Here are the snows of yesteryear

Situated on the same latitude as the French Riviera, the resort of Stowe is known for its unpredictable winters. But does it deserve its billing as the ski capital of the eastern USA?
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The Independent Travel

On the drive up through New England from Boston to the resort of Stowe, one can't help but appreciate how green and mountainous the state of Vermont is, even when it is still many miles away. Each US state appends to its car registration plate a slogan drawing attention to the area's peculiar appeal: in Indiana it is "Amber waves of grain", in Idaho the "Famous potatoes"; New Hampshire's most notable characteristic is apparently its inhabitants' resolution to "Live free or die". Vermont's plates announce that it is the "Green Mountain State".

On the drive up through New England from Boston to the resort of Stowe, one can't help but appreciate how green and mountainous the state of Vermont is, even when it is still many miles away. Each US state appends to its car registration plate a slogan drawing attention to the area's peculiar appeal: in Indiana it is "Amber waves of grain", in Idaho the "Famous potatoes"; New Hampshire's most notable characteristic is apparently its inhabitants' resolution to "Live free or die". Vermont's plates announce that it is the "Green Mountain State".

The last time I visited Stowe, just over a year ago, the slopes of its (and Vermont's) highest peak, the 4,395ft Mount Mansfield, unfortunately lived up to the claim made on almost every passing car. The ski area was indeed in a green mountain state. From the village it was just possible to make out - through the damp, misty air - three white stripes running down through the forest, where all the slush that the resort could muster had been scraped together to provide a surface on which to ski, in a fashion.

I enjoyed my stay in what the US Ski magazine describes as "the ski capital" of the eastern USA; but that was thanks to the deep-pile comfort of the Trapp Family Lodge (run by descendants of the singing Von Trapps on whom the Sound of Music was based), a meeting with Jake Burton (founder of Burton Snowboards, and a Stowe resident), and excellent food - some of it from Harvest Market, an extravagant deli owned by Jake Burton's wife. The skiing was, frankly, a washout.

Heading back up to Stowe with my wife last week, it was obvious from the snow-lined highways and the very crisp weather that we were in for a different sort of trip. New England weather is notoriously volatile, but Vermont's green mountains were already white, and the area's biggest snowstorm for 40 years was expected in a couple of days. This time, the skiing was excellent.

For all its youthful, cutting-edge associations - both Burton Snowboards and Line Skiboards are based in nearby Burlington - Stowe's big attraction lies in its history. The old village area, dominated by an elegant church spire that figures prominently on the resort's logo, was settled by 1800; and 60 years later it was generating enough summer tourism to justify the building of a 300-room hotel (which burned down in 1889). Its skiing goes back a long way, too, the first trails being created in a public-works programme during the depression of the 1930s. The surviving Nosedive, a long, steep black run, was cut through the trees in 1935, and the great majority of the other pistes date back to the 1940s.

The best-known are the "Front Four", which drop off a fast, four-seater chair-lift. All rated as the highest-category, double-black-diamond runs ("Do not attempt these trails unless your skills, equipment and conditioning are in top shape", warns the piste map), they provide steep, invigorating skiing, particularly on the huge bumps of Goat, a piste so enjoyably tricky that I skied it three times in succession, never once getting off the steepest pitch without a fall.

There was no such problem on the main area's other exceptional trail - the long and easy Toll Road, which wanders through the trees from the Octagon peak to the valley - nor on the fast blues which run down beneath the Mount Mansfield gondola. But a biting wind and a temperature of minus 2F led me to study at length an alpine vegetation display board in the shelter of the top station, admiring the wisdom of the Three-Toothed Cinquefoil (which grows its stems underground for protection from the cold) and pondering the surprising fact that Stowe is on the same latitude as the French Riviera (the wide variation in their temperatures is apparently caused by low-pressure systems off the Atlantic coast).

The following day - bright, but still very cold - we skied the Spruce Peak face, which is linked to the Smuggler's Notch slopes on the far side of the mountain. Much quieter than Stowe's other areas (for the time being: the resort has plans for a $150m development which includes a village at the Spruce base), this has easier skiing on trails which sweep through the trees, beautifully frosted last week. My wife is no fan of the extremes of Vermont winters; but when, at the end of the day, we got to the bottom of the Sterling piste she demanded that we repeat the experience, although we knew that the Christmas-week traffic jam would be backing up the five-mile Mountain Road between the ski area and the village.

Good skiing did not, however, entirely distract us from Stowe's more sybaritic and generally more expensive pleasures. Starting from the village itself - small but quietly unpretentious, with its old-fashioned general stores - an up-market strip-mall of inns, restaurants and craft shops runs along Mountain Road. You can sleep and eat well here: we did both in one of the resort's blue-chip establishments, the Green Mountain Inn, whose original structure dates back to 1833. You can also get relief from "tense muscles, sore joints, stressed emotions and weary spirit" at the Stoweflake Resort Spa.

While I explored the village's great hardware store, my wife spent more than an hour in LaStone Therapy, being massaged with heated and chilled stones. Weird, but apparently quite wonderful.

Finally, a marginal note. By comparison with Alpine resorts, the skiing at Stowe is not exceptionally challenging. Eastern US resorts habitually overrate the difficulty of their pistes, presumably as a defence against personal-injury suits; and no doubt it was a lawyer who inserted the piste-map's caveat that its colours and symbols indicate the "degree of slope difficulty ... relative to Stowe". Different standards mean that skiers such as myself - in European terms I am an intermediate, and that is how I describe myself on ski-rental forms - spend much of their time on a US resort's "expert" pistes. Two of my falls on Goat were caused by a ski becoming detached, because the binding adjustment was too forgiving for terrain which demanded aggressive skiing. Somebody could get hurt that way...

 

Crystal Holidays (0870 848 7000) offers seven-day packages at the Green Mountain Inn (001 802 253 7301/www.greenmountaininn.com) for from £445 this month. LaStone Therapy at the Stoweflake Resort (00 1 802 253 7355/www.stoweflake.com) costs $115 (£80)

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