TWENTY years ago, I learnt to ski in Italy. I should say, I tried to learn. The sole reason for wanting to get to the top of the mountain was because that was where all the gorgeous, bronzed Romeos in their skin-tight suits were. How I got down the slopes I'll never know, because I don't recall taking skiing lessons. It must have been a case of hormonal impulses overriding survival instincts. Twenty years later, with hubby, two kids and the only suggestions of skin-tight coming from a plastic surgeon, my choice for a ski resort held different criteria. Vail in Colorado, I was assured, would provide 'something for everyone' - a worrying catchphrase but, in the end, perfectly accurate. Vail is wonderful. There are 1,620 hectares of skiable ground covered by 121 trails so that even Princess Diana managed to lose the paparazzi on the mountain tops. And so groomed. I used to think this was a description reserved for the likes of poodles and Baroness Dunn. I now understand that whole mountains can be groomed, bumps ironed out, 25 high-speed lifts installed and pine trees arranged in perfect, Christmas-card clusters. This was what they call 'ballroom skiing'. Where the American ski resorts have got it so right - and at Vail, in particular - is that they offer runs for all levels of skiers. Nice gentle 'green' runs for the beginners, cruising runs for the take-it-easy crowd and, of course, near-vertical, 'black' runs and back bowls that threaten to strip the buckles off your boots. This way, even novices can ride to the summit (3,430 metres), pose, eat, drink and tan with the big boys and still ski all the way down on green runs ... I know, I did it. The thought of going back to ski school was somewhat humbling but, in this instance, there was simply no choice. I opted for the three-day beginners' package which included lessons, equipment rental (boots, skis and poles) and lift tickets. The package costs US$225 ($1,740) - a bargain when you consider a private instructor costs $380 a day with no guarantee that he or she will be either bronzed or beautiful. The day I opted for private lessons, I got a 65-year-old grandmother who totally put me to shame. Skiing is one thing, coping with American camaraderie and goodwill is another. There you are, wobbling down the mountainside like a blob of runaway tofu, about to fall in a position that even the Karma Sutra doesn't mention, and the rest of the class is yelling, 'Gee, Michelle, wow ... you're doing just great!' Clearly, I was doing no such thing. There are 1,200 international ski instructors servicing Vail, Beaver Creek and Arrowhead Mountain. There is even a Russian instructor, formerly with the national team, who teaches the kids, apparently because she doesn't speak English. The Vail and Beaver Creek Ski School for children is known throughout America as possibly the best of its kind. Beginners are classified as 'three- to six-year-olds who have never skied or who cannot stop by themselves' and start their tuition as Mini and Mogul Mice. The school has its own cordoned-off area which includes a 'magic carpet', a slow-moving escalator which takes the pain and terror out of negotiating T-bars and chair-lifts. After a week, our three- and five-year-old were effortlessly zipping down the junior slopes, little blobs of freezing snot hanging from their noses, while my significant other was still leaving snow tracks not dissimilar to that of a rampaging yeti. There are also excellent facilities for the physically disabled. If you do have special requirements, you can fax ahead and request special assistance. I saw a blind skier whose specially trained instructor guided her verbally. Want to really push the boat out? Anything is possible: telemark skiing for cross-country, snowshoe tours, balloon adventures, bob-sleds and, of course, snowboarding. This, I am assured, is fun (but then some people also like being whipped in kinky underwear with an orange in their mouth). What is important with snowboarding is that you look the part - trousers should be 10 sizes too big and sag around the knees, tops resemble outsized bin-liners and lip salve must be fluorescent. Go, baby, surf those white caps! Conducting extremely precise and scientific surveys - by chatting up any cute fellow chair-lift passenger - I discovered how Vail compared with other US ski resorts. It doesn't have the wide open spaces of Whistler, but it's not as cold. The slopes are, as I've said, beautifully groomed and therefore not as challenging. You can wear a fur coat in Vail but it's not as chic as Aspen. There is no doubt Vail Village is trendy but it does not attract the movie-star flash of Aspen. Modeled after a chocolate-box ideal of an Alpine hamlet, the village is dotted with white plaster, Bavarian-style buildings sprouting timber balconies and geraniums. It is the sort of place you expect to bump into a yodelling Julie Andrews at any moment. Blissfully, the Vail elders have so far not allowed McDonald's in. The village itself is a no-drive area which is easily walked in 20 minutes and made up of a mixture of designer boutiques, restaurants and ski-rental and real-estate shops occupying the ground floors of apartment blocks. Property here should make Hong Kongers feel right at home with prices starting at $1.5 million for a small place in the village, rising to $6 million for a ski-in, ski-out home next to the ski-lift. Choosing the right accommodation is as important as finding a well-fitting pair of ski boots. Gasthof Gramshammer, in the heart of the village, is the oldest hotel and owned by Austrian former professional downhill racer Pepi Gramshammer and his outrageously funny wife, Sheika. She runs the 27-room hotel as a family inn and welcomed us like long-lost friends. Apparently oblivious to the cold in a silk blouse open to the waist, she was an avalanche of fresh air and a wonderful hostess. Alternatively, the Sonnenalp Resort, also run by an Austrian husband-and-wife team, this hotel is divided into three houses decorated, yes, in Bavarian style. Fondue and raclette feature on the dinner menu while duck-down duvets, busty cocktail waitresses in saucy dirndls and a spa with an indoor-outdoor heated pool all add to the atmosphere. Indeed the only reminder that you are in Colorado and not Kitzbuhl is the 'Have a nice day' greeting printed at the bottom of each credit-card receipt. There are supposed to be more than 100 restaurants in the Vail valley offering everything from MSG-free Chinese at May Palace to the Dancing Bear, touting 'the best bagel in town'. The Red Lion pub is the place to head after a hard day's skiing and at some stage most of Vail pops in for a drink. The restaurant, Sweet Basil, was my favourite - and obviously that of many others since we could only get a 6.30 pm booking - with its light American fare in unpretentious surroundings. For a cosy evening at home, local deli Alfalfas, right next door to the video rental shop, is stuffed with pre-washed, pre-cut and, no doubt, pre-chewed delicacies. After a tough day on the slopes, the Vail Athletic Club offers steam baths, Swiss showers, even a 'chronic pain relief' session with a 'fango clay pack or hayflower'. You could also try the rock-climbing wall or Nordic track machine. The only downside to the holiday was the trouble the old man and I had with the altitude, Vail being more than 2,740 metres at the base and nearly 4,000 metres at the summit. The signs are dizzy spells, splitting headaches in the morning and, of course, trouble breathing on the mountain-tops. If you start to think you can ski like Jean-Claude Killy, then it's too late - you're clearly confused and could even be dead. There is medication you can take against altitude sickness which any doctor in Hong Kong can prescribe. Unfortunately, we only discovered this on our return. HOW TO GET THERE United Airlines flies direct from Hong Kong to Los Angeles with onward connections to Denver and Aspen. Economy return airfare, $10,820. Information supplied by Wallem Travel, phone 2876-8220.