New England: Offering mountains of charm
It may not provide doorstep skiing, but the genteel atmosphere of Stowe makes up for that, says Anthony Sattin
Saturday 22 October 2005
My sons sounded worried as we drove into Stowe: "Are you sure this is the right place?" I understood their concern. It looked similar to the other flat, cute New England towns we had seen on the way up to northern Vermont, with clapboard houses, a neoclassical town hall and whitewashed church. The Stars and Stripes fluttered outside Shaw's General Store. When we found the house we were renting, a converted 19th-century farmhouse on the edge of town, we discovered a big range in the kitchen and a rocker near the hearth - it was the sort of place you'd expect to find pancake mix and maple syrup as standbys for breakfast. Sure enough, there they were, waiting for us. The boys went to bed anxious: "Are you really sure we're in the right place?"
Doubts lingered into the morning, and the first sight of Main Street did nothing to allay them. Stowe is picture-perfect, small, quiet and flat. It doesn't look like a ski resort. Only when we went for breakfast did we finally see what we were looking for: over muffins and skinny lattes in the Harvest Market, over massive crêpes in the Dutch Pancake House, over waffles in McCarthy's diner, we found couples, groups and families in salopettes and heavy boots, ski gear piled by the door. This was indeed "the right place": Stowe, the self-proclaimed ski capital of the eastern US.
This was our first time skiing in the US and the first, most obvious difference between Stowe and anywhere we had seen in Europe was its situation. In the Alps and Dolomites, where we had been in previous years, you get used to seeing mountains from the bedroom window. In Stowe, the Farm House looked on to a barn, a field, a road. It was this lack of view that stoked the boys' concern.
There is a mountain, of course, several of them, most notably Mount Mansfield, seven miles away. But Stowe was laid out long before anyone had the idea of sliding down the mountain for fun. The town is oriented differently from any ski resort I know of, and it has an air of gentility not often found in Europe's mountains. But as its fortune has become increasingly tied to the nearby mountains, so Stowe has reached out to embrace them: Mountain Road (there's a free shuttle if you don't feel like driving) is lined with shops, restaurants and resort hotels.
The mountain fascination dates back to the 1850s, when people from Stowe cut a road to the top of Mount Mansfield. A hotel was opened at the summit in 1858 (it has since disappeared, though there is still a restaurant) and people have been heading this way ever since. At 4,395ft, Mount Mansfield isn't high by European standards - Courchevel sits well over 6,000ft - but there's a drop of almost 3,000ft from peak to base and some of it seems almost vertical. Look up and you can see the double-black-diamond Front Four trails cutting through the pine-covered slopes.
We were starting more modestly, as befits people who have spent a total of 10 days of their lives on skis. The first of those days had convinced Sylvie, my wife, that she wanted nothing to do with steep slopes, so she went off to the cross-country centre, which claims to have some of the finest trails in the US. We headed across the road to the Spruce Peak beginners' slopes.
Spruce Peak has been at the centre of a local controversy ever since the company that runs the ski area, Stowe Mountain Resort, won permission to build an Alpine-style resort at its base. The resort is to be the centrepiece of a 10-year, $250m (£140m) redevelopment intended to put Stowe at the forefront of the competitive ski market. But as it will be able to offer doorstep skiing and mountain views, it is also likely to draw business away from Stowe town. Whether it succeeds remains to be seen. But in the meantime, everyone gets to enjoy the improvements, such as high-speed lifts up the peak and snow-making equipment.
The boys, who had previously learnt to ski, now decided to take snowboarding lessons, which made sense, given that Jake Burton Carpenter, the man credited with dreaming up the sport, is a local. Johnny, my eldest, had tried this before; Felix was a complete beginner. Snowboarding has become more of a lifestyle than a sport, and the instructors who took them onto the slopes seemed the epitome of that spirit: laid-back, super-friendly and wearing the right labels. With the boys in the safe hands of cool dudes, I clipped into my skis.
There are three main ski areas. Spruce Peak has the gentlest slopes, though even here there is fun to be had. The Gondolier, an eight-person gondola, runs almost 8,000ft up the steeper slope of Mount Mansfield's neighbour. And then there is the mount itself. For the first couple of days I stayed on the easier slopes, carving my way down some beautiful broad trails and keeping an eye out for the boys, who had quickly taken to their boards. At the end of the first day, they were both gliding gracefully down Spruce Peak's intermediate slopes. At the end of the second day, after their lessons, I took them up to the steeper slopes. It hadn't snowed since our arrival and some of the surface was hard - and fast - as ice. But apart from a few falls, we managed everything the peak had to offer. The next day we would move over to Mount Mansfield.
It snowed that night. Not a little coating, but a big, American-style dump of woolly flakes that settled several feet deep. Snow-ploughs were out early and the atmosphere over muffins at the Harvest Market was charged. "It doesn't get much better than this," I was assured. And nor does it. While the boys were at their lessons on Spruce Peak, I went up Mount Mansfield. Not all its runs are double-black diamonds. One of them, the Toll Road, opened to horse and buggy traffic in 1870, offers more than 3.5 miles of gentle downhill cruising.
I was alone for my first run down the intermediate trails, but as the morning went on, more and more people came, among them a ski instructor from Mont Tremblant, across the border in Canada. "I heard about the snow here," he explained as we went up, "and reckoned it was going to be one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences."
He wasn't wrong. Snow covered the trails like whipped cream and everyone went down with a smile on their face. By the afternoon, when I took the boys up, the wind had picked up, temperatures dropped and snow was flying all over the place. We were being blown off the little shelf at the top of the lift, over towards a sudden drop. "Is this the right place?" Johnny shouted. He didn't hear my reply - the wind took it away - but it was too late, we were on our way, swinging and swooping, carving and occasionally trying to jump through the powder on the long, glorious ride to the base.
The snow had stopped by nightfall, when Sylvie and I headed for the Whip, a club-styled bar in the centre of town. I was expecting to find a room full of people talking over the events of the day, but not even the barman seemed to think it was a worthy topic of conversation. We talked about books, bourbon, the civility of people in Vermont, the state of the world - everything, in fact, but the magnificence of the powder that lay in heaps across the mountain and town and so disguised the Home Farm that as we drove back, I almost missed the turning and asked Sylvie, "Is this the right place?".
The closest airport to Stowe Mountain Resort is Burlington VT, with flights offered from Boston and New York JFK.
Home Farm House, where the writer stayed, sleeps up to 12 and costs from $750 (£417) per week through Stowe Country Rentals (00 1 802 253 8132; www.stowecountryrentals.com).
The Green Mountain Inn (00 1 802 253 7301; www.greenmountaininn.com) has been a Stowe landmark since it opened in 1833. Doubles start at $136 (£76).
The Trapp Family Lodge (00 1 802 253 8511; www.trappfamily.com) is still run by the family behind The Sound of Music story. Doubles start at $228 (£127), room only.
Prices for lift passes, equipment rental and lessons can be found at www.stowe.com, the website of the Stowe Mountain Resort (00 1 802 253 3000).
Stowe Area Association (0800 731 9279; www.gostowe.com).
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