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.