Being the parent of a toddler means constantly thinking on your feet about how to entertain or distract your child. But finally, I could sit back and relax. Because I had met Johan, a Mary Poppins of sorts who heads up the activities at The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe, a mid-mountain resort surrounded by towering pines in Truckee, Calif.
One day, Johan taught us how to make snow globes using Play-Doh to create snowmen and blue glitter for the falling snow. The next, we made the marshmallow man, a squishy snow person using — what else — white globs of sugar and gelatin, connected by stick-shaped pretzels with tiny chocolate chips for eyes and buttons, and a single string delicately plucked off pull-and-peel Twizzlers for the scarlet scarf. We rested him in a cup of hot chocolate, where he met his fate in a slow, sweet melt to the bottom.
The Ritz Kids program at the resort, which is usually limited to children ages 5 to 12, is technically closed. But each day, there were at least two (often complimentary) activities provided for kids, and most suited my two-year-old just fine, with some adult assistance.
One mom even turned to me and said, “We have ski lessons and everything for tomorrow, but these activities totally make their day.”
I was equally wowed by all the in-between moments. After my daughter was done with her activity on a white-out day, Johan stepped outside to deliver snowballs for her to throw. And when we were admiring the big white hill opposite the activity room’s window, he braved the blizzard and spelled out my daughter’s name in the powder, much to her delight.
Another day, he gifted her a stuffed lion wearing a hotel T-shirt, who she inexplicably dubbed “Stool” in a fit of laughter. Witnessing the budding friendship, Johan ran out of the activities room bearing two pint-sized bean bags: one for her, and one for Stool.
Restaurants at The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe: Manzanita, The Living Room and More
But Johan was far from the only Ritz-Carlton employee who understood that most toddlers’ love language is receiving gifts.
There was the server delivering our room service breakfast, who — after spotting our daughter — returned with not one, but three Ritz Kids bibs (a green one for my daughter, a blue one for Stool and a yellow one for any new friends she might make).
And at Cafe Blue, the coffee shop where we picked up an emergency croissant for our kiddo and an emergency latte for me, the barista told her to pick out one of the displayed Ritz-branded rubber duckies — donning skis, of course. (Post-croissant consumption, we took it out for a ski lesson on the thick snow coating the patio tables around the firepit.)
We also loved the complimentary daily s’mores making offered on the terrace (or indoors during snowy days), complete with spiked hot toddies and hot chocolate. That — plus a visit to the hotel’s arcade — made for the perfect apres ski for our family, and served as an appetizer of what was to come for dinner.
Manzanita, the fine-dining option featuring an open kitchen, was as unpretentious as it was tasty, serving pistachio-studded butternut squash risotto, short ribs and chicken fingers.
And the Living Room, where we ate most meals, was equal parts casual and cozy. While it sometimes took up to an hour to receive dishes such as burgers, fries and falafel wraps — an unfortunate reality of historic snowfall and an extended ski season without enough seasonal staff — we kept ourselves entertained with boardgames and plenty of room to roam. The convivial feeling of the slope-side restaurant composed of tables around multiple fireplaces makes it ideal for social kids.
The property offers 170 guestrooms, including the One-Bedroom Suite which perfectly met our needs. (Better yet, the room connected to another guestroom for my parents, who were joining us, but preferred to have some privacy at the end of the day.)
While the overall design aesthetic is classic and upscale, the materials, such as stone bricks and travertine tables, are sturdy and not precious.
My daughter loved having 800 square feet of space to roam, which housed a deep soaking tub surrounded by marble, a stone fireplace and floor-to-ceiling sliding doors that opened to the snowy scene around us. My husband and I appreciated the empty mini-refrigerator to store snacks and leftovers, the 400-thread-count linens and duvets, televisions in both the bedroom and living room and the stocked Nespresso machine. We also appreciated that our daughter’s crib was waiting for us in the room when we arrived, complete with complimentary kids’ bathroom amenities.
Review: Northstar California Resort for Families
For families with toddlers, it’s all about the little details. Kids under three cannot partake in the marquee attractions at Northstar California resort (owned by Vail Resorts), such as snowboarding and downhill skiing. Children must be at least three years old to receive a private ski lesson, though many consider five to be a more appropriate age to teach kids a snow sport.
But with the property’s ski-in, ski-out location — and easy access to the slopes via a snowmobile we deemed "the special car" — it didn’t require much effort to show our daughter her future possibilities. It was also very easy for us parents to sneak off for a half-day of snowboarding (my husband) or snowshoeing (me).
And it turns out that Northstar’s Cross Country, Telemark and Snowshoe Center is a true gem, particularly for families. Tucked away from the skiing and snowboarding areas — which can get crowded during the weekends — the cross-country center is mellow, cozy and intimate. Plus, at just $60 for a daily trail pass, the center’s activities are much more affordable than an Epic Day Pass.
While the slopes were packed on our Saturday morning visit — which would probably be overwhelming for most young kids and beginners — we had 22 miles of paved, tree-lined trails and outlooks that were completely empty save for us.
There was no way our little one was going to cover even a mile with her own two feet, so we rented a Thule Chariot Child Carrier, which attached to my husband's hips. My daughter’s chariot awaited — and once Elmo and Grover were secured, my husband ran them around in the snow. Meanwhile, I took a private cross-country skiing lesson with Nicole Roqhuett, a fellow mom who was able to set us up with activities before teaching me various techniques.
I got the cardio workout of my life, attempting to hold a yoga chair pose while shuffling and gliding on flat terrain, propelling my body forward with my own balance and exertion.
Jealous of the fun I was having, my daughter said she wanted to try — a far cry from her first day in Lake Tahoe, when she insisted on going indoors after shedding her gloves and sunglasses. Now miraculously clad in most of her gear, she patiently waited as we strapped on her very first set of cross-country skis — something that Aaron Pearlman, the manager of the center, predicted would happen. For a few wonderful minutes, she happily squealed while my husband pushed her along.
As I was finishing up my lesson, my family enjoyed the free hot cocoa available at the center, before Nicole brought out her very own Mary Poppins bag: a snowman-making kit, complete with a red scarf, a carrot nose and a pail for making snow castles. My daughter then discovered she could “swim” in snow, a move I would describe as akin to making a snow angel, just in reverse.
Later, she would tell me that this was one of her favorite experiences of the entire trip — and, like all the other in-between moments that came before, it was one of mine, too.