Leslie Ballin thought she was dreaming.
On vacation in Crested Butte, Colo., with her husband, two kids and 72-year-old mother, Ballin found herself enjoying a real vacation, unwinding, even fitting in two skiing classes every day. She wasn't worried about getting groceries for the rented condo, entertaining her mother or keeping her two grade-schoolers amused after their skiing lesson.
"This is the easiest ski vacation I've ever had with the kids," said the happy working mom from Maine.
Phillip Schmundt, a divorced Texas attorney who was vacationing with his two teens, echoed Ballin's sentiments. "I get to meet other adults and spend time with the kids," Schmundt said. "It's perfect."
Maryjane Ambroji, whose Florida-bred 4-year-old had just seen snow for the first time, was pleased that her family got lift tickets and skiing lessons as part of the deal, which she called "a terrific value."
An extra bonus: On the ski slopes and over burgers, these parents and their kids mingled with peers from Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, France and Australia, among other countries.
No wonder these parents felt as if they'd found family skiing nirvana at Club Med's new resort in Crested Butte, at the only such family skiing resort in North America. This historic little mining town 230 miles southwest of Denver is known for its down-home Western charm, extreme skiing and 1,400-plus acres of terrain surrounded by 7 million acres of wilderness. The resort, one of the few ski areas that is still family-owned, has worked hard to attract families. It has an excellent ski school, a policy that kids 16 and under pay their age to ski, and a relaxed, we-love-kids (even when they're not the best behaved) attitude.
Over the past three decades, Club Med (which just celebrated its 50th anniversary) also has vigorously courted American families, offering all-inclusive packages to its beach resorts; supervised, morning-'til-night children's activities; and even day care for infants at three of its villages. The formula clearly works. Club Med now has 20 villages worldwide that are designated for families. In fact, families now account for 65 percent of the company's 2 million annual guests. No wonder so many other resorts have followed suit.
But for family fun in the snow, there haven't been as many options. Even Club Med, which boasts 29 ski villages around the world, had only one in the United States, at Copper Mountain in Colorado.
Now, the Copper Mountain Club Med has been designated for adults, and with the opening of the 257-room family Club Med in Crested Butte, in a newly renovated Marriott, the company hopes to woo families who love the snow but hate the work a family ski trip entails. Club Med is doing this at a time when the American skiing industry is trying to boost flagging numbers by drawing young first-time skiers and snowboarders to the mountains.
That's not to say the Club Med formula is perfect. Some may tire of the serve-yourself buffets, of sharing a table with strangers and staff (as is Club Med custom), of the goofy evening entertainment. Many Crested Butte guests lamented that the pool and hot tub were far too small to accommodate 700 people.
And while the ski classes ensure that no one in the family will have to ski alone, some guests complained that the classes were too large, with not enough emphasis on skill development. "I never got any feedback from the kids' instructors," Ballin said.
Still, any parent who is a veteran of family ski trips (me included) would appreciate how the convenience here can change the entire tenor of the trip. Rather than rushing kids to ski school in the morning, then lugging the young ones and their gear home afterward, parents simply drop off their kids after breakfast, in the same building. The eager-to-please counselors and Club Med ski instructors -- there are 70 just for the guests at the resort -- get them ready for the day. The week we visited, there were more than 250 children on hand.
No one has to rush down the mountain to meet the kids at the end of the day, either: The counselors give them a snack and oversee indoor games and crafts until 5 p.m., leaving plenty of time for adults to get in an apres-ski drink. Day and evening activities are posted for teens as well, though they often are grouped with adults in ski and snowboard classes, and some teens said they had trouble "connecting."
"It's boring at night," complained Ivan Berdakin, a high school student from Argentina.
No one had complaints about the food. The substantial buffets for breakfast, lunch and dinner -- each evening buffet celebrates a different type of cuisine, from French to Tex-Mex -- provide plenty of choices for even the most finicky eaters. There is pizza and pasta, steaks and seafood, and elaborate salad and desert bars.
"It doesn't matter if they all want something different to eat. I'm not cooking four different meals," laughed Shari Pire, a New York attorney.
The kids eat lunch with their ski groups (except on Wednesdays, when there are no organized lessons) and may join them for dinner and after-dinner activities as well.
Not even Ballin's husband's last-day ski injury could dampen the family's enthusiasm for the place. "The kids already asked when we could come back," Ballin said.
Weeklong packages (which start at $1,400 from the West Coast and $1,640 from the East Coast, although the cost is less for kids) include airfare, meals, lift tickets and ski schools.
Programs are for children ages 4 and up. Shorter packages are available, as are excursions to go snowshoeing or dogsledding. Rental equipment is extra. There are direct charters from Florida and New York. For information on special deals, call (800) CLUB MED or visit www.clubmed.com.
For private lessons or to arrange skiing lessons for Wednesdays, when the Club Med ski school is closed, call the Crested Butte Mountain Resort at (888) 463-6714 or visit www.crestedbutteresort.com. There are special programs for women and for skiers with disabilities, and there is day care for infants.