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Rising Sunapee

Ask seven people their favorite thing about Mount Sunapee and you'll likely get seven different answers. The snowboarder undoubtedly appreciates the surround-sound superpipe, while the hardcore skier likes the dependably firm snow on Flying Goose. The intermediate will cite the buffed grooming on boulevards like top-to-bottom Ridge Run, while the aesthete is stunned by the views north to the peaks of the Green and White Mountain ranges. The 5-year-old loves the baby Snickers bars doled out by roving hosts, and the beginner is relieved to have a segregated learning area where he can progress in peace and private. The practical parent is smitten by the parking lot: It's paved-a little luxury seldom seen in New England skiing. The smooth entrance is a fitting, no-hassle welcome to southern New Hampshire's biggest ski resort.

In fact, a survey of the parking lot is revealing. It's often full, for one thing, even when other areas struggle with weather and snow conditions. Sunapee's well-covered and meticulously groomed slopes bounce back quickly from Mother Nature's moodiness. On weekends, you can forget about getting a front-row slopeside parking spot, unless you get there before 7:30. By then, "The Beach" is occupied by tailgaters, who will spark up their grills midday in a scene that aptly displays Sunapee's friendly, convenient, casual appeal.

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But in the case of Mount Sunapee, down-home and friendly doesn't mean stuck in time. Not anymore, at least. The state-owned ski area first opened in 1948 and grew through skiing's heyday in the '70s. By the '80s, when I had my first glimpse of the resort, it was quaint, with a decidedly bare-bones appeal. That changed in 1998 when Tim and Diane Mueller (owners of Okemo, Vt., and now Crested Butte, Colo.) took over operations from the state. They've poured in $14 million worth of improvements, transforming Sunapee from decidedly "state-run" to "state of the art," with snowmaking on 97 percent of its terrain, new lifts, a spacious new lodge and, new last year, a children's learning center.

Like most New Englanders, Sunapee is straightforward in every way, starting with the layout. From The Beach, where your boots hit snow, turn left for the terrain, directly accessed by both Duckling and Spruce lifts, or go straight to the meat of the mountain, served by the North Peak triple and the Sunapee Express. North Peak accesses honest, plunging black-diamond faces like Flying Goose, while the Express is a six-minute, 1,400-vertical-foot jaunt to the summit and a network of intermediate trails. Turn right for the South Peak learning area, a sunny minimountain unto itself, featuring four lifts, 13 trails, gentle terrain features and a magic carpet, all in a low-pressure learning environment that won't be invaded by fast-whizzing experts playing through.

Wherever you start, all runs lead to the same base area, making it nearly impossible to miss your family rendezvous. That is, unless you want to get lost for a bit on the scenic, meandering Sunbowl runs off the summit's flank. From there, the vista across Lake Sunapee to the mountains beyond is almost Western in its expansiveness. On a clear day, you can cast an eye on much of the Eastern ski world, including Mt. Washington, Stratton, Okemo, Magic Mountain and Mount Snow.

The most critical decision you may face all day is choosing between the classic, original Spruce Lodge and the modern, tepee-shaped Sunapee Lodge. The latter, at the base of the terrain park and the race hill, is an especially convenient hub for snowboarders using the park, Sunapee's active ski-racing contingent and visitors arriving by bus in the lower lot. The Sunapee Lodge, at the base of Sunapee Express, is a natural meeting point throughout the day, immediately adjacent to the South Peak beginner area and the children's learning center.

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Beyond the on-mountain amenities, Sunapee's greatest convenience is its location, 90 minutes from Boston, just off I-89. City dwellers can check the weather at breakfast and rally for a day's worth of turns, and if the Patriots are in the Super Bowl, you can ski all day and still get home to watch the game. Though Sunapee plays its role as a day area masterfully, the real charm of visiting is the opportunity to fold yourself into one of several classic New England communities. Towns like Newport, six miles away, and New London, 10 miles away, are not tourist-clogged, "quintessential New England" cutesy enclaves. In Newport, the locals convene at Country Kitchen to talk politics and kids skate on the iced-over town green all winter. The "big city" of New London, home to Colby Sawyer College, hosts cultural events and features a smattering of shops and restaurants.

The sprinkling of small inns and B&Bs that dot the region-evidence of its summer popularity-provide refreshing and uncomplicated alternatives to the one-call-does-it-all central-reservations ski vacation. Family-friendly is the norm, and romantic getaways-like the gourmet shoreside Inn at Pleasant Lake-are low on attitude, high on taste and charm.

With well-designed trails that flow uninterrupted, the mountain skis bigger than it looks. At the same time, it's more intimate than you'd expect, thanks to the people. Walk into Spruce Lodge for the first time in 20 years and you may well see a familiar face among the enthusiastic longtime employees. The area boasts 40 resort ambassadors, 20 of whom are on duty each weekend. They ride the shuttles, greet guests, give directions, offer tips, help your kids onto the lift and generally make you feel welcome. These passionate skiers-plumbers, doctors, lawyers, teachers-drive as much as 90 minutes for volunteer duty, with virtually no turnover.

Sunapee's name derives from Soo-nipi, a Native American phrase for "lake of the flying goose." Fittingly, perhaps, the season culminates in a pond-skimming extravaganza that eclipses similar events at other areas. The annual Slush Cup involves two days of building the jump, excavating and lining an 84-by-40-foot pool, then plunking four lifeguards in drysuits into it for nearly four hours of "competition." Overkill? Perhaps. Another day at The Beach? Absolutely.

NOVEMBER 2004

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