Skiing: Carving a course across the Atlantic

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Most skiers want to reach the slopes as quickly as possible and stay there for as long as they can. So why is it that North American resorts, involving long-haul flights and big time differences, are becoming increasingly popular? Cathy Packe has some answers.

The mountains of the US began to gain in popularity a decade ago, as a dependable alternative when good snow in Europe was patchy. Once there, it is easy to see advantages. The snow is reliable, but if it doesn't arrive naturally, artificial snow is readily available. This ensures a much longer skiing season than in Europe. Also, many Americans construct their holidays piecemeal, instead of buying a package, making accommodation more flexible.

In winter it is possible to find a day's skiing almost anywhere in the northern half of North America. But the serious ski slopes are concentrated in five main areas. The best known may be the Rockies - the American states of Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Utah - but the most popular destinations for British skiers are the Canadian Rocky Mountain resorts of Whistler and Banff. California has also become popular, encouraged by the increase in non-stop flights to Los Angeles and San Francisco. On the east coast, the resorts of Vermont and New Hampshire offer a more cosy atmosphere than the Wild West towns of Colorado, although the climate can be icy. And the fastest growing area, challenging New England in its accessibility from Europe, is the state of Quebec and its largest resort, Mont Tremblant.

The main reason for the popularity of the Canadian Rockies - apart from the strength of the pound against the Canadian dollar - is accessibility. Banff and Whistler can be reached by direct scheduled flights to Calgary and Vancouver respectively, and this winter Britannia has introduced a twice-weekly charter to Vancouver. Direct flights confer a big advantage when weather conditions are difficult.

Many of the holidays on offer have some element of flexibility. Some are tailor-made. Neilson is one of several operators to allow a ski package to be booked without any flights at all, which means that you can add a few days' skiing to a business trip or a visit to friends. Others allow a city stopover, Boston and Vancouver being among the most popular choices; and some offer two-centre holidays, combining a Canadian and an American resort. Crystal allows you to drive between Quebec and New England, or to fly between Rocky Mountain resorts. Virgin Ski offers a combination of skiing and a completely different activity: Tall Buildings and Tall Mountains, for example, takes in Boston and the New Hampshire resorts. And for the first time, Ski the American Dream is offering add-on holidays from Denver to Hawaii, Florida, Arizona and Mexico.

Ski safaris, which offer skiing in several resorts in the course of the same holiday, are being promoted in Canada by various operators. Ski Independence's five safaris depart on specified dates and allow the participants, who need to be to be skiers of at least intermediate level, to ski up to nine different areas during the 15-day trip.

Not only are there more flights to Canada this year; more Canadian resorts are available to package tourists. Frontier Ski and Ski Safari are both offering holidays in Fernie, a small resort well known in British Columbia, but so far more or less untouched by the international market.

As the Canadian market continues to expand, many operators are also promoting more US destinations. SkiWorld and Neilson are both offering the New England resorts of Killington and Stowe; Crystal has holidays in Crested Butte and Telluride; and this is the first season for Thomson in Aspen and its neighbour Snowmass.

Colorado resorts will also benefit from a new charter service this year: Monarch Airlines is now flying into Denver every Wednesday and Saturday. Direct scheduled flights between Denver and the UK ended three years ago when the city's new airport demanded higher landing fees. Now the airport at Vail is muscling in, offering overnight one-stop connections on American Airlines from Birmingham, London and Manchester.

Smaller companies pride themselves on knowing their areas and advising you where to go - or not to go. Ski North America Direct will sensibly advise a beginner against Jackson Hole, and point him or her in the direction of Breckenridge or Steamboat. Its brochure has warts-and-all sketches of resorts.

Two places at opposite ends of the continent, Mont Tremblant in Quebec and Mammoth Mountain in California, both pride themselves on being family resorts, and this year they are putting a lot of effort into promoting their new features.

Mont Tremblant used to be an old-fashioned ski village, until it was thoroughly modernised at huge expense; it is now the most popular resort on the Canadian east coast. A children's centre now transports its clients up the nursery slopes on a magic carpet, and provides child care until 9.30pm on two nights of the week. This year the mountains have been zoned into areas for snowboarders, slow skiers and mogul fans. Birdwatching trails have been added to the off-piste opportunities; a floodlit area, the Xzone, offers skiing and other activities three nights a week.

Mammoth Mountain's high-speed quad lifts and floodlit slopes should increase skiing time. There are reduced-price lesson/ lift/equipment packages for absolute beginners, and from April onwards you can ski in the morning and have a round of golf in the afternoon. Mammoth is a six-hour drive from Los Angeles, but an internal flight to Reno shortens the transfer time.

Increased accessibility is probably the most important development in transatlantic skiing holidays. This could be the time to take advantage of the laid-back lifestyle of North America.

Frontier Ski (0181-776 8709); Ski Safari (0171-262 5069); Ski Independence (0990 550555); Neilson (0990 994444); Crystal (0181-399 5144); Virgin Ski (01293 617181); Ski the American Dream (0181-552 1201); Ski North America Direct (07000 325325); Skiworld (0171-602 4826); Thomson (0990 329329)