Magic Mountains Eight resorts where world-class skiing doesn't come at Olympian prices.
(MONEY Magazine) – In the minds of many Americans, serious skiing takes place primarily at a small number of elite resorts located in Colorado, with Aspen and Vail at or near the top of any short list. The reasons are clear: These places almost always get excellent snow; they have scores of runs ranging from the challenging to the merely majestic; and they offer top-notch dining. You even stand a good chance of spotting a celebrity or two on the slopes.
But if Aspen and Vail represent something of a gold standard, they're also often crowded and almost always expensive--and the fact of the matter is that high-quality skiing doesn't have to be either. Two developments now make that especially true: First, the ski industry has seen little growth in the past two years, and U.S. resort owners--particularly those who can't rely on longstanding reputations--have been improving facilities and lowering the price of packages in an effort to draw in more skiers. Second, the historic strength of the dollar relative to both Canadian and European currencies has resulted in astounding deals for Americans. In fact, for anyone near the East Coast, skiing in Europe can be cheaper than skiing the Rockies.
So where exactly do you go for that magic combination of great skiing and reasonable prices? We contacted ski experts and travel agents, checked a range of online bulletin boards and pored over reviews for the following list of eight resorts. For each, we picked out a particularly attractive package deal. (You're almost always better off with packages--which can include air fare, hotel rooms, lift tickets, transportation and meals--than booking each element of your trip separately.) But as with many travel deals, prices change frequently, so use those listed as a guideline and check the Web for updated prices--as well as for information like altitude and weather.
In the past five years or so, the resorts around Salt Lake City have turned themselves into world-class ski destinations, partly in preparation for the 2002 Winter Olympics, now only 13 months away. Resorts like Park City, Deer Valley and Alta have long been known to offer some of the best snow conditions in the world. Our suggestion, however, is Snowbasin, a lesser-known mountain that you're likely to hear more about soon, since it will host the Olympic downhill, combined slalom and super G competitions. In preparation for the events, Snowbasin has added four lifts and a new snowmaking system. Best of all, it's not as well known as the region's other facilities, making it less crowded and less expensive.
The one drawback: There's no ski village at Snowbasin, so you have to make the trip back to Salt Lake each day. That's not so bad, given that Salt Lake made our list of best places to live (see page 156). Besides, a just-completed highway has cut the trip to less than an hour. And the package prices are impressive: Three nights at Salt Lake's sprawling Little America Hotel & Towers (800-453-9450) with two-day lift tickets at Snowbasin runs $195 per person, double occupancy. And staying in Salt Lake lets you sample other nearby resorts as well.
Lake Tahoe, California/Nevada.
If you're looking for a place to take the whole family, Northstar-at-Tahoe (800-466-6784; www.skinorthstar.com) is a great choice. Northstar offers extremely inexpensive lift tickets for kids ages five to 12: A three-day pass, for example, is only $36. The resort also provides free lessons for intermediate and advanced skiers (beginners pay $69 for a 1 1/2-hour lesson and a one-day lift ticket and ski rental). For kids too young to ski, the resort has a well-run day-care center that supplies parents with pagers and costs a reasonable $56 a day.
Detractors had once nicknamed it Flatstar for its lack of expert runs, but Northstar has installed a new high-speed lift on Lookout Mountain, which opened some 200 acres of seriously challenging runs. Two nights in a two-bedroom condo and two-day lift tickets for four run $300 a night.
Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Jackson Hole (www.jacksonhole.com) is the ultimate U.S. destination for experienced skiers. Last season, in fact, thousands of acres of backcountry terrain in Grand Teton National Park were opened to the most ambitious skiers. (Beginners aren't left in the cold, though: Jackson Hole's Apres Vous Mountain, for example, just built new lifts for its fine beginner slopes.) Despite its status, Jackson Hole offers plenty of great package deals. Why? Because Yellowstone National Park is only an hour away, so the area's hotels have been built up to accommodate hordes of summertime visitors--which in winter means a glut of hotel rooms. Jackson Hole Central Reservations (800-443-6931) offers round-trip air fare from Chicago or Dallas, three nights' lodging, two-day lift tickets and airport shuttle service for $299 per person.
A great way to get the Colorado skiing experience without Colorado prices is to stay at Keystone (www.keystoneresort.com), located 1 1/2 hours from Denver International Airport and near sister resorts Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Vail. A studio apartment at Keystone for five nights, four-day ski passes and airport shuttles costs $641 per person (877-753-9786). A nearly identical package at Vail comes to more than $1,000.
So what's the catch? The hotels and restaurants are somewhat less ritzy, and advanced skiers may find the slopes less challenging. That said, thanks to a highly efficient lift system, you'll rarely have a significant wait. Unlike at most ski facilities, you get to experience the thrill of night skiing--almost half the runs are floodlit and open until 8:30 p.m. And if you have an urge for more difficult runs, Keystone lift tickets also get you up the mountain at Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Vail, all between 25 minutes and an hour away by car.
Whistler/Blackcomb, British Columbia.
Thanks to the favorable exchange rate, Americans are discovering Canada's best ski resorts for a fraction of what they'd pay just a couple hundred miles to the south. Yes, there's a trade-off: Some skiers complain of the temperatures, which are generally 10 degrees colder than in Colorado. But if you dress warmly, you'll be well rewarded. One great choice is Whistler/Blackcomb (www.whistler-blackcomb.com), which is a two-hour drive from Vancouver's airport. With over 7,000 acres of skiable terrain and 31 lifts, Whistler/Blackcomb is the largest ski resort in North America and offers something for everyone: challenging slopes for experts, extensive trails for intermediates and excellent beginner runs. And the prices are great: While a six-day pass at, say, Vail costs $342, a similar pass at Whistler is $336 Canadian--or $230 (U.S.) at today's exchange rate. Hotels offer well-priced packages as well: Five nights at Whistler Town Plaza hotel (800-944-7853), airport shuttle service and a four-day lift ticket costs $650 (U.S.) per person, double occupancy.
Banff/Lake Louise, Alberta.
What makes skiing at Banff and Lake Louise extraordinary is the breathtaking scenery of towering mountains rising above lakes and valleys. But the skiing itself also has much to recommend it, with the three resorts in the area--Banff Mount Norquay, Sunshine Village and Lake Louise--offering a combined 227 runs. Again, some skiers are turned off by the cold, but others feel the prices more than compensate: A six-day lift pass good at all three resorts costs $220 (U.S.).
The hotels in the area, particularly Banff Springs and Chateau Lake Louise, are some of the oldest and most charming in Canada. And as in Jackson Hole, winter is low season in the area, so inexpensive packages are plentiful. Ski Banff/ Lake Louise (www.skibanfflakelouise.com) offers round-trip air fare from Chicago, four nights' lodging at the Banff Springs Hotel, shuttles to and from Calgary and a three-day tri-area lift ticket for $818 per person, double occupancy.
European skiing may seem the exclusive reserve of the landed gentry and British spies. But in October, the euro hit new record lows against the dollar, leaving Americans with nearly 30% more buying power on the Continent than when the European currency was introduced in January 1999. As a result, European ski trips can cost less than a trip to the Rockies--air fare included.
Chamonix (www.chamonix.com) is a particularly good option. Two years ago, a major fire closed the Mont Blanc tunnel and routed traffic away from the area, making a relatively peaceful resort out of this bustling town--at least until the tunnel reopens, which isn't expected until spring. One thing to keep in mind is that unlike at most American ski resorts, the lifts that take you to the top of the various mountains around Chamonix are a considerable distance from one another. Buses are available, but it's useful to have a car to get from lift to lift--and to other nearby resort towns, like Megeve and St. Gervais. We suggest a six-day pass that allows you to ski anywhere in the Mont Blanc area for $26 a day. For January, SkiEurope (800-333-5533; www.ski-europe.com) is offering round-trip air fare to Geneva from New York City, seven nights' accommodations, breakfasts and car rental (but not lift tickets) for $769.
The Tirolean capital has grown from a quaint town into a bustling city since it hosted the 1976 Olympics, so skiers looking for a village atmosphere should steer clear. But those who want to combine good skiing with a wealth of cultural events will love Innsbruck (www.tiscover.com/innsbruck). Surrounded by six ski resorts, each within an hour's drive, Innsbruck makes for an ideal base. And the package prices are astounding: One SkiEurope deal includes round-trip air fare from New York City to Munich, seven nights' accommodations, breakfast and car rental (but not lift tickets) for $579. A six-day SuperSki pass, which gets you to the top of any of the area's mountains, will run $153.