ONCE it was almost assumed that an Eastern ski vacation dictated a stay at a Vermont super-resort. Where else could you find the best skiing and apr`es-skiing? But in recent years, an infusion of capital has widened the options. New England's resort real estate boom, breakthroughs in snowmaking and grooming, improved transportation - all have played a role. Now, first-rate skiing and amenities are available at mountains that were once barely considered to be ski areas at all.
Some of them, of course, are much less crowded than the mega-resorts. Others have their own weekend lift lines. A number have carved out niches, appealing to specific kinds of skiers. And many have worked at being more accessible for those skiers who are taking their vacation in long weekends.
Here's a brief look at some northern New England ski centers that have changed considerably of late. They offer a variety of terrain, fine snowmaking and grooming, good child-care services and ski school programs, first-rate dining and lodging - and sometimes a modern indoor sports center besides.
Maine comes of age
Two of the East's most dynamic mountains are in Maine, a fact that plays havoc with the state's usual image of gravel-floored warming shelters and pot-bellied stoves. Though Maine is still relatively remote for much of the Eastern Seaboard, Interstate highways and regular flights into Boston, Portland, and Bangor have narrowed the distance. Rental cars are available, but not always on a 24-hour basis, so be sure to check the details of any reservation.
Sunday River, in west central Maine, is one of the nation's fastest-growing ski resorts.
A few years ago, 60,000 skiers meant a good year; last season, more than 300,000 skiers played on Sunday River's five peaks (maximum vertical drop: 1,854 feet).
New quad chairlifts appear annually, and an explosion of slopeside condominiums has resulted in an additional 3,750 beds.
Sunday River's success has been built on good snowmaking and grooming, plus reasonable prices. Skiers find that they can get more for less at Sunday River: snow that's generally been more reliable than that of the competition, unfancy but handy slopeside condos featuring what skiers look for (indoor pools, hot tubs, saunas, slopeside access), casual but pleasant amenities on-mountain and in nearby Bethel, and, so far, more terrain to explore every year.
Prices aren't what they used to be, but they're still less than at comparable resorts. That counts in Maine, and apparently elsewhere, as skiers from farther afield continue to arrive.
This season, Sunday River opens its third base complex, two more quad chairs and White Heat, its claim to the simultaneously ``steepest, longest, widest lift-served trail in the East.'' Call toll-free: 800-367-3314.
At 2,600 vertical feet, Sugarloaf has been called by some the East's all-around finest mountain. But grandiose real estate development, poor snow years, and inadequate snowmaking put the big resort into receivership a few years ago. Now, with new financing and management, Sugarloaf has come full circle. Some $4 million worth of new snowmaking and grooming machinery is in place.
This season, two new quad chairs, plus new and recontoured trails, are evidence that Sugarloaf is once again back with the best of the Eastern resorts.
But Sugarloaf has always offered more than just skiing. Its base village complex is probably one of the most complete in the East. There are choices in everything, from casual apr`es-ski spots to first-class dining, as well as on-slope hotels and condominiums.
Remote it may be, but Sugarloaf has always had a party atmosphere. And although the old ``frontier spirit'' has obviously matured from its early days, it still lives. To help newcomers participate in it, ski instructors this year will give tips on where to go and what to do when the lifts close. Other attractions include an expanded children's program, a child center, and a teen center. Call: (207) 237-2000. Or, if you live in Maine or on the Eastern Seaboard, call toll-free 800-843-5623.
For those who still like their Maine woodsy, beautifully quiet yet potentially luxurious, Saddleback in the Rangeley Lakes region is an ideal choice.
It's even more remote than Sugarloaf, but it has fine skiing for all abilities over 1,830 vertical feet, good snowmaking, and nary a lift line.
You can drink in its beauty from one of about 40 luxurious trailside condos, or find more humble and modestly priced digs in the lake town of Rangeley, eight miles away. Lodging number: (207) 864-5364.
The `Vermont Classics'
In an effort to lure more vacationers, especially by air, northern Vermont at last has an interchangeable lift ticket, ``Ski the Vermont Classics.'' Participating are four ski resorts and the university town of Burlington, a cosmopolitan little city on Lake Champlain. Stay at any of the resorts or in Burlington (air gateway for northern Vermont), rent a car, and try everything. Lifts at all the areas for any three days in a week are $85; five days, $130. Christmas week is $90 and $150, respectively.
Stowe would not join the ``Classics'' this year, but the region's other top resorts did.
Sugarbush, with a maximum 2,600 vertical feet and a ``jet set'' image, has a couple of the East's finest and most challenging mountains and several first-rate restaurants. A sports center and 4,000 beds in condos are also at the area. Cross-country skiing, a noted ski school, some fine inns, and new snowmaking on Mt. Ellen (a big improvement) expand the options. Call toll free: 800-53-SUGAR; or, from Vermont and Canada, call 802-583-2381).
Bolton Valley is a self-contained little resort of about 1,000 vertical feet, nestled into a plateau between Burlington and Stowe. (Good cross-country skiers can sometimes ski to the latter.) Two lodges, 110 condos, restaurants, lounges, and a sports club are all within walking distance. Intermediates, in particular, will find the trails weighted in their favor. From New England, call toll-free: 800-451-3220; from outside of New England, call 802-434-2131.
Smugglers' Notch, on the back side of Stowe, is a two-mountain complex rising out of its own ``village.'' Madonna Mountain (2,610 vertical feet) is one of the East's most challenging; however, it's not known for snowmaking or grooming. Sterling and Morse Mountains are geared more to intermediates and novices and this year have some new trails and snowmaking. All are interconnected. The area prides itself on family-pleasing amenities, including a new $850,000 day-care center, indoor swimming, condo village, and restaurants. There are also special events for youngsters, such as sleigh rides, as well as some family-inclusive packages. Call toll-free from outside Vermont: 800-451-8752; from Vermont, call (802) 644-8851.
Jay Peak is Vermont's northernmost resort and a major destination for Montreal skiers. At 2,153 vertical feet, it's big and sprawling, with wide variety in both terrain and degrees of difficulty. This resort is really international, and boasts a continental feeling - as well as the state's only aerial tram. Dining in the area is heavily influenced by the resort's French-Canadian neighbors; it is probably as good as, or better than, that found at any other Eastern ski resort. From east of the Mississippi, call toll-free: 800-451-4449; from Ontario and Quebec, 800-654-5754; from Vermont, call (802) 988-2611.
Skiers can buy a five-day, midweek lift pass this season that's good at New Hampshire's 10 biggest resorts. Adults pay $110, or $22 a day, and can bring two children under 13 years with them for free. Three- and four-day midweek passes are interchangeable at the five resorts of the Ski-93 association.
The Granite State's three biggest ski centers have major additions this year. Waterville Valley has a new base-to-summit detachable quad chairlift and expanded trail systems, as well as its long-awaited $7 million Town Square Village. Loon has completed its luxury condominium hotel and sports center, the Mountain Club at Loon, and replaced its gondola with a new state-of-the-art model. And Attitash has a new learning center with a special slope and triple chair for beginners.
And any beginner wanting a pre-Christmas jump on the season can get a free beginner's package (alpine or cross-country) that includes rentals, lesson, and lifts at any member area of the New Hampshire Ski Areas Association on the weekend of Dec. 17-18.