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Vermont’s cozy Stowe isn’t without its skiing challenges

By Josh Noel
Chicago Tribune
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/06/23/33/vgh2n.Em.138.jpeg|316
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    Josh Noel - MCT
    Snowshoeing is an option for nonskiers at Stowe Mountain resort.

More Information

  • Know Stowe

    GETTING THERE: Stowe Mountain Lodge is about 31/2 hours by car from Boston and 51/2 from New York. You can fly into Burlington, rent a car and make the 45-minute drive to Stowe. Burlington International Airport gets direct service from the major New York airports, Philadelphia and Washington via US Airways, United, Delta and JetBlue.

    EATING: Solstice, in the lodge at the base of the mountain, offers an upscale modern American breakfast and dinner. The Cliff House ( www.stowe.com/explore/dining), near the peak of Mount Mansfield, offers daily lunch and occasional dinners throughout ski season. Quality meals sit a short drive from the mountain, including at Harrison’s ( www.harrisonsstowe.com) and Crop Bistro & Brewery ( www.cropvt.com) – both in Stowe – Michael’s on the Hill ( www.michaelsonthehill.com) in Waterbury Center, and Hen of the Wood ( www.henofthewood.com) in Waterbury.

    STAYING: Winter rates at Stowe Mountain Lodge ( www.stowe.com) range from about $259 (standard room without a kitchen) to $2,500 (four-bedroom suite). Just down the mountain, toward the town of Stowe, are other accommodations that offer shuttle service to the mountain, including the Green Mountain Inn ( www.greenmountaininn.com).

    SKIING: Stowe Mountain slopes (116 runs, mostly intermediate). One-day adult passes cost $98 at the mountain or $84 online. Details/discounts: www.stowe.com/ski-ride/lift.



STOWE, Vt. The secret to happiness is perspective, and that’s particularly true when skiing.

For instance, should you be intimately familiar with the mighty mountains of the American West, East Coast skiing might seem tame, if not short, icy and gray.

But if you haven’t skied west of Denver, Vermont will seem like the Alps.

“The blue runs here are like the black ones back home,” said Manhattanite Neal Cooper, 39, while we balanced on skis amid Stowe Mountain Resort’s snowy peaks and pines. “This is just more terrain and more challenging than what we’re used to.”

That might be why we met at an intersection of blue runs.

Cooper and his wife, Hyla, have never skied the West.

“We want to go west, but we’re afraid we'll never want to come back here,” said Hyla, 31.

That seemed like a fair concern after meeting Joe Bruno, who owns an Italian restaurant in Norwalk, Conn. Sure, Stowe is relatively close to home, less than a five-hour drive, but he had just returned from two weeks at Wolf Creek, the south-central Colorado ski area legendary for getting the most snow in that snowy state.

“I used to do 30 days a year out here, but now it’s two or three,” said Bruno, a 66-year-old snowboarder (yes, you read right). “Once I found out about the West, I gave up on the East.”

Alas, there was Bruno on a late February afternoon, wooshing across Stowe’s slopes for a simple reason: There is skiing to be had in the East, and it can be pretty good. Eastern skiing might not be Colorado or Utah, but it is an entire coast’s version of speeding downhill.

Among the most dramatic and challenging options is Stowe, 45 minutes east of Burlington, Vt., which is routinely ranked among the best Eastern ski resorts by Ski magazine. Long a mountain with minimal ski-in-and-out accommodation, Stowe added a 130-room boutique hotel in 2008. It has grown to more than 300 comfortable rooms (most with gas fireplaces), plus a spa, an outdoor heated pool, two hot tubs, restaurants, bars and, most luxuriously, a ski valet who manages a visitor’s gear between runs down the slopes.

Manageably vertical

And then there is the mountain.

Sure, there is verticality – from my room, Stowe looked awfully downhill at first glance – but it is manageable verticality. Base elevation is 1,280 feet. The highest point on the mountain that can be reached by ski lift is 3,640 feet, just below Mount Mansfield, which is Vermont’s highest peak.

Though their peaks stand at lower elevations, Easterners like to brag that their skiing is more difficult than the Western version. That’s mostly because of the ice, which usually is less like skiing on a cloud of powder and more like trying to stay alive on a sheet of ice. Easterners say that if you can ski the East, you can ski anywhere.

Before three days at Stowe, I had never skied out East. But I had been warned about it: the ice, the winds, the gray. And, indeed, on my first day the top of Stowe was swallowed in fog that one Bostonian said, in the customary accent, was “like skiing through pea soup.” Duly warned, I still headed up to a long, twisting blue run called Upper Sterling to investigate.

After a long chairlift ride through a thin, breezy snow, I was deposited at the top of the empty run, which was shrouded in bright haze. The ride down was lovely: I couldn’t see far, but every piney branch before me was frosted with snow and ice. It was like a trip through an L.L. Bean catalog.

Stowe’s runs are split into two areas on two mountains separated by a road and connected by a gondola. The one featuring Sterling is shorter, which means the next day I explored the other side, the taller one, the one I had studied from the warmth of my room. And it was a special day for East Coast skiing. In the words of one snowboarder speaking to a fellow snowboarder: “Dude! The sun is coming out! Sweet!”

I began on the long, green run know as Toll Road, which travels a meandering 3.7 miles, along the top and edge of the mountain, with frequent diversions into blue runs should you want to extend yourself a bit before reconnecting with Toll Road’s leisurely beauty. And if it’s 2 p.m. Sunday, you can pause at the Mountain Chapel, a ski-in, ski-out nondenominational house of worship, for its weekly service.

Back on the lift and heading for more challenging fare, I ascended with a bearded gentleman in black ski pants and a green windbreaker who said he lived north of Boston. He had skied plenty of the West but swore by Stowe. He had taken a three-hour bus ride early that morning to be at Stowe for the night.

“For extreme skiing, this totally compares to the West,” he said. “You can hike up to Mount Mansfield and get back in there. It’s pretty extreme. If you need to get rescued, you have to pay for it yourself.”

He nodded to our right. “See that yellowish ice?” he said, pointing to a patch of nearly vertical black rock and snow. “I was just over there.”

Before we could exchange introductions, we were off the lift, and the bearded gentleman was heading back to tempt fate further.

Yes, you can do that skiing out East too. And later that afternoon, when a storm brought a few inches of fresh, wet powder, I swore I could have even been in the West.

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