The view from the giant hot tub epitomized winter. Snow-clad chalets and fir trees encircled us. The night-skiing lights of Ontario's Blue Mountain shone like halos in the near distance. Falling flakes melted in our steaming hair. And every once in a while, a muffled squawk emerged from our Zooper stroller.
Was this tub-side buggy a heat-induced hallucination? No: My wife, Angela, and I had embarked on a weekend ski getaway with Ava, our seven-week-old daughter. Mission impossible? Again, that's a negative. All it took was some planning, patience and, of course, the X-factor: a co-operative newborn.
Ava came into the world on Christmas Day, so we assumed our 2007 ski season was effectively over before it began. We didn't realize that many resorts cater to new parents.
Hills have long offered kid-friendly ski schools and bunny hills. Now, a growing number of infant-oriented services are available to lure new, and nervous, moms and dads.
Extensive on-hill accommodations usually spawn babysitting services, some of which will care for infants as young as a few weeks. (Blue Mountain's starts at 18 months.) Some resorts take child care a step further by providing slope-side daycare centres that will look after babies and toddlers.
For parents who can't wait another sleep to hit the slopes, the Telus Play Station & Daycare at Alberta's Lake Louise resort accepts newborns as young as 18 days. The facility keeps little ones entertained with vibrant tropical plants, bearskin rugs and colourful toys, and keeps parents in the loop with complimentary pagers and forms that detail the babies' care schedule. And at Smuggler's Notch in Vermont, infants as young as six weeks can spend the day at Treasures, which is equipped with radiant floor heating, giant fish tanks -- and one-way-mirror viewing for skittish relatives.
Because Ava was a colic-free, bottle-loving baby whom either of us could usually handle alone, we decided to forgo Blue Mountain's pricey babysitters and instead take turns on the hill. The Intrawest-run resort near Collingwood was a good fit for our needs. We drove from Toronto in less than two hours, thus avoiding road-side feedings. We timed our 4 p.m. arrival to coincide with chalet check-in times, thereby sidestepping diaper duties in the resort cafeteria. Our one-bedroom suite in the resort village offered a kitchenette, allowing us to warm bottles easily and dine in if Ava unleashed her fussy side. And the array of shops and cafés in the village meant that, temperatures permitting, the baby-wrangling parent could deploy the stroller and have plenty to see and do.
I took the first two-hour "shift" on the hill and for the first few runs revelled in a pair of unexpected treats: abundant, fluffy powder in Ontario, and schussing mere weeks after cutting an umbilical cord. It did become a bit lonely after my third solitary ride up the chairlift, as I was used to having Angela with me. Inviting a childless friend seemed like a good idea for next time, or another set of parents with whom to share descents and child-care duties.
Still, the snow was so plentiful that parental guilt didn't kick in until the 119-minute mark, at which point I made use of another handy service: the ski valets. These young men, stationed a few meters from our hotel, guarded my gear until my next shift. (They also carried it to our subterranean ski locker at the end of the day, and lugged it up again in the morning. Think of them, I suppose, as "ski nannies.")
My return to our room coincided with an unexpected meal; as any parent will tell you, hunger can strike a breastfeeding mother and child at any time. After satiating Ava, we sat down to an impromptu pizza dinner which, I will admit, irked me after rushing in from the hill. There I was, snow barely off my goggles, and I was chopping carrots for a salad. On pre-Ava ski weekends -- which even then were too few and far between for our liking -- I was always a bit of a glutton, trying to nab first tracks in the morning and the last lift in the afternoon or evening.
After a dose of chocolate and some gentle coaxing, Angela pulled on her parka and headed out for the final two hours of night skiing. I closed the door behind her, turned on the gas fireplace and picked up our little girl, patting her back while balancing her on my knee. Her resounding, mutually satisfying burp -- which Angela may or may not have heard on the chairlift -- made me realize that patience, and a new set of priorities, would be the keys to this and any future trips. As a dad, I know I have to lower my ski expectations and instead savour my time on the hill, and in the chalet, with my family.
With a half-hour left in Angela's ski shift, Ava predictably started to flail, kick, squawk and generally perform her hungry-baby routine. I rummaged in a diaper bag for her beloved pacifier, and pulled it out along with a tiny tuque Angela must have bought while I was on the hill. It was a pointy pink number, with the letters "R-A-D" emblazoned on it in black arcade-style lettering.
I put it on Ava's head and popped the soother in her mouth. The whining stopped, the pacifier popped out, and she flashed me the faintest hint of a smile.
SKI TRIP TIPS FOR NEW PARENTS
Make it quick and painless: Choose a hill that's relatively easy to reach. As with any getaway with the very young, mixing a long journey with several modes of transportation -- plane, bus, helicopter, then Snowcat -- can stress everyone out.
Time your check in: If you're planning an overnight stay, time your arrival with hotel check-in. Arrange an early check-in -- try for noon -- if you want to get an earlier start.
Bring a buddy: It can get lonely out on the mountain. Invite a single friend for on-hill companionship (and showing off), or another couple with whom to share child care duties (and shopping sprees).
A village is a virtue: Stay in a slope-side resort village -- it gives the non-skiing parent something to do and facilitates infant hand-offs.
Patience is a virtue: Leave your hard-core ski attitude at home. Stressing about missed slope time will only annoy your partner and upset the baby. Focus on enjoying both mountain and family time.
Have stroller, will hot-tub: Bring the buggy. It is invaluable for shopping, dining, even post-ski soaks.
A kitchenette is key: Try to book a room with kitchen facilities for warming bottles, preparing meals, the list goes on. . .
WHERE TO SKI
Blue Mountain: Collingwood, Ont.; 1-877-445-0231; www.bluemountain.ca. Babysitting services (705-445-0231 ext. 6126) cost $12 an hour (three-hour minimum). Seventy-two hours advance notice is required.
Lake Louise Ski Area: Lake Louise, Alta.; 1-877-754-5462; www.skilouise.com. The Telus Play Station & Daycare (403-522-3555 ext. 2118) charges $59 a day for infants.
Smuggler's Notch: Smuggler's Notch, Vt.; 1-800-451-8752; www.smuggs.com. Treasures daycare (1-800-419-4615) charges $80 a day.