Skiing: Colorado and the Keystone tops

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At this time of year, Keystone in Colorado is already open for business night and day, as Cathy Packe discovered.

"Hi, I'm Jerrie. I'm really excited to be teaching ladies' day, and I'm really looking forward to skiing with you all. What are your goals for the day, ladies?"

This was the beginning of a Thursday ski class last season at Keystone, Colorado, aimed at "women who want to gain more confidence in their skiing", and made available because market research claims that women prefer to be taught by women - and also, apparently, to ski in women-only groups.

There appears to be very little about the skiing in this part of Colorado that hasn't been scrutinised by some kind of survey. But although there were customer comment forms in the ski rental building, I was surprised to find that no one asked me to review the parabolic, or carving, skis I hired. The Americans call these Super Sidecuts and they're shorter than traditional skis. With a paddle shape at the top, and a narrower part where the foot is attached, they are intended to help carve better turns. Whether they do or not is quite difficult to judge when you ski only for an occasional week here and there; but I felt in better control, and I certainly skied faster down the mountain than I ever have before.

This turned out to be useful in trying to avoid the snowboarders. Disappointingly for the skier, Keystone has given up its snowboard-free status. In recent years it was the only resort in the state that catered for skiers only; now the all-encompassing research has shown that less money is made from skiers who like board-free slopes than from snowboarders. So since the beginning of last season skiers have had to dodge the boarders here, as they do pretty much everywhere else.

Keystone is a cluster of condominiums and lodges that has operated as a ski resort for less than 30 years. Last year the resort merged with the group which manages Vail, and the number of building sites in evidence suggests that plenty of expansion is planned. For now it retains the atmosphere of a village - even though, unlike nearby Breckenridge, it had no settlement until the skiers moved in. Many of the condos are privately owned, and are still lived in by their owners for at least part of the year. This makes them more individual and luxurious than they might otherwise be.

Four people staying in a two-bedroom condo will pay little more per person than they would when booking a package in England and staying in a hotel. But most condos have a bathroom for each bedroom, a large sitting-room with a log fire, a fully equipped kitchen, and an extra room containing a large jacuzzi - a perfect place to relax and contemplate the mountains.

While you soak in the hot water, you can judge the performance of the hardier souls who are night-skiing: Keystone is one of the few resorts that keeps some of its lifts open - and its pistes lit - until 9pm, giving about 50 per cent more skiing time than usual to those who have the stamina to enjoy it.

For those who prefer to ski or snowboard by sunlight, the lifts open at 8.30am and lead up to a section of slopes on three mountains, Keystone, the North Peak and the Outback. These provide an astonishing variety of skiing, and in my party - which consisted of one seriously advanced ski- mountaineering type, two intermediates and one complete beginner - we all found some to challenge us.

But in addition to its own three mountains, Keystone has benefited from the merger with Vail, and is now connected to Vail, Beaver Creek and Breckenridge by a shuttle coach service.

This makes the whole area into something like an American version of France's Trois Vallees. Although it isn't possible to ski between the four resorts, the lift tickets are all interchangeable, which means that it's cost effective as well as easy to ski in different areas on the same day, or at least in the same holiday. And although it is run by a different company, the free shuttle bus between Keystone and Arapahoe Basin still operates every half hour, adding an extra selection of slopes.

Keystone suffers from the shortage of direct flights into Denver from the UK, although five international airlines now fly into the airport of Vail Eagle, only an hour from Keystone by road. Resort Express runs a frequent minibus service out of both Denver and Eagle airports, which will drop you off in Keystone, and the main car hire companies have desks at the two airports.

The most appealing thing about Keystone at this time of year is that you could be there now, doing parallel turns down the slopes instead of just reading about skiing. Keystone opened for the new season four weeks ago, and expects to remain in daily operation until 3 May next year.

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