Service included: Skiing in North America
Why go skiing in North America when Europe has so many thriving resorts? Well, for the great snow, the amazing value – and the warm welcome, says Stephen Wood
Saturday 10 November 2007
Over the past 11 months there has been more talk about snow than usual in the skiing community, and not just in the Northern Hemisphere. With Alpine skiing blighted by the absence of snow at the beginning of December 2006, how could it be otherwise? Yet where weather conditions were otherwise, the outcome was the same: much talk about snow. Certainly the Australians were crowing about the early-season snowfall they enjoyed during our summer. At the resort of Perisher Blue it was the best in 17 years.
More to the point, for those of us who ski in winter, are the conditions which prevailed in Whistler Blackcomb throughout the 2006-7 season. The British Columbia resort, the most popular in North America among UK skiers, had its second snowiest season ever with a total snowfall of close to 50 feet, 40 per cent above the average. Already, the 2007/8 season is looking good, too, not just at Whistler (which had a good dusting of snow at the beginning of October) but elsewhere in North America. The big US resorts are building a good base of snow on their ski terrain. Aspen/Snowmass in Colorado, for example, had between six and eight inches of snowfall on its two main mountains by mid-October, and several other Colorado and Utah resorts also reported good pre-season cover.
What does all this talk amount to? Possibly not much in the long term, but in the short term a hell of a lot. Consider the figures announced by Ski Independence, the leading North American ski specialist, towards the end of last month. It reported that sales were up by 26 per cent year on year. With the consistently good snow it had in all its western ski areas last season, Canada – which enjoyed a nine per cent growth in British skiers in January to March this year – is showing the most dramatic increases. Sales to Whistler are up so far by 57 per cent, which for the resort which was already the biggest seller, is remarkable. Banff is not far behind, with growth of 54 per cent. In the US the snow was more patchy in 2006-7: when I was at the Lake Tahoe resorts in January, for example, the cover was fairly thin. Nevertheless, Ski Independence's sales to several US ski destinations have increased markedly, Aspen/Snowmass leading the way with growth of 54 per cent.
Many in the European ski business are concerned about the effect last December's poor snow will have on the coming season. Ski Independence's figures are the sort of thing that makes them fearful. All this talk about snow is making ski holidays in North America seem more attractive, and the Alpine resorts less so.
For its quality and quantity, snow is one of the perennial attractions of North America, at least out in the west. In Colorado, Alberta and beyond, snow is not actually guaranteed, as the Californian resorts showed early this year (and, more dramatically, Whistler proved a few seasons ago). But generally skiers in the Rockies and the Wasatch mountains can expect more and softer snow than falls on the Alps. Conditions are different on the east coast: there, the only certainty is that there will be some bitterly cold weather and that icy slopes will be a more-than-occasional hazard.
What else persuades UK skiers to travel thousands of miles to North American slopes? The quality of service, for a start. The brusque manner of many French "customer-facing" staff is obviously tolerable for most Britons – we are used to it, after all. But that doesn't mean that the friendliness, easy manner and dedication usually evident among North American service staff is not something to be savoured. And attitude isn't all. Should the same thing to go wrong in North America and Europe – a rental car that won't start, a binding that needs attention, a ticket that has to be changed – one would expect a solution to be found more quickly across the Atlantic. And there's the comfort in a crisis of sharing a common language.
A few years ago it was customary to cite "good-value eating and drinking" as a virtue of North American resorts. But things have changed, and "good value" is no longer accurate: with the exchange rate giving us better than two dollars to the pound in the US and only a few cents less in Canada, a more extreme description – maybe "amazing value" – is now needed. Over a decade, the cuisine has improved enormously, too, as has the local wine. On an idealised day, I might wake in an Austrian hotel and ski with Italians on French terrain, but I'd have my lunch in British Columbia, with the expectation of being offered well-prepared dishes ranging from sushi to gardenburgers. Anybody would choose North American lift queues over the European alternatives, and not just because they are short. While in France skiers expect to use their elbows to get up the mountain, the characteristic "lift line" is a small and civilised social gathering at which the locals will be offended if you don't precede them. And why not? What's the hurry to get on slopes which are so sparsely populated? I have quoted this statistic before, but it bears repeating: on an average day there are about 3,000 skiers on the slopes of Sun Valley in Idaho, which has more than 2,000 acres of skiing.
One thing all North American resorts have in common is that, thanks to the dollar exchange rates, their prices – at least for British skiers – are competitive with those in Alpine countries this season, despite the much longer journey. Other generalisations about US and Canadian skiing, though, are bound to be misleading. What is true of Alyeska in Alaska, with its frontier-town ambiance, does not reflect Tremblant, with its Disneyesque "village" just an hour up the road from Montreal. But – to generalise – most British skiers associate US skiing with what goes on in Colorado (where a quarter of the nation's winter-sport activity takes place), and Canada's with the big-mountain resorts in Alberta (Lake Louise, Banff) and British Columbia (Whistler Blackcomb).
Tremblant doesn't fit the latter mould, but it is popular among British skiers, particularly those travelling as a family. The skiing across the border, however, has little appeal: few Britons ski anywhere in east-coast US apart from at big, well-marketed and not very attractive Killington, and Sunday River in Maine, close to Canada.
Once, I was unimpressed with skiing in New England, too; now I find it irresistible. This is largely a reaction to the big North American resorts, with their commercial intensity, their monoculture (they exist only for winter sports), and their seasonal sense of community. Unless you are very single-minded about skiing and boarding, such resorts – sustained in recent years by the second-home boom, now possibly heading for a bust – can seem deeply uninteresting. But in New England, and specifically Vermont, the ski "hills" (that's what they are called, and what they are) are mainly local facilities in farming areas that have three centuries of settled history behind them.
The skiing itself goes back further here than in most parts of the Alps: the origins of the ski areas at Stowe, Bromley and Pico lie in the 1930s. And the small market towns in which many skiers sleep and eat are charming, characterful places. If you can bear the sometimes fearsomely cold weather, and put up with small hills (albeit plenty of them), a ski holiday in Vermont can be a joyful experience.
If many Britons regard Colorado as the epitome of US skiing, that's because Colorado is where we ski: our favourite US resort is Breckenridge, and the other Colorado locations in the portfolio of the Wall Street-quoted Vail Resorts corporation – Vail itself, Beaver Creek and Keystone – are also big attractions. These resorts line the Colorado "ski corridor" of the I-70 highway, which runs west out of Denver.
Further afield, however, the state has some relatively undiscovered gems. Up to the north is Steamboat, renowned for its tree skiing at 12,000ft; down to the south is Telluride, a surviving 19th-century mining town with an exquisite ski area attached; and between them, almost in the middle of nowhere, is Crested Butte, favoured with some of the most challenging skiing in a US resort. All three resorts seem to be flourishing. Both Steamboat and Crested Butte have new owners, and big plans for development; and Telluride's perfectly formed but small ski area has grown substantially for this season, with two new tranches of "back-country" terrain.
However the big structural change in Colorado this season will have a negative impact. The charter flights from the UK to Denver run by the Tui group for its Crystal and Thomson brands, the biggest in the UK ski market, have been cancelled. This decision was prompted, apparently, not by losses on the route but by the advent of a more profitable use of the aircraft (said to be religious pilgrimage flights). Capacity to Denver will be reduced, and prices will go up.
Who will take up the slack? Canada, probably. The ski business expects substantial growth there this season, and happily there is more capacity – much of it on low-cost flights and charters – on routes between the UK and Canada.
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