News from the snow
Smugglers' Notch USA
Those who have travelled the world visiting dozens, maybe even hundreds of resorts may begin to feel that one ski resort seems very much like the other. All have abundant snow of course, all have picturesque scenery, all say they're 'friendly' and every time anything new comes out, they've all got it. Smugglers' Notch, located in Vermont's Green Mountains, feels genuinely different. The 'corporate plastic' feel that prevails at many of North America's top ski centres isn't there and the 'genuinely friendly service' which all claim actually feels, well, genuine at Smugglers. For those that take an interest in the 'bigger picture' of winter sports development around the world it's also slightly ironic that whilst many North American ski centres have gone through a cycle of 'boom and bust' over the years, trying different ways of making money, Smuggler's has quietly grown, largely thanks to selling and maintaining lodging at its resort base; the model that is now fuelling the biggest and most successful resort chains in the continent. Whilst those big corporations employ consultants and focus groups to work out what people want, the folk at Smugglers seem to have no problems working out that people want a good time, a relaxed, high quality experience. They want something to do pretty much every hour of the waking day, they want to be able to do it as a family and also to be able to separate off from each other and they want to be able to do it all at a reasonable cost. Somehow Smugglers seems to have found the answer where others have failed. Perhaps its just that so many resorts fight for the rich top end of the market, or feel that 'real' ski resorts have to be based on the "if you're not skiing, you should be sleeping", purist model or perhaps even they just can't grow enough in the Smugglers model to be physically able to cope with the operational costs required in having all the answers. Whatever it is, Smugglers remains one of the very few ski areas that can deliver the complete ski holiday, to a high standard at an affordable price. The biggest beneficiaries are Families, and the resort has won numerous 'Best in North America' awards for its family-friendliness - awards that have come from overseas as well as from top publications in the US. It markets itself as 'America's Family Resort' and offers a "Fun Guarantee". But in order to be great for families it shouldn't be forgotten that this resort has to be great at pretty well everything in order to keep each individual member of the family happy. There's wide ranging skiing and boarding, wide ranging après ski opportunities, a huge selection of on and off snow alternative sports and leisure, excellent accommodation choices and a good choice of eateries ranging from incredibly high-value family eateries to gourmet a la carte. Unlike most US resorts (at least until the past five years), Smugglers centres around a relatively compact base area, largely car free, so you can easily walk (or take the free shuttle if you prefer) to all resort amenities and the base of the lifts. The resort has a good natural snowfall record and a vertical which is likewise better than that of many neighbouring resorts. Top to bottom snowmaking cover has been greatly enhanced in recent years and the resort's claim that it cares deeply about the environmental impact of its operation does ring true when it goes to great lengths to explain how it endeavours to operate at maximum efficiency to minimalise environmental impact.
Compact New England condominium-only resort with reputation for excellent child-care, whilst also having the greatest vertical in North Vermont and an impressive snowfall record. Strong emphasis on enjoyment of guests, with 'fun guaranteed' for parents as well as children and a strong program of on and off-slope organised activities. Freefone reservations from the UK on 0800 1698219.
There are around 80 trails serving a very healthy 780m (2610 feet) vertical. Snow isn't usually a problem as besides being one of the most naturally snowy resorts in New England, the resort has top-to-bottom snowmaking throughout which its currently spending millions of dollars on upgrading and expanding. The one gripe some skiers and boarders may have, if they're used to high speed quads, is that Smugglers is still running fixed-grip doubles which transport you at a leisurely pace up the mountain. Of course it's a matter of perspective and of attitude and getting time to relax a bit on those lifts rather than racing up as well as down does seem to fit with the holiday feeling. But if you are always in a hurry, then these lifts may be a drawback.
The resort's 'Snow Sport University' markets itself as "institute of higher learning", and employs more than 300 ski and snowboard teachers offering instruction in alpine and telemark skiing, snowboarding, snow blading, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Peter Ingvoldstad, the Program Director for over 20 years, is internationally recognized as a dynamic developer of innovative teaching techniques for children and adults - techniques that make for an incredibly fast "learning curve".
Cross-Country is particularly well organised at Smugglers with added initiatives and itineraries to give more than the pristine forest and mountain experience for those that want it. There are 30 km (19 miles) of cross-country trails for every level from beginner to expert and lessons are available in traditional (diagonal) cross-country and ski skating. Rental equipment is available for all disciplines as well.
The difference seems to be that Smugglers really do take the child's eye view as much as the parents and for many families successfully manages that difficult balancing act required for a happy family holiday, both generations get fun, both generations get their own time and both generations get 'quality time' together so it really feels like you have some shared memories from the trip.
'Together time' covers a wide range of organised family events including evening entertainments and sporting activities such as snow shoeing, cross-country and downhill skiing classes, or there are the simple, free things like the nightly bonfire with hot chocolate on tap. There are 101 different, often small, things that get this result.
Smugglers opened a new daycare for children six weeks to three years old in December 2002, replacing the famed Alice's Wonderland. Called Treasures - Where we treat your little ones like gold" - it is located on the slope so parents can ski in to it from Morse to check on the kids. It also has radiant floor heating which is nice for the little ones crawling around.
The rooms are divided up by developmental stages of the children, the office is off to the side, there's a big playground, and a screened in porch for summer. We'll continue with the tiny toilets and small sinks, giant fish tanks, and one-way mirror viewing for parents who want to see but not be seen. The new facility has snowmelt heated walkways.
The fact that all the eateries are genuinely child-friendly helps too. Off slope facilities like the swimming pools, hot tubs, ice rink, video tape rentals, video games arcade and the giant FunZone (open to 8.30pm daily), with its soft play, child's revolving climbing wall, indoor crazy golf and much more also contribute to the overall experience. As does the nightly tubing and family snow shoe excursions.
Older children have the Outer Limits - Teen Center in The Yurt at Smuggs Central, open until midnight. Here they may have fun with snow golf, pizza party, laser tag or night spiker volleyball. Younger children have their own organised and supervised evening programs some evenings when parents can opt for a 'night out' alone. Young teens (13-15) can enjoy similar activities at their meeting place, Teen Alley, complete with internet access, movies and games. Additional babysitting is available if booked 24 hours ahead.
A big part of Smuggler's attitude is educational, in an enjoyable way of course. The resort has opened a Family Snowmaking Learning center on the Meadowlark Trail on Morse mountain where you can discover all you've ever wanted to know about snow making and the effects of snowmaking on the environment. In addition the Snow Sport University offers The Science of Nature to give children a unique, hands-on exploration of the Winter environment beyond the fun of sliding. Children learn about the wonders of natural snow by examining individual, magnified flakes, are taught the step-by-step process of artificial snowmaking, interpret the indicators and measurements of weather and learn the science of snow sport balance and terrain features. They'll also explore their woodland environment, visit Mother Nature in her teepee and learn about animals including their tracks and habitats.
Children even get their own Adventure Trail Maps of the ski area where they may run into resort mascot Mogul Mouse and his mates. The fact that Smugglers is the only ski centre to guarantee family fun or offer a refund only underlines the resort's confidence in its ability to deliver big time for families.
The Mountain Grille is the mainstay eating establishment, located in the Meeting house complex at the base of the slopes the service is friendly and efficient, and as the staff carry dishes some distance from the kitchen and back to the pot wash their dedication is particularly noteworthy. The Grille is open from 7.30am through to closing in the evening. The superb lunch buffets make it hardwork to drag yourself back out on to the slopes after indulging in one of the very reasonably priced 'all you can eat' buffets which normally alternate between Italian, Mexican and Oriental themed.
The Hearth and Candle is the most 'upmarket' option at smugglers but remains friendly and unpretentious. Open for dinners from late afternoon it's a la carte menu is highly regarded by reviewers and its also the establishment where its most important to reserve your table in advance. Riga Bello's Pizzeria is located in the Village lodge. Other options include Vermont Starry Night, with its extensive Italian menu, across the road from the resort, the Madonna and Morse Highland base lodges (daytime only except for special events) and a Hearth and Candle on-mountain outlet.
The Three Mountain Lodge, where the specialities include New England seafood and Black Angus steak, and the Smugglers Notch Inn are two of the choices located in the nearby village of Jeffersonville. There's also a good choice of take-out options, a pizza delivery service and 158 Main, a restaurant and bakery.
Smugglers organises a non stop selection of 'one off' dining events. These include, for example, the Top of the Notch Adventure Dinner, a gourmet meal at the top of Sterling's summit (accessed by chairlift), followed by an evening snowshoe down the trails and back to the base lodge.
The Birch run Terrain Park on Sterling Mountain is designed for entry and intermediate level riders with modified table tops, rolls and spines.
Prohibition Park on Madonna features multiple hits for intermediate and expert riders, plus a 425 foot superpipe. The Zone on Sterling has the biggest hits for expert and championship riders.