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Where Now: Okemo, Vt.

Where Now: Okemo, Vt.

Travel
By Joe Cutts
posted: 02/12/2004

SHE'LL TIME HER EMERGENCE WITH UNCANNY accuracy, the bedroom door opening the moment the last drop of coffee splashes into the pot. The kids snuggle under a blanket on the couch, unsure what to make of the fact that nobody's nagging them for watching TV on "such a beautiful day. The strengthening February sun is already high, and the lifts have been spinning for 90 minutes. So why aren't you frantic to get out there? Because today the ski trails of Okemo, Vt., lie just outside your door, and they already bear the tracks of your Rossi B2s.

While she slept and the kids watched SpongeBob, you cycled a couple of cruisers in the early light on Chief, bashed a few bumps on Sel's, then poked into the trees on South Face to see if there was any loose snow left from yesterday's mini-dump. Now you stand in the condo's kitchen, boots on, dripping snowmelt, brewing French roast and chatting about your runs with the kids, who regret that they didn't get out of bed to join you.

It's the beauty of slopeside life: to each his own program. No lectures about the importance of beating the Saturday crowd or last-second angst over missing mittens. And when it comes to slopeside living, the undisputed champ of the East is Okemo. Now the champ is poised to take itsski-in/ski-out leadership to a new level with the December opening of Jackson Gore Village,a project that redefines the Okemo experience.

In the old days, "slopeside meant single-family homes sprouting up in the woods beside the trails, each consuming another acre of open space. But attitudes toward land use have shifted—away from scattered development, toward dense, vibrantvillages—and Okemo remains on the vanguard. Upon completion, Jackson Gore Village will increase Okemo's number of slopeside units from about 650 to nearly 1,100, but the 443 units it adds will occupy just 115 acres—a fraction of the open space devoured by earlier development. Untrammeled forest will surround a lively village, where kids can roam while parents dine, shop, spa or simply relax at the condo. There's good news for day-skiers, too: more parking and a new access road that will alleviate the daily4 p.m. traffic jam at the main base area.

The centerpiece is the 117-unit Jackson Gore Inn, a time-share hotel. It opens in December, along with a new daylodge, cafeteria, full-service restaurant and lounge, all served by a high-speed quad accessing 60 new acres of trails. The terrain won't radically alter Okemo's rap as Cruiser Heaven, but it's a welcome addition. Skiers got a taste last season when the first trails opened. They're exquisite cruisers: wide, steep in sections, but always letting up before the next plunge. This year, they'll descend all the way to the new village, crossing over railroad tracks en route and bumping Okemo's total vertical from 2,150 to 2,200.

Generally speaking, Okemo's trails flow, rather than tumble, from a well-rounded 3,344-foot summit. But the resort energetically makes the most of what it has. Its superb race trail, Chief, is a sustained blend of steeps, bends and flats, on which Okemo's strong youth racing program hosts big regional races. Its terrain parks—one wired for sound and accessed by its own surface lift and another boasting kickers as big as you'll see anywhere—keep even older kids engaged. And the machine-made moguls on Sel's and Ledges are some of the best in the East—uniformly shaped and predictably soft. You get the feeling every detail has been carefully considered—and it has, thanks to the keen management of owners Tim and Diane Mueller. During a period of time in which skier visits leveled off nationally, the Muellers have pushed Okemo's annual tally from about 70,000 in 1982 to 604,000 in 2003.

Okemo is blessed in another way: by the proximity of downtown Ludlow, a riverside mill town less than a mile from the lifts. No other Eastern ski resort lies so close to such an authentic New England village, or one with so many of its historic bbuildings intact. Ludlow hasn't fully blossomed yet as a ski town. It's easy to imagine boutique inns, galleries and riverside restaurants someday adding more life. Perhaps town and mountain will even be connected, someday, by gondola. For now, most skiers are content to set up slopeside. And in the interests of familial harmony, why not?

On cue, the sleepy spouse—rested and radiant—emerges to find that the kids have already wriggled enthusiastically into clean base layers fresh from the dryer. And soon—well, soon enough—you're gliding to the lifts, children leading the way. It's hard not to feel like one of those fake, smiling families in the resort ads. But what the hell. She's happy, you're happy, they're certainly happy. And the whole day—or enough of it—lies ahead.

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