Head west to North America for value this ski season
There are some great deals available at North American ski resorts this winter – but you'll have to move quickly, says Stephen Wood
Saturday 24 October 2009
In these harsh economic times, every rational skier would surely choose to ski in France rather than North America. Its resorts are much easier and quicker to get to, its mountains steeper, edgier, sharper, and its ski areas much bigger. But all skiers have their own favourites, fancies and foibles. Even as the head says France, the heart may say North America.
My own affection for the western slopes of North America is largely based on the fact that trees there can grow at up to 4,000m, almost twice the altitude they reach in the Alps. That might not impress those who flock to the almost treeless moonscape of the upper reaches of Val d'Isère, the most popular resort among UK skiers, but they might well prefer the charm of US service staff to the "customer-facing" attitude of their French counterparts.
Then there's the snow. In the western climes of the US, the snow is not only plentiful but also reliably softer and fluffier than in the Alps. Indeed, Utah's car licence plates bear the slogan "The Greatest Snow on Earth".
In contrast, the licence plates of Vermont, on the east coast, proclaim it the "Green Mountain State". But even though its snow conditions cannot match those found in the Rockies and the Wasatch mountains, skiing in New England – with its local ski-hills, rich history, farming villages and unbeatably charming skiers – is a taste I have not just acquired, but upgraded into a full-blown addiction.
On both sides of the North American continent the ski experience is a great deal more civilised than in the Alps. Resort hosts and ski concierges are easy to find; lift queues aren't. The slopes aren't quite so sociable, because they are so sparsely populated; after one day's skiing at Sun Valley, I did some sums and found that, on an average day, the Idaho resort provided three-quarters of an acre per skier.
My ideal skiing day has evolved over time.At the moment, I'd choose to wake in an Austrian hotel, ski with Scandinavians on French terrain, and have lunch in Italy; but, as ever, I'd eat my evening meal in North America, as much for the superb pinot noir from the Willamette and Okanagan valleys (in Oregon and British Columbia respectively) as for the reliably well-prepared, eclectic and keenly priced food.
And there is one further reason for crossing the Atlantic in search of snow. Forget the dollar exchange rate and the cost of long-haul flying (but do remember that tour-operator prices for pre-booked lift passes, set when the pound was stronger, should be a bargain); the deals are amazing, provided you book soon.
Consider this package from the tour operator Ski Dream. It is offering a week in January at the five-star Four Seasons hotel in Whistler-Blackcomb – where the 2010 Winter Olympics will take place in February – for as little as £999. As well as accommodation, flights (from Heathrow with Air Canada) and transfers, this includes some extraordinary sweeteners. There's a free room upgrade through two comfort levels (ie from "Moderate" to "De Luxe"); and guests get tokens worth C$400 (£240) to spend in the hotel on food and beverages. By the reckoning of Jonny Cassidy, Ski Dream's general manager, that's a price cut of about £700. I then asked him what an equivalent holiday cost last season. He checked, and the answer was £500 more.
Be warned, though: the package must be booked by 31 October. The same deadline applies to Ski Dream's other bargain offers to North American resorts. In Colorado, these include January weeks at the five-star Westin Riverfront in Avon from £849 (including a lift that accesses the slopes of Beaver Creek), at the four-star Cascade in Vail from £999, and at the three-star The Vintage in Winter Park from £599.
What lies behind these offers? This time last year Michael Bennett, managing director of North American specialist Ski Independence, explained that the big players in the transatlantic ski market had the wit to get their deep discount deals in early and bank some money. That strategy is being repeated this year.
"For the North America resorts we are only a small part of their business," says Bennett. "But their big, national markets have been weak recently, and they have had to react. And they know that if they offer us good deals, we will come.
"Of course, it helps that our economy is looking a little stronger. People are saying: 'Oh well, I still have a job; and I still like skiing.' Our bookings are going well, especially in the US, where Vail Resorts has some terrific deals. Winter Park, Copper Mountain and Breckenridge in Colorado are all selling well."
Vail Resorts is a Wall-Street-quoted corporation that owns four ski resorts in Colorado – Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone. Its performance in the 2008-09 season illustrates the problem that "destination" resorts, which normally welcome skiers from all over the continent, have had since the collapse in the global economy.
Skiers from places such as Denver and Boulder continued to head for the resorts, so local business declined by only 3.5 per cent. But the company estimates the equivalent figure for out-of-state and international visitors was 15 per cent. So while lift-ticket sales held up, revenue from hotel rooms and other lodgings fell sharply. Hence the interest in UK skiers, whose visits to Colorado's destination resorts are roughly three times as long, on average, as those of North Americans.
The US has also benefited from what Bennett calls "the Olympic factor". Rightly or wrongly, UK skiers usually fear that their holidays will be disrupted by major events such as the Winter Olympics.
"That has made Whistler – usually a big market for us – a hard sell in February; and the demand has had to go elsewhere." It has gone primarily to the US, he says, because UK skiers still want what Whistler offers: a single-flight itinerary to a resort where the skiing is close to the lodging – which is commonplace in Colorado.
Of course, Whistler has had to fight back, which explains the remarkable discounts. How do those offers – and those available for 2009-10 – compare with what has been available from Ski Independence in recent years? "They are the best deals ever," Bennett says.
Travel essentials: North America
*Among Ski Independence's (0131 243 8097; ski-i.com ) bargain packages include a 10-night holiday at the five-star Fairmont Chateau in Whistler costing from £1,235, including direct BA flights and transfers, with a C$800 (£480) food and beverage credit or room upgrade; a week at the five-star St Regis in Aspen costing from £1,109, including direct BA flights to Denver and transfers; and eight nights in an apartment in Winter Park costing from £699, based on four sharing, with direct BA flights to Denver and transfers. The prices of all three are based on holidays in December; bookings for Aspen must be made by 1 December, for Whistler and Winter Park by 15 November.
* Ski Dream (0845 277 3333; wandotravel.com/ski ).
* Four Seasons Resort Whistler, 4591 Blackcomb Way, Whistler, BC, Canada (001 604 935 3400; fourseasons.com/whistler ).
* Westin Riverfront, 126 Riverfront Lane, Avon, Colorado, US (001 970 790 6000; westin.com/riverfront ).
* The Vintage Hotel, 100 Winter Park Drive, Winter Park, Colorado, US (001 800 472 7017; vintagehotel.com ).
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