It's turnabout time, when those spectacular but haughty ski hotels get desperate for warm-weather visitors
With lift tickets at most major ski areas costing well over $50 per person and slopeside condos charging far more, skiing at well-known resorts has become a costly venture - and that's without considering the expense of clothing, meals, equipment, and keeping up with the Joneses of downhill schussing. But when the snow is replaced by wildflowers, these same ski areas get desperate to fill their digs, their lifts, their trendy restaurants and bars. And they've made the effort to do so by building golf courses at the bases of their mountains and keeping lifts running year-round to entice the summer hiker or biker.
Yet, would you believe, it hasn't worked? Though the mountain scenery is among America's most majestic, summer tourism at the famous ski resorts has remained a slow trickle to everywhere except Aspen and Vail. Result: a frantic assortment of package offers at remarkably low rates, bargains that often combine lodging with food and activities. Here's how you can enjoy a fine, low-cost, warm-weather vacation at seven resorts mainly known for their winter glamour.
North of Killington, Route 100 is quintessential Vermont, where freshly painted steeples reach toward the skies, covered bridges built in the 1880s remain intact, and the farmland is so fertile you feel like running out of your car and digging your hands in the soil. Nothing seems to change in these parts, and that's the way locals prefer it. In Mad River Valley, the mountains barely top 4,000 feet, making them an accessible outdoor playground that challenges but doesn't leave you lost in the wilderness for days, howling with coyotes.
Welcome to the Sugarbush Ski Area. Hovering above the towns of Waitsfield and Warren, Sugarbush is an ideal summer retreat. You can take a chairlift to the top of 4,135-foot Mt. Ellen and hike the Long Trail (Vermont's state-long hiking trail) south to Mt. Abraham or north to that distinctive mass of rock called Camel's Hump. Road bikers can rent bikes at the resort and ride a 15-mile loop on Routes 100 and 17 through Waitsfield and Warren and their respective covered bridges. Stop at the Warren Country Store for lunch and enjoy a Dagwoodesque sandwich outside overlooking a small waterfall. Mountain bikers can simply use the resort's ski trails to snake through the forest. Golfers will want to know that one night at the Sugarbush Inn and a round of golf can cost as little as $86 in the spring/summer/fall off-season (phone 800/53-SUGAR for reservations). Non-golfers can choose to spend the night at Hyde Away, a 12-room inn in Waitsfield, where rooms start at $59 and include a full breakfast (phone 802/496-2322 or 800/777-4933).
Viewing moose in Carrabassett Valley, Maine, in summer is almost as easy as seeing squirrels in your backyard in other parts of the country. Take a sunrise stroll along one of the numerous Sugarloaf ski trails and you're bound to see Bullwinkle and friends slurping knee-deep in some pond. Sugarloaf, in the central part of the state, is a great place to get lost in the thick woods and go canoeing, fly-fishing, or hiking. This big, brooding mountain, Maine's second highest peak, towers over the 17-mile-long valley. Across the road from the resort, a former railroad bed lines the Carrabassett River, providing an ideal trail for the novice mountain biker.
Yet the highlight for many visitors is the golf course, which is always ranked by golf publications as one of the finest in New England. One of the best packages is the Early Bird Stay and Play. From late May to July 6, you get lodging at the resort's Sugarloaf Inn or Grand Summit Hotel, breakfast, and a round of golf for $99 per person (phone 800/THE-LOAF for both hotels).
If mom and dad downhill ski, they know that the best ski areas feature a slew of activities for children. Well, this doesn't stop when the slopes are green. At Keystone, a mere 90-minute drive from Denver, where you stay at the 9,300-foot base of a 12,200-foot high mountain, there's a long list of free summer activities for kids: It includes panning for gold, gathering around a campfire to hear Redtail the Mountain Man tell stories about his mining days, free fly-casting clinics, and children's craft nights.
Parents receive two free Mountain Passports with every reservation. This will entitle you to more than a dozen free activities at Keystone, including mountain bike clinics (try white-knuckling down the hardest trail, "The Wild Thing"), nature hikes around Lake Dillon, yoga classes, tennis clinics, and much more. Spring/summer/fall lodging packages start at just $84 a night at the Keystone Inn or Keystone Lodge and $99 for a studio condominium in The Forest (phone 800/468-5004 for rooms at any of the three). They also feature two golf courses (ask about package deals with lodging) and more than 25 restaurants to choose from, including budget-oriented coffee shops.
On the crest of the Rockies, stretching from craggy 12,000-foot peaks to winding rivers, Crested Butte has always been a summer playground for hikers, horseback riders, and fishermen. What outdoors person wouldn't be attracted to this vast wilderness where elk, eagles, deer, bear, and bighorn sheep outnumber the small human population? More recently, mountain bikers and golfers have been coming to the area. Bikers try the Gold Link Trail System, a moist pocket of deep-in-the-woods trails that will keep your adrenaline on overdrive for hours. Vast fields of shoulder-high wildflowers line the trails like spectators at a marathon. Indeed, in the summer, more than 600 varieties of wildflower carpet the mountainside in a profusion of color. Golfers savor the 18-hole Robert Trent Jones Jr. course.
Last year's golf package cost $292 per person for three nights at the Sheraton Crested Butte Resort and two days of golfing (phone 800/544-8448). Non-golfers will find the options more affordable. Stay at the Crested Butte Lodge (800/950-2133; $45 to 65 a night for two), walk the 30 yards to the lift, and pay only $13 to take the chairlift to the summit (your chance for a two-mile-high hike).
Park City, Utah
Thirty-five miles outside Salt Lake City, Park City is getting ready to welcome the world at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. On historic Main Street, where 64 buildings from the 1880s are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, new boutiques and restaurants have already opened to intrigue the masses. Yet, venture here this summer, before the big hoopla, and you'll have the streets of this former silver-boom town to yourself. Not to mention the hills. Take the $8 lift to the 10,000-foot summit and choose to hike or bike down more than 50 miles of trails, or simply picnic atop the peak. There's also the Park City Stables, where you can saddle up and go on an hour-long horseback ride ($29) through the woods. Kids will enjoy whipping down the Alpine Slide and playing the new miniature golf course.
At night, Park City has free weekly concerts in City Park and, in late August, various jazz greats come to town to play in the Park City International Jazz Festival. The resort's accommodations start as low as $80 for a studio condo in The Lodge at the Mountain Village (800/222-PARK).
Big Sky, Montana
Big Sky, Montana, is the America you visit to leave your urban woes behind and breathe in the crisp, fresh air. Aptly named Lone Mountain rises up dramatically from the town's heavily forested lower slopes to an elevation of 11,150 feet. In winter, skiers carve their perfect turns down the mountain with few lift lines and even less traffic on the trails. The setting is even more serene in summer when the population decreases.
This is A River Runs Through It country, where the movie was filmed, so grab that pole and try your luck fly-fishing for trout on the Gallatin River. Trail rides at one of the local ranches and golfing the Arnold Palmer-designed 18-hole course in Meadow Village are just as popular. Or put on your hiking boots and explore the miles and miles of trails in the Gallatin National Forest. One of the easiest and most enjoyable routes involves starting at the resort and simply taking a gondola ride up the mountain. Then enjoy a leisurely hike down to the base on a new self-guided nature trail along a roaring stream. If you're feeling lonely, head 18 miles south to Yellowstone National Park and hang with the bison, elk, and black bear. While golfing ($44 to $57 per round) and a lift ticket ($15) are cheaper than at most resorts, Big Sky's lodging tends to be more expensive, with Stillwater studio condos starting at $114 per night (800/548-4486). Or try Golden Eagle Property Management, which will rent its Hill Studios at the base of the mountain for $75 (800/548-4488).
Whistler, British Columbia
The excitement at British Columbia's Whistler starts long before you reach the resort, on the 75-mile drive from Vancouver, where 7,000-foot snowcapped peaks slope down to the waters of the Pacific. Like other ski resorts in warm weather, Whistler has its share of excellent golfing (including the Chateau Whistler Golf Club, which Golf magazine called "one of the best golf resorts in the world") and the requisite gondola ride to the peak for knockout views. There are also more than 62 kilometers of mountain bike trails for the off-road rider at the Whistler Mountain Bike Zone. Yet, it's the unusual possibilities for outdoor adventure that separate this ski area from the pack.
You can take a helicopter ride to hike the untrammeled Coast Mountain alpine meadows, even do a little summertime skiing and snowboarding on Blackcomb's Horstman Glacier. During summer, three lifts run to Blackcomb, with lift tickets costing about $25. Then there's the Westcoaster alpine slide, a bobsled run at the bottom of Blackcomb, paragliding, in-line skating at a freestyle park, and Whistler Kids Windsurfing, which holds both kids-only courses and family camps. Whistler Central Reservations (800/WHISTLER) will place you in one of 450 slope-side condos and houses and include many of these activities in their customized packages. For example, five nights' lodging and one round of golf at each of Whistler's four designer courses is a mere $369 (US) in the off-season.