KITZBUHEL, IT'S NOT. Taos, it's not. It's not even Stowe.
Before we had children old enough to want to ski, we could occasionally go to such "in" places. But now the airfare alone for a family of five would practically equal the gross national product, and that's before you start adding up accommodations, meals, lift tickets and the more fashionable ski attire we'd have to wear. The solution: Blue Knob, or someplace like Blue Knob, a resort within three hours' drive of Washington.
Area ski resorts tend to have machine-made snow, a limited range of trails and a doggedly utilitarian ambience. Blue Knob is no exception. There are 15 trails, but about half are closed when there's not enough natural snow. The lodge is a barn-like cafeteria with microwaved food and video games. The vistas sweep Pennsylvania mland rather than snow-covered aspens or Alpine villages.
Apres-ski? For people with children, the question is no longer relevant. The more relevant questions are whether a resort rents child-size equipment, gives lessons to kids and has a nursery. Blue Knob has all of the above. Of course it all costs money -- $20 a day on weekends for an adult lift ticket, $15 for a child under 12. That will get you either a day ticket, good from 9 to 5, or a twilight ticket, good from 1 to 10. An hour's private lesson costs $16 for the first person plus $10 for each additional person. A day's rental of skis, boots and poles costs $10. The nursery, which accepts all ages, costs $2 per hour per child. Fortunately, the resort accepts checks as well as Visa and Mastercard. And, also fortunately, we packed our own lunch.
If you think this story is getting bogged down with too many tedious details before you get to the fun part, you're right. But this reflects the harsh reality of skiing with uninitiated kids. Somebody has to check them into the nursery. Somebody has to rent the equipment -- putting a driver's license up as security -- and make sure they get boots that fit and safety bindings properly adjusted. Only then can you turn them over to the ski instructor and disappear.
At Blue Knob the lodge is at the top, which is a real plus. After all the aforementioned preliminaries, it would be a torturing anticlimax to wait on a lift line before doing any skiing. Instead, you ski down.
Once I'm finally free I try to stay that way for a while, avoiding the beginners' trails (Snow Drop and Dew Drop) where the children are likely to be. Good novice- intermediate trails are Mambo Alley, a winding, mostly wide 9,200-foot run; Shortway a short hill that leads into Mambo Alley; and Bunny Hop, steeper but generally wider than Mambo Alley.
At the bottom are two double chair lifts. The lines are long on weekends, but I've seen longer, less orderly lines in Vail. The people you ride up with are more likely to be government secretaries or Pennsylvania schoolgirls than Texas oil men, and nobody wears ten- gallon hats.
Eventually, of course, you do run into your kids, because kids are brave and instructors get them out on the big slopes pretty quickly. After a lesson, they want to show you what they've learned and you want to see if you got your money's worth.
Kids don't learn to snowplow anymore -- they just learn to ski. My eight-year-old daughter Caroline looked like a veteran after her first lesson, falling only when cut off by an out-of-control middle-aged beginner who obviously hadn't thought a lesson necessary. As we struggled to retrieve her poles, get her boot back into her binding and re-hook her safety straps, her 11-year-old sister Tabitha schussed by. Spurred on by sibling rivalry, Caroline took off, illustrating the principle that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. I still ski on the principle that, no matter how gentle the slope, you keep making little turns to check your speed.
They were waiting for me at the bottom, on the line for a variety of lift I had never used before. I learned to ski at a place that had only a rope tow, and quickly graduated to chair lifts. At Blue Knob the beginner area is served by a platter lift -- a disc that fits against your fanny. I would have preferred even the torture of a rope tow but I put on a brave front. Or so I thought.
"Don't worry, Mommy," counseled Caroline. "You just put your poles in one hand and hold it with the other and remember to keep your skis in the track."
"We'll wait for you at the top," said Tabitha.
Or maybe at the bottom.
BLUE KNOB-ING -- Blue Knob, with a 1,052-foot vertical drop and an elevation of 3,152 feet is in Claysburg, Pennsylvania, 160 miles from Washington. From the Beltway, take I-270 to Frederick and I-70 west to Breezewood, Pennsylvania. Go west one exit on the Pennsylvania Turnpike to Bedford. Head north on Route 220 to Route 869 west, at Osterburg. Follow Route 869 to Pavia and then follow Blue Knob signs. 814/239-5111.