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Had it with overcrowded trails, long snack bar lines, and grumbling kids? Northern Vermont will change your attitude about family skiing in the East.
This picture postcard region is home to 4,000-foot, snow-capped mountains, powdery slopes, and luxuriously long downhill and cross-country trails. You won't see any of those tacky neon signs and tourist traps common to most downhill areas. Log cabins and lifts are about as manmade as it gets.
More important, the skiing is top-notch. Mt. Mansfield, the state's highest peak at 4,395 feet, makes Stowe Mountain Resort the preferred destination of hotdoggers and snowboarders.
But here's a secret: It's great for families too, thanks in part to Smuggler's Notch, a world-class ski area that caters to kids on the other side of the mountain (if you have the right lift ticket, you can ski between Stowe and Smuggler's Notch).
In summer, Stowe and Smuggler's Notch are a Mecca for mountain bikers and hikers. Nearby Lake Champlain (at 278,400 acres, it's more a mini-ocean than a lake) attracts boaters, swimmers, and anglers. And in fall, the state plays host to the great spectator sport of leaf peeping.
More than 200 inches of snow each year make winter THE time to come here. Although the area is loaded with ski resorts, most folks pick Stowe and Smugglers' because they get the most powder. Plus, there are sleigh rides and snowmobiling for non-skiers.
Smugglers' Notch: "Awesome" is how kids describe this self-contained village with stores, restaurants, and 550 condominiums. The skiing is great, the instructors are cool, there are two terrain parks for snowboarders, and there's great stuff to do at night.
Parents love it because they can drop kids off at Snow Sport University (a skiing day camp) during the day, and slip away unencumbered. Day skiers, too, can pay to put their kids in the camp (but the rest of the resort's amenities are off limits).
On the slopes, there are 67 trails, including the East's only triple-black-diamond run. It's definitely not an easy ski area, but the academy trains these kids to be great skiers.
Besides skiing, there's also a mind-boggling number of distractions for infants and older kids. One of the most popular is The Outer Limits. This room is fully loaded with Internet access, movies, karaoke, laser tag, foosball, and salsa socials -- total teen heaven. So, while your 14-year-old is hanging with newfound friends at night, put the tots in free child care and ride the lift to Top of the Notch, where you'll be served a candle-lit, gourmet meal.
Stowe: For a more adult-friendly place, try Stowe on the other side of the mountain. With 47 wide trails and more skiable acres than Smuggler's Notch, it's more like skiing in the West or Europe. Stowe's average trail length is 3,603 feet, the longest in New England. Stowe's also a leader in snowboarding instruction for all ages. Once you know how it's done, ride its terrain park, with world-class pipes. Kids' programs are available, but unlike Smugglers', they're not the main attraction. You can stay slopeside, or in nearby motels, hotels, or antique-filled B&Bs.
If you want to ski both resorts, one trail will get you there when the conditions are right (you must ski over a pond, which, of course, has to be frozen). Lift privileges, however, change every year. Officially, you must buy a lift ticket to ski the other side of the mountain at that area's office (Smugglers' Notch packages generally include a lift ticket for Stowe). But, word of mouth has it that both Stowe and Smugglers' give "visiting" skiers one free lift ride back to their original area.
The hills here may be alive with downhill skiing, but flat cross-country trails are the main attraction at the Trapp Family Lodge (run by the original Trapp family of Sound of Music fame). Even locals use the extensive network of trails -- 45 kilometers of groomed trails, 100 kilometers of backcountry trails. It's also a snowshoeing center, and there are sleigh rides as well.
With its high elevations and maple trees, Northern Vermont is usually first on the fall foliage calendar. Leaves start turning the third week in September and maintain their brilliant colors through mid-October. Planning tip: Reserve your hotel room early -- by September, most accommodations are sold out.
Colors can easily be seen by car, from the porch of a country inn, or by cruising among the treetops in a gondola at Stowe. But the best way is by foot, on many of the great local trails:
When Northern Vermont melts, it's just the beginning. Come summer, there's even more to do here:
Type of trip: Skiing, outdoor sports, scenic drive
Best ages: Kids ages 2 and up and active adults
Ideal trip length: You'll need at least three days to explore all the slopes.
Distance: Burlington (36 miles); Montreal, Canada (131 miles); Boston (200 miles)
Best time to go: Winter. Slopes are generally open from Thanksgiving through mid-April.
Weather: Winter temperatures usually include a "minus" in front of them. January highs hit 25 degrees, at best; April's average is only 53; July can climb to 81.
Squirm factor: None
Smugglers' Notch 4323 Route 108 S, Jeffersonville Phone: 800-451-8752
Stowe 5781 Mountain Rd. Route 108 Phone: 888-253-4849
Trapp Family Lodge 700 Trapp Hill Road, Stowe Phone: 800-826-7000
Fishing: Get a fishing map and a Vermont fishing license at Fly Fish Vermont in Stowe Phone: 802-253-3964More Information:
Lamoille Valley Chamber of Commerce Phone: 802-888-7607
Stowe Area Association Phone: 802-253-7321 Note: Also offers hiking maps
Skiing: Vermont Ski Association
Foliage: Get Vermont Foliage Reports from the Vermont Dept. of Tourism, complete with suggested driving loops. Phone: 1-800-837-6668
Complete the Vermont experience by driving past a covered bridge or two -- there are 14 in Lamoille County, where Stowe is located; the most in any county in the state. They're fairly spread out, so you'll need a car, a horse, or a snowmobile to see more than one. Vermont has more standing covered bridges than anywhere else. Prevailing wisdom has it that they were built in the late 1800s, long after those in other states. For a map of local covered bridges, call Stowe Area Association at 802-253-7321.
Best souvenir: Maple syrup and maple sugar candy, available at most stores. The best stuff is from local sugarhouses. Try Nebraska Knoll Sugarhouse, 256 Falls Brook Lane, Stowe, 802-253-4655. Both places are tiny, so call ahead to make sure they're open before you go.
Traffic Alert: Smuggler's Pass on Route 108 is closed during the winter. Smuggler's Notch Ski Area and Stowe are completely accessible at all times. Reviewed April 2004