Stratton, Vermont Provides Idyllic Downhill Family Getaway
By Karen Rubin

I have an incredible sense of inner peace at Stratton ski resort, nestled in the Green Mountains of southern Vermont. And probably because I am at ease, I have also done my best skiing here.

It's more than the view from the summit at 3,875 feet, the highest peak in southern Vermont. It is the totality of the experience: from the location of the resort, a pleasant drive of about four hours, and near to Manchester, Vt., which offers wonderful restaurants and shops, as well as the location of our slopeside condo, not to mention the comfort and convenience of an apartment-style accommodation; to the pleasant pedestrian village (Bavarian inspired, like Lion's Head, Vail) with a variety of lovely shops and eateries just steps from our condo door; to the availability of a wide variety of nonski and apres-ski activities; to the convenience of equipment rental, drop-off of youngsters at SkiWee, to the quality of the high-performance rental equipment, which I really believe has helped me bump up my skiing, which, by the way, you can get the night before, with the lift ticket, so you don't miss a moment on the slopes the next day.

And then there is the gondola, which whisks you to the summit in sheer comfort, from which you can reach every level of trail, including long, scenic cruisers, not to mention two new high-speed six passenger lifts (this season), for a total of four, plus four quads, one triple, one double, two surface lifts in the Learning Park and three Magic Carpets for instruction.

I mention these elements even before describing the slopes, some of the most beautifully carved to take advantage of the mountain and, once again, let you bump up your skiing to the next level while still enjoying the view, as you rush or wind your way down from the 2,003 foot vertical.

Stratton offers 90 trails and 90 acres of glades, for a total skiable terrain of 583 acres. There is a wonderful variety here, with 42 percent of the trails suitable for novice skiers, 31 percent for intermediate, and 27 percent for advanced. The trails are superbly arranged so there is minimal crossing, good separation of abilities (so experts don't whiz past more tentative skiers) and even a separated Learning area. The mid-mountain lifts keep the more expert skiers on the top of the mountain, while novices and intermediates have a tremendous selection from the mid-mountain, and a decent selection from the top. In addition, there are six different terrain parks geared to different levels of ability, which snowboarders and even skiers enjoy (no wonder Stratton is hosting the 21st U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships, Mar. 12-16, 2003; events are free for spectators).

I truly believe another reason I tend to ski better at Stratton is the quality of the snow, a function of superb snowmaking (both an art and a science) and grooming. Stratton has a computerized snowmaking system which efficiently blankets 90 percent of the terrain, and 10 front-line groomers, as well as specialized equipment to shape snow. This is stuff you might not consider, until you get on the slopes and feel the difference of New England-style "powder."

Stratton is one mountain but with different faces, all of them stunning. The main section is oriented around the Gondola and learning areas, with a good variety of trails, particularly a whole section of greens that make it much more interesting for lower-level skiers. Coming off the gondola to one side, there are a number of long green, blue, and a selection of black and double black trails. A lower-level skier will enjoy the Mike's Way or Upper Wanderer to West Meadow, and on down Lower Wanderer or Drifter Link. But the other side of the mountain from the summit are the more challenging blacks and glades from the top, as well as a forgiving intermediate trail, Black Bear, that will be a great way to bump up from green to blue. That leads to Big Ben or Gentle Ben and into the SunBowl section of the mountain. This area, around the Sunrise Express, is always less busy, and there is a wide open, sunny trail, the Sunriser Supertrail, from mid-mountain, that is glorious.

An intriguing feature of Stratton are the glades, terrain parks and halfpipes. Stratton, which claims to have the first halfpipe in the world (going back to 1985), remains on the forefront of the sport.

Skiers and snowboards can tackle six different terrain parks that cover more than 45 acres, with features for beginner to pro, including the 425-foot long Superpipe, with 17 foot walls and a 17-degree slope. The parks are maintained by a specialty crew of five, who design features and maintain them each day with a Park Bully and two Bombardier terrain master snow cats. The East Byrneside Pro Park is a straight shot off the American Express, high-speed six-passenger lift and offers rails, quarter pipes and features as big as 40 feet. The American Express also serves the Suntanner park, with its Vintage Diner (where people like to hang out) and intermediate terrain park features aimed at helping skiers and snowboarders build skills like timing, balance and edging.

Stratton also features some of the best glades in New England, offering variety, pitch, and the chance to run different lines. Experts will enjoy Shred Wood Forest, a double-diamond line; Cabin Fever, with a good, steep, tight run through the trees; Free Fall Gully, and Kidderbrook Ravine. Intermediates can try their hand at Emerald Forest and Eclipse glades, in the SunBowl area; and the Learning Park offers a taste of tree skiing and riding on Daniel's Web and Get Stumped.

With all this variety, it is highly possible that the snowboarders and more adventurous in the family will want to tackle the parks, pipes and glades. You feel very comfortable letting them go off, because the trail system is very well marked, and though the mountain is a good size, you are not so concerned about them getting lost. There are also message boards at the lifts (though today, there are also walkie-talkies and cell phones to keep everyone connected).

Significantly, this year Stratton has launched a massive, resort-wide safety initiative aimed at creating "a culture of safety, courtesy and respect." There are new signs and a new Orange Oval terrain park symbol, terrain park education programs to reenforce "Smart Style." Signage is even incorporated into staff uniforms, at lift entrances and towers, on slope signs and resort flags. The children's ski school bibs read, "Caution, I make wide turns," and you may find Mountain Guide jackets emblazoned with, "If you can't read this, you're going too fast."

The ski school programs are excellent, as well, particularly the full-day programs for children 4-12.

Learning programs include MagicTrax, where beginners actually ski from the moment they start to slide, using the Rossignol short cut skis; these skis make it easier to remain in balance while making slow, sweeping turns down a groomed slope. MagicTrax for ages 7 and older is $95 and includes equipment rental, morning and afternoon instruction, and a lift ticket for the Learning Park with 45 acres of teaching terrain served by three chair lifts and two surface lifts.

A Learn-to-Ride system from Burton Snowboards is designed to overcome the biggest obstacle-the first day-and turn it into a memorable experience. The method uses learner-specific set of snowboards: the first is a customized tool for painlessly linking those first few terms, and the second is a carve-inducing springboard to real riding. It is available for ages 7 to adult, including equipment rental, morning and afternoon instruction and Learning Park lift ticket, $95.

Special Women's Snowsports workshops are also available, including coaching, video analysis, breakfast and lunch daily, afternoon sessions at the Stratton Sports Center, and a banquet dinner, for $375 (Jan. 13-15, Jan. 27-29, Mar. 3-5).

In addition, there is licensed child care for nonskiers, ages six weeks to five years (open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; best to reserve in advance; we particularly liked the drop-off and security measures).

Activities Abound

If rushing downhill isn't your thing, Stratton also offers two Nordic Centers, with more than 30 kilometers of trails for cross-country skiing manicured by a Bombardier 160 groomer. The Sun Bowl's secluded trails wind over streams and through hardwood forests, with terrain for the beginner as well as challenging loops for the more experienced nordic skier. The Country Club Nordic Center features gently rolling terrain with spectacular mountain views. This is also the place for snowshoeing (my passion). Facilities include the Rossignol Nordic Demo Center, Tubbs Snowshoe Center, and refreshments (call 802-297-4114 for conditions, retail, equipment rental and tours).

Stratton and Tubbs Snowshoes invite outdoor enthusiasts to explore the splendor of a Vermont winter with backcountry tours, a summit hike to the historic firetower, and moonlight treks to the Pearl S. Buck Stone House.

Snowshoeing is a fabulous complement to downhill: on the coldest day, we found it amazingly cozy in the woods because of being sheltered from the wind and the body heat created by walking; snowshoeing also is an excellent alternative in the afternoon, if downhill conditions are not great. And for family members who do not downhill at all, snowshoeing is the easiest of all winter sports to learn-basically, if you can walk, you can snowshoe, especially with the new equipment.

During the season, snowshoeing offers a first-hand encounter with nocturnal residents of the Vermont Raptor Center, with a night woods search for owls. This year's Owl Prowl event is scheduled Feb. 22 at 6 p.m. (fee includes snowshoe rental).

Indeed, the Owl Prowl is one of a series of wildlife programs presented by the Vermont Institute of Natural Science, that gives an extra dimension to the experience here. These programs are held slopeside, at Cider's, and are free and open to the public. Other special events include Turkey Talk, Nov. 30 and Raptors in Flight, Jan. 18.

Other festive events through the season include the Snowflake Festival, coinciding with the winter holidays, Dec. 2-Jan. 5; New Year's Eve Fireworks and torchlight parade, with a Family Party from 6 to 10 p.m. and a celebration at Grizzly's from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. A key event is the U.S. Snowboarding Championships, Mar. 10-16 (no charge for spectators).

Other family and children's activities and events include wildlife workshops, Poppy Town Puppets performing in the Base Lodge, "Dinner and a Show" evenings with comedy, magic and storytelling. There is also a Junior off-road driving school, where kids 5-12 get to drive mini replica Land rovers; mini-Z snowmobiles for children in the base area and snowmobile tours in the forest; horse-drawn sleigh rides at the Sun Bowl Ranch, with hot chocolate by a roaring bonfire.

Another Stratton feature is an excellent Sports Center, with indoor pool, Jacuzzi, spa, massage, classes, two indoor tennis courts, racquetball and squash courts, specially equipped aerobics studio, weight and fitness equipment, steam room, and equipment (resort guests pay $8.50, call 802-297-4230).

The proximity of Stratton to Manchester is another amenity. This is a picturesque New England village with charming restaurants, galleries, antiques, historic inns and the Robert Todd Lincoln mansion home, Hildene (which offers candlelight tours during Christmas, Dec. 27-29, 5-8:30 p.m.; $14/adults, $6/children, and during the rest of winter, an excellent cross-country ski center, call 802-362-1788, www.hildene.org). Manchester Center also is a major center for some 46 designer outlets, including Anne Klein, Baccarat, J. Crew, Polo, and Versace (www.machestervermont.com, 800-955-SHOP). For more information on Manchester & The Mountains, 802-362-2100, www.manchestervermont.net.

Stay & Ski

Stratton Mountain Resort celebrated its 40th anniversary last year, but not too long ago, went through a significant overhaul to provide the most modern amenities in a charming setting. The Bavarian-looking pedestrian village is very much reminiscent of Lion's Head in Vail, Colorado, and a focal point for dining and shopping. There is a good selection of restaurants, ranging from fine dining to family-friendly; our personal favorite is Mulligan's, a relaxed, casual eatery with a turn-of-the-century atmosphere for flame-grilled prime meats, burgers, seafood, pasta, salads, and a children's menu (802-297-9293). There are lovely places to eat on the mountain, as well. Another convenience is that there is a complete grocery store within the resort.

The creature comforts extend to lodgings. The resort has a complex of different styles, ranging from modest hotels and cozy inns to posh condominiums.

We thoroughly enjoyed our stay at the slopeside Village Watch, steps away from the Pedestrian Village, offering completely outfitted condominium accommodations. Each unit is personally owned and there are many personal effects. Ours was a lovely apartment with all the comforts of home-even a spice rack, books and games-a fully outfitted kitchen and laundry machines (even the soap), conveniences which can not be understated on a ski trip. Also, Jacuzzi, wood burning fireplace, three TVs, and sleeping area for 10 if you wanted to use all the sofa-beds. It is so comfortable to come in for a break from skiing, or to come in and relax after skiing.

The newest lodge is the Long Trail House, just across the road from the village, offering a dramatic Hearth Room, heated swimming pool, year-round hot tubs, sauna, air conditioning and heated underground parking (midweek rates from $219/night; weekend and holiday rates from $279/night; lifts-and-lodging midweek packages starting at $79/pp/night.

Stratton Mountain Inn, is a 125-room full-service hotel which offers room service, choice of two in-house restaurants, lounge, sauna, whirlpool and workout area (midweek rates $99-$149; weekend/holiday, $149-$359; lifts-and-lodging packages $69 pp/night.

An excellent value is Liftline Lodge, a traditional 77-room European-style lodge walking distance to Stratton's ski lifts, Village shops, restaurants and attractions, offering accommodations from $119/night midweek, $159/night for weekends/holidays, and lift-and-lodging midweek packages starting at $59 pp/night.

The Liftline offers the best Stay for Free deal on the mountain: purchase a three-day midweek lift ticket for $139 and get two nights free lodging at the lodge (per person, based on double occupancy); lodging upgrades are available for condominiums, including the luxury Long Trail House.

Lifts & Lodging package is offered throughout the season. Two to five-day lifts and lodging deals are available from $59 per person, per night (based on double occupancy), for non-holiday Sunday through Thursday stays and select weekends.

Kids 17 and under Ski and Stay Free from Dec. 1 through Dec. 19, when two adults purchase a Lifts & Lodging package for two or more nights; packages start at $59 pp/night, based on double occupancy and the kids staying in the same room.

For information, contact Stratton Mountain Resort, 800-STRATTON, or log on www.stratton.com to book vacations, create custom packages, take advantage of last-minute deals on lift tickets and other amenities.


The view of Stratton Mountain from the gondola, one of many amenities that make for an ideal family winter getaway ( 2002 Karen Rubin).

Wonderfully carved trails, good separation and great trailmarking let you feel more at ease about your kids on the slopes at Stratton ( 2002 Karen Rubin).

2002 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or travel questions or comments to FamTravLtr@aol.com.

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