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Weekend at Okemo

Weekend at Okemo

Travel East
By Steve Cohen
posted: 12/17/2001

Like many people these days, I long for simpler times—when local merchants were our friends and neighbors, and no giant corporations ruled the retail landscape. I make concerted efforts to take advantage of the dwindling opportunities to experience personal touch when they arise. Home repair problem? I go see John at my local hardware store; he knows just what I need and where on his cluttered shelves to find it. A good meal in town? My family heads to Orfino's, where the entire clan remembers how we like our food and serves it with genuine friendliness. And when we want to go skiing, we agree on Southern Vermont's Okemo. We're not alone. Nearly 600,000 skiers—mostly Northeast suburbanites like us—visited Okemo last year, making it the third most popular ski area in New England. We know we'll be taken care of, because another family, the Muellers, are at the helm.Tim and Diane Mueller purchased a small, struggling local ski area in Ludlow, Vt., nearly 20 years ago. They have turned it into a well-run and rapidly expanding ski resort that matches the mega-chain resorts snowgun for snowgun and high-speed quad for quad, but with their own personal imprint on everything from napkins to ski instruction.

As individuals, they couldn't be more different yet more alike at the same time. Tim is soft-spoken, reserved and mannerly. It has been 10 years since I last visited his office, but the nondescript paneling and austere décor appear unchanged. The same plaques and awards still wait to be hung; piles of "to-read" papers and magazines dot the landscape. He still dismisses Okemo's success and his skill in making it happen with an "aw, shucks" grin. He and Diane manage by "common sense," he says. "We don't make arbitrary decisions. We have a steady direction. And we work with people to help them do their jobs better."

Diane, a former New Yorker, is more demonstrative and pointedly less humble than Tim. But she's no egotist. She believes Okemo's success has been built on common sense, but also credits the long hours of hard work that she and Tim have invested and their innate sense of caring for people. On a surprisingly busy late-spring Saturday when staffing is thin, Diane greets me at the end of the day, fresh from pitching in to flip burgers at the Sugar House day lodge. She clutches a plaque honoring the employee of the week, Sue Stilwell, who has run Kids Night Out—the resort's evening child-care program—for 15 years. That's a long time in most businesses but not an unusual tenure at Okemo.

The Muellers are the kind of bosses everybody loves to work for. Make that, "work with." There's none of the sniping or undercurrent of discontent present at many resorts. Their skill for team-building makes every employee—from the teenager dipping fries in hot oil to the retired Ph.D. teaching skiing as a second career—respond to their polite and measured calls for excellence. They are kind and caring people who have achieved Type A success by using a decidedly Type B approach. Here's a look at what they've created.

Stocking up on groceries is part of the weekend drill for families who stay in the trailside condos and prefer a quick lunch back "home" or whipping up a big pot of spaghetti and meatballs for dinner. If you roll into the areabefore 7 p.m. on Friday, do yourself a big favor and detour through Proctorsville (three miles from Okemo) for a trip to Singleton's, where you'll find some of the best smoked meats and salmon in the Northeast. Family-run since 1946, the shop also offers fresh Vermont cheeses and basic groceries, as well as a good selection of liquors, wine, beer and even huntingsupplies. (Remember, you're in Vermont.) Also in Proctorsville—and open until 8 p.m.—is Black River Produce, which offers the freshest fruits and veggies in the area—much of it from Vermont farmers—along with lobster and fresh fish.

If you arrive late, don't worry; Shaw's supermarket stays open until 9 p.m., and on Friday nights it's one of e busiest places in Ludlow. It's like watching an episode of Survivor as families split up and troll the aisles with specific missions before reconvening at the checkout counter. Reward a mission accomplished with a cup of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters java, which is always brewing.

Nothing is particularly fancy at Okemo, but nothing is dowdy, either, since little of the infrastructure predates the Muellers' purchase in 1982. This is a resort affordable to more than the Wall Street wealthy. Most of the lodging is clustered—condo-style; a few B&Bs and motels surround the area, the majority having no more than 15-20 rooms. There's a scattering of private homes along the older sections of the mountain, most of them built before Okemo's renaissance, but newer trophy homes are also starting to dot the hillside, particularly in the Solitude area. A resort shuttle links the condo complexes and base area and nearby Ludlow on weekends and holidays, which makes it easy for active teens to go their own way.

Once a pocket-size area choked with surface lifts, Okemo is now a major-league layout that takes most of a day and a series of lift rides to ski end-to-end. Walkie-talkie channels bleat with chatter, as families who've spread out to their favorite spots on the mountain stay electronically tethered. Most of the terrain is high-speed accessible. What has not changed much is the gentle nature of its Green Mountain tilt.

Okemo is a place that makes novice and intermediate skiers feel great but hardly leaves experts with their guts knotted. While it has a limitless supply of blue cruisers—some that slant with remarkable steadiness, others with fun rolls and dips that leave you weightless as you fly by—there's no truly difficult terrain. The black runs, mostly grouped on the South Face, are a bit steeper than the blues, but it's their more ragged snow conditions and small tricky sections that up the challenge.

With so many families still eating breakfast, hunting for missing mittens and waiting for kiddie-care to start, ambitious skiers who catch the 8 a.m. chair can rack up a good 7,000 feet of prime vertical before the masses hit. If you're among the masses, know that Okemo's burgeoning popularity and the funnel-like egress from the narrow main base area mean tactical planning is required to avoid liftlines during peak times, especially between 9 and 10:30 a.m.

When riding either of the two fixed-grip South Ridge quads that get skiers out of the base area and up to the three main lifts fanning across the broad upper mountain, you'll have a sky-high view of the lift mazes. Pay close attention. If the popular Northstar high-speed quad is jammed, there are two alternatives. You can either peel off above Northstar and catch the uppermost lift—the Black Ridge Triple—or keep going past Northstar to the Sachem lift, a fixed-grip quad. Either route gets you quickly to the edges of Okemo, where trails and lifts remain uncrowded the longest.

Even though the high-speed lifts on both the South Face and Solitude terrain pods draw skiers like ants to a picnic, there's rarely more than a 10-minute wait. If Okemo is really rocking, the Green Ridge triple is a great safety valve. It's an older lift that most sliders avoid, though it services some of the mountain's most entertaining, well-pitched cruisers, including Timberline, Sapphire and Tomahawk.

If you opt to spend time on the long, open cruisers off Solitude Express, don't ski below the day lodge: The trails there are mostly beginner runs laid out to access up-market homes and condos built in recent years. My kids demanded a run anyway, since we would get to ski through a tunnel, but the ride back up was a slow one. Eventually, these trails will link to Okemo's new Jackson Gore development, which is slated to open next winter.

Jackson Gore is the last major piece of the Okemo puzzle. Once completed, Okemo will be full-grown, both in terrain and big real-estate development. After that, Tim Mueller says, visitors can expect only in-filling and natural continued renovation of the resort.

The Jackson Gore expansion area isdesigned to handle a third of Okemo's visitors. By next winter (provided local zoning issues can be overcome), two high-speed lifts will serve 105 acres of new terrain, including steeper, narrower gladed trails. "It's not going to be The Front Four at Stowe," Mueller admits, "but it will give better skiers more variety."

Just as importantly, a substantial village development will be up and running, with a slopeside hotel, shops and restaurants. Jackson Gore will also serve as a second day-skier access point, relieving the crush at the current base area. Eventually, Okemo hopes to have Amtrak trains running right to the base of Jackson Gore, emulating many European resorts.

For good skiers, it's strategically wise to stay up top all day at Okemo to avoid the base-area crowds, so a good choice for lunch is the mid-mountain Sugar House Lodge. From there, you can still access upper mountain lifts. To find the Sugar House, just follow the aroma of grilled burgers. Up top, the cafeteria-style Summit Lodge gobbles a good portion of the lunch business. If you can negotiate the stairs with a tray, it's easier to find an empty table downstairs. For a more upscale experience, try Gables at the new Solitude Day Lodge. The 150-seat, table-service-only restaurant is charmingly decorated with old ski gear (there's even an authentic pair of barrel stave boards) and artifacts from Okemo's past. Baby Boomers will appreciate the photo of Jay Silverheels (Tonto of Lone Ranger fame) who made a promotional appearance at the resort back in the Sixties, when the trails were dominated by Indian-theme names. Gables accepts no reservations and is a bit pricier than cafeteria food but is well worth it. The varied menu was designed in part by New England Culinary Institute staff members. In a unique arrangement that has helped put most of Okemo's food service a notch above ski-area expectations, NECI provides consulting services to the resort and students serve internships.

If you're tired by early afternoon, Okemo has limited but interesting off-campus diversions. Golfers can shake rust from their game at the nearby Okemo Valley Golf Club. The recently completed links are, of course, covered with snow during winter months but the state-of-the-art clubhouse has a tricky, indoor nine-hole putting green and three swing simulators that let you play 20 of the country's most famous courses even when it's dumping outside. While the ball doesn't fly more than 20 feet, sophisticated computer technology analyzes the ball's trajectory and speed to determine the number of yards it would have traveled and where it would have landed. The results and projection screens are uncannily realistic. If you think you'll easily tire of the faux game, know that there's a spirited indoor league of rabid golfers who play simulator courses weekly. The club also has a unique PowerLINK 3-D System, which uses in-shoe pressure sensing insoles that gives teaching pros the ability to micro-analyze your balance and tweak your stance.

Ludlow, the hub town for Okemo, was a teetering mill village when Okemo began its rise. While it has seen some redevelopment—finally, a good coffee shop (A State of Bean)—the plethora of affordable on-mountain lodging appears to have kept the town from riding the resort's coattails to big-time success. It is by no means a walking town with cute boutiques to massage your credit card, though it still has charm—and great potential.

If the family insists on shopping, head south on Route 100 to the original Vermont Country Store in Weston. It's only a 20-minute drive, but it will seem like you've traveled 50 years back in time. The potbellied stove is always stoked, and the smell of wood smoke is redolent throughout the rambling shop. The shelves are stocked with things you thought disappeared years ago—penny, Tim Mueller says, visitors can expect only in-filling and natural continued renovation of the resort.

The Jackson Gore expansion area isdesigned to handle a third of Okemo's visitors. By next winter (provided local zoning issues can be overcome), two high-speed lifts will serve 105 acres of new terrain, including steeper, narrower gladed trails. "It's not going to be The Front Four at Stowe," Mueller admits, "but it will give better skiers more variety."

Just as importantly, a substantial village development will be up and running, with a slopeside hotel, shops and restaurants. Jackson Gore will also serve as a second day-skier access point, relieving the crush at the current base area. Eventually, Okemo hopes to have Amtrak trains running right to the base of Jackson Gore, emulating many European resorts.

For good skiers, it's strategically wise to stay up top all day at Okemo to avoid the base-area crowds, so a good choice for lunch is the mid-mountain Sugar House Lodge. From there, you can still access upper mountain lifts. To find the Sugar House, just follow the aroma of grilled burgers. Up top, the cafeteria-style Summit Lodge gobbles a good portion of the lunch business. If you can negotiate the stairs with a tray, it's easier to find an empty table downstairs. For a more upscale experience, try Gables at the new Solitude Day Lodge. The 150-seat, table-service-only restaurant is charmingly decorated with old ski gear (there's even an authentic pair of barrel stave boards) and artifacts from Okemo's past. Baby Boomers will appreciate the photo of Jay Silverheels (Tonto of Lone Ranger fame) who made a promotional appearance at the resort back in the Sixties, when the trails were dominated by Indian-theme names. Gables accepts no reservations and is a bit pricier than cafeteria food but is well worth it. The varied menu was designed in part by New England Culinary Institute staff members. In a unique arrangement that has helped put most of Okemo's food service a notch above ski-area expectations, NECI provides consulting services to the resort and students serve internships.

If you're tired by early afternoon, Okemo has limited but interesting off-campus diversions. Golfers can shake rust from their game at the nearby Okemo Valley Golf Club. The recently completed links are, of course, covered with snow during winter months but the state-of-the-art clubhouse has a tricky, indoor nine-hole putting green and three swing simulators that let you play 20 of the country's most famous courses even when it's dumping outside. While the ball doesn't fly more than 20 feet, sophisticated computer technology analyzes the ball's trajectory and speed to determine the number of yards it would have traveled and where it would have landed. The results and projection screens are uncannily realistic. If you think you'll easily tire of the faux game, know that there's a spirited indoor league of rabid golfers who play simulator courses weekly. The club also has a unique PowerLINK 3-D System, which uses in-shoe pressure sensing insoles that gives teaching pros the ability to micro-analyze your balance and tweak your stance.

Ludlow, the hub town for Okemo, was a teetering mill village when Okemo began its rise. While it has seen some redevelopment—finally, a good coffee shop (A State of Bean)—the plethora of affordable on-mountain lodging appears to have kept the town from riding the resort's coattails to big-time success. It is by no means a walking town with cute boutiques to massage your credit card, though it still has charm—and great potential.

If the family insists on shopping, head south on Route 100 to the original Vermont Country Store in Weston. It's only a 20-minute drive, but it will seem like you've traveled 50 years back in time. The potbellied stove is always stoked, and the smell of wood smoke is redolent throughout the rambling shop. The shelves are stocked with things you thought disappeared years ago—penny candy, shaving brushes and sock garters—as well as things you never knew existed, like the Buttoneer, a one-step button replacing tool, and the Hanga Danga, a plastic holder for storing metal hangers. There are, of course, more practical items, like country-style clothing, bedding and home furnishings, but it's the seemingly bygone items and bizarre trinkets that will have the kids chuckling and you reminiscing.

When day is done, so are most Okemo skiers. There's little nightlife in Ludlow, and the handful of good restaurants—The Brick House, Nikki's, DJ's and Sam's come to mind—compete with the warm condo cocoon most families have rented. Hardy partiers are farther south at Mount Snow or north at Killington. Lighted sledding and skating at West Hill keep the kids entertained, but the nearest movie theater is 20 miles away in Rutland. Even the more popular restaurants and bars have only occasional live entertainment. That makes family video night (most condos are equipped) one of the more popular events at Okemo. Two video shops in Ludlow are open from 10 to 10 and have a reasonably good selection.

Or break out the board games, pop some corn, and settle in for some family time. The Muellers can handle the details. That's the Okemo way.enny candy, shaving brushes and sock garters—as well as things you never knew existed, like the Buttoneer, a one-step button replacing tool, and the Hanga Danga, a plastic holder for storing metal hangers. There are, of course, more practical items, like country-style clothing, bedding and home furnishings, but it's the seemingly bygone items and bizarre trinkets that will have the kids chuckling and you reminiscing.

When day is done, so are most Okemo skiers. There's little nightlife in Ludlow, and the handful of good restaurants—The Brick House, Nikki's, DJ's and Sam's come to mind—compete with the warm condo cocoon most families have rented. Hardy partiers are farther south at Mount Snow or north at Killington. Lighted sledding and skating at West Hill keep the kids entertained, but the nearest movie theater is 20 miles away in Rutland. Even the more popular restaurants and bars have only occasional live entertainment. That makes family video night (most condos are equipped) one of the more popular events at Okemo. Two video shops in Ludlow are open from 10 to 10 and have a reasonably good selection.

Or break out the board games, pop some corn, and settle in for some family time. The Muellers can handle the details. That's the Okemo way.

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