The Top Three Winter Vacation Destinations for Families
You’ll feel it—perhaps as you sip an autumn cocktail al fresco. Faint at first, almost imperceptible, a breeze will catch the air and you’ll detect the slightest, fleeting chill of winter whispering its approach. When your mind begins to drifts to snow-capped peaks, stashes of powder and a crackling fire, then you know you’re ready for ski season. Planning the perfect ski vacation means matching the destination to the journey. Is this a family getaway, geared more to the s’mores than the slopes? Or is it the annual guys’ trip, skiing first chair to last going big before going home? Either way, you want to be certain that the mountain you choose is compatible with your crew. Here, we profile three distinct resorts that will answer all calls.
Whistler Blackcomb, British Columbia
Stepping off the Whistler Village Gondola on a clear day feels a little like flying over Manhattan’s sprawling constellation of skyscrapers for the first time. The sight is overwhelming. Jagged, rock-peppered peaks and meringue-like snowcaps spread out in every direction. Immediately above you, Whistler Mountain scratches the clouds. Grande Finale, the black diamond centerline that slices the peak in half, draws your eye from the treeless summit down to the belt of densely packed pines that wrap the mountain below. Nineteen lifts climb every aspect of the peak, and more than 100 trails spill from its terminus. When breath returns to your lungs, you realize just how big Whistler is. And Whistler is only half the story. Turn around and you’ll see Blackcomb Mountain with 17 more lifts and 100 more trails. Together, Whistler and Blackcomb comprise the largest ski area in North America with more than 8,000 skiable acres.
With that much terrain, Whistler Blackcomb might be the only ski resort in the western hemisphere whose claim to have something for everyone is truly valid. Between the two mountains, experts could spend an entire week doing nothing but hiking and skiing high-alpine, treeless steeps and extreme terrain. Intermediates can explore all varieties of blue and black trails—from quad crushing mogul fields to sweeping boulevards purpose-built for high speed GS turns. Best of all, beginners and kids aren’t relegated to a small pocket of trails at the base. Gentle green roads and wide avenues traverse the lower half of both mountains.
The resort’s off-hill offerings are as equally abundant as the slopes. The modern, inviting base villages feature some of the best shopping and dining in skidom. The nightlife—which starts with après at the Giribaldi Lift Company or Merlins Bar & Grill and rolls into five-course dinners followed by wee-hours dancing—is unmatched in North America. A week in Whistler is a party— albeit a sophisticated one—that doesn’t stop. When breath returns to your lungs, you realize just how big Whistler is. And Whistler is only half the story.
Trying to get the full Whistler Blackcomb experience without hiring a guide is a fool’s errand. For all the terrain that you can see, there’s twice as much that you can’t. Extremely Canadian, one of the industry’s first independent ski schools, runs steep skiing clinics and tours throughout the world but calls Whistler Blackcomb home. Among its impressive roster of guides are former pro athletes and ski film stars who get you up-close and personal with the resort’s two peaks. They’ll help you find the hidden nooks and crannies that only longtime locals know about.
The resort’s proximity to the Pacific and the sheer size of the Coast Mountains lead to some strange weather patterns and inversions. It’s not unusual to experience gale-force winds on the peaks, sunny skies in the middle of the mountain and rain or fog at the base.
Go ahead; use the weather as an excuse to give your legs a break. Whistler’s Ziptrek Ecotour is a full- or half-day adventure perfect for older kids and thrill-seeking adults. On the way up the mountain, you’ll learn about the Coast Range’s unique temperate rain forest ecosystem. Then you’ll strap in and whiz back and forth across Fitzsimmons Creek on a series of ziplines, including one of the longest and highest in North America.
Hands down, the pinnacle experience for any skier is heliskiing, and British Columbia is the place to do it. The relatively stable snowpack and an abundance of heli operations in southwest B.C. make for an easy day-trip adventure that even strong intermediates can experience. Coast Range Heliskiing, which operates out of Pemberton, will pick you up at your hotel, equip you with safety gear and an experienced guide and then drop you high on a knife-edged ridge with thousands of untracked vertical feet at your ski tips.
The culinary scene in Whistler Blackcomb rivals those of most major cosmopolitan cities. Dinner at the Bearfoot Bistro is more than a meal; it’s an experience that starts with a tour of the enormous wine cellar, where you can try your hand at champagne sabering. Between courses of decadent handcrafted gourmet fare, step into the vodka ice room, where you can taste spirits from around B.C. and the globe. The night ends with ice cream prepared table side.
Stowe Mountain Resort, Vermont
The very roots of American skiing cling to the soil beneath Stowe’s Mt. Mansfield. That’s where, in the 1930s, FDR’s Civilian Conversation Corps cut some of North America’s first ski trails in what became a symbiosis, of sorts. The New Deal propelled the development of the country’s first ski areas; in turn, a proud American brand of the greatest winter pastime was born in New England and helped to pull this nation out of the Great Depression. Today, resorts like Whistler and Jackson attract the most committed, dyed-in-the-wool skiers to whom little but sliding on snow matters. But it’s places like Stowe that made them that way.
Gaze up at the Front Four, double-black-diamond trails that spill from Mansfield’s nose and you begin to appreciate Stowe’s legacy. The runs are narrow and steep relics of an era when every trail was cut by hand. Until a few years ago, most of Stowe’s slopes were at the mercy of often-fickle Mother Nature, which meant that learning to ski here meant learning to ski in the toughest conditions a skier can imagine.
Surrounded by working farms and anchored by the 200-year-old bucolic town of Stowe—its clapboard storefront Main Street and rickety covered bridges movie-set perfect—Stowe is the quintessential family ski getaway. The dining scene covers the spectrum from simple to gourmet. Locally owned boutiques and galleries satisfy even Manhattan bred shoppers. The resort’s Mt. Mansfield to the south and beginner-friendly Spruce Peak to the north serve everyone from beginner to expert, and a midday rendezvous is easy thanks to the Over Easy gondola that connects the two base areas.
Ask anyone who cut their teeth, and maybe some other body parts, on these slopes, and they’ll wax nostalgic about old Stowe as they lament recent upgrades—a massive snowmaking system, high-speed quads and gondolas, an enormous timber base lodge, significant slope grading and grooming, and real-estate sprawl—for stripping the resort’s rustic charm. But the truth is, those improvements have returned Stowe to its position at the top of America’s roster of must visit ski resorts, especially for anyone curious to know skiing the way it used to be while still enjoying modern comforts.
Expert skiers can’t officially check Stowe off their list until they’ve skied The Front Four, preferably all in succession. National, Goat, Liftline and Starr demand a level of proficiency and pluck you cannot acquire on the machine-manicured boulevards out west. Ski them all to earn your Stowe stripes, recognized around the world… even in Jackson Hole.
Ever wonder what happened after Maria, the Captain and the Von Trapp brood climbed over the Austrian Alps? They settled in Stowe and opened the Trapp Family Lodge. Today, guests of the lodge and visitors can take part in a true Vermont tradition—maple sugaring. In the winter months, you can visit—by cross country skis or snowshoes, on foot or horse drawn sleigh— the original Trapp family sugar shack to see how maple syrup is made, taste samples, and take home your own bottle.
The very first ski trail cut on Mt. Mansfield was the Bruce Trail, which dates back to 1933. Although it’s not technically part of Stowe Mountain Resort, it remains a favorite sidecountry line that is easily accessed off the Toll Road trail. But the best part is that it descends to The Matterhorn restaurant and bar, Stowe’s best spot for après beers and—believe it or not—sushi.
No trip into or out of Stowe— or both—is complete with.out a stop at the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory in nearby Waterbury. Thirty-minute tours run daily every 30 minutes and give guests a peek at the production floor and a free taste of the flavor of the day. Before you leave, make sure to stroll through the Flavor Graveyard to pay your respects to the likes of From Russia With Buzz and The Full VerMonty.
Jackson Hole, Wyoming
You’d think Wyoming— sandwiched as it is between Colorado, Utah, Montana and Idaho, and spanned by sky-scratching Rocky Mountains— would be chock full of ski resorts. Nope. Not counting a handful of tiny, municipal hills, the state has exactly one destination resort. Given that, you might assume it’s crowded and free enough of competition to neglect things such as customer service and luxury amenities. Wrong again.
Jackson averages fewer than 1,800 skiers a day, and they disperse quickly over 2,500 acres thanks to an impressive network of lifts. That’s fewer than two skiers per acre, and that’s only the in-bounds terrain. In 2000, Jackson was one of the first resorts in the U.S. to institute an open-gate policy, giving skiers lift-served access to extreme terrain beyond the boundary ropes. That’s where you’ll usually find the locals—and those who aspire to be locals. Considered a pioneer in the side country movement (now the fastest growing segment of the ski industry) and the mecca of extreme skiing, Jackson is home to few less-than-phenomenal athletes. Most locals ski only the resort after big storms. Once the inbounds powder is skied off, they head into the side- and backcountry.
What does that mean for visitors? You shouldn’t sleep in, stop for lunch or get in anyone’s way on a powder day. Locals don’t suffer dawdlers. Whether to visit or to live, you come to Jackson because pushing the lim – its tops your to-do list.
That’s not to say Jackson can’t be relaxing. Inti – mate and easy-to-navigate Teton Village, at the base of the ski mountain, has gone a long way to soften Jackson’s hard edges and counterbalance the fre – netic pace of its ski hill. World-class spas, fine dining and a handful of shops and boutiques offer guests a much-needed breather, but the main attraction in Jackson will always be the skiing.
If fresh snow fell last night, you’re already late. Book it to Jackson’s iconic tram, “the red heli,” and get in line. “First box” is at 9 and it’s 12 minutes to the summit. One hundred meters from the top, look down and left for a glimpse of Corbet’s Couloir, widely regarded as the most difficult marked ski trail in North America. Hint: Ski the mountain from looker’s left to right—the terrain gets gentler as you go. Your legs will thank you.
Jackson’s base sits lower than most Rocky Mountain resorts’ at 6,300 feet, and its 10,450- foot summit isn’t particularly high. But the 4,139-foot vertical drop is impressive, unparalleled in the U.S., and explains why the pace on the mountain is so quick. No visit to Jackson is complete without a few leg-busting runs on the legendary Hobacks, a group of four relentless fall line steeps accessible from the Tram or the Sublet Quad.
Jackson’s not the best place to strike out on your own the first time you visit. Luckily, some of the greatest skiers in the world don’t just live and ski here; they guide and teach guests. Olympic gold medalist Tommy Moe leads private mountain tours for intermediate and advanced skiers. And if you’re ready for something hairier, sign up for a guided backcountry tour or multi-day camp, where world-class ski-mountaineers will teach you how to safely navigate Jackson’s off-piste terrain beyond the resort boundary.
The Chill Spa, on the top floor of the ultra modern Terra Hotel, and the Four Seasons Spa—ranked number one in the U.S. by Travel + Leisure— offer full menus of body and facial treatments with stunning views of the slopes. Soak sore muscles in their infinity pools and rooftop hot tubs, and—if you’re feeling like a local— squeeze in a second workout in their state-of-the-art gyms.
Reward yourself for a day’s hard work with dinner at Jackson’s premier awardwinning restaurant, Couloir, atop the Bridger Gondola. Chef Wes Hamilton sources sustainable, regional ingredients for his farm-totable menu that changes with the seasons but includes dishes like pan-roasted Snake River sturgeon and Idaho potato-wild mushroom perogies. Eat up. After the day you had—and the one that awaits tomorrow— you’re going to need it.