No one is yelling, "hurry up, Mom!" or tapping ski poles impatiently. That's because I've forsaken the slopes today - as terrific as they are at the brand-new Spruce Peak base area at Stowe Mountain Resort ( www.stowe.com ) - and any attempt to keep up with my gang - and instead am snowshoeing at von Trapp Family Lodge ( www.trappfamily.com ), located a few miles away. My guide is Kristina von Trapp Frame, granddaughter of Maria von Trapp, the young Austrian novitiate-turned governess-turned wife made famous by Julie Andrews' portrayal in "The Sound of Music." Maria's youngest son and Kristina's dad, Johannes von Trapp, opened the first cross-country ski center in North America 40 years ago this month. And on this cold, snowy, January Sunday in this picture postcard town in Vermont, there are plenty of families, on cross-country skis and snowshoes, taking advantage of 100 km of groomed and back-country trails that wind through both wood and meadow. No worries if there isn't enough natural snow; the resort now has snowmaking equipment. No worries about the weather either. "When you are in the woods, you are out of the wind," explains von Trapp Frame, a former Aspen ski instructor and mom of two young daughters. Not only is snowshoeing or cross-country skiing good exercise and a lot cheaper than downhill skiing, it's a lot of fun with kids, says von Trapp Frame, who gets out with her kids often on the cross-country trails. And while they cross-country ski, they listen out for different birds (was that a woodpecker?), look for animal tracks in the snow (squirrel or deer?) and stop for a snack on a conveniently placed bench (M&Ms anyone?).
Kristina and I trek up to a tiny stone cabin built by her uncle after World War II. Her brother, Sam, plans to be married here this spring, she tells us. It's so pretty and peaceful. Another plus: I'm burning lots of calories - more than I would burn running or hiking. Don't get me wrong. I love downhill skiing - even when my kids get on my case about skiing faster, but sometimes the weather doesn't cooperate (it's no fun to ski when it's freezing!), sometimes one of the gang isn't feeling 100 percent (we've been to plenty of mountain clinics with ear infections and sore throats, as well as various ski injuries) and sometimes we're just in the mood for some other kind of fun. That's why I love the increasing options in and around ski resorts.
You can indulge yourself at a spa, the brand-new one at the Stowe Mountain Lodge ( www.stowemountainlodge.com ) offers an array of treatments for adults and for teens, or simply cozy up by the fire with the kids and play a board game. Mother-daughter spa time at Stowe Mountain Resort Steering clear of the slopes for a day or two can also make your vacation buck stretch farther at a time when we're all counting every vacation penny, In Stowe, there's the chance to visit the ski museum, Ben & Jerry's factory down the road, watch a glass blower or learn to ice climb. (Visit www.gostowe.com and check out the Kids Zone to get the 411 from local kids.)
Introduce the kids to ice fishing in California's Lake Tahoe ( www.gotahoe.com ) or spend the night in the backcountry in a wilderness cabin accessible only by snowshoe or cross-country skis. Visit the top of the Olympic track at Utah Olympic Park in Park City ( www.olyparks.com ), take a ride on the Alpine Coaster - alpine coaster-meets-rollercoaster - at Park City Mountain Resort ( www.parkcitymountain.com ) or go tubing at Gorgoza Park, which offers Fort Frosty, a snow playground for the kindergarten and preschool set, and snowmobiling for grade-schoolers. Visit Yellowstone National Park by way of Big Sky, Mont., or Jackson Hole, Wyo. If you find yourself in Breckenridge, Colo., take the kids gold panning or on a mine tour ( www.countryboymine.com ). Try wine tasting at the new D'Vine Wine Winery ( www.townofbreckenridge.com ) one afternoon. Or at nearby Keystone Resort ( www.keystoneresort.com ), take a snowshoe ecology hike or join a pick-up hockey game on Keystone Lake, the largest Zamboni-maintained outdoor skating rink in the country.
Wherever you go this season, see what "extras" resorts are throwing in to encourage you to visit - and that includes off-the-slopes activities. In Stowe, not far from the von Trapp Family Lodge, Umiak Outfitters offered free performance sled demos, while at the Spruce Peak base area, some kids made free smores and helped build a snow fort (igloo making another day!) while others warmed up inside by the fire and listened to music in the new, expansive lodge built to preserve the area's ecological viability; an effort that has won kudos from environmentalists. "Totally relaxing for me. I just like listening to the music," said Tara Theriaulte, here with her family from Massachusetts. I like that the lockers in the lodge are free and that the kids' ski school and beginner terrain is concentrated here - there is a free "Over Easy" transfer gondola to the more challenging terrain at the resort's Mount Mansfield. (Buy your lift tickets well in advance and save 15 percent, even on holidays.)
We stayed at the historic Green Mountain Inn ( www.greenmountaininn.com ). The inn, built in 1833, is in the center of Stowe where families can browse in shops or stop for a milkshake at the Malt Shop or a wood-fired pizza at Pie in the Sky (a family favorite, said von Trapp Frame). After a day outside in the crisp, cold air, we met other families with older kids who were enjoying local produce and steaks at the cozy Blue Moon Cafe ( www.bluemoonstowe.com ) where the menu changes weekly. "I like being outside and being active as a family," said Kristie Ritchie, who had gathered in Stowe with her extended family for the weekend. "Sure it's expensive," said the suburban Philadelphia mom, "but if we are going to spend money, this is healthy and it's fun." Just don't forget the M&Ms.