I’m waiting for my plane in Reno.  It’s late.  At the bar, a jovial guy introduces himself and acknowledges that he knows Randy Bell, my Ski Northstar Resort instructor.  Cool.  But then the guy went on about how Randy runs cattle farms, how enmeshed in the community he has become, the history of Tahoe, the forest preserve that is so carefully maintained by the resort… The man has been away from Tahoe for a few years and is dying to be back. I completely understand why.

This place is truly magical.

For Families, Northstar, located 45 minutes from Reno, Nevada, boasts an award-winning learn-to-ski program. But more than that. Epic Mix (it’s totally gnarly. You don’t even have to take your pass out of your pocket for the spy-sensors to pick up the radio frequency) allows your teens and tots to track their vertical and ski runs via computer at the end of the day. Epic Mix is available via your computer AND there’s a free phone app for iPhone and Droid, where you can view your photos, trail maps, vertical feet, days skied, digital pins earned….  The passes actually work at all 7 of Vail Resorts’ Mountains. And there are no paper tickets to lose. Not only that – but there are ‘Epic Photo’ photographers with professional cameras waiting in the most beautiful spots all over the hill who will scan your pass and snap a pic. When you log onto the Epic system to celebrate the accomplishments of your day, the photos are miraculously in your photo section. And they are free for you to share via your social networks. (Here’s a resort that not only gets technology, but puts the customer’s experience at the forefront). I loved the live shots, which showed my (bad) skiing at the end of the day and then my (improved after being instructed) skiing at the end.

The terrain is family-friendly, but with glades and black runs to die for. (Beginner – 13% Intermediate – 60% Advanced – 27%) The best? Many more challenging glade runs are adjacent to easier slopes, so everyone can meet (happy) at the lift. I am not usually a glade skiier but you couldn’t get me out of the trees here. Diligent and loving volunteer residents, along with resort employees have trimmed the underbrush and small limbs at the bases of most trees, vastly improving the skiier’s experience and the safety of the glades.

The snow? You know when you pick up a handful of snow and determine what you will use it for? This is not for snowballs. This stuff is like Chanel loose face powder that my Great Aunt wore in the 60’s. Gorgeous. I kept picking it up and blowing it off my mitt, giggling. And if you were in the area at the time – those hollers and whoops were probably me.

What struck me as the gondola attendants carried my skis and the Ritz Carlton valets helped the kids put on their boots, was that Vail Resorts is trying to make skiing/snowboarding a fully enjoyable family activity. I recently visited Disney and the parallels were clear. The customer prevails. Service is key. The business model values the individual and embraces challenges born into every life. And really? If you have a great experience, you’ll return. Skiing is one of those activities you can do for decades, and can help the fabric of a family no matter what the age of the kids – if the resort looks at the needs of everyone from infants to tweens, teenagers and non-skiiers. This place looks at every angle.

The Zephyr Lodge is new last year. Vail Resorts, which owns 6 other properties as well as Northstar, got a leg up on the economic downturn by investing in their properties. When other resorts stopped cutting runs or upgrading lifts, Vail had the forsight to invest 30 MM at Northstar alone into the improvement of the resort experience. The Zephyr, made of reclaimed wood from Montana, offers ‘Rockstar Food’. Why Rockstar? Healthy, incredibly prepared and cutting edge. My choice? The rice and noodle bar. I chose brown rice, lots of veggies, tofu and chicken. There were a selection of sauces – teryaki, curry or X, and a Vietnamese spring roll to top it off. Learn to ski if only for this meal. (Oh, and they doubled the number of womens’ washrooms too!)

For kids the ski school (link to Randy’s video) is incredible and Northstar allows kids to feel ‘big’ even if they are beginners. The learning area starts 6,800 feet above sea level, so after a gondola ride, they walk out to a crisp white wonderland and are shuttled to their own lodge via snowmobile-sleigh. The ‘Bear Hut’ is so named because one summer a bear raided the hot chocolate machine and settled down to hibernate. The next year, he returned and tried to dig his way in. Northstar decided to build a more secure structure in order to ward off future intruders!  The ‘Jib’ parks throughout the mountain offer challenges and fun for kids – there is even one where you can ski over the roof of a house.

I will never forget family apres ski when I was a child. After a full day of challenge and new experiences, you shared a secret almost, with your family. They knew I’d gone down the black diamond on my bum and I saw when my Dad had a yard sale. Apres is about reminiscing, bonding and relaxing. You’d accomplished lots. Northstar is king of apres (and they supply wagons to make schlepping the equipment easier). Adirondak chairs. Sun, happy hour – seriously – coming from Canada you don’t get that often! – and serious tunes. Playing on the loudspeakers of The Lodge at Big Springs were ‘Boogie Fever’, ‘Basket Case’, and ‘Wonderwall’. Thank goodness for Shazam. Stay tuned for the UrbanMommies Apres Ski playlist. People were flopped all over the area, sunning in big glasses and toques, boots undone and refreshment in hand. The apres ‘party’ at the lodge happens daily from 2pm to 4pm, and the brilliant part is that the lodge is at the top of the gondola, so skiing out when you are tired is unnecessary.

Because we were on a guided tour, we got the scoop. For the die-hards? There are Northstar’s guided sidecountry tours and snow cat tours. These will be offered for the first time next season to advanced skiers and riders who want to explore the resort’s new terrain, conditions permitting.  Ask about it. It is supposed to rival heli-skiing. Shh. And don’t you dare take my fresh tracks.

And then there’s the village. Like chocolate? Yeah. This is your place. The Chocolate Bar is all about the specialty. The village is full of amazing activities and shopping. Directly after skiing you must try the dirty snowman (Absolut Vanilla vodka, Baileys, Hazelnut liqueur + hot chocolate). With an ice-skating rink in the middle and devine sofas all around, the town is bustling. And you can shop. Not that any of us need to do more of that. Cute little wagons carry skis and poles so you or the tiny ones don’t have to schlep them and accommodations are plentiful and in my view, quite inexpensive compared with similar resorts in North America.  March happens to have some of the best rates as well as the best snow.  Go figure.

We boarded the gondola (awesome) to zip back to the Ritz Carlton Lake Tahoe. After a hottub, we ran to our rooms to grab the ‘s’mores in a bag’. Quite possibly the best invention ever, you can purchase s’more kits that include sticks, graham wafers, blocks of chocolate and large marshmallows. The Ritz has scattered firepits throughout the premises. You know what comes next. Relaxing by the fire, tired and toasty, I would have slept all the next day. Had it not been for the terrain. And the snow. And the technology. And the instruction. Just go.

Stay: The Ritz Carlton Lake Tahoe
Eat: Baxter’s Bistro
Drink: A Dirty Snowman or a BNB (That would be Bacon and Bourbon at the Ritz Carlton)
Spot: Shaun White if you’re lucky

Disclosure: UrbanMommies Media was provided with travel, accommodation, lift pass and a stipend for meals while investigating Vail’s Resorts in Lake Tahoe.