Eyes are barely open, feet hardly moving in the 5 o'clock dark of a Sunday morning at Montgomery Mall. There, looming in the empty parking lot, is a long, gray bus, motor purring, windows fogged with inner heat. Somnolent passengers, stowing skis and boots in its giant underbelly, drift on board.
If you hate pre-dawn risings, you won't be crazy about excursions like this: a one-day bus trip to a ski slope. Most skiers aren't; between 85 and 95 percent of them drive their own cars to the slopes. But, with gasoline prices easing on by $1.10 a gallon and occasional gas lines a grim reminder of crises past and future, it may be time to look into alternative ways of getting to the slopes.
When you go by chartered bus, the price is right, the pickup points fairly convenient, and the amenities modestly attractive.
For $18 to $28 you travel the 1 1/2 to three hours to Wintergreen in Virginia, or Ski Liberty or Ski Roundtop in Pennsylvania, in a motor coach with reclining seats and a restroom. Depending on who's running the trip, you can be picked up at Montgomery Mall, Columbia Island Marina (GW Parkway near the 14th Street bridge), 4040 28th Street in Arlington, the Oakton Shopping Center (Alpine Ski Shop) in Oakton, Virginia, or 1725 Elton Road (the Ski Chalet) in Silver Spring.
Buses go directly to the foot of the slopes. You arrive with your lift ticket, included in the price of the trip, stapled to your parka's zipper tab. You're out on the slopes early enough for plenty of runs before the crowds hit, at noon or a little before.
Day-trip buses leave half an hour after the lifts close -- time enough to grab a bite and then sleep off the day's weariness on the way home.
The handful of companies and clubs offering day trips to local slopes also have two-and three-day weekend bus trips to Wintergreen; Blue Knob and Seven Springs in Pennsylvania; Killington, Stowe and Sugarbush in Vermont; and Snowshoe in West Virginia. Weekend prices per person -- which include double-occupancy lodging, meals, lift tickets and transportation -- are in the $100 range, give or take $20.
"People are really looking at the price of gas and signing up for bus trips," says Tanya, of Recreational Adventures. The Vermont trips are a particular draw, she adds, because "There's not only the gas saving, but less worry about snow conditions on the road -- a big bus can get through just about any weather conditions."
Bus isn't the only way to go without gas worries. Trains whistle their way through snowbound winter nights, depositing you near the slopes the next morning. Amtrak's "Montrealer," with a lively and sometimes boisterous lounge car bringing up the rear, pulls out of Union Station at 6:10 every evening, stopping at Brattleboro, Vermont (access to Mount Snow), at 4:10 a.m. and at White River Junction (on the border of Vermont and New Hampshire) at 5:10 a.m. Arrival time at Waterbury, Vermont -- gateway to Sugarbush, Stowe and Bolton Valley -- is at a more civilized 7:28 a.m. Round-trip coach fare to Waterbury is $106, but there are a limited number of seats at excursion rates: the five-day excursion fare is $65 and the 40-day excursion is $85.
Those who book overnight accomodations through Amtrak's package plans ("Pick of the Peak" tours), get a 35 percent discount on the rail fare.
Amtrak also has service, if you want to call it that, to slopes closer to home. You need a sense of adventure and a love of travel at odd times, but you can get to Wisp at Deep Creek Lake in Maryland aboard Amtrak's "Shenandoah," which pulls out of Union Station at 6:25 p.m. and into Oakland, about 15 minutes from Wisp, at 11:10 p.m. So far, so good. Your problems are on the return trip, when the train whistles into Oakland from Cincinnati at 3:53 a.m. Arrival time in Washington, if you're planning to go straight to work, couldn't be better: 9 a.m. A round-trip ticket to Oakland is $41.
The Cardinal" goes to Clifton Forge, Virginia, half an hour from Hot Springs and the Homestead's tame but recently elongated ski slopes. Unfortunately, arrival time is 2:12 a.m. and though the train ride is only $34 round trip, the linousine transfer to Hot Springs is almost as much as a day at the posh resort.
Stay on board, though, and the "Cardinal" goes on to White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia (round-trip fare $43), arriving at the little station outside the gates of the Greenbrier at 3:08 a.m. From there, it's an hour-and-a-half limousine ride to Snowshoe. If you stay at the Greenbrier, the hotel will arrange for round-trip limousine service to the slopes for the day. Don't expect bargain fares.