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Family Vacation Value Destinations - Vol. 6 (2008/09)
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 fit.
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 stuff.
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 Whistler/Blackomb brings.
This year, we’ve added some new resorts to our list and revisited some of our past favorites. Please bear in mind our past recommendations: Value
Vacation Destinations Vol. 1, Value
Vacation Destinations Vol. 2 and
Value Vacation Destinations Vol. 3, and Value
Vacation Destinations Vol. 4 and Value Vacation Destinations Vol. 5.
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 annoy some.
Mont Ste-Anne, Quebec (www.mont-sainte-anne.com): Here’s a mountain that’s big enough to once have hosted FIS racing, but family-friendly enough to create kids’ programs that tank among the best. They offer excellent package deals, day care and ski school programs, as well as free skiing for age 6 and under. We also like the single main base area, easy access to the wonders of Quebec City, night skiing/riding and interchangeable lift ticket with Stoneham. Downside: Can be crowded, especially on weekends.
Bretton Woods/Mt. Washington Hotel, NH: (www.brettonwoods.com): Any resort that features the Mt. Washington Hotel is going to be a winner. Indeed, that’s true of any resort that features Mt. Washington, for that matter. And, you can actually ride the Mt. Washington Steam-Powered Cog Railway part-way up. The hotel itself remains one of New England’s finest gems and, while it can be on the pricey side, the value is undeniable: innumerable festivals and special events, full breakfasts and excellent dinner dining included with your room, expansive Nordic out the back door, a new spa opening for 2008-09, and history all around. On-site motel, B&B and condo lodging options can be chosen, as well. Bretton Woods is known for its groomed blue runs, but expansions have provided some nifty gladed terrain and a state-of-the-art base lodge. Kid programs are top notch here, as well. Downside: still a dearth of true steep and gnarly challenges, and the terrain park set-up doesn’t rank with the big boys.
Attitash/North Conway, NH (www.attitash.com):
Instituting "ATP" (Attitash Terrain Parks and Pipe), has catapulted Attitash into the freeride big leagues. And, while Attitash’s dual base areas breaks our family-friendliness cardinal rule for preferring single-base resorts, it’s not so large as to be intimidating. There’s a plethora of kids’ programs and, perhaps best of all, it’s but a snowball’s toss from North Conway, which has more shopping, dining and other activities than you could throw a snowball at. Plus, there’s myriad lodging choices from slopeside to quaint B&Bs. Downside: Somewhat lacking in truly challenging expert terrain.
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. And, now they have a windmill at the top that supplies most of the resort’s electricity. 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.
Stowe Mountain Resort, VT (www.stowe.com): The granddaddy of New England ski areas has undergone massive change in the last few years, including new lifts on Spruce Mountain and an improved child care center, plus a special transfer gondola that runs from Spruce to the Mt. Mansfield base, eliminating an aggravating school bus ride. A brand new luxury hotel will delight those who can afford it, but the nearby lodging along the access road and in town meets anyone’s needs. There’s night skiing, the Vermont Ski Museum, tours of Ben & Jerry’s ice Cream Factory, and plenty of shopping to do. Downside: getting up and down the access road in prime time can be a hassle, the three-peak layout is not our favorite set-up for families.
Sunday River, ME (www.sundayriver.com): We never stop marveling at how Sunday River can farm snow and keep everybody active. 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 Grand Summit hotels, and can therefore be quite affordable even in high season. In town, a few B&B-style and motel properties allow you to create affordable vacations, and the Bethel Inn presents a classic grand-old New England style venue. Nighttime activities, excellent day care and kids’ programs, plenty of terrain parks (including a fine mini-park, and shuttle service into town highlight the family-friendly aspects. Downside: the wide horizontal spread of the resort over its many peaks can mean "there" can end up being a long way from "here," particularly for those lodging at the Jordan Grand, but the a "Chondala" (combo gondola chairlift) will help that problem.
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.
Shanty Creek, MI (www.shantycreek.com): With 47 trails on two peaks and a pair of terrain parks, Shanty Creek offers enough downhill sliding to keep Midwesterners happy. A range of slopeside lodging keeps things easy, and a fine tubing hill and heated swimming pools keep kids occupied after skiing. There’s also a choice of restaurants, plus a fitness center, ice skating, snowshoeing, night skiing and horse-drawn sleigh rides. Another nice note: children age 8 and younger ski free. Downside: a mere 450-foot vertical.
Lutsen Mountains, MN (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.
Sunlight Mountain/Glenwood Springs, CO (www.sunlightmtn.com): A zillion people drive right past this under-appreciated gem en route to Aspen. This is a "small" resort, but don’t be fooled. It holds Colorado’s steepest trail, and a novice trail that literally goes on for miles. Personnel are outright delighted to help, and the day care/kids programming is excellent. Then, there’s the Hot Springs Pool in Glenwood Springs, the largest pool of its kind. You can swim, dive, slide the water slides and let the little ones splash in the kiddie pool or soak in the therapy pool. The ski area and townsfolk offer a irresistible Ski-Swim-Stay packages. Downside: the ski area is a ways from town; the lifts are old and slow (which may bother some, but not us); the pool is popular enough that it can be crowded at times.
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.
Brundage, ID (www.brundage.com): This is a community-owned and community-oriented ski area that minimizes the frills and maximizes service and fun. And, they get a ton of snow. It’s also about the only place we know of that has drive-up drop-off at their Kids’ Center. Plus, the Bear Chair connects the Kids’ Center to beginner and advanced beginner terrain, making things easy for the whole family. There’s a decent terrain park, a remarkable range of terrain for a rather diminutive area and, for those who can, 19,000 acres of cat skiing. The town of McCall is small and friendly. Downside: the ski areas is eight miles from McCall, and there’s no ski in/out lodging.
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.
Silver Star, BC (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 focused around a fun "western" themed base village with family entertainment some evenings. There’s good day care and kids programs, a single base, tons of snow, combination packages with Big White, night skiing, and world class Nordic—all at significantly lower pricing than coastal BC resorts. Downside: isolated; limited dining/shopping options.
Ski Apache, NM (www.skiapache.com): Ski Apache is the southernmost major destination ski area in North America, only 120 miles north of the Mexican border. Owned an operated by the Mescalero Apache tribe, the area offers sufficient variety to keep all sliders going, and some of the most fantastic mountaintop views in the southwest. Ruidoso, the closest town, is really a summer resort, which makes winter "low season" most lodging. The logical place to stay is The Inn of the Mountain Gods, set on a lake in the Apache Reservation and also operated by the tribe. Recent renovations have created a monster casino with spectacular views towards the holy ski mountain. Ruidoso has an interesting mix of shops and restaurant. Downside: no child care for non-skiing children; drive time from Ruidoso is approximately 45 minutes depending on road conditions, but there is a privately operated shuttle service.
Keystone, CO (www.keystoneresort.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 shopping/dining on-site.
Mt. Hood Meadows, OR (www.skihood.com): Another spot that lacks base area lodging and development, which is just part of what makes it appealing. It’s also has by far the most varied terrain of the Mt. Hood ski areas, is as big as many Western destination resorts, and gets an average of 430 inches of snow. You can find ski/lodging packages with Hood River B&Bs, inns and hotels, with lift tickets for as little as $32 included in the package. There’s full-blown, state-certified child care and a full menu of kids’ lessons. Nearby, SkiBowl has a tubing park dogsled rides and horse-drawn sleigh rides. Downside: lodging is a bit of a trek; the ski are’s sheer size and layout might intimidate some.
Sierra-at-Tahoe, CA (www.SierraAtTahoe.com): This is one small place that skis big. Very big. 2,000 vertical feet and 2,000 acres, with some of and the best tree skiing anywhere. A compact, single base area and a well thought out, efficient lift system make things easy—as does great customer service and excellent child care and kids’ lesson programs. The Playground, adjacent to the base has a snowshoe trail and a tubing hill, and there are family lessons, family ski zones and five terrain parks. Downside: The ski area is 12 miles from South Tahoe, but shuttles run from the major hotels.
Mt. Rose/Reno, NV (www.mtrose.com) or (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.
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.
Homewood, CA (www.skihomewood.com): Here’s a place where you can truly say "what you see is not what you get." From the road, you can see but a small fraction of Homewood’s 100 runs. From the top, you see dramatic Lake Tahoe views. This is kind of a "local’s hill," something of a well-kept secret. Children 10 and younger ski free when accompanied by an adult. Adults 62 and above ski as low as $10 a day. A full menu of kids’ lessons is offered. Downside: no on-site day care; a bit off the Tahoe beaten path (but that means less crowding, too).
Whistler-Blackcomb, BC (www.whistlerblackcomb.com): If you want big, all-encompassing, trendy, cool and cutting edge, here it is. Consistently rated in the top two of North American destination ski resorts by the ski magazines, Whistler-Blackcomb has it all—a trio of base villages that hold every kind of off-slope amusement, dining and lodging; two mountains that are big enough to once have been separate, competing ski areas; terrain parks from novice to world-class; the future site of Olympic ski/ride competitions; and, on- and off-snow kids’ programs that ranks with the creme-de-la-creme. Well, you get the picture. Downside: so big as to be intimidating and confusing; so popular that the base villages can resemble small cities during holiday times.
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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.