MAMMOTH LAKES — You used to be a cheap date, a weekend fling who didn't care that my budget was tight and my wallet thin. In the old days, you would welcome me with open arms, even if I showed up on your doorstep with a brown bag lunch and blue jeans sticking out of my ski boots.
But you've changed. You've become a diva with expensive tastes, a snob who associates with country club types in time-share condos and designer ski outfits.
I just can't believe what I'm hearing. So I corralled my wife, Tina, and 10-year-old daughter, Isabella, and headed up U.S. 395 to see whether a penny-pinching weekend skier was still welcome in Mammoth Lakes, Southern California's favorite winter sports getaway.
When I arrived in mid-November, the Village at Mammoth teemed with noise, shoppers and light.
The European-style pedestrian hub is the crown jewel of a multimillion-dollar makeover that its detractors claim is turning this blue-collar ski town into the Aspen of the West. The makeover was accelerated when Starwood Capital Group, led by hotel mogul Barry S. Sternlicht of Greenwich, Conn., bought a controlling interest in the resort in 2006 from Dave McCoy, the resort's founder.
Before the face-lift, Mammoth was known for its rustic charms. It was a hodgepodge of hotels, strip malls and mom-and-pop eateries, but that didn't bother most of the skiers and snowboarders who came only for the mountain experience. Thanks to an average of 33 feet of snow and 300 days of sunshine each year, the experience was usually good.
The resort took a transformative step this summer when Mammoth Mountain teamed with Patina Restaurant Group in an effort to improve its culinary offerings. To make the slopes more convenient, Horizon Air this week begins nonstop flights from Los Angeles International Airport to the Mammoth Yosemite Airport.
Considering the economic crisis, this may not be the best timing for hedonism on the hill. And yet, surveys suggest that Americans will not forgo vacation plans. They'll merely spend less on them.
This raises the question: Can a family on a budget still have a good time at the new and improved Mammoth Lakes?
The lodging near the lifts in Mammoth Lakes is pricey, but with legwork you can still find a few bargains. Room rates typically skyrocket in peak snow season, between Thanksgiving and mid-April, but if you can schedule your vacation before or after that period, you can save a bundle.
Thanks to online comparisons (try www.priceline.com), I found a bargain early in the season at the 1849 Condos, ( 421-1849, www.1849condos.com) within walking distance of the lifts at Canyon Lodge. I booked a two-bedroom, two-bath condominium with a kitchen, fireplace, living room and sun deck for $117 a night, plus tax. The rates were low because the condos were being renovated and only five runs were open at the time. (Canyon Lodge, a ski hub with a large outdoor deck, a bar, meeting rooms and access to lifts, had not yet opened.) Once the renovations were completed near the end of last month, the weekend rates at the condos jumped to $400 a night.
By using the kitchen in the condo to prepare our breakfasts -- cereal, milk, coffee and pastries bought at the local supermarket -- we also saved at least $30 to $40 each day on restaurant costs.
Even less expensive: On the drive up, I noticed that hotel rates advertised on the marquees in Bishop were nearly half the cost of lodging in Mammoth Lakes. Although it's 42 miles south of Mammoth Lakes along U.S. 395, Bishop has much to offer visitors, including Erick Schat's Bakkery (763 N. Main St.), the ideal place to stock up on apple strudel and sheepherder bread, and Jack's Restaurant & Bakery (437 N. Main St.), where the omelets are huge and tasty and the fishing advice is free.
Another money-saving idea for Mammoth Lakes: package deals that include free lift tickets for each hotel guest. These deals, offered by the resort ( www.mammothmountain.com), can cut your lodging costs by at least half, if you meet the restrictions. For example, Mammoth Mountain is offering a January midweek package that starts at $119 a night, with a two-night minimum.
Least expensive: Ryan Groat of Huntington Beach and his 4-year-old son, Luka, found the cheapest lodging in town: They slept in a camper on the back of Groat's pickup, parked on the outskirts of town near a hot spring called Wild Willy's, which is on Bureau of Land Management property. The federal government allows free camping on BLM property for up to 14 days. In return, campers must promise not to litter or damage vegetation. Besides camping on BLM land, Groat said he saved big bucks by shopping at a supermarket and preparing meals on a portable gas grill.
"It gets a little chilly at night in the camper, but it saves a lot of money, and nowadays that's important," he said.
Although there's no such thing as a free lunch, you can still find some cheap eats in Mammoth Lakes.