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A ski trip for two to Washington state

By K.C. Summers
Friday, November 26, 2010; 3:05 PM

Who: Scott Jones, 36, and Kelly Koeninger, 26, of Charlotte

Where: Seattle or Vancouver

Why: Ski vacation

When: February for six or seven days

Budget: $1,000 per person

"We're interested in skiing, dining, maybe a day of shopping or spa-ing. Would really prefer a ski resort with some type of military discount."

Scott Jones, a lawyer who's also a captain in the Marine Corps Reserve, has a business trip to Seattle in February, and he and his girlfriend would like to get in some skiing while they're out West, preferably in Washington state or the Vancouver area. Because they'd like to keep costs down, they're hoping to find a ski resort and mid-price lodgings that offer military discounts.

My first inclination was to send the couple to Whistler Blackcomb, two hours north of Vancouver. After all, how could any skiers worth their bindings go all the way to the Pacific Northwest and not visit North America's holy grail of high-alpine sports? With one vertical mile and 8,100 acres of skiable terrain, 12 alpine bowls and 200 trails, plus glacier skiing and heli-skiing, plus a European-style village with renowned apres-ski and night life, it's one of the top resorts on the continent. And all this just a four-to-five-hour drive from downtown Seattle.

Still, Whistler is expensive. We're talking $1,400 for a three-night package that includes lodging, lift tickets and equipment rental but not food or transportation. And there are no military discounts to ease the sting.

Which leads us back to Washington state, and the realization that sometimes the solution to a problem is right under your nose. When easterners think about western U.S. skiing, everyone's so busy raving about Colorado, Utah and Wyoming that poor Washington gets short shrift. But the Evergreen State has a variety of places worth checking out, and most are located in national parks or forests, with majestic views of the surrounding mountains and trees. And some of the best areas are within a couple of hours of Seattle.

You can't beat the proximity, but how's the skiing? "World class," said Ski magazine's Mark Lesh, citing Crystal Mountain, Mount Baker, Stevens Pass and Snoqualmie as particularly enticing. "They're big mountains with real terrain and lots of history, and they get a ton of snow when it's not raining."

Ah yes, rain: the bane of Pacific Northwest skiing. But that applies to Whistler as well. In this neck of the woods, you buys your lift tickets and you takes your chances.

So here's the plan: Settle in Seattle, rent a car and take day trips to sample what area mountains have to offer. You'll be right in with the locals when you do. Seattle residents, says Heather Bryant of the city's convention and visitors bureau, mostly take day trips to ski. "We don't do the whole resort thing," she said. "We drive up to ski, then come back to the city for dinner."

Your best ski options, all with military discounts:

Crystal Mountain (360-663-2265, www.skicrystal.com ). Driving time from Seattle: two hours. Located in Mount Rainier National Park, it's the largest ski area in the state, with 2,600 acres, 3,100 feet of vertical and 50 main runs. Average snowfall: 367 inches. Daily lift tickets are $65 for chairs, $73 for chair-gondola combo. Military prices: $55 and $63.

Mount Baker (360-734-6771, www.mtbaker.us ). Driving time from Seattle: 2.5 hours. In a rugged wilderness setting on the side of an active volcano, it gets the most snow of anywhere in the state: a whopping 650 inches. Stats: 1,000 acres, 1,500 vertical feet. Lift tickets are $43 on weekdays, $49.50 on weekends. Military prices: $38 and $44.50.

Stevens Pass (206-812-4510, www.stevenspass.com ). Two hours from Seattle in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie and Wenatchee national forests, it's known for its big snow and diverse terrain. Average snowfall: 450 inches. Stats: 1,800 vertical feet, 1,125 acres, 37 major runs. Daily lift tickets: $60, $55 and $40. Military discount: $12 off weekday passes, $7 off weekend rates.

The Summit at Snoqualmie (425-434-7669, www.summitatsnoqualmie.com ). Less than an hour from Seattle in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, it's a popular spot, with three base mountains, 1,981 acres and 2,280 vertical feet. Average snowfall: 435 inches. Daily lift tickets are $58 full day, $50 afternoons, $39 night, $62 epic (9 a.m. to close). Military prices: $44 epic, $29 night. There's also a Military Appreciation Day on Feb. 5 and a Military Appreciation Weekend March 18-20, with discounts on tickets, rentals, lessons, tubing and more.

Getting there. At press time, round-trip airfares from Charlotte to Seattle were running from $218 for connecting flights (United, one stop) to $427 (US Airways, nonstop). Washington prices were a little higher: $239 (Continental from BWI Marshall, one stop) to $369 (Continental and United from Washington Dulles, Alaska from Reagan National, all nonstop). Since you have some time before you need to book, watch for sales and sign up for e-mail alerts from Airfare Watchdog, Bing, FareCompare, Kayak or similar sites.

Where to stay. Most major hotel chains, including Marriott, Hilton, Choice, Best Western and InterContinental, offer discounts to military personnel, but do the math before you book. For example, when I priced a room at the Best Western Pioneer Square - an awesome location, by the way, and the rates include free Internet - the military rate on the hotel's Web site for a double room was $159 a night. The best-available rate, however - open to anyone - was $140. Meanwhile, over on Priceline, the same room was going for $119. Moral: Shop around.

Your real deals will be at B&Bs, and a few even offer military discounts. At the Inn of Twin Gables, a 1915 Arts and Crafts-style home in the eclectic Queen Anne neighborhood just north of downtown, rooms start at $100 per night on weekdays, $110 on weekends, and there's a 10 percent military discount. The inn is furnished with period antiques and has an enclosed sun porch for morning coffee and sunset viewing (866-466-3979, www.innoftwingables.com ). Over in the leafy Capitol Hill neighborhood, at the Seattle Hill House, a 1903 Victorian, the deals are even better: Members of the military pay the lowest rate ($59 or $69 per night), then get bumped up to the best room available at no extra charge (866-417-4455, seattlehillhouse.com ). Another good reason to stay in a B&B: The tax rate is 9.5 percent, compared with 16.2 percent at Seattle hotels.

Where to eat. Seattle's a great dining town: Think urban, fresh fish, water views. Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema is partial to the legendary Elliott's Oyster House on Pier 56, with its weekday happy hour starting at 3 p.m. A few other top-rated places to try: Andaluca (tapas), Crush (new American), Nishino (sushi), Elemental@Gasworks (seasonal and organic) and Ray's Boathouse (seafood). And don't forget the famous Pike Place Market, where Matt's in the Market is known for its fresh seafood and casual fine dining.

Cost. To stay within your budget, you'll have to take connecting flights. Round-trip air for two from Charlotte to Seattle, with one stop, will run about $436. Lodging at a B&B for six nights with a military discount will start at about $400. Car rental for six days: about $200 for a mid-price vehicle on Priceline.com. Lift tickets average $100 a day for two. If you ski for four days, you'll be up to about $1,425. That leaves about $575 for food, gas, attractions and incidentals. It's doable, but I'd budget a little extra to do the city's restaurants justice.

Interested in having us help plan your trip? Go to washingtonpost.com/goingourway.

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