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OKEMO, VT: BIG MOUNTAIN WITH A COMFY FEEL
By Karen Rubin

Okemo Mountain Resort, in southern Vermont, is a mountain retreat we will tell only our best friends about. It is that good and that special. This is not an impression that comes after a lucky first visit with ideal conditions; this is the feeling we get each time we have visited over the past eight years, regardless of whether the snow conditions have been great or not, or the weather perfect or not.

But as it happens, the snow this season is probably the best ever, only enhancing what are Okemo's best features: the skiing and the guest service. Oh yes, the non-ski and apres-ski activities and amenities such as an innovative Indoor Golf Academy, have become quite wonderful, as well. And it is true that Okemo offers some of the best children's programs and learn-to-ski or ride programs anywhere. Add to this the convenience in reaching Okemo-by highway or Amtrak-not to mention this is one of the most delightfully family-friendly places you can visit, and you have a place that you want to come back to time and again.

A visit to Okemo is like coming home-in fact, Okemo means "All come home" in the language of the native Americans who first lived here. You feel it even if you are just a casual visitor, but it is also because so many of those who come are in fact regulars-owners of the on-mountain lodgings who, unlike owners in so many other mountain resorts, tend to use their units rather than give them up to a rental pool. In essence, the people you are downhilling with and riding the lift with are very pleasant. But what makes Okemo really special is how guest-friendly it is, with the most accommodating staff, from the rental shop people to the cafeteria to the lift operators to the maintenance man.

And then, there are the little details that make life easier, like the electronic sign at the Northstar Express Quad which lets you know the wait-times at other lifts on the mountain, and where you can scrawl a message on a board in order to meet up with the rest of the family (or, for that matter, parents who take advantage of day care can rent pagers); and the non-slip surface in the bathrooms. All of these guest-friendly elements are reflections of the design and philosophy of Tim and Diane Mueller, Long Islanders who acquired Okemo 20 years ago and have since invested over $100 million in improvements.

Okemo would be our favorite place to send a teenager on a ski trip on his own-which is saying a lot.

The trails are well marked so you always know where you are and whether you will be able to get back to the Okemo base or not; also, special conditions ("moguls ahead," "ungroomed" "thin cover" "trails merge" "no jumping") are also well marked and trails that are not in good condition are marked off entirely. "Safety ambassadors" are on the slopes, as well.

The trails are so well designed and linked, you can have long rides linking trails that make the way down different and interesting each time; there are marvelously long blue trails (intermediate), with a full spectrum of ability, from the ego-booster of Sapphire to the challenge of the new Lower Limelight trail. There is excellent separation of trails by ability, with the lower mountain really for beginners; meanwhile, intermediate and advanced skiers can spend the whole day on the mountain and never go down into the slow-ski zone. What is more, the lift system (16 lifts, including eight quad chairs of which four are high-speed detachable quads, three triple chairs and five surface lifts) and trail network manage to disperse people so the slopes are never crowded even on the busiest day.

Okemo is as great for learners as it is for experts and intermediates. A one-day Burton Learn To Ride program ($99) utilizes specially-designed equipment that makes learning easier and more fun, two group lessons (at 9:45-11:30 a.m. and again at 1:45 p.m.-3:30) and a ticket for use on the Lower Mountain. The LTR proved effective: our nephew tried snowboarding for the very first time, and though he fell a lot in the first lesson, by the afternoon he was making it down the trail without falling, when typically, it might take two or three days to get the hang of it.

There is also First Tracks, at $85, which is a learning program for both skiing and snowboarding and is similar to LTR but does not provide the special equipment.

The learning area is well set off from the rest (beginners are able to use the two Poma lifts for free and there is a lower-mountain ticket). But green-trail skiers also can enjoy the marvelous views and long runs from the three peaks (a gorgeous route is to take Sunburst to Coleman Brook to Mountain Road to Lower Switchback).

In fact, Okemo has a comfy feel but is really quite a big ski mountain: 106 trails, slopes and glades covering 562 acres of terrain (25% novice, 50% more difficult, 25% most difficult), five mountain areas (Jackson Gore, Solitude, South Face, Glades and South Ridge), a vertical drop of 2,150 feet (the highest in southern Vermont). Mountain Road, the longest trail, is 4 miles long.

There is plenty of terrain for every type of downhiller and every ability. The mountain has been enhanced with a gigantic terrain park (rated double-black), a Sobe Super Pipe and Dew Zone (there is music and a lift to serve the pipe), as well as a halfpipe and a terrain park in the lower mountain geared to beginners.

The expert snowboarders in the family loved Okemo's glades, especially Loose Spruce and Forrest Bump, and Outrage for the moguls.

New Jackson Gore Area

I was able to ski over to try some of the seven new trails (out of what will be 16 trails) at the new Jackson Gore area which ultimately will increase Okemo's skiable terrain by 30 percent. Skiing from the Okemo Summit onto Sunburst (the sun came out for the most dazzling view of Jackson Gore), to Escape, to a busy intersection (where Safety Ambassadors stood to encourage courteous skiing) proved one of the prettiest.

The beginner terrain had not opened yet at Jackson Gore (a fact which is clearly marked before you enter), but the blue trails, Blue Moon and Lower Limelight, were absolutely stunning. They are narrower, with sweeping turns and undulations and a bit steeper-more like what is termed "Classic New England"-and I would not have done it if the conditions were icy. But on this day, with the most perfect packed powder, it was pure joy, completed with a ride on the new Jackson Gore Express Quad taking just 4 minutes to the top, and another gorgeous blue trail, Sunset Strip, back to the Mountain Road trail for the return to Solitude or to the Okemo Mountain base. All the signs made it absolutely clear where you were and which trails would not return to Okemo base.

The new Jackson Gore area also will contribute more on-mountain lodging that is greatly needed. Okemo, which pioneered the ski in/ski out concept in the 1960s (the resort was founded in 1955), has 700 on-mountain units, but because owners use them so much, only 120 are available in the rental pool. Jackson Gore will add 325 units when it is finished.

The first phase of Jackson Gore area is expected to be completed by the Fall of 2003, when 117 residential units (one to three-bedroom condominiums) in the new Jackson Gore Inn will be ready for occupancy for foliage and the winter season. The Inn offers ski in/out convenience, health club, indoor/outdoor pool and whirlpool spas, owners locker room, 390-seat cafeteria, 280-seat lounge, 210-seat full-service restaurant, lift ticket sales area, on-site child care center & learning center for 100 children, Ski/Snowboard Shop, video arcade, ski/snowboard equipment rental shop & repair shop, 113 car underground parking garage, sundries shop, and business services including an 865 sq. ft. conference room. Owners will also have the benefit of the worldwide vacation exchange program, through RCI, whereby they can trade unused time at Okemo for stays in other resorts.

The residential units at the new area are quarter-share (meaning you own the unit for a total of three months of the year) and Phase I is nearly sold out. Phase II is anticipated to launch in two or three years, and will include additional residential units, along with a gondola and a public recreation center (for information, call 877-9-JACKSON).

Over the next several years, the new Jackson Gore area will also feature: a nature center, in-line skate park, snow tubing, lighted halfpipe, climbing wall, miniature golf, tennis courts, snow tubing area and nine-hole executive golf course, which will enhance Okemo as a true four-season resort.

Family-Friendliest

Okemo is as hip as they come for singles but is an exceptional ski destination for families, because it caters so well to all ability levels and ages (we saw a four-year old getting a snowboard lesson) and offers such a pleasant environment.

Okemo also caters to families with its pricing and packaging: free skiing for all children ages 6 and under; free access to two Beginner poma surface lifts; two carpet surface lifts for kids; kids age 12 & under stay free at Okemo's slopeside condominiums, sharing a unit with their parents; teenagers 13-18 receive a special Young Adult lift ticket rate (Okemo was the first resort to offer teens a break). Other lift ticket deals include lower rates for "super seniors", college kids, and a Sunday Solution lift ticket option for those who want to get a jump-start home on the ride home Sunday afternoon (offered Sunday mornings from 8:00 am to 1:30 pm and also on Monday, Jan. 20 and Feb. 17). (For other lift ticket pricing specials, check the website, www.okemo.com.).

Also, its Vermont-approved Penguin Playground Day Care Center for children age 6 weeks to 8 years features a special Mini Stars skiing option for three and four-year olds so they can have a positive skiing experience. (Pagers are available for a minimal fee.) The Day Care center also offers special evening hours, from 6-10 pm, for kids age 5-12 on select Saturdays and holiday weeks throughout the season.

Customized ski and snowboard instructional programs beginning at age 4 includes Snow Star Skiers (age 4-7), Snow Star Riders (age 5-7), Young Mountain Explorers (age 7-12), Young Riders (age 7-12), Get Altitude (age 13-16).

Family Values packages, available nonholiday weekdays (Sunday-Friday through Mar. 14 when spring rates kick in) feature lodging in a one-bedroom Okemo Mountain Lodge ski-in/ski-out condominium unit or a two or three-bedroom Winterplace mountainside unit, with daily lift tickets, and The Okemo Freedom Pack for as little as $84.75 pp/day for two adults and two juniors; a three-day/three-night weekend getaway (either Thursday to Sunday or Friday to Monday) is priced from $108.50 pp/day.

Snow Star Skiers (age 4-7) have their own beginner teaching slope with two lifts; as they progress, upper level kids can venture on more challenging terrain riding all of Okemo's lifts. Snow Star Riders (age 5-7) is for kids of all ability levels. Snow Star Boosters (age 3-7) gives children the opportunity to spend a half-hour session (one-on-one) with a trained teaching professional who can provide the individual attention to help a child move to the next level or simply become more confident. Young Mountain Explorers (age 7-12) lets them explore Okemo's vast train network and have fun with kids of their same age and ability. Young Riders (age 7-12) lets snowboarders learn, explore and make friends with top-notch teaching pros and is available as a single lesson for any ability level (any day) or as a full-day package on weekends and holidays for riders who can use a chairlift and ride lower mountain terrain. Get Altitude Adventure Clinics (age 13-16) is for teens of intermediate ability or better so they can cut loose, make friends and improve upon their skills (available as a morning session on weekends and holiday periods)

Group Lessons are available for everyone, from age 7 and up, based on ability level. Ski Adventure Clinics (age 7 and up) are fun, innovative and skill-specific clinics for intermediate and advanced skiers and include Beyond the Greens, True Blue, Black Diamonds and Bumps & Jumps and are available at 9:45 am or 1:45 pm. Snowboard Adventure Clinics (age 7 and up) are designed to help intermediate riders get to the next level with an Introduction to Park & Pipe or Introduction Freeriding Clinics, offered at 9:45 a.m. or 1:45 p.m.; advanced riders can excel with Advanced Park & Pipe Clinics or Advanced Freeriding Clinics.

Private lessons are also available and also include Early Tracks (at 7:45 a.m. on weekends and holidays), Parent Tot Private lessons (make reservations by calling 802-228-1581). Specialty Programs include Adaptive Instruction for disabled skiers or riders; Women's Ski Spree and Snowboard programs.

Four Seasons of Activities

While people would become devotees of Okemo because of the skiing and friendly service, Okemo has really come into its own in the area of non-ski and apres-ski activities that make it a true resort, and now, a four-season resort.

Cross Country Skiing & Snowshoeing is centered at the Okemo Valley Nordic Center, located a half-mile from the Okemo base at the golf course, with 26km of cross-country trails and 10km of dedicated snowshoe trails including 20km of skating lanes, tree skiing and pristine meadows, modern trail grooming, cross-country ski and snowshoe rentals and demos and group and private lessons. The terrain is well suited for all ages and ability levels and the center features a gracious clubhouse setting with fireplace, restaurant and lounge, meeting/conference space, changing rooms and showers. Snowshoers also can go on Okemo Mountain, itself.

There are also snowmobile tours daily from 5 to 8:30 p.m., leaving from Okemo Base area (800-286-6360 for reservations, or visit www.okemo.com/trails.

A fairly unique feature is Winter Indoor Golf Academy Center featuring a practice putting green, swing stations and Computerized Golf Simulator. Guests can improve upon their golf game 12-months a year. Golf instructional clinics are available 7-days a week.

The town of Ludlow, just beyond the Okemo base, has developed charm and personality. We were fortunate to be there during a winter carnival, and see a nighttime parade with many of the ski-team kids on bikes, men on unicycles, the sanding machines, and mascots. There were snow carvings like a life-size Honeybear and Darth Vadar; a teen dance at Town Hall, a Lumberjack Ball, and fireworks on the mountain. (Check out Wicked Pizza for sensational pizza and subs.)

Club Altitude Teen Dances (ages 13-19) take place every Saturday night through March, from 8 m to 11 p.m. at the Ludlow Town Hall, sponsored by Okemo, Ludlow Police Association and Ludlow Rec & Parks Department (we saw kids coming in droves).

In the past, we have enjoyed musical productions at Town Hall by the local high school.

Ludlow also offers ice skating on an outdoor rink and sledding at the West Hill Recreational Area, about five minutes from Okemo (bring your own skates and sleds; rink fee is $5/adults, $2/children).

Okemo Valley Golf Club is Vermont's only Heathland-style golf course and facility with services and amenities unmatched by any other golf course in the region. The par 70, 6,400-yard long championship-quality course is also home to the Okemo Valley Golf Academy, an 18-acre golf learning center with driving range, indoor golf operations center complete with indoor practice putting green and 3 swing stations, and features the revolutionary new PowerLINK 3-D System that uses biomechanical technology that objectively evaluates a golfers game. (802-228-1396).

Solitude Village, its own area offering one to three- bedroom condominiums, along with three to five-bedroom townhouses, features the Solitude Lodge which has a fitness center for owners and renters, indoor/outdoor heated swimming pool, outdoor hot tub, indoor jacuzzi, sauna and a massage service (new this season). The massage service operates from the Solitude Fitness Center, but will also come to any condominium complex on Okemo with advance reservations.

Housekeeping Hints

Our first stop as we head into Ludlow, and before checking in at the central lodging office, is to pick up some basic groceries at the various 24-hour marts, or, if we are really ambitious, at the supermarket. Then, right after you register and get your keys, go directly to the rental shop (if necessary), which is open on Fridays until 11 p.m., to pick up equipment, lift tickets and book lessons, such as the Learn-to-Ride. That saves about 1 hours of precious time that could better be spent on the mountain the next day.

Our accommodation was the Winterplace condominiums, at the top of Okemo Mountain Road, within walking distance of the lifts. These are such beautiful units, equipped with every creature comfort (laundry machines, coffee maker, fireplace and wood, even a mixer so I could prepare pancakes for breakfast from the mix that was in our welcome bag at check-in). It has the added advantage of being the only lodging on Okemo Mountain that has access to an indoor pool (Solitude Village and the new Jackson Gore have their own indoor/outdoor pools), which is so wonderful after a day on the mountain.

The Okemo Resort Shuttle Service enables guests to conveniently access Okemo Mountain's condominium complexes, the base lodge area, Okemo Valley Golf Club & Nordic Center and Willie Dunn's Grille - all without having to drive a car during their visit (and if you come by Amtrak, The Bus picks up at the station, delivering you to Okemo for $5.). Also, the free Village Shuttle makes frequent stops throughout the Ludlow/Proctorsville region.

Okemo Mountain Resort Properties can customize a wide range of three-night or longer packages tailor-made for families by calling the Okemo Mountain Lodging Service at 1-800-78-OKEMO (1-800-786-5366). Check Okemo's website for special deals throughout the season and further information about lodging and activities (www.okemo.com).

Photo captions:

1) An artist's rendering of the new Jackson Gore Inn, which is scheduled to open for the 2003-2004 season.

(2) Into the glades: Okemo offers terrain to interest every level of ability (photo by David Leiberman).

2003 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. E-mail questions or comments to FamTravLtr@aol.com.


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