Families Enjoy the Best of All Worlds at Okemo Mountain

By Karen Rubin

In the morning, I had the adrenaline rush of downhill skiing at Okemo Mountain; by afternoon, the endorphin flush of cross-country skiing on gorgeous, glorious groomed trails at the Nordic Center; by evening, the blush of luxuriating in the heated waters of the indoor/outdoor pool at the Jackson Gore Inn watching the steam rise under the moonlight.

Okemo Mountain Resort, in central Vermont, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2006, has really emerged as a total winter vacation destination.

While I was conquering my own mountains, our sons were having the best time exploring Okemo’s peaks. They boasted that during our stay, they took every trail that was open at least once—a considerable achievement since Okemo has grown to 117 slopes, trails and glades totaling 624 acres of terrain (with unusually early snowfalls, a huge number were open early in the season).

We had a chance to share all these experiences, and even meet up on the mountain a couple of times, thanks to improved cell phone service on the mountain.

I was pleased the boys had this time together, which is becoming more infrequent, and that all of us could have this experience as a family. A ski trip (using the old encompassing term for the expanding list of winter-sport possibilities) does that.

It begins with the drive up, now with the younger son at the wheel, sitting around the table for meals in the condo (something that is unfortunately also rare these days), lazing around in the late afternoon after the lifts have closed, then gathering again for a swim in the pool, and hanging out over hot chocolate and snacks. Skiing (or riding or telemarking as the case might be) becomes a common element, even if the kids have long ago left you in the proverbial “dust” and you have taken different trails. Still, getting out there is enough to make parents somewhat “cool” in the kids’ eyes, while kids get an ego-boost from being independent and accomplished and siblings get to “bond”. This is a win-win-win in my book.

It is no wonder that the ski industry, which had suffered from “plateauing,” is back on a growth track, at least at places like Okemo that have earnestly catered to families with programs--ranging from learn-to-ski to daycare to off-the-slopes activities and amenities--and pricing. Indeed, now Okemo is addressing the growing demographic of empty-nesters and “super seniors.”

Okemo itself has hit the AARP age. This month, Okemo Mountain Resort is marking its 50th anniversary (Jay Silverheels, who played Tonto to the Lone Ranger, used to ski here), and it was a time for mountain owners, Long Islanders Tim and Diane Mueller, to reflect a bit, to revel in what has been achieved, and to look forward.

Okemo was a trend-setter from the very beginning—boasting the state-of-the-art lift of the time, the Poma; the first chairlift, the first snowmaking, and the first slope-side lodging affording ski in/out convenience. After several seasons of poor snow conditions had put the mountain into the red, the Muellers acquired Okemo in 1982, and since then, presided over a total make-over, from building on-mountain condos, to expanding skiable terrain, to systematically replacing every chairlift with state-of-the-art technology, vastly improving snowmaking and grooming, and cultivating a wider selection of amenities and activities.

Okemo did not get stuck in any plateau, but has continued to draw devotees and newcomers. It has grown, expanded, changed, and all for the good, without losing the essential qualities that have made it special: a truly warm, hospitable atmosphere and outstanding snowmaking and grooming that makes conditions on the mountain consistently great.

You cannot really understate how important the atmosphere here is. Many New England ski resorts have excellent children’s programs, great trails, state-of-the-art lifts. But at Okemo, all of these things go to a higher level—the pleasant greeting by the lift operator, the opportunity to scrawl a message on the message board, the helpful assistance of cheery Mountain Ambassadors (they can direct you to the best places on mountain or advise of snow conditions; they also offer free guided tours), the excellent signage so you don’t get lost or feel lost. All of these significantly increase your comfort level when your kids are off on their own.

Comfort level goes a long way to making a ski trip a holiday.

The feeling that someone has actually listened to you in crafting facilities and programs doesn’t happen by accident. It is clear that the obsession with finding out what guests want is not rhetorical. Each year, you see improvements and changes that reflect what people say they want—everything from music at the Super Pipe to the cute little Wafflehaus where you can catch a snack literally on the fly. This year, Okemo introduced ski lessons for 3 and 4 year olds, as part of the day care program, or as a drop-in.

Okemo’s hallmark, though, is that it has taken snowmaking and grooming to the absolute height of art and science. We have been here when the conditions were horrible and yet, the mountain provided wonderful skiing/riding. This season, early snows provided the most incredible base you could imagine.

One of the surprises I had was to find my favorite “blue” trail, Sapphire, had been turned into a terrain park. You can still ski down—on the sides—but now you get the added attraction of seeing people doing freestyle tricks off the obstacles.

Nordic Center & Indoor Golf

For me, downhill skiing is 60% joy and 40% anxiety; but cross-country is 98% joy and 2% anxiety.

After taking a wonderful two-hour “True Blue” lesson with instructor Ron urging me to practice standing up on my skis (instead of hunching over), I took advantage of the fresh 10-inches of powder snow that had fallen at the Okemo Nordic Center (in summer, Okemo’s championship 18-hole golf course). The center is a mile from the Okemo base lodge, or literally across the road from Jackson Gore (you can drive or take the resort shuttle bus).

The trails—from novice to advanced--were sufficiently challenging, even for the easy trail that gloriously loops all around, providing gorgeous views of the mountain, that rises and falls with the landscape. The scenery is simply stunning, with undulating hills and a babbling brook and trees, all adding to the interest. Looking across the way, you can see the ski trails on Okemo Mountain, as well as Jackson-Gore Inn nestled against the base.

The vast trail network features 26km of cross-country trails with tree skiing, 10km of dedicated snowshoe trails and 20km of skating lanes. The trails are groomed daily for both classic and skate skiing with a state-of-the-art Bombardier grooming machine. The trail pass is $15 for adults after 12:30; $20 for a full day (www.nordic.okemo.com).

The rental shop offers excellent equipment. You can rent Nordic skis or snowshoes, and even change mid-stream, and there is even equipment for children as young as 7 (daily rentals are $18; $15 after 12:30 p.m.)

The gracious clubhouse facility features a fully stocked Nordic Shop with the latest in cross-country and snowshoe clothing and accessories. Demos, equipment repairs and waxing are available on-site. Changing rooms with showers, lockers, conference and meeting space are also available to guests.

The Nordic Center also houses the indoor golf facility, which really sets Okemo apart as a winter destination.

In summer Okemo offers a well respected Golf Academy, but year-round you can enjoy “virtual” golf—a giant screen where you hit real golf balls into a screen that simulates play on 21 different famous world-class golf courses. There are also cages to practice driving and a putting area (kids can amuse themselves putting while adults golf). In addition, by appointment, you can arrange for a computer system that analyzes your stroke.

You can use the machine for a minimum two-hours ($100), order drinks be brought up from Willie Dunn’s Grille. You can have unlimited use of the Indoor Golf Academy and 10 hours on the golf simulator ($249).

This season, the indoor facility can be used until 9 p.m., but you need to call for reservations, 802-228-1396 (www.okemo.com/golf).

You can combine your Nordic or golf experience with a meal at Willie Dunn's Grille, known for its casual, yet elegant atmosphere. The décor is richly enhanced in mahogany-finished cherry with glass walls allowing for scenic views of the vast Nordic trail network. The feeling is elegant with a fireplace, comfy couches and wingback chairs. For dinner, seafood, steak, chicken and pasta are always a favorite, along with a selection of nightly dinner specials. Fresh breads and a sumptuous salad bar accompany the dinner entrees. Hours and days of operations will vary by season and Nordic Center operation.

Okemo is offering a Get-Nordic Skiing package every non-holiday Sunday afternoon (12:30 p.m.) that includes trail fee, XC-ski rental package and a one-hour group lesson for $40.

Making it Easy

Through a combination of pricing, facilities and programs, Okemo is making it easier than ever to get into the sport.

Shaped skis, for example, which are so much easier to turn and control, have made all the difference for getting people started and keeping them skiing. ”Some go almost directly to parallel because of the new skis,” says Dan Bergeron, Okemo's Director of the Cutting Edge Learning Center.

The magic carpet lift has made it much easier for kids and “never-evers” by replacing the Poma-lift (an awkward system which involved a whole learning curve of its own). This lift, literally a moving carpet you simply step on, means more time on the snow.

“The carpet has made a huge difference in being able to progress,” says Bergeron.

Then, when you are ready to get to the top of the mountain, detachable high-speed quad chairlifts have made all the difference. These chairs slow down to let you on, eliminating the fear of trying to get on a fast-moving chair, and then speed up reducing the discomfort of a slow, cold ride to the summit, while vastly cutting down wait times on lift lines. In fact, Okemo’s 18 lifts carry 32,250 skiers/riders per hour.

Teaching has become more user-friendly also—the categories, for example, are less regimented and more realistic, and the instructors really try to address individual needs and learning styles. “We’re always listening,” says Bergeron. “We are always trying to figure out what they want.”

This year, new programs have been added to accommodate parents who wanted programs for children as young as 3 and 4 (Snow Stars is geared to 4-7 year olds). The new Mini-Stars is offered in a two-hour format that can be added to a day care program, or as a stand-alone program.

You can also arrange for a Parent Tot Private (parents & kids ages 6 and under)--a great way for parents to see their child progress with an Okemo teaching pro and learn tips on how to help them progress when skiing or riding together. The only catch: parents should be able to ski or ride at least at level 3 and children should be age 6 or under.

There is also a new Adventure workshop for intermediate and advanced skiers/riders with a low student/instructor ratio for all ages (maximum of 3 participants). Afternoon Workshops are designed to address specific skills, like bumps and terrain parks. But this year, the program has been further refined, so that the guest gets to choose what they want to work on, and can form their own group with just three people.

Two new programs have been added for teens—Amplitude Plus for freestyle skiing; and The Program, for snowboarding, meet weekly. They are geared to teens that want to compete, but that is not a necessary prerequisite. The groups have a 5 to 1 ratio. “These programs develop all-around skills including people skills.”

Another innovative program is a season-long Mountain Masters program for adults 50-plus who want to ski or snowboard, which also allow access to the fitness center. These programs are aimed at the person who wants to ski or ride with the same group, but also want to relax, and give flexibility by allowing for seven sessions over the course of a 10-week season (Wednesdays).

Okemo has coupled the new programs with incentives to come back. When you buy a First Tracks (a one-day package that includes two beginner group lessons, rental equipment and unlimited use of Okemo's beginner lifts) or Double Tracks (the two-day package), you receive a value card for 50% off future midweek lift tickets. 25% on weekends, and 50% off lessons and rentals.

The program is geared to encouraging new skiers to stick with it to a third session, when they can really get to the top of the mountain and feel the exhilaration—the incomparable majesty and self-satisfaction.

“It’s the emotional part that ‘hooks’—the freedom, looking out and being on top of the world,” says Tim Mueller.

With Doubletracks, you can upgrade to use a full mountain ticket by the second day, so you get that feeling of being “above it all.”

Telemark skiing is also making a huge comeback, and Okemo offers rental equipment, as well as Teletracks program on Tuesdays and Thursdays, for group and private lessons.

Women’s Alpine Adventures, which has become popular, is now based out of Jackson-Gore. Women get preferential package, discounts on lodging, access to fitness, and meals at the Coleman Brook Tavern for two, three and five-day programs.

50th Anniversary Celebration

For us, visiting at Okemo is like coming home. We’ve watched this resort develop from a kind of “club” of insiders to becoming a world-class resort. Yet it has managed to retain a level of service, hospitality and friendliness that is truly marvelous.

Our visit was particularly momentous as Okemo is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year—and the old girl never looked so good.

This is a place that has been lovingly nurtured by the Muellers who have owned it for about half that time.

The resort has matured tremendously, becoming more sophisticated

Take the culinary experience, for example. There are now 11 different dining venues, from the elegant Coleman Brook Tavern at the Jackson-Gore Inn, to Jump, at the Summit, serving Asian fusion cuisine, and Smokey Jo’s outdoor BBQ at the mid-mountain Sugarhouse, not to mention the delightful Wafflehaus, en plein air, just below the SoBe Superpipe, and the delightfully casual yet sophisticated Vermont Pizza, above the Roundhouse food court. We saw a family sitting in front of the fire at the Jackson-Gore Inn lounge (actually the parents) gleefully preparing s’mores, a cozy favorite provided by the Coleman Brook Tavern, melting the chocolate in a fondue pot.

Coleman Brook Tavern also has the best wine cellar in the state of Vermont. It offers a Wine Room as an adult dining area that can be reserved for private functions.

”The culinary experience is larger and larger part of the ski/family vacation,” said Tim.

The Jackson Gore Inn, now in its third season, injected a standard of luxury at Okemo such as we have enjoyed at Vail and Beaver Creek in Colorado.

The Jackson Gore Inn combines the warmth and allure of the Vermont countryside, with the ambiance of a fine hotel. The Inn is refined, rich with charm and features amenities and services found in first class hotels. Guest rooms range in size from artfully appointed standard guestrooms to 3-bedroom suites. Most are fully equipped with all of the amenities of home including personal stereo systems, whirlpool baths, kitchen facilities and more. Bell/valet/room service, concierge, full-service restaurant and lounge, underground parking, health club, indoor/outdoor swimming pool, whirlpool spas and heated walkways are among the many amenities and services provided.

The resort is now embarking on Phase II of construction, with the groundbreaking of a Recreation Center that will feature an indoor/outdoor pool, aerobics, basketball, racquetball, weights, sauna and hot tub, a kids’ pool and a lap pool.

Also, a second building is underway, the Adams House, with 39 units that will be sold at ¼-share (already two-thirds are sold).

This will be followed in Phase III, by Bixby, with 30 units and Coolidge with 35 units, that will be whole ownership, plus a 25,000-sq. ft conference center (500 capacity), a skating rink, and a gondola going to the mountain peak (that should be done in about 3 years). There is even the possibility of building a spa, though spa services are presently available at Jackson Gore.

At the same time, the Mullers are looking at the original Okemo base, to make it more user friendly.

“We are constantly, looking at what guests want,” said Diane.

Okemo has also emerged as a year-round destination—it now offers a championship golf course with a Golf Academy and is planning to add tennis and basketball (at the town’s insistence), and a nine-hole “executive” course that would be oriented to learning.

There is certainly a lot on their plate—last year, the company, which also operates Mt. Sunapee in New Hampshire, purchased Crested Butte Mountain Resort in Colorado

Okemo is offering a “Test Ride Crested Butte” package, a four-night/three day stay with lift and lodging; when guests return home they get two tickets to Okemo.

Family Friendly

The mountain layout and trail network offers miles of playful terrain to suit any ability level with gentle beginner slopes, long intermediate cruisers, bumps, steeps, glades and plenty of freestyle action with the largest Super Pipe in the East, a mini half pipe and six Terrain Parks. From the Okemo base to Jackson Gore, families can ski and ride together from virtually any lift, or go their separate ways to explore the vast and varied terrain.

Okemo offers free skiing and riding for children ages 6 and under; free access to five beginner surface lifts - three at the Okemo base and two at the Jackson Gore base (available when Snow Stars is not in session). It offers a Young Adult lift ticket category (13-18) at significant savings.

Also, children 12 and under stay free at Okemo Mountain's deluxe slopeside condominium accommodations and the Jackson Gore Inn when sharing a unit with their parents.

Okemo operates a state-approved Penguin Playground Day Care Center, with two convenient locations at the Okemo base and Jackson Gore base for children ages 6 months to 6 years. Evening Day Care is offered at the Jackson Gore Penguin Playground Day Care Center on Saturday nights and during selected holiday periods from 6 to 10 p.m.

Package Deals

There are lots of ways to save on skiing and riding at Okemo Mountain Resort.

Special Deals: Okemo Midweek Family Values from $82.50 pp/day, a five-day/five-night midweek stay for a family of four in a Jackson Gore Inn Room; Okemo Midweek Family Values from $82.50 pp/day, a five-day/five-night midweek stay for a family of four in a Jackson Gore Inn Room; The Lo-o-ong Weekender from $106.95 pp/day, a three-day/three-night long weekend getaway, priced from $106.95 for a family of four in a Jackson Gore Inn Room, and March Madness packages which are even cheaper.

Okemo Flex Card provides for discounts on lift tickets (25% on weekends and holidays; 50% midweek and early/late season), plus dollars off lessons and rentals (Adults, $89; Young Adults/Seniors, $79; Juniors/Super Seniors, $69).

An innovative Okemo 8-Pack provides for eight days of skiing and riding for the price of seven (a 12.5% discount). This ticket is pre-purchased, valid every day of the season with no restrictions. The tickets are transferable between family and friends, and may be used for one or two tickets per day, throughout the season (Adults, $483; Young Adults/Seniors, $413; Juniors/Super Seniors, $315). The tickets can also be used for a $15 discount on Crested Butte (Colorado) lift tickets.

Sunday Solution Morning Half-Day Lift Ticket: Okemo's popular Sunday Solution morning half-day lift ticket is the perfect solution for weekend skiers and riders who prefer to ski in the morning and get an early start home on Sunday afternoon. Offered from 8:00 am until 1:30 pm. As an added bonus, the Sunday Solution lift ticket is also offered on 1/16/06 and 2/20/06.

Three Great Mountains & One Great Ticket: Purchase a three-day or longer lift ticket or lodging/ticket package and ski one day during the life of the lift ticket at either Mount Sunapee Resort (NH) or Stratton Mountain (VT).

Website Banner Specials: Visit www.okemo.com throughout the season and watch for value-packed coupon specials. Just click on the “banner ads” at the top of the page on the website, print out the coupon and present it at the designated ticket location.

You can purchase lift tickets, lessons and equipment in advance inside the Okemo Lodging Office and the Mountain Services Office at the Okemo base from 3:30 pm to 10:30 pm daily. Next day lessons and packages can be purchased from 3 to 4:30 pm midweek (Monday through Friday) and from 3 to 5 pm on weekends and holidays at the Cutting Edge Learning Center Desk, located in the Okemo Base Lodge, or in the Jackson Gore Express Rental Shop.

On Friday evenings through mid-March, the Okemo Express Rental Shop and the Jackson Gore Express Rental Shop is open from 5 to 11 pm so skiers and riders can purchase their lift tickets, lift/lesson packages and rental equipment in advance.

Also, Okemo operates a free Resort Shuttle serving Okemo Mountain Resort Properties (rental guests & owners), the Jackson Gore Inn and base area, the Okemo base area, Okemo Valley Nordic Center and Willie Dunn's Grille. A Village Shuttle System makes frequent stops at convenient locations throughout the Ludlow/Proctorsville region.

Okemo’s website, www.okemo.com is the place to find anything and everything to do with Okemo Mountain Resort, including banner specials and package deals, gift certificates, Okemo Flex Cards, Season Passes, Okemo merchandise and Golf Power products, complimentary screen saver, live camera and photo of the day. An interactive trail map describes trail features and mountain statistics and there’s even a virtual postcard to send to friends and family members. The live camera atop the Sugar House Lodge shows views of several trails. Visitors can sign up for daily snow reports, receive weekly newsletters and print off special coupon offers that change frequently.

Call 800-78-OKEMO (786-5366) or visit www.okemo.com for reservations and information.

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