Skiing the Family Way

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. -- AAH. Hot water never felt so good.

The frigid mountain temperatures and snow all around us made the natural 30-foot wide hot springs all the more inviting. Without a moment's hesitation and despite the chill, we'd whipped off our clothes (we had come prepared with bathing suits underneath) and jumped into the large, 4-foot-deep, 104-degree pool where other families already were blissfully soaking away skiing aches.

The adjacent pool was not quite as hot, just 101 degrees. Those who wanted a wake-up call could opt for the cold, fresh pool -- its temperature hovered around 35 degrees -- created from dammed-up creek water.

Strawberry Park Hot Springs Manager Paul Stucki explained the springs contain a trace of lithium, which aficionados believe helps everything from arthritis to kidney problems.

All we knew was a dip in the water left us so relaxed, the kids' bickering on the way back didn't annoy us a bit.

We'd wound our way six miles up the mountain north of town after a day skiing to this little corner of paradise. This was one bumpy ride the kids were glad they'd taken.

``Better than any hot tub,'' they said.

I agreed wholeheartedly. The place was a bargain too: Entrance is $5 for adults and $2 for kids. (Prices go up to $7 for adults at night and $10 on weekend nights. Children are not allowed after dark when bathing suits are optional and skinny dipping is the norm. Whenever you go, don't attempt the drive without a four-wheel drive vehicle. Shuttles are available from town or the ski area. Call Sweet Pea Tours at 970-879-5820. Schedule a massage while you're there: call Steamboat Springs Health and Recreation Association at 970-879-1828.)

The springs -- equally appealing in winter or summer, when camp sites are available -- gave this northwestern Colorado town its name. Three French fur trappers traveling down the Yampa River heard what they thought was the chug-chug sound of a steamboat. When they saw the bubbling spring, they dubbed the place Steamboat Springs.

Besides Strawberry Park, kids also will give a thumbs-up to Steamboat Springs Health and Recreation Department's hot springs swimming pool and water slide, located downtown. Admission for adults is $5 and for children $2.)

These days, Steamboat Springs is probably better known for its snow (over 300 inches a season) and its Olympian skiers -- the town has produced 36, more winter Olympians than any other town in North America.

It's also become a mecca for families seeking a Western ski resort that has as much to offer children as adults. The area is especially popular with skiing families from Illinois, Texas, California, Florida and New York, resort officials say (call 800-922-2722).

The children-are-welcome-everywhere town, with its decidedly Western atmosphere, and the ski resort alike have won kudos from parents and kids for the family emphasis on the slopes and off.

``It's such a nice little town. Everyone is so friendly,'' said Susie Dix, who comes from Florida every Christmas with her family. And the 8,000 year-round residents want to keep families like hers to keep coming. Consider:

-- Steamboat Springs Ski Resort pioneered the kids-ski-free concept 14 years ago to keep more families skiing. Children 12 and under ski free when a parent purchases a five-day lift ticket. The idea clearly has worked. More than half of the ski area's million skiers each season are parents and kids. Steamboat ski instructors shepherd as many as 1,000 kids a day through a first-rate ski school. (My nearly 6-year-old Melanie loved it and her skiing improved daily.)

-- Teen Ticket allows 13- to 18-year-olds to ski at the reduced rate of $34 a day when parents purchase a five-day lift ticket. One paid parent ticket qualifies for a Kids Ski Free ticket as well as one Teen Ticket. (For the teens who say they've outgrown ski school, from mid-February through March Steamboat will offer a program ($57 a day, $155 for three days, including lunch) for snow-boarders and skiers. It's designed to show this difficult-to-please group the coolest spots on the mountain.

-- Young skiers from 3 and a 1/2 to 6-years-old (private lessons can be arranged for those younger) meet inside the Kid's Vacation Center for ski school, sheltered from the crowds at the base, where they can have a snack and watch a puppet show before heading out on the mountain. The children's instructors get special coaching during the season from child psychologists.

-- Day care is available for children starting at six months right on the mountain ($57 a day, $155 for three days). Nervous parents can watch the chalkboards at all of the lifts. If they're needed, their names will be posted.

-- Parents can get a night out by dropping their kids as young as 2 and a 1/2 at the Kids' Adventure Club every Tuesday through Saturday in the Kids' Vacation Center. There are snacks, games and movies. (The first child is $9 an hour, the second is $3 and each additional one is $2.) Ask about evening outings for the 8-12 crowd.

-- Teens can spend an evening with the ``Night Owls'' going to a movie, the Vertical Grip Climbing Gym or eating pizza. Activities are offered Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights for $35.

-- Three Family Zones are offered on intermediate slopes and two others on beginner runs. Skiers know to slow down.

Reservations are required for all the kids and teen programs. Call 970-879-6111, ext. 469 for more information. You can also visit Steamboat's Web site at http://www.steamboat-ski.com.

There's just one pressing family need Steamboat (or any other place I've been) hasn't addressed: getting the kids to carry all their own ski gear.

(Look for Eileen Ogintz's books from HarperCollins West: ``A Kid's Guide to Vacation Fun in the Rocky Mountains'' and, for parents, ``Are We There Yet?'')

(Send your questions and comments about family travel to Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or e-mail to eogintz@aol.com. While every letter cannot be answered, some of your stories may be used in upcoming columns.)

(c) 1997, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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