Family skiing at Smugglers' Notch, Vermont

by Carlton.Reid

Smugglers' Notch is a tots to teens ski resort in Vermont, USA. It's regularly voted the best family ski destination in North America. Read on to find out why

I am not suggesting that Americans are competitive, but the final day’s skiing for wee ones on the week-long training programme at Smugglers’ Notch in Vermont is billed by the resort as perfect for spotting the next generation of Olympians.

No gold medals for the kids, though. Ski well and they get a cookie. That’s why it’s called the Cookie Race.  

Mums, dads and grandparents line the balloon-strewn obstacle course. With the right imaging equipment you’d probably be able to see the pride welling out from beneath their Gore-Tex jackets, as kids as young as three speed down the hill, sashay through the gates, dip under the limbo-bars, bag their snack, then lap up the praise, aglow from the adulation of all the adults lining the Cookie Race course.

We've been spending winter weeks in "Smuggs" for many years. Even when factoring in transatlantic flights, it's no more expensive than a European ski holiday and - given a choice - our kids would all vote for Smuggs. They learnt to ski here, starting on the ‘Discovery Dynamo’ course for three to five year olds.

Our kids got their first taste of skiing on the gently rolling Sir Henry’s Hill, close to the resort centre. Once strapped into their diddy carbon-fibre planks, they were pushed towards the magic carpet - a rubberised conveyor belt. This short ride enables the ski teachers to get kids up the short slope with the minimum of fuss.

Diane and Larry were in charge of the 'yellow jellows' group (each group of kids is assigned a coloured vest, and the signing in and out process is reassuringly strict). Dianne advised clucky parents to leave ASAP. Clingy kids might pout, kick and scream but the instructors know that this understandable reaction to such a new experience soon passes as the kids start to discover a whole new world, a new way of getting about.

Pull yourself away and that’s the start of mum and dad’s holiday. For the rest of the day, the kids are off your hands and the resort’s three interconnected mountains are yours for the taking. Choose from 78 trails, many with challenging slopes including the East's only Triple-Black Diamond run.

Smugglers' Notch is a Center Parcs-type resort and is regularly voted the best US family ski destination by ski magazines and travel agents. Other resorts have children’s ski programmes, but Smuggs has developed its range of programmes into an art form.

From tots to teens, almost all ages feel at home here. Babies and toddlers have the Treasures nursery; teens have hi-tech yurts and other chill-out zones, and little 'uns love the in-house cartoon characters, who - warm and cosy in their fluffy suits - wander the resort, tots clinging to their legs. Mogul Mouse is the leader, next in line is Billy Bob Bear and then there are a selection of lesser characters such as a mountain cat, an eagle and - getting away from the animal theme - a snowman called Frostie the Snowmaker, who stars in his own production at the resort’s snow-making centre.

Any parent who has been dragged around a Disney resort will likely concur that it’s the characters-in-suits that are the biggest draws for kids. At Smuggs, Mogul Mouse and friends join the kids on the slopes, skiing or boarding past and offering cheery waves.

The characters also feature in the resort’s colouring books. Colouring books? It’s not wall to wall skiing for the youngest children. Their trips to the slopes are tempered with structured playtimes, hot chocolate breaks, a hearty lunch, and yes, plenty of colouring. This daycare part of the programme means parents can ski from just after 9am through until 4pm. However, spend all your time skiing or boarding and you’ll miss the end-of-the-day entertainment that starts at 3pm.

There’s something different each day, from plain and simple story telling (Dr Seuss is a favourite) through to wacky science demos by Professor Alpine and the Winter Wizard. On the final day of the course, there’s a fully-fledged, character-led pantomime with lighting effects, indoor fireworks, singalong songs (listen to the Smuggs jukebox online, it’s infectious, and features folksy songs about Mogul Mouse and friends) and a video show of the characters doing some sketchy moves out on the slopes. This panto has a cast of thousands as all the instructors have bit parts.

So, Smuggs is Butlins-on-ice, then? Yes, in the respect that kids come first and everything is geared to make sure they enjoy themselves whilst getting well and truly whacked (all that mountain air and action-packed days leads to puffed kids). But Butlins doesn’t have plush condos with flaming gas fires, big tellies in every room, steaming hot tubs, or snowslopes.

Book the right condo and you can be skiing - with your kids - down to the resort centre from your front door. Or you could snowboard: Smuggs is one of the few resorts in the world to offer group snowboard lessons for five year olds, or you could book your four year old some private introductory lessons.

Smugglers’ Notch isn’t cheap. An all-inclusive package for two adults, three kids, flying from the UK into Boston and then a shuttle flight into Burlington, less than an hour from the resort, can easily set you back £4000+. But it’s easy to spend that kind of cash for ski holidays in Europe.

Where to stay

As Smugglers' Notch is an all-inclusive, wholly-owned resort, all of the ski programmes, bus and lift timetables, and hire equipment drop-times, are interlinked so there's no fretting about making it to a shuttle-bus in time for kid ski camp. It's therefore best to stay on the resort in one of the condos. All are clean and well-stocked with dishwashers, washing machines, microwaves, log-and-flame gas fires, and coffee makers. The deluxe condos have more TVs, more upscale gas fires, more rooms, better views and better slopeside access.

It's also possible to play it your own way by staying off resort – there are some homely b&bs nearby – or, if you don't mind driving each day, you could stay in Stowe, on the other side of the mountain. Stowe is less family friendly, and much more upmarket. Smuggs and Stowe used to be linked, and shared lift passes, but the resort and the town ended their agreement some years ago. This is a shame because, if you're an expert skier, Smuggs and Stowe by themselves don't offer enough challenges for a week. Combined they would. It's a strenuous, officially-debarred ski-and-hike trip between the two, but a 30 mile road journey.

Stowe has a wider selection of hotels, including the ultra-luxurious Stoweflake Mountain Resort & Spa, and nearby, the Trapp Family Lodge, with its connections to the Sound of Music story.

If you drive to Smuggs from Boston, an excellent place to break the journey is The Essex, a country hotel that's also home to the New England Culinary Institute. Students cook the sumptuous food in the two restaurants, one of which is a cutesy pub. Top tip: bag one of the home-baked cookies available in the foyer (they go quick).

Where to take ski lessons

Little Rascals on Snow
Introductory ski lessons for tots as young as two-and-a-half (although three is more usual). The sessions are held at Treasures, the Smuggs daycare centre. There's a Treasures-only 7-metre long Magic Carpet ski-escalator and a micro Cookie Race

Discovery Dynamos
Ski or snowboard camp, ages three to five years for skiing, four to five for snowboarding.

Adventure Rangers          
Ski or snowboard camp, ages six to 10 years.

Notch Squad
11-15 year olds are provided with more challenges, and more emphasis on technique.

Mountain Explorers
For 16 -17 years olds. Snowboarding, mostly.

Mom & Me... Dad & Me

Ages three to five years. Learn how to teach your child with one of Smuggs’ 300 instructors.

There are also adult-only programmes.

The après ski

The nightlife in Smuggs is tame in comparison to, say, Chamonix. This isn't a resort for twentysomethings or older teens. It's a resort for families with young children and maybe for kids through to about sixteen or seventeen.

There are two teen centres - adult-free zones - and each caters for different ages of teens. The Outer Limits at the Yurt has no kids under 16. Teen Alley Club is for ages 13 and older. The centres are open 5pm until midnight, and feature internet access, music, Playstation2 and X-box consoles, pool tables, movies, and NightSpiker Volleyball. On Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday nights teens can mingle in Dodgeball Tourney, Airboard Slalom, FunZone Mania and Nightspiker Dance Party at the FunZone.

Snowboard teens will love the progression of terrain parks at Smuggs where they can start getting air at Log Jam on Morse Highlands, progress to the intermediate park on Sterling Mountain called Birch Run, or, if they're ready for championship jumps, boxes and rails, they can grind to their heart's content at The Zone. There are teen-friendly group and private lessons called Terrain Park Tactics.

Pre-teens - and toddlers - can get rid of any excess energy at the FunZone, a huge inflatable ‘building’ with bouncy castles, crazy golf, and rotating climbing walls.

Where to eat

You'll be likely to eat most of your meals in the condo: the kitchens are well equipped, the fridges are huge. The selection of resort restaurants isn't huge. The Morse Mountain Grille & Pub is for snacks and pancake breakfasts. Riga-Bello's is for pizzas and pasta. Slightly more upmarket is The Hearth & Candle, which has a child-free room...

On the ice-cream front, there's the Ben & Jerry's Scoop Shop. Ben & Jerry's is based in Waterbury, an hour or so from Smuggs.

Not just skiing

Smuggs isn't just for downhill skiers, there are 15 miles of snow-shoe trails, 18 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails, ice skating, tube sliding, winter walking, Airboading, a heated pool, and snowmobile touring. There’s an outlet mall not far from the resort and this part of Vermont is chocka with antique shops.

Real smugglers

Smugglers’ Notch is now the name of a resort village but the name isn’t a cutesy construct, the cut through the pass was twice a favourite of smugglers seeking to avoid prying eyes. During the early 1800s, the US Congress embargoed British imports so enterprising folk shipped forbidden goods to Canada and ferried them in secret down the "Long Trail"  via Smugglers' Notch. This practice ceased after the lifting of the embargo after the war of 1812. Smuggling started up again about 120 years later when America went through its period of Prohibition. Caves close to the ‘Notch’ were ideal for hiding forbidden hooch.

Resort facts

Location: 30 miles east of Burlington, and five miles south of Jeffersonville on Route 108.

Terrain:  78 slopes. 750 acres open access
19%  easier
50%  more difficult
19 %  most difficult
6% extreme

Base elevation:  1030ft

Vertical rise: 2610ft

Average snowfall: 347" (three year average)

Snowmaking: 62%

Lifts: Nine, including si double chairs and 3 surface lifts.

Highest lift: 3642ft

Vertical drop: 2608ft

Winter season: November to April

Avoid: New Year and President's Week, in late February.

Watch out for: the cold. Ski in the East and you often need facemasks, especially early in the season

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