December 30 2013 at 04:00pm By Irwin Curtin
Vermon - Along with a strengthening sun climbing higher in the sky each day, there’s often an unmistakable melancholy in the air at a ski resort in the early spring, with the season winding down and the melting snow exposing grass, mud or weeds on the trails.
That melancholy is particularly noticeable midweek, when base lodges and villages, shops and restaurants are eerily deserted or closed, and it’s not unusual for just a few hundred (or fewer) skiers and snowboarders to be riding the chairlifts, even at a destination as popular as Stratton Mountain.
Last April 1, a Monday, melancholy bordered on misery at the southern Vermont resort. But not on account of the snow, which was more than 1m deep – February deep – and covered the trails from edge to edge, with not a blade of grass, a patch of mud or a single weed visible. A strong wind drove the intermittent rain horizontally, stinging exposed skin, and after a few preceding days of 10°C temperatures, the trails were soft, slushy and ungroomed – hard work and not much fun for most skiers, me included.
But with temperatures dropping on Tuesday, the sun appearing periodically through fast-scudding clouds, and the snow firmed up and groomed, misery left the house, and even the late-season melancholy lifted a bit.
And Wednesday, as spectacular a finale to my long ski season as I might have scripted anywhere: a wintry-feeling day with temperatures at -6°C beneath a cloudless cobalt sky, groomed packed powder, just a few score skiers and snowboarders on the hill, and empty chairlifts.
And what a pleasurable hill Stratton is, a cruiser’s paradise with its high-speed lifts, its impeccable grooming and the wide, scenic trails that encourage big, fast turns.
Of all New England’s ski resorts, Stratton may just have the most pronounced split personality.
For well-heeled baby boomers from New York City’s tony suburbs in Westchester County and Fairfield County, Conneticut, the resort offers perfectly groomed trails (“corduroy”, in the ski world); fast, modern lifts; fine dining and upscale shopping in a compact, pedestrian village; renowned ski and snowboarding instruction and family programmes; and numerous ski-in, ski-out lodging options, many luxurious.
For their children and grandchildren, it tempts with a lively bar, aprs-ski and live-music scene, and one of the East’s best terrain parks. No surprise, that. Stratton, after all, is where Jake Burton tooled his earliest snowboard prototypes in the basement of the Birkenhaus hotel, when he wasn’t upstairs working as a bartender. Stratton was one of the first major US ski resorts to allow snowboarding and for many years played host to snowboarding’s US Open competition.
Stratton offers 610 vertical metres of skiing and riding from its 1 180m summit, the highest in the southern portion of Vermont’s Green Mountains. The resort’s average annual snowfall is 4.5m and snowmaking covers 93 percent of its 243 skiable hectares.
There are 97 trails, glades (totaling nearly 60ha) and terrain parks served by 11 lifts, including a high-speed base-to-summit gondola and four six-passenger chairs. Forty-two percent of the terrain is rated beginner, 31 percent intermediate and 27 percent advanced, though there’s little truly challenging terrain for experts – which the resort tacitly acknowledges by using “advanced” rather than the more common “expert” to categorise its toughest trails.
I spent my days skiing trails, nearly all top-to-bottom black diamonds, that I’ve enjoyed cruising on many visits to Stratton since my first in the early 1980s: Upper and Lower Liftline, Upper and Lower Standard, North American, Upper Tamarack. All encourage dozens of rhythmic and speedy turns on the way down.
For the 2013-14 season, the resort has invested $6 million in improvements to snowmaking, lodging, on-mountain dining and eateries.
Lodging options, all within walking distance or a short shuttle ride to the lifts, range from the Liftline Lodge and the newly remodeled Stratton Inn – now the Black Bear Lodge – to spacious, well-appointed condominiums, including the five-bedroom, five-bath Penthouse with a private lift. I stayed in a comfortable condo in the Long Trail House, a 10-minute walk through the village to the lifts, with a sauna, a heated year-round pool and hot tubs, and free heated underground parking.
Among the non-ski or snowboard activities available are moonlight snowshoe treks, snowmobile tours, ice skating beneath the stars, snowtubing and dog-sled rides.
Stratton’s strong Austrian flavour predates its friendliness to snowboarding. When the resort opened in 1961, co-founder Frank Snyder hired Austrian Emo Henrich as the ski school director. Henrich, in turn, hired many fellow Austrians as instructors, people who loved the sport and its mountain lifestyle. Many of them opened the fledgling resort’s first inns and lodges (Henrich’s was the Birkenhaus) or persuaded relatives and friends to journey from Austria’s Alps to do so. In many cases, their descendants continue to own or run those properties.
That emphasis on the mountain lifestyle also is evidenced by the Stratton Mountain School, a racing academy for grades 7-12 that opened in 1972 in a small hotel across the parking lot from the mountain. Now with a 4ha campus at the resort, the school has produced more than 36 US Olympic Alpine and Nordic racers and snowboard competitors, and more than 93 national team members in those disciplines.
The roster of A-list snowboarders who got their start at Stratton includes Lindsey Jacobellis, a seven-time Winter X Games champion and silver medallist in snowboard cross at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. Ross Powers, who won bronze at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan – the first games to include snowboarding – and gold in 2002 in Salt Lake City, runs the school’s snowboard programme.
The village is home to Stratton’s Activity Hub, a great resource for families. The Hub is an insider’s guide to everything southern Vermont has to offer, from unique winter adventures and tours to off-mountain restaurants and outlet shopping in nearby Manchester.
(www.stratton.com) offers a wide variety of lodging choices throughout the resort: hotels, lodges, rental condos in the heart of the village and secluded single-family homes.
This two-building, 141-unit condominium, a 10-minute walk from the lifts, offers rental studios and one- to three-bedroom units. Rates from $165 (R1 650) per night.
The 125-room inn, a short shuttle ride from the lifts, has been completely remodelled for the 2013-14 season. Rates from $84.
Skillfully prepared Japanese appetizers, fresh sashimi, sushi and rolls ($6-$20), and Vermont-brewed and Japanese beers, sake and wine.
Excellent Italian food, about a 20-minute drive from Stratton Mountain. Entrees $10 to $26.
Lift tickets: adult one day, $90 weekends and holidays, $79 weekdays; young adult (13-17), $78 and $69; junior (7-12), $68 and $61; child (up to 6), $5 and $5; senior (65-69), $78 and $69; super senior (70-plus), $68 and $61. Multi-day discounts available. Lift hours: weekends and holidays, 8.30am to 4pm; weekdays, 9am to 4pm.