It’s All Downhill
By John Brice
As the 2014-15 ski and snowboard season gets into gear, it’s time to plot out this year’s slope-side rendezvous. For skiing couples like Prince William and Kate, it’s the slopes in Ushuaia, Argentina. Closer to home, actors Diane Kruger and Joshua Jackson opt for Canyons Resort in Park City, Utah. Park City’s Deer Valley Resort is the choice of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. For Tiger Woods and Gold Medal Olympic Skier Lindsey Vonn, it’s Breckenridge, Colorado.
American and Canadian resorts, which last season hosted 56.5 million skier and snowboarder visits, have increasingly been courting couples with intriguing, romance-themed packages and amenities. Couples ready to take their relationship to the next level, for example, can head to Loveland ski area outside Denver for the 24th annual Mountaintop Matrimony, a mass on-mountain wedding to be held Valentine’s Day 2015. Trailside nuptials include free lift tickets for the bride and groom.
These days, San Diegans wanting to make an epic winter escape with that special someone should consider not only snowfall, but also what après-ski offerings may befall the journey - from hot tubs, libations and cozy fireplaces to fine food and a mélange of spa respites.
Whether traveling as singles or in pairs, planning a ski trip from San Diego is easy. More than a half-dozen aiarlines fly nonstop from Lindbergh Field to both Salt Lake City (1-hr., 45-min. flight) and Denver (2-hr., 15-min flight). The ski areas are within a two-hour drive from Denver, and one hour from Salt Lake. Mid-December to early January, Alaska flies San Diego to Mammoth (1-hr., 35-min. flight).
Driving is also an option. It’s 6.5 hours from San Diego to Mammoth, 7.5 hours to Flagstaff’s Arizona Snowbowl, 9 hours to Southern Utah and Eagle Point, 9 hours to Lake Tahoe’s Squaw Valley and 11 hours to legendary Park City, Utah. It’s a bit more work to reach icons like Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Big Sky, Montana, but the scenery during the ride is worth it.
Squaw Valley, California
Lake Tahoe’s Squaw Valley is the crown jewel of California skiing to many. Among the snowiest major resorts in California, it hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics and put American skiing on the map globally. And it is the birthplace of American extreme skiing. All that, and still Squaw has terrain for all ability levels. In fact, Squaw offers the rare mountain-top beginner area, allowing newbies the adrenaline rush associated with high elevations - without requiring them to slide down on their backsides, cursing under their breaths at the too-difficult terrain generally found as one heads to the higher reaches of ski areas. Couples that can’t get enough skiing or riding should consider the Mountain Collective pass, which delivers two days at Squaw Valley and/or its neighbor, Alpine Meadows, along with two days at each of these iconic ski resorts: Alta/Snowbird, Aspen/Snowmass, Jackson Hole, Mammoth, Ski Banff-Lake Louise-Sunshine and Whistler Blackcomb. The pass also offers other snow sports discounts and has no blackout dates.
It’s unlikely that busy celebs Tiger and Lindsey chose Breckenridge for their slope-side getaway out of convenience, but the resort is conveniently located only 100 miles from the Denver airport, a mostly straight shot on I-70. SKI Magazine readers ranked Breckenridge the ninth best western ski area overall, and that was before the new, six-person Colorado SuperChair increased uphill (from the base of Peak 8) capacity by 30 percent. Entering its 30th season, the 2,908- acre Breckenridge is home to North America’s highest chairlift, the Imperial Express, which climbs to 12,840 feet and serves up steep, high alpine bowls with unforgettable views. There’s free parking at the Airport Road Lot, satellite parking with a free shuttle to the Gondola; all paid lots are free after 2 p.m.
Ruby Mountains Heli-Experience, Nevada
For the ride of a lifetime, try the Ruby Mountains Heli-Experience (RMH) in northeastern Nevada. Owners Joe and Francy Royer, who met and married at RMH 29 years ago, will spoil you with helicopter rides to 10 peaks soaring above 11,000 feet. The Rubies offer untracked, freezedried, desert powder - “pure western fluff... an Alaskasize day of powder shots in the Lower 48,” reports National Geographic. When the skiing is done for the day, it’s heli-ski cuisine time at Red’s, which is “gourmet,” says National Geographic. Forbes calls it “spectacular... extravagant.”
Canyons Resort in Park City, Utah
Located in very accessible Park City, Canyons Resort is home to the ski-in/ski-out Waldorf Astoria, which offers couples a “KAMA SKI-TRA” package. With 21 lifts servicing 4,000 skiable acres, it’s also Utah’s biggest ski area, touted as an “intermediate skier’s paradise.” If you are at all prone to altitude sickness, the resort’s low base elevation of 6,800 feet should provide some comfort. So will the Canyons’ setting - it’s located 4 miles from Park City’s historic Main Street and is the closest Park City ski resort to Salt Lake City International Airport. The Park City situation can be confusing to the uninitiated, as there is the famous City chairlift running from Park City’s Main Street to Park City Mountain Resort, but the actual city is also home to Canyons and Deer Valley ski resorts.
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Wyoming
The storybook town of Jackson, with its real western/cowboy history and presence, plays nicely with cosmopolitan shops, restaurants and luxury resorts. The famous 19th century Town Square is just 12 miles from Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, a paradise for skiers and snowboarders, with 4,139 vertical feet of skiing and snowboarding spread over 2,500 acres. Even with direct flights from 13 cities including Los Angeles, Jackson Hole’s runs are wide open and the lifts are famously un-crowded. While it certainly draws cliff jumpers and powder hounds, there is plenty of beginner-friendly terrain on the lower mountain. Two things not to be missed: the $30-million, 100-passenger Jackson Hole Aerial Tram and its 10 minute, top-to-bottom ride; and Jackson Hole’s most intriguing dining experience, the Couloir Restaurant in the Rendezvous Lodge at the 9,095-foot summit of the Bridger Gondola.
Big Sky, Montana
My wife and I spent our honeymoon at the 5,800-acre Big Sky and we loved it. We’ve skied far and wide since then and still rank Big Sky with the best resorts of Utah, Colorado and California. Big Sky merged with neighboring resorts Moonlight Basin and Spanish Peaks in 2013 to become the largest in the country. Its “terrain variety” is ranked second in the western United States by SKI Magazine. Try the Andesite run for a sunny cruiser or push the envelope with a hike to Headwaters. New this season is more intermediate tree skiing, the result of extensive glading, particularly off of the Southern Comfort chairlift. Also new is an easy-to-read trail map from legendary trail-map artist, Jim Niehues.
Beaver Creek, Colorado
Romantic dinners at the Ritz-Carlton’s Spago, situated just steps from the “Five Diamond” ski-in/ ski-out Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch, are among the many exclusive offerings (beyond skiing and snowboarding) that helped Beaver Creek earn its No. 3 ranking for customer service according to SKI Magazine. Located about 30 minutes from Vail in Avon, Colorado, the resort also ranks third for “meticulous” grooming and is America’s only stop on the World Cup ski circuit - think Olympic Champions Lindsey Vonn and Ted Ligety. At Beaver Creek the tone is set upon arrival, as everyone must be admitted through a gate at the guardhouse, and the resort is hidden from view. And when the clock strikes 3 p.m., out come warm, complimentary chocolate chip cookies at the base of the Centennial Chairlift (Chair 6).
Mammoth Mountain, California
Mammoth Mountain Ski Area is incredible. With 28 lifts (including two gondolas) serving 3,500 acres and 3,100 feet of vertical, it has terrain for everyone. A respected British newspaper, The Telegraph , named Mammoth the No. 1 resort for snowboard parks and half-pipes. The ski area also has four daylodges, 10 sport shops, 12 rental/ repair shops, two on-hill snack bars, four food courts/cafeterias, five restaurants and seven bars. Mid- December through early January, Alaska Airlines flies San Diego to Mammoth (90-min. flight), but many San Diegans opt to drive instead. The 6.5-hour ride to the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range provides access to the longest ski season in North America, which typically stretches from November to June.