The Skier's Guide to the Rockies - Travel - The Independent

The Skier's Guide to the Rockies

Forget jet-lag and altitude sickness. Once you get to the USA the snow, the hotels, the people and the prices beat the best that our continental partners have to offer, which may be why they are reporting record bookings from Europe.

North America is perfect for family skiing, with excellent ski schools and enthusiastic private instructors who insist that learning must be fun before all else. The absence of European language barriers also means far fewer tears on the mountain. The slopes are groomed to perfection, and many resorts provide designated slow skiing family areas.

Safety is also a top priority in the United States, with ski patrollers and uniformed resort hosts very much in evidence and tough penalties for reckless behaviour. There are endless cruising areas for intermediates and many resorts boast some breathtaking double diamond black runs, mogul fields, and back bowls to challenge the most adventurous.

Daily bulletins are handed out each morning to advise visitors of the precise condition of each run and there are often Kleenex tissue dispensers for those waiting in the chair lift loading lines to complete the pampered experience.

The main drawbacks are jet lag from the long-haul flight time and a seven hour time difference, plus altitude sickness which affects some people during their first few days, as many of the resorts are at much higher altitude than European ski centres. But word has spread of the spacious accommodation and reliable "champagne powder" snow conditions. Tour operators are reporting record winter bookings to the USA for the coming season.

STYLE

Laid-back courtesy, a genuine desire to please, and impeccable, well trained service is in evidence throughout North American ski resorts. There is none of the jostling, barging, and queue jumping in lift queues that has become so commonplace in European resorts. When queues do occur they are minimised by jovial attendants who ensure that lines alternate and every seat is filled. Some resorts cultivate a cowboy image - with open-fire barbecues on the mountain - while others go to the extremes of ultimate luxury service by providing valets to carry your skis to the lifts.

ACCOMMODATION

Hotel rooms and apartments are huge when compared to typical mountain accommodation in Europe, with spacious bathrooms, satellite TV, and often log fireplaces. But unlike many European packages, tour operators' starting prices to the USA normally exclude meals and can be based on four people sharing a room in two double beds. But at current exchange rates, eating out in America is much cheaper than in Europe.

Hyatt Regency Beaver Creek (0345 581666), Beaver Creek/Vail, Colorado. The ultimate luxury ski-in, ski-out resort at the base of prestigious Beaver Creek mountain with big log fires indoors and outdoors, six outdoor heated whirlpools, extensive health club, and indoor/outdoor swimming pool.

Aspen Square (001 970 925 1000) in the heart of Aspen village, Colorado, and a short walk from the gondola. It is the ideal place for visitors wanting self-catering with all the comforts that American accommodation can provide. Every unit includes a log fireplace, big fitted kitchen, breakfast bar, and oversized bathroom. Facilities include a heated pool, fitness centre and a concierge desk to make restaurant reservations.

Best Western Ptarmigan Inn, Steamboat, Colorado (0181 541 0033). Well located three-star hotel without any luxury pretensions but offering good food and accommodation in a superb ski-in, ski-out location for those wanting to maximise time on the slopes. Facilities include sauna, hot tub, outdoor pool, restaurant, and apres ski bar.

EATING

On-mountain restaurants in America still have a long way to go before they can come close to those in many European resorts. In general they lack charm, ambience, and imagination. But basic meals and snacks are readily available in clean, efficient environments. And it's not expensive. Fast food has become an art form in Colorado's Winter Park which has established a Pizza Hotline at the top of the mountain - enabling skiers to place an order for fresh pizza to be ready and waiting when they reach the bottom.

The attitude seems to be: "We're here to ski and maximise quality time on the slopes. Eating can wait." After dark it's a different matter. Get local recommendations to seek out the more unusual gems. There are some excellent choices ranging from superb steak houses to a wide range of quality ethnic cuisine, dominated by Mexicans and Italians.

The Cosmopolitan in the Hotel Columbia, Telluride, Colorado, opposite the new hi-tech gondola base station, is the creation of award winning chef Chad Scothorn. The menus for both lunch and dinner are quite exceptional and surprisingly good value.

Mattie Silks in Steamboat, Colorado is a great place to enjoy apres ski atmosphere, with welcoming bartenders, and some excellent fish dishes in the full service restaurant.

Ajax Tavern at the foot of the Aspen gondola is a great place for people watching, good food, heady cocktails, and a lively ambience day and night. Aspen's newest hot spot is Baang, opposite the historic Hotel Jerome, which specialises in Asian cooking.

APRES SKI

Typically, Apres ski in America starts with a cold beer in a steaming hot outdoor Jacuzzi just as soon as the lifts shut down. Americans eat much earlier than Europeans, and even in the most exclusive restaurants dress is casual and the atmosphere very relaxed.

Live entertainment is typically country and bluegrass music. Jazz bands play in bars and restaurants and the discos keep going until the early hours. But alcohol is strictly prohibited for under 21s and most people under 30 can expect to be asked for proof of age when ordering alcoholic drinks. The Mormon influences in the Utah resorts around Salt Lake City insist that even stricter controls are placed on alcohol consumption.

Popular themed bar restaurants including Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood have emerged in Aspen and other major resorts. Jackson Hole in Wyoming and Colorado's Steamboat Springs both hype their Wild West cowboy images - with some lively bars where patrons are encouraged to keep their Stetsons firmly in place as they swig neat bourbon whisky. In Telluride you can take a horsedrawn sleigh ride to dinner at a local ranch.

BEST FOR BEGINNERS

Buttermilk Mountain (one of four mountains available on the Aspen ski pass) is tailor-made for beginners, with an adult ski school that begins with indoor lessons, acres of gentle, groomed nursery slopes as well as organised "Powder Pander" and "Snow Cubs" programmes for children. Kids even have their own escorted bright pink school bus to take them to classes named "Max the Moose Express."

Winter Park has installed a "Magic Carpet", a slow moving conveyor belt which takes ski and snowboard learners up a gentle slope, saving their energy from traditional side-stepping.

In Steamboat, there are roped off family ski areas and special kids parks for young novices to practice their skills without any danger of being knocked flat by wannabe racers out of control. In California, the slopes of Heavenly Valley, on Lake Tahoe, offer some well groomed green runs and nursery hills for beginners, while in Mammoth the aptly named pistes Hansel and Gretel provide a gentle cruise through the trees for the less confident skier. Beginners in Telluride get to ski on gentle green runs carved between million dollar homesteads.

FOR INTERMEDIATES

With the largest skiing area in the USA, Vail and its sister mountain Beaver Creek have unending cruising runs with superbly maintained tree skiing and plenty of fresh powder in the back bowls. Snowmass, a 20-minute drive from Aspen, is also blessed with acres of scenic territory including a delightful cruising blue run starting at 11,800 feet and aptly named "Sheer Bliss". For most intermediates it is just that.

Breckenridge is just about the most popular US destination for British intermediate skiers, and neighbouring Keystone, Copper Mountain, and Winter Park are also popular choices, partly due to their relatively short transfer time from Denver. This year for the first time, visitors can buy an inclusive ski pass covering Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, and Arapahoe Basin, including shuttle bus links. Park City and Deer Valley in Utah also offer excellent facilities for the intermediate skier with a good reputation for instruction and a convenient 25-minute transfer time from Salt Lake City airport.

BEST FOR EXPERTS

Jackson Hole in Wyoming has to be the ultimate US destination for expert skiers - with more than 50 per cent of its terrain designated for "experts only" with steeps, jumps, narrow couloirs and plenty of moguls. Similarly Taos, in New Mexico, will set the adrenaline pumping with its steep and narrow chutes through the trees and rocks. In Utah, Snowbird will appeal mainly to experts with some very tough terrain including Great Scott, considered by many to be one of the steepest trails in North America. In the San Juan mountain range, the picturesque Telluride has plenty of dramatic double diamond black chutes and trails and Colorado's Crested Butte enjoys almost cult status among extreme skiers for its more challenging slopes.

FOR SNOWBOARDERS

While some resorts, including Taos, New Mexico, Alta in Utah, and Aspen Mountain still ban snowboarding altogether, most have recognised its rapid growth as a popular cult activity among the young by building special snowboard park areas with half pipes, table tops, flat topped pyramids, ramps, stair steps and metal rail slides, S-turns, bumps, and berms.

This not only keeps the boarders happy, it also tends to limit the amount of time they spend on the ski slopes, avoiding some of the conflicts with conventional skiers that have become increasingly common in recent seasons.

Steamboat has one of the best snowboard schools, which comes with a guarantee that if you don't learn to ride in the first lesson, the next one is free.

California's Heavenly Valley and Mammoth resorts both have excellent snowboard parks, while Crested Butte and Jackson Hole have become cult centres for extreme and expert boarders.

FOR THE DISABLED

Colorado's Winter Park is home to the National Sports Centre for the Disabled and with a team of specially trained professional instructors and more than 1,000 volunteers, offers superb programmes for children and adults with disabilities. In addition to competitive and recreational skiing, the Centre has expanded its activities for the disabled to include snowboarding, cross country, and snowshoeing.

Vail is the headquarters of the Colorado Ski School for the Blind and the resort's team of instructors also includes those certified to teach skiers with other physical disabilities.

VALUE FOR MONEY

Despite the much longer journey, package tour prices to many US destinations are highly competitive with those for many top European resorts. Once there, the cost of eating, drinking, and ski hire can be less than half the costs in France, Switzerland or Austria. Only the lift passes are more expensive and there are special deals negotiated by the tour operators as well as special resort offers. Crested Butte, for example, has free lift tickets for everyone until 20 December and again between 6-19 April, 1998, including the Easter period.

GETTING THERE

Most tour operators can book you on to non-stop charter flights to Denver and there is wide choice of one-stop scheduled flights from the UK to Denver, Vail Eagle, Aspen, Jackson Hole, Salt Lake City, and non-stop flights to San Francisco (for Mammoth and the Lake Tahoe resorts) on British Airways (0345 222111) and Virgin Atlantic (01293 747747). Airlines with good connecting scheduled flights include American (0345 789789); Continental (0800 776464); Delta (0800 414767); Northwest (01293 561000); and United (0800 888 555).

TOUR OPERATORS

Crystal Holidays (0181 399 5144) is operating non-stop twice-weekly Monarch charter flights to Denver, in addition to using scheduled flights, to service its biggest ever North American ski programme. Crystal has fly/drives to Denver from pounds 299 and one week in Breckenridge from pounds 429, based on four people sharing a room.

Ski The American Dream (0181 552 1201) has best selling Vail and Beaver Creek from pounds 599 for a week; Jackson Hole or Aspen from pounds 499, and Telluride from pounds 779. Two-centre holidays combining a ski trip with golfing in Arizona, or a week in the sun in Florida or Hawaii, are also selling well this year.

United Vacations (0181 313 0999) has fly/drives to Colorado and California from pounds 399 and one week packages to Lake Tahoe from pounds 489.

Virgin Snow (01293 617181) concentrates on Californian and Utah resorts - including Mammoth, Heavenly Valley, Reno, Park City, and Deer Valley. Virgin can also arrange weddings in the snow.

Other tour operators featuring inclusive ski programmes to the US Rockies include Airtours (01706 260000); American Connections (01494 473173), Funway Holidays (0181 466 0222); Inghams (0181 780 4444); and Ski Independence (0990 550555).

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