Why Taos: As high-speed six-packs, Grand Canyon-sized superpipes and luxury boot-butler services redefine the modern ski resort, Taos Ski Valley will remain remarkable for entirely retro reasons. Snowboarders are still verboten, the lifts are still slow and "après means bedtime so your battered quads can recover. But don't let that tranquilo vibe fool you. Despite a $63 lift ticket - what Vail charged when the wheel was new - Taos is no backwater. Taj Mahal played here last fall, Julia Roberts has been seen wandering the Spanish-style plaza and Oprah Winfrey visits from time to time. Eighty-some restaurants - from traditional posole to sushi - are only getting better. Couple that with a perpetually blue sky, mild weather and hit-and-run storms that deliver confectioner's fluff, and Taos remains as relaxed as this afternoon's siesta.
The Skiing: Though relatively small with just 1,294 acres of mostly expert and intermediate terrain, Taos is New Mexico's biggest and steepest resort, plus it's got a good number of hidden pockets that make it ski bigger than it is. "I've lived here 22 years and still haven't skied every line, says local Dave Hahn, a nine-time Everest summiteer. Beginners shouldn't worry about Taos's black-diamond bias. The view across the pastel New Mexican mesas from the top of Honeysuckle, a green run, makes even Hahn feel lucky. Count on about 305 inches of annual snowfall, every inch of it as dry as the desert landscape on which it falls.
The Vibe: Since well before the days of resort founder Ernie Blake, Taos has attracted artsy types who come for the unique New Mexican light that sweeps across high desert sage and 13,000-foot peaks. The mix of Spanish history and Native American culture also lends Taos a spiritual and sometimes countercultural vibe. After a Mexicana mocha (with Ibarra chocolate) at World Cup espresso bar, you can have your aura read by a New Age clairvoyant and sign a petition to protest corporate domination. Don't miss the Taos Solar Music festival each summer, when folks like Michael Franti plug into sun-powered speaker systems.
The Life: Like many small ski towns, Taos and the surrounding county thrive largely on retail and service industries that account for about a third of the local economy. Small art galleries and businesses geared toward the local ranching community are some of the more popular ventures. With fewer than 32,000 people in the county, Taos and its wide-open landscapes also foster some of the highest property values in the state. Expect to pay at least $400,000 for a two-bed, two-bath home in areas that offer views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Come Christmas, a stroll around the plaza bedecked with glowing luminarias is always memorable for locals and tourists alike.
The Visit: Santa Fe and Taos each have miniscule airports, but flights into Albuquerque are more numerous. From there, it's a beautiful 130-mile drive north through a tight river canyon to reach Taos. The ski area is another half-hour. The Hotel St. Bernard, located at the base of Al's Run Lift, is a classic Swiss-style chalet with rooms that overlook the slopes. In town, Casa Europa is an 18th-century adobe-style bed and breakfast 1.6 miles from the plaza and 18 miles from the lifts. The Taos Pizza Outback serves gourmet pizzas from its packed house at 712 North Pueblo; try the Taos, a mushroom-and-onion pie mixed with beans and green chile.
Information: Taos Ski Valley: http://skitaos.org/ target_blank>http://taoschamber.com/index.html target_blank>