the skier's guide to... New England

There's an old-fashioned quaintness here which you won't find at any other resort in the world. The service is laid back rather than polished. And you won't feel pressure to turn up in the latest designer ski-wear. By Stephen Roe

TALL white church steeples, covered bridges, frozen lakes, snow- capped colonial farmhouses and red-brick Federalist homes. These are some of the sights that greet skiers as they drive north from Boston into the New England ski country of New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine.

New England is the laid-back, unhurried north eastern corner of the USA that retains a folksy charm you won't find elsewhere in America. Around a dozen ski resorts in New England are packaged by British tour operators, all within a two- to four-hour drive from the historic city of Boston, which itself is well worth a stopover.

Several daily non-stop flights operate between London and Boston, and keen competition has pushed fares to their lowest ever levels this season. Time difference is only five hours (compared to seven or eight in western USA) and because the mountains in New England are at a comparatively low altitude, there is no altitude sickness.

On the downside, it can be incredibly cold - as in the weeks just after New Year - creating icy slopes and less reliable snow conditions. This is not the place to come for guaranteed deep champagne powder. To compensate for this, many of the resorts have installed extensive and highly sophisticated snow-making equipment to ensure most of the runs stay open all season. Killington, in Vermont, took things to extremes last year and kept some runs open until mid-June to prove just how good its artificial snow making could be.

Renting a car is highly recommended and most winter package holidays to this area include one. The roads are good and it gives you a chance to try out several resorts and do some sightseeing and bargain hunting. There are no sales taxes in New Hampshire and discounted designer shopping malls and "factory outlets" can be found in all three states.

STYLE

When the Von Trapp family (of The Sound of Music fame) escaped Nazi persecution in Austria, they settled in the mountains of Vermont because the countryside so reminded them of home. Descendants of the family now run an excellent cross-country ski lodge just outside the picture-postcard village of Stowe. The reason they are still so happily ensconced in this backwater of North America is, perhaps, because things don't change too rapidly. Service in this part of the world is relaxed rather than polished and you would probably feel quite out of place if you turned out in the latest designer labels.

ACCOMMODATION

Many of the hotels and guest houses in New England are family run, providing cosy rooms, big log fires, good home cooking and bars where you can often meet the locals, not just fellow tourists. There is plenty of spacious self-catering close to the slopes and scores of good-value motels a short drive away. Very few of the big American chain hotels are in evidence here which makes for a refreshing change. Their rigid, standardised formats might not go down too well in this highly individualistic part of America. Most of the slope-side properties are either self-catering or in the functional two- and three-star categories.

To find somewhere special it is often worth staying a 20-30 minute drive away from the base stations.

Woodstock Inn in the pretty Vermont village of Woodstock greets its guests with a huge log fire in the lobby, cosy bars and excellent restaurants. The five-star hotel has cross country skiing from the door and can also arrange practice runs on the village's own mini ski mountain Suicide Six - which has just three lifts and nine pistes. Woodstock is a 25-minute drive from Killington, one of New England's biggest ski areas.

The Equinox is another excellent five-star property in Manchester Village, about 25 minutes from Stratton Mountain. Facilities here include an indoor pool and gym. Non-skiing partners are unlikely to get bored as Manchester is full of charming walks and opportunities to visit picturesque villages like nearby Dorset. There are also excellent heavily discounted designer label shopping outlets in the village.

The Green Mountain Inn is a popular hostelry in the heart of Stowe village, about 20 minutes on the shuttle from the base station. Its three-star rating really does not do it justice. It has several lively bars and restaurants and many of its rooms feature four-poster beds, fireplaces and jacuzzi baths.

The four-star Trapp Family Lodge outside Stowe village has great mountain views and cross-country skiing from the door. There is live entertainment, good restaurants, an indoor swimming pool, sauna and gym.

EATING

In keeping with most North American winter resorts, food on the mountain in New England tends to be pretty bland and predictable - with one or two notable exceptions like the Cliff House at the top of the gondola in Stowe which has stunning views and serves an excellent full-service lunch. Ten Acres is a good place for dinner in Stowe or you could try Miguels for Mexican food or Grades for a good burger and fries.

In most New England resorts you can enjoy huge home-cooked breakfasts in some unlikely looking hostelries. They can be great value and set you up for the day. Just ask advice from the locals. They really are exceptionally friendly here and they'll love your British accent!

In Killington you can eat Japanese, Chinese, Italian - in fact almost anything you fancy in what has become New England's most cosmopolitan ski resort. There are good steaks at the Wobbly Barn and if you like spare ribs, try Casey's Caboose.

APRES SKI

In family oriented resorts like Smugglers' Notch, apres ski activities can sometimes be little more than a game of Scrabble around a log fire, sipping a mug of hot chocolate. But those who want to party all night should head for Killington.

While it lacks charm during the daylight hours, Killington really comes to life at night. It is New England's biggest and brashest ski resort that promotes itself as "The Beast of the East". Killington has a special appeal for young Americans and at weekends, when the New Yorkers arrive, the bars and clubs are really humming. Among the noisiest are Charity, The Pickle Barrel and Nightspot.

BEST FOR BEGINNERS

Smugglers' Notch, in Vermont, is very much a family resort and ideal for first-time skiers. It justifiably prides itself on having some of the best facilities for young children and infants. Many of the hotels and packages allow kids to stay free when accompanied by their parents.

Smugglers' provides a good introduction to a first- time ski holiday and its ski school has a reputation for gentle learning techniques. The nearby resort of Stowe also has good ski and snowboard teaching facilities and a sizeable self contained area of gentle nursery slopes. Further north in the state of Maine, Sunday River features a "Guaranteed to Learn to Ski in One Day" programme, which sounds a little ambitious to me. Teenagers and twentysomethings skiing or snowboarding for the first time might prefer the extensive teaching schools at Killington, where 45 per cent of the pistes are said to be in the green "easy run" category.

INTERMEDIATES

Vermont's Stratton Mountain has a reputation for its immaculate grooming of dozens of ideal cruising intermediate runs. Even its black diamond runs are said to be maintained in such a manicured condition as to avoid too much difficulty. And for those who tire of the slopes early, there are arcades of designer label shopping outlets just a 20-minute drive away in Manchester Village. As a result locals have dubbed the area "Yuppie Hill".

Killington also has miles of good intermediate cruising runs. To enjoy sampling several good but smaller intermediate resorts in one holiday, it is worth pointing your rental car up Interstate 93 for two hours from Boston into New Hampshire. Here you can ski a different resort each day choosing between Loon, Bretton Woods, Waterville Valley, Cannon and several other smaller centres. They are all so close that it really doesn't matter which one you decide to stay in.

EXPERTS

Advanced skiers will enjoy getting the adrenaline pumping on some of the more testing black diamond pistes and tricky mogul fields at Maine's Sunday River. Head for the Barker, White Cap and Aurora Peaks and try runs like Obsession, Vortex, Shock Wave, Agony and White Heat.

There are some breathtaking views of Bethel Village and the surrounding valley. Killington also has its share of steep terrain and some long mogul runs. Outer Limits and Devil's Fiddle are not for the faint hearted. Even Stowe, noted more for its intermediate and easy terrain, has four very steep double diamond chutes which can be extremely tricky in icy conditions.

SNOWBOARDERS

Snowboarders are welcomed all over New England with each resort now competing to build bigger and better facilities and fun parks. Stratton Mountain was voted the best resort in North America for snowboarding in 1997 and will host the 1998 US Open Snowboarding Championships from March 19-23. A huge new snowboarding park was opened this season which includes a championship half pipe and numerous other special features for boarders which are described as the "world's ultimate snowboard showcase". One of the main chairlifts climbs directly over the park giving passengers a bird's eye view of all the action. Stratton has snowboard instruction programmes for everyone from beginners to expert standards and there are dedicated residential snowboard camps.

HOW TO GET THERE

British Airways (0345 222111) has fares this season from London to Boston return for pounds l89, inclusive of all departure taxes. American Airlines (0345 789789) has Boston return for pounds 195 inclusive and Virgin Atlantic (01293 747747) has Boston return for pounds 188 inclusive. All flights are non-stop. In Boston it is best to hire a car and drive north for two to four hours depending on your selected resort area. Fly/drive fares are also available and most winter sports packages to New England include car hire.

TOUR OPERATORS

Ski Independence (0990 550555) has the Trapp Family Lodge at Stowe, Vermont for seven nights, including flights with American Airlines to Boston and car rental from pounds 579.

Inghams (0181 780 4444) has seven nights at the Snow Cap Inn, Sunday River, Maine from pounds 369, including flights with Virgin Atlantic and car hire.

Virgin Ski (01293 617181) has seven nights at Continental 93 Travellers' Inn, New Hampshire, including flights and car hire from pounds 419.

Ski the American Dream (0181 552 1201) has seven nights at The Village, at Smugglers' Notch, Vermont for a family of four from pounds l,339, including flights and car hire. Crystal Holidays (0181 399 5144) is offering a total of seven nights at the Crystal Club Hotel in Killington, Vermont with half board, free wine, flights to Boston with Virgin Atlantic, car hire or coach transfers from pounds 535.

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