The tram liftie at Big Sky Resort in Montana

DAY FOUR The good news is that it’s snowing — dumping snow actually. The bad news is that it’s snowing — so hard that there’s hardly any visibility Even my die hard skiers don’t want to move from the cabin. They’re watching an ER marathon. When do we get to do that at home?

There’s just one tiny problem: We’re supposed to move this morning from Big Sky just up the road to Moonlight Basin, a five year old resort that has different owners but is connected via lift to Big Sky — together they’ve got the most in-bounds terrain in the country– 5,512 acres to be exact; 4,350 vertical feet, 27 lifts and 220 plus trails — from plenty of beginners to long blue groomers to some of the most hair-raising extreme terrain anywhere up on Lon Peak the Head Waters at Moonlight Basin.

So rather than ski to Moonlight– people ski back and forth every day with a combined ticket like at Snowbird and Alta in Utah — we drive over and check in to a beautiful brand new ski house — so new we’re the first people in it. Fabulous mountain views, terrific gourmet kitchen; a bathroom with a huge Jacuzzi. Just one problem — the cable TV hasn’t been hooked up yet. No TV! Thank goodness for scrabble. Thank goodness for a DVD player.

The kitchen is so gorgeous and the snow is coming down so hard that we cancel our dinner reservation at Buck’s T4 Lodge, about a 20 minute drive, and cook pasta instead. I can’t think of a better way to spend a snowy night. The fire crackles. We drink wine. We play scrabble. We read. The kids squabble…it wouldn’t be family if that weren’t the case.
Eventually, I’m told, these ski houses will all be ski-inn and ski-out, but right now, we need to drive about five minutes to Moonlight’s main lodge to catch a lift. “You better like to ski if you come here,” one dad from Boston told me. “You just sleep, cook and ski.”

This is a great [place to come if you want to hang out with your family and your friends. This is not the place to come if you’re looking for a lot of nightlife.
“People come for the atmosphere,” says 69 year-old Jim Ackerman. Both he and his wife Frances have made teaching skiing at Moonlight a second chapter in their lives. “It’s definitely one of the best kept secrets in the ski industry,” says the grand dad of five.

I agree. Even in a holiday week, there are no crowds and no lift lines. In fact, on some of the runs– long, wide runs with to-die-for vistas are completely empty.

Parents are thrilled that the ski school isn’t crowded either. Ski School director Jim Coulis says he’s got just 47 instructors — double last year. Last year he taught 1,200 kids. Vail — where Coulis worked — easily can teach more than that a day.

That mean s he’s able to keep a 1:3 ratio for kids four to six and just a one to five ratio for seven and older. Anyone who has ever checked their kids into ski school at a major resort knows, unless you’ve booked a family private lesson during a busy week, that rarely happens.

Younger kids can be dropped off at day care center and get a one and a half hour lesson — no muss, no fuss — a one on one lesson! “Most ski schools operate the same way,” he says. “The biggest difference is the small numbers.

“This is like a secret club,” he laughs. “People learn about it by word of mouth They key is we’re growing slowly.”

The vibe is different too — friendly, laid back. At the end of the day, families are sitting in the lodge by the big fire place or are back in their ski houses or condos — the small log cabins that are slopeside are terrific with their own hot tubs — not fancy, just charming. “This takes you back to an old fashioned ski vacation when you made your own fun,”’ he says.