How to Plan and Where to Go.
Few trips require the same leap of faith that a ski vacation does. Consider just how fickle Old Man Winter can be. Here in New England, we got absolutely buried with record-setting snows one year and the next, had record-setting droughts.
That's true almost anywhere. It's the volatility of the season. I've been to Whistler in January in the midst of one of British Columbia's worst snow seasons ever. They were even forced to cancel several World Cup freestyle events during my stay. Whistler, an area that's almost synonymous with abundant natural snow. Go figure.
Or how about Salt Lake City? I once had a February flight touch down in the pouring rain. Boarding the shuttle van to Snowbird, I told my driver I couldn't believe my bad luck.
"Oh, don't worry," he said, confidently. "Things will change once we get up Little Cottonwood Canyon."
He was right. By the time we got to Snowbird's Cliff Lodge, the rain had transformed into big, thick snowflakes. I thought "How cool is that?" as I pulled my gear from the back of the van. The next four days exploring Snowbird and Alta were tremendous.
These anecdotes illustrate just how tricky, and magical, ski vacations can be. Old Man Winter's capricious nature aside, there are steps you can take to ensure a great vacation while maximizing your investment. For expert advice, we reached out to Lisa Leavitt at Active Travels, a Massachusetts-based boutique travel agency that specializes in, you guessed it, vacations that accentuate getting outdoors. A perfect fit for a tailor-made ski vacation.
When you start planning your trip, consider a travel agent. While the World Wide Web boasts all kinds of offers and deals, it can also be a minefield. To be perfectly honest, the Web is littered with bogus offers and "deals."
Well-established travel agents are professionals who stake their reputation and livelihood on making sure their customers not only get good deals, but also the transportation, accommodations and services they're expecting. Great expectations are part of the fun of traveling; great disappointments can be soul crushing (not to mention a big hit financially). A travel agent is a nice hedge against any potential regret.
"We actually work with ground operators in countries all over the world," says Leavitt. "Japan and Switzerland have the best train systems in the world. Fly into Tokyo or Geneva and you're immediately transported on train to Hokkaido and Zermatt, respectively. You can get good deals in the summer if you're willing to sacrifice your warm weather for some runs in the mountains of Chile."
If you prefer to plan your own adventure, there are a few reliable rules to follow. Shop early for the best rates. Resorts are notoriously jittery about having empty rooms (see the above mention about winter's unpredictability), so the more they can fill in advance, the better. It's the same reason why the best deals on season passes are offered the preceding spring. Cash flow.
Of course, you can also wait until the last minute, and score some remarkable deals when both airlines and resorts are desperate. But that's playing with fire, and fire is no friend of snow. A better bet, for my money, is bundling.
Like Progressive Insurance's ubiquitous pitchwoman Flo likes to, bundling is a great way to save. That means getting a package price that includes airfare, lodging, lift tickets, rentals (if needed), guided tours, and lessons (if necessary), says Leavitt. Airlines and hotels often partner with ski resorts and trade associations (like Ski Utah, or Ski Vermont) to offer great packages on ticket prices.
Speaking of lift tickets, don't forget to prowl the Internet. Sites like Liftopia and Ski.com are a great place to start. As for your hotel, I'm the first to admit that nothing beats slope side accommodations. And nothing costs more. Here, it helps to prioritize where you want to spend your hard-earned vacation dollars.
"If you want to save money, don't be obsessed with a ski-in/ski-out facility," says Leavitt. "Walk across the street from your lodge to the lifts, and you could save half the price."
Same goes for a short drive. Most top-flight resorts offer efficient shuttle services that will round up skiers from surrounding lodging (or the nearest city). If you go the rental car route, opt for a solid all-wheel drive vehicle. The peace of mind is invaluable.
I'm also a big fan of getting rental gear, and so is Leavitt. First, airlines are making it more and more difficult to travel with your equipment without running up the tab for oversized or overweight baggage. Plus, most quality ski resorts now realize that they can't skimp on the quality of their rental equipment. As a result, the gear selection, from beginner to expert, is generally excellent.
The two items I'm very particular about are my boots, and my helmet. I always bring those with me. But with the rapid improvements in ski technology, and the ever-changing conditions that you can encounter, rental skis gives you a chance to match your boards with the terrain, says Leavitt.
"I know you love your skis, but is it really necessary to travel with them?" she says. "Many ski areas offer demo days where you can sample the best skis in the business."
You also want to be able to take full advantage of your time on the slopes. Again, doing some homework before will pay dividends.
"Use the concierge at hotels to outline your day on the mountain," says Leavitt. "Resorts like the Four Seasons Whistler have their own ski concierge who might even take you on private runs on the mountain."
Similarly, I recommend paying a little extra for a tour guide. Sometimes you can combine that with a lesson, which is a win/win. But a dedicated tour guide will help you find those "secret stashes" that all skiers dream about, but only a local knows about. Tip you guide well; its money well spent.
Another important tip for beginners is to be prepared. Don't skimp on good clothing, including sweat-absorbing base layers, and a true breathable, waterproof shell and pants. One of my best days skiing ever was at Park City, Utah, in a moderate rain, while most visitors were moping at the base lodge.
If you're coming from sea level, or lower elevations, plan to arrive early, and give yourself a chance to acclimate to the altitude.
"Take time to relax," says Leavitt. "This isn't a marathon run. It takes time to get your ski legs. So stop for coffee, or my favorite, a hot waffle.
Limit your alcohol consumption, since dehydration can accelerate the onset of altitude sickness. And nothing – nothing – is worse than falling ill after arriving at your dream destination.
"Give yourself enough days at each of these world-class resorts to really appreciate the skiing and other amenities," says Leavitt. "The number one complaint we hear from clients is they wished they had more time.
"Try other activities besides downhill skiing, like cross-country skiing, dogsledding, snowmobiling, or a horse-drawn sleigh."
Finally, we'd like to offer a half dozen of our favorite destinations. All of these resorts boast an exceptional variety of ski terrain, and have an airport nearby (or good access to an airport via public transportation).
Salt Lake City, Utah
"The Greatest Snow on Earth." Few cities can match the selection offered by Utah's capital. This good-sized city has an international airport, a wonderful array of restaurants and nightlife, including theaters and a professional basketball team – the Utah Jazz – to supplement 10 outstanding ski resorts. Ski City's Super Pass provides discounted tickets to Alta, Brighton, Snowbird and Solitude. Next door in Summit County, but only 40 minutes from Salt Lake City, Deer Valley and Park City Mountain Resort are world-class. The Utah Olympic Park by Park City is a great take for kids and adults alike.
Though Aspen gets the lion's share of ink, don't sleep on Snowmass and Aspen Highlands, two brilliant resorts in their own right. Off the hills, spark your appreciation for the arts at the new Aspen Art Museum – or the AAM – before heading out on the town to Jimmy's, Cache Cache, Mezzaluna, BB's Kitchen, Ajax Tavern, and Justice Snow's. However, Aspen's smaller airport can be susceptible to foul weather, and the drive from Denver is a good four hours (weather permitting). Plan accordingly.
Home of those cutting-edge filmmakers at Teton Gravity Research, this old cowboy town still blends a fun, rough-cut vibe with a cool sophistication. The Snow King hill is dwarfed by the giant Jackson Hole on the outskirts of town, but it has its own local charm. Jackson Hole, meanwhile, offers every skiing sensation from spine-tingling (Corbet's Coulior) to soothing (the spa at Four Seasons).
Whistler, British Columbia
Home of the ski and snowboard events for the 2010 Winter Games, two hours outside of Vancouver, Whistler is a massive resort with a big, bold party atmosphere to match. I have a soft spot in my heart for the Savage Beagle, the raucous nightclub in the base village. But no one comes to Whistler (now combined with neighboring Blackcomb) solely for the nightlife. The skiing, and snowboarding, found here is absolutely stunning.
This quintessential New England resort, a short drive from the airport in the college town of Burlington, is a wonderful mix of skiing's past and future. After all, this is where the von Trapp's (of "The Sound of Music" fame) established their lodge, and ski pioneers built Stowe on the slopes of Mount Mansfield. The variety of lodging, restaurants, spas, and off-the-hill entertainment make it ideal for large families. If you're looking for variety, nearby Sugarbush and Mad River Glen – grab a "Ski It if You Can" bumper sticker – are outstanding.
The highest ski resort in Europe, Zermatt ought to be on every powderhound's Bucket List. Resorts like this simply don't exist anywhere in North America. Imagine, terrain for literally (though some of the best routes require a hike) against a backdrop of no fewer than 10 peaks exceeding 13,000 feet. "Our clients love this European outpost, where you can ski the morning in Switzerland, the afternoon in Italy, all while staring in awe at the Matterhorn," says Leavitt. The closest international airport is 80 miles away, in Bern, Switzerland, but there's also top-notch rail service from Zurich, Basil and Geneva.
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