BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. -- The gang eagerly eyed the steep chutes from the chairlift.
``Sorry, not open yet,'' Breckenridge ski instructor Lee Skye told my disappointed teens eager to conquer the expert terrain. ``A little later in the season and it's awesome.'' They sighed in unison and gave me that mom-blew-it-again look I know all too well.
``Next time we're coming for spring skiing,'' 16-year-old Matt announced.
He was right. Sure, Breckenridge is beautiful and lots of fun at Christmastime -- the Victorian buildings of this historic mining town decked out in twinkling lights, scores of small shops (Breckenridge Bead Gallery is a particular hit with girls) and restaurants (The Hearthstone and Breckenridge BBQ are sure to please) crowded with celebrating families. ``This town is so neat we never get tired of it,'' said Karla Dellinger, who comes from Kansas every holiday season with her husband and son.
But the best skiing of the season at the country's most popular ski resort (more than 1.3 million skier visits last season) would come later, in March and even April. At 9,600 feet above sea level, Breckenridge and the other Summit County ski resorts just 100 miles from Denver can count on plenty of snow past Easter. In the last five years, in fact, they've gotten more snow in April than in March -- more than 60 inches. ``We're trying to build April as a regular ski season,'' said Breckenridge spokesman Jim Felton, who makes it a point to play golf and ski on the same day at least once each year.
Late season is also when families can find some of the best bargains of the season -- here and elsewhere -- as lift and lodging prices are slashed 30 percent or more. Look for more air bargains, too. And if you can manage a midweek getaway, you'll save even more. So don't hang up your skis or the kids' snowboards too soon.
``The irony is we open with the worst conditions and close with the best conditions of the season. We close because of lack of customers, not snow,'' said Aspen spokesman Rose Abello. ``At the top, we'll have snow in July.''
Sure, very late in the season, some beginner lifts at the bottom of the mountain may close. The trick is to pick a resort where the base is at a high elevation, like Breckenridge or Snowmass, or those in northern Vermont, Utah or California's Lake Tahoe area.
The good news is that it's warmer in late March and early April so the kids won't get as cold and will last longer on the slopes. The snow is softer -- easier on beginners who fall a lot, especially when they're trying snowboarding. And it's less crowded so you and the kids are guaranteed more personal attention from ski instructors.
The ski school is one reason I like Breckenridge for families. With 50,000 kids taking ski and snowboarding lessons every season -- 10,000 of them kindergarten age and younger -- it's one of the country's biggest and best-equipped ski schools for kids. More than 100 instructors have special children's training. There's also a cheery day-care center for infants and toddlers. (Call 888-LRN-2SKI for reservations and prices. Multi-day packages are always the best deal.) Both the day care and ski school got high marks from the parents I met, many of whom were return customers.
Families -- including mine -- were just as enthusiastic about what Breckenridge offers off the slopes. Teens like the Breckenridge Ice Rink in the evening where they might hook up with local kids ($5 for skate rentals). We especially liked the municipally owned Breckenridge Recreation Center with water slide, hot tubs, indoor tennis, track, fitness center and even a rope swing in the pool. The cost for all this indoor fun is just $8 for adults, $5 for teens and $4 for kids 12 and under. I had to bribe 8-year-old Melanie to get her off the rope swing and into her clothes so we could get some dinner. (Call 970-453-1734.)
There's every kind of food imaginable -- from pizza to burgers to Mexican, Japanese and gourmet fare. Kids are welcomed everywhere.
The non-skiers in the bunch will be too busy to get bored in between meals. The small town -- just 1,900 people -- swells to as many as 20,000 in the ski season. ``My parents and my brother came with us last year, and they did a lot of sightseeing and shopping. They had a great time without skiing,'' said Karla Dellinger.
There are snowshoeing, dog sledding and snowmobile tours, hot-air balloon rides and even gold-panning lessons in a working mine. Breckenridge, after all, got its start in 1859 when settlers moved west in search of gold and has been continually occupied since then.
One giant plus: You can walk most everywhere, from your condo to the slopes, to dinner and all of the shopping the teens in your family could want. ``We never even needed the car,'' said a pleased Kolleen (cq) Gaeta, from Venice, Fla.
You don't need fancy ski duds, either. ``People don't come to Breckenridge for the trappings. This isn't the place to come and be seen,'' explained Jane Hamlin, who oversees the resort's women's programs and has been a ski instructor here for 14 years. ``This is where families come for a great vacation. It's genuine Colorado.''
LATE-SEASON FAMILY DEALS FOR FUN IN THE SNOW
-- Buy a multi-day ski ticket at Breckenridge and you can also ski Keystone, Arapaho Basin (the highest peak in Colorado where you can ski in July), Vail and Beaver Creek. Call Breckenridge at 800-404-3535 or www.breckenridge.com. Check for Cool Deals on the Web site. Five-night stay-and-ski packages for a family of four start at $1,350 at Breckenridge in April, $1,600 in late March. Discount air is available with the packages. Tip: check Colorado Springs for air as well as Denver and Vail Eagle -- Breckenridge is in the middle.
-- Fly Southwest Airlines to Utah and one child under 12 can fly, ski and stay free with a paying adult at several Utah resorts, including Park City, Snowbird and Deer Valley. Kids even get free lunch at Park City. Two-night adult packages, including air, lifts and lodging, begin at around $200 from the West Coast, $349 from Long Island (Islip) and under $200 from Las Vegas. The snow typically is good through the end of April. Call Southwest Airlines Vacations at 800-SKI-8365 or www.swavacations.com.
-- Whistler Resort in British Columbia is offering three-night, three-day ski-and-stay packages for April starting at $227 per adult, less than $100 for kids. Even better, round-trip flights are available from the West Coast for $175 or $325 from New York, Boston or Atlanta. Call 800-944-7853 or www.whistler-resort.com.
-- California families on a budget can ski for three days and stay for three days at Heavenly Ski Resort, Lake Tahoe's largest resort, for under $500 for a family of four in March and April. (Those with teens pay $34 more per child.) Last season, the snow was so good skiers were still on the slopes Memorial Day. Call 800-2HEAVEN or www.skiheavenly.com.
-- Pre-buy lift tickets for Aspen and Snowmass by March 15, and ski for as little as $21 a day from April 7 if you purchase a five-day ticket, saving more than 60 percent. Weeklong lift-and-stay packages, including breakfast, can be had for as little as $900 for a family of four in mid-April. Call 800-290-1325 www.skiaspen.com.
-- Steamboat Ski Resort in Steamboat Springs, Colo., is offering late-season ski-free packages with air from Minneapolis, Houston, Chicago and Dallas as well as other affordable family deals. Each child 12 and under skis free with a skiing adult. Call at 800-922-2722 or www.steamboat-ski.com.
-- At Copper Mountain, 15 miles up the road in Summit County from Breckenridge, a family of four with kids 12 and under can stay and breakfast in the Telemark Lodge at the base of the mountain for $115 a night. Book the kids' lifts ahead and they're just $13. Starting April 9, kids 12 and under ski free. Call 800-458-8386 or www.ski-copper.com.
-- Killington Resort in Vermont -- which got two feet of new snow last year after April 1 -- is offering lift-and-lodging packages starting at $56 per person a night after March 19. Call 800-621-6867 or www.killington.com.
-- Save 25 percent starting in mid-March at Smugglers' Notch Resort, one of Vermont's most northern ski areas and known for its family packages, on lodging and lifts. Stay-and-lift packages start at $95 per day for adults and $79 for kids -- great for single parents. Call 800-451-8752 or www.smuggs.com.
-- A family of four can spend a long weekend at Okemo Mountain Resort in Vermont, paying less than $450 for three nights' lodging and three days of skiing. There are add-on Amtrak packages from New York City. Call 800-78-okemo or www.okemo.com.
(c) 2000, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate