Thursday, 24 February 2011

A Perfect Family Ski Holiday

The simultaneous beeps heralding text messages on both my wife and my phones normally means my sister-in-law has sent a viral joke, but this time it was British Airways advising us, over our starters at Pizza Express overlooking Windsor Castle, that our flight to Boston the following morning had been cancelled. Overcoming a short bout of mild panic, one quick phone call had us re-booked onto the American Airlines departure at a similar time. The Quattro Stagioni could now be enjoyed and properly digested, and perhaps more so the large glass of house red....  

Our 7-year old daughter was mildly disappointed as the choice of in-flight entertainment was not as extensive as we had promised she would have on BA (thank goodness for portable DVD players), but a punctual flight had us up in Lincoln, New Hampshire at the originally expected, and very civilised, time of 4.00pm local time (and once again it had only taken one hour from the moment the aircraft touched down for me to be behind the wheel of our rental car – Boston Logan Airport is always such a pleasure: Officer Selecky at immigration even let Megan stamp her own passport!). A quick bite to eat in the restaurant of the Indian Head Resort and an early night had us all ready for our week on New England’s finest slopes.

Monday morning, and the breakfast was a true, all-American feast of a buffet, with sides of most things you could wish for available to order. It’s not always a buffet, but apparently there was a large group in house (the hotel’s spacious public areas meant you hardly noticed they were there). Well-fuelled and a short drive later (8 minutes!), we were being attentively kitted out in the rental shop at Loon Mountain, with the ski school meeting place conveniently sited right outside the slope-side exit.  

Typical of mid-week New Hampshire days, the mountain didn’t look too busy and this was reflected in the size of Megan’s ski school group, which comprised the grand total of 3 – and that included Rosie, the pint-sized instructor! With our child in capable, English-speaking hands, Julie and I were whisked quickly up the hill on the Kancamagus Quad high-speed chair and were soon warming up on Grand Junction and Bear Claw, these forgiving green trails leading us straight to the Gondola.

A busy day on Boom Run...
Quiet slopes meant absolutely no waiting time at the lifts, and with the sun peeping occasionally through the slightly overcast sky, we did a couple of circuits around North Peak before cruising the fabulously long Cruiser and Boom Run intermediate trails of South Peak, accessed by the short Tote Road Quad. Perfect conditions and outstanding grooming made the skiing feel almost effortless, so it was time for a run down Loon’s only black double-diamond, Rip-Saw, where you may be forgiven for thinking they’ve got the signage wrong as you cruise along the gentle top section, until you come to the ridge – a steep pitch not for the faint-hearted! Joining up with Cruiser at the bottom, I was straight on the Lincoln Express Quad with a grin of which the Cheshire Cat would have been more than proud.

The afternoon was a gentler affair as we collected Megan from her morning lesson and took some steady turns with her in the slow-ski Family Zone, ending up with a fun trip back to the car on the J.E. Henry Railroad which runs between Loon’s two main base areas. And there could be few better ways to round off such a perfect day of skiing than to take a dip in the hotel’s ultra-heated outdoor pool and soak in the hot-tub, overlooked by the Indian Head profile atop the crest of the surrounding mountains. Contented was not a strong enough word for any of the three of us.

An inch or so of fresh snow overnight was followed by a windy and slightly chilly Tuesday. Rosie took her 2 charges off once more, whilst the tree-lined Picked Rock and Rampasture provided a perfect playground for Julie and I. Lunchtime and Megan tucked into the local delight of Chili In A Bread Bowl in the base lodge (Julie & I sensibly didn’t order anything – there was plenty of Megan’s huge portion left for us all to share), and another gentle family afternoon cruise on Lower Bear Claw preceded another swim, this time in the indoor pool, and a sumptuous dinner in the wonderfully rustic and traditionally New England atmosphere of the Common Man restaurant.   

Group lessons - just for 2!
Wednesday seemed to bring a few more kids to the ski school meeting place, but a reallocation of instructors and Megan was now a group, and got the totally undivided attention of the analytical yet laid-back Thomas. After another fabulous morning on South Peak, heading back to base lodge on the twisting and turning Speakeasy, Julie and I were amazed at how Megan had improved as she took us off after lunch (one portion of Chili In A Bread Bowl....for 3) to parts of the mountain we hadn’t been ourselves. As we cruised down Brookway, Megan confidently took the lead, throwing in a few short jump turns as she extolled the virtues of her teachers.

Bluebird skies and crisp corduroy combined for a perfect day on Cannon Mountain, another short 10-minute drive from the Indian Head Resort. Rightfully known locally as a ‘skiers’ mountain’ (Bode Miller grew up and learned his racing skills here), Cannon does offer some of the more challenging terrain that New Hampshire has to offer, with narrower trails and some good steeps to make sure those knees are kept nicely tucked. But with a bright sun enhancing the stunning scenery of Mount Lafayette and endless views over neighbouring states and up into Canada, we took uninterrupted runs on Middle and Lower Cannon and Julie really warmed up on Rocket, one of Cannon’s imposing Front Five, before more than successfully negotiating her first ever black diamond in the form of Zoomer, making for a thoroughly exhilarating morning.     

Lobster Bob had been keeping a watchful eye over Megan in her huge [!] ski school group of just three over on the sublime learning area of Tuckerbrook. Totally separate from the rest of the mountain, Megan made huge progress here in just a couple of hours. The lack of faster skiers and boarders in this family zone helped her confidence grow in bounds and we revelled in watching her cut some neat turns down Rabbit Path and Moose Alley in the afternoon, remembering Lobster Bob’s cute little rhyme “bend your knees to turn your skis” (I might try and remember that myself...). I hesitate to tell you what happened to me on Tuckerbrook, though, as I over-confidently launched myself off the top of the third in a series of ramps designed to practice freestyle skills...I have none of these, and as I took what seemed to be a quite significant amount of air, I suddenly realised I had no idea how to land and did so most ungracefully, flat on my back. All part of the fun!  

Aerial Tramway flying in a Bluebird Sky
The Cannon staff were injected with a sudden sense of urgency when the Cannonball Quad to the summit suffered a technical problem and had to be temporarily closed, but to their immense credit they reacted very quickly and opened the Aerial Tramway, a 70-passenger cable car which normally operates Friday to Monday when the mountain is a little busier. Cannonball did start again as well, so a ride up there gave me the chance to take in the views from Vista Way and admire the tram itself as it soared above Tramway.

I always enjoy the drive to Waterville Valley. It’s only 30 minutes from Lincoln and travelling down Route 49 is serene as you pass by the mix of pine and beech, punctuated by the sometimes babbling, but on occasions such as this frozen and snow-covered, Mad River. We knew straight away that Megan and Lyndy, today’s instructor once again in charge of a group of just 3 children, were going to hit it off. After a quick warm-up on Valley Run, the 1½ mile novice run served by its own high-speed quad with the wonderfully whacky name of Quadzilla (only in America....), Julie and I covered some ground today. We really got the legs working with non-stop runs down Oblivion and Stillness, and rode the High Country double to the summit for a top-to-bottom cruise, slowing down just a little to navigate The Boneyard, Julie’s second ever black diamond...which was quickly followed by her third, a rather speedy (steady, girl!) but very controlled descent of Gema.

Time to meet Megan for lunch. Well, here she comes – hand-jiving to the music pumping from the adjacent freestyle park as she skis very nicely down Valley Run back to base. The debrief from Lyndy seemed pretty positive, apparently Megan is cutting some lovely controlled parallel turns and has learned to do a ‘hockey stop’ rather than just using a pizza wedge to slow down and come to a halt. Great, thanks, we say. Little did we know how much she had learned until she took us back down Valley Run in the afternoon – skis straight, knees bending into the turn, hips over the skis, uphill ski slightly forward...At the bottom, Julie declared that she was not only watching her, but was actually trying to copy her style. Learning from your daughter who has just progressed from level 2 to level 4 in a few half-day lessons makes you feel quite humble, especially when the 7-year old announces that she wants to now go up the main lift to do Oblivion and Stillness. Who were we to deny her?

Evenings were all fairly low-key, but just what we wanted on our family ski holiday. Enormous portions at dinner were always backed up by the kind of friendly, attentive service you only get in North America, and all the staff throughout our stay at Indian Head Resort were friendly and efficient. Oh, and the 50” HDTV in the room certainly kept Megan amused (and me, to be honest – I hadn’t realised that Spongebob Squarepants is actually quite funny).

Our first family ski holiday to New Hampshire was rounded off by a visit to the Tanger Outlet Shops just off the I93 in Tilton en-route back to Boston, where we particularly bagged some bargains for Megan in the form of some pretty cool t-shirts and tops, and jeans for just $5.99! We asked Megan what she had thought of her week’s skiing, and the single word answer was, rather predictably, “Awesome!”, echoed by her very satisfied parents.

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