Best of both worlds: Wyoming's Jackson Hole offers challenging ski terrain and swish hotels
Saturday 07 February 2009
Although other ski areas, notably Crested Butte in Colorado, might lay claim to the title, it is Jackson Hole in Wyoming that, by popular repute, has the most challenging ski terrain in the American West. Skiers and boarders come from around the world to tackle the steep east-facing slopes of the Teton mountains that run straight down to the high plateau of the Snake River Valley (the Tetons don't do foothills), and – if they dare – to drop into Corbet's Couloir, a well-known benchmark of winter-sports prowess.
Ski writers visit the place regularly, too: it always makes good copy. In November, a frequent contributor to American Ski magazine, Edie Thys, wrote about "The new face of Jackson Hole". She began with its enduring qualities, referring to the "sense of dread" provoked by "the toughest ski area in North America". Those who visit often, she wrote, "anticipate, endure and even enjoy some discomfort in the form of weather, sore muscles, bruised egos or life-affirming doses of fear. The place makes little pretence of coddling visitors." In conclusion, Thys, a former US ski team downhill racer, wrote: "I guess Jackson will always be about being beyond your comfort level."
There's nothing to argue with in that, except perhaps for the infelicitous phrase "be about being". Yet it is also true to say that Jackson Hole reaches comfort levels unmatched elsewhere in North American skiing. Other resorts have a landmark hotel of five-star quality: Beaver Creek in Colorado with its awesome Ritz-Carlton, for example, and Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia with its Four Seasons. But Jackson Hole alone can boast two such properties, and will have a third when the planned Little Nell (a sister hotel to the one in Aspen) is built.
It is the only ski resort in the world with a hotel created expressly for the nonpareil Amanresorts group; and it has a Four Seasons. "Comfort" is hardly the word: this is the most glamorous and luxurious accommodation available to skiers anywhere.
What have the skiers done to deserve this? Nothing.
Jackson Hole is a stunning place, a largely undeveloped plain surrounded by mountains soaring to 10,000ft (hence the "hole") in which lies Jackson, a community of about 8,500 people. With the Grand Teton National Park running down to the town from Yellowstone, just 60 miles to the north, it is a haven for wildlife – even in winter, when as many as 10,000 elk, the world's largest winter concentration of the species, come to take refuge from the bitter weather on the plains. Often, the elk, wintering within what is now the US National Elk Refuge, are joined by a 1,500-strong herd of buffalo.
Summer is the peak time for wildlife watching, and for Jackson Hole tourism in general. More than three million visitors come to the area, compared with 80,000 during the winter-sports season. True, winter guests do stay about three times as long, on average; nevertheless, the Amangani's summer occupancy level is about twice that in the winter season. For the luxury hotels, the year-round "family and friends" crowd is important, too. Apart from the celebrity home-owners (who have ranged from Sandra Bernhard to Harrison Ford to Dick Cheney), there is a much larger community of people who are merely very wealthy. Their guests, if not accommodated at home, are likely to end up in the Amangani or the Four Seasons, not only to sleep but also, on special occasions, to dine.
Come the winter months, when the crowds have departed, room rates drop (except at peak periods) and the hotels take in skiers such as myself, generally unaccustomed to such luxury and service. The USP of the Four Seasons is service. It is, says the Canadian hotel group, "our distinguishing edge: service evolved over three decades of exclusive focus on luxury hospitality". The welcome at the reception desk is practised and seamless, the key elements of guest information so swiftly and efficiently imparted that I forgot them immediately, item by item.
But why bother to take in the stuff when it is readily available from any one of the numerous helpful staff? It's regrettable to be so easily institutionalised, but at least the Four Seasons is a fine institution. The 181-room Jackson Hole property, small by Four Seasons standards but big by Wyoming's (it is said to be the biggest building in the state), displays the distinguishing edge everywhere, and notably in the spa. But it is at its sharpest in the turn-down service. A leather-clad tray placed on the bed offers all sorts of services, from the breakfast menu to the complimentary shoeshine to the earplugs. Only when absent-mindedly raising an earplug towards my mouth did I realise that, although there was plenty of chocolate in the room, including a miniature ski boot made of the stuff, there wasn't any on my pillow. That's confidence: to draw attention to a service by omitting its most familiar element.
The hotel's finishes are irreproachable, too. Get down on hands and knees or up on a stool in the huge shower, and you won't find anything resembling a flaw in the tilework (I tried and failed). But the design is rather traditional and clublike, even with the addition, in the public areas, of Native American elements and art works from the collection of the building's owner, including Miró lithographs in the Gents. The real luxury is space: in my room, a "King Guest" (which is how I now think of myself), you could pace up and down in the walk-in cupboard, and park two bikes in the hallway, if you so wished.
The Four Seasons is the only genuine ski-in, ski-out hotel in Jackson Hole, which is a great asset. By comparison, the Amangani is a 20-minute shuttle-ride away, set on the 7,000ft East Gros Ventre Butte in the middle of the plateau. Otherwise, the Amangani is incomparable, for there is nothing else like it in a US ski resort. Looking up from below, the low-slung building – now 10 years old – seems rather forbidding: it would serve quite well as the lair of the villain in a James Bond film. But inside it feels more like an ancient temple uncovered by archaeologists. The calm lobby (this isn't a hotel that tries to create a buzz) flows down the hillside to an airy, high-ceilinged lounge, a descent that makes it seem even more like an excavated site; and the rough Oklahoma sandstone cladding the lounge pillars looks as old as the Dolomites, especially in the evening when uplit from the floor. The decorative elements are limited: what isn't sandstone is usually either black slate or terrazzo, or wood – mostly rich clear-heart redwood, far too soft to the touch to be really practical in a hotel. (The Amangani must be unique in having to be smoothed and oiled twice a year.) In the guest suites, almost all the surfaces – floors, doors, walls, cupboards, bed canopy – are wooden, apart from the neutral walls and slate surrounds in the bathroom, whose sunken tub lies against a wall of windows overlooking the Tetons. The overall effect is like a Californian interpretation of Japanese style, with Native American influences: calm, natural and slightly spiritual.
The Amangani's restaurant is excellent but unshowy; the spa, where I was myself smoothed and oiled, is equally unpretentious: the staff seem genuinely warm and friendly. As you will gather, I was so blissed-out that I could find no fault with the place at all. Beyond my comfort level? Way, way beyond it.
Inghams (020-8780 4447; inghams.co.uk) offers a seven-night holiday in Jackson Hole from £973 per person, including BA flights from Heathrow to Dallas, and onwards with American Airlines to Jackson, transfers and room-only accommodation at the four-star Snake River Lodge.
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce My Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).
Amangani, 1535 North East Butte Road, Jackson, Wyoming (001 307 734 7333; amanresorts.com). Suites start at $659 (£471). Four Seasons Jackson Hole, 7680 Granite Loop Road, Teton Village, Wyoming (001 307 732 5000; fourseasons.com/jacksonhole). Doubles from $450 (£322), room only.
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort: jacksonhole.com
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