December 2, 2005
Snow? Yes. Crowds? No.
By BILL PENNINGTON
IT was the last Saturday in January, and the top of every car driving on Route 4 in snowy central Vermont was laden with skis or snowboards, a convoy lengthening by the mile. At moments like these, you realize your plan to sneak up to the mountains for an idyllic getaway weekend has snuck up on no one.
Get away, indeed.
But in the midst of just such a procession to the Killington Resort last winter, a funny thing happened: At the entrance to the milelong access road to the Big K, the Beast of the East, every car from both directions on Route 4 turned in. I did not, the only vehicle to pass by.
I continued two miles down the road to Pico Mountain, Killington's unsung sister, where I had a choice of dozens of parking spots within 50 yards of the base lodge. In minutes, I was headed up the central lift. The snow was abundant, the terrain varied and the trails uncrowded.
A day later, my wife, three children and I went to the Suicide Six ski area, 20 miles to the east. The next day we headed to the Ascutney Resort, 18 miles southeast. Our base of operations was the quintessential picture-perfect Vermont village of Woodstock, about a 25-minute drive from each ski area.
In three full days of resplendent skiing, we waited, in total, about 15 minutes in lift lines. We parked next to base lodges, skied for long periods alone. The snow was great. It was the skiing prime of the season. There was almost no one around, at least by the standards of a major resort in Eastern ski country.
Because the majority of skiers and snowboarders are big-mountain snobs. They flock to the major players in the industry, influenced by mass marketing, their own egos and the sense that a mountain can't be worth visiting unless your friends back home have heard of it.
What this attitude obscures is the hidden gems in our midst - Pico, Suicide Six and Ascutney are three examples. These are places right under our noses. From the top of Ascutney, you can see Okemo, Stratton and Killington. Those mountains are fine choices offering larger trail networks and a greater selection of restaurants and nightlife. But at what cost?
Robert Frost wrote:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
At times like these, go with the longtime New Englanders, like Frost, for skiing advice. And remember that the road less traveled does not mean a lesser destination. Pico Mountain, one of the oldest ski areas in Vermont, is bigger than 80 percent of the ski mountains in New England.
Its 1,967 vertical feet and 50 trails shaped the careers of many racers, including Andrea Mead Lawrence, an Olympic gold medalist, and Suzy Chaffee. The lower part of the mountain is gentler and more family oriented, but the delights of the place are the trails at the top, reached by the Pico Summit-Express Quad.
This is some of the best all-purpose terrain in the state - glades, bumps and cruisers - all with a spectacular view and almost always uncongested. Fortunately, Pico spent the last off-season replacing the lift drive for the quad; breakdowns had been frequent in the past.
But what people seem to like most about Pico is the small-hill atmosphere at a big mountain. All the trails, for instance, funnel toward the same base lodge, something parents appreciate when they let their children go tackle the mountain by themselves. It's a rite of passage for the kids, not to mention a chance for the adults to relax on the sun deck.
One of the things I like best about Pico is that it's across Route 4 from the Inn at Long Trail and McGrath's Irish Pub, which is built into a huge rock outcropping. The stone sprouts into the bar and dining room, forming irregular retaining walls, but it's not an intrusion. It's Yankee ingenuity at work. The owners have thrown a few cushions on the boulders. These become couches guaranteed to rock during the pub's live music on weekends.
If Day 1 of our trip was about finding a gem around the bend from the Beast of the East, then Day 2was about finding another jewel at the heart of skiing's historic soul. Suicide Six is just out of the village of Woodstock, and not scary, as the name implies.
Homey and cozy, Suicide Six is the site of what is called the first ski tow in America. In the winter of 1934, a Ford Model T engine was hooked up to a pulley at the base of the hill. Chair lifts take you to the same piste now, but the descent still has the old-time New England ski feel to it. The 23 trails follow nature's contours, not those wrought by bulldozer.
That means you are either on a flowing, graceful run or on a narrow chute cut through the trees. In the morning, with my 6-year-old son, there were enough moderate, winding trails to keep him calm and interested.
In the afternoon, shooting down the sheer face that has been the cynosure of Suicide Six since the 1930's, there were enough drops and turn-now-or-tumble moments to keep my teenage daughters exhilarated and interested.
In between, lunch in the lodge had an appropriately traditional feel - chili and burgers - eaten on long, wide tables in front of a giant picture window looking up at the slopes. The walls are lined with photos dating to the 1930's and draped with old skis and mementos of the hundreds of skiing weekends Suicide Six has seen. The lodge is small, and you might be shoulder-to-shoulder as you finish your French fries, but crowded together next to a stone fireplace burning massive five-foot-long logs somehow seemed a perfect complement to a day of serene, hassle-free skiing. The two-minute walk back to the car wasn't bad either.
Owned by the nearby Woodstock Inn, Suicide Six has a way of lulling you into a sense of carefree tranquillity. A walk along the picturesque streets and shops next to the Woodstock village green will enhance the mood. Don't miss Vermont's oldest general store, F. H. Gillingham & Sons, opened in 1866, where you can buy everything from snowshoes to banjos - with cheese and a chardonnay in between. The village is also a good place to find a book to read by the giant hearth in the lobby of the Woodstock Inn. Some people, especially those concluding two days packed full of skiing because there were no lift lines, will fall asleep at the hearth before they reach Page 20 of a newly purchased book.
The resort at Ascutney Mountain has been just off Route 91 near the New Hampshire border for 60 years, a sleeper that people pass on the way to better-known Vermont resorts to the north and west. From 1991 to 1993, you had no choice but to pass Ascutney because it was bankrupt and closed. To be sure, it always had some shortcomings. Its nearby village, Brownsville, is not as quaint as others in the region and its lodging and dining options more limited than those at the reigning snow-sports hotspots.
But under new owners, Steven and Susan Plausteiner, who salvaged the ski resort and reopened it 12 years ago, Ascutney has expanded and softened some rough edges. The key was the addition of the North Peak Express Quad, which increased Ascutney's trail count to 56, including some true double-black diamond runs, and upped the vertical drop to 1,800 feet. Ascutney has also shrewdly chased the family market, bolstering up its children's ski school with four ability and age levels. They also placed a cabin just for young people alongside the Wonder Carpet surface lift. The Moose House Lodge serves as an on-slope warming hut and an excuse to get hot chocolate.
There are also abundant cross-country and snowshoeing trails; a movie theater that shows family films; snow tubing; an outdoor skating rink; and a sports and fitness center with pools, sauna, tennis, racquetball and basketball courts.
Why pass all this up? Get off a few exits early on your next trip, and for a change of pace, see how the family likes Ascutney's all-inclusive nature. Ascutney may be less fashionable than some of its competitors - on-mountain lodging is going through necessary renovations and the base lodge is small and utilitarian - but the staff members there will look you in the eye, smile and help you to the wide-open and less-traveled trails on the map. On a weekday last January, there were exactly 14 cars in the parking lot, and the mountain was like a theme park just before the gates opened. From top to bottom you could happily set your own pace.
Which seems to be the point of seeking out the less-discovered ski areas. Skiing and snowboarding are sports designed to bring out the adventurer's soul, or at least that's my theory. We are exploring our surroundings - skis or a snowboard are merely the props to get us where we want to go. But we can't explore if there are thousands of others charging across our path.
It doesn't have to be that way.
There are more than enough overlooked mountains and ski areas waiting for the opportunity to help us expand our perspective. They are everywhere, sometimes small but underappreciated, sometimes big but surprisingly underused. All you have to do is look. You may have to go somewhere your friends never heard of - that could be the definition of a hidden gem.
Pico, Suicide Six and Ascutney are three good places to start, but there are others. New York, for example, has 50 ski areas, more than any other state in the country. There are 18 in Michigan and more than a dozen in Montana. The population of Montana is only about 925,000, so those mountains can't be crowded. It's worth checking out.
You don't have to take my word for it. Robert Frost also wrote:
"There is absolutely no reason for being rushed along with the rush."
The village of Woodstock, Vt., a good base for skiing Pico, Suicide Six and Ascutney, is about a five-hour drive from New York City and two and a half hours from Boston. From Interstate 91 take Exit 10N in Vermont onto I-89 north. Get off at Exit 1 and turn left onto Route 4 west. It's 10 miles to the Woodstock village green. The municipal airport in Lebanon, N.H., 19 miles east, serves the Woodstock area.
For more than 200 years, there has been an inn or a tavern on the site of the current Woodstock Inn & Resort (802-457-1100, 14 the Green; www.woodstockinn.com). The current structure was built in 1969 under the direction of the owner, Laurance S. Rockefeller. The inn strives for country sophistication, and it succeeds with 142 rooms and suites that are $149 to $664 a night. There is a fitness center a mile from the inn that is free to guests. Spa services are also available.
It would be a terrible mistake to miss the Sunday brunch at the Woodstock Inn. The setting is elegant, the food abundant and the quality refined. Offerings include lump-crabmeat eggs Benedict, blintzes, bananas Foster, specialty salads, fruits, crudités, pastries, baked salmon, duck breast, omelets and prime rib. The cost per person is $24.95.
The Jackson House Inn & Restaurant (802-457-2065, 114-3 Senior Lane; www.jacksonhouse.com) is in an 1890 mansion with 15 rooms furnished with period antiques. Rates are $195 to $380. Quail, lamb and sea bass, among other American dishes, are served under the vaulted ceiling of the dining room. There is a $55 three-course prix fixe menu and a $95 nine-course tasting menu.
Bentleys Restaurant (802-457-3232, 3 Elm Street; www.bentleysrestaurant.com) is in the heart of Woodstock. There's an eclectic mix of seating and tables, with Victorian sofas, antique lamps and oriental rugs. The menu is also eclectic, and grilled flatbreads are a specialty. There is an extensive selection of microbrews as well as wines by the glass. But you come to Bentleys, especially at lunch, for the atmosphere - a natural, enjoyable gathering spot. Sandwiches are $7 to $9.