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Destination: Mammoth Mountain - Part 1
A family-friendly ski vacation to Mammoth Mountain and beyond.
By Matt Wilson
There was a time in my life when travel was as easy as throwing a few practical items in a backpack and stepping out the door. And then I had a child. As a parent, it soon became apparent that I would have to trade the backpack in for a few suitcases and that, for a while, travel was restricted to safe houses. My parents. Her parents. So it was with some trepidation that I suggested we try a fun family ski vacation to Mammoth Mountain in California. After all, my wife does not ski and my daughter has never seen snow. So the question was ... can a family have fun in a ski town, when most of the family doesn't ski?
It begins the way that any family vacation does, with carefully choreographed chaos. The family circus left Seattle on a 10am flight on Southwest Airlines, arriving in Reno a short two and a half hours later. We rented a four-wheel drive Kia from Budget and headed into the high Sierras. The sky was hung with heavy dark clouds heralding an angry storm. NOAA.com showed a massive low pressure system circling off the coast of California. It was an impressive storm, a skiers dream, holding the promise of endless powder.
Barring a snowstorm, the town of Mammoth is an easy, three-hour drive from Reno. However, don't leave Reno in anything less than a full four-wheel drive vehicle or you'll get stuck or worse. With just a few stops along the way, we managed to reach the Snow Creek Resort rental office shortly after 5pm. It was closed but there was a key with directions waiting for us and five minutes later, we pulled up to our new home in The Sierras.
THE LODGES AT SNOW CREEK VACATION RENTALS
We have rented a condo at The Lodges. It is the newest phase in the decades-long development begun by Snow Creek Inc. back in the 1970s. Our condo is both spacious and elegant ... a real picture book mountain lodge retreat. The ceilings are 12 feet high with 10-foot tall doors. The rooms are open and airy, the furnishings comfortable, solid and new. It looks like a page from a Sunset Magazine article on mountain living. But then, I am easily impressed. The toddler test was more telling. The first thing Zoey did upon entering our new home was to find the big bed, where we would all be sleeping, hop up onto it and bounce. It's a deep, soft, sleep-inducing bed with pillows that are neither too soft nor too hard, but just right. In other words, it is Baby Bear's bed. Zoey jumped around for a few minutes and then buried herself in the pillows forming a little pillow cave to hide in. Meanwhile, Janna and I explored. The condo has all the amenities you would need; a modern kitchen for cooking gourmet meals and drinking wine while seated at the high marble counter; an open living room with couches you sink into; a wood-burning fireplace and a large plasma TV for the inevitable après ski chill; a large dining room table for puzzles and meals and games; a laundry room with hooks for coats and ski racks and benches for pulling off and drying out boots. It feels like a home. In fact it is, by any measure, more comfortable than our own home. Zoey has hopped off the bed and wants to take a bath in the large soaking tub, but we have reservations for dinner at the Chart House Restaurant and so we ask her to be patient.
Zoey insists. We are late.
THE CHART HOUSE RESTAURANT
The Chart House hostess doesn't mind our tardiness at all. The ambiance at The Chart House is upscale and warm but still family-friendly. It's busy, almost every table is full and there is a loud hum of conversation and the occasional bubble of laughter. People are crammed in here, but the building design and table layout have created an illusion of intimacy, which suits our small family perfectly. We are greeted by our server Danika. Her warmth adds to the atmosphere and after a long day of travel, I can finally see Janna and Zoey starting to relax. Unfortunately, I have a major headache due, most likely, to the sudden change in elevation. It's a risk when flying to the mountains from sea level. Some people are going to get destroyed for about 12 hours. Tonight it's me. So, while I camp out in the car, a bottle of Tylenol in my pocket, Janna and Zoey eat plate after plate from the rich and varied salad bar, blackened fish and crab cake appetizers and a ridiculously chocolaty dessert. The Chart House is located along Old Mammoth Road in the heart of Mammoth proper. It is a fine dining experience viewed through the lens of a large corporation. Landry's Restaurants Inc. owns 21 Chart House restaurants, located in enviable spots across the United States. It's not a locally grown gem but it is a reliably good time. Chart House Restaurant, 106 Old Mammoth Rd, PO Box 149, Mammoth Lakes, CA, 93546, Tel: (760) 934-4526.
MAMMOTH MOUNTAIN: A FAMILY-FRIENDLY SKI MOUNTAIN
The next day, our family ski vacation really begins. I can't wait to ski. It's a blue-sky day and the top of Mammoth Mountain has just reopened after being closed due to storm conditions for a few days. This means that there is deep, untouched powder on the top of that mountain. My expectations are high.
Then reality sets in. It is Saturday. The mountain just reopened. Every local with a ski pass and every hardcore skier from L.A. will be on top of the mountain before I even park the car. Mammoth has plenty of fast chairlifts and a high-speed gondola to move people up the mountain, so lines should be reasonably short. But the effect on the untouched top of the mountain will be devastating. It's like setting off a people grenade. All this occurs to me as I troll the car back and forth along the road up to the mountain, looking for a parking spot. I dropped Janna off 20 minutes ago at the Main Lodge so that she and Zoey could sign up for ski lessons and get rental gear, and with each passing moment, I can feel my frustration rising. If you do come to Mammoth on a weekend, be sure to get up there real early and don't hesitate to valet park. It's the best money you will spend all day. Once it fills up, though, you simply have to drive down the road, find a spot and carry your gear to the nearest shuttle pick-up spot.
So I arrive at the rental shop expecting Janna and Zoey to be ready to go. It's been an hour since I dropped them off. No such luck. The rental place is a zoo. Janna is still in line with Zoey and I can tell from the relieved look she flashes my way, that she long ago ran out of toddler tricks. This dank rental shop is where my powder dreams die. If you're going to be skiing on the weekend, then get your rentals before going to the mountain or show up by 8am. Otherwise, you're looking at a wait of over an hour. If you happen to end up with someone new to the job, then your wait could be longer. Better yet, try Footloose Sports in Mammoth for high-quality demos and rentals and get your gear before going to the mountain.
I love to ski and I love the mountains, but standing in this rental shop, I can see a future, which my family does not; a future full of safe, easy, warm vacations. The seeds for future trips will be planted today or not at all. So I will not ski today after all. Today, this beautiful blue-sky day, is for Janna and Zoey.
ZOEY'S FIRST DAY ON SKIS
Janna is off on a private lesson. I am getting Zoey set up with rentals at the Woolly Mammoth ski school for kids. There is no line here and the manager of the kids' school personally helps set Zoey up with good-fitting boots and gear. Today is the first time Zoey has even seen, much less worn, skis. And I am so excited, I can't stand it. I am nervous, too. Zoey is very particular and strong-willed. She does not like clothes, she is a warm-weather girl like her mother and she does not like to fall down. Unfortunately, we came too late for the Intro to Ski lesson, so Zoey will have her first lesson from me. And I have no idea how to engage a toddler on skis. So I take her outside, set her down at the top of a bump and push. She manages to stay upright and after a moment of shock, laughs herself into hiccups. OK. So with that under our belts, I pick her up and carry her over to the chairlift. We shuffle and bump our way to the front of the line. My heart is beating a bit fast now. What if she freaks out on the chairlift? Too late. The chair is coming. I scoop her up, set her down and away we go. And she loves it. We are soaring over trees and skiers and Zoey can see it all. Once at the top, I carry her off the lift, set her down and take a deep breath. "You ready?" I ask. "Mmm," she says. The sign says Sesame Street and there is a big green circle painted on it. Wobbly mamas and little kids are making their way towards the sign and just past it, I can see a gentle slope and far below, the base of the chairlift. We shuffle our skis forward until gravity starts to overwhelm the friction of the wax on the snow. Zoey is between my legs and I am bent over, holding her by the waist. We are picking up speed. And she is laughing again. It's a deep chuckle. Soon it will turn into hiccups again. In that moment, I know the seed has taken root. Zoey will ski again. In time, she will be good. One day perhaps she will discover, in the silent trees and the deep powder, a secret, which for now lies dreaming. Waiting.
A GREAT SKI SCHOOL FOR ADULTS
Like most, Mammoth Mountain's ski school operation offers both private and group lessons for all ages and abilities and covers everything from downhill and Nordic skiing to snowboarding ... pretty much what you'd expect from a ski school. The staff is competent, friendly and fun and their facilities are clean, kid-friendly and well funded. I set Janna up with a private lesson. It was a gamble, really. Janna is a novice skier and it had been four years since she last set foot on snow. My dream of the fun family vacation hangs in the balance. We catch up with Janna later that day. She is flushed and glowing. Her eyes are sparkling like sunlight on snow. She says, "I rocked! I can ski!" And with that, the three of us head up the lift to Sesame Street. On the way up, she tells me about her lesson. It was the best ski lesson she has ever had, she says. Her instructor, Wes, was patient, laidback and extremely helpful. And skiing with her now, Zoey in tow, I can see a new confidence in her turns and a concentrated but persistent smile on her face. Janna is hooked on skiing.
There are well over 60 places to eat, drink and relax in Old Mammoth Town, with more options up on the mountain. Music and massage. Food and drink. Swim, skate and sled. Mammoth is full of activities for families with time and energy. But when you are three years old, the most compelling post-ski scene is the inside of your eyelids. Anyway, I am looking forward to some quiet time with Janna, in a hot tub and on an overstuffed couch. I want to tell her about Zoey's first time on skis. It's one of those firsts that I will always remember. For Zoey, time will bury her hiccup run down Sesame Street beneath a mountain of the mundane. Multiplication tables and telephone numbers. But it will stand out in my life, one bright star in an otherwise increasingly cloudy sky.
DINNER AT GIOVANNI'S PIZZA
After a day of skiing and strenuous hot tubing, it's nice to bring the family to an easygoing place with fast, good food. Pizza is the primary specialty at Giovanni's, but there's the usual Italian fare like lasagna and pasta with vodka sauce. You can design your perfect pizza at Giovanni's, adjusting the thickness of the crust, the type and volume of sauce and so on. I created a basic Italian with thin crust, sausage, Canadian bacon, artichoke and mushroom. Janna had the Gio with pesto, artichoke, mushroom and feta. Both were great and very tasty, cold, the next day. Giovanni's Pizza, Vons Center at Old Mammoth Road and Meridian, Tel: 760-934-7563.
It's off to sleep after a very full and satisfying first day. Join me next week as we encounter a snowstorm, check into the InTouch MicroSpa for some rest and rejuvenation, then pay a visit to Mammoth's forgotten sister June.
*This just in! Mammoth Season Passes are now on sale at half-price for a limited time only, April 1-30, 2008. Formerly the Gold Pass, the Mammoth Season Pass at half-price ($786) offers the best price available for any full-season pass product. The pass pays for itself in just 10 days of skiing – plus, the pass is unrestricted with no holiday black-out dates. Mammoth Season Pass is also good at June Mountain, giving you access to two first-class mountains for the price of one.
Note: This trip was sponsored by Mammoth Mountain.
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