Snow Job

Maybe I’m crazy, but each winter I plan a family vacation that is fraught with danger. To reach our destination, we must drive up a perilous mountain road studded with hairpin turns. Oddly, during our ascent, this NASCAR-approved artery is usually choked with fog or hail.

But this is only the hors d’oeuvre: The entrée is when everyone except for me straps themselves to bulky planks of wood before hurtling at 50 mph down icy slopes with names like “Surrender Isle.” I drop everyone off at the ski resort and then hightail it back to the cabin, where Ken waits for me, wagging his tail.

Like me, Ken is risk-averse and agrees that skiing is sheer madness and folly. We cuddle on the couch, I pop in a DVD and wrap my cold hands around a cup of hot cocoa.

This is not laziness. It is a necessary mental health exercise to banish images of my next of kin putting themselves in harm’s way on triple-black diamond slopes. Oh sure, I tried skiing — once. It was a disaster.

My husband had summoned every ounce of perseverance and patience in his DNA to try to teach me this skill, but we were not on speaking terms by the end of the lesson. Falling down repeatedly like a rag doll and getting tangled in skis is not my idea of fun, and I concluded that only fools or suicidal thrill seekers could embrace skiing as a sport.

By my reckoning, a Boggle tournament with serious players ought to be enough excitement for anyone. It is a tacit understanding between my husband and me that he is never to attempt to teach me any other athletic skill ever again.

Our mountain jaunts usually last for three days, but for the life of me, I can’t manage to prepare for them in under a week. I need at least a day to dig up mismatched gloves, hats and mufflers, which otherwise have no purpose in Southern California; two days to shop and cook; and at least three days to closely study the available accommodations advertised on the Internet.

Cabins in our price range are kindly referred to as “rustic.” Last year, we agreed that Casa de Pine Cone, equipped with a miniature pool table and dusty dining room lamp etched with the Budweiser logo, was a touch too rustic for our taste.

This year, I carefully avoided any cabin with the word “Kozy” in the name, because anyone who thinks it’s cute to further degrade our language won’t get a dime out of me. Besides, “cozy” (no matter how you spell it) is code for “so tiny even short people will have to bend over when taking a shower.” I also learned to be wary of cabins with French names, since a “chateau” where we once stayed should really have been called “La Hovel.”

But this year, I succumbed to temptation and booked Bear’s Détente, hoping that the kids might fight less around a dining table where the grizzlies and the black bears finally signed a truce. Bear’s Détente didn’t really do much to engender greater sibling love, but it was definitely a classier joint than Casa de Pine Cone. It had a thick stack of Family Circle magazines dating from 1999 and, in keeping with the European theme, a table lamp etched with the Heinekin logo.

Unfortunately, these trips are working vacations for me. As shlepper-in-chief, I am forced to tramp around in the snow half the day delivering snacks at 10:30 a.m., lunch at 1 p.m. and hand lotion and dry socks at 3 p.m.

For some reason, our designated meeting place is always on the top level of the slope’s multitiered eating areas. Believe me, trudging up all those stairs at an altitude of 6,500 feet should be more exercise than anyone seemingly on vacation should have to endure.

At the end of the day, I collect the entire freezing crew and shuttle them back to our cabin, while the kids clamor for dinner immediately. Despite the multiple snack deliveries, everyone is starving.

All this personal valet service I provide cuts pretty deeply into my DVD watching and hot chocolate sipping time, but I am the mother, and this is my job. In fact, my life on vacation is pretty much just like my life at home, only with pine trees.

One night by popular demand, my husband kindled a fire. This seemed like the perfect cozy finish to a tiring day.

“I’ll just make sure the flue is open,” he said, fiddling around in the fire pit.

“Why is it so smoky in here?” coughed one of the kids, as a haze quickly billowed through the room and the smoke detector beeped in alarm. They say where there’s smoke, there’s fire but not at Bear’s Détente.

By the time my husband found the flue opening, we had smoked out every last bear left in those mountains, while also failing to stoke any meaningful flames. On a happier note, I discovered that one can avoid deadly smoke inhalation by flinging open the front and back cabin doors and allowing the bracing, 20 degree air to clear the place out. I promise you that after an hour and a half, the smoke will be gone and so will the kids, who will be huddled in the car with the heater on.

Still, I consider the trip a success. Even though one son went missing one day, no one ended up in the resort’s mini-hospital, either from skiing accidents or too much family togetherness. Two trips to the local supermarket assured that we had enough to eat, the dog only got sick once and I finally got to finish my movie after only six sittings.

We left in the evening, and I drove us down that harrowing road, trying to think of safer destinations for next year. But I think I am too late. All the kids consider themselves ski bums. But with this designation, they can rent their own locker for snacks and dry socks during the day. There’s only so many times a woman can be asked to interrupt her movie marathon and hot chocolate sipping.

Isn’t that what vacations are all about?

Judy Gruen is the author of two award-winning humor books. Read more of her columns on


Rough It in Style at El Capitan Canyon

As a city woman whose family is unaccustomed to “roughing it,” I planned our family vacation to involve a lot of nature but no sleeping on hard ground. That’s what made El Capitan Canyon in Santa Barbara the perfect place for us: It’s camping for people who like staying in Hiltons.

A two-hour drive north of Los Angeles, El Capitan Canyon is a former private campground that was transformed five years ago into a plush nature resort on 65 acres heavily populated with oak and sycamore trees. It allows guests to savor a rustic environment, but with down duvets and gourmet coffee for the coffeemaker.

Upon arrival, we took in the sweet, clean air gently blowing through the canyon. We had booked two cabins for our party of seven: a king suite with a bedroom, a living room with a pullout sleeper sofa and kitchenette, and a bunk cabin (which could have slept six) for our three sons. All cabins have bathrooms with showers, as well as refrigerators in kitchenettes — an important consideration for kosher consumers like us who bring our own food.

For more rustic tastes, El Capitan Canyon offers canvas safari tents on raised wooden decks, with screened windows and zip-down flaps. Bathroom facilities and showers for the tents are located in nearby buildings. Though our boys were at first disappointed at the absence of TVs, the beauty and calm of the campground environment assuaged them.

Cabin rates range from $135 to $345 for their brand-new canyon loft, which has a king-sized bedroom, living room with a sleeper sofa and stairs leading to a sleeping loft that can sleep up to four. It also has a full bathroom, gas fireplace and kitchenette. Safari tents range from $115 to $135 for a deluxe tent. Midweek pricing specials are available.

Cars are not allowed in the canyon, but a shuttle brings guests from their cabin or tent to the entrance of the facility, where the El Capitan Canyon store and deli are located. We preferred walking the half-mile or so from our cabin to the store, spotting vibrantly colored scrub jays and woodpeckers along the way.

Visitors can be as relaxed or as busy as they want. Our family borrowed complimentary bikes from the front office and rode for several miles on the bike path along El Capitan and Refugio beaches, just five minutes from the campsite. Water-lovers can kayak or surf, though rentals are not available directly on the premises. My husband and I hiked along the paths in the canyon, on the lookout for snakes, bobcats or mountain lions, which signs at the trailhead warn live in the mountain. (Fortunately, we didn’t meet any.) Our less adventurous kids preferred to swim at the pool or play catch on the large grassy area adjacent to the cabins. Our favorite time was after dinner, when nearly everyone dined at picnic tables outside their cabins or tents. We met our neighbors, our kids met other kids and we had fun roasting ‘smores in our fire pit.

The campground management at El Capitan Canyon also offers a ropes challenge course, wagon and carriage rides, guided hikes led by a naturalist, and horseback riding at the adjacent El Capitan Canyon Ranch. Live concerts are performed Saturday nights through September, and feature jazz, blue grass, oldies rock ‘n’ roll and more.

But if that sounds too ambitious, telephone the front office and reserve a massage, facial, mud treatments or other spa services. After all, you’re there to relax!

The hit movie, “Sideways,” has made visits to the nearby wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley more popular than ever. We toured the Firestone Winery, which offers tours every hour, and while we could not partake of the wine tasting, it was fascinating to learn about the complex and delicate nature of wine making. For those who keep kosher, Herzog Wine Cellars is now open in Oxnard. Plan to make this kosher winery part of your trip on the way to or from El Capitan Canyon.

If you are traveling with kids, make sure to drive to nearby Solvang for seasonal apple picking. A stroll through Solvang and a quick stop at Ostrich Land in Buellton can help round out a family-friendly day.

El Capitan Canyon, 11560 Calle Real, Santa Barbara. For more information, call (866) 352-2729 or visit

For help planning your trip, be sure to visit the Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce at or the Santa Ynez Valley Visitors’ Association at

For a list of area wineries, visit For more information about Herzog Wine Cellars, call (805) 983-1560.

For fruit picking, try Apple Lane Farm, 1200 Alamo Pintado Road, (805) 686-5858; or Morrell Nut & Berry Farm, 1980 Alamo Pintado Road, (805) 688-8969.

Judy Gruen hopes her next vacation will include a trip to at least one outlet shopping center. Subscribe to her regular “Off My Noodle” humor columns at