After 80 years, Stowe remains true to its roots in a world of purpose-built ski resorts.
By Ian Merringer in Fall 2013 issue
Attempts at a stealthy arrival in Vermont failed. Uniformed men with walkie-talkies surrounded the minivan before it stopped rolling.
“I’ll take care of this,” I told my three companions, checking my jacket pocket to see if I had what it would take to smooth things out. I found a fold of greenbacks and opened the door, looking for the man in charge.
Two of them moved quickly toward me when the assortment of road maps, beverage containers and CD cases that had amassed against the door during our eight-hour drive fell out and hit interlocking brick.
“Great. How much is this going to cost me?” I thought as the valets stooped to scoop up our road-trip detritus.
I’m more comfortable doling out gratuitous comments than gratuities. Remember when there were full-service pumps at some gas stations? I don’t. I never went to any. But here we were at Stowe Mountain Lodge, a full-service joint if ever there was one, and I would need a lot of small bills handy.
The 312-room lodge is the centrepiece of a half-billion-dollar plan to modernize/monetize this most storied of eastern mountains. Now at the midway point of the 12-year plan, Stowe has added slopeside accommodation and retail to compete with, or perhaps complement, the 60 independent inns and lodges that line the road leading from the famous ski town that lends the resort its name.
Skiers in southern Ontario have an extra reason to look again at Vermont’s highest peak. Porter Airlines now sends four planes a week from Toronto’s Island Airport to Burlington, Vermont, and back again. It cuts travel time in less than half and makes weekend trips a reasonable idea.
It was Friday night. I had a flight home booked for Monday afternoon. There was no time to waste, which wasn’t about to happen upon arrival at the lodge even if I had wanted it to. Hotel porters emptied the minivan, a valet rolled it away and a few greenbacks later we were granted admission to a suite with a kitchen, living room and two bedrooms where two ex-pat Canadians from New York were already making themselves at home.
It’s true, we were a little short on beds. That’s sometimes how it goes in a place where the most expensive rooms go for US$5,500 a night. That $5.5k buys you your choice of headrests from the “international pillow menu” (just what it sounds like) and lets you roam the 21,000-square-foot spa and gym. Getting any children a booking in the Chillax KidSpa is extra. Then again, we scored a deal and there are lots of others to be had, say, for a family, at 1/20th the top room rate.
“This is room 212. Ready our skis, please,” my brother-in-law Mike said into the phone Saturday morning. He was trying to sound entitled and expectant, but it wasn’t working. This is a man with a backyard chicken coop who once made his own butter. A level lower and a few minutes later, smiling staff handed us our boots (which had obviously just come off a boot-warming rack) and told us our skis were waiting outside the doors. I was ready to admit that, though this level of attention was unfamiliar to me, it was not going to negatively affect the skiing in any way.
We shuffled onto a gondola cabin for the short ride that now connects the new developments at the base of Spruce Peak’s intermediate terrain with Stowe proper, the well-worn trails cut into the side of Mt. Mansfield.
The most obvious start to a day at Stowe is with a few trips up the summit gondola. It’s purported to be the swiftest lift in the east, and it provides access to long, rolling runs like Perry Merrill and Gondolier that are perfect for warming up. Leave Chin Clip alone until your quads are ready for a winding course of low-angle moguls.
Stowe brags about Mt. Mansfield being home to the “toughest fall line in the east.” Central to this claim is the famous “front four” gang of double blacks: Goat, Starr, Lookout and Liftline. Feigning modesty, we avoided Liftline. Goat looked to be having an ornery week, from what we could see from the law-abiding side of the closed barricades barring it.
A closed run is fairly novel at Stowe, the recipient of a boast-worthy 845 cm of snowfall a year. Compare that to Tremblant and Lake Louise, both come in at less than half that, and you have to wonder if Stowe really needs the 90 per cent coverage their snowmaking system achieves. But that’s the type of customer skepticism that ski resorts are glad to weather.
Stowe excels at letting skiers accumulate a lot of vertical in a day. Beyond the fact that the lifts start conveying keeners at 7:30 a.m. on weekends, the main collection of runs and lifts is quite compact, not spread out over different aspects, and for the most part the lifts run top to bottom. Quick trips up the Fourrunner high-speed quad (vertical: 640 metres) moves advanced skiers to a no-nonsense array of steep pitches, with plenty of moguls available for those inclined.
The Toll-House Double, Mountain Triple and Spruce Peak lifts have intermediate terrain to spare, but Stowe prides itself on having more challenging terrain that’s much more readily available than most of its competitors in the east. You’ll find it front and centre below the Fourrunner chair. And no, there is no international pillow or seat cushion menu available on the chair to help you recover from the last run while you pick your next line on the way back up.
The first runs were cut at Stowe in 1933, making it one of the oldest ski areas in North America. Its pioneering ski school and ski patrol have been running for close to 80 years. People have been making their way into the Green Mountains to ski here since the days when getting to the hill was a lot tougher than getting down it, even on wooden skis.
That’s no longer the case, especially for those in the Toronto area. Not only does Porter Airlines make the trip from Toronto city airport to Burlington in 70 minutes, it links two small-scale and stress-free airports. Burlington’s terminal, as you might expect, is very Vermont. It has a yoga room for any departees wanting to stretch out or wind down before taking off. It’s the first airport I’ve seen that tries not to make a mockery of the term departure lounge. There are even rocking chairs at the gates, from which you can look out past the tarmac to see Stowe’s Mt. Mansfield, just a 45-minute drive away.
The flight took off at 4:00 p.m. After a string of uncannily seamless ferry, shuttle, subway and bus connections, I was home in mid-town Toronto sitting down to dinner at 6:15 (a quick arrival helped by the fact that my luggage was in the care of my friends in the minivan, which may or may not have still been in Quebec at that point).
As the granddaddy of eastern skiing moves into octogenarian territory, it’s back to attracting Canadian skiers. And between what‘s new and what‘s classic-Stowe, it’s now possible to find any level of accommodation and service money can buy. Of course, when you find yourself at the top of the Fourrunner chair, it’s not any easier to ski down, but then that’s why people have been choosing Stowe for the last 80 years in the first place.
• Stowe Mountain Lodge: stowemountainlodge.com
• Inn at the Mountain and Condominiums, stowe.com
Around town sleeps:
• More than 60 lodging options to fit all tastes and budgets: gostowe.com
Just how far?
Montreal: 225 km
Ottawa: 385 km
Toronto: 710 km
Burlington airport: 55 km