Chris Gill on the virtues of skiing in the US
The British appetite for skiing in the States seems insatiable. We first started to go there in serious numbers at the end of the 1980s, when for three years in a row the Alps failed to deliver the raw material of skiing - snow. We duly found snow - and had a damn good time.

It didn't matter that even the biggest ski areas weren't big enough to compete with the mega-resorts of Europe, and that the mountain restaurants offered little more than rehydration facilities. The hotels and apartments were splendidly comfortable, the resorts (which means the people) refreshingly cheerful and efficient.

Back in the 1980s, we went first to Colorado, dominated by super-smart Vail and Aspen. Good skiers went on to discover the next-door states of Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. Then, winter surpluses of accommodation and scheduled flights combined to make holidays in California a compelling bargain. And now much the same formula is attracting Brits by the thousand to the opposite extremity - the New England states of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

The standard view from the privileged heights of Colorado is that New England, like California, has rubbish snow; but few European visitors would agree. Powder to rival the best of the Rockies is certainly rare in the low-altitude seaside climate of New England. But many resorts get just as much snow as typical Colorado resorts, the region's famously low temperatures allow snowmaking on a grand scale, and the snow that's made is a revelation to someone used to the Alpine imitation.

I enjoyed some of the best piste conditions of the season in New England last winter, only a couple of weeks after the disastrous thaw that followed the region's headline-making January snowfalls. I also enjoyed the quietest pistes: most Americans go for the weekend, and midweek in the quieter resorts you may literally have a run all to yourself.

It is true that the ski areas are not huge. Even Killington, the biggest, is no rival for Vail or Mammoth. But, like most American resorts, they pack in a lot of skiing (and variety). The runs don't lack length - several areas have verticals of over 800m (on a par with Keystone) and most have over 600m (matching Breckenridge). Nor do they lack challenge: most of New England's double-black-diamond slopes are steeper than any piste you're likely to find in the Alps.

If you're worried about monotony, the obvious answer to is to visit more than one resort. Packages routinely include a car - in many resorts, you'll want one anyway to get the best out of your stay - and it's easy to get around the region either on day trips from a fixed base or on a tour of two or three different resorts. And getting around is rewarding: you drive through neat little towns and ramshackle hamlets, with classic country stores selling maple syrup alongside gasoline, and past picture-book frozen lakes with people fishing on the ice.

The best-known resorts are in Vermont. Killington, more or less in the middle of the state, is the largest mountain in the East, whether gauged in trail length (120km), skiable area (915 acres), vertical drop (970m) or top altitude (1290m). It has the longest lift in the US, and the longest trail - 16km for a drop of 945m (just steep enough to keep you moving). The resort has no focus, but is widely spread along the road up to the skiing and around its base. The car parks of the bars and restaurants dotted along the road fill up from mid-afternoon, heralding the liveliest apres-ski scene in New England, and perhaps in the States.

South of Killington are several smaller resorts, each with skiing on the flanks of a single peak - too limited for a week, but worth considering for outings or combination into a tour. Okemo, the nearest, aims mainly for the family market. You can stay in condominiums among the trees lining the lower slopes, or down the road in the town of Ludlow. Stratton is a smart modern development with a pedestrian shopping street at the foot of the slick modern lifts - though most of the accommodation is a short drive away. Stratton calls itself "snowboarding capital of the East", but Mount Snow claims its 900m-long snowboard park is the biggest in the East.

North of Killington are three resorts more appealing to the long-stay European visitor. Sugarbush is a fast-developing resort with one of the larger ski areas, its two sectors now linked by a long up-and-over chair- lift. The easy skiing is confined to the lower slopes; higher up, the direct runs are seriously steep. There are condominiums (and a good sports centre) in Sugarbush Village at the base, but most of the accommodation is a drive away in historic Waitsfield.

The town of Stowe is a classic New England charmer, its main street lined by dinky clapboard buildings (though much of the accommodation is dotted along the 15-minute drive out to the mountain). The ski area is dominated by the famous Front Four - a row of seriously steep double-black-diamond runs. But there is plenty of intermediate and easy stuff, too, especially in the separate Spruce Peak sector. Stowe has excellent cross-country centres (including the musically famous Trapp Family Lodge).

Smugglers' Notch is just over the hill. Its ski area is spread over three satisfyingly varied hills, with some real challenges on the highest one as well as long easy runs for confidence-building. But it is as a family resort that "Smuggs" has won awards. It has lots of modern slopeside accommodation and an impressive range of services and distractions for kids; they even get a special jolly version of the trail map.

The most interesting resorts of New Hampshire are clustered around the Interstate 93 highway that bisects the state - so they are easily combined. Most are mainly of intermediate difficulty, with less to challenge the good skier than in Vermont. Cannon is a ski area and nothing more, with two base areas close to the I93; you can stay a few minutes' drive away in Franconia or Lincoln. Just outside sprawling Lincoln is Loon, a small, smart, modern resort with some accommodation at the foot of the slopes. Waterville Valley is a compact ski area with runs dropping either side of a broad, gentle ridge. The village is a Disneyesque affair a couple of miles away, down on the flat valley bottom.

The main resorts of Maine are bigger and more varied. Sunday River spreads impressively across a broad mountain range, with (at the last count) eight lift-served peaks. It's great cruising terrain, with broad well-spaced runs; there are very extensive easy slopes, but also plenty of challenges higher up. There is a lot of accommodation inoffensively spread around the base areas.

Although rather isolated Sugarloaf covers a broad mountainside with a great deal of tree skiing. From gloriously long easy runs at the base, the slopes get steeper as you go up, ending in short but serious double- blacks descending from open snowfields. The smartly modern resort spreads around the base; for New England charm, you can stay 15 miles away in Kingfield.

How to hit the piste running

Skiers - and anyone else keen to reach New England in winter - can benefit from air fares that are even better than the usual seasonal lows. Discount agents are selling flights until mid-December, and from early January, for pounds 200-pounds 250 to New York, and a little more to Boston. These prices include taxes of around pounds 25, not always stated on advertisements. Since these are scheduled flights, skis can travel with you as part of the normal luggage allowance instead of incurring an extra charge.

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