In search of... Fun for all the family in Vail

Dad's on the slopes, Mum's in ski school and baby's making snowmen. Perfection, says Richard Liston

I've tackled the Tunnel at Val d'Isère, Tignes' near vertical Wall, the challenging off-piste in La Plagne and the Couloirs off the Saulire in Courchevel. What next? Vail, of course, and its famous back bowls. The only problem is that my wife would rather go to America for the luxury of Vail's resorts, which include Beaver Creek, Vail, Breckenridge, Keystone and Heavenly. We stayed in Vail and Bachelors Gulch. Could they offer me (the advanced skier) my wife (the beginner) and our three-year-old daughter (who'll settle for making snowmen) the family holiday we were looking for?

I've tackled the Tunnel at Val d'Isère, Tignes' near vertical Wall, the challenging off-piste in La Plagne and the Couloirs off the Saulire in Courchevel. What next? Vail, of course, and its famous back bowls. The only problem is that my wife would rather go to America for the luxury of Vail's resorts, which include Beaver Creek, Vail, Breckenridge, Keystone and Heavenly. We stayed in Vail and Bachelors Gulch. Could they offer me (the advanced skier) my wife (the beginner) and our three-year-old daughter (who'll settle for making snowmen) the family holiday we were looking for?

That depends on the level of pampering, surely?

Indeed. The accommodation in Vail and Beaver Creek is among the best in North America. The wooded retreat of the Ritz-Carlton in Bachelors Gulch, the rustic Lodge at Vail, the Park Hyatt in Beaver Creek, Austria Haus and Sonnenalp in Vail are all five-star establishments, providing luxurious service. At the Ritz-Carlton, for example, "ski valets" meet you at the bottom of the piste, whisk away your skis and boots, and have them warmed and ready the next morning. Or try the sumptuous condominiums and private dining lodges, such as Trappers Cabin, Zach's Cabin and Spruce Saddle Lodge.

Isn't it all just a rip-off? I'm sure I could have just as good a time in Europe.

That depends on what you want. But now's the perfect time to go to the US because the dollar is performing its own rapid downhill descent against the pound. But don't be fooled. Vail and its sister resorts will still put a serious dent in your wallet. The lift passes for a week's skiing, ski school and equipment hire are all more expensive than, say, Courchevel in France, but eating out is affordable. One advantage of opting for a European destination, though, is that you won't be subjected to the intrusive, insulting and undignified grilling from US officials.

Now that I'm here what can I expect?

Courteous and friendly people, for a start, plus architecture that blends perfectly with the mountain environment. Vail is modelled on the Tyrolean village of St Anton in Austria, but with an American twist, the advantage of a river running through the town, and not a blot of a railway line as in St Anton. The newer, more elegant Beaver Creek (built just 20 years ago), on the other hand, is like a virtual village, a modern Portmeirion with heated streets, spotless walkways, a skating rink and art galleries. We also appreciated the free buses that run through the villages of Vail and Beaver Creek, and the red-jacketed ski marshals dotted around the mountain helping lost and disorientated skiers. And if you are unfortunate enough to lose your lift pass, it can be replaced on production of your receipt.

What about the famous "champagne powder" snow I've heard about? Is the skiing any good?

The locals talk about "powder days" but all we got were sunshine days, not that we were complaining. I was told by Alastair Ross, the Ski Club of Great Britain rep in the resort, that it was unusual for a week to go by without a huge dump of the famous fluffy white stuff. However, the sunny blue skies made skiing the VW Beetle-sized bumps in Pete's bowl and Earl's bowl that much easier. But try as they might, they can't hide the fact that Vail, less so Beaver Creek, is an intermediate-level resort.

Will I learn anything in ski school?

Yes, apparently. My wife had been convinced beforehand that she was in for an unpleasant time, not expecting to get to grips with the gymnastic demands of skiing, and made it clear she'd rather enjoy the seductive trappings of the hotel and the swanky stores. But after a few hours in ski school under the watchful eye of her instructor, Mindy, she was carving exquisite S-shapes through the forgiving snow and was first in ski school for the second day's lesson. She's already planning next year's ski holiday, citing the shared language and the friendly and gently persuasive teaching methods for her transformation into a fearless, daredevil skier.

What if the kids are too young to ski?

They are never too young in the US. Toddlers are on skis at the age of three, but if you think that's too soon, you can always drop them off at Small World, a fully equipped nursery that has an infant room for babies up to 15 months, a toddler room and a pre-school room, which caters for kids up to six. And if you're apprehensive about leaving the little ones, Small World, which has branches in Beaver Creek and Vail, will give you a mobile phone, letting you ski all day worry-free.

All that skiing makes me hungry. Is it all pretzels and pancakes?

Yes, plenty of that, and a lot more sugar- and salt-saturated splodge too, but you could also choose from a vast array of good restaurants. Try Remmington's in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Bachelors Gulch, where you'll dine on smoked rack of lamb, barbecued bison or Alaskan halibut; or Sweet Basil in Vail village, a busy eatery with an extensive menu that includes shrimp, stuffed veal and swordfish. If that is a little too upmarket, try Pazzo's, a charming, Italian deli-style restaurant in Vail that serves pizzas the size of wagon wheels and a great breakfast too. The Grouse Mountain Grill in The Pines Lodge features European-style fine dining ambience offering dishes such as pretzel-crusted jumbo pork chop with orange and hot mustard sauce, and limousin beef tenderloin steak with herb mushrooms. Saddle Ridge is celebrated for its southwestern-inspired cuisine of wild game and fish, and features cathedral ceilings and North America's most extensive private collection of Western and Native American artefacts and memorabilia, including Buffalo Bill's saddle and Annie Oakley's gun. For a touch of Switzerland, visit the Swiss Stübli, owned and operated by a Swiss couple, which specialises in fondues and raclettes.

Now that I'm fed and watered, what is there to do after the ski lifts close?

There's Adventure Ridge activity centre in Lionshead village, a mountain-top, floodlit, snow playground with more than 110 restaurants and bars throughout the valley, laser tag, horse-drawn sleighs, ski-biking and snowshoeing.

I'm convinced. How do I get there?

Virgin Holidays (0871 222 0308; www.virginholidays.com) offers a week at the four-star Lodge at Vail from £899 per adult and £649 per child (aged 2-11), based on two sharing, rising to £1,289 and £699 respectively, including return flights with Delta from London Gatwick to Denver, seven nights' b&b accommodation and car hire. Peak season prices are from £1,289 per adult and £699 per child (aged 2-11). Lift passes are pre-bookable through Virgin. A five-day lift pass costs from £133 per adult and £120 per child (aged 5-12). Children four years and under ski for free.

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