Kid-friendly resort

Classes for kids are among the offerings at Beaver Creek. It's a good idea to register the day before, if possible. (Peter M. Fredin/ Beaver Creek Resort)

"Follow me, Mom."

The words hung in the air as my son plunged off the groomed trail and into the trees that border Cloud Nine trail.

Karen's plaintive "Wait" was swallowed up by the snowflakes as Drew disappeared into the pines. Muttering "smart aleck kid," she followed him, and I was right behind her.

Minutes later we popped out of the trees with a speed-happy 11-year-old grinning after having led his mother on a wild ride through the trees and deep snow. After a short pause, he pointed his skis downhill and headed toward the lift for another trip to the top of the mountain.

The high-speed, four-person chairlift whisked us to the 11,440-foot peak in about 10 minutes, including time spent in the lift line. Then we headed for Zoom Room and Polar Plunge with Mom's pleas to lead falling on deaf ears.

This was "family skiing," Beaver Creek style -- lots of runs with plenty of options for every ability level.

Beaver Creek opened 20 years ago and quickly earned a reputation as an expensive, ritzy, "cruiser's alternative" to the challenges of Vail. It has grown into a four-mountain complex and a destination resort with a personality all its own.

That personality includes a heavy dose of excellent service (on mountain and off), gourmet dining and high-end amenities, but two key ingredients have fed its development -- a focus on families and a little-known cache of superb expert trails. (See accompanying story.)

The four mountain areas that comprise Beaver Creek resort -- Beaver Creek, Grouse Mountain, Bachelor Gulch and Arrowhead -- offer runs to satisfy every member of the family, at least according to all the publicity brochures. With more than 1,600 acres of skiable terrain (roughly the same size as Deer Valley, Utah), nobody should have to ski the same run over and over.

The off-the-mountain options in Beaver Creek echo the tone of the mountain. Apres-ski activity focuses on family fare -- restaurants, ice skating in the square, movies and plays at the Villar Center, the spa at the Hyatt. Most of the drinking establishments are too sedate to be called "bars." For rousing nightlife, you need to head into Vail.

In five days of skiing, we skied several of the runs more frequently than others, but none often enough that they seemed repetitive, although Drew did feel his ski class could have been a bit more adventurous.

He complained that for the first two days, his class had some members who should have been in a lower level and forced the class onto many trips down just a few of the easiest trails. When they left, he said things got to be more fun.

"I really like all the runs at the top of the mountain," he said. "We go all the way to the top where the snow is lots better than at the bottom."

In fact, almost all of the runs served by the Birds of Prey and Drink of Water lifts are novice or relatively easy intermediate trails. (Just don't take the run all the way to the left or take a left turn off of Flat Tops or you have to choose among three expert trails.)

Many of the trails are laid out so that skiers of different skill levels can still ski together. One morning Karen (a solid intermediate skier) and I skied down Pitchfork, an easy intermediate run. We took the lift back to the top, and she wanted to take Pitchfork again so she could get more accustomed to her new skis. I wanted a bit more challenge so I slid over to the left side of the slope and headed down Stacker, another intermediate trail, but one with a bit steeper pitch and more moguls.

The two runs are separated by a sparse stand of pines so I actually could watch her ski down Pitchfork while I tackled Stacker. About halfway down the slope, I skied around the stand of trees and caught up with her for the run to the bottom.

Many of the trails are laid out so family members of different abilities can ski together and still have options. Stacker trail, which really is just the left side of Pitchfork, is one example. Stacker has a few more trees and a bit steeper pitch, but except for a few spots, I could see my wife skiing down Pitchfork, and the two trails rejoin for the bottom half of the run.

Another example is the top of the Larkspur lift, where experts can get their blood pumping on Lupine or Loco while the less-daring souls tackle Larkspur Bowl. Then everybody heads down Larkspur trail or Bluebell to the lift.

Intermediate skiers dominate Beaver Creek's clientele. They come for the gold mine of cruising runs that cover more than three-quarters of the mountain (34 percent novice, 39 percent intermediate, 27 percent advanced).