Winter Ski Issue

Vermont in Your Back Yard?

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By Ben Abramson
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 5, 2004

Stop. Put down the keys and back away from the car. Suppose I told you that you could get to one of the best ski areas in the eastern United States in about the same time it takes to drive to some vertically challenged hill in the mid-Atlantic? On a budget, no less?

Stowe, Vt., and Washington's fortuitous new status as a low-fare airline hub make it possible. Scenic Stowe is just 40 miles from Burlington's airport, which is only a 90-minute flight from Dulles (and cheaper than ever, thanks to Independence Air). With a wide range of lodging and dining options, a trip to Stowe can be done on a shoestring -- or a splurge, if you prefer.

And if convenience isn't enough, Stowe offers a ski vacation without compromises, with a picturesque and amenity-laden town in the shadow of a challenging resort straddling Vermont's highest peak, Mount Mansfield.

From first sight, the town of Stowe appears as Central Casting New England. The requisite shimmering white church spire stands amid snow-capped mountains, and a brook flows beside the town's stoplight-free crossroads. There isn't a fast food restaurant or chain store in sight, and even the gas station is hidden amid a handsome 18th-century brick building.

Stowe's hotels, resorts, shops and restaurants are clustered along the intersection of Routes 100 and 108 and continue along the mountain road (Route 108). Stowe Mountain Resort, the resort's official title, sits eight miles above the town. (Smuggler's Notch ski resort is on the other side of the mountain, but the road to it is impassable in winter.)

One of the oldest ski resorts in the United States (the first alpine trail was cut in 1933), Stowe isn't large by western standards (485 skiable acres, compared with more than 5,000 at Vail), but the variety of terrain provides choices for all skill levels. The wide groomed runs under the gondola will keep the cruisers happy; the so-called "Front Four," the toughest runs on Mount Mansfield, offer expert challenges; and beginners and lower-level intermediates have a whole area, the sparsely populated Spruce Peak, all to themselves.

The term "fall line" (the path a marble would take if you rolled it down the mountain) is an overused ski cliche, but on several trails at Stowe it applies perfectly. The Nose Dive, Centerline and Hayride runs offer a twisting, turning roller coaster ride, narrow enough to keep you careful but just wide enough to blaze. Lord and North Slope are similar, albeit less challenging.

The Front Four is the name given to the most difficult runs on Mount Mansfield. Of the quartet, Liftline is the easiest -- strong intermediates who can handle bumps and ungroomed snow will be able to find a way down. Goat is steep and bumpy, but earns its double black diamond status from being so narrow that any wipeout puts you precariously close to an immovable object. National is hairy at the top, but the slope mellows mid-mountain. Starr is the most intimidating of them all -- a 37-degree pitch, never groomed, with gargantuan troughs and moguls.

The area under the gondola features some fun cruising trails -- Perry Merrill and Gondolier -- and a few choice places to step into the trees. On brutal weather days the gondola is the main attraction, with its covered heated ride to the top being worth the tradeoff in terrain. This area also offers night skiing, but it takes a pretty hardy soul to stay out after dark on a Vermont winter evening.

Weather and conditions, as with all eastern resorts, are variable. You'll almost certainly encounter wind and cold, but the slopes seem less icy than those of other northern locales I've skied. And the old New England adage certainly applies here: I've gone from a gentle rain in town to a whiteout on the mountain to a glorious mix of sun and powder in the span of an hour.

Stowe also attracts a pretty high caliber of skier: Ski magazine conducts new product reviews here, the resort hosts several competitive events, and even the locals with duct-tape-repaired ski clothes bomb down the mountain.

Currently there's only one ski-in, ski-out hotel at the resort's base, but a mini-construction boom is underway, with a 10-year plan to add lodging, condominiums and retail. Until then, facilities are pretty spartan.

But with a town like Stowe beckoning below, you'll hardly mind the 15-minute drive to a choice apres-ski venue. Dining options range from the classic ski town's dive-bar-with-a-band to Ye Olde Colonial-style eateries to yuppie-fusion fine dining. Lodging options are similarly broad, ranging from basic motels to luxury spa resorts to historic inns.

There are also plenty of diversions for a day off the mountain. The Ben & Jerry's ice cream factory in nearby Waterbury offers tours and tastings. Montpelier, the pretty state capital, is about 25 minutes away and makes a great lunchtime destination. And Stowe itself is flush with shopping, offering a bevy of antiques shops and galleries, plus some handmade furniture stores that will have you contemplating bigger-ticket purchases than you ever imagined.

Stowe also makes a good base for a multi-resort Vermont ski safari. It's less than an hour's drive from the town to Smuggler's Notch (famous for its family-friendly service), Mad River Glen (with its hard-core reputation and infamous single chairlift) and Jay Peak.

As for the aforementioned convenience, how's this for the last day of a ski vacation: Dutch pancakes for breakfast at 8 a.m.; a full day of skiing or boarding; a 6:30 p.m. flight home; in bed, sans jet lag (and already pondering a trip back), by 10.

Ben Abramson last wrote for Travel about Internet map sites.

Details: Stowe, Vt.

GETTING THERE: Stowe is less than 40 miles northeast of Burlington, Vt. Independence Air offers six flights daily between Dulles and Burlington. Unrestricted fares start at $70 each way, or $160 round trip, with occasional fare sales dropping to $59 one way. United and US Airways, the only other airlines that serve Burlington nonstop, frequently match these fares. Last-minute Web specials can run as low as $103 round trip. Car rentals in the Burlington airport start at $25 a day economy, and with Vermont's effective plowing, you shouldn't need an SUV.

WHERE TO STAY: The Golden Eagle Resort (511 Mountain Rd., 800-626-1010, www.goldeneagleresort.com) offers comfortable motel-style accommodations with an indoor pool and extensive recreational facilities. Doubles start at $99 per night. The Green Mountain Inn (18 Main St., 800-253-7302, www.gminn.com), a charmer on the National Register of Historic Places, offers doubles with lift tickets from $216 per person for a two-night stay; room only starts at $129.

The upscale Stoweflake Mountain Resort & Spa (1746 Mountain Rd., 800-253-2232, www.stoweflake.com) features luxury accommodations and a full-service spa; doubles start at $160; for ski and stay, rates start at $265 per night for two (two-night minimum). "Sound of Music" aficionados will gravitate to the Trapp Family Lodge (42 Trapp Hill Rd., 800-826-7000, www.trappfamily.com), an Austrian-themed resort started by the iconic family. Room rates start at $198 double.

WHERE TO EAT: The Dutch Pancake Cafe and Pub in the Grey Fox Inn (990 Mountain Rd.) features a delicious and decadent European version of a pancake with varieties that can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Prices from $5 to $15. McCarthy's Restaurant (2043 Mountain Rd.) is a bustling breakfast spot where you'd be hard-pressed to spend more than $10. The Shed (1859 Mountain Rd.) is a classic ski-town eatery with its own microbrews and a burger, steak and seafood menu; entrees from $7 to $20. The Whip, in the Green Mountain Inn, serves American classics in a handsome wood-paneled dining room. Entrees range from $10 to $25 and include several veggie-friendly options.

LIFT TICKETS: Full-day lift tickets are $65 for adults ($67 on holidays). Multi-day passes offer discounts off the daily rate.

INFORMATION: Stowe Mountain Resort, 800-253-4754, www.stowe.com. Town of Stowe, 877-GOSTOWE, www.gostowe.com.

-- Ben Abramson


© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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