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Beyond the Ratings

Beyond the Ratings

Features
By John Fry
posted: 09/15/2000

How to choose the best information to choose a ski vacation spot? As cautiously as you'd choose an HMO or a new hairdresser. Travel advice, like the resorts it steers you to, can be of uneven quality.

The most direct route to Chamonix, France, is via nearby Geneva, Switzerland, but I once read a recommendation to go via Paris ... perhaps because it is in France. Trouble is, it's six hours farther away. To ski Stowe, a writer once suggested taking a train that would have stranded me at dawn, 20 miles from the mountain.

Articles often tout a "secret" ski resort that could be the next Sun Valley, or vacationing before December 15th and after April Fool's Day. In both cases, you'll avoid crowds and save money. But unless you suffer a personality disorder for which the cure is boredom, you may be disappointed. Where would you find a companion to ski or get drunk with?

Travel advisors say you can save money by renting a place five miles from the lifts. True. But on Saturdays when you drive four miles to the ski area's overflow parking lot, you're one mile from the base, which is where you should originally have rented a condo—near a disco you can walk to, not the 7-Eleven outside the door of the place where you're saving all that money.

One writer suggested that I take my kids on vacation to an "off-the-beaten-path" resort. Après-ski at some of these places may be as exciting as an evening spent under a highway underpass. Would I have to rent a library of movies to entertain the little schuss-monsters?

By the way, whatever happened to moonlit sleigh rides with kids? They're available at Sun Valley and Vail, but not at Minuscule Mountain Resort, unless Farmer Ezra down the road can be persuaded to hitch his Ford tractor to the Flexible Flyer stored in the back of his barn.

I exaggerate. Small, remote ski areas can be beautiful, and it is to be acutely regretted that America has lost a couple hundred of them in the past dozen years. A few even make their way onto lists of top ski resorts. Which brings us to the cautionary part of what I have to say.

In 1989, I led the earliest annual effort to rate resorts using a mathematical blend of readers' evaluations and physical amenities on the mountain. Like SKI's ranking, the list generated heated arguments. I felt like I was crossing a snow bridge over a crevasse. Ever since, I've believed that personally selecting a resort by its ranking has little more chance of success than choosing a winning stock from the group making up the Dow Jones Average.

In determining where to vacation, one might also want to look further than Condé Nast Traveler's resort ranking. Using its readers' evaluations of terrain, snow conditions, accommodations, ambience, lifts and lines, that otherwise worthy magazine has determined that three hotels in Whistler, B.C., are North America's top ski resorts. Confused? Not as confused as one geographically challenged magazine editor who, a few years back, ranked Mammoth Mountain tops in the Far West, while ranking Whistler—also in the Pacific coastal range—No. 1 among Rocky Mountain resorts, ahead of Vail.

Truth be known, Whistler or Vail—numero unos on most lists—would not necessarily be my No. 1 choice. Whistler is North America's best-planned ski resort, with immense terrain. But I don't live on the West Coast, so reaching the place subtracts two long travel days from my vacation time. Besides, when I get to a resort I want assurance of sunshine. Vail offers better odds of cloudless skies and dry powder. But Vail is more expensive than Whistler, where the American dollar presently has nuclear buying power.

Instead I vacation within 25 minutes of Vail's lifts, at Copper Mountain. Here I'm at one of the world's most naturally endowed ski mountains, renting a walk-to-the-lift condo that costs less than half of the Vail equivalent. What I don't have at Copper are Whistler- or Vail-sized shopping, restaurants and après-ski.

The decision-makingg I've just described doesn't require that you be a Mensa member. To determine a sensible location for your ski vacation, the answer is in the details—where, I should point out, God is also said to be resident. Not a bad place to look.

Each winter, for more than a decade, several thousand SKI readers, like you, take the time to rate their experiences at resorts ... the quality of snow and grooming, value and service, weather, lodging, food and après-ski, among others. Alongside the ratings of amenities at 60 ski resorts appear statistics such as the mountain's vertical rise and number of lifts.

You can put this extraordinarily rich array of facts—the most comprehensive in the sport—to work identifying ski resorts that match your personal needs. To start your search, write down three or four resorts you have in mind, along with an equal number of things important to your idea of a successful trip.

For example, you and yours may demand a high quotient of nighttime entertainment, non-ski activities and shopping. Search for the après-ski ranking of each place you're considering, and record it next to the resort's name. Repeat for other quality-of-experience indicators and amenities. A picture will quickly emerge of the place most suited to you.

Another possible way to choose a resort would be to buy a box of fortune cookies at your local Chinese restaurant. You'd crack them open to reveal riddle-like Confucian advice, such as, "In a high white place you will encounter colorful people and question the very sun above." This kind of inscrutable guidance could easily have led me to two memorable vacation trips whose outcomes, however, were utterly contradictory.

I once vacationed with my wife, infant daughter and mother-in-law in a Swiss resort called Laax. During the entire week, heavy thick clouds covered the mountains for all but one morning. The vacation was lost in a whiteout. One night, we ate badly grilled raclette served by an unpleasant, complaining restaurant owner who bore a horrifying resemblance to the fairy tale character Rumpelstilzchen. Years later we laugh at the recollection of the ridiculous meal.

On another occasion, we went to a Canadian Mountain Holidays heli-skiing lodge in British Columbia's Adamant Mountains. For six sunlit days we surfed across miles of above-treeline powder. Every night we dined on superb food with friends who told an encyclopedia of grossly funny stories.

You'll neither find nor avoid such experiences by searching the worldwide yellow pages of travel. Factual information, it's true, can help you plan good ski trips—and golf and sailing trips, too. But like life itself, a successful vacation arises from the spontaneous and unpredictable. You can plan on it.

In My View columnist Fry has skied around the world, including the Alps, China, the Andes, Africa's Atlas Mountains, the White and Green mountains, Sierra, Laurentians, and the Rockies. Read his previous columns at SKImag.com.

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