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  • Family Vacation Value Destinations - Vol. 7

    By Mitch Kaplan

    Photo courtesy Obermeyer 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., Value Vacation Destinations Vol. 6.

    Here are this season's recommendations divided geographically:

    East

    Smugglers' Notch, VT (www.smuggs.com): Year after year Smuggs ranks among the best of the best. Their combination of programming, pricing and service serves families more comprehensively than most resorts. Example: The Club Smugglers' Advantage Package includes condo lodging; daily lift tickets; daily all-day kids' ski/snowboard camp for ages 3-5; daily group ski/snowboard lessons for ages 6-17; daily learn-to-ski/snowboard group lessons for adult beginners; one free adults ski/snowboard group lesson in levels 3-9 with additional lessons at 50 percent off; a Winter Walking program; unlimited use of 34 km of cross-country trails and 24 km of snowshoe trails; unlimited use of the FunZone Family Entertainment Center, indoor pool, hot tubs and teen centers; off slope activities such as snow tubing and nightly entertainment; and free lift tickets valid through December 19, 2010 to use on a future return visit.

    Downside: It's a long 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.

    Waterville Valley, NH(www.waterville.com): Waterville is snug like a bug in a rug. On-slope, there's one base; nobody gets lost. Their kids' programs emphasize fun, and uniquely reward progress with special pins that kids are proud to wear. Off slope, the base village contains full choice of lodging, several dining options, and off-slope activities ranging from sleigh rides and ice skating, to a full fitness center. A variety of ski/stay deal are offered throughout the season, which now includes a 3 p.m. Sunday checkout, a real logistic boon for parents. The $12 kids' non-holiday Sunday lift ticket is a financial boon, as well.

    Downside: The base village is a few miles from the slopes, and this isn't the biggest hill, which somewhat limits in the ski/ride range.

    Sunday River, ME (www.sundayrriver.com): The River handles kids with, well, kid gloves, and does it very well. The Sunday River's Children's Festival Week, taking place in mid-January, is dedicated to families with activities like scavenger hunts, live entertainment, movies and themed Perfect Turn ski and snowboard lessons. Adult packages from $90/pp/per night including lift tickets, slopeside lodging and Perfect Turn clinics. Kids aged 4- 12 ski, snowboard, stay, rent and learn for free with three-night stay. There's also limited night skiing/riding.

    Downside: The resort's a bit like a megalopolis, with eight peaks, multiple base lodges and something of a confusing trail layout. Be sure your kid(s) know where they're lodging and set up specific meeting places with them.

    Gore Mountain, NY(www.goremountain.com): Gore just may be the most under-rated destination anywhere. And, it's growing better by the season, thanks to new lifts, trails and a new kids' center installed during the last few years. The snowsliding covers the complete range, from as steep as steep can be, to glades, bumps and easy-going trails. The nearby Ski Bowl in North Creek has its own mild slopes, terrain park, half-pipe, twilight skiing/riding, tubing park, and is the site of family-oriented events. Holiday camps facilitate prime time visits.

    Downside: No slopeside lodging or dining means commuting to/from North creek or other areas.

    Jiminy Peak, MA (www.jiminypeak.com): Jiminy remains 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 wind turbine at the top that supplies most of the resort's electricity; it fascinates kids.

    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.

    Seven Springs, PA (www.7springs): Day sliding. Night sliding. Reasonable ticket rates. Expansive terrain. Lodging galore. Off- slope activities of all kinds (bowling, anyone? sporting clays, perhaps?). Discounted Holiday Adventure Packages that start at $189/pp for lodging, unlimited skiing/riding, overnight ski check, breakfast buffet (Main Lodge guests), indoor pool and exercise room access, multi-day ski and snowboard rental discounts. This western Pennsylvania resort, which manages to be simultaneously big and small, is amazing.

    Downside: The Springs spreads out seemingly forever yet, being the closest major destination to metro Pittsburgh, it can get crowded.

    Midwest

    Crystal Mountain, MI (www.crystalmountain.com): Crystal must be included in any listing of family-friendly Midwestern resorts. 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): Highlands, too, must remain on any listing like this, if for no other reason than the water park. 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.

    Granite Peak, WI(www.skigranitepeak.com): During recent years, Granite Peak's base village has become a comprehensive,, small village with a full array of services. With 75 runs, it's big enough to entertain everyone, and the town of Wassau holds the complete lodging and dining range. Chain hotels like Holiday Inn Suites and Best Western offer affordable packages, plus facilities like swimming pools; non-chain lodgings, the Stony Creek Inn, offer good values like kids-stay-free. Plus, it's a genuine, small Midwestern city with all the lively dynamics that implies.

    Downside: No slopeside lodging.

    Terry Peak, SD (www.terrypeak.com): If you're not from around here, you might find the elevation stats hard to believe: top-7,052 ft.; base-6,500 ft., vertical-1,100 ft. In the Midwest? Yes. There's also 27 trails and five lifts, including two high- speed chairs. There's slopeside lodging, and the famous (infamous?) town of Deadwood is close by.

    Downside: It's far away very far away for most of us.

    Rockies

    Breckenridge, CO (Breckenridge Resort Managers):Excitement is in the air as snow covers the ground and activities have become available to keep the children entertained. Whether it is skiing, snowboard, or tubing that catches your attention, Breckenridge Lodging can provide you with the well needed rest that is required after a long day of play.

    Monarch Mountain, CO (www.skimonarch.com): Call this "the little- big mountain that can." Monarch, set 20 minutes' drive outside Salida, CO, is uncrowded and rife with spectacular expert snowsliding, including a cat operation. At the same time, their dedication to kids' programs is admirable. The childcare (for ages 2-6) is among the most caring we've seen; the kids' novice learning area is secluded from the main slopes and filled with entertaining elements to make things interesting; and the half- and all-day programs for older kids rock. Crowds are never a problem, and the powder comes in buckets. Salida is an interesting town, with an historical district, as well as a typical highway commercial strip, plus a terrific indoor swimming facility. Local hotels and inns offer ski/stay packages.

    Downside: We're fairly remote here, and there's no slopeside lodging or infant daycare.

    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.

    The Big Mountain, MT ((www.bigmtn.com): Whitefish is a downright folksy town with a healthy dash of sophistication. The Big Mountain, a twenty-minute drive above town, has been, for the past few years in the process of building its own base village. The combination is unbeatable, offering the best of both worlds in-town or slopeside. But, in the tradition of many resorts that started out as small town ski areas, this remains very much a locally-oriented hill, very friendly, where families have been playing for generations. As with any major destination, all the terrain you can want is here, as are the programs. But, it's small-town the ambience we love.

    Downside: it's a far piece from most anywhere (although if you've got oodles of time, you can arrive by train from either the Midwest or the Pacific Northwest); and ,if it's important to you, it lacks the glitz of the high-end resorts.

    Sun Peaks, BC (www.sunpeaksresort.com): For one thing, the Canadian dollar exchange rate is favorable again, which makes most Canadian skiing a relative bargain for Americans. Sun Peaks is often lost in the glitz of other, more glamorous British Columbia resorts, but with nearly 3,000 feet of vertical and 3,600-plus acres of skiable terrain, this place is not to be ignored. And, it's family-friendly, with a comprehensive base village, an Adventure Center that offers activities like bungee trampoline and mini snowmobiles, and packages like their four- night Super Saver that starts at C$89/pp/per night.

    Downside: For folks coming from the U.S., this can be somewhat remote and lacking in the big-time amenities and distractions of, say, a Whistler or Banff.

    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.

    Powder Mountain, UT (www.powdermountain.com): If you like unadorned and a bit funky, but overflowing with uncrowded slopes and truly friendly local atmosphere, this place is a gem. Set 19 miles northeast of Ogden, Powder has 2,800 skiable acres inbounds, 7,000 if you count their out-of-bounds terrain. But, it's not all killer terrain there's even some delightful green- rated glade skiing. The resort holds a limited amount of slopeside lodging (four-wheel drive vehicle recommended); otherwise, it's down-valley or into Ogeden for the night. The Ogden Valley Business Association offers an array of ski/stay packages. And, there's night sliding.

    Downside: Powder is remote. It's also simple no fancy base village, or myriad other distractions.

    Angel Fire, NM (www.angelfireresort.com): Angel Fire is another place that gets a bit lost in the glamor of a neighbor, Taos. But, this is a truly family-friendly resort where kids 12 and under ski, eat and stay free when overnighting with an accompanying paying parent at the Lodge at Angel Fire Resort. New Mexico's first night skiing/riding will be introduced for winter 09-10, 50 acres of it, and the alternative activities list includes tubing, ice skating ice fishing, horseback riding and more.

    Downside: You're a three-hour drive from the nearest major airport (Albuquerque), and you won't find the seriously challenging terrain of Taos.

    Beaver Creek, CO (beavercreek.com): Pre-Christmas or late season. They'll spoil you rotten; the expert terrain holds wonderful surprises; superb on-slope programming and day care; its own performing arts center; tons of off-slope/apres-ski offerings; just one main base area; super grooming; fantastic shopping and dining (albeit expensive).

    Downside: way too expensive for most mere mortals during high season, although money can be saved by lodging in nearby Avon.

    West

    Mt. Hood Ski Bowl, OR (www.skibowl.com): Ski Bowl another locals' treasure. Here, there's more night sliding terrain than anywhere in the U.S., tickets are affordable ($44/adult/weekend), and the terrain is dynamic. You'll have to lodge down the road, but the value is in its simplicity and night riding.

    Downside: No slopeside lodging, somewhat short runs, and old, slow lifts.

    Northstar-at-Tahoe (www.skinorthstar.com): Families love Northstar. Good terrain and parks, excellent service, quaint village, and good deals on vacation packages during low season. The small customer service touches like ferrying you and your gear from parking lot to slopes can't be beat, the ski school offers creative options like parent-and-child classes and a family terrain park, and the freestyle/park/pipe scene is vibrant. Add to that a new base village with an ice rink, and a variety of lodging near the slopes, and the value becomes even greater.

    Downside: Can be very crowded on weekends.

    Kirkwood Mountain Resort, CA (www.kirkwood.com): Not far from South Tahoe's blazing neon lights, but a quiet retreat unto itself, Kirkwood holds huge amounts of skiing and terrain for everyone, a pleasant self-contained base village of approachable size, excellent slopeside accommodations and good daycare, but only from age two up. There's also a nice non-ski activities selection, including tubing, skating, a snowskate park and snowshoeing; and an excellent commitment to parks/pipes. The Expedition Kirkwood program offers unique opportunities for backcountry and adventure experiences for adults and kids.

    Downside: no daycare for infants; limited (albeit improving slowly) dining/apres-ski options.

    Stevens Pass, WA (www.stevenspass.com): Sizeable enough to keep everyone happy (10 lifts, 1,125-plus acres skiable terrain, 37 runs, and an small base village with three day lodges), but small-resort friendly. The Adventure Package provides affordable lift/lesson/lunch for ages 5-12; Kids Club is for ages 3-4. Night skiing/riding. Lodging is found a bit down the road in Leavenworth's Bavarian Village and other locations, many with kids stay free offers.

    Downside: No slopeside lodging; no day care; limited "big resort" amenities like shopping and dining options.

    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).

    North Tahoe, CA (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. Add in South Shore resorts, Heavenly, Sierra-at-Tahoe and Kirkwood and there's just too much to cover for any normal family. Upside: tons of world-class terrain. Multi-day interchangeable tickets to northshore resorts. Downside: Tahoe is busy on weekends. Plan on visiting the smaller resorts during peak periods.

    Archived articles relating to KidzTravel:

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