It's one thing to plan a ski vacation with friends, but when you have children in tow, the challenges can be daunting, both in experiences offered and price. It's a delicate balance between outdoor activities, how accessible they are to all ages, and, of course, price. It's also a delicate balance of free time for parents and involved, active time with parents and their children.
But there are some resorts and winter festivals that are doing a pretty good job of offering parents something they desperately need: affordable, accessible options:
Whistler Blackcomb, British Columbia
Considered one of the top family-friendly resorts in Canada, Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia (about 75 miles north of Vancouver) is packed with family and kids-only activities. The Magic Castle on Blackcomb and the Tree Fort on Whistler are free outdoor adventure centers where kids can take off their skis and explore. If you need a break from skiing, Whistler offers other activities such as tubing, dog sledding, heliskiing, and ice climbing.
And if you’d rather spend the day without the kids, Kids Adventure Camps offer small-group ski lessons for children, where they can tackle the slopes without their parents in tow, and child care is available for kids ages 3 months to 4 years old. During the season, Discovery Whistler Days offer 40% off selected youth programs, coming up November 22-December 21, 2007, January 14-February 8, 2008, and April 7-20, 2008. And, of course, don’t forget to stop at a beaver tail stand, where families can have a relatively unhealthy — but fun — moment eating the famous fried sweets served piping hot right on the slopes. 866-218-9690, www.whistlerblackcomb.com
Smuggler’s Notch, Vermont
Another ski resort with family-friendly activities is Smuggler’s Notch in Vermont. This East Coast resort has a state-of-the-art child care center for infants and toddlers, featuring 5,400 square feet of indoor space and a 4,000-foot playground. Ski lessons are broken up by age groups, including tiny-tot ski lessons for children ages 2-and-a-half to 3 years old.
Non-ski activities include the Artists in the Mountain program, which includes arts and crafts such as glass etching, digital photography, and even something called Snowman Family Painting. And an often forgotten age group — teenagers — can participate in sports, dance parties and night skiing and snowboarding, and yes, there's even a study hall to deal with holiday homework. 800-419-4615, www.smuggs.com
The Washington town of Leavenworth practically makes a huge chunk of its annual living off winter wonderland celebrations. Flanked by massive mountains reminiscent of the Alps, Leavenworth transforms itself into a Bavarian village, complete with skiing, bratwurst and Christmas celebrations. The Christmas lighting festival is a highly anticipated event for visitors and locals alike, with all the holiday trimmings (we’re talking sparkling lights, roasted chestnuts, sledding and sleigh rides, and a town-wide rendition of “Silent Night” at dusk). This year’s Christmas festival will take place November 30-December 2, December 7-9, and December 14-16. 509-548-5807, www.leavenworth.org
If for some reason you miss out on traveling to a winter wonderland for the holidays but absolutely love Christmas, and you want to be a real tourist, then hop into a sleigh and visit the town of Christmas, Michigan. Located about five miles from Munising on Lake Superior, Christmas celebrates Christmas — you guessed it — all year long. The village received its name in 1938 when a roadside factory, which made Christmas gift items, opened. As a Christmas-themed village, you’ll see Christmas decorations juxtaposed with sandy beaches in the summertime, roadside Santas, and large Santa signs, and Christmas is home to the world’s largest Santa, which is located in the Christmas Mall. Visitors enjoy fishing, hunting, cross-country skiing, and more.
Sailing the Danube
Travelers rarely think of cruising in the winter, but a December cruise through Europe can be an incredible holiday experience. And it's not too late to book this trip. European Christmas markets are a great way to immerse yourself in authentic local traditions — whether it’s picking up handmade crafts in Germany’s oldest Christmas market in Dresden, listening to Mozart in Salzburg, sipping on spiced Glühwein (mulled wine) in Zurich, or wandering among 250 Christmas trees along the Champs-Elysees in Paris. Grand Circle Travel offers a cruise along the Rhine River to visit the Christmas markets in Switzerland, France, Germany and the Netherlands. A 12-day cruise starts at $1,645 in December, including airfare.(Do the math — that's about $130 a day for airfare and a cruise.) 800-959-0405, www.gct.com
A Country Christmas, Nashville, Tennessee
The elves definitely don’t mess around for Christmas at Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center in Nashville, Tennessee. In fact, they start preparing in July for A Country Christmas, which runs from November 15 to December 25. More than 2 million lights dazzle this hotel, both inside and out, and the hotel is decorated with 15,000 poinsettias, 15 miles of garland, and 10 miles of red ribbon. You can take carriage rides, see the Parade of Wooden Soldiers, make gingerbread houses with chefs, play on a winter wonderland completely made of ice and slide down its 20-foot-high slides, see 30 Christmas trees excessively decorated, and much, much more. A winter wonderland completely made of ice will entertain the kids. A two-night stay at the hotel begins at $365 per person. 888-777-6779, www.gaylordhotels.com/gaylordopryland
Candy Cane Lane,
If you plan on visiting the Central Coast in California for the holidays, or are going between Los Angeles and San Francisco, make a slight detour to Pacific Grove, and bring the kids and head out on an evening stroll on Candy Cane Lane. Every year soon after Thanksgiving, a neighborhood in Pacific Grove is decked out with elaborate decorations. Hundreds of locals and tourists gather to walk along the streets and admire the festive decorations, and as Christmas approaches, Santa visits the neighborhood and greets the kids with candy cane gifts. www.pacificgrove-worldweb.com
Peter Greenberg is TODAY’s travel editor. His column appears weekly on TODAYshow.com. Visit his Web site at .