It's 6:37 a.m. when I wake up to the smell of bacon, coffee and waffles – a decadent feeling that turns disturbing when I realize that my husband, William, is still asleep next to me. Following the familiar sound of cartoons up the stairs, I find Andrew, six, and Henry, four – what time did they wake up? – with our chalet hosts, Raul and Beth, in the kitchen, the kids happily eating organic cereal while Raul pours steaming mugs of coffee. "How do you feel about French toast?" asks Beth brightly, whisk in hand. This family vacation is certainly off to a great start.
Henry gets the lay of the land from the gondola.
We've come to Steamboat Springs Resort, Colorado, because "in-the-snow" friends have told us it's the most family-friendly ski resort in the United States: A mix of terrain spread across six peaks makes it an all-rounder for every level, the all-day kids program is renowned, plus the resort boasts the best champagne powder in its aspen glades. We've created a ton of happy holiday memories with our boys over the years, but for some reason everything falls apart when snow is thrown into the mix. Usually, I ask myself, "Why?" after surviving near electrocution separating static-y long underwear or depositing children covered in icicle tears at the base of a mountain. Truthfully, we're here for the best ski vacation we never spent together as a family.
The author brushes off her son after a snowball fight.
After breakfast (and a shuffleboard tutorial led by Raul in the games room), we're dropped off outside Steamboat's children's complex, cleverly named the Kids' Vacation Center (KVC). Door 2 Door, a ski and snowboard rental delivery service, has already outfitted us with boots and skis for the week at the house. (Anyone who's broken a sweat in the rental shop stuffing a small foot into a boot to the chorus of "Too small!" knows what a big deal this is.) Leigh-Ann McLaughlin – a blond instructor with a big smile holding two stuffed animals – is waiting for Andrew and Henry to start their private ski lesson. A few high-fives later, they're off to warm up on the magic carpet, happily marching behind Leigh-Ann, who's carrying a Thermos of hot chocolate and who knows what other treats. "Have fun! Love you!" we shout in unison. They don't even look back.
Look, Ma, no hands! Andrew perfects his "French fries" on the kids-only terrain.
William and I have 1,118 metres of vertical to explore on our own, but without the kids in in tow, it takes us a little while to find our ski legs. We stop pressing our faces against the gondola windows, hoping for a glimpse of the boys, sooner than I'd like to admit and put our heads together over the map, looking for the powder-filled chutes. Tracing the trails to the steeper treed terrain, I almost get the feeling that the strong intermediate skier I married wants to cut me loose. Later that morning, sans husband, I follow Ryan Watts – a golden-haired Australian ski instructor with huge blue eyes – into the packed gondola. Listening to him describe the terrain we're about to conquer together (so thankful for the gum I stowed in the secret pocket of my ski jacket), I'm startled by a familiar voice from the other side of the gondola: "How do you think the kids are getting on, Laura?"
Clockwise from top left: Rocky Mountain high; a cowboy-in-training at Haymaker; taking turns on the mountain; Haymakers' horses Jesse and Shrock.
The three of us get off and snap on our skis, the Yampa Valley sprawled out below, as Ryan gives us the lay of the land, pointing out Sunshine and Storm summits above us and the express lift that goes right to the top. It's peak season, but the slopes don't feel overly crowded, and I'm surprised when Ryan tells us that the resort is at full capacity, the high number of trails and zippy lifts a big factor in dispersing the crowds. "If you want great snow, powder and a laid-back vibe, come here," he says before we start our descent.
Warming up on a few wide-open runs, we slowly make our way over to the glades. Because the resort is below the treeline, Steamboat (a.k.a. the Boat) is renowned for its tree skiing. When we reach the Twilight Glades, there isn't a sound; the waist-deep snow creates a hushed stillness totally foreign to the ears of East Coast skiers used to the nails-on-chalkboard sound of skis on ice. As we make our way down the gentle pitches, the champagne powder sparkling in the sun, I can actually hear the birds in the aspens and pines.
Getting into hot water at Old Town Hot Springs.
After a few runs, I notice people zipping past me in modified ski equipment – brightly coloured mono ski torques. "Steamboat has a program called Stars for skiers with physical disabilities," Ryan explains, referring to the Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports organization. Steamboat Springs claims to have more Olympians per head than anywhere else: one in every 145 people, with some of the top Paralympic athletes living in the area. We continue, making a sweeping left turn on Lower Vagabond, and stop to take in the view – the Sleeping Giant (a.k.a. Elk Mountain) and part of downtown in the distance. Agreeing to break for lunch, we take a quick peek at the kids in the KVC, who are so wrapped up with their new friends and hot dogs that they don't even notice us.
The next day, back together again, we explore downtown Steamboat Springs, which has been growing along the banks of the Yampa River since 1906. The drive into Steamboat from the airport a few days earlier was all raw, white expanses, snowy passes and rock cliffs. It wasn't a stretch to imagine the trappers arriving here in the early 19th century, hearing a bubbling sound as they approached – what they thought was a steamboat was actually the river – and the downtown core isn't a departure from the Wild West either. Lincoln Avenue – the main street with its red-brick buildings and rodeo arena – still feelslike the heart of a hard-working ranching community thanks to family-run stores like F.M. Light & Sons that have been selling cowboy hats, boots and pro-rodeo gear for five generations. But the scene changes once you walk into Old Town Hot Springs.
It's always holiday season at Steamboat Springs Resort thanks to the twinkling lights that stay up year-round.
When Steamboat's founder, James Crawford, dug out the first pool a century ago so his family could "have a bath," he couldn't have imagined this spring-fed aquatic complex – eight hot pools, a climbing wall, a semi-Olympic-sized lap pool and two twisting waterslides – on a street that had sagebrush growing in the middle of it. William and Henry wade into one of the heated pools while I follow Andrew to the climbing wall. Shrouded in huge clouds of steam – the water may be 40°C, but it's minus 10 outside – we could be at the top of the Boat on a cloudy day as I watch Andrew tackle the rock wall like a pro before suddenly letting go. His first word when he surfaces is "waterslide," so we brave the cold and sprint to the enclosed staircase, Andrew taking the steps two at a time. Standing at the mouth of the slide's steep watery tunnel, I think about the locals who, almost 100 years ago, would ski down these snow-covered banks in their bathing suits, hitting the hot springs with a splash. When the dark, twisting slide finally spits us out into the steaming water below, my heart is chugging faster than a steamboat.
By the end of the week, we hit the Christie trail for a family ski and the improvement is remarkable. Henry's cautious wedge has evolved into round turns with confidence, and Andrew is linking his with control, picking up speed and using a parallel stance. We've been finding daily handwritten report cards from Leigh-Ann in their pockets – "Remember to put your tips together, Henry. Make a pizza!" and "Andrew, great job keeping your skis parallel. Keep thinking French fries." – and as the boys show off their new mountain moves, the only question I'm asking myself is why we didn't do this sooner.
01 If he or she asks really nicely, Mr. Chase Fix will let your six-year-old take the reins on a sunset sleigh ride at Haymaker. (haymakergolf.com)
02 Pick up a pair of boots, hobby horse or beef jerky at F.M. Light & Sons, a family company that's been selling Western gear for over 100 years. (fmlight.com)
03 Door 2 Door brings the rental shop to you, with free delivery (and pickup) of top-of-the-line ski equipment. (d2dskis.com)
04 The young and young at heart can scale the climbing wall, shoot down the waterslides and swim in the Old Town Hot Springs. (oldtownhotsprings.org)
05 Ore House at The Pine Grove, Steamboat's best steak house, will be a hit with the kids (it's housed in a 100-year-old barn) and, thanks to plenty of Colorado centre-cut tenderloin and craft beer, with the adults as well. (orehouse.com)
Where to stay
Moving Mountains Chalets
The newly renovated Arabella lodge, big enough to house two or three families, also comes with a chef's kitchen, a massive fireplace, a washer/dryer and floor-to-ceiling views of the Colorado Rockies. (The boot-dryer room alone is worth the stay.)