Southern Vermont Mountain Resort Affords Idyllic Family Getaway

By Karen Rubin with
Eric Leiberman & David Leiberman

I have an incredible sense of peace at Stratton.

It’s more than the view from the summit at 3,875 feet, the highest peak in southern Vermont. It is the totality of the experience: from the location of the resort, a pleasant drive of about four hours from New York and near to Manchester, Vt., which offers wonderful restaurants and shops. There is also the convenience of on-mountain lodgings, the delightful pedestrian village (Bavarian inspired, like Lion’s Head, Vail) with a variety of lovely shops and eateries and a well-stocked grocery store a short walk from our inn; the availability of a wide variety of nonski and apres-ski activities; the convenience of equipment rental (you can pick up after 4:30 p.m. the day before so you don’t miss a moment on the slopes the next day), and the easy drop-off of youngsters at ski school and child care.

And then there is the gondola, which whisks you to the summit in sheer comfort, from which you can reach every level of trail, including long, scenic cruisers. This is a state-of-the-art facility, with 15 lifts, including four high-speed six passenger lifts, two surface lifts in the Learning Park and three Magic Carpets to make learning to ski/board as easy and comfortable as possible (one of the magic carpets, the length of a football field, is even covered).

Snowshoeing is still unusual but becoming a popular way to make it to Stratton's summit, at 3,875 feet (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

I mention these elements even before describing the trails, some of the most beautifully sculpted to take advantage of the mountain and, once again, let you bump up your skiing to the next level while still enjoying the view, as you rush or wind your way down from the 2,003 foot vertical.

It is also the quality of snowmaking (which is both art and science), which utilizes a computerized system that efficiently blankets 95 percent of the terrain with a system so powerful, it can bury three football fields in a foot of snow every hour, producing “New England-style powder.” Stratton offers a “Great Snow Guarantee” where you can ski or ride for an hour and if you aren’t happy, return the ticket for another day.

Stratton offers 92 trails and 100 acres of glades – more than 600 acres of skiable terrain. There is a wonderful variety here for every level of downhiller, with 42 percent of the trails suitable for novices, 31 percent for intermediate, and 27 percent for advanced. The trails are arranged so there is minimal crossing and good separation of abilities (so experts don’t whiz past more tentative skiers) and a separated Learning area. The mid-mountain lifts keep the more expert skiers on the top, while novices and intermediates have a tremendous selection from the mid-mountain, and a decent selection from the top, including that exquisite combination of greens to enjoy the view. The bottom line is that no matter what your ability, you can enjoy long scenic runs.

Stratton is one mountain but with different faces, all of them stunning. The main section, SnowBowl, is oriented around the Gondola and learning areas, with an excellent variety of trails, particularly a whole section of greens that make it much more interesting for lower-level skiers.

Coming off the gondola to one side, there are a number of long green, blue, and a selection of black and double black trails. A lower-level skier will enjoy the Mike’s Way or Upper Wanderer to West Meadow, and on down Lower Wanderer (this was the route I followed on snowshoes).

The other side of the mountain from the summit are the more challenging blacks and glades from the top, as well as a forgiving intermediate trail, Black Bear, that will be a great way to bump up from green to blue. That leads to Big Ben or Gentle Ben and into the SunBowl base area. This area, around the Sunrise Express, is less busy, and there is a wide open, sunny trail, the Sunriser Supertrail, from mid-mountain, that is glorious.

Stratton also features some of the best glades in New England, offering variety, pitch, and the chance to run different lines. Experts will enjoy Shred Wood Forest, a double-diamond line; Cabin Fever, with a good, steep, tight run through the trees; Free Fall Gully, and Kidderbrook Ravine. Intermediates can try their hand at Emerald Forest and Eclipse glades in the SunBowl area; and the Learning Park offers a taste of tree skiing and riding on Daniel’s Web and Get Stumped.

Stratton's Tamarack beginner area has had a facelift this season including a 560-foot covered magic carpet lift, the longest covered magic carpet lift in the East (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

With all this variety, it is highly possible that the snowboarders and more adventurous in the family will want to explore. You feel very comfortable letting them go because the trail system is very well marked, and though the mountain is big, you are not so concerned about them getting lost (worst case scenario – they wind up at SunBowl and take the shuttle back to the base). Good news: cell phones work on the mountain.

Beginners have some of the best facilities anywhere: Stratton’s Tamarack beginner area had a facelift this season with a new beginner trail and a 560 foot covered magic carpet lift (nearly two football fields in length, the longest covered magic carpet lift in the East), and completely covered, top to bottom, with snowmaking.

Up the Downhill

Talk about bucking the prevailing tide! For a change of pace and perspective, I decided to snowshoe up Stratton’s Mountain, following a sequence of green trails along its western edge some 2 1/2 miles. You feel your heart racing and it feels good. You have time to reflect and regard the view, and even have a chat with skiers and snowboarders who seem amazed and dare I say it, awed, as they sail down.

For someone with decidedly unimpressive style as a skier, this evoked chest-thumping pride.

Stratton has marvelous cross-country and snowshoeing trails in the woods, centered out of its Nordic Center at the SunBowl, offering 30 km of trails including 10 km that are machine-tracked, that wind through hardwood forests and over streams, affording unparalleled peace and solitude. But this experience of hiking up the 2,000-foot vertical to Stratton’s summit at 3,875 feet (the highest in southern Vermont) is utterly exquisite.

And even though my guys were all over the mountain, this experience affirmed my belief that a ski trip is one of the best for families – no matter what the prowess or how gung-ho to ski or snowboard individual family members may be, and even if your kids have long surpassed what you can do and now spend their time tackling every black, double-diamond, terrain park and glade, and pass you five times for every one time you get down.

Yes, I look on with envy at families who schuss down the mountain rhythmically together – and can imagine how years before that same parent was patiently guiding his tot, cherishing that brief period of parental superiority in the skill. I had that for one season. My kids long passed me in terms of ability and risk-taking, and though they usually offer to have a couple of runs with me, I am usually too self-conscious, choosing instead to catch up with them for lunch, or letting them catch me on the slope so I can snap a picture and send them ahead.

Stratton's base village, with its Bavarian-style clocktower and gondola (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

Even in this extreme, there are few types of family vacations that offer so many opportunities to share experiences together, no matter what the ages of the kids – tot, tween, teen, 20-something – the drive up, hanging out in the lodge after the lifts close, going to the pool or fitness center, going out to dinner, playing a game of pool.

When they are very young, and just starting out, you actually relish that time off when they are in ski school, and then have the incredible pride and excitement at taking runs together. Skiing is an equalizer because you share the experience together.

The physicality of getting out on the mountain in the crisp, fresh air, too, adds to the overall great feeling. The exertion (especially snowshoeing) gets those endorphins going. There is general happiness.

And so, this trip, I decided to buck the tide and hike up the mountain on my own, knowing my guys were out and about the mountain.

Bucking the tide is not unusual for Stratton, where 25 years ago, snowboarding was born.

Snowboarding’s Silver Anniversary

Stratton's charming pedestrian village is enchanting at night (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

My kids have become expert snowboarders, and it is amazing to contemplate, as they tear around the mountain and tackle the pipes and the parks, that Stratton was the birthplace of snowboarding.

It was here that Jake Burton, a bartender at the time, would hike up the trail at night to test his design for a snowboard. Stratton then had to create the first snowboard school, in order to train instructors in this new sport.

The world’s first and best snowboard school celebrates 25 years of teaching the planet to ride. An original Burton Method Center and Kid’s Method Center resort (the method uses learner-specific set of snowboards: the first is a customized tool for painlessly linking those first few terms, and the second is a carve-inducing springboard to real riding), Stratton is one of only two in North America to offer the complete line of Burton Learn-to-Ride programs with the addition of Progression Freestyle (specialized gear and mellow freestyle features) and Women’s LTR.

This year, Stratton is celebrating the 25th anniversary of snowboarding with a 25% discount on snowboard school programs on the 25th of every month.

Stratton has continued to be an innovator and this season, opening Burton’s Parkway. Built in collaboration with the snowboarding giant, Parkway is a kid-friendly progression park and the first of its type in the world. Built with the novice park rider at mind, the park serves as an instructional tool, complete with signs and features that teach fundamental freestyle skills and proper park conduct.

The next step in the progression is the park on Betwixt, which serves as a rail garden and beginner park. Betwixt features several smaller jibs that keep riders close to the ground and out of the Ski Patrol clinic until they become more comfortable riding those features.

Stratton’s intermediate park is located on Old Smoothie and begins to introduce riders and twin tippers to larger and more technical features such as table tops and rails that are higher off the ground.

Even if you aren't together on the slopes, a ski holiday affords time to play a game of pool together - and for sibling bonding- at Mulberry Street (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

Only advanced skiers and riders should attempt the western-style Suntanner Super Park, Stratton’s flagship park, Suntanner contains the largest and most technical features on the mountain: large tabletops, a roller coaster rail, a 30 foot flat down flat rail and a large diving board box.

Stratton is also home to a boarder x course on Lower East Meadow that contains hips, banked turns and rollers. The resort’s boarder x courses of the past have helped produce Olympic athletes like Lindsey Jacobellis.

The newest halfpipe is opening this season on Beeline, with walls about 13 feet high. And although that doesn’t compare with the U.S. Open superpipe, it should allow for use by a larger number of ability levels.

First Ever ‘U.S. Open After Party’

Stratton Mountain has served as home to the U.S. Open for 26 years (visit www.usopen-snowboarding.com). During that time, the event has grown from a somewhat obscure event into the biggest snowboard celebration of the year. And now for the first time ever, Stratton will allow the public to access the same super pipe and terrain park the U.S. Open riders compete in.

The resort has designated the two weeks after the U.S. Open as the U.S. Open After Party and the public will be able to purchase a pass that will allow them to ride the same terrain as Shaun White, Ross Powers and Hannah Teeter. The entire Sun Bowl will be transformed for this first-ever post-Open event. Special events, live music and a variety of food and giveaways are just a few of the many happenings.

Preparation for the U.S. Open takes weeks and serves as the ultimate demonstration of Stratton’s park building prowess. The superpipe that is used in the U.S. Open is considered one of the finest in the world by snowboarders and resort insiders alike and the resort is consistently rated as home to the best terrain parks in the country. Ski Magazine gave them the distinction of having the best terrain park in North America in their annual resort rankings and they have claimed the title of “best parks in the East” for nine consecutive years.

Activities Abound

Stratton's trails offer stunning views (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

If rushing downhill isn’t your thing, Stratton also offers a Nordic Centers, with more than 30 kilometers of trails for cross-country skiing manicured by a Bombardier 160 groomer. The Sun Bowl’s secluded trails wind over streams and through hardwood forests, with terrain for the beginner as well as challenging loops for expert Nordic skiers.

Snowshoers also can take backcountry tours, a summit hike to the historic firetower, and moonlight treks to the Pearl S. Buck Stone House on the rolling hills of the Stratton Golf Course, where you will sip on some hot chocolate and enjoy a light snack (offered on or around the full moon of each month; reservations required, call 802-297-4230).

After-hours activities also include snowmobile tours for adults and mini snowmobiles for kids, and ice skating on the pond in the Village Commons, a true Vermont experience.

Stratton’s Sports Center offers an indoor pool, Jacuzzi, spa, massage, classes, two indoor tennis courts, racquetball and squash courts, specially equipped aerobics studio, weight and fitness equipment, steam room, and equipment, yoga and spinning classes and personal trainers are on staff. Need a massage? The massage menu includes hot stone therapy, Thai or Swedish massage, Shiatsu, trigger point therapy and reflexology (Admission to the Sports Center is $10.70 a day for resort guests, call 802-297-4230).

The Wreck Under-21 Recreation Center also located in the Sports Center facility, offers plenty of activities for families and teens – video games, pool and air-hockey tables, multi-use court for basketball, soccer, football and hockey, and indoor skate park and a climbing wall (info, 802-297-6229).