New England's ski ambience

Most people choose New England for a ski holiday for at least one of the following reasons: To Easterners it is accessible and, therefore, less expensive than a trip to the Rockies or the Alps. Its mountains are generally big enough to provide both challenge and variety, and a number of its ski schools sufficiently experienced to promise fast progress. Moreover, widespread use of snowmaking and trail grooming in recent years has helped counter the unpredictability of New England weather.

Finally, there is that intangible but all-important matter of atmosphere.

To lovers of rural New England Americana, its ambience in winter can be very special. The major resorts now boast the big hotels, "gourmet dining," saunas, indoor pools (and sometimes tennis,) condominiums -- all the amenities featured by major resorts just about anywhere. But New England still has the small inn or lodge that is uniquely its own.

Most of the big alpine resorts now have cross-country also. Some of the facilities are extensive. Ski tourers, however, may want to opt for one of the independent cross-country centers sprouting almost wherever there is a country inn. Some of the best known ones, however, have become so popular they are now only accepting reservations for next winter.

From west to east, here's a look at a few of the skiing experiences possible:

With 36 alpine and 33 cross-country centers to choose from, including the largest and most sumptuous in the East, Vermont is one of the most popular skiing states in the Union. Last season the Green Mountain State recorded 3.6 million skier visits, up 20 percent over the previous winter's record 3 million.

Vermont is the most expensive state in New England to ski despite the Vermont Ski Area Association's claim that the average out-of-state skier spent only $36 a day for everything on a three-day stay last winter. At the biggest resorts, weekend lift prices can run $16 a day, $13 midweek on multiday packages. But there are also resorts for those on a budget.

Beginners have long flocked to Killington for its learn-to-ski weeks. It was an innovator of the graduated-length method (GLM) of instruction (employing progressively longer rental skis). Although the atmosphere strikes some as an assemblyline approach to skiing, Killington's program has proved efective. Other resorts known for their ski schools are Bromley and Stratton, and for advanced skiers looking for instruction in skiing the steep, Mad River Glen.

Centralized resorts where cars are not needed include Bolton Valley, Smugglers' Notch, and Magic Mountain. Stowe is best known among the classic we've-got-everything resorts, but this season many skiers will be trying Sugarbush, another celebrated plush area an hour's drive to the south. Sugarbush has bought neighboring Glen Ellen, renamed it Sugarbush North, and now offers skiing on two big mountains linked by shuttlebus -- some 70 trails and 13 lifts on one lift ticket.

Some of those resorts offering a lot of skiing at relatively reasonable prices are Pico, Okemo and for close budget watchers, Maple Valley, and Hogback. Most five-day ski weeks can cost upward of $150 per person for lifts, lessons, lodging and two meals a day; but Maple Valley has one for $99, $124 wiht rentals.

In the Massachusetts Berkshires there's a little of everything -- from cross-country to varied and challenging alpine complexes like Berkshire East and the newly expanded jimmy Peak. For nonskiers who would like a taste of instruction in downhill or cross-country skiing on rented equipment, along with a lot of apres-ski activities as swimming, skating, sauna, entertainment, and the like, Oak n' Spruce offers weekend packages at $73 to $84 per person complete.

In New Hampshire the White Mountains "superticket" gives you a five-day midweek pass to the state's seven biggest ski resorts for $50. You can tackle a different mountain every day or spend up to three days at one area.

A good plan might be to stay three days in the Jackson or North Conway area, sampling one of the many pleasant inns and ample apres-ski shops in the Mt. Washington Valley. Cross-country skiers can enjoy some 80 miles of trails at the Jackson Ski Touring Center while downhill devotees can try Wildcat, Cranmore , and Attitash.

Then move over to the western side of the White Mountains to ski the big resorts of Bretton Woods, Cannon, Loon, and/or Waterville Valley. The four mountains are within a 40-minute drive. Bretton Woods offers lots of novice terrain, while the others have both challenge and variety. Lodging varies from the delightful country inns around Cannon to on-slope lodging at Loon to the tasteful elegance of some of the lodges in wooded Waterville Valley.

Maine offers some excellent skiing, beautiful scenery, and delightful Down East ambience, often at lower prices.

Sugarloaf is the celebrated Big Daddy and a good bet for spring skiing. Squaw Mountain in remote northern Maine is a self-contained resort providing fine skiing and gorgeous vistas of Moosehead Lake. Bethel gives access to some good recreational skiing at Sunday River and Mount Abram (where beginners can ski free) as well as cross-country trails and a fine New England inn or two.Evergreen Valley is another self-contained resort offering everything from indoor tennis to pleasant skiing on a modest hill.

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