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High Value, Low Glitz : CALIFORNIA : Wild Bunch of Bargains


With the nation's economy seemingly on the verge of sliding downhill faster than Jean-Claude Killy, the most popular course at ski schools this winter may turn out to be survival training.

But barring a complete financial collapse, a lot of Americans are still going to go skiing just for the fun of it--to inhale that crisp mountain air, know the exhilaration of successfully carving a high-speed turn and revel in the camaraderie of kindred spirits.

If it is indeed going to be a long, cold winter, then skiers at least know how to make the best of it.

The trick, on and off the slopes, will be to enjoy the lifestyle of the famous without being rich. To drain every penny out of every dollar--a currency, unfortunately, that won't go too far in the Swiss Alps at the moment.

Fortunately, there is plenty of excellent skiing within reasonable driving distance of the Southland, and it doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg (oops, let's not get into that aspect of the sport).

Whether you can get away for a day, for a weekend or--lucky dog--a week, there are certain basic ways to maximize the value of a ski trip. Such as:

--Plan to go during off-peak, non-holiday periods. January is ideal. Any time after mid-March is also likely to get you reduced rates, and crowds, at most resorts.

--Include as many midweek nights (Sunday through Thursday) as possible in your stay. Lodging generally costs less, and some ski areas reduce their lift-ticket prices on non-weekend days, even though there's less waiting between rides.

--Buy a package deal when possible to include accommodations, lift tickets, lessons and (if needed) equipment rentals.

--Look for special bargains offered to beginning skiers, seniors, students, children under 12, etc. Also, in the Reno-Lake Tahoe area, casinos frequently cater to skiers, providing cut-rate rooms, buffet meals and other incentives to get people within tempting distance of their tables.

--If you're not planning to be on the slopes until late morning anyway, wait and buy half-day lift tickets at 12:30 p.m. Sometimes these tickets also include night skiing.

--To get more uphill rides and downhill runs on busy days, break for lunch at either 11:30 a.m. or 1 p.m. This enables you to ski while others are munching away.

--Select the type of accommodations that most suits your purpose. If you plan to ski hard and do little but sleep in between, a motel might do. If you have a family in tow or are with another couple or a group, a condominium could be the way to go, providing a cozy fireplace as well as a kitchen to cut down on the cost of meals. If you like a lively apres -ski atmosphere, a slopeside inn or lodge with dancing and entertainment would put everything in one place and keep the car in the garage.

--Choose a ski area appropriate to your level of ability. Some smaller hills are just fine for novice or low intermediate skiers who might not go near many of the lifts they're paying for at larger resorts.

In selecting where to go, another obvious factor is time.

A mad one-day dash to Mammoth Mountain, five or six hours each way, for a maximum of seven hours of skiing is not out of the question, as many have proved. Realistically, though, Big Bear would be a better option for such a trip. Tahoe requires at least a long weekend (or three midweek days) to make it worthwhile, and a week is preferable.

Whatever the time frame involved, there are ways to obtain full value, without the glitz, at just about every ski resort in California, whether you travel 100 miles, 300 miles or 500 miles.

Within two hours of many Southern California communities, there are 10 ski areas, of which four have sufficient snow-making capacity to ensure skiing throughout most of the winter. They are: Mountain High, near Wrightwood; Snow Valley, near Running Springs, and Snow Summit and Bear Mountain, formerly known as Goldmine, both at Big Bear Lake.

Bear Mountain, which plans to have its new high-speed, detachable quad chairlift, Big Bear Express, operational in time for the Christmas-New Year's holidays, offers a midweek lift/lodging package called "Ski the Lake." It includes two days' skiing and one night's lodging, Monday through Thursday night, from $69 a person, double occupancy. For more information on Bear Mountain, call (714) 585-2519.

Nearby Snow Summit, which has similar packages available, also likes to promote its "Skier Satisfaction Guarantee." If a skier is dissatisfied for any reason, he or she has 75 minutes from the time of issue to return a lift ticket and receive a ticket voucher good for another day. For Snow Summit information, call (714) 866-5766.

To make lodging or ski-package reservations for Bear Mountain and/or Snow Summit, you can call one number: (714) 866-7000.

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