Running a ski area is like owning a suburban tract home. There never seems to be a shortage of improvements to be made.
So it has been with winter resorts this year. Despite the lingering recession, developers and slope owners have been writing checks for a plethora of enhancements. Most fall into one of three broad categories: developing real estate, enticing visitors with real bargains and augmenting real snow.
Western ski areas have invested in snowmaking, grooming trails and pricing deals, but the big money in the big mountains has been spent developing bigger base areas. One by one, the slopes are sprouting new hotels, condos and mini-mansions.
In California, the Ritz-Carlton Highlands has opened mid-mountain at Northstar-at-Tahoe, the first new luxury property around Lake Tahoe in decades. The hotel is offering a three-night Sneak Peak package throughout the season, starting at $349 a night (holiday periods blacked out). For info, (530) 562-3000, www.northstarattahoe.com.
Mammoth will pump up the village with 10 new eateries and stores, including the Smokeyard Barbeque & Chop Shop and Bear Creek Pizza Den. Of particular interest is Boards, a new restaurant/bar that will honor all things board: surfboards, snowboards, skis, skateboards and wakeboards.
On the slopes, the Village Ski Back Trail is expected to open at Christmas, weather permitting, giving skiers and snowboarders a new option for getting to the village and reducing gondola congestion.
The trail, first conceptualized in the '70s, will be accessible near the bottom of Roller Coaster Express and the top of Chair 7 and end right next to the village.
Note that beginning Thursday, Horizon will offer two flights a day from LAX, at 8:40 a.m. and 2:40 p.m., arriving in Mammoth 70 minutes later. Rates start at $69 each way, pretax. Return flights from Mammoth will depart at 12:50 and 5:50 p.m. Info: (800) 547-9308, www.alaskaair.com.
Meanwhile, Mountain High,the ultra-popular SoCal destination, is offering increased snowmaking, new terrain features and four new Prinoth Bison Park Cats this season. The Wrightwood resort has poured $41 million into new lifts, remodeled lodges and other upgrades in the last 10 years. Info: (888) 754-7878, www.mthigh.com.
In Park City, Utah, the Waldorf Astoria's Dakota Mountain Lodge has begun operating at the Canyons. Info: (888) 226-9667, www.thecanyons.com.
Across town, the 12-acre St. Regis Deer Crest Resort is opening, ( 424-3337, www.deervalley.com), offering upscale rooms, a spa, an infinity pool and a "ski beach," complete with chaise longues for winter sun-soakers.
Although happy hours are still banned and draft and store-bought beer contains only 3.2% alcohol, you can now legally buy adult beverages in a bar without having to order food or join a private club.
In Idaho, Sun Valley, (800) 786-8259, www.sunvalley.com, has fired up a new gondola on Baldy, and for those who don't get enough excitement carving pure powder, Wyoming's Grand Targhee, (800) 827-4433, www.grandtarghee.com, will offer guided ice climbing.
In Colorado, the 173-unit Viceroy Resort & Residences has opened at Snowmass, (800) 525-6200, www.aspensnowmass.com, providing an anchor hotel in the resort's expanded, billion-buck base village. Construction cranes have been busy at Steamboat, (970) 879-6111, www.steamboat.com, marking a development frenzy that includes the 80-unit One Steamboat Place, the seven-story Edgemont and the 86-unit Trailhead Lodge. In Breckenridge,(888) 284-9477, www.breckenridge.com, Crystal Peak Lodge is open at the new Peak 7 base, and next spring, One Ski Hill Place will offer 88 ski-in/ski-out units at the base of Peak 8. At Winter Park, (970) 726-1564, www.skiwinterpark.com, last year's cabriolet gondola connects outlying parking with the freshly finished base village.
Throughout New England, the emphasis is on guns and groomers.
In Vermont, Killington, (800) 621-6867, www.killington.com, which already claims the world's most extensive snowmaking system, has added more efficient guns to increase coverage and reduce power consumption. Okemo, (866) 706-5366, www.okemo.com, has a new 500-horsepower behemoth that carries a 24-foot-wide tiller and 20-foot blade. While other ski areas brag about purchasing wind-energy credits, Bolton Valley, (877) 926-5866, www.boltonvalley.com, has installed its own wind turbine. The generator will crank out 300,000 kilowatt-hours of power annually -- enough to run a dozen snow guns nonstop for three months. On the bedding front, Jay Peak, (802) 988-9601, www.jaypeakresort.com, will open its 57-unit Tram Haus Lodge by Christmas. On the slopes, Smugglers Notch, (800) 419-4615, www.smuggs.com, is extending its Full Nelson trail.
In New Hampshire, Attitash, (800) 223-7669, www.attitash.com, sports new nozzles; new pipe has been laid at Wildcat Mountain, (888) 754-9453, www.skiwildcat.com, and additional guns now grace Pats Peak, (888) 728-7732, www.patspeak.com.