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Guest article by Family Travel Forum

Are your toddlers ready to catch air with Shaun White or Bode Miller? Are your teens ready to humiliate themselves as beginner skiers or riders? Is your husband or wife ready to give up the golf clubs for an ultralight snowboard? Take your novice snowsportmen away to someplace their friends won't be watching. Most beginners dream of the rugged Rockies, but the New England resorts have plenty of captivating scenery too. Wherever you go, plan to devote two or three days to the learning effort, with time between lessons for relaxation and off-slope fun.

Just think of the excitement when everyone comes home an expert!

Best for Beginner Programs

According to Tim Mueller, co-owner of Vermont's Okemo Ski Resort (800/78-OKEMO) since 1995, several factors have contributed to making the Beginner Experience a better one. He cites shaped skis as the most important tool in easing the learning curve for skiers, and the new twin-tipped skis as what has brought the youth culture back from snowboards to skis for terrain park fun. Mr. Mueller notes that Okemo is only one of many resorts where Learn to Ski and Ride programs have become more flexible and accommodating to beginner's various needs and interests.

Overall, he adds, "mountain resorts are more user-friendly." Any family shopping for a winter holiday will note many examples: informative web sites that explain to beginners more clearly what to expect (see mountaincreek.com); on-mountain 'ambassadors' offering daily trail advice and easy-to-decipher trail maps (at Killington and Vail resorts); high-tech innovations like lighted signage on runs indicating wait times at various lift lines or at cafeterias (Keystone and others), and other communication improvements.

The best news is that the industry has been reducing the fees for learners' packages - with lift ticket, equipment, and lessons all included in programs like the popular "First Tracks" -- in order to bring newcomers into the sport and develop life-long fans.

Out West Resorts

Most beginners love the West for the fresh powder and deep snowy base that cushion those early tumbles. The region's long history of snowsports, combined with many towns' acceptance of the ski bum lifestyle, mean you'll often come across excellent resident instructors who have been teaching for years.

Jackson Hole, Wyoming
One of the Wild West's most popular spots, Teton Village (888/DEEP-SNO, or 307/733-2292) in Jackson Hole has extreme terrain, gorgeous beginner's areas and a fun and funky town to roam when you're done with the slopes. It boasts 2,500 acres of terrain and a vertical drop (top to bottom height of runs) of 4,139 feet! The resort has long been known for its expert terrain, but novice skiers and riders can roll in the legendary powder from age 3+ with their Rough Riders camps. Adult novice, full-day Learn to Turn packages are also available. Jackson Hole's famous "Steep and Deep Snowboard Camp" offers a challenging course and expert coaching for intermediate and experienced snowboarders ages 25+. In the wake of its popularity, the resort has opened a series of Roundup Camps for younger intermediate skiers and riders, 7-14-years, that focus on developing skills in multi-day sessions with the same coach. Extra fees apply to all learning programs.

Grand Targhee, Wyoming
At the Idaho/Wyoming border, the compact, friendly Grand Targhee Resort ( 800/TARGHEE) in Alta boasts 500" of snow per year blanketing 2,000 acres of scenic beginner, intermediate and expert terrain. Their terrific nursery watches out for infants and toddlers and offers snowplay; learning programs begin at a later age and pair beginners 6+ (to ski) or 7+ (to ride) with pros in a safe and reassuring environment. If you're arriving with little experts though, Targhee has an unusual Little Deers program geared just to ages 4 and 5 who already have their snowsports skills down pat! Skiers 6-16 will love their kids-only clubhouses in the Powder Scouts and Teen Adventures programs. Targhee's adult Beginner Package includes one group lesson, a Shoshone lift ticket and full-day rental package for a reasonable price. Lodging rates are reasonable too, for many types of ski in/ski out accommodations at the resort's base.
Snowbird, Utah

Snowbird (800/232-9542) in Utah thinks of snowsports instruction in the context of Life. To quote their teaching philosophy: "Participation in Mountain School at Snowbird will involve you and your pro in a total mind, body, and spirit experience." Mountain School beginner group classes are geared to ages 3, 4-6, and 7-15 years, with evening programs two nights a week (in the Cottonwood Children's Center for your preschoolers, and around the lodge for older kids). Starting with the tender 3s, Snowbird gives them one-on-one attention, with a one-hour private lesson for each half-day of daycare in which the child is enrolled. Skiers and riders above age 4 are enrolled in daylong group sessions or with private coaches and flourish in the pristine powder. Their beginner Get Your Wings special enables adults to package one, two, or three sessions. The resort's noted Snowbird Mountain School runs annual clinics specializing in improving technique at all levels, as well as themed programs for women, riders only, and more.

Breckenridge, Colorado
More than 20 years after they introduced, developed and popularized snowboarding as a sport, Breckenridge Ski Resort (800/789-SNOW or 970/453-5000 ) in Colorado has become a favorite of freestyle snowboarders and skiers, as well as participants of countless other winter activities. Tots can begin their ski career in small class group lessons at age 3, and riders can start becoming shredders at age 7. Although it's best known for its 457-foot-long Freeway Terrain Park and Pipe (home to World Cup events), toddling beginners and novice adults will appreciate the chance to learn on Breck's mid-sized and smaller pipes. Skiers of all levels will also appreciate the terrain parks designed with learning-size, small, and mid-sized features. Now you can bring Grandma and Grandpa along to join in the fun because Breck also accommodates older novice guests with its Prime Time program, an instructional program for skiers over 50. Of course, you can never stop learning, and for the first time, Breck has turned its attention to experts. The new Imperial Express Superchair lift (the highest in North American at 12,840-feet) makes 400 acres of double black diamond terrain available for expert clinics. Good off-mountain packages in the funky town mean you can stay in nearby hotels for cheap prices; Breckenridge also offers frequent web specials at nearby condominiums, townhomes and hotels with lift tickets bundled in the rates.

Northeast Resorts

Many families will find a foray into snowsports daunting and expensive enough without traveling far from home to try it. Check out the mountain resorts nearest you and inquire about their beginner programs. Throughout the Northeast, you'll be surprised at the innovation you find at even the smallest local facilities. Mountains with lower altitude have to concentrate on good grooming and trail maintenance since they cannot compete with the West's natural snowfall. And shorter runs with a more gentle pitch make for better beginner terrain.

Smuggler's Notch, Vermont
Vermont's Smugglers' Notch Resort (800/419-4615), rated "No. 1 Family Resort in North America" by Ski magazine for the tenth time in 2009, is New England's finest children's learning center for two reasons: its scenic beginner terrain is safely segregated on Morse Mountain (one of the resort's three peaks), and these guys know how to make it Fun. Smuggler's offers a complete range of snowsports including alpine and cross-country skiing, snowboarding, airboarding and ice skating. Smugglers' Discovery Dynamos Camps teach children to ski at age 3, or snowboard at age 4, using recently developed, kid-specific equipment. That's already one of the youngest serious learning programs in the country. New in 2006 was the Little Rascals on Snow program designed for ages 2½ to 3-years as part of the resort's award-winning daycare facility. A gentle morning lesson, followed by lunch and a nap (sounds great for adults, too) can't be beat. Families who want to try snowboarding together may opt for Night School for Boarding, a program for beginners 6-years through adult, which includes a lesson, equipment and a lift ticket. You'll begin with an equipment review, then a one-and-a-half-hour group session on the lit Sir Henry's terrain park, followed by an additional 90 minutes of independent practice time. Adults-only beginner ski and ride clinics use special balance poles and ego-maintenance techniques. Additionally, more traditional group lessons are offered to ages 6+ and each is followed by the resort's activities; for example, the once weekly cookie slalom race gives beginners a delicious incentive to finish. Several learning programs are included in the Club Smugglers' Advantage package that bundles lodging, lift ticket, lessons, and evening programs into one fee, and it's available all season long.

Bromley, Vermont
Bromley Mountain (802/824-5522) is in Manchester - not far from the noted steeps at Killington - but it claims Ski magazine's title as "#1 Resort in North America for Family Programs." The first in the state to introduce valet parking, it's the little conveniences and consideration of young children's needs that make a Bromley Learn to Ski or Ride experience so easy. Young beginners have their own isolated learning area, and the resort's main mascot, Pig Dog, but he's got a full roster of snowsports-lovin' critters to help out. The 3 to 5-year-olds can join Bruce the Moose's Mighty Mooses and mix skiing with playtime, in a day-long program. First time adults benefit from a one- or two-day ski or ride program. Clinics and private lessons are run by a Pro Staff which, according to the resort's website, "includes members of the elite PSIA examiners and educational staff...the people who actually 'teach the teachers.'" Bromley also boasts the latest in teaching technology - shaped shorty skis - which enable novices over age 13 to learn skiing more quickly.

Jiminy Peak, Massachusetts
Jiminy Peak in Massachusetts (413/738-5500) is a favorite among smaller resorts (9 lifts and 44 trails), mostly catering to New England families who start their kids here then head up to Vermont's higher peaks. It boasts the classic teaching style of SKIwee learn to ski or ride programs, geared to ages 4-6. These full-day programs include lessons, lift tickets and lunch. A package is available for 3-year-olds who are able to learn a new sport in the morning but prefer to retire to a more restful daycare setting after lunch. One of the mountain's best features is their Burbank Children's Center, where ski school programs, a playroom for toddlers, rental shop and all the paperwork can be done without leaving the building. Adults get the same treatment: the Doc Maynard GET Center offers everything novices need for learning to ski or ride in one convenient place, and if you don't have fun on your first lesson, they guarantee a second one free of charge. The day-long package includes rental, instruction and lift ticket; lunch and lockers are available the new JJ's Lodge nearby. Weekend days and nights, and on holidays, a lit tubing hill is open for all ages. Jiminy Peak's Country Inn offers midweek lodging packages throughout the season.

Okemo, Vermont
Okemo (800/78-OKEMO) is one of Vermont's most popular family resorts, because its simple layout and one main basecamp (a 2nd basecamp at Jackson Gore Mountain is mainly used by Jackson Gore Lodge guests) prevent 'losing' kids who ski or ride independently of their parents. Staff are careful to monitor lift lines and groomers are meticulous with the gentle slopes. The family-owned, friendly atmosphere also makes parents feel comfortable entrusting their little ones to this mountain's terrific teaching staff. According to the resort, one of the biggest trends is the increased participation in children's Learning Center programs and private lessons. Children can start learning to ski with private lessons at age 2. At First Tracks (for ages 7 and up), novices will learn the basics of skiing or riding in a one-day package complete with two beginner group lessons, rental equipment and unlimited use of Okemo's beginner lifts. The Double Tracks is a two-day beginner program that includes three lessons and an upgrade to a full-day, full-mountain lift ticket at no extra cost. Additionally, there are parent-tot lessons with a private instructor, so intermediate or above level parents can get guidance on teaching their own kids to ski or ride. Group lessons for young skiers start at age 4, for riders at age 5; children ages 3-4 have an option of adding a 1-hour, 2-hour clinic, or a private 1/2 hour lesson to their day in the mountain's noted daycare center, the Penguin Playground. Aware of customers' sensitivity to price, Okemo has introduced many innovations in pricing, such as the Flex Card, good for discounts all season and free skiing on the season's last two days. Midweek packages bring lodging rates at the mountain's ski in/ski out facilities down to a more affordable rate.

Mountain Creek, New Jersey
Here's a very decent local ski resort just over an hour from New York City. Mountain Creek (973/827-2000), an Intrawest property in the western New Jersey hills near Vernon, offers remarkably good facilities (a "village" is sprouting up), trails (46), and innovative learning programs to the vast urban market down the hill. Their school is headed by Westerner Chris Heidebrecht, who migrated from Colorado's famed Keystone Resort to bring fresh energy back East. Mountain Creek is pushing the entry age for snowboarding instruction down to 5-years-old (closer to the age 4 ski minimum) thanks to the new diminutive equipment provided by manufacturers. That's a good thing, because their terrain parks are extensive, impressive (they hosted the US Snowboard Grand Prix halfpipe competition in 2006) and kids turn out in big numbers to ride. Adults are not neglected in the lesson offerings, with some unique formats such as the Ladies Club, a two-hour clinic taught for eight weeks -- by women for women -- at all ages and levels of ski and snowboard capabilities. Too busy to learn while the sun shines? The entire trail system is lit so you can study until 10pm every day of the season.

Mt. Sunapee, New Hampshire
Last but not least is the small mountain that was awarded 1st place as the "Best National Program for New Skiers and Riders" by the industry-wide National Ski Areas Association in 2006. At the Mt. Sunapee ski area, it was local demand that spawned a Families First program designed for parents and kids above 8 years. Set up as a three-day learn to ski or ride program, Families First grants each family group an instructor, plus a 1-day package with lift tickets, two-hour lesson and equipment. To encourage return visits, the second and third day packages are bundled together, and after completing all three days, family members are given special discount coupons for the remainder of the season. It's been very popular, and with the NSAA award and recognition, it will hopefully spread elsewhere. However, one mom told us that all their instruction was good; "We took our 4-year-old and 8-year-old both there to start out because it's a small and friendly mountain, and the instruction was fantastic for both of them." Mt. Sunapee also offers Frequent Skier programs and fun ideas such as Ladies Tuesdays, when women ski or ride for a great price including a complimentary buffet lunch. Midweek Ski and Stay double-occupancy packages include breakfast, lift ticket and room.

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