It really hit us the first time we rode a chairlift together. All four of us doing the same sport—even though one of us was only five years old. Just for starters: chairlifts are fun. You're swooping up into the air, with snowy slopes all around and views of skiers and snowboarders zipping by below. In minutes, you think, that'll be us down there. "Okay, we're almost at the top. Raise the bar . . . scrunch forward on the seat. I'm going to hold your arm as we get off. No, really, just this first time. Bend your knees and push off … and this is it, the top of the mountain! Okay now, we're going right, down the easier slope. No, that's your left hand! The right is your mouse hand…"
Dave and I, both Canadian, hadn't done much downhill for years. Living in New York City, we found ourselves with no time to exercise and two young sons needing a winter release. A few days at a small nearby ski resort and a handful of lessons for the boys confirmed our suspicion: this is a sport we can all love. Being able to ice-skate—and being oblivious to cold—probably helped my boys catch on. And I was amazed to discover that the new shaped skis make turning almost effortless (trust me!). By late winter, we were ready for a longer stint, and the one place everyone recommended for families was Smugglers' Notch in Vermont. We signed up for a five-day package that included a kids' ski camp, lessons for all, and a two-bedroom condo minutes from the lifts.
The 300-mile drive from New York seemed especially long in winter. But it hardly matters how late you arrive, since check-in operates round-the-clock. That's your first clue that Smugglers' friendly staff is orchestrating every detail of your stay.
The next morning we got a good look at our condo: one of the newer ones, it was spacious and dec-orated in a not-cutesy country way. (All the condos are privately owned, so the décor varies, but you always get a full kitchen and plenty of room to stash bulky winter clothing.) After breakfast we drove five minutes down to the vest-pocket base village. Once we'd survived the rental ordeal, we met up with the boys' two instructors on the hill.
The kids settled smoothly into their routine: they had a group lesson with about eight other kids each morning, returned to the lodge for a hot lunch, and then got back out on the snow. Meanwhile, Dave and I dusted off our skills during morning lessons, then set out to explore the three mountains. The resort has a 2,610-foot vertical rise, some 260 acres served by 67 trails—half intermediate, a quarter novice, and a quarter expert—and several terrain parks where snowboarders practice stunts. There's enough variety that most skiers can easily spend a week here without getting bored. At 2:15, we met the boys at the drop-off area so we could ski together (other kids would socialize indoors till four, the final pickup time).
"You'd better rent Oliver a helmet," our younger son's instructor told us after the first class. "He doesn't like to turn." An athletic five-year-old, Oliver was more interested in setting speed records. "Turns slow me down!" he protested. One size-small helmet, please. Evan, seven, insisted on snowboarding, for two reasons: a) it's cool; and b) his brother was too small to do it (most kids under seven don't weigh enough to move the board around). According to his teacher, the cautious Evan was perfecting the "falling leaf" technique—making a zigzag course by sliding, or almost scraping, on one edge of the board, rather than allowing it to lie flat, glide, and pick up worrisome speed. (In truth, I'd recommend that almost any child start on skis—easier to learn, as Evan later discovered.)
It's no surprise that Smugglers' ski school is widely considered the best in the country. We watched the boys gain skills and confidence every day, with reports from the instructors that generally included the word awesome. Most kids' teachers now call the snowplow technique "pizza" for its triangular shape, and say "french fries" for parallel skiing. As always, junk food works wonders. By day two we were all riding the chairlift to try out the easy trails together.
My own skiing was coming along, too. The various intermediate-level instructors showed real talent for self-devised teaching methods: hold your arms out as if you're carrying a tray, and so on. Dave's teachers helped him carve through black-diamond moguls. Then he and I would meet for lunch—one day, at the top of Sterling Mountain, in a battered wood hut called the Top of the Notch, which offers chili, venison stew, soups, and views for miles.
Smugglers' takes education seriously. There's a weekly study hall for kids whose parents are anxious about their missing school, and an afternoon show in which clownlike guys do wacky demonstrations ("No, it's not magic; it's science"). Some on-slope sessions ("Mom & Me," "Dad & Me") are designed to help parents teach kids to ski; others combine an instructor with a parent and a teenager, to help the teen teach the parent to snowboard. Kids are also encouraged to learn through the resort's Winter Science Program, which finds sneaky ways to enlighten them about weather, snowmaking, even physics.
But most resort activities are simply fun. The main family restaurant, the faux-rustic Mountain Grille, has a great kids' buffet with a cookie bar where they can decorate their own dessert. One après-ski afternoon, Evan and I painted pottery; my striped mug and his spotted badger were later fired and shipped to us in New York. Another day we all took a dip in the heated outdoor pool, where steam floated up to meet the flurries drifting down, while a fingernail moon rose in the darkening sky.
To further the sense of family, Smugglers' even concerns itself with marriage maintenance. Three times a week, they offer "parents' night out," during which your junior skiers are fed dinner at the children's center and then entertained with crafts, movies, or a magic show, while you and your spouse dine out. Though there's really no town attached to the resort, there are a few nice restaurants in the vicinity. We tried the log-cabiny Three Mountain Lodge, five minutes away. Like us, the couple at the next table spent their entire time discussing the kids—but that's parenthood.
If your metabolism permits a full day on the mountain and a full evening on the dance floor, you'll be better off elsewhere. But Smugglers' does have a few nighttime diversions besides the video arcade. One night we all took a snowmobile tour up over Smugglers' Notch Pass, along the winding road that leads to Stowe and is closed to traffic in winter because it's too steep to plow. Snowflakes flew into our faces as our convoy of eight vehicles bumped up and down through the trees in the dark. When we'd signed on, I hadn't quite grasped that I myself would be driving, with one son perched in front—or that snowmobiles are noisy, smelly, and environmentally incorrect. The boys loved it.
In chatting with young skiers on the lifts, I learned that lots of families take annual vacations at Smugglers'. "And do you always remember what you learned the year before?" I asked Zoë, a 10-year-old from Chicago who has skied here every March since she was three. "Sure, I get right back to where I left off, or better," she answered. "It's a great chance for me and my dad to get together. I just wish he'd give up trying to snowboard." *
Smugglers' Notch (800/451-8752; www.smuggs.com) is 30 miles east of Burlington, Vermont (the nearest airport); 220 miles from Boston; and 290 from New York City. Most families book five- to seven-day ski packages. For two adults and two kids ages 17 and under, a two-bedroom condo starts at $2,745 for five days. That includes lift tickets and a 90-minute lesson each day for you, and the FamilyFest program for the kids: lessons, equipment rental, a couple of free meals, and lots more. There's also a full range of special events (we're still sorry we missed the Thursday night fireworks). Day care is provided for infants; and toddlers (3 to 5) can get out in the snow and play or start learning to ski, then nap in a cozy room that smells of apples and fresh-baked cookies.
While Smugglers' Notch sets the standard for teaching kids to ski in North America, there are some close contenders.
Northstar-at-Tahoe California; 800/466-6784 or 530/562-1010; www.skinorthstar.com. This compact resort has a special snow-sports learning area and a mid-mountain headquarters for all children's services. Children 5 to 12 enroll in Starkids for ski and snowboard lessons. Free hour-long clinics teach parents how to ski with toddlers as young as three. At the mid-mountain Polaris Park, families can rent snow bikes and snowscoots, or go tubing, skiing, or snowboarding until nine nightly.
Snowmass Colorado; 800/525-6200 or 970/925-1220; www.aspensnowmass.com. Young skiers start off on the Family Zone's adventure trails and terrain park. Snowmass sponsors weekly races, parties, and barbecues; its teen program has added evening activities. Extreme Camps are for advanced to expert skiers, ages 10 to 19. Group lessons start at age 3; children as young as 18 months can enroll in private lessons.
Vail Colorado; 800/404-3535 or 970/476-9090; www.vail.com. Group lessons, given for ages three and up, include racing classes and mogul skills. Instructional ski weeks have daily themes; race day with ribbons, skier safety day, vertical challenge. Classes get together over lunch in the Chaos Canyon Kids Cafe. Several on-mountain kids' zones have ski-through forts, terrain parks, and racecourses. The Adventure Ridge center offers lighted tubeing, ice-skating, snowshoeing, ski biking, laser tag, and something scary called Thrill Sledding.
Whistler/Blackcomb British Columbia; 800/766-0449 or 604/932-3434; www.whistler-blackcomb.com. North America's largest resort opens its third children's base center this winter. There are special learning areas throughout the ski area. Two- or five-day Adventure Camps for kids 3 to 12 emphasize consistency, with the same group and instructor each day. Teens can join the Ride Tribe program, taught by the resort's coolest instructors.
Winter Park Colorado; 800/729-5813 or 970/726-5587; www.skiwinterpark.com. The Children's Center lodge organizes ski and snowboard programs for children 3 to 14, who can spend the day at the 25-acre learn-to-ski area. Besides group lessons, classes are also offered for whole families. There's even a specialized kids' rental center, and a dedicated kid-cuisine cafeteria that serves (what else?) chicken fingers, mac and cheese, and hot dogs galore. -MEG LUKENS NOONAN