Critiques

How to Have the Perfect Ski Weekend in New England

Spending a winter weekend skiing in Vermont is a very fine thing to do. And one of the best places to do it is at Okemo Mountain Resort, in Ludlow, in the central part of the state. Depending on your luck, you could find ice cookies, mashed potatoes, snow snakes and joy.

We’ve been skiing and riding as a family at Okemo for a rather long time now, and it never gets old. Whether you’re thinking of a getaway vacation for one of the long winter holiday weekends, or a longer jaunt to New England with some skiing thrown in, simple Yankee luxuries await.

The first thing to know is that there are two mountains and two vibes at Okemo: the “old” side is Okemo Mountain; the “new” side is Jackson Gore Mountain. Seekers of luxury will want to stay on the new side. The Jackson Gore Inn is ski-in, ski-out (the lift is about 30 seconds away from the front door of the hotel), and it’s perfectly sized for families and small groups of friends. There are plentiful one-and two-bedroom suites, all with full kitchens, fireplaces and sleep sofas, and many have spectacular views of the mountain and the lift.

Just outside, there’s a communal fire pit and a kids’ snow-climbing “mountain;” the Adirondack chairs scattered throughout the inn’s covered wrap-around terrace are ideal people-watching perches. Heated underground self-parking is available, as is valet parking. Growing demand in recent years led to the construction of two additional buildings not attached to main inn: Adams and Bixby Houses are also right on the slopes and convenient to the lift. Like many ski resorts, the property has condominium units that are available for outright purchase or fractional ownership.

There are also numerous options for renting or owning a private home right on the slopes. The Solitude base area is surrounded by ski mansions of varying sizes (we have a friend who built one a few years ago that’s large enough to accommodate his four kids, their spouses and his grandchildren). This winter, a developer broke ground on a new group of private homes and condos on the South Face (the sunnier side) of Okemo Mountain. It’ll be a gated community with ski-in and out access and a dedicated lift.

On to the slopes! A huge plus of Okemo? Between them, the resort’s two mountains provide terrain that’s sufficiently varied and extensive to meet the needs of skiers and riders of all levels; a family or group of friends can stay happily occupied for days. For example, for the highly experienced, Black Hole is a double-black diamond run through glades; The Plunge is a steep moguled trail; and Exhibition is just plain steep (some people also just head off-piste into the woods). For intermediates, there are numerous groomed runs and a couple of glades, and for greens and absolute beginners, both mountains offer good magic carpets lifts and great learning terrain.

If you’re looking for challenging terrain parks, Okemo’s got you covered. There are eight, and you can spend the day happily moving from one to another. They’re teen heaven, but we’ve spied plenty of parents on the half-pipe, too.

The Okemo ski school is first-rate – it’s where we and our kids learned to ski. Our long-time favorite teachers are Douglas Mahoney and Jacob Pierce, but we’ve never had a bad experience with any of the instructors. They can help you find the best conditions on the mountain on any given day, and also help find less-heavily trafficked spots on busy afternoons. An additional benefit of taking a lesson or two? With an instructor beside you, you can go to the front of the lift lines, which can get quite long on holiday weekends.

No matter your age or ability level, the overall environment at Okemo is friendly and nurturing. That may be in part because it’s not as large or as fast-paced as neighboring mountains like Killington and Stowe. The resort staff is uniformly gracious, and that vibe can be felt among the guests, too. The conversations in the lift chairs are frequently lively and inclusive. On our last visit, on one lift trip two alumni of the same college met for the first time; on another we exchanged tips about the best new skis with our seatmates; and on a third, we met a man who had moved from Brooklyn to Vermont full-time, grown a beard and let his hair grow, and who proudly described his new look as “lumber-sexual.” (We’re betting he would still fit in perfectly in Brooklyn with this look).

We know what you Out West and Europe and Hokkaido habitués are thinking: no one who can avoid it skis in New England. It’s too cold, there’s ice, the mountains aren’t steep enough, and the lodgings are insufficiently chic. To you, dear readers, we say: get over it. If you can ski New England, you can ski anywhere.

Wanna find out what you’re really made of? Go to Vermont and ski every day, no matter what conditions you find. Our family rule has always been no gaming the weather: get up and hit the slopes every morning, and see what the mountain has in store for you. This means that we’ve skied and snowboarded through rain, high winds, sub-zero temperatures, and ice cookies (chunks of ice left behind by the groomers under certain conditions – also known as “death cookies”).  We’ve been attacked by snow snakes (unseen obstacles that somehow cause you to do a face plant in front of all of your friends); we’ve skied in mashed potatoes (melted ice cookies) and corn (snow covered in rain). We’ve learned how to handle sheets of ice, slush, and unanticipated moguls. We’ve become inured to that rattling, scraping noise that you and your fellow denizens of the mountain make when you’re doing a run on frozen corduroy. We’ve had mornings where we seemed to be the only ones on the slopes because it’s so cold. Ski New England, and you’ll learn to slide; you’ll learn how to read the fine nuances of ice and snow and all combinations thereof; you’ll understand why you need mittens not gloves; the healing powers of hot chocolate will be revealed to you; you’ll learn fortitude.

Don’t get us wrong: we love to ski on the perfect days that show up in New England every now and then: brilliant blue sky, fresh powder, snow like butter, and show-off-free slopes (no one skis Vermont to be seen or to spot celebrities – it’s a safe bet that it’s a paparazzi-free zone). These blissful days are the reward for all the other days. They’re hard-earned, and totally worth it.

Some of us here at Dandelion Chandelier are in mixed marriages, where one loves to ski and the other won’t set foot outside the door because it’s so cold. If this describes your situation, fear not. At Okemo there are Nordic trails and snow-shoe hikes for the partner who might be willing to taste a wee bit of winter. For the absolutely house-bound, the spa at Jackson Gore is nice, and the Spring House has extensive gym facilities, including squash courts, exercise classes, and a large indoor pool. The two-story fitness center offers a great deal of natural light and the decor is bright and airy; like the rest of the resort, it’s intimate and well-run.

For truly little ones, there’s a daycare center. For everyone else, there’s an indoor-outdoor pool and an outdoor hot tub that is great fun – after a hard day on the slopes, you can spend some time under a clear starry sky, swimming or soaking. Snow tubing starts as the mountain closes at 4:00P, as does the “Timber Ripper” – a wooden-railed mountain coaster that operates for a couple of hours at the end of each weekend day. The Ice House is open for covered ice skating for several hours a day, as well.

What about the food? During the day, there are ample choices at eateries across the mountains and at the bases. There are strategically-placed Waffle Cabins that you will be unable to pass more than once before you succumb to the aroma and have a sugar-coated pick-me-up. Après-ski there’s a roaring fire and lively bar scene in the lobby of the Jackson Gore Inn, or you can hang out at Sitting Bull underneath the clock tower on the other side of the resort.

Come dinnertime, we usually vote for the Coleman Brook Tavern, just off the lobby of Jackson Gore. It’s decorated with over-stuffed armchairs, love seats and cozy wood tables – nearly every weekend night, it’s filled with chattering, laughing groups of various ages. The Wine Room is set aside for those looking for a quieter, more romantic dinner après ski. The farm-to-table food is delicious and accented with New England-inspired flavors: maple, apple cider, Vermont cheddar and cranberries. If you like martinis, this is a must-visit: theirs are huge, ice-cold and delicious. The desserts are good fun: you can roast your own marshmallows and create s’mores (kids love this). There are also simple yummy things like brownie sundaes. Generally, we have one and then start falling asleep in those aforementioned comfortable arm chairs.

Other options on the property are Siena, an Italian trattoria on the second floor of the Roundhouse at Jackson Gore; and the Epic restaurant at the Solitude Base (you can take a snow cat ride over the mountain to dinner and back most weekends).

If you want to venture into town and explore the other food options, the good news is that the dining scene in Ludlow has taken a turn for the better in the past twelve months. The little downtown has several new restaurants that are getting great reviews. Our friends love Sam’s Steakhouse, Stemwinder, the Mojo Café and The Downtown Grocery. If you want to venture further afield, the Inn at Weston is charming classic bed-and-breakfast with a great dining room (you can request a table for two by the fireplace).

On your way in or out of town, you have to stop at the Vermont Country Store in Weston. We are huge fans of old-fashioned authentic general stores, and this is one of our favorites. From penny candy to greeting cards, candles to Patriots Nation memorabilia, it’s all here – the store’s proprietors bill themselves as “purveyors of the practical and the hard-to-find.” Nothing wrong with that.

We have a lot of jet-setting pals who can ski or ride anywhere in the world, and we’re sometimes surprised to run across them at Okemo. Sometimes it’s not about the glitz; sometimes it’s about family and friends, and simplicity and snow. When that’s what you’re seeking, these mountains await.