US ski resorts: Beyond Colorado

DURING the ski boom of the 1980s and 1990s, the big US resorts in the Colorado Rockies were the brightest thing on the horizon.

Skiers raised on the slopes of the Alps fell boot, pole and binding for US standards of service, friendly English-speaking instructors and massive clumps of the white stuff. Schnapps-fuelled après ski and surly French lift operators were out; condominiums and outdoor hot tubs were in.

Of course, the higher package price and inconvenience of a transatlantic flight meant it was always an aspirational product, but US market share in the 1990s usually peaked above the 10% mark. Last season it was closer to 8%, up from a low of 6% in 2004/05.

So why the decline? The product is as good as it always was – better, in fact. Resorts have opened more terrain, upgraded lifts and improved hotels. The dumps of powder are still epic, but the US is no longer an exotic place to ski.

“It’s not new anymore. The US is more of a mainstay now,” said Inghams spokeswoman Lynsey Devon. “There are some great resorts such as Taos in New Mexico or Telluride in Colorado but they aren’t served by direct flights,” she added.

Mainstream operators and US specialists still feature a great deal of US resorts, but the real innovation in the ski industry is further afield.

Crystal and Inghams both introduced Rusutsu and Niseko in Japan this season and Crystal has been selling Portillo in Chile for a few years now. Closer to home, Serbia is taking on the budget beginner market and First Choice has followed Inghams’ lead with a programme to Finnish Lapland. Even Dubai has a ski hill now – albeit an indoor one.

Despite the challenge of new and exotic rivals, it would be foolish to say American skiing has had its day. Thomson introduced a direct charter to Denver last year and there are a huge number of resorts virtually untouched by British skiers.
Ski All America ski product manager Michael Brabin said there was no shortage of new product to add. “New hills are opening up all the time, and accommodation is always changing. US resorts  spend a lot on improvements.”

New for All America this season is Telluride, a 19th century mining town with great advanced and off-piste skiing.

Outside of Colorado, Brabin recommended Heavenly in California. It’s a great base for skiing the local resorts of Alpine Meadow, Kirkwood, North Star, Sierra Nevada and Squaw Valley.

With the huge investment made for the 2002 Winter Olympics, Utah has perhaps the strongest claim to the ‘new Colorado’ tag.
Park City is the main resort, but The Canyons was newly built at the turn of the millennium and has acres of terrain to expand into.

Size isn’t everything, of course; the chance to ski without the crowds is one of North America’s key advantages over Europe. But you can’t say you’ve skied the US if you’ve only been to Colorado.

Here are a few of our favourite alternatives:

Taking a gamble

Heavenly, on the Nevada border combines the easy-going Californian mentality with the opportunity to play the tables until dawn. There are fantastic views over Lake Tahoe, and varied skiing at local resorts. Day trips to Squaw Valley are popular – it’s a short boat-trip away with breakfast on the way out and après ski on the way back.

Sample product: Ski the American Dream offers 10 nights’ room-only at the three-star Holiday Lodge in Heavenly from £675 per person, including flights and transfers.

Risking life and limb

Jackson Hole in Wyoming is one for the experts. A real wild west town, the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar has to be seen to be believed, if only for the saddles that serve as barstools. Corbett’s Couloirs is the famous run for adrenalin junkies. Beware – it’s a 20-foot drop into a lethally narrow corridor – no lives have been claimed yet, but plenty of knee sockets have.

Sample product: Inghams offers 10 nights’ bed and breakfast at the three-star Ranch Inn from £510 per person in March, including flights and transfers.

Skiing like an Olympian

Utah’s calling card was the 2002 Olympics and Park City has reaped the rewards – it’s a good sized town with decent nightlife and a sizeable ski area. The Canyons is bigger and purpose built, but lacks the charm of Park City. Experts will appreciate Snowbird, which has huge steeps and powder in equal measure.

Sample product: Ski Independence offers 10 nights’ bed and breakfast at the four-star Yarrow Hotel in Park City from £817 per person, including scheduled flights and transfers.

Sampling a city

New England resorts are smaller than those in the west, but handy for city breaks to Boston or New York. The shorter flight also makes it handy for families who want to ski in the US without the long trek to Denver.

Sample product: Virgin Holidays offers seven nights’ bed and breakfast at the Merrill Farm Resort in North Conway, New Hampshire and three nights’ room-only at Copley Square Hotel in Boston from £669 this January, including flights and car hire.

Seeing the last frontier

For bragging rights, Alaska takes some beating. Not only does it sound like the ends of the earth, it gets huge amounts of powder – more than most other places in the world. And in fact it’s not that hard to get to – just a connecting flight from Minneapolis to Anchorage. The add-ons here are a bit different from the norm too – you can take wildlife-spotting cruises into the Bering Sea or helicopter flightseeing trips. If you can’t access enough powder from the main resort Alyeska (which is unlikely), you could always book a heli-skiing trip.

Sample product: Ski All America offers seven nights’ room-only at the four-star Alyeska Prince Hotel from £932 per person, with extra nights from £44. Price includes flights and transfers. Three-day heli-skiing packages at Valdez Heli-Camps lead in at £2,728 per person including full board accommodation and all heli-lifts.

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