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Managing a Stress-Free Ski Trip with the Family

Wendy Sachs
Feb. 14, 2011

I had always romanticized a family ski vacation - all of those holiday photos of smiling parents and children clustered together in snazzy ski gear posing on poles atop a snow covered mountain, blue skies beckoning.  It seemed fabulous.  This is probably because I never skied as a child.  Growing up in Miami, our pilgrimages only took us as far north as Orlando for our annual Disney World vacation.   

It was in college that I tried on my first pair of skis during a disastrous fraternity social.  My date abandoned me for the blue runs and ultimately a blonde Kappa Kappa Gamma sophomore, leaving me to the Bunny Hill without a lesson, a helmet or any waterproof ski gear.  On my single attempt down the hill, I crashed into a ski school group, giving me a monstrous headache and soaked jeans.  That day I vowed to learn how to ski and to never again date a Sigma Nu.

A couple years later, my then-boyfriend, now husband went on our first ski trip.  Despite growing up in New York, he also didn't know how to ski.  "If we ever get married and have kids," I warned Michael, "they will be skiers - but first we need to learn and get good."

So every winter for the next five years we jetted off to a new ski resort - Taos, Lake Louise, Stowe, Vail, Tahoe.  It was romantic - the private hot tubs, the après ski massages, the crackling fireplaces.   And then we had kids.

My son did not like anything too tight.  My daughter didn't like the cold.  They both whined and whimpered about even pulling a sled up a small hill.   I couldn't imagine getting them to carry their own skis or any gear.  Ski school, not happening.  Was my happy, ski family dreams quashed?  

When my son was 6 years old and my daughter 4, we took our first ski trip to the Berkshires.  It was painful.  My body ached from not just carrying their gear but from jamming their feet into boots and yanking them shut.  I soaked through my breathable layers even before leaving the ski rental shop.  There were bribes to get them to go to ski school.  And bribes to even get my son to ski.  It was exhausting.  This was not romantic or even remotely fun.  And it was expensive.  What were we doing?

That was three years ago, but last month, it started to finally pay off.  The Tiger Mom in me wouldn't let my kids quit and now I have a couple of good skiers.  I have also learned how to make my family ski holiday less stressful and more fun for everyone.   Two words: Park City!          

Lesson #1 - Fly direct, whatever you do, don't go anywhere during the winter that requires changing planes, which increases the risk of losing ski gear.

We flew to Salt Lake City from Newark a few weeks ago.  The Delta 7 a.m. non-stop morning flight to Salt Lake City is dreamy - compared to our two planes 15-hour odyssey to Tahoe two years ago.  This flight can get you on the slopes by noon.  We were not that ambitious - but I did get a couple of hours of afternoon skiing in with my son - which was pretty amazing.  All of the resorts in Park City, including the Canyons, Deer Mountain and the Park City Mountain Resort will also let you ski free the first day you arrive when you show your same day airline boarding pass.   

Lesson #2 - Rent kids' ski equipment before you go.  

Seriously, nothing is as stressful as getting your kids geared up right before a 9 a.m. ski school lesson.  There are forms to be filled out and endless lines to stand in.  If you think you will ski more than once a season, it makes sense to rent from a local ski shop before you go.  Seasonal rentals are surprisingly affordable.  My kids get new skis and boots each season - our October visit to the Pelican ski shop in New Jersey has become our annual tradition.

Lesson #3 - Send your kids to ski school!  

This is the well known secret among skiing parents - ski school is like daycare for your children - but better.  You can have a vacation, have some one-on-one time with your spouse, get some good runs in, have a peaceful lunch sans kids and the best part, your kids are actually learning to ski without you.  You don't have to deal with their whining, hunger or equipment issues - the instructor will do it all.  And for that, ski school is worth the mind-numbing cost.

The Park City Mountain Resort ski school folks say that their ski school kids have fun because they just do it differently.  I was skeptical; I'd heard it before.  And my kids had both begged me not to send them AGAIN to a ski school class.  I'm not quite sure if they spiked my kids' hot chocolate with some happy potion - but despite a rainy, snowy raw day, they had a great time and even asked to go back again and ski the "monkey trails" through the trees.   

My advice is to check out the student to teacher ratio at whatever ski school you visit and get a sense of the enthusiasm of the instructors.  My kids prefer cooler, younger teachers to the old grizzlies who have been skiing since the time of wooden skis.   

Lesson #4 - Think hot tub and massage - even with the kids.       

While I notice the duvet thread count or the thickness of a towel when we travel, my kids don't give a hoot.  But they do pay attention to heated pools and hot tubs.  This has become a ritual in our après ski.   

The new Waldorf Astoria in Park City at the Canyons has a spectacular outdoor pool heated to 90 degrees.  It also has a large hot tub surrounded by twinkling lights.  Classical music is piped outdoors.  Because it had just finished hailing, and we were the only ones crazy enough to be outside, we had the pool and hot tub to ourselves.  With my kids in the heated pool and my husband in the hot tub beside me, surrounded by snowy mountains, it was almost romantic.  The hotel also has a divine Golden Door spa for fancy treatments of all kinds.  And even though it was pre-Sundance Film Festival, I had my own celebrity spotting - actress Hilary Swank in a terry robe leaving the spa.  I indulged in my own dreamy deep tissue massage treatment on our last day.

Lesson #5 - Make sure there are plenty of high speed lifts so you don't spend your time waiting in lines.

Lots of resorts boast high speed lifts and gondolas.  For the family skier, this can't be underestimated.  Nothing ends a ski day quicker than a cranky, cold, restless child.  Getting up and on the mountain quickly is important.  The Canyons Resort just added a heated ski lift - a funky orange bubble like chair lift that keeps you toasty on the ride up.  My kids didn't want to get out.    

Lesson #6 - Keep it Easy

Access to a grocery store, good restaurants, and a drug store, make for a less stressful, more vacation-like vacation.  Park City has everything - it's a picturesque mountain town dotted with eclectic restaurants and boutiques.  The Sundance Film Festival brings out indie and Hollywood film stars each year in late January - but the vibe is less haughty Aspen and more rugged cool.

Lesson #7 - Location, Location, Location

We've lodged in all types of places from inexpensive hotel rooms where we had to drive 20 minutes to the mountain to ski in/ski out condos and hotels.  One thing I've learned - especially when traveling with kids - stay close.  At the Canyons, we spent three nights at the Sundial Lodge - one of the older accommodations.  Even though it's not as updated as some of the others like the Escala or Grand Summit, it's a stone's throw from the gondola, a brand new hot chocolate bar - with five fancy flavors of hot chocolate and is situated in the center of the Canyons Village.  It's large space made it very comfortable for a family of four and our ample gear.   

We then relocated to the luxurious Waldorf Astoria for two nights into a much smaller suite, but with a gorgeous stainless steel chef's kitchen.  I actually never even turned on its magnificent Viking stove and felt guilty that I wasn't cooking, but it was fun to admire.  The Waldorf is further down the hill from the central gondola but has its own brand new gondola to connect you to the mountain.      

Lesson # 8 - Goodbye Chicken Nuggets, Hello Venison

If you get envious hearing about skiing in Switzerland where lunch is a delicious fondue and a glass of wine at a rustic chalet, but you're used to an overpriced bowl of chili and soggy fries at your local ski lodge, there is some good news.  The Canyons, which was recently sold to the Toronto based Talisker Corporation, is raising the standard of its mountain fare.  With half a dozen new restaurants sprinkled around the mountain, they've gone gourmet and organic with everything from venison to Kobe sliders.

Lesson #9 - Stock Your Fridge

Because ski school starts early, we skip the buffet breakfast and keep cereal, milk and fruit in our room.  Also, with the time difference in Mountain Zone, our jetlagged kids get up before dawn and are inevitably hungry at 5 a.m.  Our first stop is always to pick up food for the room.  There are plenty of grocery stores in the Park City area, including a Whole Foods.

Lesson #10 - Do it All

The serious skier goes only for the skiing, spurning all other activities. But with kids, you want to break up the skiing routine or reward your children after ski school.  The Park City Mountain Resort has a fantastic alpine coaster across from the ski school pick up.  My kids couldn't get enough.

Having taken my kids tubing from the Poconos to Tahoe, we know the drill, grab your inner tube, wait in line, get cold.  But the tubing center at Gorgoza Park in Park City is the only tubing I've ever been to with a heated yurt - perfect for parents and toddlers too young to tube.  Instead of waiting out in the cold, my husband and I read the newspaper in the toasty yurt, popping out every 15 minutes or so when the kids came flying down the hill.  They also have mini snowmobiling course that my kids absolutely loved and a play area for young children.  
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