I always suspect that Stowe skiers who sing the praises of Spruce Peak have ulterior motives. It's warmer over there, they say. It's never crowded. And the terrain drips charisma. All valid points, but it's hard not to wonder if they're applauding Spruce only so they'll have the Mt. Mansfield side to themselves.
This occurs to me again as I ride the aged Little Spruce double for one of the last times in my life. It's March, but cold. As usual, I'm here for a race, which is the only reason I ever ski Spruce over Mansfield. And as usual, I'm twisting to the left in the chair, because one thing Spruce does have is an inspiring view of the Mansfield slopes, just across the Mountain Road.
As views go, it's one worthy of careful study. A giant X marks the spot where National crosses Liftline, and to either side are two narrower, twistier ribbons, Starr and Goat. Together they constitute the Front Four, and there's no ground more hallowed or historic in American skiing—not just because it dates to the very beginnings of the nation's love affair with the sport, but because it remains some of the finest frontside terrain anywhere. North of the Front Four is Nosedive, a classic in its own right; then the trails off the gondola, wide-open groomers; and still right of that, some of the best treeskiing in Vermont, from the Chin of Mansfield down to the Mountain Road. What I behold from my perch on the Little Spruce double, in other words, may be the perfect ski mountain. And it's a view that hasn't changed since the gondola expansion some 40 years ago.
Now, after all these years, change is afoot at Stowe. Swiveling my head another 90 degrees to study the Spruce base area, I see a massive construction zone in what used to be an underused parking lot. It's the site of the future Spruce Peak at Stowe, a $300 million real-estate and golf-course development that will fundamentally alter the Stowe experience. Spruce Peak, Mansfield's sleepy little side hill, will actually become the hub of the resort. New lifts and snowmaking—40 percent more coverage—have already been installed. At the base of Spruce there'll be a fractional-ownership hotel and a pedestrian plaza with shops, restaurants and lavish slopeside homes, all linked to the Mansfield side by a commuter lift. Build-out will take about 10 years.
It's not a project Stowe undertook lightly. Faced with a deadline to stop drawing snowmaking water from an impaired mountain stream, Stowe needed a new source. But parent company AIG, the recently embattled global insurance conglomerate, wasn't about to write a blank check. The resort had a choice: Cut snowmaking or find a way to pay for new snowmaking ponds and infrastructure.
Another consideration: Stowe's base-area amenities were, to put it nicely, "historic." The log-built Mansfield base lodge dates to the Civilian Conservation Corps days. And the only slopeside lodging is dated and unspectacular. Not surprisingly, pre-sales of the Spruce Peak units demonstrated demand for high-end slopeside property, so AIG gave the go-ahead. After all, if Stowe has world-class terrain, shouldn't it have amenities to match? After my race, I head over to Mansfield (driving in ski boots—a tradition that will perish with the commuter lift) for a few runs with friends. It's a crew that would normally be off in the woods somewhere, or egging each other through the bumps of Starr or Goat. But since we're all on race skis, we stick to groomers such as Gondolier and Perry Merrill, which are immaculately manicured and perfectly pitched for high-speed carving. The crowds aren't bad, though they can be on holidays and powder days. It's tempting to think that Spruce's development will pull intermediates over there, freeing up Mansfield's trail space. But we also wonder if skier visits will rise, making it a wash.
Later in the day, I steer down the Mountain Road in a stream of salt-stained cars. This tasteful six-mile sttrip of inns, shops and restaurants descends from the mountain along the river to Stowe's 200-year-old village, with its brick and clapboard homes and clean-shoveled walkways. Shop owners fear Spruce's makeover will hurt their business, but for now there are plenty of signs of economic vigor: crowded parking lots, expensive cars, pricey homes going up.
Along the way, I pull off at a favorite après bar, The Shed, to reconvene with my gondola mates over a pint brewed on the premises. In the parking lot I pause to admire the view of Mansfield's rugged Nose, backlit by the sunset. It's achingly beautiful, and always will be. Inside, we get to talking and, as often happens, one beer turns into two. It's good to know that some things are likely to stay the same, no matter how much Stowe changes.
SIGNPOST: Stowe, VT
Stowe Mountain Resort 485 skiable acres; 2,360 vertical feet; summit elevation 3,719 feet; 333 inches of annual snowfall; 48 trails; 90 percent snowmaking coverage; 12 lifts, including three high-speed quads and one gondola. Tickets: adult two-day $140 (holiday)/$120 (peak season)
Off the Mountain Road, Topnotch at Stowe is the resort's most lavish hotel and spa, complete with indoor tennis courts ($275—$950 per night; 800-451-8686; topnotchresort.com). The Green Mountain Inn, dating to 1833, has both historic and modern rooms in the heart of the village ($119—$399; 800-253-7302; greenmountaininn.com).
In the village, the Blue Moon Café's simple décor belies the sophistication of its New American cuisine (802-253-7006). On the Mountain Road, both The Shed (brewpub and dining room; 802-253-4364) and Miguel's Stowe-Away (Mexican; 802-253-7574) double as good après-ski and casual dining spots.
From Boston (205 miles), take I-93 north to Concord, N.H., to I-89 to Waterbury, Vt. (Exit 10), to Route 100 north to Stowe Village. The ski resort is six miles from town on Rte. 108 (Mountain Road).
Stowe Mountain Resort, 800-253-4754; stowe.com