Picture this. My Caribbean-born wife dislikes snow except on Christmas. She hates the cold and shudders at the notion of sliding down a snowy mountain in boots that she claims hurt her feet just by looking at them. But for the sake of our two daughters, who are gung-ho to go west to see if the Rockies of Colorado really are bigger than the Greens of Vermont, she consents to travel to Club Med Crested Butte for a week of "winter fun."
To say our vacation was a hit would be an understatement. My wife, enrolled in a class of beginners every bit as petrified as herself, overcame her fears and became a respectable gliding-wedge skier by week's end-a regular Calypsonian on shaped skis. She and her band of fellow novices made more happy sounds around the après-ski bonfire on the hotel terrace than any other group. And to think that all it took to get her over the hump was a new faux-suede ski jacket.
Meanwhile, the kids advanced by leaps and bounds and had a blast on and off the slopes. My 14-year-old hooked up with some Brazilian teens, and under the tutelage of her Iranian-born instructor (Club Med has an international staff and attracts an international clientele) progressed from cautious intermediate to confident stylist willing and able to tackle black-diamond trails. My 7-year-old, a fan of Nickelodeon's Rocket Power cartoons (lots of board sports), surprised us by passing up the chance to learn snowboarding.
The reason: Jay, a 24-year-old ski dude from British Columbia, who had her flying down Paradise Bowl by the third day. (Four feet tall, no poles, no fear.) "There's really no reason to switch to snowboarding, Dad," she confided over a hot chocolate one afternoon. As for me, I couldn't get in a word edgewise at dinner about what wonderful progress I was making. I didn't mind.
After dinner, it was off to the theater to see a show. Nightly entertainment is a Club Med staple. The "G.O.s" (Gracious Organizers: a close-knit team of hosts and hostesses) have a mission: enlist the G.M.s (Gracious Members: that's us) as partners in fun. That means interactive comedy sketches, musical revues, spooky dramas, you name it. The kids sat with their friends, which gave my wife plenty of time to explain how getting her weight over the tips of her skis had made all the difference.
The Club Med format is simple. Once you buy the package, everything (except mixed drinks) is included: spacious accommodations, three buffet-style meals daily (Club Med is a French company, and it's serious about food), unlimited wine and beer with lunch and dinner, lift tickets, and group lessons six days per week. If you want an open bar for the week, it's available for an extra $139. Rental skis, boots and poles-mostly the latest from Rossignol-are available if you don't want to haul your own equipment to the resort. And the ski shop is excellent.
Club Med took over the former Crested Butte Marriott in 2000, investing $6 million to make the hotel feel less corporate and more like a ski lodge. Though it's best known for sun 'n' fun beach resorts, Club Med operates more than 30 ski villages worldwide (Val d'Isere, Alpe d'Huez, Chamonix, to name a few) and claims to have introduced more people to skiing than any other vacation company. The Crested Butte property, positioned as a top-of-the-line family village, made its formal debut last winter.
The 240-room hotel is located at the base of the mountain and functions as a ski-in, ski-out facility-a big plus for parents and kids. Skis, boots and poles are kept in a storage area in the basement. A one-story staircase leads to a snow-packed lane less than 100 feet from the lifts. Liftlines? They really don't exist at Crested Butte, least of all on weekdays.
And then there's the mountain itself. Crested Butte, located 30 miles north of Gunnison, is a purist's getaway, far removed from the sight and sounds of interstate highways and weekend warriors. Deer, elk and bighorn sheep far outnnumber people in these parts. The mountain is top-heavy with double-black-diamond terrain-this is, after all, the home of the annual U.S. Extreme Freeskiing Championships-but there are enough blue and green trails to keep nonexperts challenged and happy for a week. As for alpine splendor, peaks rising to 14,000 feet along the Continental Divide crowd the sky looking north to Aspen from the top of the Silver Queen lift. One caveat: The base elevation is 9,375 feet. Do not jump on skis upon arrival if you don't feel like it. Take a day or two to get acclimated. And drink lots of water throughout your stay to avoid a family epidemic of altitude sickness.
The full-day ski school, available Thursday through Tuesday, accommodates children as young as 4. With more than 50 qualified instructors on staff, Director Stephan Decobert vows that "skiers of any level can learn something new and improve here." Club Med employs the proven techniques of the Professional Ski Instructors of America, with a little French flair thrown in for good measure. Classes at seven skill levels range from Club Beginner (never skied before) to Club Expert (can ski anywhere). The focus is on moving skiers of all ages up a notch or two during their stay. Kids, who generally like to learn and love to advance, tend to benefit the most from the program. But then again, my wife went from frozen tears to joie de vivre in one week.
Here's the daily drill: Get up, dress for skiing, have a hearty breakfast, then drop the kids off at their respective classes on the hotel's lower level. The G.O.s prepare the kids for skiing (buckling boots, fastening helmets). Adults are free to linger over a second cup of coffee, hit the slopes with or without a class or curl up with a book by the fire. Families can reconvene for lunch, but most kids choose to have lunch with their peers. In the late afternoon, the children are picked up and signed out by a parent, then cleaned up for another multicourse feast in Le Meribel. For an extra charge, children ages 4-7 can be enrolled in the Siesta Club from 7 p.m. till midnight.
Downsides? Beyond a few extra calories, none come to mind. Even the price is right. For value and quality, I can think of no à la carte program at any Western ski resort that competes with Club Med's all-inclusive format. Leave it to the French to show Americans how it's done.
P.S. My kids are still emailing their ski pals in Sao Paulo. Friends for life, they say.