Published in The Sunday Telegraph in 2009
‘Snow: it won’t be long before we’ll all be there with snow …’ sings Bing Crosby at the beginning of White Christmas. But when he reaches Vermont, there isn’t a flake to be seen. I know how he felt. As we drove towards Stowe from Burlington airport, late last March, the weather was positively balmy. “It’s kind of weird,” agreed my driver. “But don’t worry; there’s plenty of snow on the mountain.”
The mountain in question is Mount Mansfield (4,413ft), with 116 ski trails covering 39 miles. The nearby village of Stowe, with its pristine clapboard houses, white-steepled churches and covered bridges, is one of the prettiest in the state.
The drawback for European skiers, at least, has always been the six miles that separate the two. The area might boast an inn owned by members of the original von Trapp (now just plain Trapp) family, but ski-in, ski-out, it isn’t. Fine for American skiers who are used to driving to the slopes; not so good for European skiers who measure the walk from their hotel to the piste in minutes.
However, all that changed last year with the opening of Stowe Mountain Lodge at the base of Spruce Peak, next to Mount Mansfield. The lodge is part of massive investment in the area; there are also new lifts and trails, improved snow-making and a superb base area next to the lodge, with modern equipment-hire facilities, restaurants, retail outlets and coffee shops. A swish little scarlet gondola links the base camp with Mount Mansfield.
There was still very little snow on the ground as we pulled up at the lodge, but through the gloom – for it had started to drizzle – I could see that both Mount Mansfield and Spruce Peak were reassuringly white. Anyway, said a passing member of staff, you wouldn’t expect to see any snow on the ground near the hotel: the pavement outside has underfloor heating to prevent any nasty slips.
The following morning (still raining) I tapped my height, weight and shoe size into the hire shop’s computerised system. This produced a pair of (new) boots that fitted perfectly. Next, I collected my skis, the bindings already adjusted. You know how in European resorts you tend to emerge from the ski shop feeling hot and bothered, convinced that someone will steal your snow boots? Not here. Lockers were free and plentiful, the loos were sparklingly clean, and Damien Rice sang soothingly over the sound system.
Spruce Peak has gentler, cruisier trails than Mount Mansfield but as the latter is higher, Michael, who works at the Lodge and with whom I was skiing, was hoping it might be drier. It wasn’t, but we pulled down our hats, pulled up our collars and set off. Fifty-nine per cent of the trails on Mount Mansfield are intermediate and 16 per cent are expert. According to Michael, who was a ski instructor in a previous life, the difficulty level of the trails compare well with European pistes though I thought they were a bit easier. On the other hand, we avoided the runs known as “the front four” – Goat, Starr, Liftline and National – which are said to be more challenging than anything European resorts have to offer. In the rain, and with the snow melting fast? No thanks.
Instead, we took a selection of long, winding, spruce-lined trails, at one point, cutting across to a black run called Nose Dive, so-named because the mountain resembles a moose and this run was down its “nose”. The run was cut in 1934, long before the first lifts were built, with early skiers climbing the two and a half miles to the summit by foot. I’m always amazed by how tough those early skiers were.
As well as skiing without lifts, those early skiers also had to do without restaurants. Not for Michael and me a soggy cheese sandwich and a flask of stewed tea lugged up the mountain in a knapsack. We stopped first for a double espresso at the Octagon Café, at the top of the Quad lift, then later we tucked into lamb stew at Cliff House, a charming restaurant with apparently equally charming views, not that we could see much through the blanket of mist that now shrouded the mountain.
As we ate, the weather took a turn for the worse and the nearby lift was closed. Gradually, the last few skiers disappeared into the rain and fog and by the time we left the restaurant, we were quite alone. I could barely see the tips of my skis and I felt like one of those pioneering skiers, setting off into the unknown – except, of course, I knew that Stowe Lodge, and a heated boot rack, awaited below.
How those pioneering sorts would have marvelled at the comforts offered by Stowe Lodge, a gracious 139-room construction of timber, stone and glass; its public areas, designed in a sort of New England-meets-Heidi style, warmed by open fires and scented by enormous bowls of fresh flowers.
Most of the contemporary, spacious guest rooms have a kitchenette so you can self-cater, but how much more congenial to have a drink in the bar, comparing trails with fellow guests, before going through to the Lodge’s vaulted dining room and tucking into a hearty supper (local ingredients, international and American dishes). Cheese features prominently: cheesemaking is undergoing a big revival in the United States and Vermont is at the epicentre of production.
The Lodge is also justifiably proud of its 21,000 sq ft spa, with 19 treatment rooms and a vast list of treatments. Those same pioneering sorts might have laughed at such self-indulgences as the OM Champagne, Truffles and Caviar Organic Age-Defying Facial or the Pure Zen Sound Therapy, but they surely would have adored the outdoor pool which steams gently (it’s heated to 68F in winter) in the mountain air.
I had only three days in Stowe before returning to New York and it rained on all of them. Just my luck, as March is normally a great month in Stowe, which gets an average of 333 inches of snow a year.
Perhaps next time I’ll go for Christmas – even Bing had a white one in the end.