The East--Hail the Tower-Mounted Sno-Gun

Outside magazine, October 1995

The East--Hail the Tower-Mounted Sno-Gun

In the old-time resorts of New England, rocks and ice have gone the way of the wooden ski
By Meg Lukens Noonan

Skiing in the East used to require focusing more on good living than on good skiing. So what if the snow was rotten, the lines endless, the sky a peculiar dead-gray? There were other things to savor--that horse-drawn sleigh moving through the pink dusk, that lobster bisque in the candlelit dining room, that pale church steeple against the blue-black sky. And, at the very least, there was the pride you took in actually carving some decent turns up there on the ice.

Things have changed. New England is no longer the hair shirt of the ski world. Forced to get creative by a series of low-snow years, the top eastern resorts can now almost guarantee good conditions, regardless of the weather. No other region has the East's technology or vision when it comes to making, sculpting--and marketing--artificial snow. Add to that a major overhaul of facilities, trails, and services, and you come up with ski areas, like the ten profiled here, that finally can compete with the country's best.

Stratton Mountain, Vermont

The Big Picture: Of all the eastern ski areas suffering from Vail envy, none exhibits such obvious symptoms as this swank southern Vermont resort. It has the Tirolean facades, the pedestrian village, the parking garage, the buffed wide-open runs--even the signature clock tower. And it has the ambition. New owners have a grandiose master plan that began last summer with $5 million in improvements. In the works are a new base lodge, a year-round summit restaurant, and a revamping of the village. For all its Vailness, Stratton is not without edge: Snowboarding was invented here by former bartender Jake Burton; his disciples cover the mountain, providing a welcome undercurrent of scruffiness.

Unsung Runs: After a snowfall, scout out Upper Middlebrook, an underskied, curvaceous black-diamond run off the summit. Duck Soup, tucked in at the right of the Mid-Mountain Lodge, is a great narrow roller missed by most skiers.

R&R: At the base lodge, start at the Bear's Den, where entertainment ranges from the oom-pahing Stratton Mountain Boys to top regional rock bands. Then head to Mulligan's in the village for folk rock and nachos. Dancing at the Red Fox, four miles away, gets going after 9 P.M.

Where to Bunk: The Stratton Mountain Inn (doubles, $69- $179; 800-777-1700) is a full-service, 125-room hotel at the base village. Its sister property, the Stratton Village Lodge (doubles with kitchenettes, $79-$239; 800-777-1700), is the only ski-in/ski-out facility. Birkenhaus (doubles, $145-$175; 802-297-2000) is a cozy Austrian lodge within walking distance of lifts; some rooms have bunkbeds. Johnny Seesaw's (doubles, $42-$52 per person, breakfast included; 802-824-5533), about ten miles from the lifts in Peru, has 22 lodge rooms and cottages with fireplaces.

Local Wisdom: For advanced-level lessons, skip the clamor of the main base area and go to the small ski-school branch at Sun Bowl; few people know that many of Stratton's top instructors are stationed there.

Stratton Stats:
Elevation: 3,875 feet
Vertical drop: 2,003 feet
Trails: 28 percent advanced, 38 percent intermediate, 34 percent beginner
Average annual snowfall: 180 inches
Lifts: One six-passenger detachable chair, one gondola, eight fixed chairs, two surface lifts
Lift tickets: $43
Information and reservations: 800-787-2886

Ludlow, Vermont

The Big Picture: This popular area in southern Vermont is relentlessly pleasant, from its clusters of ski-in/ski-out condos to its new summit lodge and wide, fluffed-and-buffed ski trails. Okemo caters to a well-heeled suburban New York crowd that seems to be looking harder for ways to use the Jacuzzi than for grueling physical challenges. Until last season, they wouldn't have found much of anything more intimidating than an out-of-whack hot-tub thermostat. But the opening of the South Face area added several truly steep runs and helped Okemo earn respect among those who had it pegged as an intermediate's mountain.

Unsung Runs: Try Dream Weaver, an undulating upper-intermediate trail on the South Face with great views of the surrounding mountains. Look also for Double Diamond, a gladed trail that draws less traffic than neighboring Outrage.

R&R: For dancing, Sitting Bull Lounge at the base lodge is the newest and hottest night spot; try Savannah's at the bottom of the access road for rock, blues, and reggae.

Where to Bunk: The slopeside Winterplace condominiums, some of which are ski-in/ski-out, have an indoor pool and Jacuzzi (doubles, $235-$385; 800-786-5366). The Best Western Ludlow Colonial motel (doubles, $47-$175; 802-228-8188) is on the resort's shuttle route. The historic Winchester Inn (doubles, $49-$125, breakfast included; 800-228-9451), also in Ludlow, has 15 rooms and serves the best breakfast in town.

Local Wisdom: If you're staying off the mountain, leave your car where it is and take Okemo's village shuttle. It'll drop you right at the ticket booth, sparing you the schlepp from the parking lot to the base lodge.

Okemo Stats:
Elevation: 3,300 feet
Vertical Drop: 2,150 feet
Average annual snowfall: 154 inches
Trails: 25 percent expert, 50 percent intermediate, 25 percent beginner
Lifts: Two high-speed quads, eight fixed chairs, two surface lifts
Lift tickets: $45
Information: 802-228-4041
Reservations: 800-786-5366

Killington, Vermont

The Big Picture: This sprawling six-peak area in central Vermont is the East's largest and hardest-partying resort. While most ski areas are tripping over themselves in pursuit of the keep-it-clean family market, Killington has steadfastly maintained its vertical-chomping, mogul-bashing, beer-chugging gestalt. But don't get the impression that families aren't welcome. There's good child care, great instruction, and plenty of easy terrain. If you want to experience the essence of this resort, first watch the bumpers on Outer Limits and then check out the bumpers-and-grinders at one of Killington's 60-plus bars.

Unsung Runs: Cut last season, Vertigo, a little-known Skye Peak double-black-diamond trail, is steep, narrow, and only occasionally groomed. Swirl is a skinny, old-time New England trail on Ramshead full of S-curves and funky pitches. Make it your first run after a snowfall. And set to open this season: more than 100 acres of tree-skiing terrain.

R&R: Here's the drill: Start at either the Bear Mountain Deli at the base of Bear Mountain (the deck is the place to be on sunny afternoons) or Mahogany Ridge at the Killington Base Lodge. Then head down Killington Road to choose among dancing at the Wobbly Barn, conversation at Charity's, or $1 drafts at Pepper's.

Where to Bunk: Killington's finest hotel is The Inn of the Six Mountains (doubles, $89-$229, including breakfast; 800-228-4676), just minutes from the main base area, with 103 rooms and an indoor lap pool; The Summit Lodge (doubles, $45-$80, including breakfast; 802-422-3535), two miles from the mountain, is on the shuttle route and has a skating pond. Mountain Meadows Lodge (doubles, $65 per person, including breakfast and dinner; 800-370-4567), four miles from Killington, has large rooms (some of which can sleep six) and a ski-touring center with 40 miles of trails.

Local Wisdom: Avoid the mob scene at the main base area by parking at the new Skyeship base station where, on weekends and holidays, the new, heated gondola opens a half-hour earlier than other lifts.

Killington Stats:
Elevation: 4,241 feet
Vertical: 3,150 feet
Average annual snowfall: 252 inches
Trails: 30 percent advanced, 20 percent intermediate, 50 percent beginner
Lifts: One gondola, two high-speed quads, 14 fixed chairlifts, two surface lifts
Lift tickets: $36
Information and reservations: 800-621-6867

Warren, Vermont

The Big Picture: Things are looking up for this two-mountain resort in northern Vermont. The place has been dripping potential since 1979, when Sugarbush acquired neighboring resort Glen Ellen. Now, thanks to an infusion of capital by new owner Les Otten of Sunday River, the two mountains, known as Sugarbush South and North, will at last be connected by a lift. This means that skiers will no longer have to choose between South's challenging trails and North's cruisers. Also in the works: a major boost in snowmaking capability and the replacement of several creaky lifts with seven new ones, including four high-speed quads. With Waitsfield (one of New England's most sophisticated ski towns) just down the road, a glamorous, Euro-tinged past, and some of the best terrain in Vermont, Sugarbush has always had passionate fans willing to overlook its flaws. Love may not have to be blind much longer.

Unsung Runs: When there's plenty of natural snow, you can't beat Rumble, a snaky, old-time expert trail that runs through the woods just to the left of Lift Line. Intermediates should scope out Moonshine, an underskied roller sandwiched between the Valley House and Spring Fling chairs.

R&R: In the evening, Waitsfield's hot corner will keep you hopping between the Mad Mountain Tavern and Gallagher's. Both are big, barnlike dance joints that jump from lift-closing until 2 A.M. If you don't feel like driving into town, the Back Room in Sugarbush village is a good call for late-night music and dancing.

Where to Bunk: The elegant, 46-room Sugarbush Inn (doubles, $69-$117 per person, breakfast included; 800-537-8427) serves afternoon tea, grants guests access to two fitness centers, and provides lift tickets and a free shuttle to the ski area, a half-mile away. Lareau Farm Country Inn (doubles, $60-$125, breakfast included; 800-833-0766), in a restored 1832 Greek revival farmhouse, has 13 rooms (some with shared bath) and comes complete with antiques, sleigh rides, and country breakfasts. Madbush Falls Country Lodge (doubles, $55-$65; 802-496-5557) is a classic ski lodge five miles from both mountains.

Local Wisdom: On powder days, hit Castlerock first, and then head over to the underskied Poma lift on North Lynx Peak. Ski there until about 11, then try Sugarbush North, where you'll find untracked snow for most of the afternoon.

Sugarbush Stats:
Elevation: 4,135 feet
Vertical drop: 2,650 feet
Average annual snowfall: 260 inches
Trails: 28 percent advanced, 49 percent intermediate, 23 percent beginner
Lifts: Four high-speed quads, ten fixed chairs, four surface lifts
Lift tickets: $42
Information: 802-583-2381
Reservations: 800-537-8427

Waitsfield, Vermont

The Big Picture: This idiosyncratic area in one of Vermont's prettiest valleys runs a 46-year-old single chair as a primary lift, scorns grooming and snowmaking, and operates under the philosophy that, above all else, skiing should build character. To be sure, a lot of characters have been built here, including 67-year-old Betsy Pratt, who after 23 years of ownership is now selling the area to a co-op of 1,000 Mad River disciples. You'll find some of New England's steepest, nastiest, narrowest trails here--in addition to some of its most fanatical skiers.

Unsung Runs: Things don't go unsung at Mad River. Ask anyone in the lift line what's good and you'll get a dissertation--maybe even an escort.

R&R: Well, you could go home, hang your socks by the fire, and watch them steam. Or you could stop by the Inn at the Mad River Barn or the Hideaway to sit around and complain about the state of the sport. If you want to hear some music and don't mind mingling with the Sugarbush glitterati, venture a few miles down the road to Waitsfield.

Where to Bunk: Tucker Hill Lodge (doubles, $60-$155, some meals included; 800-543-7841) is a sophisticated country inn about four miles away. Just two miles from the ski area, the Inn at the Mad River Barn (doubles, $60-$124, breakfast and dinner included; 800-631-0466), run by the ubiquitous Betsy Pratt, has a steambath and spacious rooms. The Hideaway Inn (doubles, $49-$89; 802-496-2322) is a rustic 14-room lodge close to the mountain.

Local Wisdom: Get up early for the Milk Run (use your season pass or buy your ticket the day before). The first 25 people who show up at dawn with the ski patrol can ride up the single chair.

Mad River Stats:
Elevation: 3,600 feet
Vertical drop: 2,000 feet
Average annual snowfall: 200 inches
Trails: 40 percent advanced, 40 percent intermediate, 20 percent beginner
Lifts: Four fixed chairs
Lift tickets: $26
Information and reservations: 802-496-3551

Stowe, Vermont

The Big Picture: Stowe doesn't win any prizes for slickness or efficiency, yet it remains one of the East's biggest draws. From its painted clapboard village to its worn, frat-housey base lodge and mythically steep Front Four trails, Stowe instills in visitors what other resorts will never manufacture: a genuine joie de winter.

Even the heavily developed six-mile road that connects the town of Stowe to Mt. Mansfield is somehow appealing, with its hodgepodge of inns, ski shops, and restaurants--all bordered by some of New England's best nordic skiing trails. Stowe is the kind of place where, even if you haven't been on a sled in years, you'll find yourself eyeing a virgin white hillside and wondering where you can scrounge up a toboggan.

Unsung Runs: Every summer, a group of vigilante Stowe skiers gets out chainsaws and goes to work on, among others, a 62-year-old trail called The Bruce--the first run ever cut on Mount Mansfield. No longer a part of Stowe's system, this twisty, narrow, expert trail offers sublime backcountry skiing and a chance to relive history. How to find it? Be very, very nice to a local.

R&R: Night skiing has dramatically altered the après timetable. Miguel's on the Mountain, a Mexican restaurant/bar in the new Midway Lodge, kicks up around 3:30 P.M. and doesn't fade until closing time at 10. Down the mountain road is The Matterhorn, a noisy, Jell-O shot kind of place jammed with ski instructors taking advantage of their discount. For a more subdued crowd, try The Shed, also on the mountain road, rebuilt recently after a devastating fire to include a microbrewery.

Where to Bunk: The only slopeside lodging is at The Inn at the Mountain (doubles, $100- $170; 800-253-4754), a hotel and condominium complex that's a chairlift ride away from the main ski area. A few miles off the access road is Edson Hill Manor (doubles, $100-160; 802-253-7371), which has inn-style rooms, some with fireplaces, on 27 miles of ski-touring trails.

Local Wisdom: Nearly every morning one lift opens at 7:30 (instead of 8); call the snow report (802-253-3600) the night before to find out which one.

Stowe Stats:
Elevation: 3,660 feet
Vertical drop: 2,360 feet
Average annual snowfall: 250 inches
Trails: 23 percent advanced, 58 percent intermediate, 19 percent beginner
Lifts: One gondola, one high-speed quad, six fixed chairs, two surface lifts
Lift tickets: $43
Information: 802-253-3000
Reservations: 800-247-8693

Waterville Valley, New Hampshire

The Big Picture: Just two and a half hours from Boston, Waterville attracts families that enjoy feeling safely ensconced in a private, self-contained club. The resort's centerpiece is Town Square, a manufactured New England "village" a mile from the base area that's saved from potential creepiness by the existence of a wonderful, refrigerated skating rink in an open-sided barn. Though Mount Tecumseh is steep enough to have hosted several World Cup races, it's primarily an intermediate's mountain. A separate novice hill, renamed Snow's Mountain Park, was converted this season exclusively for snowboarding on weekends and holidays. Recently purchased by the group that owns Killington, Waterville has invested more than $1 million in upgrading its terrain and snowmaking systems.

Unsung Runs: Ciao, a steep, groomed expert trail, has nearly the same fall line as the heavily used True Grit--without the under-the-lift exhibitionist factor. Tyler, Too, off the North Side double chair, is a Waterville standard but worth checking out for its new manageable mogul field for intermediates.

R&R: Stop in at the World Cup Bar & Grill on the third floor of the base lodge to listen to folk guitar and watch the day's last stragglers come down the hill. Later, there's a younger crowd at Legends 1291, a cavelike dance club in the Town Square.

Where to Bunk: The Golden Eagle Lodge (doubles $89-$199; 800-910-4499) has 139 deluxe suites with panoramic views. The Snowy Owl Lodge (doubles, $139-$169; 800-766-9969) has 83 rooms (many with Jacuzzis) and a game room. Both properties offer guests free midweek access to the resort's sports center. The Campton Inn (doubles, $50-$70; 603-726-4449) is a farm-style bed-and-breakfast ten miles from the ski area.

Local Wisdom: Don't worry about bringing along a nonalpine skier. Waterville has ice skating, 69 miles of nordic trails, and a sports center with a pool and track, as well as tennis, racquetball, and squash courts.

Waterville Valley Stats:
Elevation: 3,835 feet
Vertical drop: 2,020 feet
Average annual snowfall: 134 inches
Trails: 20 percent advanced, 60 percent intermediate, 20 percent beginner
Lifts: One high-speed quad, eight fixed chairs, four surface lifts
Lift tickets: $43
Information: 603-236-8311
Reservations: 800-468-2553

Mt. Washington Valley, New Hampshire

The Big Picture: The most modern and least quirky of the four ski areas in Mount Washington Valley, Attitash was also purchased by Les Otten last year. Improvements kicked in as soon as the deal was sealed. Last season the new Bear Peak area was opened; this year, Otten purchased Cranmore, the country's oldest ski area, ten miles away. Intermediate skiers love the area's lack of pretense, commitment to snowmaking and grooming, huge choice of accommodations, stirring vistas of the Presidential Range, and proximity to dozens of outlet stores in nearby North Conway. Lift tickets are also honored at Sunday River, about 90 minutes away.

Unsung Runs: Wilfred's Gawm, reopened two seasons ago after years of lying fallow, is a fast cruiser often missed by the masses, conditioned over the years to head left off the Summit triple chair (Wilfred's is the only trail on the right). White Horse is another underskied trail: From its flanks you'll get the area's best views of Mount Washington.

R&R: For a lot of Attitash skiers, après means downing a hot chocolate at Ptarmigan's Pub in the base lodge, then heading back to the condo to put on the pasta water. But you can find dancing and general mayhem at the Red Parka Pub in Glen. If you're staying in North Conway, you'll wind up eventually at Horsefeather's bar.

Where to Bunk: On the mountain, Attitash Mountain Village (doubles, $85-$109; 800-862-1600) has motel rooms and one- to three-bedroom condominiums, some with Jacuzzis, and an outdoor skating rink. Two miles east in Glen there's the Bernerhof Inn (doubles $69- $139, breakfast included; 800-548-8007), with nine antique-filled rooms and one of the area's best dining rooms. Also in Glen is a basic motel, Will's Inn (doubles, $35-$75; 800-233-6780).

Local Wisdom: Don't forget your yellow-lensed goggles: Because its trails face north and northeast, Attitash is notoriously dark. You'll get the best light if you start your day on Bear Peak and then work your way over to Attitash.

Attitash Stats:
Elevation: 2,300 feet
Vertical drop: 1,750 feet
Average annual snowfall:100 inches
Trails: 25 percent advanced, 50 percent intermediate, 25 percent beginner
Lifts: Two high-speed quads, 11 fixed chairs, one surface lift
Lift tickets: $39
Information: 603-374-2368
Reservations: 800-223-7669

Bethel, Maine

The Big Picture: Fifteen years of aggressive expansion by wunderkind owner Les Otten has transformed this once-sleepy locals area in western Maine into the quintessential nineties mega-resort: Now there are hundreds of slopeside condos, a vast network of logically laid out supertrails, a slick base hotel, and the requisite microbrewery. This season the area will unveil "Oz," its eighth peak, and continue transforming a Victorian train station into a retail and hotel complex in nearby Bethel. The skiing here is mostly advanced intermediate; the few notable exceptions include two new double black-diamond thrillers: White Heat on Whitecap Mountain and Caramba in the new Jordan Bowl. Watch for continued growth: Otten owns another 7,000 acres of prime ski terrain adjacent to the Jordan Bowl--which could more than double the giant resort's size.

Unsung Runs: Wildfire, off Lift 9, is an intermediate cruiser often overlooked by skiers automatically heading for the popular Cascades. Experts should scout out Crossbow--ungroomed, uncruisable, unsunny, but unbeatable just after a storm.

R&R: It's a toss-up between the Sunday River Brewing Company at the base of the access road, where you can drink Pyrite Golden and listen to a regional rock band, or the Suds Pub at the Sudbury Inn in Bethel, a wood-paneled tavern where the music is bluesy and the pizza is surprisingly good. Locals prefer the no-frills Backstage, where they can work the area's only pool table.

Where to Bunk: In the base village, the deluxe, 230-room Summit Hotel has its own health club (doubles, $109-$310; 800-543-2754). The Snow Cap Lodge and Ski Dorm is an on-mountain ski dorm (bunks, $25-$35; 207-824-7669). The Sudbury Inn (doubles, $75-$185, breakfast included; 207-824-2174), on Bethel's historic main street, is a restored Victorian house.

Local Wisdom: You want untracked two days after a storm? Ski Last Tango. But instead of staying mostly in the center or on the right with everyone else, watch for your opportunity to duck left about 200 yards down the trail: The cache is in there.

Sunday River Stats:
Elevation: 3,140 feet
Vertical drop: 2,340 feet
Average annual snowfall: 150 inches
Trails: 38 percent advanced, 36 percent intermediate, 26 percent beginner
Lifts: Three high-speed quads, ten fixed chairs, two surface lifts
Information: 207-824-3000
Reservations: 800-543-2754

Carrabassett Valley, Maine

The Big Picture: This hulking, 4,237-foot, dome-shaped mountain in the heart of northwestern Maine's timber country has managed to combine superb skiing and a cosmopolitan base village without losing its unique, edge-of-the-world appeal. That pumps Bostonians up during the sometimes arduous four-hour drive--and brings families back year after year. Purchased in 1994 by the group that owns chief rival Killington, Sugarloaf is in the midst of a multimillion dollar, five-year improvement plan that calls for new lifts and enhanced snowmaking--and that will double the size of the base village.

Unsung Runs: Off the King Pine lift is Rip Saw, a narrow, curvy expert run in the uncrowded King Pine Bowl that relies entirely on natural snow. Cruise for more than a mile on the uncrowded West Mountain trail, but not after 3:30 P.M. if you parked elsewhere--you could end up having to take a shuttle back to the base village.

R&R: The Bag is a no-nonsense bar where ski instructors and locals gather to recap the day. The Widowmaker is a rowdier scene, where live bands warm up the crowd day and night. Both are in the base village complex. In the evening take a shuttle bus to the new Sugarloaf Brewing Company, a restaurant and brew-pub. Wednesday is reggae night, an odd but important tradition here in rural Maine.

Where to Bunk: The base village Sugarloaf Mountain Hotel (doubles, $99-$175; 800-527-9879) has 120 deluxe rooms, including one- to three-bedroom suites with kitchens ($160-$245). For budget slopeside rooms, check out the Sugarloaf Inn Skiers Quarters (doubles, $89-$112, including a ski lesson and use of the health club; 800-843-5623), bare-bones motel rooms downstairs at the Sugarloaf Inn. The Lumberjack Lodge (rooms, $32-$104 depending on the number of people; 207-237-2141), at the foot of the access road, has one-bedroom chalet-style apartments that can sleep up to eight people.

Local Wisdom: Get a jump on the crowds by parking at the under-utilized West Mountain chair (take a right off the access road and follow signs for the golf course), then ride the lift up to Bullwinkle's mid-mountain restaurant for breakfast.

Sugarloaf Stats:
Elevation: 4,237 feet
Vertical drop: 2,820 feet
Average annual snowfall: 172 inches
Trails: 40 percent advanced, 32 percent intermediate, 28 percent beginner
Lifts: One gondola, one high-speed quad, 11 fixed chairs, one surface lift
Lift tickets: $40
Information: 207-237-2000
Reservations: 800-843-5623

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