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Back to Basics on the Slopes

For a long time, the ski scene has been dominated by sprawling and pricey resorts like Vail, Colorado, Nevada's Squaw Valley or Sunday River in Maine. But for a growing number of people, these resorts are just too big. Turned-off by acres of parking lots and exorbitant ticket prices, many skiers and snow boarders are now seeking out -- and finding -- a stash of smaller areas where the atmosphere is laid-back and the tickets reasonably priced. The Savvy Traveler's Pippin Ross set off to find some of them.

Back to Basics on the Slopes
by Pippin Ross

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Customer: "We want to snowboard."

Shop Worker: "A snowboard would be $33."

The packed ski rental shop at Bolton Valley Ski Area in Bolton, Vermont.


Hamilton: "Alright...put your foot in there, honey. That's a boy. You know, this isn't a precise fitting like an adult but it doesn't really matter..."

To manage the unexpected crush of skiers who've come to the small, 35-year-old resort to celebrate New Year's Eve, owner Ned Hamilton pitches in to service a long line of skiers looking for rentals.

Hamilton: "And now were going to get you a little, teeny little pair of skis."

Mother: "But they'll go fast. Joe. You want fast skis, Joe?"

A year ago, Hamilton and a group of local investors bought the struggling 5,000 acre resort. Hamilton says he made the $6 million investment partly for sentimental reasons: Bolton Valley is where he taught his kids to ski and largely to profit from the growing preference among families to ski at smaller, more affordable areas.

Hamilton: "Yeah, I think that's really the future of skiing as a sport. It seems like everybody we talk to who has children feels so, so good about the way it's laid out. It's a little village in the mountains and yeah, it's pretty neat. It's my little Shangri-La here."

Hamilton is convinced that courteous service and good value are what will turn Bolton Valley into a Shangri-La for skiers as well.

One idea he's already borrowed from Utah's luxurious Deer Valley resort is hosts -- people who greet arriving skiers at their cars and help them lug their gear.

If the season goes well, Hamilton also plans to reduce Bolton's $39 a day lift ticket, which is already a bargain compared to the $49 to $59 a day prices at Vermont's larger resorts. Skier Lenore Bruno figures every time her family skis at Bolton, they're saving the equivalent of one ticket elsewhere.

deer valley

Bruno: "We've saved a lot, yes, family of five? In fact we were just commenting coming up here how many ski lift tickets we've saved."

Bruno is among a growing population of skiers who prefer more intimate places where it's almost impossible to lose your kids. While the number of ski areas in the U.S. has declined slightly over the past decade, the number of skiers has increased. National Ski Areas Association Spokeswoman Stacy Gardner says the areas experiencing the greatest volume of skiers are smaller hills in unexpected places like New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania and the Carolinas.

Gardner: "Y'know, parents are looking for activities to spend time with their children, and skiing is such a great way of spending the day with them, so I think a lot of people are going back to the areas close to where they live to introduce their kids to skiing and snowboarding."

The trend toward more family-friendly, less expensive skiing recently inspired Ski Magazine to dedicate a monthly column to the topic called "hometown hills". Editor Greg Trinker says if his readers are any indication, big, glitzy ski areas are out, but amenities are still in.


Trinker: "Skiers want their high speed lifts, they want some decent food on the mountain, they want access, they want easy parking. It's not like they want to hike up like grandpa did with their leather boots and ski down and then hike up again and ski down. They want to be comfortable, but they want it to be simpler. They're looking for authenticity...really is the buzz word right now..

Prime examples of more purist skiing, says Tinker, are Utah's Alta Mountain and Vermont's Mad River Glen. Canada's deep snow and low exchange rate of the past couple years has lured legions of U.S. skiers to areas such as Quebec's Mont Sainte Anne, a mid-sized, intermediate mountain just minutes from old Quebec City. Even the glitziest mega-mountains, like Vail, are hoping to cash in on this burgeoning back-to-basics crowd. The area has recently dropped its ticket prices by ten dollars and opened new terrain where there's no grooming, no artificial snow, no cafeterias...just skiing.

So how do you find the small resort of your dreams if it's not in your backyard? Again, Greg Trinker.

Trinker: "A lot of these funkier, smaller places tend to be commuter resorts. They tend to ring the metro area and you drive to them. As far as the smaller destination resorts where people travel to, just talk to anyone who's skied for a while. These are the best kept secrets in skiing.

Trinker also advises using the Internet and, of course, reading magazines. But still, the small resort isn't for everyone. Some skiers say it's the difference between going to a small college versus a huge university: there are advantages and disadvantages to both. And as most skiing families discover, once a certain level of competency kicks in, there's no bigger thrill than navigating the expanse of a giant resort.

I'm Pippin Ross for The Savvy Traveler.


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