Winter Ski Issue
Vermont in Your Back Yard?
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.