Topsfield, Mass. — Skiers will pay big dollars to stand in line for a seat on a New England chairlift on a crowded Saturday. But will they come to Grandma Moses country for a few leisurely days of uncrowded skiing and Yankee ambiance in the middle of the week? ``Nooo!'' squeal New England resort operators in collective frustration. They are weary of seeing skiers take off for a ski week in the Rockies, the Alps, or even California, while using New England slopes as weekend training grounds.
``Weekend skiing is lousy!'' snarls Foster Chandler, marketing director of Killington, the Vermont mega-resort that can easily fit 10,000-plus skiers onto its six mountains on any given Saturday. This season Killington is among many New England resorts beckoning skiers and never-ever beginners to take a midweek vacation, when chairlifts and beds are empty. Attendance at the Saturday ``zoo'' is being discouraged, with single-day lift tickets at some resorts as much as $28. Yet midweek there are some temp ting learn-to-ski packages, and at some resorts kids with parents can stay and ski free.
But skiers have become accustomed to cut-rate air fares to exotic destinations, often where a strong dollar makes the good life quite reasonable. What will they find if they take a New England vacation?
In a rush to become full-fledged, year-round resorts, New England ski areas have developed their own slopeside condominium colonies, resort villages, and indoor sports centers, plus the all-important snowmaking systems that can cover entire mountains and snow-grooming equipment that can rototill cement, if icy slopes come to that.
You even can find that incomparable old ``Moonlight in Vermont'' flavor. But you have to know where to look. And you definitely can ski as challengingly, eat as interestingly, and pay as much or as little in New England as on many famous far-off mountains.
Prices usually are least in Maine, most in Vermont, with exceptions everywhere. As an average, lodging, skiing, lessons, and ski rentals cost around $60 a day per person, double occupancy. That's a guideline that can go down or up depending on the resort, whether you need lessons or rentals, whether a group piles into a condo with a kitchen, etc.
Eastern skiers often drive, saving on transportation costs. But increasing numbers from all over are flying into the major gateways (Boston; Burlington, Vt.; Hartford, Conn.; Portland and Bangor, Maine) where rental cars usually are available.
But not all New England skiing is the same. Here are some details of the areas.
Sugarloaf offers one of the Northeast's biggest and best mountains -- marvelous skiing in its usual good snow years. But the snowmaking lags behind some resorts, which hurt Sugarloaf last season. Once this was pioneer country -- Maine's version of the Wild West. But in the past two years some $40 million has been invested to give Sugarloaf one of New England's grandest base villages, including a new hotel and conference center. Those who want big skiing and apr`es-skiing love Sugarloaf.
Saddleback is a remote, quiet version of Sugarloaf, while Sunday River, about an hour's drive to the south, is achieving phenomenal success as ``a middle-class ski resort.'' An expanding mountain (four new trails and two new lifts this season), excellent snowmaking, plain but comfortable slopeside condos with pools and saunas and a scattering of comfortable inns (as low as $35 a night with two meals) have made this region a top choice among budget-minded families.
Here are 1,000-1,200-foot mountains that offer everything from ballroom-smooth to gut-clutching steep runs, plus excellent snowmaking and often lights for night skiing. Butternut Basin and Catamount in the southern Berkshires and Jiminy Peak and Brodie near the Vermont border, like a bevy of smaller areas, are marvelous day-hops, even for New Yorkers. But the Berkshires' relaxed, urbane life style makes this also great country for a fine leisurely lunch before browsing around Stockbridge and Pitts field or museum-going in Williamstown.
There's a wide variety of inns and motels, including Jiminy Peak's new Country Inn close to the slopes. Cross-country skiers have several touring centers to choose from, as well as miles of state forest to explore. One rustic touring center, Stump Sprouts (West Hawley, Mass.), even offers a couple of ski-and-paint weeks for skiing artists (or artistic skiers).
The Granite State has two of the best ski towns (Jackson and North Conway), the most spectacularly alpine ski area (Wildcat in Pinkham Notch), two of the most popular full-service resorts (Waterville Valley and Loon), and perhaps the most charming mountains for country inns, cross-country skiing and pleasant, back-road ski areas (the Monadnocks of southern New Hampshire) in all of New England.
On a sunny, snowy day, the little ski village of Jackson, one of America's first, can shimmer like a jewel. There are over 100 kilometers of cross-country skiing for all abilities, instruction, rentals, wonderful inns like the Christmas Tree Farm Inn and Whitney's, at the base of charming Black Mountain. Other nearby ski areas (with fine snowmaking systems and reciprocal lift passes midweek) are popular Attitash and challenging Wildcat.
In nearby North Conway there's historic (and now modernizing) Mt. Cranmore, shops and countless inns, including the Scottish Lion, which can claim one of the better kitchens in northern New England.
Both Loon and Waterville Valley continue to expand because they offer skiers a solid vacation experience -- 2,000 foot vertical drops, good ski schools, fine base facilities, dining and lodging. (Children with parents can ski and stay free at Waterville midweek.) The same can be said of Bretton Woods in the shadow of Mt. Washington, which offers lots of novice runs and, like Waterville Valley, miles of tracked cross-country trails.
Between Jay Peak on the Canadian border and Mt. Snow in the south, Vermont has 17 major ski resorts, not counting your everyday ski areas. Nine of these have vertical drops of 2,000 feet or more; all have lodging and attractive restaurants at the base or nearby. A few suggestions:
For sprawling big mountains and price to match: Stowe (another great ski town with one of New England's most posh inns, The Topnotch) and Sugarbush (condominiums and fancy restaurants galore). Less pricey: Mad River Glen (super-tough skiing and rustic) and Pico (lovely glades, fine ski school, and race training).
For fun family skiing and some of this year's best values price-wise: Bromley (from $27 a day per person, including lift tickets and slopeside condo lodging for a family of 4 for 3 to 5 days midweek). For miles of fine cruising runs, plus brand new base villages that rival some of those in the West: Stratton (which offers early and late season lift tickets for only $12 this year) and Okemo.
For the most reliable and extensive snowmaking: Killington (huge, with something for everyone) and Mt. Snow (bustling variety and activity, with one of New England's finest inns and dining rooms nearby, the Inn at Saw Mill Farm).
For accents on the extras: Smugglers' Notch (indoor tennis, swimming, horseback riding, sleigh rides -- all for one complete price), Bolton Valley (children's programs, cross-country skiing), Jay Peak (superior French-Canadian cuisine at almost every inn). For the most extensive cross-country skiing: Trapp Family Lodge above Stowe, the Woodstock Inn, and the Sugarbush Inn-Mad River system.