Ski America: Plenty of highs

There are fine facilities, tree-clad slopes, superior service and (almost) guaranteed snow. Stephen Wood wonders why you would ski anywhere other than North America
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The Independent Travel

What is the appeal of the US and Canada to British skiers? I put that question to John Bennett, founder and chairman of the North American ski specialist, Ski Independence, a few years ago. He came up with five main attractions, then - when prompted - added a sixth. The added attraction was that the locals speak our language fairly well; the others were guaranteed snow, uncrowded pistes, good-value eating and drinking, the wide variety of things to do apart from skiing, and good service. In his list, the last came first: the standard of service was what came to mind instantly.

I wouldn't mind if the pressure to "Have a nice day" slackened a bit, since I prefer that efficient-but-brusque service one used to get from waiters with long aprons in Paris brasseries. But clearly a holiday where the service is good, scores higher for most people than one where the service is bad. An article in the US magazine Ski recently indicated why service is so good in North American resorts, and also raised a concern in my mind about whether British skiers can continue to benefit from it.

On a single page, the article specified whom skiers should tip on a holiday trip and what the going rate is. It made expensive reading. The sommelier and the ski instructor? The former gets 10 to 15 per cent of the cost of the bottle you buy; the latter receives $10 (over £5) a lesson. A ski concierge in the hotel ski room gets $1 every time he or she hands over your equipment; and a private ski instructor can expect a $20 tip for every hour he spends on the slopes with a client, on top of the tuition fee.

Not every service warrants a tip, according to the writer: a hotel bellman gets $2 for every bag he carries, but nothing for holding open the door and smiling. Nevertheless, totalling up the tips could add $100 to the cost of your skiing day, twice that if the mountain patrol has to rescue you from the slopes.

Do British skiers ever tip on this scale? I doubt it. There can't be many who, having been brought up on 75 per cent restaurant mark-ups on wine, will willingly shell out 15 per cent to someone who shames them into buying an expensive bottle. I fear that this means we may not enjoy five-star service in North America for much longer, even if a $2 tip costs us barely more than a pound. The hint of a British accent, and service personnel with experience of national tipping habits may drop their standards.

But say that the service slackens a little; that still leaves a lot of reasons for skiing in North America. Take the good-value eating and drinking, for example. That's now very good value, with this season's exchange rate. Those who have never skied on the other side of the Atlantic might not credit it, but the food in the ski resorts is generally excellent, at least in the west.

You do get sushi and stir-fries on the mountain in Whistler Blackcomb, but that's not the point; the point is that the average quality of the food is higher in North America than in any other ski destination apart from Italy. Only in Cortina's mountain huts have I eaten better on the slopes than in the Alpenglow Stube at Keystone in Colorado. And in Steamboat, Crested Butte and Jackson Hole the restaurants can be superb.

Guaranteed snow? Well, John Bennett's claim has to be qualified. In a normal season, Whistler (the "Blackcomb" is usually silent) measures its total snowfall in hundreds of inches. But in 2004/5 the resort - the most popular single destination for British skiers in North America - had a disastrous season. So even the snow-sure areas can have a rocky patch. Also, Bennett was talking about the western resorts, in Colorado, Utah, Alberta and beyond. That's where most of Ski Independence's clients go, rather than to the innumerable ski hills of the east coast, and the occasional sizeable resort such as Killington in Vermont and Tremblant in Quebec.

East coast skiing conditions are not predictable; absolutely nothing is guaranteed. It was on my first trip there that for once in my life I refrained from skiing because the weather in the resort - Killington - was too cold. The previous day had been so warm that snow-melt was flowing off the slopes. That experience, plus other characteristics of east coast resorts (low altitude, limited skiing, basic facilities and a lack of a lift-base "villages"), made me wonder why British skiers would go there, since the ski offer of the western resorts was so superior.

Now I am a convert to the east coast: I prefer Vermont to Colorado - or at least to its big, showpiece resorts. Why? Because to ski in Vermont is to join a milieu where everyone enjoys their skiing. The best of the state's hills is Mad River Glen, which is owned by a skiers' co-op. It is enormous fun because it is a community of skiers. Head a couple of thousand miles to the west and you get much better snow, better lifts, better everything; but you may feel that you have joined a community of mezzanine financiers, day traders and mortgage brokers.

Now, where were we? Out west, where the prospect for this season is of good snowfall. Whistler has already had more than 13ft. It will take more than global warming to spoil North America's 2006/7 season.To back up his assertion that the continent has uncrowded pistes, Bennett quoted this anecdote: "It's said that when all the seats on all the chairlifts of Aspen's Snowmass mountain are filled, each skier will still have an acre of skiing to themselves when they get off." I never did check his arithmetic, but some research of my own, at Sun Valley in Idaho, produced results almost as striking. Noting one Sunday how empty the slopes were (it was Superbowl Sunday, as it turned out), I asked the management how many people had been skiing that day. The answer was 3,300, a little higher than the daily average of about 3,000. Sun Valley's skiing covers a total of 2,054 acres.

The degree of crowding is relative, of course. Don't worry about feeling lonely at Whistler's lift base at 9am on a Saturday or Sunday, and don't assume you will be served immediately in the Longhorn Saloon at 4.45pm. But in a short lift queue after lunch you will be gratified that you didn't go to hectic Courchevel 1650.

As someone who has only once been in a ski resort and not skied, I am unable to judge whether North American resorts offer a wide variety of things to do apart from skiing. On that one, freezing day at Killington I drove across Vermont through beautiful (if rather twee and antique-shop-ridden) villages to New Hampshire, visited the excellent New England ski museum and had lunch on the I-93, the state's skiing axis, at the Road Kill Café. Wonderful though the day was, that had much to do with the fact that it was the first trip I took with my future wife.

I have had less luck with the "factory outlet" shopping said to be a magnet for bargain-hunting British skiers. A visit to the Levi's outlet at Silverthorne in Colorado proved disappointing: it stocked none of the popular lines. "That's because we can sell them at full price in the regular stores," an assistant obligingly told me.

Did John Bennett cover everything? No. He forgot the trees. In the Alps, trees rarely grow above 6,500ft. Beyond that altitude is the sort of moonscape which many British skiers, unaccountably, seem to like. But in the Rockies the treeline can be as high as 10,000ft. Which means that at a ski area like Steamboat's, in northern Colorado, you can ski off the top lift into a beautiful, accessible forest of aspens, Englemann spruce, lodgepole pines and sub-alpine firs. For those who, like me, enjoy tree skiing, it is hard to justify not going to North America.

The other great draw this season is price. Historically expensive, the US and Canada are now reasonably priced, thanks to the decline of their dollars. The currencies have been on the slide for a year, so this season's brochure prices are already low. At the time of writing, Crystal ( www.crystalski.co.uk; 0870 160 6040) has a £399 deal to Vail for a week in a condo (departing 10 January) and has cut the price of a two-week, four-star package to Lake Louise in Canada by almost half to £449 (departing 30 December). Thomson ( www.thomson-ski.co.uk; 0870 606 1470) has maybe the most appealing offer: a four-night B&B break at the Colorado resort of Breckenridge, the most popular US destination for British skiers, departing 30 December and costing only £299.

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