The first major snowstorm of the season blanketed northern New England this week, a Christmas present for ski areas that have been struggling to open on limited slopes and machine-made snow. As usual, Vermont's snowbelt got the best helping; New Hampshire also did well.

The snow started falling on Christmas Eve and continued through Christmas night. Most of Vermont's major resorts received 22 to 32 inches by Monday niht. Then, on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning Vermont's resorts received an additional three to five inches. The same back-to-back storms dumped nine to 18 inches of snow on New Hampshire's major resorts.

Joe Parkinson, a Vermont ski-industry representative, sees the snow as the foundation of a good sees the snow as the foundation of a good season. "Right now I'm just hoping for cold weather, which will let this snow get packed down while it's good and dry," he says. "Then we'll have a good base that will last us the season." Wednesday, Vermont and New Hampshire temperatures were in the 20s, and the forecast through mid-January was for colder than normal.

If you're planning a New England ski vacation, here are a few recommendations. First, assume the crowds will be heaviest until the middle of next week, when public schools resume. Most colleges should resume by the following Monday, though weekends will still be crowded.For the early part of next week and on weekends, I'd ski cross-country or try the slightly smaller (1,300 to 1,700 feet vertical drop), non-"destination" resorts that attract fewer multiday vacationers but still have good lift capacities of over 3,500 people per hour. In Vermont, they are: Bolton Valley (3,800 people/hour), Haystack (4,300 p/h), Magic Mountain (3,650 p/h), Mount Ascutney (4,750 p/h), Okemo (8,000 p/h), and Pico Peak (8,400 p/h). In New Hampshire they are: Attitash (5,000 p/h), Gunstock (5,200 p/h), Mount Cranmore (5,000 p/h), Mount Sunapee (6,000 p/h) and Mount Whittier (5,000 p/h). I'd ski the larger, more famous "destination" resorts like Killington, Sugar Bush, Stowe and Waterville Valley during midweek after the middle of next week.

Second, areas in Vermont that put a ceiling on ticket sales are Magic Mountain and Smuggler's Notch. In New Hampshire they are Attitash, Loon and Tenney Mountain.

Third, the best five-day beginners' package I've heard of this year in Vermont is at Haystack Mountain near Wilmington. For$110 you get five days of lifts, lessons, lodging, meals, equipment, fondue and happy hour, ski-maintenance clinics and even races. The price is based on quad occupancy, but what's a little crowding when the temperature's cold and the liquor cheap?