Le Massif
is a manageable size, offers some of the most spectacular St.
Lawrence River Views imaginable, serves no junk food on-hill, and
will take wonderful care of your little ones. The snowsliding is
enormously fun, too, especially when you're speeding down the
hill and it seems like you'll slide right into the frozen river.
Downside: there's no slopeside lodging as yet; the weekends can
be crowded, especially on the popular runs; and the day care
facility, while new, is a bit small.
Loon Mountain Resort, NH (www.loonmtn.com): The combination of a
manageable size with sufficient terrain pleases most abilities.
There's plenty of alternative activities like tubing (including
"extreme" tubing), snowskating, snowdecking, snowshoeing, snow
cycling, sno-scooting, ice skating, horseback riding and a
climbing wall; a grooming map is printed and passed out daily;
special teen lessons and twilight parties; A Burton Progression
Park; family private lessons; good slopeside lodging; the town,
Lincoln, has sufficient distractions to entertain off-slope; and
a genuine steam train transports folks from one base lodge to the
other. Downside: somewhat awkward trail layout; minimal truly
expert challenges; limiting dining/diversion options at the base.
The Balsams, NH (www.thebalsams.com): You won't find big-time
skiing here, but you will find big-league hospitality. The hotel
is one of the original New England "grand" hotels, dating from a
time when grand really meant grand. The array of activities, the
food and what you get for your all-in-one package makes this a
great value. The rooms have no TVs, but there's a library for
borrowing books and the game room has billiards, ping-pong,
arcade games, and family board games. Yes, if you must, there is
a television room, or movies play movie in the theater. Downside:
the hotel is way, way north, miles from everywhere; the ski hill
is a novice-intermediate.
Jiminy Peak, MA (www.jiminypeak.com): Our choice for the best
of the smaller northeastern resorts, Jiminy has nice slopeside
lodging, a user-friendly single base area with recently added
retail, amenities and kids' center. They've created superb intro
to ski/ride programs, which is augmented by a kids 12 and under
stay free program, it's easily accessed from major northeastern
metro areas, and they've installed a "coaster" ride to entertain
non-skiers. Downside: being more southerly, rain can be a factor,
you must travel a bit to shop, and it might not keep better
sliders occupied for more than a day or two.
Ascutney Mountain Resort, VT (www.ascutney.com): One of Vermont's smaller,
more intimate resorts, Ascutney is family-run and all about
family. Kids get a special warming hut; all trails converge at
the main base lodge; all lodging is slopeside; the fitness center
holds an Olympic-sized indoor pool; there's a new spa; and apres
ski includes bonfires, ice skating, tubing, Cheddar's Happy Hour
for kids, a teen center, a movie theater and an arcade; ski-and-
stay packages are a great value. Downside: the hill is relatively
small compared to some of its nearby neighbors; there's limited
Okemo Mountain Resort (www.okemo.com): Here's another family-owned,
highly family-oriented resort. Indeed, when it comes to families,
few do it better. The sprawling, multi-peak ski hill is
immacuarley groomed and a novice/intermediate paradise; lodging
of nearly every stripe is available slopeside, from condos to
hotel rooms; new ice skating and swim/fitness facilities are
state-of-the-art; kids programming and special events are top
notch; terrain parks rule; customer service is a serious
priority; and the variety of ski/lodging packages is seemingly
endless. Downside: not much expert terrain; after a while, the
innumerable intermediate groomers seem repetitive; the main base
area can be a real zoo, with novices being overwhelmed by fast-
flying experts returning to base (use the Jackson Gore base area
Crystal Mountain, MI (www.crystalmountain.com): Here's another
family-owned hill that's, you guessed it, family-friendly. Do we
see a pattern developing here? Ski-stay packages galore are
offered, with lodging of all kinds slopeside; night skiing,
including night Nordic; terrain parks for all; excellent on-snow
programs; ice skating with rinkside bonfires; moonlight
snowshoeing; indoor pool; fitness center; an Art Park (now that's
unique); face painting; and story time. Downside: Just a 375-foot
vertical (well, this is the Midwest).
Boyne Highlands, MI (www.boyne.com/BoyneHighlands): Well, in
truth, it's the water park that makes Highlands unique. Called
Avalanche Bay, it's replete with slides, rides, kids' pools,
climbing wall, lazy river, and a surfing simulator all attached
to a hotel. Oh yeah, you can go snowsliding and do all the
requisite winter activities like snowshoeing, dogsledding,
snowmobiling, tubing, etc.; but, we bet getting those kids out of
the water will be a challenge. Downside: Limited vertical, kind
of a long drive from Chicago and Detroit.
Lutsen Mountains (www.lutsen.com): Ninety runs on four peaks
with the Midwest's highest vertical and more than 60 acres of
tree skiing make Lutsen one of the region's most diverse resorts.
A full range of lodging options, many of them ski-in/out, makes
it an easy to handle destination. A Family Festival in early
February, plus a variety of kids-free packages make it an
excellent value. The area also offers some unique off-slope
pastimes like overnight dogsledding and canyoneering, plus untold
miles of Nordic skiing and snowshoeing. Downside: Well, it can
get mighty cold up there in the far north with the winds coming
off the shores of Lake Superior; it's remote a 4.5-hour drive
from Minneapolis, 90 minutes from Duluth.
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.), your kid does it free,
and they've added "Kids Fly Free," as well. There's good early-
season discount packages, an excellent ski school and day care,
special kids-only lifts, and a real town in which to play, shop
and dine or watch ski jumping competitions. Along with a full
range of terrain with fantastic tree skiing, there's a full range
of lodging, slopeside or otherwise, and a free bus system that
goes everywhere. Downside: the lift system can be a bit awkward;
relatively low elevation can sometimes cause iffy snow; base area
and getting to/from outlying condos can be confusing.
Solitude, UT (www.skisolitude.com): This is big mountain
skiing with a small resort atmosphere. Very family-friendly,
indeed, is the tiny, self-contained base village that offers all
the basic necessities (ice skating, family dining, fully-equipped
condos, spa, babysitting, outdoor heated pool, kids-only game
room), and it's small enough that nobody will get lost.
Activities? Kids' glow light parades, storytellers,
puppeteers the list goes on. The hill has literally every kind of
terrain and lots of it, plus a terrain park specifically designed
for families. It's all very calm and quiet, just as the name
implies. Downside: A bit isolated; might not keep teens
sufficiently occupied; might be too low-key for some.
Schweitzer Resort, ID (www.schweitzer.com): Perhaps too little
known outside the Pac-Northwest, Schweitzer hidden away up there
in the Idaho panhandle actually has the most skiable acreage in
Idaho, including Sun Valley. And, it has Idaho's only six-pack
chairlift. And, it has a variety of slopeside lodging that has
not yet reached the overwhelming stage. And, it has incredible
views of Lake Pend Oreille. And, it offers many ski-stay
packages, some with kids ski/stay free. Add childcare, terrain
parks, and the expected alternative activities (plus the
unexpected on-site snowcat skiing on 4500 acres or so), and
you've got great value. Downside: It's a long way to there from
most anywhere (90 minutes' drive from Couer d'Alene); an
obscuring fog can rise from the lake hindering visibility;
limited night life, dining and shopping.
Grand Targhee, WY (www.grandtarghee.com): Our favorite "small"
Rocky Mountain ski resort, it has a cute-as-a-button, self-
contained base village (which will soon be expanding), a single
bottom base area and an overall manageable size. Kids 14 and
under ski/stay free, incredible amounts of high-quality snow
falls here, there's fine day care and ski school programming with
zero crowds (even on weekends), plus on-site snowcat skiing and
the ability to ski Jackson Hole for a day or two. Downside:
Targhee is isolated with little shopping; the prevalent above-
treeline skiing can be impossible in a whiteout; and there's the
possibility of being stranded by bad road conditions when trying
to get to/from Jackson Hole.
Marmot Basin, Jasper, AB (www.skimarmot.com): Alberta's "other" ski
area, Marmot sits in Jasper National Park, and to say it's
beautiful would be a serious understatement. There's ski terrain
aplenty, and myriad other activities from ice canyon crawling to
wildlife-spotting snowshoeing. Or, if you stay at the Jasper Park
Lodge, the wildlife (elk in particular) will wander right up to
your door. You don't come here for the convenience, the wild
times or the crowds. You come here to bask in Mother Nature at
her finest. Downside: It's far (three hours' drive from Banff,
four from Edmonton); it's far north and so can be cold; there's
no slopeside lodging.
Red River, NM (www.redriverskiarea.com): Funky. And very
fun. Red River is a relatively small ski area one of the "other"
New Mexico resorts that are not Taos or Santa Fe but this old
mining town is not only a riot, it's a pretty good bargain. Kids
ski/stay free during non-holiday periods and most of the lodging
is either slopeside or a short strut from it. Or, for 50 cents
you can ride the town trolley. There's a regularly scheduled
torchlight parade, a huge Mardi Gras celebration, tubing and
almost all the dining is family-oriented, with an emphasis on
western steaks and the like. Come spring, "Beach Days" features
hula hoop contests, and a flashlight parade for kids 12 and
younger. And, multi-day lift tickets run about $50/day. Downside:
No true upscale lodging; can be raucous during holiday periods,
which is bad if you want peace and quiet; not a huge hill.
Keystone, CO (www.keystone.snow.com): Keystone is the
"forgotten" member of the Vail Resorts family, but offers
fantastic lift/lodging packages that include many other on/off-
slope activities; kids ski free; high standards for day care and
ski school; night skiing; pipe/park with family lessons on how to
use them; interchangeable lift ticket with Breckenridge, Vail,
etc; and terrain that expanded in 06-07. Downside: many base
areas; tends to get snow later than its neighbors; limited
Mt. Bachelor, OR (www.mtbachelor.com): Mt. Bachelor has
incredible terrain for kids of any age. Lots or rollers,
intermediates, and great parks. The topography in general is very
cool you're skiing on a volcano. The ambience here is nicely low-
key. Their Little Rippers program for 4-5 year-olds guarantees
ski class sizes of three maximum, and family private lessons are
offered. Lodging at places like Seventh Mountain Resort can
include lift tickets, plus skating, dogsledding and snowshoeing.
Downside: No slopeside lodging, and closest is several miles from
the hill; mountain amenities are fairly basic as well.
Heavenly Resort, CA/NV (www.skiheavenly.com): A whole new world has
been born at Heavenly in recent seasons with the advent of the
so-called 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.
(Bring the kids to Fire & Ice Improvisational Grill where they
can choose their own food and watch it being cooked on a huge
circular hibachi grill.) 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. Downside:
South Tahoe/State Line can be crowded and traffic-laden (despite
steps to alleviate the problem).
Mt. Rose/Reno, NV (www.mtrose.com; www.visitrenotahoe.com): Reno, long known as
America's "divorce capital," has come a long way baby. And, Mt.
Rose offers surprisingly good skiing for all levels, and most of
the major hotels not only offer surprisingly affordable
lift/lodging packages, but shuttle busses to the slopes stop at
their doors. And, if you want more skiing choice, there are
packages with, and transport to, most of the larger Lake Tahoe
resorts. Reno also has a large outdoor skating rink and a world-
class automobile museum. Downside: A commute to skiing daily; Mt.
Rose has no day care.
Big White, BC (www.bigwhite.com): Sister resort to Silver
Star, Big White was created for families. We're talking about ski
weeks that feature a skating party every Friday, a games-and-
movie night for 6-12 year olds, a Wednesday theme night and
fireworks, and a Carnival Night. Parks galore dot the mountain,
from the Plaza mini-pipe right at the heart of things, to the
TELUS Terrain Park that features a park, rail garden, half pipes,
boarder/skier-cross, and a fun family race area. Lodging on the
mountain is plentiful and runs the full range from hotel rooms to
chalets. Snow conditions here are about as reliable as anywhere
on the continent, and the base village is so convenient that the
main street in it doubles as a ski run and pedestrian way. And,
then, there's the Mega Snowcoaster Alpine Tube Ride, the largest
mountain tube park in North America. Downside: it's a bit hard to
reach for folks from stateside, requiring a commuter flight from
Calgary or Vancouver.
Crystal Mountain, WA (www.skicrystal.com): Yes, you could commute
here from Seattle (just 90 minutes' drive); you can also park
your RV for $20/night. But, you can ski-and-stay at places like
the swimming pool equipped Alta Crystal Resort for very
reasonable prices. The base and immediate area facilities are
good enough to keep you happy, but not major resort-style
overwhelming, and the snowsliding is first rate. Downside: No
daycare; limited apres-ski and alternative activities.
Diamond Peak, NV (www.diamondpeak.com): This too often
overlooked Tahoe resort is way family-friendly. Consider: a
parent interchangeable lift ticket that allows one parent to hang
out in the lodge with the little one while the other skis, and
then switch roles; the Family Special of discounted parent/child
ticket combos; Bee Ferrato Children's Center programs that
include Ski-and-Play program for little ones (three years old);
five-star lodging at nearby Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, Spa
and Casino or excellent low-cost packages at the Tahoe Biltmore
Casino and the Inn at Incline Motor Lodge and Condominiums; all
this will the best lake views of all the Tahoe ski areas.
Downside: No slopeside lodging; no daycare; the resort is
somewhat isolated from much of the Lake Tahoe activity.
Red Mountain, BC (www.redresort.com): A small British Columbia
town and a relatively small mountain, so why bother? Because it
doesn't get much more friendly than this and this hill has 360-
degree skiing, with some of the most challenging tree-sliding
anywhere. And, while the resort is growing in terms of
development, there's still this wonderful small town atmosphere
that makes everyone feel welcome, and the option to ski/stay in
basic accommodations or upscale slopeside digs. There's daycare,
good kids' programs and you can even go watch curling matches at
the local ice arena. Downside: You're rather remote here, 125
miles north of Spokane; no rollicking major resort action off the
slopes; the town shuttle bus runs only when the lifts do.
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...... 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.