Empty pleasures

North American resorts are known for their deserted slopes and reliable snow, and this year they're bigger and better than ever. Stephen Wood reports

What are the chances of Whistler Blackcomb becoming even more popular this year? You might rate them on a par with, say, those of Chris Eubank growing more pompous or Silvio Berlusconi developing statesman-like qualities: improbable, but not impossible. But in reality the odds are much shorter than this, even though skier visits to the resort three hours' drive north of Vancouver in British Columbia have increased only slightly in recent years. Whistler (as it is known) is the most popular North American ski destination for the UK market. And the evidence suggests that during the 2004/5 season, which starts three weeks from now, it will attract more British skiers than ever, barring international incidents.

What are the chances of Whistler Blackcomb becoming even more popular this year? You might rate them on a par with, say, those of Chris Eubank growing more pompous or Silvio Berlusconi developing statesman-like qualities: improbable, but not impossible. But in reality the odds are much shorter than this, even though skier visits to the resort three hours' drive north of Vancouver in British Columbia have increased only slightly in recent years. Whistler (as it is known) is the most popular North American ski destination for the UK market. And the evidence suggests that during the 2004/5 season, which starts three weeks from now, it will attract more British skiers than ever, barring international incidents.

For a start, what was already the continent's biggest ski area has grown bigger. With new skiing on the west side of Whistler Mountain providing four runs and 400 acres of ungroomed terrain between the Peak area and the Creekside base, and the opening-up of the 700-acre Flute Bowl, Whistler now has a total of 8,100 skiable acres. Poor little Vail, whose ski area is the biggest in the US, can lay claim to only 5,289.

At Creekside, a four-year face-lift has created a pedestrian village that will give skiers an alternative to the main base area, whose village is beginning to suffer from urban sprawl. Until recently Creekside had all the charm of a roadside truck-stop, at least seen from the highway; now it promises a quiet atmosphere, brand-new lodgings, and quick, easy access to the slopes of Whistler Mountain. For 2004/5 Whistler will also benefit from other on-mountain developments including a new super-pipe and an improved terrain-park for snowboarders (which will take the total off-season spend to CA$14.2m/£6.4m), the hype surrounding its 2005 World Snowboarding Championship and the halo effect of being chosen to host the 2010 Winter Olympics.

A development closer to home is also set to increase the resort's UK business. This season the low-cost transatlantic airline Zoom is flying to a range of Canadian destinations, including Vancouver. The opportunity to book clients on to the Vancouver flights has been irresistible to most of the big tour operators, and both Crystal and Inghams have increased capacity in Whistler.

Ski Independence, which reckons to be the biggest North America ski specialist in the UK, has created special "Whistler Direct" packages in conjunction with Zoom and the Whistler Direct lodging company. A seven-night holiday costs from £699 per person including direct Gatwick-Vancouver flights and resort transfers, based on two adults sharing a three-star studio.

By my count, Ski Independence offers 39 different resorts in its Ski USA & Canada brochure. Yet, incredibly, one in four of its clients goes to Whistler. No wonder John Bennett, the tour operator's managing director, describes the resort - fully established only in 1997 - as "a phenomenon". Apart from "two massive mountains", he believes the secrets of its success to be competitive pricing and the ready availability of ski-in, ski-out accommodation, the latter being in short supply in most of North America.

It is impossible to generalise about North American skiing (for example Tremblant, Canada's big east coast attraction, has lots of ski-in, ski-out accommodation). Its resorts are spread over two countries and a continent that sweeps from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The climate differs, as do the people; go to Tremblant and you'll find the language is different, too, since it's in French-speaking Quebec. The Rocky Mountains are nothing like the Berkshires, and their snow varies just as much. Yet there are some consistent elements that underpin the appeal of North American skiing.

John Bennett's list of the attractions reads as follows. First there is the quality of the skiing environment, notably the good lift access and the lack of crowding on the slopes. Then there is the quality of the snow. Next comes the high standard of service, everywhere from rental shops to hotels. Unexpectedly, Bennett throws in the culture of North America, specifically in the rugged areas where skiing takes place. Finally he mentions "the immensely friendly people, who are always ready and willing to help" - and who, he might have added, speak good English.

Apart perhaps from in its service (which connoisseurs might feel lacks the zip of the up-market Colorado and Utah resorts), Whistler delivers on all Bennett's promises... except the second. The one puzzling thing about Whistler's popularity is that British skiers will go all that way - a 17-hour home-to-hotel journey when I last timed it - and apparently not resent missing out on the kind of snow for which the western part of the continent is celebrated. Whistler is so close to the Pacific that its snowfall is heavy with moisture. The soft, fluffy stuff lies further east, in Colorado and Utah.

Surprisingly, this year's edition of the annual report on the UK ski market produced by the tour operator Crystal reckons that North America's market share now stands at 5.8 per cent, precisely half what it was in 1999/2000. Even taking into account the impact of the September 11 attacks of 2001, this decline seems remarkably steep. Certainly John Bennett is surprised by it: his business has increased by 22 per cent over the same period. And this year, he says, Ski Independence's North American bookings are currently 38 per cent ahead of last year's. The majority of customers (55 per cent) are choosing Canada this season "because it's such good value".

Of those going to the US, the bulk will ski in Colorado, at the resorts set alongside the I-70 highway running west from Denver. Although what I judge to be the state's most interesting resorts - Steamboat Springs, Crested Butte and Telluride - are set to the north and south, it is the I-70 corridor that is Colorado's big attraction for British skiers.

Why? Because it has a slew of big-skiing, big-name resorts all within easy driving distance of one another: Vail, Breckenridge, Beaver Creek, Keystone and Copper Mountain all lie along the highway, with Aspen and Winter Park on side-roads. All, to a greater or lesser degree, offer luxury skiing from well-appointed "villages" on reliably good snow which is soft and powdery when nature so decrees. Whether the snow is lighter and fluffier across the western state line is a matter of opinion, but Utah believes this to be the case. There the resorts indisputably have more character, some of them gnarly (Alta), some sophisticated (Snowbird), and some genuinely retaining the old mining-town atmosphere (Park City) on which so many ski destinations in the western US trade.

Much further west lies the cluster of resorts around Lake Tahoe; and almost due north of Utah, on the other side of the Canadian border, there is another group, among them Fernie, Panorama and Kicking Horse in British Columbia, and Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper in Alberta. This is manly territory, dominated by the vast bulk of the Canadian Rockies. On the drive between Banff and Lake Louise, mountains rear up on both sides of the highway, and there are visual treats at either end of the journey, too. The view from the Chateau Lake Louise to the high-mountain lake is awesome; the same Fairmont hotel chain's Banff Springs property is a joy in itself, the Scottish-baronial style pile looming like a 19th-century castle above the Bow River. The skiing is more rugged up here, and the climate less forgiving; but the ski holidays provide better value.

I didn't ask John Bennett to list the factors militating against skiing in North America: he has a product to sell, and I figured he might be reluctant to give reasons why people should not buy it. But the downside is fairly clear. North America might be good value, but Alpine skiing is cheaper. In the absence of ancient mountain settlements, the ski-holiday experience loses much of its charm. The profile of North American mountains is softer, more rounded and less alluring than the Alps (although the tree-line is much higher, which is what infallibly draws me back). To some, the skiing experience in the US and Canada can seem bland, thanks to commercialism, the preoccupation with safety rules, and the languid politesse with which skiing - supposedly a thrill sport - is conducted. And, last but not least, North America is a long way away.

It is not fashionable to mention this, but there are hundreds of ski resorts on the east coast of the continent. One of them, Tremblant, is big and modern, and very popular with family skiers. The others are mostly small areas, notably in Vermont and New Hampshire, with few of the blandishments available out west. They may have relatively old and slow lifts yet they are uplifting places, created for local communities and preserving old skiing traditions. They are not the property of Wall Street-quoted corporations driven by shareholder demands, such as Vail Resorts and Intrawest, owner of Whistler and Tremblant. In fact, Mad River Glen in Vermont, one of the most engaging areas despite its regrettable snowboarding ban, is owned by a co-operative society.

Apart from Killington in Vermont, few of the areas have much more than a day's skiing; so it makes sense to have a car and keep moving. The weather is unpredictable and can get very cold; the snow is also unpredictable, and can get very icy (when, as is often the case, it is man-made). But the skiing is fun, cheap, and closer to home than Colorado. You might try New England skiing one season.

Ski Independence (0870 555 0555; www.ski-i.com), Whistler Blackcomb (00 1 604 932 3434; www.whistlerblackcomb.com)

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