Stowe, Vt., and North Conway, N.H., were ranked as two of the top 25 ski towns in the world by National Geographic Magazine in February, the only two New England towns that made the list. Both offer great skiing, gorgeous mountain scenery, and an outdoor-lover's vibe.
Small-town Stowe has authentic New England charm, with plush amenities, upscale lodging, and world-class dining, while sprawled-out and bustling North Conway has nearly limitless activities at price points for all. Here is your guide to getting the best out of each of these all-star ski towns.
Surrounded by the nearly 800,000-acre White Mountain National Forest, and in the shadows of New England's highest peak, North Conway has seven ski mountains and six cross-country centers within a 30-minute drive. Choices abound, with more than 75 restaurants, 150 lodgings, 200 stores, and a slew of outfitters in the area. In 2011, TripAdvisor named North Conway the number one most affordable ski town in the Northeast and number two in the country.
Inn for the night: You won't want to leave your plush suite at the lovingly restored 1869 Wentworth Inn (1 Carter Notch Road, Jackson, 800-637-0013, www.thewentworth .com, $298-$578). There is a fireplace and a four-poster bed covered in luscious linens. The lace-covered door in the bathroom leads to a private hot tub, and the steam shower feels nearly decadent after a day on the slopes. The elegant, 50-room, "baby grand" hotel also has one of the best special occasion restaurants in the region.
Kid-spoiler: It's a touch of Disneyland in New England at Adventure Suites (3440 White Mountain Highway, 888-626-6929, www.adventuresuites .com, deluxe suites $259-$499, economy suites $109-$239), with 17 individually-themed rooms, including the Cave, with tunnels, a sleeping cavern, and large animal replicas; the Treehouse, with gnarly branches, trunks, and a kids' hideaway; and Showtime, with a giant, wall-size movie screen and popcorn machine.
Home-style digs: The casual, friendly, and tranquil Riverside Inn B&B (372 Route 16A, 603-356-7044, www.riverside-inn-bed-breakfast.com, $109-$225), along the banks of the East Branch Saco River, has rooms with floral wallpaper, four-poster beds, and private baths; some have whirlpool tubs and gas fireplaces. The spacious, light-filled living room in the 1906 Victorian house is a great place to enjoy afternoon tea and the innkeeper's homemade cookies.
Splurge-worthy meal: Subdued candlelight and gas-light lamps, hand-hewn beams, original wood paneling, roaring log fires, and linen-topped tables set the stage for a memorable meal at the historic 1785 Inn (3582 White Mountain Highway, 800-421-1785, www. the1785inn.com, entrees $17.85-$28.85). Delightfully old-school tableside preparations and flaming desserts and drinks, add show quality. But, it's the meat and game offerings that really shine, like the elk tenderloin, applewood smoked rabbit loin, and marinated lamb served with rosemary goat cheese.
Start your day: Locally owned Peaches (2501 White Mountain Highway, 603-356-5860, www.peachesnorthconway.com, $4.95-$8.95) is the go-to place for breakfast. Fuel up with the signature cream cheese-and-fruit-stuffed French toast or the hefty Italian omelet with ham, tomato, and asiago cheese.
Climb out of your comfort zone: This part of New England has some of the best ice climbing in the country. Sign up for lessons with one of the two renowned climbing schools: Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School (1498 White Mountain Highway, 800-310-4304, www.emsexploration.com) or International Mountain Equipment (2733 White Mountain Highway, 800-356-7013, www.ime-usa.com), owned by one of the first New Englanders to summit Everest.
Après-ski: The come-as-you-are, stay-late Red Parka Pub (Route 302, Glen, 603- 383-4344, www.redparkapub.com), with decent steaks and better-than-average pub grub, is the longtime local watering hole, celebrating its 40th anniversary this season. Live bands play on weekends.
Skip skiing, go shopping: No sales tax: Let's start with that. There are about 100 name-brand factory outlets at Settlers' Green Outlet Village (2 Common Court, 888-667-9636, www.settlersgreen.com) and along Route 16, and another 100 or so independently owned shops near the village.
Closest runs: For local flavor, no lift lines, and the cheapest ticket prices in town, head to decidedly retro Black Mountain (603-383-4490, www. blackmtn.com). Kid-centered and fun-loving Cranmore (800-786-6754, www.cranmore.com), has been a favorite with families for 75 years. Attitash (800-223-7669, www.attitash.com) has two connected mountains, big snow guns, and plenty of variety. On a sunny, midweek day, you can't beat it. Classic New England-narrow trails, old-school charm, and some of the best views in New England, make Wildcat (800-754-9453, www.skiwildcat.com) popular. It also has the longest summit-to-base novice run in New Hampshire.
You will find a perfect blend of quaint-meets-cool at Stowe. The energy level ratchets up when the snow flies (which happens pretty reliably in northern Vermont with an average annual snowfall of 333 inches). Tucked between the peaks of the Green Mountains to the west and the Worcester Range (Hogback Mountains) to the east, this storied village of 4,700 residents is known by skiers all over the world. As ski towns go, compact Stowe is more "boutique" than shopping mall. There aren't a bazillion places to stay, eat, ski, and shop, but what is here is pretty awesome: Regionally, only Boston and Providence have more award-winning dining eateries than Stowe.
Live large, sleep cheap: Stowe has a reputation for being pricey, but you don't have to spend big to enjoy yourself. Check out the ski-and-stay packages offered at local lodgings; for example, the Green Mountain Inn (18 Main St., 802-253-7301, www.greenmountaininn.com) sells a package starting at $109 per person (an adult lift ticket alone is $92 if you buy it on the mountain). The circa 1833 inn, located in the village center, is cozy and clean, with amenities like hot cider, cookies, and flat-screen TVs.
Ski in, ski out: The Stowe Mountain Lodge (7412 Mountain Road, 802-253-3560, www.stowemountainlodge.com, $199-$499) on Spruce Peak melds with the landscape quite enchantingly - it's all soaring timbers and stone, warmed with marble baths, feather beds, and fireplaces galore. Need more reasons to hunker down here? There's an outdoor heated pool and two hot tubs, with mountain views.
Stowe's Visitor Information Center offers best-rate guaranteed bookings for lodging properties in Stowe; www.gostowe.com or 1-800-GO-STOWE. Ski and stay packages are offered all season.
Great eats: Among Stowe's more than 45 eateries, locally owned Harrison's Restaurant & Bar (25 Main St., 802-253-773, www.harrisonsstowe.com, entrees $16-$28) gets high marks, even though it's in a basement. Hearty fare, Vermont microbrews, and a great wine list keep patrons lining up. Another option is art-bedecked Blue Moon Cafe (35 School St., 802-253-7006, www.bluemoonstowe.com, entrees $15-$33). The menu changes monthly, but there is always something interesting, like a coffee-marinated lamb steak, or potato-leek-sorrel soup.
Knock your socks off: Vermont's tallest peak, Mount Mansfield (4,393 feet) looms over Stowe. To tackle its toughest trails, head to Stowe Mountain Resort's Middle Mansfield zone and the double-black-diamond "Front Four:" Goat, Starr, Liftline, and National. (5781 Mountain Road, 802-253-3000, www.stowe.com).
In the mood for mellow? Ski or ride a long, intermediate-level cruiser, or a fun-but-not-terrifying beginner trail, at Mansfield's smaller sibling, Spruce Peak. A 10-person, high-speed gondola connects the two mountains (Mansfield and Spruce) for an easy back-and-forth.
Get your romance on: Sleigh bells ring, are you listening? A horse-drawn sleigh ride (www.gentlegiantsrides.com, 802-253-2217), available at Topnotch Resort and Spa, is tailor-made for cuddling. In a cherry red carriage, you will traverse a covered bridge and ride along an open brook in the woodlands, like characters in a fairy tale. The Trapp Family Lodge also offers scenic sleigh rides (802-253-5895, www.sterlingmountaincarriage.com)
Get the kinks out: Sore quads and achy shoulders are a dandy excuse to book a Swedish massage or one of those lovely, layered body treatments where they rub you, rinse you, and slather you with goo. Stowe has one of the best spa scenes in all of ski-dom: Stowe Mountain Lodge, Topnotch Resort and Spa (4000 Mountain Road, 802-253-8585, www.topnotchresort.com), and Stoweflake Mountain Resort & Spa (1746 Mountain Road, 800-253-2232, www.stoweflake.com) all offer spas with soothing mountain views.
Make the scene: A SKI Magazine pick for "best après-ski scene," the Matterhorn (4969 Mountain Road, 802-253-8198, www.matterhornbar.com) is a lively place to unwind, whether you're in the mood for martinis and lobster mac or a beer and a pizza. Live music and a mix of locals and out-of-towners make it a party.
Make like a yeti: If you own a pair of snowshoes, one of Stowe's prime pleasures won't cost you a cent; the mountain is a wonderland of cross-country ski trails and backcountry terrain.
Didn't bring your own snowshoes? Join the folks at Umiak Outfitters (8495 Main St., 802-253-2317; www.umiak.com) for Stowe's most terrific two-fer, a half-hour snowshoe hike to Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Factory. Offered Saturday and Sunday and holiday weeks, $15 adults, $10 kids.
Totally Stowe: We wouldn't dream of spending time shopping when we could be skiing and snowshoeing, but we make an exception in Stowe.
The Stowe Craft Gallery (55 Mountain Road, 802-253-4693, www.stowecraft.com) is a purveyor of artist-made goods without a smidgen of kitsch. That chandelier made of hanging spoons? Genius.
Stop by the gift shop at the Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum (1 Main St., 802-253-9911, www.vtssm.com) for cool vintage ski posters. Stowe Mercantile (37 Main St., 802-253-4554, www.stowemercantile.com) has everything from books to wooden bowls, including T-shirts that read: "Jesus Loves You. But I'm his favorite."
And remember, even if there's no snow in your backyard, these northerly towns could be buried.