San Francisco Chronicle
February 15, 2013

Packed. Powder. Packed. Powder. My favorite two consecutive words drum like a mantra in time to my wipers dispersing a swirling flurry of snowflakes from the windshield. It's early January and I'm following the tail end of a monster blizzard from the laid-back lakeside university town of Burlington eastward for an hour to Stowe, where my buddy and I are kicking off a week of skiing our way around northern Vermont.

Drawing back the curtains the next morning at Stowe Mountain Lodge, I'm blinded by a sunny "Bluebird day," fairyland forests of "snow ghosts" - alpine trees heavy with the white stuff - starkly white against an indigo sky. From a vantage point atop Mount Mansfield, Vermont's highest peak at 4,395 feet, we peer down on a zigzag network of 116 runs blanketed in packed powder and unpacked glades with views of the Adirondacks to the West and New Hampshire's hefty White Mountains to the east. It's my first ski day of the season, and by the time I tuck into a steaming Pork Belly Twice Baked Potato lunch at the summit Cliff House bistro, I can hear nothing above the screaming of my thighs.

As an ex-West Coast Whistler ski brat who moved to southern Quebec years ago, I soon learned to sharpen my edges for Eastern skiing from New York to Maine. Jay Peak, Vermont's northernmost of 18 downhill resorts is just south of the Canadian border. Then there are 885 formidable cross-country ski miles in 31 Nordic networks as well as the 300-mile Catamount Trail, which runs the length of the state.

While my recent trip was prompted by reports of that looming blizzard, the foodie in me was also eager to head south of the border after a long absence: I had recently learned that Vermont (population: 620,000) not only has more cheese makers and microbreweries per capita than any other state, but that Vermonters also spend the most on locally sourced groceries - 39 cents of every food dollar. Cheese, craft beer, local noshing and powder? Sign me up.

No. 3 ski state

Vermonters love their snow. It's the top state in the East for skier visits with an average of 4.1 million per season - third in the country after California and Colorado. With the highest ski resort count in New England, the hills are renowned for their diversity: big mountains like Killington and Stowe offer advanced, ungroomed terrain such as gnarly Mad River Glen; and there are lots of toddler-friendly family resorts.

OK. So they aren't the Sierra, but they have decent descents with excellent snowmaking and grooming and, best of all, lines are generally rare, especially on weekdays. This year Vermont resorts are spending more than $38 million upgrading downhill and Nordic resorts, much of it on enhanced, greener snowmaking. Eastern peaks don't enjoy the West's lofty altitudes to keep icy slopes at bay, nor do they wallow as often under giant powder dumps, but the skiing is good, especially fresh packed powder.

For me, skiing is the icing on the cake of any Vermont visit. While the leaf-peeping season is spectacular and the state's busiest tourist time, I love New England when its photo-ready villages are blanketed in white - pointy church towers, solid Yankee town halls, covered bridges 'n' all.

Maple and more maple

In March, during spring skiing, maple sugar shacks steam during a statewide "sugaring-off" festival, but you can taste all things maple any time of the year from the creme brulee at Stowe's Green Mountain Inn to Sapling's Maple Liqueur (which snatched gold at San Francisco's 2011 World Spirits Competition) to Lawson's Finest Liquids Maple Tripple, a rare strong ale.

Stowe, with its speedy gondola up 2,132 vertical feet, is Vermont's second biggest resort, and it has come a long way since 1933, when its trails were cut by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression and it established the nation's oldest ski patrol. Stowe Mountain Lodge at the base was built in 2008 as a luxury sustainable village with a 300-room hotel, condos and a concert hall attracting the likes of Itzhak Perlman. And it's set to become bigger still.

"Bostonians and New Yorkers are increasingly balking at flying to ski in the West with its stopovers and winter delays," says Leslie Kilgore of Stowe Mountain Lodge. "So we're aiming at becoming the Vail or Aspen of the East."

The base is 6 miles by free shuttle from Stowe village - classic New England with a Heidi-ish feel in its Edelweiss Convenience Store, Innsbruck Inn, Matterhorn bar and Trapp Family Lodge, which is America's first cross-country ski area started by the Austrian von Trapp family of "The Sound of Music" fame.

Sam von Trapp, grandson of Maria and a former Aspen and Chile-based ski instructor, runs the Austrian-themed inn with its 60 kilometers of groomed trails - with old Slayton Pasture Cabin in the forest for hot soup - as well as backcountry and tamer "side-country" trails. Like most resorts, Trapp Family Lodge is into local cuisine.

"The family makes its own cheese, we raise our own grain-fed cattle, and," von Trapp says, stoking the Nordic center fireplace, "we have a ski-in, ski-out microbrewery."

The lodge's acreage hooks up with that of Top Notch, a luxury spa retreat for soothing those ski-stressed muscles. It also connects with Stowe village's criss-cross-country recreational path, which has skiers gliding alongside the town's chocolate maker, the old-style general store, arts and crafts shops, and the Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum.

On to Sugarbush

Before leaving Stowe, we stop for lunch at Crop Bistro & Brewery, the latest of more than two dozen Vermont craft breweries. On the front door is the familiar "Vermont Fresh Network" logo, a farm/chef partnership that flags establishments dedicated to serving local products. As with almost every menu I unfold in the state, there is a roll call of local artisan food producers - from baker and maple sugarer to trout supplier.

We head south 30 miles on scenic rural Highway 100, which travels the length of the state, through the town of Waterbury, where Ben & Jerry's headquarters is an ice-cream theme park, and past red barns slouching with age or enjoying new careers as inns or performing arts centers. Even the base lodge of Sugarbush Resort, Clay Brook, is a stylized big red barn complete with rooms in a modern silo, all built in 2008. A classic old schoolhouse is the kid's ski school and day care facility, and the locally sourced Timbers Restaurant is fashioned after a 19th century Vermont round dairy barn.

At 4,083feet, Sugarbush has some of New England's widest vertical ranges with a skiable drop of 2,600 feet on 111 trails over 53 miles of runs, which we often have to ourselves. There are two peaks - Castlerock, which offers New England-style steep, narrow, winding routes, and more wide-open Mount Ellen. We ski from every one of Sugarbush's 16 lifts, but fail to encounter any of the moose sometimes spotted on the slopes.

Nearby is Warren, a tiny village with a church, town hall and the unique Warren Store, where a "Breakfast Club" of old timers gathers alongside the pot-bellied stove in the 1839 stagecoach stop halfway between Boston and Montreal.

Jack Garvin, the manager for 33 years, takes me upstairs, where quality clothing and Vermont arts are sold, then through the all-things-homemade kitchen producing what Ski Magazine rates one of America's top five ski breakfasts. The former stables-turned-bakery out back also produces bread and desserts for the white Greek-revival Pitcher Inn, a Relais & Chateau lodging across the street.

"Every room has a Vermont theme," Garvin says. "The Ski Room is full of memorabilia from Mad River Glen, even the original ticket booth."

Mad River Glen, 10 miles away, is our next stop, and my thighs are quivering with fear. It's an iconic ski hill created in 1947 by former Stowe skiers including Rockefellers. America's only co-op-owned mountain is a haven for ski-bum purists - all natural snow through narrow glades, no grooming. Snowboarders need not apply. Of its four chairs, one is a single, one of only two in the U.S. (the other is in Alaska).

After skiing six runs ranked by Ski Magazine as the East's most challenging, I'm in the retro bar, which takes me back to my childhood skiing days, sipping a rare on-tap Lawson's Finest Liquids ("Straight from the Green Mountains to your head!") international award-winning beer made in Warren.

"It's a small mountain, but it really kicks ass," says a fellow trashed Baby Boomer alongside me. No wonder Mad River's motto is "Ski it if you can."

Snowy 'Smuggs'

There is one more mountain to ski and one more hard-to-find microbrew I need to sample. At the Prohibition Pig restaurant and brewery in Waterbury, 24 beers are on tap, including their own Alchemist Heady Topper.

From there, it's one hour north on Highway 100 past sugar shacks and farmhouses to family-oriented Smuggler's Notch.

"Smuggs" has the second highest snowfall average in Vermont - over 26 feet - after Jay Peak just to the north. From the 3,640-foot summit I can see Stowe's runs, separated by a summer-only, 11-mile zigzag "notch" (mountain pass) road used by smugglers since Thomas Jefferson's 1807 embargo against the British. It was also part of the Underground Railway for slaves escaping to Canada, as well as being used during Prohibition.

Smuggler's Notch sprawls across three mountains, and the resort is comfy, casual condo-only, perfect for countless families who bring their kids there for ski schools. There are also a winter via ferrata, ice-canyoneering, a Fun Zone, zip-line and baby-sitting to keep youngsters busy. Ski Magazine has designated Smuggs as No. 1 in the East for the 14th consecutive year for family programs. Meanwhile, parents can enjoy long sweeping runs on 1,000 acres of terrain, night snowshoe treks and cross-country skiing.

Ski conditions warmed during a January thaw to just above freezing. We ski in sunshine one last time on a Saturday morning as the base lodge fills with excited 3- to 5-year-olds snapping onto their first snowboards.

It's a leisurely hour's drive back to Burlington, but first it's time for lunch at the resort's Morse Mountain Grille - a Sustain-a-Burger washed down with a luscious local Otter Creek Black IPA.

If you go

GETTING THERE

Several airlines fly from San Francisco to Burlington with one stop en route for roughly $500 round-trip.

SLEEP & SKI

Stowe Mountain Lodge: (866) 652-0658; www.stowemountainlodge.com. A 300-room five-star resort with spa, restaurants, bars, shops and a performing arts center at the base of Mount Mansfield. Free six-mile shuttle to Stowe or borrow a Mercedes for a two-hour test drive. Double rooms from $199. Stowe Mountain Resort: www.stowe.com. Single adult day ski ticket is $92. Multi-day passes and room/ski packages available. The Cliff House bistro atop the gondola has great views; lunch for two, $35. Solstice farm-to-table lodge restaurant dinner for two, $80.

In Stowe village, the 1833 Green Mountain Inn (800-253-7302; www.greenmountaininn.com) is classic New England style. Ski-and-stay packages from $109 per person/night. The Whip is the inn's cozy post-and-beam restaurant, a local favorite. Dinner for two, $70.

Sugarbush Resort base lodge, Clay Brook: (800) 537-8427; www.sugarbush.com. Rustic farm-themed luxury with ski/stay packages from $160 per person/night. Single adult day ski ticket is $84. Multi-day passes and room/ski packages available at both lodgings. The resort's Timbers Restaurant serves locally sourced cuisine. $80 for two.

Pitcher Inn: (802) 496-6350; www.pitcherinn.com. A Relais & Chateau inn in the village of Warren near Sugarbush. Double rooms with full breakfast and afternoon tea from $350.

Mad River Glen: (802) 496-3551; www.madriverglen.com. A short drive from Sugarbush. Single adult day ski ticket from $49. Multi-day passes and room/ski packages with Sugarbush Resort available.

Smuggler's Notch: (800) 419-4615; www.smuggs.com. An all-condo resort with a strong family focus. Base package includes lodging, lift tickets and amenities such as the FunZone: $85 per youth (3-17) and $115 per adult. Single adult day ski ticket $50.

WHERE TO EAT

The Dig in Vermont food website ( www.diginvt.com) helps you find local cuisine and even plan foodie trails around the state. Most ski resort restaurants are involved.

Crop Bistro & Brewery: (802) 253-4765; www.cropvt.com. Serves creative pub cuisine and features a new microbrewery in Stowe Village. Dinner for two $35.

Prohibition Pig: (802) 244-4120; www.prohibitionpig.com. Local-sourced resto-brewery serving casual meals specializing in house-smoked and barbecued meats in Waterbury. Dinner for two $45.

WHAT TO DO

Trapp Family Lodge: (800) 826-7000; www.trappfamily.com. Has 40 miles of groomed trails and 69 miles of back-country trails for skiing and snowshoeing. Also accommodations, restaurant, bakery and microbrewery. Adult day pass $10.

Top Notch Spa: (800) 451-8686; www.topnotchresort.com. Offers accommodations, spa treatments, a cross-country ski area, sleigh rides and the Nordic Barn ski shop.

Vermont Ski & Snowboard Museum in Stowe: (802) 253-9911; www.vtssm.com. A tribute to the sport with a hall of fame, artifacts and local arts and crafts for sale. Admission by donation.

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