ASPEN, Colo. -- This winter I put my relationship to the ultimate test: a romantic ski vacation.
Many couples ski together, but my fiancee, Sheri, is just learning while I've been skiing for more than two decades. We'd done group ski trips, but never skied alone.
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To make this trip work, we needed some advance planning and clear expectations. I wanted to ski with Sheri but also desired time to speed down the harder trails.
We chose four days at Aspen/Snowmass in Colorado because it offered a little bit for each of us.
"I am a little nervous about the trip. It's a lot of time skiing," Sheri confessed to me a month before we left. When I mentioned that I had found ski buddies for a day, she asked: "A whole day?"
The conversation continued at dinner a few nights later. One of our friends flat-out said: "He has to ski with you. That's it."
We chatted through our desires and made a plan.
Sheri would take two days of lessons. The first was at Snowmass. Elk Camp Meadows, a new beginner's area there, is fenced off from the rest of the resort so experts don't race through on their way to the lift. She quickly advanced to other parts of the mountain.
I took a refresher course -- it's never too late to learn something new -- and we met up for lunch.
The next day, she took a lesson at nearby Buttermilk Mountain. It's geared toward beginners but has some great intermediate trails that she mastered by the end of the day. I met up with some friends and got my adrenaline fix on the harder Aspen Mountain.
Lessons were key -- it was much better for Sheri to get tips from a professional instead of me.
"Taking feedback from someone you love can be the hardest thing. You start to personalize it," says Katie Ertl, who oversees the ski and snowboard schools at the four mountains of Aspen/Snowmass.
(Warning: Skiing isn't cheap. If purchased a week in advance, a four-day lift ticket costs $396. Adult group lessons start at $139; full-day private lessons start at $660.)
For our final two days, we skied together at Snowmass. Sheri's instructor had ensured that I wouldn't drag her onto something too hard by noting the names of the trails on a map to try and the ones to avoid. She had learned a lot and we were gliding down some intermediate runs together.
We might not have been skiing the steep runs I prefer, but Sheri pushed herself out of her comfort zone. And there, in the middle, we found a way to enjoy the mountain together.
There was one other thing we did in planning to ease the experience: We picked a slope-side, ski-in, ski-out hotel.
Staying close to the mountain comes at a premium but makes life much easier. Nightly winter rates at the Westin Snowmass range from $199 to $599, or you can redeem -- like we did -- 12,000 to 16,000 Starwood points a night.
Each morning, the hotel's ski valet would assist with our boots. Then, skis in hand, we had to walk just a few steps to the snow. There was no lugging of heavy gear and if we needed a midday break, it was easy to return to the hotel. (Another great slope-side option is the Viceroy Snowmass, though it's pricey: Rates start at $635 a night during the peak winter season.)
Sheri and I also benefited from a demographic challenge the ski industry faces: The most loyal -- and free-spending -- skiers are baby boomers. To attract younger skiers and others, the industry has adapted. Resorts now offer better food choices and better ski schools, and they're even making it easier to park. Because women who grow up skiing sometimes exit the sport once they have kids, ski resorts are also adding day care and women-only clinics.
And to attract adults who have never skied before, they are trying bring-a-friend promotions. We tried one of those last season with some friends. Jiminy Peak in Massachusetts offered a learn-to-ski package: ski rentals, a lesson and a lift ticket to the beginner slopes. The women did that while the guys got free lift tickets to the entire mountain.
Parents with kids in the 10- to 13-year-old range may even be able to get their kids on the slopes for free. Some resorts offer free ski passes to kids in certain grades, and sometimes lessons are even thrown in, leaving parents free to ski on their own. In New Hampshire, for example, fourth and fifth graders can get free lift tickets, with discounts for lessons and gear rental, plus deals for siblings and parents. Many of these types of programs started during the past decade or so as a way to get kids and their families outdoors and exercising in the winter months, but they're a boon for the industry too: "We hook the kids into the sport early," Byrd says.
Ski resorts in southern states are even now starting to rent clothing to families who might not have gloves or snow pants.
For us, the ski trip ended with a couple's massage.
The Westin's spa abuts the hotel's heated outdoor pool and hot tubs. Nothing feels better after a day on the slopes than sitting in the whirlpool as snow falls on your head, followed by an hour of somebody removing the pain from your muscles. It was therapeutic, relaxing and -- most importantly -- something we could do together.