Travel: Where the cowboys invented champagne

Stephen Roe visits Steamboat Springs, Colorado, home to a rodeo on skis. The visitors, he found, can't get enough of it

ALL HELL breaks loose every January in Steamboat Springs when 100 of America's top rodeo riders arrive from Denver's National Western Stock Show for the annual Cowboy Downhill ski races.

Starting with a tricky slalom course, each competitor must lassoe a ski hostess and saddle a horse before crossing the finishing line. Happily, political correctness has yet to reach this laid back corner of Colorado's Yampa River Valley.

In a town which revels in cultivating its Wild West image, stetsons are more the order of the day than woolly balaclavas. And the visitors can't get enough of it. The tall guy drinking bourbon whiskey and wearing cowboy boots and a large black stetson next to me at the bar in the lively Old Town Pub turned out to be a man called Eric, from Dorset.

Even the director of skiing goes by the name of Billy Kidd, a former world class ski champion who is justifiably proud that this little town has produced a record 36 Olympic competitors.

Their advantage has been that they could practise on some of the finest dry powder snow conditions to be found anywhere. As part of the Park Mountain Range, Steamboat is the first significant barrier to the big snow storms arriving from the Pacific.

It is where the phrase "champagne powder" was first coined, because the snow here can be so light and fluffy and almost without moisture. On a sunny morning after a big snowfall, there is always a stampede among the many powder aficionados to make the first tracks on the mountain.

Steamboat is a resort best suited to intermediate and advanced skiers, with acres of superb gladed tree skiing in which I could have played all day. Because of the way in which the sun crosses the mountain, some runs remain in the shade for a good part of the day.

To maximise the best light and snow conditions it is worth taking local advice to ensure you can ski in the sun whenever possible. To help visitors to plan their day in this way, many of the trails have been given corny names that only the Americans could get away with.

I caught the best early morning conditions in the newly opened Morning Side Park on the rear side of Storm Peak, where there are plenty of excellent intermediate runs through the trees.

I began with a couple of cruising runs named Cowboy Coffee and Frying Pan, after which I was ready to try the black diamond Alarm Clock and Wake Up Call. By mid-morning I had progressed to some of the less friendly named runs on the front side of Storm Peak - including Typhoon, Cyclone, Tornado, and Hurricane.

The view from the 10,500ft summit provides a spectacular 360 degree panorama of the Continental Divide, Hahn's Peak, and the Yampa Valley.

The best afternoon's skiing to be had is on Sunshine Peak with runs helpfully named One, Two, and Three O' Clock which connect to a lovely cruise back down to the base named Heavenly Daze.

To compensate for the limited - and sometimes crowded - beginner areas and nursery slopes, Steamboat has created some well marked and controlled family skiing areas on the mountain. Here slow speed limits are enforced by ski patrollers and frequent grooming maintains comfortable conditions all day. These are located on Giggle Gulch, Swinger, Tomahawk, Flintlock, and Bashor.

Children under 12 ski free all season as long as their parents have valid ski passes for the period. There are special programmes organised in the Steamboat Kiddie Corral for children aged from two to six, plus a special children's Rough Rider Ski School for those up to 15 years old.

In all there are 113 trails served by 22 ski lifts, including the high speed Silver Bullet gondola which runs from the base to the top of Thunderhead. As a result, long lift queues are a rare sight and once you get to know your way around the four interlinking peaks, it is possible to ski all day long without a hold up.

If you are thinking of giving snowboarding a try, this is a great place to start. There are well-planned terrain parks at Dude Ranch, Big Meadow, Sunshine Lift Line, and another new one in Giggle Gulch. The local snowboard school will guarantee to teach you how to ride or the next lesson is free.

For those wanting to improve techniques, or just take air with fellow soulmates, there are also Snowboard Camps with a full schedule of programmes for advanced and expert riders.

Legend has it that in 1865 three French fur trappers were travelling down the Yampa River when they heard a chugging sound like that of a paddle steamer. On investigation they found that the noise was coming from one of the many therapeutic, bubbling, thermal mineral springs that surround the town. The name Steamboat Springs has stuck ever since.

While some people do take the waters seeking a cure for rheumatism and other ailments, the concept of hordes of overweight pensioners making the trek to visit "Bad Steamboat" would horrify the resort's image makers.

When the sun goes down the old and original downtown area wakes up with live music in bars like Tugboat Saloon, The Inferno, and Old Town Pub. The old town is linked to the more modern ski village area by a 10 minute shuttle service which runs beyond midnight to get visitors home.

Deciding where to stay is a compromise between the ski-in, ski-out convenience of modern, rather soulless, hotels like the three-star Best Western Ptarmigan Inn or the Sheraton Steamboat Resort, or selecting from the wider choice of self-catering apartments and hotels in the livelier downtown area where there are more shops and restaurants to choose from.

But the skiers' village is by no means deserted at night. Both Mattie Silks and La Montana are excellent restaurants with lively bars from which you can walk home.

To take a break from the slopes there is a wide range of alternative activities - from Western horseback riding through the snow trails, hot air ballooning, and dog sledding, to cross country skiing and the bob- sled course.

The drive to Steamboat from Denver takes a little over three hours, provided the access road at Rabbit Ears pass is open. Alternatively there is a local airport served by commuter services from Denver during the season and Hayden airport (about a 30-minute drive away) which has connections to several international gateway cities. Vail's Eagle airport is about two hours' drive.

There are no five-star hotels in Steamboat and it is definitely not the place to show off your full length furs and Cartier jewellery. But that is something to appreciate. The laid back, Wild West atmosphere has a very special appeal.

And the local shopkeepers love British visitors who are among the most avid buyers of ornate leather cowboy boots, bootlace ties, and oversized stetsons ... even if they do look a little out of place in the pubs of Dorset.

skiing fact file

Getting There

Steamboat's Hayden airport is served by scheduled airlines, including Northwest, American Airlines, TWA, United and

Continental. Monarch Airlines (serving package holidays) is also operating non-stop flights from the UK to Denver for the coming winter season.

Packages

Crystal Holidays (O181 399 5144) has rooms at the well located Ptarmigan Inn from about pounds 581 for seven nights based on four people sharing a room, and the price includes charter flights and transfers. Ski the American Dream (0181 552 1201) has seven nights self-catering at the ski-in, ski- out West Condominiums this month from pounds 649, including one-stop connecting flights on Northwest from London to Hayden and transfers, based on four people sharing a two-bedroom unit.

Other tour operators featuring Steamboat include Inghams; First Choice; Neilsons; Ski Independence; Ski Thomson; United Vacations; US Airtours and Funway.

Where to stay

Steamboat Central Reservations (Tel: 001 970 879 0740 or Fax: 001 970 879 4757) can supply rates, information and availability for a wide range of hotels, motels and self-catering condominiums throughout the ski village and the old town.

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