Disneyland in Los Angeles was the first stop on our three-generation 'ski and see' holiday to California for a family Christmas last year. We were mixing the Magic Kingdom - where the highlight for two-year-old Sophie was meeting super-size Minnie Mouse - Hollywood and visits to San Francisco and the wine country with 10 days' skiing at Lake Tahoe and Mammoth Lakes in northern California.
Several days later, having driven from Los Angeles through the historic gold rush country, we stood at the top of the cable car in Ski Heavenly, looking down the 60- mile length of Lake Tahoe, its sapphire-blue waters surrounded by the snow-capped Sierra Nevada.
Heavenly Valley is just one of the Ski Lake Tahoe resorts. The others - Alpine Meadows, Squaw Valley, Kirkwood and Northstar - are within an hour's drive of Heavenly at South Lake Tahoe. There is a regular bus shuttle and lift tickets are inter- changeable.
We stayed at the Tahoe Beach and Ski Club, right on the lake and well-placed for the Heavenly cable-car and supermarket. Accommodation at South Lake Tahoe varies from the glitzy casino hotels on the Nevada stateline and lavish condos (a far cry from the cramped egg-boxes of European self-catering), to lodges and budget motels. Ski Heavenly found a babysitter for Sophie and we checked the other two children in at Li'l Angels ski school.
Taking the Skyline trail from the top at 10,040ft, we skied down to the Nevada side, with its views of the lake and the Nevada desert. A series of blue and black runs (more like European reds) kept us in the sunshine until it was time to head back and ski in the afternoon sun on the California side.
Carefully placed mountain restaurants and good connections made it easy for a mixed-ability group such as ours to meet up for lunch. A self-barbecued hamburger and a Budweiser cost about dollars 7 - less than half the price of a mountain snack in France or Switzerland. A boozy lunch at a mountain stube in Alpine Meadows, complete with mulled wine, home-made soup and chilli, was a few dollars more.
Alpine Meadows and Kirkwood are both timbered 'alpine' villages that cater mainly for families. They are more relaxed than South Lake Tahoe, but offer great skiing for intermediates and some testing black chutes from the top ridge down through gullies and woods. The ski school, like all those on the trip, was well-run, with good instruction and an emphasis on fun. The absence of any language barrier aided progress and confidence.
Ski safety is emphasised in the US. The Skier's Responsibility Code is posted everywhere, signs warn of intersections, and the ski patrol is authorised to remove lift passes from anyone skiing carelessly - a fate that befell a snowboarder who crashed into a member of our party. Paradoxically, the chairlifts have no safety bars.
Kirkwood - at 7,800ft, the highest resort - is tucked away amid pines and redwoods. After a blizzard one day, we revelled in glorious sunshine the next. The lesser skiers enjoyed an endless variety of blues, while the experts were seduced into trying the chutes from the top ridge.
After a hard day's skiing and an hour's drive listening to tired children squabbling in the back of our station wagon, a dip in our Jacuzzi helped revive us for a meal out at one of the casinos. All of these woo you to the gaming tables and one-armed bandits with free shuttles and international hot buffets of gargantuan proportions. The food wouldn't merit a Michelin star but, for about dollars 8 a head (with free sangria, and reductions for senior citizens and under-sixes), the bill for nine came to dollars 57.
Heading south to Mammoth Lakes, we passed spectacular scenery ranging from desert plains to Yosemite's forested mountains and Mono Lake, a huge saltwater expanse formed 700,000 years ago in a volcanic-cratered valley beneath the granite peaks of the eastern High Sierra.
Mammoth, formerly a mining town and now a bustling ski resort at 8,000ft, is great for all-comers. The more courageous (or foolish) among us tried the trails above the treeline with varying success. The less daring had a fun day on the dozens of blue and green trails through the pines and redwoods, then took the kids for a ride on a husky-drawn sled.
Small World Day Care in the Mammoth Mountain Inn, right on the slopes, takes children aged six months to 12 years. And one big bonus of Mammoth is that under- sixes and over-65s ski free.
Back in Los Angeles for Christmas, we spent Boxing Day in the sunshine at Newport Beach, ate hamburgers at a Fifties-style diner on the pier, and spent the afternoon roller-blading on the sidewalks. After a few days exploring San Francisco and the wine country, the holiday was over.
Films and television can give the impression that California is beset by crime and drugs. In contrast, we found it full of friendly ('Hi, How 'ya doing, ma'm?') folk, keen to help us enjoy our holiday. And no tourist rip-offs made a nice change.
Skiing in California is fun - its long season, November to May, boasts masses of snow, powder and sunshine. Magnificent scenery and mind-broadening glimpses of a different world, combined with the favourable exchange rate, more than compensate for the comparatively high costs of getting there.
Getting there: British tour operators, Ski the American Dream (081-552 1201), American Independence (0371 874848) and Virgin Holidays (0293 617181) offer fly/drive packages to Los Angeles from pounds 659 for 14 days (including flight, accommodation and car; if children under 12 share parents' room, it costs a third less). Alternatively, the flexible 'open-jaw' flight, outward to Los Angeles and back from San Francisco for example, offers endless possibilities. For dedicated independents, Virgin has a fly/drive package for pounds 399 per adult for one week, pounds 299 per child, and pounds 75 for an extra week's car hire.
Accommodation: We stayed in a time-share condo exchange through RCI (Resorts Condominium International), so had minimal accommodation charges and were largely self- catering.
Daily expenses: Costs of lift passes, ski schools for children and ski hire vary. Based on a family of two adults and two children aged under 12, average daily outgoings would be about pounds 170 (at dollars 1.65 to the pound) plus meals, drinks and petrol (about pounds 1 a gallon). Large savings can be made by taking your own equipment.
Child-minders: Child-minders or creches must be booked in advance. Contact Heavenly Ski Resort, PO Box 2180, Stateline, Nevada, 89449, US (916 541 1330) for names of authorised baby-minders. Sophie's cost about dollars 25 for a day. Mammoth Mountain Inn's Small World Day Care, for children under six months, charges dollars 39 a day. Contact Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort, PO Box 24, Mammoth Lakes, California 93546 (619 934 0646).
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