Gondola at Steamboat (photos by Larry Pierce)

DAY 1  (February 12, 2010) — Herding Cats.

Breakfast anyone?  One 13-year-old opts for soup; his sister an egg sandwich; the two younger cousins scrambled eggs and ketchup while the grownups gobble egg burritos.

It’s our annual family reunion on snow—11 of us this trip from five to 60–something and we’ve gathered in Steamboat, CO known for having more Olympians—79, including 17 this year—than any other American town and just as important to thousands of American families, pioneering kids-ski-free—some 27 years ago. (www.steamboat.com)

The program has morphed to include kids rent gear free and even fly free (one free child per adult). That represents a savings just in a five day ski trip of nearly $300 per child on their lift tickets. Teens up to 18 get a break too–$16 less than the adult ticket—as do skiing grandparents ($30 less). Families remain at the core of the resort’s business.

We chose Steamboat because the resort is known for its champagne powder –more than 400 inches of snow a year including something like 13 inches just  over  this  weekend—its brand new Kids Vacation Center  and so much terrain for such a varied group of boarders (lower intermediate) and skiers (expert).  This is a large ski area where 56 percent of the terrain is beginner and intermediate and where there are three terrain parks and parents will like this—there are lifts just for the terrain parks so kids can “lap” the parks—designed for different levels—easily and safely.

It was a victory that we got everyone fed and geared up and out the door for the two youngest cousins to make it to ski school at 9:30—seven year old Ethan Sitzman is in Rough Riders and his five year old sister Hannah in Sundance Kids.

If only it was a blue ski day!  Everyone else was reveling in the fresh snow and the powder this place is famous for.  The rest of the gang—including 15 year old Eva Weinberg and her 13 year old brother Max head off skiing and snowboarding—except for their parents who are non- skiers. No worries at a place like this—they have their pick of other activities from the spa to snowshoeing (with a gourmet lunch perhaps), snowmobiling  or the famous hot springs that gave Steamboat its name.  A French trapper in the early 1800s, the story goes—heard a noisy hot spring that reminded him of a steamboat. Sadly, when the railroad was built in 1908, the formations around the spring were changed and the chugging sound was lost.  Still, visitors and locals alike love to soaking the springs—the Old Town Hot Springs complete with water slide and the Strawberry Park Hot Springs just outside of town (go before dark with the kids—after dark swim suits are optional. (www.sweetpeatours.com)

We’re ensconced in two roomy condos in the Steamboat Grand conveniently located just across the road from Gondola Square. To make it even easier, there is ski storage right at the base—and they even dry your boots overnight—much appreciated when it is so wet out. Last night we took advantage of the hotel’s free shuttle to go for dinner at the Ore House at the Pine Grove—great steaks and salad bar and kids menu. It’s ideal when you want to go out with the kids.

Tonight the teens are going to babysit so we can enjoy an adult dinner at what I’m told is one of the best restaurants in town–DIVA which is right on the mountain.  Nice!

Are snow sports too pricey—and too much work? Not for my gang and not for the families I meet here. They praise Steamboat’s low-key friendly vibe—that you can take kids anywhere in town—and ski instructors who stop to help even if a child isn’t in their class.  “They get what families need,” says Amy Wolf, a flight attendant, skiing with her husband and two sons. A Coloradan from Loveland, she skis many of the state’s resorts and pronounces Steamboat her favorite. She likes that there are green runs throughout the mountain.

“It’s money well spent,” she says. “These memories will keep me warm when I’m 90 and they will keep the kids on the right track. This is such a confidence booster for the kids.”

Besides, she adds, snow sports are something the family can do together. “I can watch Little League games but I can’t get out and swing the bat with them.” She explains.   Then there are the life lessons–the beauty of nature, the importance of exercise–and just “getting away from the nitty-gritty of school and work.  The experience is enough of a priority to save all year.

Jillian Moriarty, a mother of two young kids from Minneapolis agrees.  She’s been coming to Steamboat for years and today is skiing with her three year old son Hayden and her 11-month old son who is going down the mountain in a backpack on his dad Craig’s back.  She loves that kids ski free but laments that ski school is so pricey (over $100 A DAY )—a complaint being heard at ski resorts across the country.

If the ski resorts want to grow the next generation of skiers and snowboarders, it’s time they listen to these moms and dads and do more to make instruction more affordable.

Meanwhile, she and her husband are teaching their three year old. “This is about being with your kids,” she explains. “It’s worth the effort.

And there’s an extra plus with the littlest ones who are so pooped at the end of the day that they need to be carried home. “It is a real work out—a whole other level of fitness,” she laughs.