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

From the top of Ascutney Mountain's new North Peak Express lift, you feel you will ski into a Currier & Ives print. The incomparable view of the Vermont patchwork of farms is not lost to low intermediate skiers, either, and serves as an incentive to take the six-minute ride the detachable quad to the summit, to the short and wide Gateway trail.

It is only about 300 feet down a wide and forgiving slope to what used to be Ascutney's highest trail, Cloudspin that gives breathtaking views and sufficient challenge for the confident beginner skier to derive personal satisfaction; those who are able can go instead straight down a thrilling double-black lift-line trail aptly named, Blind Faith which feeds other black-diamond trails. Indeed, this year, Ascutney has a true summit, and an added dimension, and we have found a new family jewel.

Ascutney has cultivated a superb reputation as a family resort, and because of this, we were expecting a much more modest mountain and were frankly surprised at how big a mountain this is. We're talking an 1,800-foot vertical from a summit at 3,144 ft. (the tallest free-standing mountain in the East) funneling to 56 trails with good variety, some sculpted in the classic Vermont style (challenging because they are narrow), and others which are wide and forgiving. The skiing on 150 skiable acres is outstanding-long meandering trails (the longest is 2 ˝-miles) and spectacular views. Superb snowmaking and grooming enhance the downhill experience, even when Mother Nature has been less than kind.

The mountain is ideal for families in many ways. It offers a natural separation between novice skiers, who are on slopes that are below the base lodge, so do not have to be concerned about fast-traveling downhillers flying by; beginners also can enjoy lovely trails on the eastern side, separated from the rest. Intermediate skiers can have long top to bottom runs, as do advanced skiers on true black diamond trails.

One of the nicest features for families, though, is how easy it is to reach: just six miles off Interstate 91 (about 235 miles from the Throgs Neck Bridge), but if you prefer not to drive at all, you can take Amtrakinto Windsor station (the station is actually a delightful restaurant), about seven miles from the resort.

Convenient Layout

Ascutney is also an ideal family resort because of its layout. All the accommodations (215 guest rooms and condominiums) are slopeside, affording ski in/out convenience. It is not quite a pedestrian village, but you can select accommodations that are in walking distance to the key facilities-the hotel, where special kids activities are held, also has a café, two restaurants, general store, arcade, billiard room, and looks out to a small ice skating pond and tubing hill. Nearby is the Sports & Fitness Center (free to guests), which has a serious lap pool, massive fitness room, racquetball courts and massage available (in warmer seasons, there is also tennis and an outdoor swimming pool).

It offers its own charming Country Store with a folksy feel. It offers very few items, but just what you need (bagels, cream cheese, milk, orange juice, coffee), and a selection of frozen pizzas that are made locally that are literally out of this world. ($7.99)-a perfect lunch or snack after skiing.

Just across from the hotel and only about five-minutes walk, there is a small footbridge over a stream which takes you into Brownsville-the village which gives such an exquisite view from the mountain, with its classic white steepled church and red-brick building and gives you the feeling of walking into that Currier & Ives print-where you can stock up with supplies or even eat in at the General Store (it also has some marvelous crafts).

We were delighted with our accommodations, in the Hanover unit, which was recently renovated. The condominium-style one-bedroom offered a lovely living room with fireplace, dining area, and full kitchen-very comfortable for a family of four, with a view of the mountain (the novice lift went by our window).

Ascutney offers a very casual and relaxed atmosphere-it is just a pleasant place to be. For lunch, we enjoyed the cafeteria in the Base Lodge (burgers, fries, hot soups, chili, onion rings). A sit-down, pub-style lunch is provided in Brown's Tavern, which also serves dinner. The Harvest Inn also serves dinner (you can sit in either one and order from the menu of the other, which is great for families); no reservations are required at either the Harvest Inn or Brown's Tavern.

The resort is being lovingly improved by the Plausteiner Family which acquired the property in 1993. Since then, they have invested more than $8 million in capital improvements; the improvements this year represent the final piece of a five-year development plan. In addition to this year's North Peak expansion (the detachable quad lift, as well as three new trails, with a fourth one planned), the resort offers three additional new trails (for a total of 56), increased snowmaking to 95 percent of total terrain; a new surface lift in the 10-acre learning area, new tree skiing areas, a terrain park and a halfpipe (my kids were not too impressed with the terrain park, but this could be because it was early in the season).

Children's Programs

It is really a family resort. With all the trails funneling down to a base, you won't mind letting older children ski/ride off on their own (you are apt to keep meeting up at the North Peak Express lift). The youngest children will delight seeing the resort mascot, Cheddar the Mouse, and his pals Blizzy the Beaver and Rocky the Raccoon, skiing down the mountain, or encountering Cheddar in the base lodge during lunch.

On Saturday nights, children can enjoy Cheddar's Happy Hour, hosted by Cheddar the Mouse, with pizza, face painting, dancing with a DJ, movies and games so parents can enjoy a quiet dinner or evening out (5- 8 p.m., $4). On Wednesdays, from 5-6:30 pm, children can attend the Midweek Music Munchie Madness, a shorter version, held in the Crow's Nest in the village hotel, which is complimentary. Other events scheduled during the week include bonfires and torchlight parades (the resort publishes a weekly events and activity schedule).

The family orientation carries over into the Snowdance Learning Center, which includes the Flying Ducks Childcare Program, Mini and Young Olympians, as well as group and private lessons for any age.

The Flying Ducks Childcare Program consists of Ducklings for children six and under, providing games, outdoor play (building snowmen and tubing), for full and half-day sessions; and Flying Ducks, for children 3-6, which also includes a semi-private ski lesson of up to one hour per session, depending upon the child's abilities and willingness to participate.

For skiing children, Mini Olympians is a half or full-day of activities including skiing geared for ages 4-7, which includes ski lessons with a focus on outdoor adventure (the full day program includes lunch).

Young Olympians is geared to skiers and snowboarders age 8-12 to improve their skills and enjoy being with other kids, with groups organized according to skill level from novice through advanced (half day sessions are available the full day program includes lunch).

Last Chance Private Lessons are offered to skiers and snowboarders, 3-4 p.m., at $40 ($10 less than a regular one-hour private lesson).

The best deal for a novice is the Slide, Glide and Ride package, which includes group lesson, lift ticket and equipment rental for the day (lessons are offered at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.), at $59.

The rental shop, operated by Cunningham's Ski Barn (a branch of the Cunningham's which we enjoy at Gore Mountain, New York), offers shaped skis, snowboard equipment, a limited supply of ski blades, and snowshoes for rent.

Area Attractions

There is so much to do in the area that it is easy to spend an entire week, skiing and exploring.

Windsor, just about 20 minutes away, is where Vermont's Constitution was signed in 1777 and is considered "The Birthplace of Vermont." It was also the cradle of the machine tool industry and its architecture is evidence of its industrial past and historic roots. The Cornish-Windsor Covered Bridge is the longest in the nation. Year-round you can visit the Simon Pearce Glassblowing & Pottery; and Constitution House, formerly the tavern where the Constitution of the Republic of Vermont was written in 1777.

We thoroughly enjoyed our dinner at the Windsor Station (Depot Avenue, 802-674-2052), set in an actual railroad station (which came back to life in 1997 when Amtrak restored service) and heartily recommend it for an evening out. The restaurant, a Victorian treasure with wood paneling, switching devices and train signals, and a delightful circular ticket-office which is used for private groups) shakes when the train rumbles past (which is only about once an evening).

Ascutney resort is just about 25 minutes away from Woodstock, exquisitely charming, quintessentially New England village which offers boutiques and eateries (The Woodstock touring center is magnificent for cross-country skiing enthusiasts).

In scenic Quechee, you can visit the Sugarbush Farm, a family-run working farm famous for its cheese and pure maple syrup (open year round, 802-457-1757) and a great place for snowshoeing.

Enjoy a sleigh ride (or in warmer season, a horseback trail ride) at Cavendish Trail Horse Rides, (802-226-7821).

It is also near to Hanover, New Hampshire (where Dartmouth is located), where there is antiquing, shopping and dining.

Ascutney is truly a four-season resort. In summer, there is golf, horseback riding, canoeing and mountain biking; and the resort offers massage therapy, tennis instruction, aerobics, aqua aerobics, yoga, miniature golf, and kids' Summer Adventure Program, and Ascutney is immensely popular for family reunions, weddings and conferences. (A summer-time five-day/five night Family FunFest includes complimentary admission to the Montshire Musem in Norwich, the Billings Farm and Museum, and the Raptor Center at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science; half-day canoe rental, and half-day mountain bike rental, for $99 to $159 per room per night; five-night Outdoor Adventure, and two-night Romance or Golf packages also available).

A five-day Winter Season Ascutney Advantage getaway package rates are $79/adult, $69/junior per day and include slopeside lodging in condominium with full kitchen, living room, fireplace (kids six and under stay free with parents); use of the sports and fitness center, indoor heated pool, hot tub, outdoor ice skating pond and tubing hill, special events like torchlight parade (Saturdays), bonfire and complimentary hot cider; kids movie nights, and lift ticket (rates without lift ticket are also available).

For information, call Ascutney Mountain Resort, 800-243-0011, www.ascutney.com.

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