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Want to be king of winter for a day?
Step right up would-be Ice Queens, too. Sit right down on the ice throne -- the largest snow structure in ski country at Keystone Resort, complete with ice slide and kid-sized tunnel.
"Really fun," said Rebecca Hopeck visiting with her 6-year-old daughter at the top of Keystone Mountain in Colorado. "You can play up here while the others are skiing," she explained, enjoying the stellar views.
Keystone is Vail Resort's most kid-centric resort, with kids-ski free (as long as you book a two-night stay), night skiing tweens and teens love and daily "Kidtopia" activities. There's a parade through the village on Saturdays with kids being twirled around in tires, free cookies and hot cider in the ice-skating rink, the chance to meet and greet the avalanche dogs and ski patrollers, free kids sundaes and more. Think glow stick ice-skating on the huge rink and disco tubing at the highest tubing hill in the world. This season, there's a new, Kidtopia headquarters indoors so family entertainment can continue no matter what the weather.
On the slopes, there's a new Family Ski Trail called School Yard (on Keystone's signature green cruiser, Schoolmarm) designed for families to have fun in the snow while navigating kid-sized bumps and changing terrain. Take a run here with Riperoo, the resort's mascot.
All this and it's a great value, too. Lift tickets for kids can be more than $60 each at major snow resorts, but here kids ski free all season long, and it doesn't matter whether you have one child or four. "It's definitely one of the best values out there right now," said Ski.com's Dan Sherman. He noted that a family of four could stay and ski for four nights and three days for under $1,400. (You'll find deals at Ski.com.)
No wonder so many families opt for Keystone. Last season the resort provided more than 25,000 Kids Ski Free tickets.
Another plus: Keystone is easy to get to -- just 90 miles west of Denver International Airport with 800 lodging options to choose from -- and they work to de-stress the experience once you arrive. There's even a new family-parking zone close to the gondola. There's no more schlepping either. Load the kids and the gear in a golf cart transport or borrow a wagon. Keystone provides them for guests to tote gear -- and their kids around the village.
I love that Keystone piloted the National Restaurant Association's Kids Live Well initiative designed for healthier kids' meals with less fat, salt and sugar. Gone are the days of overpriced greasy burgers and fries, says the resort's executive chef, David Scott. Think chicken tacos or teriyaki chicken noodle bowls instead.
I also love all the complimentary apres action designed for families -- street performers in the village, giant checkers and chess games with kid-sized huge pieces and even a Bavarian-themed fondue restaurant with a live polka band and the chance to do the Chicken Dance.
There's also Camp Keystone, which gives children the chance to improve their skiing and the resort offers any child booking three or more days the guarantee of the same instructor each day. At the end of day, parents have the chance to join a Mom, Dad and Me private lesson, alongside their child's instructor.
But what I like best about Keystone is that not only is there plenty of terrain for all levels, but there is plenty to do besides downhill ski -- there are two ice-skating rinks, cross-country skiing at the Nordic Center with 5.6 miles of groomed Nordic ski trails and 8 miles of snowshoe trails and snow-biking at Adventure Point at the top of the gondola, and even snowshoeing at the top of the mountain.
One blue-sky day last season, while my daughter and nephew explored the mountain on skis and snowboard, we opted for a top-of-the-mountain snowshoe tour that took us 3 miles into the Bergman Bowl. We certainly felt the altitude as we climbed from 11,200 feet to 11,900 feet. But the view of the mountain ranges is spectacular, as were the snow-covered trees and even the slopes above the tree line.
A nice alternative to downhill skiing, we think, and the scenery couldn't be better. We only see a few skiers and riders hiking into terrain that has only had enough snow to open in the last week.
We ended our day with drinks and snacks at the historic Ski Tip Lodge, the home of the first owners of Keystone, Edna and Max Dercum, and before that a stop on the stagecoach route. Now it's a bed and breakfast famous for its multi-course dinners (think caramelized fennel with lentils followed by pan seared foi gras and seared beef tenderloin or Colorado lamb chop and homemade apple cobbler and flourless dark chocolate torte.
We loved checking out the artifacts -- six-foot-long wooden skis and the modern handmade skis produced by one of the staff, old-fashioned snowshoes and ski boots -- as we snacked on homemade potato chips, homemade apple and thyme elk sausage and homemade breads (I especially loved the rosemary chipotle muffins).
We don't feel the least bit guilty after our snowshoe trek. We were all reveling in a fun vacation day.
Snow trips, I'm glad to report, work for families no matter how old the kids and especially when there is so much for everyone to do.
Our Keystone getaway completed, we headed back to historic Breckenridge and the Blue Sky at Breckenridge, a Wyndham Rental Resort, (Click on "deals" for early season deals at Breckenridge and Keystone) for our last night together. (I'll write more about ski towns and families in an upcoming column.)
Where will we go next season, everyone asked?
I'm working on it.