If charm is what counts most, Stowe, Vt., is New England's premier ski town.
Towering over the 200-year-old village is the 171-foot steeple of the white clapboard Community Church built in 1863. A covered bridge spans the local stream, leading up to a coaching inn that dates to the 1830s. Genteelly spaced along Main Street are old country stores and quaint new boutiques and galleries, interspersed with an abundance of mature sugar maples. Completing this quintessential New England scene is the picture postcard backdrop of 4,393-foot Mount Mansfield, Vermont's highest peak, looming in the distance.
Charming, yes. Perfect, no.
Especially for skiers who can't help but see the not-so-hidden flaw in that perspective: the resort's celebrated slopes begin an inconvenient seven miles outside of town. They also know that negotiating Mountain Road, the twisty two-lane highway to the resort, will be the slowest lift line by far. And they will have to traverse it twice every day since only 33 of Stowe's 2,700 hotel rooms are slope-side.
As a result, the resort, whose natural advantages - a vertical drop of 2,360 feet, average annual snowfall of 333 inches and the longest average trail length (3,600 feet) in the East - once made it the undisputed "Ski Capital of the East," now only ranks sixth with the readers of Ski Magazine.
Stowe officials hope that a 10-year, $400 million makeover designed to add youth to the resort's 70-year-old frame will again have skiers waxing superlative.
On a dreary October morning, I speak with Jeff Wise, communications director of the Mt. Mansfield Co. - the parent company of Stowe Mountain Resort - in his office overlooking Toll House Hill. It was there that commercial skiing began at Stowe in the winter of 1937 with the installation of a simple 1,000-foot rope tow, powered by a 10-year-old Cadillac engine. Today, withered grass and bushes bow before the autumnal rains. Above them, the silent silhouette of a double chairlift disappears into the low-hanging clouds.
"So far we have spent $40 million on on-mountain improvements," Wise says. "Most of that has gone to Spruce Peak," Stowe's second and less-demanding mountain. Last year saw the debut of the Sensation detachable high-speed quad lift and the recontouring of Main Street, Spruce's primary thoroughfare. In addition, there was the renovation of the 1940 Cliff House Restaurant, which sits at the Mount Mansfield gondola summit and is open for dinner during the ski season.
So far, so good apparently as Stowe has moved up one notch in the Ski Magazine readers' survey from last year. Next month, a new transfer lift will debut. The 10-person gondola will whisk skiers up and over the Mountain Road, which inconveniently separates Spruce Peak from its glamorous, older and much bigger sister, Mount Mansfield.
But it is what is still taking shape a mile up the road that will most enhance the Stowe experience.
"Stowe has always attracted core skiers and snowboarders," Wise says. "But we know from our market research that we are not capturing our fair share of the family market."
Rather, the motherlode of family business goes to Smugglers' Notch, a nearby competitor ranked the No. 2 Eastern resort overall (second only to Quebec's Mont Tremblant) according to the Ski Magazine survey. Part of Smugglers' appeal to families is its impressive amount of spacious lodging, more than 500 slope-side condos. Stowe, on the other hand, said it would limit the size of its new development in an agreement it signed with the state of Vermont.
Since it couldn't compete with Smugglers' - or any number of other New England resorts in quantity, Stowe has chosen to compete in quality. Scheduled to open next winter is the 139-room Stowe Mountain Lodge at Spruce Peak, a four- or five-star, full-amenities facility that Wise says will "raise slope-side lodging in the East to a whole new level."
His reference to "the East" is hardly gratuitous. Modeled specifically on the Western resorts of Beaver Creek in Colorado and Deer Valley in Utah, Stowe's new "alpine neighborhood" will include a pedestrian plaza, an outdoor skating rink and a performance center. The lodge, however, will follow northern New England heritage designs, featuring heavy timber, stone and glass. "When it opens next winter," he says, "it will bring Stowe back to its preeminence of the '60s and '70s."
The first visit
What the thirtysomething Wise longs for nostalgically is something that I can recall vividly. During Christmas vacation 1972, four of us vertically unchallenged Midwestern teenagers drove east to ski in Vermont. It was a given that we would complete our five-resort tour at Stowe - not because we were stoically saving the best for last, but so that the cachet associated with a Stowe lift ticket could be seen dangling from our down parkas for the next two months.