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Heart and Stowe

Heart and Stowe

Travel East
By David Healy
posted: 02/02/2006

First love, it's said, is always the most memorable, and I won't argue. Though it has been 25 years, I still recall the day I fell for Stowe. It began innocently, as these things do. I was chasing a college friend down the upper turns of Nosedive when an unexpected detour revealed one of the East's most beguiling glades, a heady mix of tender birch and fragrant spruce. I emerged breathless, and by the time we dropped into the maw of double-black Goat later in the day, I was hooked.

Through the years, I've spent countless days at play on the flanks of Mt. Mansfield-Stowe's primary peak. But like a Gore-Tex cowboy, I've strayed a bit lately. Stowe? "Too high-maintenance," I'd snipe, injudiciously buying into the stereotype of the place as strictly an upscale haven, complete with lift-line fashion shows. But when my current flame-better known as my wife, Tricia-made the case for a cushy getaway, I hatched a plan. Stowe would be the perfect place. I'd ski; she'd shop.

Saturday dawns with a hint of the coming of spring, and Tricia announces, "I'll ski if you promise it'll be soft." Pleasantly surprised, I play the odds and assure her it will be.

Up at the mountain, the guest services agent backs me up. "The groomers are great, and there's still fresh snow in the woods," she announces as we pick up our lift tickets in Mt. Mansfield's historic timbered lodge, a creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Fresh snow in the woods? Small surprises are just rolling in today. Stowe, owned by AIG, the world's largest insurance company, isn't generally known for encouraging off-piste excursions-a fact that suits the bark-eating locals just fine. Later, I mention the incident to Kim Brown, a semi-pro Stowe ski bum, and he's not surprised. "The word on the woods-skiing has definitely gotten out," he chuckles.

Stowe's storied slopes have drawn skiers to northern Vermont since the CCC hand-cut the first trails, including legendary Nosedive, during the Depression. The resort's ascension to its place as the Ski Capital of the East was boosted by the installation of a ropetow in 1937. Today, an eight-person gondola and one high-speed quad serve the bulk of the resort's terrain, including the famed Front Four: Starr, National, Liftline and Goat.

Strong intermediates can find plenty of ways down from the top of the quad, located just below Mansfield's Nose, but only the truly fit can yo-yo the mountain's unrelenting 2,360 vertical feet. Planning to pace ourselves, we head for the gondola and its corduroy cruisers.

From the lift, you can't help but trace the profile of Mt. Mansfield-which vaguely resembles a reclined head-and marvel at the chain of Lilliputian skiers hiking to its Chin, the highest point in Vermont. We make laps on Perry Merrill, a spacious blue named for the former state parks commissioner who did so much to promote Vermont skiing.

Then, ready to deliver on my soft-snow promise, I suggest we head to Spruce Peak, just across Route 108 from the Mansfield base area. Spruce, a separate, south-facing mountain that's especially popular with families, is the softer, sunnier side of Stowe. With its airy base lodge, slow lifts and mostly low-key terrain-including the expansive Meadows beginner area-Spruce has long been a diamond in the rough. But that's about to change. In the first-and likely last-major expansion at the mountain since the 1950s, the Spruce Peak side of the resort is undergoing a transformation that will fundamentally alter the complexion of Stowe. A new slopeside village-with more than 1,200 pillows and all the requisite amenities, including a spa, shops, bars, restaurants and a performing arts center-promises to propel Stowe back into select company. Think Beaver Creek, Colo., or Tremblant, Que. Plans also call for significant on-mountain upgrades, most notably an open, cabriolet-style gondola linking Spruce to Mansfield, and the eventual replacement of all existing lifts, startting with a new triple and a new high-speed quad at Spruce this year.

For now, we poke along on the ancient Big Spruce double, eyeing fresh lines tucked into the folds of the broad slope below. Originally developed under the watchful eye of Sepp Ruschp, Stowe's first ski school director, the upper mountain was designed to evoke the ambience of the high alpine pastures of Ruschp's native Alps. Most days, the "big pig," as locals call it, doesn't fall far short. Not shy, I repeatedly go to the trough for oversized helpings of day-old fluff.

Still hungry, but this time for lunch, we shuttle back over to the Midway Lodge at the bottom of the gondola. Until the Spruce development takes shape, this is where the cognoscenti take refuge on busy weekends. Midway is generally less crowded, its mountain views are rivaled only by those of the summit's Octagon Lodge, and it offers a couple of different dining options, including a reasonably priced Mexican cantina. Fortified by a couple of tasty burritos, we're ready to get back to business.

Like other high peaks, Mansfield has a way of generating its own microclimate, a phenomenon that sometimes leads to macro snowfalls (300-plus inches annually, on average). Today, though, the clouds only send us scurrying for the comforts of the hotel. It's not a bad fate, considering we're staying at the Stoweflake, a luxurious full-service resort and spa on the Mountain Road.

After a spa treatment that quickly ameliorates a ski-day's worth of aches, I settle into a Euro mineral bath and bask in the reflected glory of the sun setting behind snow-capped Mansfield. Around Stowe are scores of fine places from which to observe this daily rite-including a groomed, 5.3-mile nordic path that connects village to mountain. But none is more sublime than this.

Much as the brooding mass of Mt. Mansfield dominates the horizon, the iconic white steeple of the Stowe Community Church presides over the old village. Skiers, however, should home in on the Vermont Ski Museum, housed in a carefully restored Greek Revival building dating to 1818. The walls of the museum speak volumes about the exploits of native sons like Olympian Billy Kidd, but the best tales of all are found at the well of the local watering holes. Mr. Pickwick's Pub, where 74 brands of Scotch are offered, does its part to lubricate this process. "Our goal is to have a hundred different bottles," the barkeep informs me. And a worthy goal it is.

We're slow to rise from our heavenly digs the next morning, and then my wife lays down the law: "You can go skiing if you want, but only those art galleries in the village can drag me away from a day at the spa." To banish the image of her out on the town with our credit card, I conjure up visions of some of my old haunts on the mountain and force myself out the door.

I soon meet up with a recent Middlebury grad who's on the lam from a family reunion. We strike a deal to keep an eye on each other in the woods for safety, and I offer to show him some of my old favorites, including an unmarked but well-worn riverbed that now serves as a natural halfpipe for the boarder crowd. "At any other area, that would be a marked trail," my companion says. I grin, then lead him back to the quad for another prime stash. Then we segue to lower Goat. "God, I still love this place," I reflect, snapping up the bumps. "It never quits." And just then we come upon a prostrate young snowboarder trimmed out in a pink hooded sweatshirt. "Oh my God," she wails, "I'm sooo tired." I smile. The Front Four-it seems-don't discriminate.Too soon it's last run, and I head off for one final dose of nostalgia. This time it's a glade-now marked on the map-called Tres Amigos. Halfway down, I'm stopped in my tracks by a porcupine, plodding across the snow. As the sun streams down, I watch him climb a yellow birch, and can't resist calling out, "Tres Amigos, little guy. You, me and Stowe."

DECEMBER 2004

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