I had been disdainful of New England for so long that my friend's midwinter phone call caught me off guard.
She was in dire need of a downhill ski weekend. Vail, her usual hangout, was simply too far away for a quick trip. Would I like to join her at a resort up north instead?
It was time to overcome my phobia about alpine skiing in New England. "Okay, but let's go somewhere neither of us have skied, so the nightmares of yesteryear don't interfere with the present," I replied. "Someplace with reasonably wide slopes, for starters. And I won't go if the temperature drops below 10 degrees."
Like so many Easterners who are lucky enough to ski the Rockies each year, I am a Western ski snob. My anti-New England attitude stems (or should I say stem-christies?) from the fact that I learned to ski in the 1960s in Vermont under the worst possible conditions. My memories of Stratton, Bromley, Killington are filled with Austrian-bully instructors yelling at me in the rain, with cars failing to start on arctic mornings, with ski edges filed razor-sharp to cut into the blue ice the New Englanders call snow. One especially awful picture has me boarding a lift at freezing Killington before the area had a gondola, when the lift operators threw a blanket at you to keep you alive until you reached the top.
The first time I skied the Rockies, the temperature was 40 degrees. There was fresh powder -- two inches of it. The sun was shining. "So ... this is what skiing is all about!" I marveled, squinting like a miner who had spent too much time underground. I never returned to Eastern slopes.
My rediscovery of New England winters began in southern Vermont some years back, thanks to cross-country skiing. Gliding through the woods and pastures, working up a good sweat on even zero-degree days, hearing birds warble and trees creak in the silence opened my eyes to the genteel beauty of the winter environment. I grew fond of the undulating, heavily forested Green Mountains, so different from the stark peaks of the Rockies. By avoiding the huge, anthill-like downhill areas, I could participate in a new kind of skiing and at the same time savor the Grandma Moses symmetry of Vermont farm country.
A favorite spot was Hildene, just outside Manchester, Vt., once the estate of Robert Todd Lincoln, eldest son of the Great Emancipator. One of Hildene's most popular trails is Spook Run, which takes you through an old cemetery. There are people buried there who worshipped in Vermont's white-spired churches and helped create a new nation long before white folks even knew Colorado existed. "Tradition" is not merely a promotional word in New England; it is 200-year-old headstones and popovers for breakfast at a homey old house like the Inn at Manchester.
Nevertheless, snob that I was, I refused to believe that alpine skiing in New England could be bearable ... let alone fun. Now, I had nothing to lose; it was not a wonderful Western snow year, while the Northeast was having its snowiest season in decades.
Waterville Valley was our destination. It is in central New Hampshire, foreign territory for both of us. The area is only 20 years old, and reputed to have wide, Western-type slopes. Better yet, there were buses to ferry us to and from the lifts, so we would not have to worry about the car starting. As a precaution, I did pack down gloves, boot warmers and a face mask.
The first surprise was the fast, inexpensive flight from La Guardia to Manchester, N.H. An hour of flying, another hour of driving, and there we were. The journey was a far cry from the daylong trek to Aspen, or the seven-hour drives to Vermont from New York in the bad old days.
The first morning a brilliant sun in a cobalt sky greeted us as we stepped outside the Snowy Owl, a thoroughly modern inn complete with bathtubs that doubled as Jacuzzis. "Mmmphf," I grumbled. "Maybe I could learn to like New England, after all."
Then again, maybe not. The thermometer read in the 20s. Why, then, was everyone so bundled up? No one bothered to tell us about the howling winds that whipped through this valley regularly. Nor did Joanne, a guide who accompanied us up to our first run, succeed in convincing us that the white crust under our skis was snow. "See? Packed powder," she declared, jabbing her ski pole through the surface of what, to our eyes, was very hard "hardpack."
ZZZZ ... crunch. That familiar sound -- like a rolling handsaw slicing through pizza -- accompanied my first tentative turns through the crust. The swirls of wind-driven snow above us on the mountain's peak looked like a "Wide World of Sports" film clip of Everest. I imagined Old Man Winter blowing a tornado at us through the oval O of his cartoon mouth. Something else was familiar: the glint of pure ice ahead of me.
"There are pluses here, not just minuses," insisted my friend, as we rode another lift. "The skiers are better here than out West. The only person skiing out of control just now was me."
Indeed, these Easterners, mostly from the Boston area, were tough and uncomplaining as they carved big S-turns around us. Of course, it was hard for them to complain audibly, with those big neck gaiters pulled up their nostrils. Pretty soon, both my friend and I had visited the base shop for gaiter-aid ourselves.
The lift from which we departed was named Sunnyside. "What a joke," I muttered, looking up at a sun that seemed to be radiating cold, not heat. I chewed on my new gaiter as we skiied off toward Gema, a black diamond trail which I expected would be a frighteningly narrow dark mine shaft. Here was the next surprise -- it was bright, gentle and wide, as advertised. The only thing hairy about the run was the wool of the gaiter sticking to my lips.
The mountain itself seemed almost junior-sized, compared with giants like Snowbird and Jackson Hole, and inviting in a way that the dark, vertical slopes of Stratton or Stowe were not. Lift lines were reasonable, because of Waterville's policy of limiting ticket sales.
However, the condos and inns in Waterville Valley could have been located at Ski Anywhere, lacking any particular ambiance. We decided to look for an atmospheric inn for dinner.
And we found one -- the Manor on Golden Pond, a half-hour away, an early 19th-century house on a hill with antique furniture, leaded windows and lace curtains. In fact, it was located on Squam Lake, which was the setting for the movie "On Golden Pond." I expected Katharine Hepburn to saunter in at any moment. The food and service was quite civilized. As my friend remarked later, "There's plenty of New England the minute you get out of the ski valley."
The next morning was considerably warmer, the snow lighter. Mighty Joe Jung, the ski school director, guided us down several new trails. He was born in Austria, so I was on my guard. Another surprise! He was a charming fellow, emphasizing that his philosophy was "not to be rigid about styles of skiing -- we do everything for the customers to make them comfortable." Half the skiers on the mountain shouted hello as he passed. One of them was Ethel Kennedy.
Even more folks greeted Tom Corcoran, the resort's owner, whom we met at Schwinde Hutte, Waterville's mountaintop restaurant, for lunch. "Have the lobster bisque -- it's a specialty," urged his wife, Daphne, who requested more sherry in her bowl. "When I cooked up here, we put a lot more sherry in it," she explained. The owner's wife supervising the food? Waterville was beginning to feel like a cozy, family-run hill, in contrast to the impersonality of some corporation-owned resorts.
Afterward, Tom introduced us to Tippecanoe, a remarkably well-carpeted intermediate run. On this particular day, with little wind, Waterville slopes were genuinely soft. How could conditions have improved so much overnight, I wondered. "We're snow farmers here," Tom said. Eastern ski resorts, he continued, had become experts in grooming artificial snow, after suffering through too many poor snow years.
By the end of the weekend, discarding our neck gaiters, my friend and I agreed that there were indeed worthwhile runs in New England. But the best ones, for me, still turned out to be cross-country, rather than alpine, trails.
I left Waterville for a cross-country visit to Jackson, in the upper tier of the White Mountains near the Maine border. There, New England's pleasantly old-fashioned, rural ways became palpable. You reach the tiny town by driving across a covered bridge. Far from the din of downhillers and new condos, Jackson is quintessential Yankee territory.
"We don't try to duplicate Colorado's hot tubs and stuff. We have an archetypal New England image -- the Bob Newhart show plus a world-class touring facility," Thom Perkins, director of the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation, told me.
He was right. Jackson calls itself the Vail of cross-country skiing because it is immense. But that is the only similarity. Everything at Jackson -- from the prices to the tiny trail markers -- is understated. At the same time, they use state-of-the-art grooming machines to farm snow here, making perfect tracks while crushing icy patches and smoothing them over into a lovely, easy-riding surface. The 146-kilometer network of trails fans out across every conceivable kind of Eastern terrain -- through meadows and over hills, beside winding streams and deep into woodsy back country.
My first morning, slivers of February sunlight sliced through the forest surrounding the Ellis River Trail as Jane, a rosy-cheeked Jackson "ambassador," and I snapped on our skinny skis. "This is probably the most popular trail we have," she remarked. But it was empty! (Jackson actually sells more than a thousand tickets on a good Saturday, but the skiers are so spread out you never know they are there.)
Soon, Jane and I tuned into silence. We skied side by side wordlessly for a few kilometers, climbing the gentle uphill portions by stepping in herringbone patterns, then letting gravity pull us through the downhill cruises. The rhythmic whoosh of arms and legs began to feel almost like waltzing on snow. No matter that it was frosty. Within minutes my back was damp with perspiration and my legs tingled.
I rewarded myself with a delicious caloric lunch at the Wildcat Tavern, a folksy spot directly opposite the Touring Foundation office and rental shop on Main Street. Then, since many trails snake right past numerous hotels, small inns and bed-and-breakfast places, I went exploring. Each inn I skied to had its own character. On the Christmas Farm Trail, an intermediate run, there was the Eagle Mountain House, a stunningly restored Victorian Hotel, and the Christmas Farm Inn, a casual, family-oriented place. A few miles up the road was the Inn at Thorn Hill, a small, romantic inn catering to couples. Owned by Patti and Bob Guindon, Thorn Hill specializes in elaborately cooked dinners and baseball talk in a tiny lounge decorated with memorabilia from Bob's days in the Red Sox organization. From Thorn Hill a roller-coaster series of trails leads to Whitneys' Village Inn, another family-style hotel specializing in children's activities.
I stayed overnight at the Bernerhof in Glen, a few miles down the road from Jackson, where the specialty is gourmet food. The Swiss cuisine, including such entrees as Delft Blue Provimi Veal, attracts a full complement of diners every night. My sun-splashed room, featuring a four-poster bed and almost-antique furnishings, cost a fat $35 a night (shared bath) including breakfast.
Whatever "traditional New England" is supposed to connote, the Jackson area was it -- sophisticated yet thrifty, downsized yet uncrowded. My warm feelings continued the next day. I meandered on skis to Halls, a 12-kilometer trail that belonged in a Robert Frost poem. Enveloped by thick forest on both sides, this trail climbed to the crest of Popple Mountain. There, at a small clearing, I peered northward and caught a glimpse of what I believe was Mount Washington, the highest peak in the East.
The White Mountains had never looked more pristine in their coat of evergreen and white. Winter air had never seemed so intoxicating. Nor had I ever experienced a runner's high to match the exhilaration that washed over me as I turned back toward Jackson.
After hating its weather and pooh-poohing its snow for all those years, I was learning, at last, to love New England. For more information about skiing in New Hampshire and Vermont, contact the state and area tourism offices:
New England Vacation Center, 630 Fifth Ave., Rockefeller Center, Concourse Shop No. 2, New York, N.Y. 10111, 1-212-307-5780.
New Hampshire Vacation Center, Box 856, Concord, N.H. 03301, 1-603-271-2343.
Vermont Travel Division, 134 State St., Montpelier, Vt. 05602, 1-802-828-3236.
Grace Lichtenstein is coauthor of "Sonny Bloch's Inside Real Estate: The Complete Guide to Buying and Selling Your House, Co-op or Condominium."