Most of us have a favorite mountain that lures us to its slopes winter after winter. We're intimately familiar with the twists and turns of its runs, the speed of its lifts, and the softness of its barstools. It's comfortable, like an old woolen sweater. But let's admit it: By the end of the winter, that sweater gets a little tired, and you're left itching (perhaps literally) for a change.
Make this the year to explore. Northern New England is home to more than 60 ski areas, all with their own bragging rights, quirks, and devotees. To make the discovery process easy, we've sized up the region's finest resorts for their greatest offerings. So it's all downhill from here — in the very best sense possible.
Wildcat Mountain Ski Area, New Hampshire
Little wonder Wildcat has been voted number one for scenery by Ski magazine for years. A panoramic view of the Presidential Range and Mount Washington — at 6,288 feet, the highest peak in the Northeast — greets skiers as they get off the high-speed quad. By air, Mount Washington is about three miles away. But, says Wildcat representative Irene Donnell, “It looks like you can reach out and touch it.” It's so close, in fact, that you can see skiers hiking up Tuckerman's Ravine in the spring — along with the occasional avalanche. [Rte. 16, Pinkham Notch, NH, 888-754-9453, www.skiwildcat.com.]
Best bang for your buck
Black Mountain Ski Area, New Hampshire
How much would you pay for more than 1,000 vertical feet of terrain serviced by four lifts, nearly complete snowmaking, 40 trails and glades, one halfpipe, and two terrain parks? Would you say $40 — maybe even $50 — per day? How about $20? Sold. [ Black Mountain Rd. (Rte. 16B), Jackson, NH, 800-698-4490, www.blackmt.com.]
Most likely to get a consistent dumping of snow
Jay Peak Resort, Vermont
Hands down, Jay Peak gets the most snow of any resort in eastern North America — 355 inches annually. And that's average snowfall. During the 2000-2001 season, the mountain was buried under 571 inches. To give you a sense of what this means, the runners-up (Smugglers' Notch and Stowe) reported 284 and 260 inches, respectively. So if it's snowing in Boston, you can be sure that Jay Peak's getting plenty of white stuff. [4850 Vermont Rte. 242, Jay, VT, 802-988-2611, www.jaypeakresort.com.]
Juggernaut at Killington Resort, Vermont
A gently sloping trail, Juggernaut winds its leisurely way down the mountain for six miles — a total of 3,050 vertical feet. It can be a nice escape from the crowds, especially on a sunny day. “It's a very peaceful experience,” says Killington's Alex Kaufman. One fan likens Juggernaut to a “scenic Sunday drive, with spectacular winter views and serene Vermont moments.” We couldn't agree more. [ 4763 Killington Rd., Killington, VT, 877-458-4637, www.killington.com.]
Best après-ski scene
Killington Resort, Vermont
Some people go skiing because they want to escape. Not the ones who go to Killington. The five-mile road to the resort hops with bars, restaurants, nightspots, and other assorted forms of mayhem. While it doesn't have the village-like feel of Sugarloaf, there's a bus that makes stops along the road, so it's easy to get off the slopes and head to the Lookout Bar & Grill or Nightspot/Outback Pizza for a beer or two, then go home, shower, and make it back to Killington Road in time for great live music and dancing at the Wobbly Barn Steakhouse or the Pickle Barrel Night Club.
Best backcountry glade skiing
Jay Peak Resort, Vermont
“None of the woods on our property are off limits to guests,” Jay Peak's Kim Hewitt says of the resort's more than 385 acres of terrain. Maybe that explains why guests are advised to dress properly when heading out for a day of boundary-to-boundary skiing — and we're not just talking about long johns and wool sweaters. Bring extra clothing, food, water, a map, a compass, first-aid supplies, a fire starter, and headlamps. Folks “have unintentionally spent the night” in the woods after getting lost in the glades, Hewitt says. But don't let that scare you off. The resort boasts the most extensive glade network in eastern North America — 21 named glades and many more unnamed woods, making it the ultimate in backcountry skiing.
Best for beginners
Pats Peak Ski Area, New Hampshire
What's the hardest part about being a skiing neophyte? Pretty much everything. While you're struggling to jam your feet into malodorous ski boots in a cramped rental shop, beads of sweat trickling down your back, you have to remind yourself that this is fun. Not so at Pats Peak. This family-owned mountain just completed a $2.5 million renovation, adding brand-new rental equipment and the largest rental shop in New England. It's got three separate beginner areas, offers more lessons than anyplace else in New Hampshire, and is the only ski area in southern New Hampshire with a beginners' run off the summit. All that plus the ultimate solution: a magic carpet ride. Beginners step on a moving sidewalk of sorts at the bottom of the bunny slope and get off at the top. Beats the hell out of that medieval torture device known as the rope tow. [ 24 Flanders Rd., Henniker, NH, 888-728-7732, www.patspeak.com.]
Stratton Mountain Resort, Vermont
Stratton is where a bartender by the name of Jake Burton Carpenter first strapped on his revolutionary invention in the cloak of darkness and started carving turns back in the early 1980s. The first major resort to open its lifts and trails to snowboarding in 1983, Stratton later built the first halfpipe before the rest of the world even knew what one was. Today, the mountain is home to the U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships as well as a famed Burton Method Center. Its five terrain parks keep boarders coming back season after season. [ Stratton Mountain Rd., Stratton Mountain, VT, 800-787-2886, www.stratton.com.]
Smugglers' Notch Resort, Vermont
A two-and-a-half-year-old on skis? Believe it or not, it can be done. Smugglers' Notch introduces skiing for toddlers this season, plus snowboarding instruction for four- and five-year-olds, as part of its Snow Sport University. Parents have the option of dropping their wee ones off at the childcare center, signing them up for group lessons, teaching them a lesson in tandem with an instructor, leaving them back at the chalet with a babysitter, or dropping them off at the Kids' Night Out activities. There's even a weekly study hall for students with homework on vacation. With prices starting at $99 for adults and $79 for kids 17 and younger (including lodging, instruction, trail passes, entertainment, and activities), Smuggs can't be beat. [ 4323 Vermont Rte. 108 South, Smugglers' Notch, VT, 800-451-8752, www.smuggs.com.]
Outer Limits at Killington Resort, Vermont
Killington boasts the steepest mogul slope in the East. Olympians Donna Weinbrecht, Hannah Hardaway, and Evan Dybvig all mastered their craft on these bumps. How hard is it? “I've never seen anyone ski it from top to bottom without stopping,” says Killington rep Alex Kaufman. “It's a heart-pounding experience.” But it's not just for the pros: The slope has played host to the annual Bear Mountain Mogul Challenge — an amateur event — for the past 24 years.
Blue Hills Ski Area; Nashoba Valley; Wachusett Mountain Ski Area; and Waterville Valley Resort, New Hampshire
This one's a four-way tie. For a few runs after work, Blue Hills in Canton is a good bet considering it's a mere 20 minutes from Boston. Nashoba Valley, with 17 trails, is just 45 minutes away and offers decent night skiing. Wachusett Mountain, with 22 trails, is an hour from the city, and Waterville Valley, with a whopping 52 trails, is the closest major resort and only two hours away. [ Blue Hills Ski Area, 4001 Washington St., Canton, 781-828-5070, www.thenewbluehills.com; Nashoba Valley, Powers Rd., Westford, 978-692-3033, www.skinashoba.com; Wachusett Mountain Ski Area, 499 Mountain Rd., Princeton, 978-464-2300, www.wachusett .com; Waterville Valley Resort, One Ski Area Rd., Waterville Valley, NH, 800-468-2553, www.watervillevalley.com.]
Worth the drive
The bad news: Sugarloaf is seriously north. The good: Once you finally get there, you never have to leave. Everything you need — from food and drink to shopping to lodging — is within walking distance of the slopes in a self-contained village at the base of the mountain. Plus, the Loaf is home to the fabled Snowfields, the only lift-serviced, above-treeline skiing in the East. Together with its 17 glades and 1,410 acres of boundary-to-boundary skiing, Sugarloaf's off-piste experience is unmatched. [5092 Sugarloaf Access Rd., Carrabassett Valley, ME, 800-843-5623, www.sugarloaf.com.]
Most like skiing out West
Sugarbush Resort's Mount Ellen, Vermont
Rumor has it that after a nor'easter, you need a compass and snorkel to find your way to the bottom of Sugarbush. With big bumps, wide open faces, super-tight chutes, and scenic glades, Mount Ellen (a deceptively serene name) offers the variety not often found on eastern slopes. As a result, it's a mountain that only experts take on. Which is just the way hard-core skiers like it. [1840 Sugarbush Access Rd., Warren, VT, 800-537-8427, www.sugarbush.com.]
Most activities (other than skiing)
Mount Washington Resort at Bretton Woods,New Hampshire
Not into Alpine skiing? Boarding doesn't tickle your fancy? How about Nordic skiing on 100 kilometers of trails? Snow tubing down a groomed shoot? Or ice skating at an outdoor rink? The list of activities at Mountain Washington Resort at Bretton Woods is impressive, to say the least. You can hit the new High-Country Snowshoe Center, swim in a heated outdoor pool (or in any of three indoor pools), get a massage, lift weights in the gym, relax in a sauna or Jacuzzi, play racquetball, take a horse-drawn sleigh ride, or try dog sledding. Or you can simply snuggle up next to the fireplace and take in the grandeur of the century-old Mount Washington Hotel. [ Rte. 302, Bretton Woods, NH, 800-314-1752, www.brettonwoods.com.]
Most like skiing in the Swiss Alps
Mont-Tremblant Resort, Québec
We're talking less here about the actual ski experience (although that's pretty phenomenal, with 94 trails and 12 lifts) and more about the overall feel of the place. Located in the French-speaking province of Québec, Mont-Tremblant has a charming pedestrian town that brings to mind the best of the chocolate-box villages of Swiss resorts. In this car-free zone, you can browse through more than 45 boutiques, art galleries, and gourmet provisions stores, plus more than 35 restaurants, cafés, and bistros serving everything from fondue to local specialties like maple taffy on snow. It's la vie a son meilleur — life at its best. [ 1000 Chemin des Voyageurs, Mont-Tremblant, Québec, 888-736-2526, www.tremblant.com.]
Best ski weekend getaway
The Balsams Grand Resort Hotel, New Hampshire
The beauty of a weekend at the Balsams (aside from the jaw-dropping scenery) is that it's all-inclusive. That means breakfast and dinner (prepared by award-winning chefs) are covered. So are lift tickets to the ski area, which has 16 trails and 5 glades. Plus, you've got access to 95 kilometers of cross-country skiing and 33 kilometers of snowshoeing. And there's live entertainment nightly (for some, a must, since there are no TVs in the rooms). “It's ideal for a weekend getaway because it's isolated from the frenetic commercialism of everyday life,” says Ellen Chandler, the resort's spokeswoman. [ Rte. 26, Dixville Notch, NH, 800-255-0600, www.thebalsams.com.]
Killington Resort, Vermont
Seven mountains, 200 trails, 33 lifts, and 90 miles. Enough said.
Best place for diamond dogs
Mad River Glen, Vermont
“We're not for everybody,” says marketing director Eric Friedman of Mad River Glen. “It's not the typical mountain amusement park.” That's an understatement. A far-from-typical 40 percent of Mad River's trails are labeled expert. And while most resorts have widened their trails for easier grooming (a standard practice), the vast majority of Mad River's expert slopes never get groomed. “You'd never get a machine up our trails because they've got cliffs on them,” says Friedman. “It's skiing the way Mother Nature intended it to be.” [ 62 Mad River Resort Rd. (Rte. 17), Waitsfield, VT, 802-496-3551, www.madriverglen.com.]
Best resort town
It's the East Coast's answer to Aspen or Vail. You can spend anywhere from $70 to $700 a night for a room; $3 or $300 for dinner; $10 for a gift, or 10 cents. (In Vail, you'd spend $700 for a room, $300 for dinner — and $10,000 on a gift.) The village boasts more than 50 restaurants, ranging from the grand European-style Dining Room at the Trapp Family Lodge to the grand burgers and salads of Gracie's on Main Street. Stowe's restaurants garnered six Wine Spectator awards for excellence and one AAA four-diamond designation (Winfield's Bistro at Stoweflake Mountain Resort & Spa). There are 55 hotels or inns, including one four-diamond lodge (Stoweflake) and 10 three-diamond resorts, plus more than 45 stores selling art, clothing, jewelry, crafts, handcrafted furniture, and specialty foods. Oh, yeah, and two spas. Did we mention there's skiing, too? [ Stowe Mountain Resort, 5781 Mountain Rd., Stowe, VT, 800-253-4754, www.stowe.com.]
Best spring skiing
Sunday River, Maine
While most Bostonians are packing up their ski sweaters for the season, die-hards are still shushing down the slopes at Sunday River in short sleeves. Known for its snowmaking power, Sunday River builds up five- to six-foot base depths on Barker Mountain and Spruce Peak so the trails can stay open through the beginning of May. Plus, glades like Last Tango hold natural snow late in the season. There's no better place to prop up your boots and partake in barbecue and beer on a warm spring day than on the slopeside deck at North Peak Lodge. [ Sunday River Rd., Newry, ME, 207-824-3000, www.sundayriver.com .]
Best ski town for shopping
North Conway, New Hampshire
You've probably cursed North Conway's outlet strip as you sat in hours of traffic on your way back from Attitash or Loon, but you've got to admit: This two-mile stretch along Route 16 has amazing shopping if you're into brand names at bargains. Settlers' Green Outlet Village and Tanger Outlet Center alone have more than 55 stores altogether, including Tommy Hilfiger, J. Crew, Polo Ralph Lauren, and Banana Republic. Just north of the strip, there's Zeb's General Store, which claims the largest collection of New England specialty foods in the country, and the Handcrafter's Barn, a year-round craft fair with more than 300 booths. If you take the path less traveled through the Mount Washington Valley, you'll find a dozen antique shops and art galleries.
Best night skiing
Nashoba Valley; Shawnee Peak Ski Area, Maine
If you're looking to get in a few hours of skiing after work, Nashoba Valley is the place. It's close to the city (45 minutes up Route 2) and open seven nights a week. But for night skiing at its best, head to Shawnee Peak. Every night but Sunday you can ski 17 trails on the mountain (1,300 vertical feet). There's a good mix of beginner, intermediate, and difficult slopes, and an afternoon grooming keeps the trails in tiptop shape. [ 119 Mountain Rd., Bridgton, ME, 207-647-8444, www.shawneepeak.com.]
Most challenging trail
Maine : Cant Dog Trail at Sugarloaf/USA
Locals, so the story goes, like to steal Cant Dog's trail marker to keep the entrance a secret. The reason? Prevailing winds deposit freshly fallen snow on this narrow glade trail, making it a skier's paradise. (Six-foot snowdrifts after an eight-inch snowstorm aren't unusual.) The trail — named after a particularly nasty-looking lever with a sharp spike used by loggers — drops over several steep ledges and winds its way through tightly spaced pine groves. It's wild, ungroomed, and lives up to its name.
Massachusetts : Jericho at Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort
It's a straight shot to the bottom of this 2,500-foot double-black-diamond trail. In fact, things get so steep that groomers have to anchor their snow cats to two wooden posts at the top of the run so they don't slide down the mountain. Our advice, to filch one of Better Off Dead 's many nuggets of wisdom: “Go that way, really fast. If something gets in your way, turn.” [ 37 Corey Rd., Hancock, 413-738-5500, www.jiminypeak.com.]
New Hampshire : Tramline Trail at Cannon Mountain
Bring your rock skis and leave your fear at the base lodge before attempting to master this steep and rocky 4,000-foot trail of natural snow that runs along the path of the Tramline lift (and directly on the fall line). Be prepared to dodge snow-covered boulders and tree stumps, and look out for unexpected drop-offs. [ Franconia Notch State Park, Franconia, NH, 603-823-8800, www .cannonmt.com.]
Vermont : Rumble on Castlerock Peak at Sugarbush Resort
With a vertical of 2,237 feet, claustrophobic chutes and glades, double fall lines, and jagged rock faces (plus “bumps that keep chiropractors in business,” as communications manager J. J. Toland puts it), Rumble demands big-mountain experience from the skiers and riders who attempt it.
Maine : Saddleback
You won't find too many ski areas that boast a nearly 2,000-foot vertical rise, a new terrain park, and 50 trails — plus short lift lines. Saddleback, which had its first season under new ownership last year, is undergoing a multimillion-dollar transformation. Weekend lift ticket prices have dropped from $49 to $35, making it a near bargain. [ 976 Saddleback Mountain Rd., Rangeley, ME, 207-864-5671, www.saddlebackmaine.com.]
Massachusetts : The entire state
Often considered the neglected stepchildren of New England downhill skiing, Massachusetts' 12 resorts may not be as big as those in neighboring states, but they're a lot of fun for a day trip, and they've produced a surprising number of Olympic-caliber skiers over the years.
New Hampshire : Crotched Mountain Ski & Ride Area
Crotched Mountain sat vacant for 13 years until last December, when a company called Peak Resorts bought the property and promptly replaced every lift, built a new 40,000-square-foot lodge, and brought in the latest technology in snowmaking. It now has the highest snowmaking capacity in all of New England on its 17 trails. And on weekends, there's night skiing until 3 a.m. [615 Francestown Rd. (Rte. 47), Bennington, NH, 603-588-3668, www.crotched mountain.com.]
Vermont : Burke Mountain
Within the ski world, Burke is well-known among purists and hard-core skiers, but the rest of us have only recently discovered this major resort just minutes from Route 93. Owned by the legendary Burke Mountain Academy (which has produced more Olympians than any other ski academy in the United States), Burke is less about who's there and what they're wearing than who's not there: The resort has 43 trails and glades and is in the same snowbelt as Jay Peak, but its lift lines are, at most, 10 people deep. [ 223 Sherburne Lodge Rd., East Burke, VT, 802-626-3322, www.skiburke.com.]
Best place to get a tan
Bromley Mountain, Vermont
Although it's sometimes overshadowed by nearby Stratton Mountain Resort, Bromley — Vermont's only south-facing resort — is billed as the “Sun Mountain.” That means blue skies and white powder — an unbeatable combination — plus a killer tan. [ 3984 Rte. 11, Peru, VT, 802-824-5522, www .bromley.com.]
The icy truth
Long lift lines and arctic winds are just two of the downsides to skiing in New England.
Most crowded lunch spot
Noon at any base lodge.
Most overrun with kids on snowboards
Most overrun with New Yorkers
Mount Snow Resort.
Coldest chairlift ride
Jay Peak's Flyer, affectionately called the Freezer, and Attitash's Summit Triple chairlift (tie).
Most expensive one-day lift ticket
Stratton: $72 (weekends).
Avalanche at Cannon Mountain.
Oddest lunch offering
Jay Peak serves up piping hot plates of poutine, a Canadian specialty of French fries, beef gravy, and cheese curds.