Snowshoe is like a family with not much money but consummate taste and elegance.
The ski area in Slatyfork, W. Va., has been teetering on the brink of bankruptcy for two or three years. Last year it was in receivership and run by a court-appointed manager who had no funds and little understanding of the special needs of the area.
This year developer Tom Brigham is back running the place, courtesy of a West Virginia businessman who sold a few of his coal mines to get the upwards of $2 million needed to keep Snowshoe going.
Snowshoe is good skiing, with a vertical drop of 1,500 feet, an average of 15 feet of natural snow each winter and 11 slopes and trails ranging from the shallow, protected beginner and intermediate slopes in the bowl to the challenging, 7,500-foot Cup Run on the exposed side of the mountain.
The problem is that Snowshoe is too far away from everything. It is 240 miles from Washington but it might as well be Vail. The route is extremely difficult - I have heard Washingtonians say they made it in 5 1/2 hours, but they had to be speeding or exaggerating. The roads are mostly mountainous and usually snow-covered.
The other problem is that accommodations are limited. The original executive offices have been turned into a rough dormitory and the staff housing at the bottom of the mountain has been converted to rental efficiency and one-bedroom apartments, but if you don't get a bunk at the mountain, you have to take your chances with guest houses or motels in Elkins, 47 miles away.
I did the trip the only civilized way, going by Amtrak to White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., on the train with the Greenbrier car that leaves Union Station every Friday at 5:20 p.m. It was a pleasant five-hour ride. The booze and snacks are free, but bring your own dinner - the junk they serve on the train is really bad. At Greenbrier a limousine whisked us across the road to the beautiful resort. Room service fortified us before bedtime.
You can rent a car or share a bus or share a bus with other skiers for the 1 1/2-hour ride to Snowshoe.
I stayed overnight in Snowshoe to allow for a full day of skiing at least one day, but going back and forth to the Greenbrier is not terribly tedious and can make a ski vacation quite unusual, combining the facilities at the two places. The Amtrak train coming back leaves White Sulphur Springs at the unearthly hour of 7:30 a.m., but otherwise is worth the ride.
At Snowshoe, the food is not your run-of-the-hill ski area food. The hamburgers are made on a fast-food line taken right from your local McDonald's. Even the equipment is much the same. The hot food line has its regular offerings - like pizza made from a lightly soured yeast dough that is at once chewy and light, with a sauce made from fresh tomatoes - and its daily specials, like barbecued short ribs with a sauce that starts in a stock pot that has been simmering all week.
The area serves three meals a day, incidently, so if you are stuck in a guest house nearby without meals you won't have to depend on a peanut butter sandwich in your knapsack for dinner. In fact, the facility is divided into a table-service restaurant and a regular cafeteria for dinner, so you have your choice of meals and service.
The ski rental shop (skis, boots and poles are $8 a day weekends) is fast and efficient, although when the area is filled to capacity they ofen run out of popular sizes.
Because Snowshoe is an upsidedown mountain with the lodge and access at the top, getting to the slopes from the lodge is easy, you won't find yourself shuffling on skis for what seems like miles to get to your favorite run.
Lift tickets at Sownshoe are $10 weekends. The ski school, run by Walter Hundt and staffed by young and enthusiastic instructors (the one I skied with was good; I can't vouch for the rest of them as not one of them is P.S.I.A. certified) gives class lessons twice a day at $6 for two hours. They teach GLM.
For me, the ideal way to go to Snowshoe would be as part of a driving trip to West Virginia, with a three-day stop at the ski area and a few days somewhere else - preferably the Greenbrier.
Whatever, Snowshoe rivals our northern neighbors - including New England - in the amount and texture of the snow, in the appearance of the area, in the willingness of the staff to help and, to some degree, in the mountain itself.
For information about conditions, call Snowshoe at 304 - 799-6633.