Why North America is best for skiing
Looking for politeness, quiet runs, deep powder, and don't mind a bit of jet-lag? Then head for North America, says our skiing correspondent Hamish McRae
Saturday 03 December 2005
Why bother flying for eight hours to North America when you can get to the Alps in one or two? The obvious answer to that question stops most people from going. Only six per cent of British skiers chose North America last year, at least on organised tours. We send twice as many people to Andorra as to the whole of North America.
The distance certainly stopped us. For years skiing was the Alps, with all their delights (those endless runs) and irritations (pushing in the lift queues). Then some friends asked us to join their party in Whistler, a couple of hours from Vancouver. We went because we liked them very much and thought it would be fun to go somewhere different. After two days of bliss we were all saying to each other, "why would we ever go to the Alps again?"
As it happened, we have been back to the Alps. But for anyone who has not skied in North America, I would urge you to go west at least once and see if you are converted. Tour operators are offering deals in the Rockies at prices comparable with France - although it is very easy to put together your own North American package online.
But why? Three things - people, organisation and powder. People first. Skiing in the Alps seems to involve an element of tension. The palaver of getting decent skis, the lift queues or, more accurately, non-queues, the stern Swiss teachers, the cross French children, those "where on earth are we?" moments when the piste map bears no resemblance to the signs, and so on.
In North America that tension is almost entirely absent. Everyone - from hotel staff to lift operators to fellow skiers seems dedicated to making the whole enterprise charming and calm. Lift queues, when they exist, which is not very often, have lines that merge with each other in strict order, with everyone obeying the rules. The idea of pushing would appal: no one ever does it. People talk easily and comfortably to strangers on the lifts with that wonderful North American friendly courtesy, helped by the fact that 90 per cent of skiers are Anglophone. Language also helps when buying kit. I had an encouraging morning getting new boots at Wild Willies in Whistler, helped by a thoughtful fitter.
Then there is the mechanical and technical side - making sure that the lifts are open, the maps and signposting clear, the pistes bashed, that lift capacity matches the bed capacity, and that there are enough places to eat, and so on. All these, as you might expect, are done as well or better than in Europe. But the attention to detail is huge.
A tiny example is "sniffle stations": dispensers of tissues at the bottom of every lift. A more substantial one is the system of mountain hosts. At the top of each lift there is someone to welcome skiers and help to guide them to the best skiing that day. It is a clever wheeze: at Whistler these are retirees who volunteer to act as hosts in exchange for a season's free lift-pass. In Vail there are free mountain guides. We shot off after a septuagenarian Irish-American who whisked six of us round the system for an hour to the best place for hot chocolate and refused to take anything for it.
And then there is the powder. In the Rockies - not on the Canadian Coastal Mountains at Whistler or at the various East Coast resorts - the snow is dry and fluffy. It seems endless and there always seem to be new tracks to make. On Easter Saturday we were up on the back bowls at Vail, so called because they are on the far side of the mountain from the resort. You might imagine that this would be one of the busiest days of the year, and on the front side it was pretty crowded. But two of us skied for an hour with the stuff up to our knees seeing only two other skiers and, in some places, not even any tracks. You can find powder in the Alps but not in the utter abundance that Colorado seems able to deliver. Convinced? Before going any further, a pause, for there are aspects of skiing in Europe that you cannot find in North America. One is the vertical drop. The longest drop, of 1,609 metres, is at Whistler. That compares with a drop of 2,162m in the Trois Vallées or 1,900m at Val d'Isère. The scale is different: a large resort in America is the same size as a medium one in Europe. Thus Whistler has 33 lifts and thinks that a lot. But the Trois Vallées have 188, and Val d'Isère 100. This discrepancy is partly because resorts do not seem to link up much: you ski in a single place, not an area. You cannot ski across borders as you can between France and Italy at Chamonix, Switzerland and Italy at Zermatt, and France and Switzerland at Avoriaz.
The other big disadvantage is the length of the flight and the time change. Skiing is tiring enough, and the seven- or eight-hour difference takes the shine off the evenings. It is also not much fun to have managed to get on to US time by the end of the week, only to have to sit up all night in an economy seat en route for the grey British morning. That makes the US and Canada a questionable choice for children. Nor is it too good for more mature skiers, such as myself. Last year I swallowed hard and paid for BA flat beds back. Assuming you are prepared for the travel and jet lag, what then? The basic decision is Whistler, Rockies or East Coast. Unless you happen to be in America anyway, the East Coast option is not very attractive. You could have a perfectly good time at, for example, Mont Tremblant in Quebec or Killington in Vermont. Canadian and US families go to places like that and the major UK ski operators are offering them. There should be plenty of snow - some of the New England resorts are running now, having opened a month early this year. But they are low. Killington, for example, is 323m and the top of the system is only 1,293m. So you don't have the big "ski for ever" experience.
Otherwise the rational choice is Vancouver and Whistler, or one of the places reached via Denver - which also has non-stop flights to London. The case for Whistler is its size, the fact that it is a touch cheaper than most US places of similar quality, the usually reliable snow (though last year was a disaster) and the easy availability of tweaks such as heli-skiing. The case against is that there is not a lot of sun and you are not that high.
If the choice is the Rockies, there is a string of places within three hours of Denver. Top of the range come Vail (old-style grand) and its nearby challenger, Beaver Creek (shed-loads of new money). Other biggies include Breckenridge, and Aspen. They are high (the Aspen lift goes to 3,790m) and charming (Aspen and Breckenridge are old mining towns). But they are expensive, for you are competing against serious US money and Aspen is a long haul from Denver airport. If that idea palls, try Winter Park, the nearest of the Rocky Mountain resorts to Denver, less flash, and accessible through some very good deals at the moment. A check on the web this week showed Crystal offering a week there in January for £299 a head. And there is already a lot of snow. The other more affordable Rocky option is one of the Canadian resorts, with Banff probably the most serious place. But you have to change planes to get here, flying to Calgary. If you only have a week, choose the simplest journey you can.
Costs compared with the Alps? Looking at the biggest operators - Crystal, Inghams, Thomson and the specialist company Nielson - suggests that quality for quality there is not much in it. Maybe you are paying £50-£100 more on the sticker price, but you tend to pay less for incidentals once you get there, though remember that you add 18-20 per cent in restaurants for the tip. Or you can assemble your own package on the web. And if you have spare Air Miles or need to be in North America for business, that method can become a relatively cheap option.
So, time of reckoning. Is it America or the Alps for me this year? Powder or those endless runs? Well, I would hate to miss either. Somehow, it has to be both.
Crystal Ski (0870 405 5047; www.crystalski.co.uk).
Inghams (020-8780 4433; www.inghams.co.uk/ski).
Thomson Ski (0870 888 0254; www.thomsonski.co.uk).
Neilson Ski (0870 333 3356; www.neilson.co.uk).
Wild Willies Ski Club, 7011 Nesters Road, Whistler, British Columbia, Canada (00 1 604 938 8036; www.wildwillies.com).
Whistler Blackcomb, British Columbia, Canada (00 1 604 932 3434; www.whistlerblackcomb.com).
Banff, Alberta, Canada (00 1 403 762 4561; www.skibig3.com).
Nakiska, Calgary, Alberta, Canada (00 1 403 256 8473; www.skinakiska.com).
Mont Tremblant, Quebec, Canada (00 1 888 857 8043; www.tremblant.ca).
Vail, Colorado, US (00 1 877 204 7881; www.vail.snow.com).
Beaver Creek, Colorado, US (00 1 970 496 4500; www.beavercreek.snow.com)
Breckenridge, Colorado, US (00 1 970 453 5000; www.breckenridge.snow.com).
Aspen, Colorado, US (00 1 800 525 6200; www.aspensnowmass.com).
Winter Park, Colorado, US (00 1 800 979 0332; www.skiwinterpark.com).
Killington, Vermont, US (00 1 800 734 9435; www.killington.com).
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