Go west for the best of US skiing

With money-off deals to entice us across the Atlantic, North America's slopes are looking good

Airlines may be going bankrupt, and tour operators shedding jobs by the thousand, but talk to almost anyone in the ski business and you will gather that at least their area of the travel market is still buoyant. Just last week, the woman who manages one of the UK's leading short-break operators told me – almost apologetically – that its pure holiday business is 30 per cent up on last year, and while the corporate side is lagging at the moment, she is confident of seeing an upturn in that sector soon. But hers is a business that operates only in the Alps. Although it did put a toe across the water last season, adding Whistler to its programme, the experiment was not a success, and this season, neither Whistler nor any other North American resort appears in its brochure.

Airlines may be going bankrupt, and tour operators shedding jobs by the thousand, but talk to almost anyone in the ski business and you will gather that at least their area of the travel market is still buoyant. Just last week, the woman who manages one of the UK's leading short-break operators told me – almost apologetically – that its pure holiday business is 30 per cent up on last year, and while the corporate side is lagging at the moment, she is confident of seeing an upturn in that sector soon. But hers is a business that operates only in the Alps. Although it did put a toe across the water last season, adding Whistler to its programme, the experiment was not a success, and this season, neither Whistler nor any other North American resort appears in its brochure.

There are probably several much bigger ski operators that wish they, too, had cut back their North American programmes this year. Not altogether surprisingly, British skiers are displaying a marked reluctance to head across the Atlantic. Almost everywhere else (except Bulgaria), ski holidays are selling well; but not in North America. Newspaper reports on the effects of terrorism in the US on travel have quoted the UK's leading transatlantic ski specialist who, characteristically bullish, told them that he had received no cancellations – not altogether surprising since, as far as I know, the sudden onset of fear of flying does not constitute valid grounds for claiming a refund on a deposit. I asked a spokesperson for one of the big five ski operators about sales of North American holidays, and was told that they are currently 10 per cent down on last year.

The decline is only partly attributable to the 11 September attacks. North America's share of the overall UK ski market also fell substantially last season, from 11.5 to 8.5 per cent, according to Thomson's ski division. Although the statistics were not broken down, it is clear that Canada suffered less than the US, because of its weaker dollar, the non-stop charter flights into Calgary, and the fashionableness of its skiing. But since the big Canadian resorts rely heavily on visitors from south of the border, they are apprehensive about the effect of the downturn in US travel.

If this all seems like bad news, there is an upside for British skiers who are sufficiently resilient to cross the Atlantic, or feel it would be churlish to turn down President Bush's kind invitation.

Almost a month ago, tour operators began offering discounts on North American ski packages. Ski Independent knocked up to £100 off economy-flight tickets (and £1,259 off BA business-class upgrades) on the London-Vancouver route, serving Whistler. Soon afterwards, Ski All America cut by £50 the cost of all its holidays in the Canadian resorts of Banff, Lake Louise, Fernie and Kicking Horse. And, recently, Vail Resorts has introduced a special offer between 6 January and 15 February, enabling UK guests booking a holiday of seven nights or more in Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone or Vail to get an additional three or more nights' lodging free of charge.

These offers are very unlikely to be the last this season; they provide one good reason for skiing in North America, but there are, of course, many others. Despite the much longer flights, many Britons feel more at home in North America than in the Alps, thanks to our common language and the warmth and courtesy of ski staff and the local skiers. Even quite young children, faced with a lone, surly skier (ie, myself) sharing their chair-lift, will often enquire as to their fellow traveller's health, geographical origin, and general satisfaction with the day's skiing.

As far as the skiing experience is concerned, the general rule is that the further you travel, the better it gets. East-coast skiing, particularly in the Quebec resort of Tremblant or Stowe, in Vermont, is good when the weather obliges; but it can offer quite the wrong sort of challenge when the temperatures and pistes are icy. Further west, in Colorado, the hills grow into mountains, the snow becomes softer and more plentiful than the man-made stuff in the east, the weather is more benevolent, and the resorts offer the sort of skiing "product" that one expects from US businesses. Every aspect of a holiday there – hotels, ski rentals, French fries, lift queues – is well-organised, well-marketed, and quality-controlled.

Go all the way across to the Pacific Northwest, and you get the best that North America has to offer, according to most polls conducted there: Whistler, in British Columbia. Apart from the sometimes damp weather, most skiers are pushed to find fault with it; and the two ski areas of Whistler and Blackcomb, though small by comparison with some in Europe, are expertly designed to provide good terrain for skiers of all levels.

This season sees improvements at many US resorts, notably those in Utah, where February's Winter Olympics will be held. Although much of Utah's investment has gone into lodging, Snowbird has installed a new lift, which will link its slopes with those of Alta, creating one of the US's biggest skis areas. The word "ski" is the appropriate one, since Alta has maintained its ban on snowboarders – unlike Aspen, which now admits them to its home mountain, Ajax.

One type of development that seemed set to sweep across North American resorts was the "ski village" concept. The success of Intrawest's slope-side communities led other resort owners to announce similar plans, rather belatedly accepting that skiers had no particular desire to drive to ski areas from distant condominiums. But although Aspen has a village project for its Snowmass area – to be developed with Intrawest – financial problems at two of the big North American resort owners may stall this revolution.

Currently, many British skiers rent cars on their US holidays. Bear in mind that insurance laws differ from state to state. Study your rental agreement as closely as your patience allows. Hertz is currently pursuing me for the cost of a windscreen to replace the one that cracked – through no fault of my own – on a hire car last season. I'm avoiding the company at the moment; but I suppose I'll have to pay up in the end.

 

Ski Independence: 0870 555 0555. Ski All America: 0870 1676 676. The Vail Resorts offer is available through those two operators, plus Ski the American Dream (020- 8552 1201), Crystal (0870 848 7000) and Thomson (0870 606 1470)

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