TELLURIDE, Colo. -- It's New Year's Eve, but there's not a noisemaker or reveler in sight. We fly through the silent woods on the horse-drawn sleigh, snug under blankets, big, wet snowflakes falling in our eyes.
For once, everyone is in high spirits -- at the same time. My two teens, far from home in this southwest Colorado Box Canyon and tired from a long day pitting themselves against the toughest slopes they could find, seem surprisingly content to be ushering in the new year quietly with us. Melanie, meanwhile, is thrilled to be included in this ``grown-up'' evening at the Skyline Ranch after a day with other second-graders at Telluride's ski school.
I say a silent prayer for many more New Years like this one, our family together, healthy and happy, able to share -- and afford -- a sport we love. No one is whining or complaining!
The dining room is packed with celebrating families like ours, cheeks ruddy from a day spent outside in the snow, enjoying the sumptuous meal as they laugh about that day's adventures. I'm grateful, as I know they are, for this brief respite from the pressures and stresses of home at a place that prides itself on being 65 miles from the nearest stoplight and clearly has made families such a top priority for the next millennium.
``Telluride is really family-user friendly, one of the few mountains we've found that has something for everyone,'' observed Ginger Owen, vacationing from Kansas City with her husband and two teens. ``There's such a nice small-town feel here,'' agreed Brad Frank, who was skiing with his family from Houston. ``Everyone's so friendly to the kids,'' added Helen Thomas, a mom from suburban Maryland.
The sex-starved Scandinavian miners who were the first to ski here in the San Juan Mountains wouldn't recognize their rough-and-tumble gold and silver boom town today. There's the manicured, fast-growing slopeside Mountain Village -- three new lifts this year -- connected by gondola to the National Historic District, where Butch Cassidy robbed his first bank in 1889, strolling down the street with more than $20,000 that was never recovered.
More than 100 years ago, those miners were in such a hurry to reach their favorite bordellos on payday that they strapped wooden sticks to their feet and literally raced down the mountain. Today, the bordellos have been replaced by tony restaurants and shops. Those who don't want to ski to town take the free gondola which operates late into the evening. Kids are not only welcomed but courted everywhere. There's even a local supervised teen club, the Voodoo Lounge, that caters to young visitors. Direct flights from Newark, Cleveland, Phoenix and Houston into Montrose, about 65 miles south, make vacationing here easier.
No wonder word is getting around snow-loving families that wild, rowdy Telluride -- some say its name comes from ``to hell you ride'' -- has grown up along with the baby boomers, emerging as a hip but more relaxed alternative to glittering Aspen and crowded Vail. In the past two years, with the addition of the Mountain Activity Center and Nursery, the number of children attending ski school is up 20 percent, to 11,000.
``The movie star scene has come and gone,'' one local sniffed. There are the requisite number of celebrities -- Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman and Oprah Winfrey among them -- but they keep a decidedly low profile in a place where the emphasis is on how well you ski, not what you're wearing.
Another plus for families: because Telluride is a relatively small mountain -- with 1,050 skiable acres, less than a third the size of other family destinations like Snowmass or Steamboat -- parents can feel comfortable letting older kids navigate the mountain on their own and teens the compact downtown. My two, in fact, preferred skiing back to town and the house we were renting.
This is certainly a good place to learn, too -- especially for kids. Parents will like the convenience of the sparkling Mountain Village Activity Center, where you buy lift tickets, rent equipment and take the kids to ski or snowboard school all in one place. Come any time but Christmas, and your kids are guaranteed small classes and plenty of individual attention, promises ski school director Annie Vareille Savath. But even the holidays didn't make the resort seem as overwhelmingly crowded as I've experienced at the bigger ski areas.
I especially liked that ski school was more than just about skiing or boarding, with lessons on everything from the Ute culture to mining history to the environment. Every Friday, Lisa Margetts offers the kids in ski school a lunchtime introduction to animals such as otters, bald eagles or hawks, who have been injured and rehabilitated at the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Ark. ``Most of these kids have never seen animals like these so close up,'' she explained.
There's plenty of off-the-slope action during the day, too, for those times the snow isn't as perfect as you'd like -- everything from horseback rides to snowmobile tours, snowshoeing, skating, sledding, tubing and even snow bikes. The Peaks resort has a fabulous spa for moms and dads who need a little pampering.
Infants and toddlers, meanwhile, are happily ensconced in the knock-out 5,000-square-foot child-care center complete with an atrium play room that allows parents to check up on their little darlings and a giant buggy for walks around outside.
Family ski expert Laura Sutherland, who has toured ski-area children's facilities around the country, pronounced it one of the best she's seen. Her tip: stay on the mountain with young kids for the morning and after-skiing convenience.
Families with older kids, however, probably will prefer town, where there's much more evening action and an array of take-out dinner options, movies, theater as well as restaurants. The ride home on the gondola, twinkling lights blinking underneath, only adds to the adventure. Just make sure you don't fall asleep on the way.
IF YOU GO:
-- Call Telluride Ski and Golf Company at 800-854-3062 or www.telski.com. Ask about Bargain Blitz five-night packages during January starting at $440 per person for lifts and lodging, less for kids. Kids' ski school costs $94 per day, including lessons, lifts and lunch; $65 for infant and toddler care. Ask about multi-day ski school packages.
-- Call Skyline Guest Ranch at 970-728-3757 or www.ranchweb.com/skyline. Three-course dinners, including sleigh ride and transportation to and from the Mountain Village, are $70 for adults, $35 for children 4-12. Rooms and cabins are available starting at $285 per night for a family of four, including breakfast, apres-ski snacks and shuttles to and from the slopes -- a good deal in this town. Skyline operates as a luxe guest ranch in summer.
-- For terrific family lodging, from rental houses to the just-opened Montana Placer Inn, a rebuilt miners' house, call Alpine Lodging at 800-376-9769 or www.alpinelodging.com.
-- For ultimate family-friendly ski-in, ski-out luxury, call the Peaks Resort & Golden Door Spa. There's an indoor pool with water slide, indoor climbing wall and KidSpa day-care program available for infants as well as older children. Call 970-728-6800 or www.grandbay.com. Winter rates average $400-plus a night but start at $245 until mid-December.
-- Hire one of Annie's Nannies for an evening or your entire stay. They hire only one of every 10 nanny applicants after a thorough background check. Call 970-728-2991 or www.Annies-Nannies.com.