FAMILY FRIENDLY UTAH
The best moments when traveling with kids are those times when their eyes widen in wonder at seeing something for the very first time. Case in point: the shining blue orbs of my six-year-old niece, Olivia, as our plane descended over the Wasatch Mountains toward the airport in Salt Lake City. A Florida girl spotting mountains topped with snow for the first time is a sweet sight – and more than enough to keep her slightly spoiled aunt from revealing she’s less than impressed with the snow conditions.
The 2014/2015 season had been a snow-poor winter of dismal proportions in Utah and across much of the American West. But the good news if you’re headed out West this year is that all that has turned around for the 2015/2016 season, with plenty of powder dumps from early in the season.
But as we landed in Utah last year, the mountains below us were as brown as the Sahara, frosted white only on their peaks.
Of course, we’d come from Florida to ski – Olivia’s first time - and I had a sinking feeling we were about to get skunked.
“Snow!” she said, pointing out the window with the same gusto a kid from Wisconsin might have seeing a Florida beach for the first time. And I reminded myself that even if it didn’t look like I’d be getting Utah’s legendary champagne powder this time around, six- year- olds only require so much of the white stuff to get their glide on down the mountain.
The next day was Olivia’s first day on the mountain at Park City. And she was looking a bit like a charity shop abominable snowman in the hodgepodge of clothing we’d amassed from friends back in Florida. Snow conditions be darned, the kid who lives in her bathing suit and backyard pool back home had come here to ski.
The flip-flop girl was looking a little hesitant in her awkward ski boots when I left her with the other ski school kids at the base of the magic carpet. But when I came to pick her up later in the day, Olivia had already graduated to the kids’ chairlift.
Our hotel home was the Montage Deer Valley, and if ever there were a more family-friendly ski address in the U.S. I have yet to see it (there’s even a bowling alley in the hotel’s basement).
Apres-ski here comes in the form of hot chocolate stations set around an outdoor bonfire overlooking the slopes, where Olivia and I joined other guests to roast marshmallows – cinnamon, chocolate and vanilla options among them – for s’mores. Then local Olympian Shannon Bahrke and the hotel’s Olympic Ski Ambassador – with her million-watt smile and hair streaked electric pink – arrived to let the kids take turns trying on the silver medal she won in the 2002 Park City Olympic Games.
Bahrke told us how much she loves her job at the resort, since it puts her in contact with families from around the world. “I think the common thread for most of the guests here is their love of nature and the fact they appreciate being in a beautiful place,” she said. Olivia and I, feeling similarly appreciative, decided to head out for a swim in the hotel’s enormous pool – taking breaks to run out into the snowy hillsides to do snow angels in our bathing suits.
The next day, we headed over to Gorgoza Park – a tubing park just outside Park City with seven snowy half-pipe-like runs and a warm-up yurt proffering hot cocoa. “We’re donuts!” Olivia shouted from her bright blue rubber inner tube as we were pulled along a conveyor belt up the side of a mountain. The whole splayed atop a comfy inner tube thing felt deceptively tranquil. When we got to the top, the plunging “advanced run” back down, however, did not. We flew alongside each other in neighboring tubes, bouncing like pinballs off the icy walls and even catching a little air. Catching our collective breath at the end, still supine in our tubes, our laughter floated up around us in frosty little clouds. And just like when we were doing snow angels at the Montage in our Florida bikinis, I was suddenly a kid again, too.
You ski North America for the quality of the snow and the Alps for the ambiance, so the saying goes. But that rule doesn’t apply in Park City, one of the rare U.S. ski towns that escapes the poured-concrete feel that pervades many resorts out West with a bonafide historic town center at the mountain’s base. Long before Park City hosted the world at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, this was a silver mining town with a whole host of notorious characters roaming the streets. After another day of lessons on the mountain, Olivia and I spent some time wandering Main Street, past the colorful facades that conjure the city’s past. We popped into the Park City Museum to spook ourselves in the town’s original basement jail. Then we headed to Robert Redford’s eatery, Zoom, for delicious burgers and truffle fries in a restaurant housed inside the former Union Pacific Railroad train station. After dessert is when I get the best treat, as Olivia blurted out the sweetest and most unscripted words.
“You know what, Aunt Terry?” she said, “I love skiing more than the iPad.” And with that, my job here in Utah was done.
SWITZERLAND’S SLEDDING-EST VILLAGE
Even if you’ve already experienced the singular cozy atmosphere of an Alpine town blanketed with snow, the tiny village of Bergün – deep in the heart of Switzerland’s Graubünden canton, but just two hours by train from the central railway station in Zurich – is a revelation.
There are the immaculately stenciled houses, pastel in color and sidled with perfect stacks of firewood, for starters. The frozen town fountains and Bernese mountain dogs patiently awaiting their owners outside storefronts. And as we pulled into the town’s diminutive train station, I noticed something else - it was the first time I’ve seen fellow railway riders pulling along wooden toboggans at their feet and jockeying to enter a train.
Come winter, Bergün is all about sledding, with families and friends coming from all over Switzerland for a definitively Swiss winter activity. From the heart of town, where wooden toboggans can be rented, you can ride the train 25 minutes along winding rails to access a four-mile-long toboggan run that descends through UNESCO World Heritage-status landscapes back to town. But this is no Sunday sleigh ride.
To prepare myself for the night’s adventure (the sled run is open during the day, but moonlit rides have even more appeal), I wheeled my suitcase from the train station along snowy streets to my cozy hotel in the center of town. At the Hotel Weisses Kreuz, the dining room wafted with the smell of raclette and fondue and the guest rooms were bedecked with billowing down duvets. I settled in for a hearty dinner of dumpling-like spaetzle before changing into my ski gear for the evening and heading to a kiosk near the train station to rent a wooden sled.
One option to get to the top of the sled run is to catch the main train (the Albula Railway) that continues on to the popular nearby ski stations of St. Moritz. But in the evenings, there’s actually a dedicated “schlittelbahn” – yes, a sled train. Whichever option you choose, the ride is a corkscrewing one through countless tunnels and under arching stone bridges.
When I emerged into the starry night 25 minutes later, it was into the tiny hamlet of Preda, where the glow from the Hotel Preda Klum’s cheery dining room beckoned me hither for a warm-up mug of glühwein and a shot of schnapps before sledding off into the night (without a waiver to sign in sight, I might add).
The sledding route - the longest illuminated sled run in Europe, at 4.5 miles – is actually a mountain pass that’s closed to traffic in the winter (but open to sledders and walkers).
The snow glittered around me like a million diamonds in the moonlight as I pulled my toboggan atop the squeaking snow to the top of the hill. Things started placidly enough as I squeaked off down the run, but soon enough the trail dropped and I found myself cruising around hairpin turns, braking madly with my feet and sending snow spraying all around me.
There were lots of Swiss-German exclamations of glee and trepidation, followed by a few shouts of sheer terror of my own, followed by moments of sublime winter beauty – ancient stone viaducts layered with snow drifts and backed with an inky sky spackled with stars.
When I emerged back at the bottom of the “hill” I was right in the heart of town.
The last train of the night was leaving in 10 minutes, a fellow sledder told me. If I ran, I could make it. To make up some time, he also suggested ignoring the “no sledding” sign on the road that cuts through the middle of town, which almost everyone around us was doing too.
“When in Switzerland…”, I thought, wondering when I’d ever had this much fun. As we arrived breathless at the station, the last little red train of the night came rumbling up.
I slung my toboggan over my shoulder - like a pro this time - and boarded the train bound for a wild snowy ride through a serene Swiss night.