Skiing: Rocky mountain lowdown

Are standards slipping in the North American ski industry? Or is the local competition becoming too intense?

Killington in Vermont has the biggest ski area in New England, the world's most extensive snow-making system, and - thanks to its own efforts rather than the blessings of nature - the longest season in the eastern USA. Sounds like quite a ski resort, doesn't it? But it isn't
quite a ski resort, because it has no village. At the main lift-base there is a day lodge, with offices, a ski shop and a restaurant; there is a large hotel and conference centre, and a huge car park. Killington's skiers commute to the slopes from accommodation spread along five miles of road, and head off down to a sort of motorway service-station for the aprÿs-ski scene.

Killington in Vermont has the biggest ski area in New England, the world's most extensive snow-making system, and - thanks to its own efforts rather than the blessings of nature - the longest season in the eastern USA. Sounds like quite a ski resort, doesn't it? But it isn't quite a ski resort, because it has no village. At the main lift-base there is a day lodge, with offices, a ski shop and a restaurant; there is a large hotel and conference centre, and a huge car park. Killington's skiers commute to the slopes from accommodation spread along five miles of road, and head off down to a sort of motorway service-station for the aprÿs-ski scene.

Clearly, such an arrangement somewhat diminishes the attraction of the place. But this being the USA, Killington's owner - the American Skiing Company, one of North America's big ski-area conglomerates - has come up with a simple if expensive solution to the problem: it is to build a brand-new resort village at the lift-base, with construction due to start next summer.

In this it is following the example of its equivalent across the Canadian border, the giant Intrawest corporation, which has created pedestrian villages (a novel concept to most North Americans) at the heart of several of its resorts.

Such has been the success of Intrawest's strategy of offering an experience akin to that of the Alpine ski village that its key resort planner Eldon Beck - responsible for the design of the remarkable centre at Tremblant in Quebec, for example - has been hired by Les Arcs in France to work on its new development.

That is one perspective on the relationship between skiing in the Alps and in North America. Another is that this year's edition of the Where to Ski and Snowboard guide has noted "the first signs of slipping standards in American service". For six years the guide has extolled the virtues of the service available in US and Canadian resorts; now it reports that while that reputation may be tarnishing, service improvements in some Alpine resorts, notably Courchevel, mean that skiers can have a nice day there, too.

Is skiing on the two continents becoming similar? Only up to a point. True comparisons are impossible because the skiing experience is even more diverse in North America than in Alpine countries. But some generalisations are valid: even with a blindfold you could tell when you were in Alpine self-catering accommodation rather than the wide-open spaces of the North American condo, because with each step you would bump into some furniture; and out on the slopes the free-for-all of the Alps is in clear contrast to the well-ordered pistes and lift-queues across the Atlantic. Despite all the late-Sixties tower blocks in France, it is much more common in North American resorts to be aware that you are skiing in a purpose-made environment rather than in the surroundings of an old mountain settlement; and the giant, linked ski areas of the Alps have no equivalent in North America.

The big plus-points of North American skiing holidays are the uncrowded pistes (thanks in no small measure to the paltry holiday entitlement of the locals), extensive snow-making, the reliably good value of food and drinks, our common language (a boon for socialising, as well as for ski instruction) and the sheer efficiency of the resorts: the ski-lifts may close early, but it is still possible to pack a lot of skiing into a day. The service remains broadly very good, too.

One can't generalise about the skiing experience in North America, however. What is true of the smaller, family friendly resorts of the eastern seaboard (keen prices, iffy weather, charming scenery, undramatic skiing) clearly does not apply to the heroic skiers' favoured destinations out west, such as Jackson Hole, in Wyoming, and Whistler, across the border in British Columbia, nor to the sophisticated new-money (and lots of it) Colorado resorts of Vail and Aspen. Some US resorts stand apart from all others, both geographically and stylistically: Taos in New Mexico, I am told by a friend (regrettably, I still haven't been there), offers a unique combination of a desert setting, adobe architecture and wicked skiing, while Sun Valley in Idaho has a degree of old-fashioned class and comfort - both on and off the slopes - which is unmatched anywhere west of St Moritz. For the variety of its resorts, North America is unbeatable.

That was not what attracted the British away from their traditional haunts in the Alps and across the Atlantic in the mid-Nineties, when the trickle of skiers turned into a stream; rather, it was the strength of the pound against the US and Canadian dollars. Once prohibitively expensive for most skiers, North American skiing came within financial reach.

Then, it was the United States resorts that were the big draw; but now the situation has changed. The rise of the US dollar has meant Canada is the real transatlantic bargain, and charter flights to the west of the country (there are no such services to the USA) have turned the resorts of Banff, Lake Louise, Kimberley and Fernie, all close to Calgary airport, into something of a British fiefdom. Whistler, further to the west, has now become the most popular North American destination for British skiers.

Good value is undoubtedly what attracts skiers to western Canada; but it is the epic landscapes, good snow and big skiing which keeps them going back, plus plentiful heli-skiing for the experts. Eastern Canadian resorts cannot compete on those criteria; but Tremblant is close to Montreal airport, good for families, slightly exotic (since it's in a French-speaking province) and has remarkable charm for a purpose-built resort - all available at Canadian-dollar prices.

Canada's popularity among British skiers is bad news for the USA: our tendency to stay in North America for long periods - the average US guest stays four nights at Aspen, for example, while the average Briton is there for 10 - makes us particularly valuable customers. For the time being, the question how US resorts compare with those in the Alps is probably less important to their owners than how well they stack up against the resorts north of the border.

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