What makes a great ski resort?Hard to say. In nearly 30 years on the slopes, I've had spectacularly memorable times fighting my way down Stowe's bulletproof hardpack, cruising the scored white boulevards of Utah's Deer Valley, flailing through a raging snowstorm in the storied bowls of Vail. But for me, and I suspect for most, the best ski vacations have little to do with elevation, or acreage, or even ideal snow conditions. Often, what makes or breaks a trip is what you encounter off the slopes: the wit of the bartender who serves you that first cold draft after your last run; the tastiness of the Jägerschnitzel you order for dinner; the smile of a local when you ask for directions; the plumpness of the down comforter you pull close at night. To make a list of the continent's 25 best ski areas, I took into account those unmeasurable but crucial factors. Here, then, is my roster of resorts that deliver it all—stellar skiing plus distinctive lodging, dining, shopping, services, and off-slope activities—in various configurations, but with the same winning effect.
Sunny days and deep, soft snow; cosmopolitan base villages and historic western towns; astonishing mountain vistas and vast backcountry terrain. It's no wonder the Rockies are generally considered the epicenter of the ski world—and home to 15 of our top 25 areas. (Resorts are listed alphabetically.)
Info, 800/525-6200; reservations, 800/262-7736; all-day tickets, $59; ski season, late November to mid-April; www.skiaspen.com. Aspen Mountain shoots nearly straight up from the gilded streets of the most famous and entertaining town in the Rockies. Though the runs are strictly for strong skiers, there's no law against riding a lift to one of the fine on-hill restaurants to have some apple strudel and, um . . . nurse your aching knee. Speed demons will love the fast new double chair on Ruthie's Run. Though two of ski country's most lavish hotels—the Little Nell and the Ritz-Carlton, Aspen—are here, there are still a few old-style ski dorms offering budget bunks. The cozy Little Red Ski Haus, in a historic 1888 Victorian building, has 21 basic rooms, most with shared baths, within walking distance of the lifts.
Info, 970/949-5750; reservations, 800/622-3131; tickets, $56; ski season, mid-November to mid-April; www.vail.net. Ten miles west of Vail, this genteel, secluded resort feels like a very exclusive club where anything resembling schlepping is simply not allowed. There are even outdoor escalators into Market Square, a new multilevel shopping promenade cum outdoor skating rink/theater at the mountain's base.
There's nothing cushy about the skiing, however: the high-speed cruising on the natural fall-line trails can't be beat. Tough steeps, connector trails to neighboring Arrowhead, and an almost laughable dearth of lift lines add to its appeal. Lodging, including the Hyatt Regency Beaver Creek, is all high-end; budget rooms can be found in nearby Avon. The Christie Lodge there, with a pool and free shuttle to the lifts, offers one- to three-bedroom suites with fireplaces and kitchenettes.
Info, 800/789-7669; reservations, 800/221-1091; tickets, $47; ski season, late October to early May; www.snow.com. Four peaks provide everything from beginners' flats to expansive above-tree-line bowls, as well as one of the country's best snowboard parks. But what sets Breckenridge apart from the three nearby Summit County ski areas is the town itself, settled in 1859 by gold prospectors. Its main street exudes frontier cute—brick storefronts house microbreweries, galleries, boutiques, and, alas, an overabundance of T-shirt shops. This season, look for two new high-speed quads and a major renovation of the Bergenhof Lodge at the base of Peak 8.
Info, 970/349-2201; reservations, 800/544-8448; tickets, $47; ski season, mid-November to early April. Crested Butte, in southwestern Colorado, has some of the steepest avalanche-controlled ski slopes in North America (so steep, in fact, that ESPN has chosen to stage its Winter X—for extreme—Games there next month).
Don't let those pierced-eyebrow cliff-jumpers scare you away, though. There's plenty of terrain for average skiers, and the restored mining town three miles down the road from the lifts, with its New Agey shops, dark bars, and bandanna-wearing dogs, is one of the most beguiling in the West. Lodging in the base village has been upgraded considerably this season: the former Grand Butte Hotel is now the renovated 262-room Crested Butte Marriott Resort, and the former MountainLair, expanded to 252 rooms, is managed by Sheraton. For guided wilderness powder skiing, consider the redone (but still rustic) 24-room Irwin Lodge, 12 miles out of town and accessible only by snowmobile.
deer valley resort
Info and reservations, 800/424-3337; tickets, $54; ski season, early December to mid-April; www.GoWest.com. Visitors come here expecting two things: superior service and superior conditions. That's what they get. The trails are lovingly kneaded and rolled with grooming machines that are operated with the skill of a master masseur. The crack staff makes sure that no guest ever has to do anything unpleasant—like unload his or her own skis from a car. And then there's the food. However perfect the snow on the 68 trails and in the three creamy bowls, no one would dream of skiing through lunch here—not when buffets of jalapeÒo-lime glazed ribs and honey-soy Chilean sea bass await. Most of the lodging is in high-end condominiums and private house rentals; take a room in the elegant Stein Eriksen Lodge if you want to be treated like Scandinavian royalty.
Info and reservations, 800/443-6931; tickets, $48; ski season, early December to mid-April; www.jacksonhole.com/ski. High drama is Jackson Hole's strong suit: in the craggy peaks of the Grand Tetons, in the super-expert chutes and couloirs that are the area's signature runs, in the embellished tales told at day's end in the Mangy Moose saloon. But Jackson Hole can still be enjoyed on a less intense plane. Some of the country's best intermediate terrain is here, as are a few of its campiest swinging-door cowboy bars (in Jackson, 12 miles from the lifts).
Info, 970/468-2316; reservations, 888/222-9298; tickets, $47 (includes night skiing); ski season, mid-October to early May; www.snow.com. Keystone may not have the charm of its neighbor Breckenridge, but it makes up for that in convenience, with thoughtfully laid out lodging, good restaurants, and terrific, well-groomed trails on three peaks. The new owner, Vail Resorts, in partnership with Intrawest, continues working on a $400 million base village. Most visitors stay in the recently renovated Keystone Lodge or in condos nestled in the woods.
Info, 801/ 649-8111; reservations, 800/222-7275; tickets, $52; ski season, mid- November to mid-April; www.pcski.com. Just 36 miles from Salt Lake City's airport, Park City is Utah's largest and rowdiest ski resort. Historic Main Street will be party central when the giant slalom and snowboarding events of the 2002 Winter Olympics are held here. For now, visitors can get a taste of world-class competition at the Bear Hollow Sports Park, where ski jumpers work on their technique and everyone can try the bobsled and luge rides.
Info, 801/742-2222; reservations, 800/453-3000; tickets, $47; ski season, mid-November to late April; www.snowbird. com. Paradise for advanced skiers—massive, steep, snow-smothered—Snowbird has an air of intensity you just don't find at resorts where distractions like shopping and fine dining compete with the action on the slopes. Though there are several condo complexes, as well as the full-service Cliff Lodge at the base, some visitors choose to stay about 30 miles away in Salt Lake City, for its more economical hotels and livelier nightlife.
Info and reservations, 800/598-2004; tickets, $59; ski season, mid-November to mid-April; www.skiaspen.com. Sunny Snowmass, Aspen's wholesome cousin 12 miles down the road, is perfect for families who want ski-in/ski-out ease, kids' programs, and lots of ego-enhancing cruising. Not that the skiing at Snowmass can't be challenging—it has the longest lift-served vertical rise in the United States. And 15 minutes after you say adios to the kids and the sitter, you can be in downtown Aspen. Most of Snowmass's lodging is in slope-side condos; the deluxe Snowmass Lodge & Club is a quick shuttle from the lifts.
Info, 970/879-6111; reservations, 800/922-2722; tickets, $48; ski season, late November to mid-April; www.steamboat-ski.com. Skiers make the journey to Steamboat, in the rolling mountains of northwestern Colorado, for its downy powder snow, challenging tree skiing, soothing hot springs, and family-friendly facilities. All that—and the chance to wear a cowboy hat for a few days without feeling utterly ridiculous. The weathered ranch town of Steamboat Springs, founded in 1876, is a few miles from the modern base village, and between the two there are dozens of restaurants, bars, condos, and lodges, all accessible by a free shuttle-bus system. The Torian Plum has 43 luxury condo units, a heated outdoor pool, concierge service, and a prime location near the gondola.
Info and reservations, 800/786-8259; tickets, $52; ski season, late November to early May; www.sunvalley.com. When it opened in 1936, an ongoing love affair between Hollywood and skiing was ignited. Okay, so Bruce Willis is no Gary Cooper. But Sun Valley's basic appeal ndures—the sunny, isolated mountain town of Ketchum, the blend of European elegance and Hemingwayesque ruggedness, and Bald Mountain's fast, steep terrain. Nostalgia buffs will want to check into the 148-room Sun Valley Lodge, a restored inn that overlooks the resort's famed outdoor skating rink. Nordic skiers will find some of America's best cross-country trails and services, including those at the Galena Lodge.
taos ski valley
Info, 505/776-2291; reservations, 800/776-1111; tickets, $40$45; ski season, late November to early April; taoswebb.com. Founded in 1955, this magical, family-owned resort in the sunny Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico combines European, Hispanic, and Pueblo Indian cultural influences. Known particularly for its intensive instructional ski weeks and daunting expert slopes (some of which can be reached only on foot), Taos is primarily a serious skier's mountain—so much so that snowboarding is banned. At night, most visitors simply hunker down in the bars of small alpine inns. If you crave diversion, you'll find it about 20 miles away in the enchanting 17th-century Spanish town of Taos.
taos ski valley
Info and reservations, 800/525-3455; tickets, $49; ski season, late November to mid-April; www.telski.com. It's no secret that Telluride, deep in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, is white-hot these days, stoked by the powerful bellows of celebrity and wealth. But come Oprah or high water, the mountain itself, with its stupefying bumps, steep shafts, and amazing views of 14,000-foot peaks, is immutable. High-end hotel options include the Peaks Resort & Spa in Mountain Village, as well as smaller spots, such as the new Camel's Garden, with fireplaces in each of its 31 rooms.
Info, 970/476-5601; reservations, 800/427-8308; tickets, $56; ski season, early November to early May; www.vail.net. Two hours from Denver, Vail sprawls east to west for seven glorious miles, with 174 trails and seven bowls served by a network of 30 state-of-the-art lifts. Anchoring it all is the resort's Tyrolean-style village, full of bistros, boutiques, and beautiful people. The Adventure Ridge summit recreation area has been expanded to include tubing, skating, snow biking, boarding, and, for those with any strength left in their legs, dancing, in the Eagle's Nest mountaintop facility. Accommodations run the gamut from luxury hotels like the Sonnenalp Resort in the village to less expensive digs on the outskirts of town, including the comfortable 50-room Tivoli Lodge, within walking distance of Vail Village and Golden Peak.
The mountains: monsters. The snow: heavy and deep. The skiers: West Coast trendsetters and Japanese tourists. Still, as well turned out as these skiers are, the focus here is more on fun than on fashion.
Info, 702/586-7000; reservations, 800/243-2836; tickets, $47; ski season, mid-November to late April; www.skiheavenly.com. Straddling the CaliforniaNevada border, Heavenly is ideal for hard-chargers who have the energy to tear it up on the nearly 4,800 acres of ski terrain by day and rip it up in the nearby casinos at night. There's no true ski-in/ski-out lodging here, but a fleet of Heavenly shuttle buses serves dozens of area hotels, including the renovated Harrah's Lake Tahoe.
squaw valley usa
Info, 916/583-6985; reservations, 800/545-4350; tickets, $48 (includes night skiing); ski season, mid-November to late May; www.squaw.com. Rambling, raw, 4,000-acre Squaw welcomes all comers, from cliff-vaulting show-offs to shaky snowplowers, with six peaks so rich in runs that the resort doesn't even attempt to name them. A host of diversions, including mountaintop skating, swimming, tennis, tubing, indoor climbing, and bungee jumping, as well as night skiing and snowboarding, compete with the off-the-cool-meter bars of Tahoe City, six miles away. The Resort at Squaw Creek, in Olympic Valley, is the place to stay, with its massive free-form hot tubs and its buffed, hyper-tan clientele.
What Eastern ski areas lack in acreage and verticality, they make up for in charm and, for millions of metropolis-dwellers, accessibility. Who needs altitude when you have a white clapboard inn, a roaring fire, a fine Pinot, and snow piling up outside?
Info and reservations, 800/621-6867; tickets, $51.25; ski season, mid-October to early June; www.killington.com. Already the East's largest resort, Killington expanded yet again last year when it acquired nearby Pico Mountain. (Plans to link the two areas are in the works for next winter.) In the meantime, visitors will find a dizzying array of 212 trails sprawled over seven peaks, a new gondola to the top of Killington Peak, and new snowboard facilities. Equal to the scope of the skiing is the intensity of the nightlife—the most raucous après-ski scene in the East. The Killington Grand Hotel & Crown Club, set to open in February, promises to be an oasis of gentility amid Killington's fraternity row.
Info, 802/253-3000; reservations, 800/247-8693; tickets, $50; ski season, mid-November to late April; www.stoweinfo.com. Romantic inns, deep snow, and the steeps of craggy Mount Mansfield, Vermont's highest peak, have been luring ostonians, New Yorkers, and Montrealers to Stowe for more than 60 years. Though the seven-mile Mountain Road leading to the hill is busy with motels, health-food stores, boutiques, microbreweries, and, sigh, a McDonald's, Stowe's traditional hale-and-hearty gestalt prevails. Some of New England's best snowboarding terrain is here, as well as its finest cross-country areas—among them, the 100-kilometer center at the Trapp Family Lodge.
Info, 802/583-2381; reservations, 800/537-8427; tickets, $47; ski season, early November to late May; www.sugarbush.com. While it's no longer the height of blueblood chic that it was in the early 1960's, Sugarbush is fashionable once again after a major renovation in 1995. The resort is actually two separate areas linked by a lateral chairlift: Lincoln Peak, with its steep amphitheater of twisty trails, accessed by several high-speed quad chairs; and Mount Ellen, where the pace, and the lifts, are slower. A lighted tubing and sledding park and a family activity center are new this season. Most base lodging is in condos; nearby Warren and Waitsfield offer some top-notch country inns.
Info, 207/237-2000; reservations, 800/843-5623; tickets, $46 ('96'97); ski season, late October to early May; www.sugarloaf.com. This hulking mountain is deeply loved by New England skiers because of—and in spite of—its isolation in snowbound northwestern Maine, a hard five-hour drive from Boston. Challenging enough for experts, gentle enough for novices, posh enough for seasoned travelers, and rustic enough for urban refugees, Sugarloaf manages to be almost all things to all skiers. Two new quad chairs to the above-timberline snowfields (the only terrain of its kind in the East) open this season. The base village offers visitors the full-service Sugarloaf Hotel, several condo complexes, a handful of good pubs and restaurants—and the pleasant sense that a bull moose may come lumbering through at any moment.
Info, 207/824-3000; reservations, 800/543-2754; tickets, $47; ski season, mid-October to late May; www.sundayriver.com. In the Mahoosuc Mountains of western Maine, this eight-peak resort, full of broad, meticulously groomed cruising trails, has snowmaking facilities on 92 percent of its 126 runs. Boston families hit the area each weekend, knowing conditions will be good here despite quirky coastal weather. Accommodations range from dorms to condos to the new $18 million Jordan Grand Hotel & Crown Club. Rooms with real New England character can be found in nearby Bethel, Vermont.
Info and reservations, 403/522-3555; tickets, $33; ski season, early November to early May; www.skibanfflakelouise.com. High in the jagged, glaciated peaks of Banff National Park, Lake Louise has 11 square miles of skiing on terrain so overwhelmingly gorgeous that it's hard to concentrate on keeping your ski tips from crossing. Don't expect the super-convenient, roll-out-of-bed-onto-the-lifts kind of experience that American resorts now promote with such fervor. There is no cutesy village at the base; skiers stay either in the nearby town of Lake Louise—where lodging choices include the historic 500-room Chateau Lake Louise and the small, elegant, and very Swiss Post Hotel—or in the larger, wilderness-chic resort town of Banff, about 40 minutes away. New this season: a four-story timber base lodge and expanded glade skiing.
Info and reservations, 800/461-8711; tickets $35; ski season, late November to early May. Tremblant's cobblestoned base village—modeled, incredibly enough, without a trace of hoariness, after old Quebec City—sets the tone for this chic resort. The dining and lodging possibilities (including the Château Mont Tremblant) are stellar, and the skiing, while not overly difficult, is more extensive than it looks. Sure, it gets très froid up there in the Laurentians, but Tremblant has devised a new diversion this year to take your mind off the weather: pull on your swimsuit and hit the new $4 million indoor water park, where you can swing through an ersatz rain forest like George of the Jungle.
Info and reservations, 800/944-7853; tickets, $40; ski season, late November to late April (to late summer on Blackcomb's Horstman Glacier). Seventy-five miles north of Vancouver in the heavily glaciated Coast Range, the massive neighbor mountains of Whistler and Blackcomb offer a savvy international clientele the two highest vertical drops in North America, more than 7,000 skiable acres (including several new intermediate and novice trails on Blackcomb), and 13 bowls—all linked by a sophisticated pedestrian village that has a Pacific Rim flavor. Lodging is mostly on the high end, including the newly expanded Chateau Whistler and the new 121-suite Pan Pacific Lodge.