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Stowe's New Script

Stowe's New Script

For all its classic enticements—challenging terrain, beautiful scenery, New England charm—the 'Ski Capital of the East' always lacked one component: luxury slopeside amenities on par with elite ...
By Joe Cutts, Deputy Editor, SKI Magazine
posted: 08/05/2009
A New Script for Stowe

To all you wussy Westerners with your smug attitudes, we Vermonters have this to say: Skiing in the East rocks. And while it might not be a universally acknowledged truth that Stowe is the best ski area in the East, only reflexive contrarians are likely to argue. Sure, Mad River, Sugarbush, Jay Peak and Sugarloaf have their adherents, who make compelling arguments. But consider Stowe’s endowments.

The terrain: 2,160 vertical feet of sustained steeps, covered in 333 average annual inches of snow, on Vermont’s highest peak.

The history: Places like Sugarbush and Killington, Vail and Deer Valley are relative newcomers to American skiing. Stowe has been cranking out Olympians since before World War II.

The village: one of the great ski towns anywhere, a charming Vermont original that predates the ski scene by 150 years.

The locals: as colorful, hardy and ski-crazed a crowd as you’ll find anywhere, people who rip and aren’t afraid of harsh winter weather.

In the end, you have to put Stowe up there with the Jacksons, Squaws and Altas in the pantheon of Great American Ski Resorts. In other words, pretty perfect. But for all its strengths, what it always lacked—until now—were uniformed employees to pre-warm your boots and carry your skis to the lift.

OK, that was sarcastic. I’ll rephrase. What Stowe lacked—that mattered—was slopeside lodging to match its stature. You know, what you see out West, where every blue-square-cruiser capital with a slopeside “village” has five-star properties to lean your skis against at day’s end. Stowe, proud as it was, always had to send visitors down the road for first-class lodging. Not so bad, when you considered the options: Trapp Family Lodge, Topnotch, Stoweflake. But not what you expected from a resort of Stowe’s stature.

So of all the transformative events that have occurred over the years at Stowe—the addition of the Gondola, the replacement of the old single with a high-speed quad—nothing compares to what’s going on now at the base of the once sleepy Spruce Peak. Towering over what used to be the dirt parking lot at Spruce, commanding truly awe-inspiring views of the slopes of Mansfield, is the six-story Stowe Mountain Lodge, a deeply luxurious hotel and the centerpiece of a $400 million redevelopment that, beginning in earnest this winter, radically alters the Stowe experience. And yes, they’ll warm your boots and carry your skis to the lift, because that’s important to some people.

Naturally, many of the locals—and loyal Stowe visitors—have trepidations about the transformation, just as they do about the resort’s future in the wake of the federal bailout of its owner, the insurance giant AIG. As to that, the locals have two theories. One, that Stowe will be sold soon, as AIG’s caretakers strip the company to retire debt and focus on core business; two, that they’ve got bigger items on their agenda, and in the $86 billion big picture, the $50 or $100 million they can raise by selling Stowe wouldn’t be worth the effort. Skiers can only wait and see. In the meantime, they can enjoy a Stowe Mountain Resort with better snowmaking, more lifts and nothing to be ashamed of in the way of slopeside amenities.

***

Like a lot of Vermonters, I have a nostalgic soft spot for Stowe, which loomed large in a preadolescent skier’s consciousness. In the mornings before school, Dad always tuned the radio to WDEV (AM 550, the “Voice of Vermont”) and its Trading Post program (“Chester in Cabot has 300 bales of hay he’d like to swap, maybe for some sap buckets or a deer rifle...”). My ears always perked up for the Stowe ad, with its clarion trumpets and stentorian voice. “Ski Capital of the East!” it proclaimed. I could only imagine a mountain twice as high as my home hill, immensely broader—and with a gondola.

When I finally got to visit, it was with a friend and his dad. Neither was as avid a skier as I was, and they tired midday. I happily explored the mountain on my own, lapping on the old single chair, wrapped in those Johnson Woolen Mill ponchos they’d give you for the 25-minute ride. An end-of-day wipeout on lower National finally sent me limping back to the gondola lodge, where my buddy’s dad had been ready to leave for hours.

I smile at the memory as I soar up on the high-speed FourRunner Quad—the East’s first when it replaced that old single in 1986—alone in a blinding February squall that’s been dropping an inch an hour since late morning. It’s midweek, but even so, the place is unusually deserted. It’s one of the best winters in recent memory, but we’ve just come through an appalling thaw that melted half our snowpack, then a predictable freeze-up the night before. Conditions have tightened up nicely, as they say around here.

So I was in no rush to get on the hill this morning. I put in a couple of hours at work, then swung by Benny’s shop for a boot tweak. Everyone in Stowe knows Benny Wax, the affable bootfitter and longtime local. We shot the breeze and watched the snow fall. He ground out a little more room for my “sixth toe,” caught me up on the local news and sent me off to the slopes. Benny skis almost every day, but not today. That tells me a lot about what I can expect for conditions.

By the time I hit the hill, though, things look somewhat promising: four inches of medium-dry powder have softened the frozen ocean underneath, and it’s still falling fast. Six minutes on the FourRunner, and I’m at the top.

The top of the quad at Stowe is one of those hallowed places in skiing. From here, the historic Bruce Trail, now overgrown, descends the backside of the ridge. Nosedive, a couple of years less historic (and reconfigured beyond recognition over the years), descends the frontside. Both are Civilian Conservation Corps projects dating to the ’30s, as is the cozy little Stone Hut at the top of them—Stowe’s original summit lodge in the days before the Octagon—and the original hemp-chinked log base lodge down below.

If you pause at the top and face downhill—eastward—you can consider your options. To skier’s right are plenty of mellow to moderate cruisers: Toll Road, Centerline, North Slope, Hayride. Toll Road, completed as a carriageway to the summit in 1870, is Stowe’s oldest trail by dint of a Dartmouth librarian’s ascent and descent of it in 1914. Straight ahead are the Front Four—Starr, National, Liftline and Goat—about which so much has been said and written since the 1940 installation of the single chair. To the left is Nosedive, where the 1938 nationals were held. Still farther left is the Gondola and its pod of cruisers—Perry Merrill, Gondolier, Chin Clip—opened in 1968. Past the Gondola, out of bounds, is some of the East’s best and most easily accessed treeskiing—Angel Food and beyond. Directly above the Gondola summit station is the Chin of Mt. Mansfield—Vermont’s highest point at 4,393 feet. And across Smuggler’s Notch Road, in front of you and a little to the left, is Spruce Peak, where, if it weren’t snowing so hard, I’d be able to see the construction site of the hotel—still four months from opening.

In all, it’s a magnificent place to have built a ski area, amid some of Vermont’s most spectacular landscape. Many a Stowe skier would have been happy to see it stay just the way it was. But there was one problem: a serious lack of water.

Next to the Notch Road, between Spruce and Mansfield, runs a mountain stream—the West Branch of the Little River—upon which Stowe relied for all of its snowmaking. That was too big a burden for such a small stream, and in the early ’90s, state regulators ordered Stowe to restore it to acceptable wintertime flow levels. General manager Hank Lunde was faced with a choice: drastically cut back on withdrawals and turn Stowe into a sort of natural-snow ski museum, a la Mad River Glen. Or make a huge investment in snowmaking ponds.

Whatever the solution was, Lunde would have to find a way to pay for it, because AIG wasn’t the kind of company that made risky, ill-advised investments with no hope of...ah.... Well, anyway, slopeside real estate was the obvious choice. The trick was getting permits for expansion in sprawl-wary Vermont. To get his way, Lunde hammered out a plan with those who would be the harshest critics—the influential Conservation Law Foundation. He made important concessions on the overall footprint for the development and water quality guarantees. Thus, the groundwork was laid, and long-overlooked Spruce Peak, over there on the west bank of the West Branch, would be the new center of activity.

***

It’s an ambitious project by any measure. In just one decade, Stowe will go from having almost no slopeside development to having virtually every amenity a discerning vacationer could want. Among them: the hotel, which opened in June, lavish in every regard; an equally handsome daylodge next door, which was scheduled to open in December; a golf course, its mountain layout already widely praised as one of the most spectacular new 18s in the nation; a number of single-family mansions; a 21,000-square-foot spa managed by Dallas-based Cooper Wellness; shops, bars, restaurants, swimming pools, ice rink, fitness facilities and performing arts center. All of it shoehorned into 35 acres (golf course not included) in a way that should give it appealing bustle and density while preserving the surrounding landscape. As for that landscape, it’s breathtaking. From the entrance of the Stowe Mountain Lodge, the Smuggler’s Notch Road (a.k.a. Route 108/the Mountain Road) winds steeply upward into the gap between Mansfield and Spruce, craggy cliffs on either side, massive glacier-beached boulders covered in moss at the top.

The hotel takes handsome advantage of those surroundings. It’s a six-story structure in the Great Camp tradition, wood-sided, with steep rooflines, sturdy stonework and exposed timber. It welcomes visitors with a satisfyingly grand lobby, where the décor blends sleek with rustic. A long wall of glass takes in trail-ribboned Mansfield—an unfailingly stirring sight. The spa is world-class (my wife and teenage daughters assure me), the dining room is elegant, and the work of Vermont artisans adds rich detail throughout. The rooms are luxurious and high-ceilinged, outfitted with soft bamboo linens and the latest electronics. Best of all, each gets its own view-rich balcony. Units range from 525 to 2,000 square feet and, if you’re thinking about buying in, from $350,000 to $1.5 million. Or, for $350,000 and up, you can buy a one-eighth share of a penthouse suite. It comes with membership to the Front Four residence club, which includes ski passes, priority tee times and spa privileges.

On the hill above the hotel, the slopes of Spruce have been recontoured, its lifts and snowmaking system replaced with the latest and fastest. A connector lift—the Over Easy gondola—finally links Spruce’s slopes to those of Mansfield, eliminating the shuttle ride. And the new lodge, Spruce Camp, includes ski school and rental facilities, “market-style” dining and a bar. Architecturally, it’s a worthy neighbor to the hotel, with an octagonal roof reminiscent of the (far more humble) Octagon. The transformation is far from complete. But already, there is nothing left of the old Spruce base area—not a single visual tie to the past. That era is over.

***

Like a lot of Stowe visitors, I’ve never had much time for Spruce Peak. It’s not literally in Mansfield’s shadow—that’s why it’s so sunny—but it was nevertheless easy to overlook. Still, there were always reasons to visit: Ski Bum Races and the citizens super G; day-after powder, when Mansfield was tracked out (and Mansfield does track out); or just to ski its south-facing slopes on a cold day. As my wife and I reared our own little racers, we watched them chatter over the knoll and onto the race hill’s steeps. A lot of Vermont kids, like mine, have fond memories of Stowe Duals, a spring rite of the tough Northern Vermont Council race circuit. Think 8-year-olds and a pro bump.

The views from Spruce were especially good. There was Mansfield, laid out like a trail map, with the famous Front Four dominating. Being at Spruce gave you perspective. Most of the time you were too close to Mansfield to really see it.

Buses always connected the two base areas, though any self-respecting ski bum learned to drive with ski boots on. But last season, the Over Easy lift changed everything. When that 10-person gondola spun to life, connecting Spruce to Mansfield with a two-minute ride, the two mountains became one ski area. And with its new lodge, it’s easy to imagine Spruce becoming the new focus of resort life.

That last point is important to die-hard Stowe skiers. It touches on what might become the most appealing aspect of the Spruce development. Beginners and intermediates, the theory goes, will now be happy to spend most of their time on Spruce’s broad, relaxed, sun-splashed trails, knowing Mansfield is a quick lift ride away. And maybe that means a less-crowded Mansfield for experts, even as Stowe increases skier visits overall.

***

It’s really pounding now, as I stand at the summit and rap the snow off my goggle vents. Four inches has become five since I arrived. It’s too little, too late in the day to have lured the local powder locusts (who, with their fat skis and insatiable lust, can strip a mountain clean in a couple of hours). But it’s enough to make a big difference. And the place is nearly empty. That in itself is a cool experience.

It’s easy to get possessive about Stowe—to want it to stay always the same, the way it was, say, when you were a 12-year-old visiting for the first time. But one thing that can never change is the mountain itself, all that awesome terrain, which awaits me as I snap out of my reverie.

I don’t get here as much as I would like. But my boots feel great, thanks to Benny, and I’m eager to ski old favorites. I warm up on Liftline/National and find that if I ski with a light touch there’s just enough cushion in the new snow to make it fun, massive bumps notwithstanding. Next, I make time down a groomed Hayride and dive into the trees of Tres Amigos. (Not quite as thrilling since they overcleared it and put it on the trail map. Minor complaint.) Upper Goat is closed, but the entry to it from Liftline is open, and the trees to skier’s left are utterly deserted and reasonably enjoyable. I finish off with a couple cruisers off the Gondola, then barely make it back for a long, leisurely top-to-bottom on Liftline, under the now silent FourRunner.

My car is feet from the slope’s edge, but I’m forced to carry my skis to it, since there are no “sherpas” present. Some kids in the Subaru next to me are cranking Chili Peppers and wondering where their buddy is. I look up after slamming the tailgate, but Mansfield is invisible. For the moment, anyway, it feels just like the old Stowe. And the snow keeps falling hard.

SIGNPOST: Stowe Mountain Resort, VT
485 skiable acres; 2,160 vertical feet; base elevation 2,235 feet; summit elevation 4,395 feet; 333 inches of annual snowfall; 116 trails; 90 percent snowmaking coverage; 12 lifts, including three high-speed quads and one gondola; tickets: adult two-day $159 (holiday); $149 (peak season)

Lodging: New last year, the grand 139-room slopeside Stowe Mountain Lodge and Spa offers studios, one-, two- or three-bedroom suites, and private mountain cabins ($419–$3,199; 888-478-6938; stowmountainlodge.com). Or cozy into one of Stowe’s many picturesque inns, like The Stowe Inn, circa 1820, which adds luxury to New England charm ($89–$239; 802-253-4030; stoweinn.com).

Dining: In town, try gorgonzola-crusted filet mignon at the famous Whip Bar & Grill (802-253-7302; greenmountaininn.com). For an elegant experience, Harrison’s Restaurant & Bar serves up dishes ranging from duck-sausage quesadillas to a Scottish salmon fillet with maple thyme glaze (802-253-7773; harrisonsstowe.com). On the Mountain Road, both The Shed brew pub (802-253-4364) and the locals’ favorite Piecasso Pizzeria (802-253-4411) double as good après-ski spots.

Don’t Miss: See how ice cream is made—and try samples—at Ben & Jerry’s factory, 20 minutes south of Stowe (benjerry.com; 802-882-1240). Or taste Vermont’s most famous cider at the Cold Hollow Cider Mill (802-244-8771; coldhollow.com).

Getting There: From Boston (205 miles), take I-93 north to Concord, N.H., then I-89 to Waterbury, Vt. (Exit 10), then Route 100 north to Stowe. The resort is six miles from town on Route 108/Mountain Road. From New York (325 miles), take I-95 north to Hartford, Conn., then I-95 north to White River Jct., Vt., then I- 89 north to Exit 10 and proceed as above. From the Burlington, Vt., airport, take I-89 south to Exit 10 and proceed as above.

Info: 800-253-4754; stowe.com

SKIING STOWE
Wipe the sleep from your eyes and hasten to the FourRunner Quad. If it’s a powder day on Mt. Mansfield, Vermont’s highest peak, you don’t have a moment to waste, because the locals aren’t going to wait. Check out a trail map for reference and read reviews of Stowe here.

First, get this painful truth through your head: The lifts at Stowe open at 8 a.m. On weekends, it’s even worse: 7:30. The locals have no problem with this, so beware: If you show up at 9:15 on a powder day, expect not freshies, but leftovers.

At the same time, if you have even a remote chance of skiing Stowe on a powder day, you’d be a fool to waste it. So you have no choice. Even though it is your vacation, you will rise long before the sun, hurry through breakfast and arrive at the hill at 7:15—only to find a long line already forming at FourRunner Quad. From there, your day will begin to go much better.

Unless you’re here specifically for the trees, stick to the trails for the first few runs. And there’s no time for warm-ups. Bagging first tracks on any of the Front Four is something you’ll long remember—especially if it’s Goat or Starr. After three or four runs, the frontside will be tracking out. Time to dive into the trees, which at Stowe are constantly being thinned by the locals (often to the point of excess). Follow the tracks of other tree hounds, and stick to the hardwoods: You can’t go wrong. For a bit more adventure, head to the Gondola. A little way down the left side of Chin Clip, there’s an obvious entrance to a long traverse over to the woods of Angel Food, which drops to the Mountain Road (short hike back required).

If you’re content with cruisers, you’ll love Perry Merrill or Gondolier off the Gondola, anything at Spruce, or anything skier’s left of the Mountain Triple. Intermediates love Toll Road, a switchbacked 4.5-mile run from the summit.

- SKI MAGAZINE, JANUARY 2009

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