White Lines: North American Ski Resorts
For those in search of perfect North American powder, look no farther than these 10 ski resorts
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6 VAIL, COLORADO
Because of Vail's scale (a week is just enough time to scratch the surface), knowing how to get around is the key to getting the most out of the resort experience. The whole mountain has more than 4,600 acres of skiable terrain, and visitors can choose to ski at any of Vail's other mountains: Beaver Creek, Arrowhead and Bachelor's Gulch.
Vail gets a bad rap for limited expert terrain. This is not true: you just have to know where to look. The main mountain has a front and back side, which are very different. On the front, tons of green and blue runs abound, with the blacks and double blacks hidden in the glades in the center of the mountain, off the ridge under the main chair to mid-mountain, and in the far northeastern bowl.
The back bowls--the bread and butter of the resort-- are justifiably famous. Names like China and Siberia testify to their size. Avid skiers hit the lifts early to get over the top, and spend the day in the powder of the back bowls, where a handful of blue runs are mixed with dozens of blacks.
Vail's secret identity lies down the road at Beaver Creek, its sister resort. This upscale village presents a prissy picture, but Beaver Creek contains some of the most difficult terrain. The moguls on the Birds of Prey runs--Golden Eagle, Peregrine and Goshawk--are extremely challenging. Nearby Grouse Mountain, one of Beaver Creek's three peaks, consists almost entirely of black and double-black runs. Adjoining Arrowhead and Bachelor Gulch feature more moderate terrain, a generous array of exclusively beginner and intermediate terrain runs.
Planning a trip: less than two hours from Denver, Vail is one of the most accessible ski resorts in the country. Vail village is a European-style pedestrian area, with numerous shops, hotels and restaurants. The ritzy Beaver Creek is a small, pedestrian village with limited access, and the Hyatt Regency Beaver Creek is the top ski resort hotel anywhere, with seamless ski-in, ski-out valet service. Lift tickets are also honored at Keystone and Breckenridge, less than an hour away.
7 WHISTLER AND BLACKCOMB,BRITISH COLUMBIA
This twin mountain resort near Canada's west coast has been enjoying a string of record years, and is a near-perfect ski vacation destination. The planned resort village between the mountains, a guest-only pedestrian community with 200-plus shops, restaurants and hotels, has set the standard for the industry. From New England to the Sierras, resorts are racing to duplicate the village concept that was pioneered here.
Whistler and Blackcomb have the first- and second-highest vertical rise of any ski resorts on the continent, an enviable statistic. Both have abundant above-tree-line skiing, and Blackcomb's bowls lead onto a glacier, allowing skiing well into summer. Lower on the mountain are gorgeous pine glades, and most of the blue and green cruisers. Both mountains are especially appealing to less advanced skiers, since they offer easy and intermediate routes from almost everywhere. While above-tree-line skiing at most mountains consists of only black runs, Whistler and Blackcomb let novices experience the alpine environment of the bowls, a rare treat.
Unlike most multimountain resorts, the gondolas of Whistler and Blackcomb's main villages come within a hundred yards of each other, making it easy to ski both mountains in a single day. The resort has also become a snowboarding hot spot, with cachet stemming from local hero Ross Rebagliati's Olympic gold in Nagano.
With huge mountains, a stunning village, and no need to ever drive or take a bus, Whistler-Blackcomb seemingly has it all. But two weaknesses prevent this powerhouse from being higher on the list. While most ski areas are broad, set up along a ridge that allows skiers to spread out, Whistler-Blackcomb's layout is high and narrow, resulting in long lift lines. There are no lifts from top to bottom, and the entire village tries to get on a handful of base lifts. Congestion continues as you ascend. All-day skiers will be surprised to find out how much time is spent in line, as three chairs are required to reach the top of either mountain. The trail layout is far from user-friendly. It can be hard to reach particular lifts, or avoid long traverses and slow-moving trails to the base.
Weather is another sticky issue. While last season was one of the best, with lots of deep, dry powder, this cannot be counted on. Rain is a common visitor to these parts in winter, as are fog, high winds and low visibility, which can shut down the best parts of the mountain.
Planning a trip: With fair weather and rare airport delays, Vancouver is easy to get to. The drive to the resort, under two hours, however, can be treacherous. Regular bus service is available, but the best choice is Vancouver All-Terrain Adventures, which offers a fleet of winterized luxury Chevy Suburbans. The Chateau Whistler, a gem of the plush Canadian Pacific Hotel chain, is easily the standout lodging choice, with its ski-in, ski-out valet, and a full array of facilities. Don't miss dinner at the Bearfoot Bistro. Not only is this Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner by far the top eatery in town, it is probably the best restaurant at any ski area on the continent. It also has a cigar bar with an extensive cigar selection, including the rare 150th Anniversary Partagas.
8 DEER VALLEY, THE CANYONS AND PARK CITY:THE RESORTS OF PARK CITY, UTAH
Scandals aside, the selection of Salt Lake City for the 2002 Winter Olympics Games was no mistake. The area combines great mountains with the best snow on earth. Easy access to Salt Lake City, plus the full-service offerings of Park City, means a complete complement of hotels, condos, restaurants and nightlife. Park City, like Telluride, is an old mining town turned ski Mecca. It is linked to its three ski areas by an efficient free bus system. The typical ski week at Park City will consist of all three resorts, and perhaps a day trip to Snowbird or Alta. For intermediate skiers, the 3,300-acre Park City ski resort is a treasure, its large areas consisting of nothing but adjacent blue runs and taking all the guesswork out of map reading. While these mountains are tall, there is no above-tree-line skiing. Four high-speed six-passenger chairs make getting up and around a breeze.
Deer Valley enjoys a reputation as the nation's most upscale ski area, with a knowledgeable staff, fine dining and high-end lodging. What is less well known is its excellent skiing, including new back bowls that offer expert skiers steep, rocky chutes. Deer Valley even prints an experts-only trail map, including some terrain excluded from the regular map. These sort of little touches--like the free driers in booths at the top of the lifts where cold skiers can dry hats and gloves between runs--permeate the resort. If there is a mountain for every skier, it is Deer Valley. The grooming is superb, and beginners and intermediates can enjoy their skiing secure in the knowledge that unexpected ice or ruts will not be encountered. Snowboarding is not allowed.
The 3,300-acre Canyons, Utah's newest resort, has six front-to-back peaks, and most of the trails run laterally off steep ridge lines, resulting in sheltered trails that retain lots of powder. Once you choose an area, you can ride the same lift over and over, taking different adjacent trails on each run. The heart of the expert section, for example, has seven parallel double-black diamond runs off one side and an equal complement of single blacks on the other--a full day of skiing from one lift.
Planning a trip: Park City is 40 minutes from Salt Lake. Most large hotels in Salt Lake offer shuttles, so some visitors stay in town and commute to the slopes. Park City offers a ski-town experience with a wide selection of lodging, dining and shopping.
9 SUNDAY RIVER, MAINE
The mountains of the East are smaller than their western brethren and do not get as much snow. To make up for Mother Nature's shortcomings, Sunday River uses the most extensive snow-making system in the Northeast, guaranteeing what are usually the East's best conditions. Slightly farther off the radar screens of skiers from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut than the mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire, Sunday River offers something those mountains cannot: uncrowded slopes and short lift lines.
Sunday River is a sprawling resort, set along eight adjacent peaks, and boasts the best glade skiing in the east, with an entire peak, Oz, devoted to trees. Beginner and intermediate skiers will feel at home on the many wide-open slopes and the long cruisers from top to bottom, while experts will ski Oz or head to White Heat, the longest, steepest mogul run east of the Mississippi.
Planning a trip: Non-skiing amenities are still in their infancy here, offering limited options for lodging and dining, but lots of condos are available. The closest airports are Portland, Maine, just over an hour away, and Boston, three hours away.
10 SUGARBUSH, VERMONT
Old meets new at a resort that captures the spirit of early New England skiing, while providing state-of-the-art, high-speed quad lifts and man-made snow-making operations. Sugarbush has the best natural terrain in the state, and packs a lot of skiing onto a small mountain. The resort consists of two distinct mountains, once called North and South, but now known as Mt. Ellen and Lincoln Peak. Skiers used to have to choose between the two, but a chairlift now links them. Still, most advanced skiers rarely leave Lincoln Peak.
Castle Rock is the upper face of Lincoln Peak, a mountain within a mountain. This area is frozen in time, accessed by a barely moving double chair and blanketed by ungroomed and all-natural snow. Many Vermont curmudgeons believe that science spoils skiing, and at least at Castle Rock, they have persevered. The trails here are steep, narrow and twisting, and definitely for better skiers.
The rest of the mountain is no slouch, with some great glades, which are not well marked and require exploration, and the steep, narrow mogul runs for which Sugarbush is famous. While mogul runs at other Eastern resorts tend to be long, straight and wide, à la Sunday River's White Heat or Killington, Vermont's Outer Limits, these are curving, thin and, when a coat of Vermont ice develops on them, next to impossible to ski. But when the sun is out and the snow is soft, the bumps are great, as are the views, easily the best in the state.
The lower half of Lincoln Peak has lots of easier terrain, but intermediates and beginners should head instead for Mt. Ellen, which generally has less intimidating trails. When the resort gets crowded, and lift lines develop, experts can sneak over to Ellen and find plenty of challenge on the steep bumps that cover the upper portion of the mountain.
Planning a trip: Sugarbush has some lodging and dining along its access road, most notably the resort-owned Sugarbush Inn. For ski-in, ski-out convenience, the plethora of condos are the only choice. The town of Waitsfield, just minutes from the slopes, is pure New England bliss, with Colonial buildings, small inns and restaurants. This is where most visitors stay. The closest airport is in Burlington, Vermont, half an hour away.
Vermont-based Larry Olmsted previously wrote about heli-skiing for Cigar Aficionado.
THE POWDER LIST
For die-hard skiers, the quality of the skiing is what matters most, but some people consider other factors in planning the perfect ski vacation. Many resorts excel in ways not reflected in the quantity or quality of their terrain. If more than skiing is important to you, consider the following
BEST NIGHTLIFE/DINING: 1. Aspen 2.Whistler-Blackcomb 3. Vail
BEST SKI HOTELS: 1. Hyatt Regency Beaver Creek 2. TIE: Little Nell, Aspen; St. Regis, Aspen; The Peaks at Telluride 5. Chateau Whistler, Whistler-Blackcomb
BEST RESORTS FOR TOTAL CONVENIENCE: 1. Whistler-Blackcomb 2. Telluride 3. Vail and Beaver Creek
SHORTEST LIFT LINES: 1. Jackson Hole and Grand Targhee 2. Telluride 3. Alta 4. Sunday River 5. Aspen
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