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Tough winter choice: ski or sun Snow sport: Breaking with routine, parents and children can enjoy quality time together with cold-season vacations.


The school year is so new that the children have barely gotten their teachers' names straight, much less told every tale on the playground about their summer adventures, but already visions of vacations to come are dancing in their heads.

"Mom, can we go skiing this year please?" 11-year-old Matt pleads during the first week of school, before there's even a hint of coolness in the air.

Just thinking about skiing, it seems, makes homework less onerous. Harried parents, busy racing from job to day-care to school, soccer games, back-to-school night and the orthodontist, can feel the same way. The mere thought of stretching out on a white-sand beach or racing down a newly groomed ski slope can help even the worst day become bearable.

Certainly well-heeled families have always taken off for different climes during a winter school break. However, judging by the questions I've been fielding lately, these days more families seem to be considering the notion, even if it means they must budget very carefully to do so.

Is it worth the financial bite and the time? I think so. A winter break away from home -- even if just for a few days -- lets everyone get a breather from the stresses and strains that we all live with.

Away from the office and the car pools, there might even be an opportunity to tune in to the kids' world for a brief moment over breakfast on a sun-drenched terrace or riding up a ski lift. That's when I seem to have some of the best talks with my children.

So, assuming the bank account can take it this winter, which is it going to be: sun or snow? For many families, it's no contest.

"We'd never think to go to the beach in the winter. That's for August. In the winter, we want to get out in the snow and cross-country ski, toboggan and ice skate," explains Vicki Bijur, a New York literary agent and mother of an 8-year-old son.

Ms. Bijur says that her family can find some excitement in the snow without long-term planning. A trip to Vermont or Pennsylvania provides the change of scene they want without the hassle of airline tickets or hotel reservations made months before.

The same is true for Californians who head to Lake Tahoe for a few days. "What's so great about Tahoe is you drive into the snow and then you drive out of it again," says Melanie Nangle, a transplanted Californian whose family is considering a winter ski trip on the West Coast this year.

Skiing is fun. It's exciting. It's invigorating. It's also expensive -- typically $50 or more per day per family member just for lifts, food and equipment. Skiing is not necessarily relaxing, particularly for moms, who seem to be the ones to keep track of everyone's goggles, hats, lip balm, neck gaiters and ski gloves.

"It's hard work. You ski all day, and you go home and collapse," said Ms. Nangle.

Donald Wertlieb, the only nonskier in his family, can find peace settling down with a good book and a drink while his family is hitting the slopes.

"But those who ski don't get to relax," explains Dr. Wertlieb, a child psychologist and chairman of Tufts' University's Child Studies Department. "They go for the excitement and exertion. It's a lot different than sitting on the beach, although both are too expensive!"

Before deciding what kind of trip to take, Dr. Wertlieb suggests, sit down with the children and talk about what everyone hopes to get out of this vacation. The more involved they are in the planing, Dr. Wertlieb notes, the happier they'll be about the choice.

Do they want an action-packed week in the snow complete with aching muscles at the end of every day? Or a lazy week in the sun, where the biggest decision is which spot of sand to claim? Talk about the budget and what's doable. Perhaps all that's needed to make a dream destination affordable is to cut the trip slightly.

Consider travel time, too. Many ski areas (and some beaches) are within driving distance from home, making the trip more affordable but perhaps more stressful.

Consider the children's ages carefully, too. Are they too young to get much out of a ski experience? Will you be carrying all their equipment everywhere? On the other hand, are they too old to be satisfied hanging around the beach with you?

Wherever you go, once they're past second grade, they won't be happy just playing in the sand and jumping the waves: They'll want to race from snorkeling to beach volleyball to fishing. As your children get older, seek out a place where such activities are included in the rate.

Speaking of equipment, there's no getting around it: Skiing requires lots of gear, from parkas to ski boots to poles. It is certainly a lot simpler to pack for a beach vacation.

There are more hassles when you take the children skiing. "But once you get there, you forget about them," says Elaine Kiehnle, who lives in Dallas and skis with her family every season.

If the children haven't skied before, consider a long-weekend getaway rather than an entire week.

Take the children without your spouse for a few days if he (or she) has no interest in the sport. That's what Deborah Baratta does, leaving her nonskiing husband behind.

Ms. Baratta, the co-founder of a family travel agency, sees skiing families head for the slopes every season, particularly if they live in places where they never see a snowflake.

"People want a change from what's happening where they are," she says.

Not always. We live in winter-jacket territory with plenty of snow to build snowmen and have snowball fights, but my crew immediately voted down my suggestion of a beach vacation this winter. See you on the lift lines.

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