By Karen Rubin

The biggest news about Vermont skiing this year is how much easier it is to get to the slopes, with new service by air and rail. While many of Vermont's world-class ski resorts are easy enough to reach by car from the New York and Boston metropolitan areas, the new services mean that Vermont's Northern Kingdom resorts like Sugarbush, Stowe, Smugglers' Notch and Jay Peak, are now as close as more southerly resorts in terms of travel time. What is more, the Jet Blue flights (with air fares as low as $98 roundtrip from JFK) and Amtrak tickets are priced to be a reasonable alternative, and may be bundled together with a ski-and-stay package.

JetBlue departs JFK at 9:40 a.m., arriving at Burlington at 10.50 a.m., and again at 2:50 p.m., arriving at Burlington at 4 p.m. Daily returns are at 11:20 a.m., arriving JFK at 12:30 p.m., and 4:30 p.m., arriving at 5:50 p.m. Fares start at $49 one-way for a 14-advance purchase fare; the highest, "walk up" fare is $99 one way (800-JETBLUE, www.jetblue.com).

Meanwhile, Amtrak's Ethan Allen travels from New York City up through Albany before heading northeast into Rutland (which is convenient to Killington/Pico, Okemo, Ascutney and Suicide Six) while the Vermonter travels from New York City through Connecticut and Massachusetts and along Vermont's eastern corridor to Burlington. Vacation packages including roundtrip Amtrak transportation and rental car, or roundtrip shuttle from the station to the resort, are available by calling the resort directly or Amtrak, 800-USARAIL.

What is more, skiers from outside the region and from overseas will be able to take advantage of expanded air service into Burlington. In addition to the JetBlue service, Southwest is connecting numerous markets around the U.S. with three gateways convenient to southern and central Vermont resorts: Albany NY, Hartford CT and Manchester NH (www.southwest.com). Overseas visitors can travel into the three principal international gateways, New York, Boston and Montreal.

Indeed, Vermont ski resorts have developed into world-class destinations, with continued improvements in snowmaking and grooming, trail design, high-speed detachable lifts, upgraded accommodations ranging from luxury hotels to lavish condos and quaint inns and off-slopes amenities and non-skiing activities like tubing, snowshoeing, spas, shopping, dining, and on and on, all of it set amid the charming ambiance of New England with its distinctive colonial history, cultural heritage and sense of place.

The new services are particularly good news for people who are concerned about winter driving (ski resorts tend to be located where there is frequent snow), single skiers and single parents who are concerned about long drives.

Northern Kingdom Now in Reach

One of the Northern Kingdom mountain resorts which will benefit from the new air service is Stowe, which consistently rates among the best in dining, off-mountain activities, family programs, nightlife and scenery. Stowe is more like Aspen, in the sense it is a town that sits at the base of the mountain, as opposed to a self-contained purpose-built resort. However, Stowe is in a massive development program to create an actual, 35-acre self-contained resort with slopeside lodging. This year, again, a collaboration with Smugglers', located over Sterling Mountain, allows for skiers to spend a day at the other slopes. (800-253-4SKI, www.stowe.com).

Another resort that will benefit from the improved, economical air access is also consistently named among the best for families, Smugglers' Notch, with activities like the Fun Zone, Sir Henry's Tubing Hill, snowmobile tours, snowshoe treks, karaoke, torchlight parades, fireworks, and outstanding children's learn-to-ski as well as nursery programs. This year, the age groupings include a new young teens group, as well: Discovery Dynamos ski camps for 3-5 year olds; Adventure Rangers ski camps for 6-10 year olds; a new Notch Squad Ski/Snowboard Camp for 11-14 year olds and Mountain Explorers for ages 15-17, each with its own age appropriate adventures and programs. There is also a new snowboarding program for adults. This season, there are five new trails on Sterling Mountain. There is also snowshoeing and 23 km of groomed and tracked cross-country skiing trails. The skiing is exceptional at Smugglers' regardless if you are a beginner or expert, child or adult. But what really sets Smugglers' apart are the nightly family evening programs. Guests staying on the multi-day Club Smugglers' Package receive one day of lift tickets for skiing/riding at Stowe; the 5 or 7 night packages include slopeside condo lodging, lift ticket and cross-country trial pass, daily group snow sport lesson. Guests also have use of indoor pool, sauna and hot tub, outdoor ice skating, apres sport activities; also available are horseback riding, massages, snowmobiling, moonlight Nordic treks (800-451-8752, www.smuggs.com).

The new air service will also make Sugarbush Resort, which excels in every way except that it is a long drive from our area, much more accessible. Sugarbush has some of the best skiing this side of the Rockies, incomparable "quintessentially Vermont" scenery and superb family programs, with special features like Family Adventure Land consisting of 75 acres of terrain from tame to challenging. This is a major resort: 2,650 foot vertical rise, six interconnected mountain peaks and the three highest lift-serviced peaks at one resort in New England. There are 468 skiable acres, 115 trails set amid 4,000 acres of wilderness. Indeed, Sugarbush is one of the best places for off-piste terrain for advanced skiers and riders. The Slide Brook Wilderness is also available for snowshoe tours, and free guided tours are available afternoons (rentals are $15 for a full day, $10 for a half day). An interchangeable lift ticket also gives skiers and riders access to ski at Mad River Glen (800-537-8427, www.sugarbush.com).

Jay Peak, which affords the best opportunity to feel like you have traveled to French Canada without crossing the border, benefits significantly from the new air service. This year, Jay Peak has been improved with new 60-passenger tramcars to the summit (which means you avoid an extremely cold chair lift), which make the ride in seven minutes. However, you need to be an advanced intermediate to go to the top. Jay Peak is best suited for families with older children and accomplished skiers/boarders. Children 14 and under ski and stay for free; teens 15-18 ski and stay for $40 (800-451-4449, www.jaypeakresort.com).

Family Favorites

Ascutney Mountain Resort, Vt., known as a family-friendly self-contained family ski resort, has grown up, literally: a new mile-long North Peak high speed quad brings skiers to the summit, 250 feet higher, for a total vertical of 1,800 ft., and opened up six new trails. This has taken Ascutney to the next level and put Ascutney into a whole different league. Known for being exceptionally family-friendly, with the self-contained resort offering ski in/out accommodations and lots of activities and amenities geared to families with young children, Ascutney is a real skiers' mountain, with true blue and double-black rated trails; and intermediate trail from the summit, and a 15-acre beginner area. Ascutney, one of the easiest major ski areas to reach (just six miles off Highway 91 and also accessible by Amtrak's Vermonter from White River Junction, 20 miles away) affords excellent value: non-holiday winter season packages are $79/adult, $69/junior (7-16; children six and under stay free) per day for condo lodging and lift. Packages include use of sports and fitness center, indoor heated pool, hot tub, outdoor ice skating pond, tubing hill, teen arcade and game room, billiard room, kids' movie nights, apres ski entertainment (800-243-0011, www.ascutney.com).

Okemo, in Ludlow, is also a relatively easy drive and has always been a particularly delightful resort to ski, with a marvelously comfortable feel and outstanding welcoming service and a real emphasis on pleasant guests. The resort is in the midst of major enhancements (that will turn it into a four-season resort) including significant improvement in snowmaking power, Okemo's first "magic carpet" lift for kids will enhance an already marvelous learn-to-ski experience; a new "Super Pipe" for snowboarders, which at 440 feet long, 55 ft. wide, and 17 feet high walls is massively bigger than a half pipe. This year, the total resort experience at Okemo is being enhanced with a new free Resort Shuttle Service into town (great for older teens) and for nonskiing family members who may want to go shopping, instead. Okemo also offers a fully reciprocal lift ticket program with Mount Sunapee (NH) and Stratton Mountain. The resort experience has been greatly enhanced with the opening last year of the Nordic Center and Winter Indoor Golf Academy. Okemo is wonderfully family friendly: children six and under ski free; there are two free beginner Poma surface lifts. Moreover, the layout of the mountain means that more advanced skiing family members can take those trails and everyone meet up together at the base. The layout and facilities are particularly good for families with teenage children. Okemo offers many package plans including Okemo Family Values, priced from $73.50 per day, providing ski-in/ski-out or mountainside accommodations, daily lift tickets, for mid-week stays (800-78-OKEMO, www.okemo.com).

Stratton is another of our favorite places. This year there will be a special opportunity to train with the best athletes in snowboarding, skiboarding and freeskiiing. Olympic Medalist Ross Powers is offering a two-day snowboard camp for intermediate and advanced snowboarders 10-18 years old (Dec. 23-24, $249; Mar. 19-21, $349). Mike Nick, the X-Games medalist is hosting a skiboard camp on Jan. 6-7 for intermediate and advanced skiboarders ($199). Skogen Sprang is hosting a freeski camp on Jan. 20-21 ($199). Stratton has some really excellent deals: purchase a three-day midweek lift ticket for $125 and stay for free two nights at Stratton's Liftline Lodge (you can upgrade to the new luxury Long Trail House); available midweek from Jan. 2 through closing. A weekender plan lets you turn two-day weekends into a three-day getaway: book Thursday through Sunday or Friday through Monday and get three nights of lodging and three days of great deal son lift tickets (Jan. 2-Mar. 22, nonholiday).

Killington Resort, which stretches across seven mountains and affords 200 trails and 32 lifts, is New England's counterpart to Colorado's Vail Resort in scale and scope, and the guest experience has been enhanced with the addition of the ski in/ski out Killington Grand Resort Hotel; however, there are so many lodging choices that you can arrange a very economical trip, with five-day ski-and-stay packages as low as $312 mid-winter; from $358 for a four-day weekend (this year, Killington is adding a Super Pipe to its myriad offerings). Our favorite place for family ski holiday is at Pico, a self-contained ski village which is now part of Killington, which offers ski in/out condos, access to an indoor athletic center, and immediate access to the best intermediate and beginner terrain. (800-621-MTNS, www.picomountain.com or www.killington.com).

Mount Snow, which will be the site of the ESPN Winter X Games Feb. 1-4, is seeing the benefits of $35 million in improvements over the last five years, including three high-speed quad chairs, the Grand Summit Resort Hotel, reconfiguration of the trail network, new grooming machines and more snowmaking power. Mount Snow is especially accessible from our area, so its new Family Pass, which can save more than $400 versus purchasing two regular adult and two junior passes, is a real value. Also, this season, children 12 and under receive free three, four and five-day lift tickets when a parent purchases three to five day tickets, midweek. Activities which families will enjoy include tubing, sledding (5-10 p.m. on select nights, but bring your own sled), arcade, recreational racing, snowmobile tours, and dog sled tours. Vacation packages can now be customized and purchased online, at www.mountsnow.com.

For more information on Vermont's ski areas, contact Ski Vermont, 800-VERMONT; or www.skivermont.com or www.ridevermont.com.

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Squaw Valley Mountain Resort

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Taking the KidsTMSkiing

Frequently Asked Questions

Colorado's Mountain Resorts Get in Gear for Winter

Vermont's Ski Resorts Are Easier to Reach

Jiminy Peak Ascends to a Full-Scale Destination Resort

Ascutney: Vermont's Family-Friendly Mountain is on the Rise

A Walk on the Wild Side: Snowshoeing Liberating, Exhilarating and Anybody Can Do It

Family Safety on the Slopes