Donnelly, Idaho — If you are a skier of a certain age, you might remember a time in your life when you woke with the sun, chowed down on a bowl of Cocoa Puffs and dashed out the door to beat other skiers to the first turns of the day. Then you grew a little older. Your knees started to hurt. A good breakfast became critical. You had children. Features like the kids' ski program, the exuberance of employees, the wine list at lunch and the distance to the parking lot mattered more than vertical feet and chairlift capacity or the ratio of beautiful people gracing the apres-ski scene.
At about this point, small, intimate ski resorts -- places with short lift lines, high-end hillside accommodations and no attitude -- start to become alluring. California has few, but there are some a short flight away. Tamarack, an all-season resort in west-central Idaho that opened in December, is the newest among a handful of public U.S. ski resorts to be developed since 1981.
Tamarack, named for the tree, is an easy, meandering two-hour drive north of Boise, in Donnelly just south of the tranquil lakeside town of McCall. Aiming for the high-end family market, its goal is to re-create the intimacy and exclusivity of yesteryear's ski resorts, when there was a convivial, club-like feel to the crowd and everyone grinned as they swooshed down the hill.
As a former hard-core skier who now has two young children and a bad knee, such boutique ski areas hold great appeal for me. Looking at the resort's website, however, I knew that my husband, who never lost his obsession with vertical drop, was not a Tamarack kind of guy. The hill simply does not offer heart-thumping double-black diamond runs. It's not about adrenaline here. It's about civility, convenience and sophistication.
So leaving the husband at home, I lit out with my older daughter, Indigo, 7, and a friend, Jennifer Chapin. We flew into Boise, rented a car and drove through the Idaho Rockies for a four-day girl getaway at Tamarack.
When we pulled into the ski resort, my first impression was of an impermanent, oversized igloo encampment. The reception area, the restaurant, the bar, the children's ski school and the equipment center are housed in huge white domed tents made of a durable vinyl-type fabric. The tents are like those used in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, but once you're inside them, it's like being in a luxurious hotel with art on the walls, carpet on the floors, chic leather furnishings and mood lighting.
The domes last as many as 15 years, said Heather Stolz, head of reservations, and that buys time for the resort to build more guest lodging and to better tailor the permanent structures.
Hanging on a wall in the Sports Dome is an illustration of what Tamarack's owners envision for the future. An entire village for starters, but that's a good 15 years away. Today, Tamarack has 62 slope-side chalets and cottages. A 28-room lodge and more chalets are slated to open next year.
"We've got big plans," Craig Panarisi, the ski school supervisor, told me. "Next season there will be another lift, and we're opening more trails."
For now the resort has only two high-speed quad lifts on the mountain and 700 skiable acres, so management limits lift tickets to 1,500 a day. That means a lot fewer people on the slopes, and if you get out early enough, you can have runs all to yourself. It makes you feel as though you're a member of an elite, restricted alpine club.
New is good and bad
On our first morning here, we woke to cornflower blue skies and snow crystals powdering the trees. We were staying in the ski-in, ski-out, two-bedroom Owyhee cottage, an attractive stone-and-timber mini-home with a full kitchen, hot tub, fireplace and large-screen TV.
We merely had to walk out our back door, step into our skis and take a Poma lift to get to the main lifts. Once there, there was no fooling around buying lift tickets; they're included in lodging packages. But non-skiers can pay a straight accommodation fee.
One advantage of the resort's newness is its leading-edge technology. There's no need to root around for your lift ticket and have it hand-checked: A Rapidtron gate can read the chip embedded in the pass through your jacket pocket. The lifts are high-speed and padded, the snow makers are the latest and greatest, and the grooming machines leave perfect corduroy each night.
The disadvantages of Tamarack's newness are expected ones: construction noise and unfinished details. Our cottage did not have a functioning hot tub, which was frustrating. Although the staff members are welcoming and kind, some seem to have been trained in a hurry. I had to show the young man who escorted us to our cottage how to turn on the gas fire and the lights, and he neglected to show us our outdoor ski locker, which, once we discovered it days later, was a fabulous feature that obviated the need to schlep skis.