Discovering the Lehigh Valley's well-kept secrets Getaway: For a reasonably priced ski trip and an old-fashioned holiday, try Pennsylvania's Allentown/Bethlehem area.

December 22, 1996|By Thomas D. Renda | Thomas D. Renda,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Allentown, Pa., probably doesn't rank too high on most travelers' wish lists. Thanks to the music of Billy Joel, this medium-size metropolis about 50 miles northwest of Philadelphia has been enshrined in the national consciousness as a symbol of economic decline in the industrial Northeast. Not surprisingly, the locals now prefer to call the area "Lehigh Valley."

Whatever you call it, the region offers bargain ski opportunities. Coupled with the nearly mystical Christmastime atmosphere that prevails at historic Bethlehem during December, the Allentown/Bethlehem area is a surprisingly inexpensive holiday travel opportunity, less than three hours drive time from Baltimore.

We stumbled upon the area last year, on the way to visit family in New York at Christmas, and became instant converts. If you recently have suffered a case of sticker shock induced by nearly $50 dollar per day lift tickets prevailing in New England and out West, skiing here offers respite.

Within 20 minutes from Allentown, there are two ski areas, Blue Mountain and Doe. Blue Mountain, the larger resort, frequently is confused by Baltimore and Washington skiers with Blue Knob, another Pennsylvania resort closer to Pittsburgh. My wife, Susan, and eldest daughter, Karen -- neither an expert skier -- selected the place from a half-dozen other Pocono-area resorts because Blue Mountain does not allow snowboarding.

(Snowboarding, for those who have been off the mountains during the past decade, is a mixture of skiing, skateboarding and surfing practiced almost exclusively by teens.)

The absence of the snowboard set at Blue Mountain leads to a more mature crowd in the lodge and on the lifts.

Ray Tuthill, the owner of Blue Mountain, acknowledges that his ban on snowboarding results in some lost ticket sales, but figures he makes up by attracting skiers who want to avoid snowboarders. "I don't know if we'll be able to retain the 'skiers only' policy over the long term, but for now, it hasn't hurt revenues," he says.

The skiers we encountered were, for the most part, locals who were more conversational than the people at other Pennsylvania and Vermont resorts that we visited in 1996. To a family of new skiers, their tips and insights were much appreciated.

Blue Mountain offers nearly 1,100 feet of vertical drop (the change in altitude between the top of the ski lift and the bottom of the mountains), the most of any Pennsylvania resort and almost twice that of areas closer to Baltimore like Round Top or Ski Liberty (each around 600 feet), or Doe (about 500 feet). Terrain-wise, Blue Mountain offers an assortment of ski trails for all abilities; Susan and Karen enjoyed several beginner runs with multiple, tightly wound "S" turns. Lift lines were surprisingly short for a holiday period, and on Christmas Eve, lines disappeared altogether. At no time did we wait longer than five minutes in any line. Night skiing, until 10 p.m., is available.

Lodging around Allentown can be inexpensive. Local Hampton Inn, Days Inn, and Comfort Inn franchises each offer packages that include one night's accommodations, the next day's lift ticket and breakfast, all for under $60 per adult. Children under age 14 stay free (although you must buy them a lift ticket). Several hotels around Doe offer even better deals.

Drawbacks? There is no slope-side lodging at Blue Mountain, so you do need to trek 30 to 45 minutes to reach the place from your hotel. And the food at the lodge is somewhat pedestrian; burgers, fries, hot dogs and similar offerings make up the menu. If you are accustomed to gourmet coffee and sumptuous slope-side meals, you'll be well-advised to pack your own.

Skip the night skiing at least once and visit neighboring Bethlehem to partake of various holiday season activities. Settled by Moravians before the Revolutionary War, this small town lights up each year between Thanksgiving and New Year's. Much of the city's 18th- and 19th-century architecture survives intact, particularly in the downtown historic district.

The 18th Century Industrial Quarter, a cluster of stone and brick mills situated on the banks of Monocacy Creek, has been meticulously restored and is open to the public in December. Up the hill, the Hotel Bethlehem, built in the 1930s, offers traditional (albeit somewhat dated) accommodations to those with a preference for lodging in the Bethlehem historic district. That the historic district remains in pristine condition is a tribute to the Moravian Church and its members, many of whom own small businesses along Market Street.

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