Aspen's Snowmass: Tops for kids, easy on budget

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ASPEN, Colo. -- They say any publicity is good publicity, but sometimes Aspen's reputation as a haven for the rich and famous can be a mixed blessing.

Daunted by images of celebrities, high prices and upscale hotel and dining venues, mere mortals -- especially families -- may look elsewhere when planning their winter vacations.

However, while exploring the region with my 12-year-old son, Cole, I discovered that Snowmass, one of Aspen ski area's four mountains, offers wide-open terrain, a family-friendly ambience, a top-rated children's ski program and good deals.

This combination of factors may account for the high number of skier/snowboarder visits here in the 2002/2003 season -- more than 1.3 million visits in all, up 3.5% from the previous season.

Different from trendy Aspen, Snowmass features top-rated kids' ski programs, open terrain and good deals. As an added advantage, Aspen/Snowmass lift tickets are valid at all four mountains: Snowmass, Aspen Mountain, Buttermilk and Aspen Highlands.

During our stay, we opted for the on-slope Silvertree Hotel, which offers ski-in/ski-out accommodations with two double beds and a video game system; live musical performances in the evenings; and gargantuan breakfasts at the Brothers' Grille.

A ski-and-stay package at the Silvertree this season, valid from Jan. 4 through Feb. 11, costs $167 a night per person, double, and includes two lift tickets daily. Children under 12 stay free.

We especially liked that the hotel opens onto the Snowmass Village pedestrian area, where outlets range from upscale boutiques to cozy cafes.

Another hit was the complimentary Storytelling by the Campfire hour, offered Mondays and Wednesdays at 4 p.m. near Pokolodi Lodge in Snowmass Village. Here we roasted marshmallows while listening to tales of the Wild West around a roaring bonfire.

One night, we took advantage of the Family Twilight Snowcat Ride and Dinner program, offered this season at the Lynn Britt Cabin, where chefs prepare a dinner of regional specialties in a rustic setting. Available Tuesday nights, the program costs $70 per person, including transportation to and from the cabin by snowcat -- rides for which parents should bundle up the kids.

The real draw for both of us, however, was Snowmass' terrain, which ranges from challenging -- the intense Hanging Valley Glades draw experts with more skills than I -- to scenic, open runs.

My son made a beeline for the halfpipe, which even has its own sound system, while I skied all afternoon with a guide, never hitting the same run twice.

Families also can take advantage of a highly rated children's instructional program at Snowmass, which teaches skiing and snowboarding to children of various ages and skill levels.

Families who want to ski uncrowded slopes can spend a day at Aspen Highlands, known for its expert runs, or experience the PlayStation 2 Crazy Train Park at Buttermilk -- billed as the world's longest terrain park -- with bumps and thrills suitable for beginners and intermediates.

For a break from the action, Cole and I boarded a shuttle one afternoon for the nine-mile trip to Aspen Mountain, a former hold-out against snowboarders. It capitulated to that popular sport in 2001. Here we sampled ice cream at the Paradise Bakery, visited the authentically Wild West Hotel Jerome and sipped hot drinks at the base of the picturesque Aspen Mountain.

On another day, we spent a morning at the Anderson Ranch nearby, an artists' colony where Cole and I learned how to make Japanese rice paper books from a resident artist and explored the grounds of this circa 1966 retreat.

Instead of hitting the trendy bars apres-ski, we enjoyed pizza at the Yurt at Assay Hill on Snowmass, followed by serious fun at the lighted snowtubing runs, powered by cable lift for $15. Children ages 4 and under are not admitted. Tube Town operates from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. daily.

New this year is an indoor paintball venue at Snowmass for children age 6 and older, priced at $40 per person through Snowmass Mountain Outfitters.

For additional information, call (800) 525-6200, (970) 925-1200 or visit www.aspensnowmass.com.

To contact reporter Felicity Long, send e-mail to [email protected].

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