Skiing: Looking for a New England

Check into a small town in Vermont where you can enjoy real life as well as the winter wonderland of ski slopes, writes Cathy Packe
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The Independent Online
I stayed in a nice B&B in Manchester the other week. It was quite near the centre of town, handy for the shops. Titanic was on at the cinema down the road. And it hardly took any time at all to get to the ski slopes.

Well, no, it wasn't Manchester, England. It was Manchester New England. Not the industrial one in New Hampshire, whose frozen wastes feature on our TV screens once every four years, when the presidential primaries are in town. This was Manchester, Vermont, a pleasant town with a population of fewer than 5,000 people, whose streets are lined with elegantly proportioned 19th-century houses, many of them set in their own parkland.

The most historic part of town was originally a mill town called Factory Point. The blue-collar workers lived here, while Manchester Village, at the other end of the street, was the more attractive part of town. Towards the end of the last century the industries declined, and another source of income was needed. Tourism was developing up the road in the Village, and in order to cash in on the benefits, Factory Point changed its name to Manchester Center. Many of the buildings along Main Street still have a commercial use, but instead of housing the electrical store or the barber's shop, they are more likely to have a sign up advertising Ben and Jerry's ice-cream.

A good reason for basing a ski holiday in Manchester is that there are no mountains. Skiing is one of the activities you can choose to indulge in while you are there, because there are several resorts nearby. This is not a winter wonderland, like many of the chi-chi resorts of the Rockies, whose sole reason for existing is the tourist industry, and whose holiday- makers are there to be seen. In Manchester, anyone who doesn't ski, or who wants a ski-free day, can relax without feeling out of place.

This makes it feel quite different from established Vermont resorts like Stowe in the north of the state; indeed, a two-centre trip including both areas would be quite possible in travel-friendly New England, and also enable you to call in at the adjacent Trapp family home. You need a car in order to take full advantage of the slopes in Vermont, but the roads are kept clear of snow, there are no major highways to negotiate, and parking in the resorts is free.

The nearest ski areas to Manchester are Bromley, Vermont's Sun Mountain (so-called because when other resorts are grey and freezing its slopes are still likely to be be bathed in sunlight), and Stratton - larger and often colder, but more challenging, with a greater variety of black diamond and double diamond runs. Both of these are about 15 miles from Manchester. Beyond Bromley is Magic Mountain, and farthest away, but still only a 45-minute drive, is Okemo, just outside the town of Ludlow.

The beauty of all these resorts is that no matter how limited your ability to ski, there are trails that take you from the top of the mountain right down to the base. In many resorts beginners are forced to stay at the lower altitudes, without ever seeing the view from the top, or enjoying the exhilarating feeling of a long run. And an advantage of day-trip skiing is that if you want a day off, or you want to ski somewhere else, perhaps because the weather is better in another resort, you are not committed to a week-long package in the same place.

Stratton and Okemo (but not, sadly, Bromley) have a reciprocal agreement, so that the same pass can be used in both resorts. It is usually possible to get a pass that is valid for several days, making the daily cost cheaper, and it works out cheaper still if you book a deal through the Vermont tourist office for accommodation and ski pass combined.

These Green Mountain resorts are within weekend distance for the townies of New York and Boston, so the slopes tend to get packed on Saturdays and Sundays. But during the week it can be extremely quiet, which means it is possible to combine five peaceful days skiing with a weekend in the city at either end of your holiday.

Yet Manchester is not the place to stay if what you want in a ski holiday is some kind of ski-in-ski-out accommodation. All the resorts have a full range of hotels, motels and slope-side condominiums, but one of the drawbacks, particularly in a small, purpose-built resort, is that, at the end of the day, it is just a ski resort. The apres-ski may be lively, but it will be entirely predictable.

Manchester has bars and restaurants, too, but with a more down-home kind of feel, and with the added attraction of the normal things you find in a town, such as shops and cinemas. Much of the accommodation is bed and breakfast - usually in inns that are the equivalent of our country house hotels.

It would be a shame to go to a ski resort and spend the whole time shopping, but it would be perverse, too, to go to the States and not shop at all. Manchester is the Vermont centre for the outlet stores, smallish shops devoted to one designer or another, with the kind of discounts that make you understand why anyone would want to shop till they drop. Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan and Calvin Klein stand side by side with more moderately priced labels such as J Crew and Jones New York. At the moment, in most stores the already low prices are reduced even farther because the sales are on.

Several buildings in and around Manchester have some connection with the area's most famous son, Norman Rockwell, a native of nearby Arlington. There is a museum there in his honour, and there are various places in Manchester where he apparently painted some of his most famous pictures. But this week, the people of southern Vermont have been concentrating on the achievements of other local heroes.

They keenly followed the winter Olympics, because three snowboarders from Stratton were in the running for medals. Vermont may be a long way from Nagano, but Japan's winter Olympics could help to put this area on the map.

Making for Manchester

Money upfront: Cathy Packe paid pounds 180, including tax, to fly from Gatwick to Newark on Virgin Atlantic (01293 747747).

Package deal: a three-day package, including accommodation and lift passes, at The Inn at Manchester (001 802 362 1793), cost her pounds 190.

Net work: Details of all the resorts mentioned can be found on the Internet - the addresses are www.[resort name].com

Snow in the USA

EAST COAST

Killington Lower slopes 75cm, upper slopes 185cm. All pistes open. Heavy.

Mount Snow Lower 75cm, upper 110cm. 125 runs open. Good.

Sunday River Lower 75cm, upper 155cm. 120/126 runs open. Good.

COLORADO

Aspen Lower 140cm, upper145cm. Vail Lower 148cm, upper 160cm. All runs open.

Breckenridge Lower slopes 140cm, upper slopes 150cm. All runs open. 18cm new snow.

CALIFORNIA

Mammoth Lower 510cm, upper 630cm. Snow:.

Heavenly Lower 285cm, upper 465cm. All runs open

Information supplied by the Ski Club of Great Britain 0181-410 2000.

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