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Vermont Ski Escape: Stowe & Okemo

Stowe on a bluebird day in January

By David McKay Wilson

As we dined at the Stowe Mountain Lodge’s Solstice Restaurant in mid-December, and groused about the maddeningly warm late autumn, our waitress produced a list of techniques to invoke the snow gods. I’d forgotten my pajamas, so I couldn’t put them on inside out and backwards.

But Solstice loaned me a silver spoon to place beneath my pillow in our cozy studio apartment, which looked out on the magnificent complex rising at the base of Spruce Peak. It has a skating rink, adventure center, clubhouse for the high-rollers at the Stowe Mountain Club, and 19 penthouses costing up to $4.5 million that sold out before construction was completed.

Come morning, there were flurries in the air. And by midday that autumnal browns and yellows on Mount Mansfield were transformed into winter white. The barren birch branches turned skeletal white, and so did the sturdy spruces near Vermont’s highest peak.

Top-to-bottom runs off the Forerunner Quad and the Stowe Gondola – each with more than 2,000 feet of vertical – were surprisingly good, and our early season ski legs proved worthy on days with nary a lift line to wait in.

It was a promising start to our four-day getaway to Vermont, with stops at Stowe and Okemo, two mountains I frequently as a child and teen in the 1960s. I harken back to early 60s, with all Poma lifts at Okemo and the mid-60s at Stowe, where we’d ride the single chair to the summit of Mount Mansfield, huddled under a canvas poncho to stay warm in sub-zero temperatures.

Vintage photo from Vermont Ski & Snowboard Museum
Vintage photo from Vermont Ski & Snowboard Museum

I was reminded of my age – and my generation’s place in the growth of the ski industry – when we stopped at the Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum in downtown Stowe upon on arrival. There, on display, were the Rossignol Strato 207s I skied on in the mid-60s, the cross-country ski boots I raced in through the 1980s, and the Icelandic sweater from the 1960s that I still wear today.

“You’re a relic, honey,” exclaimed my partner, Mia.

It was early season at Stowe in the snow-starved December, with temperatures all month in the 40s. The grand dame of Vermont skiing was doing her best. Mia, who hadn’t strapped on a pair of alpine board in seven years, took a 150-minute mountain clinic to learn how to turn the Atomics she’d just bought.

I met up with Stowe’s former snowboard director, Jeff Wise. We found inspiration on a well-groomed trail called Lord.

It was raining lightly most of the day, so everything had softened nicely. We were having a ball.

“We’re Northeasterners!” he proclaimed as we heading down through the rain.

Stowe, Vermont
Stowe, Vermont

Us Northeasterners also like our comforts, which Stowe knows how to provide. At the Stowe Mountain Lodge’s Spa and Wellness Center, a massage therapist named Jessica had hands with an intuition for what my well-used muscles needed.

Later that night, we dined at Solstice, the Lodge’s dining room up the stairs from the 20-foot tall three of poinsettia plants in its grand lobby.  We loved the crispy roast duck, and the buffalo cauliflower.

After skiing Wednesday, we headed south on Route 100 about 100 miles to Okemo, where we checked into our condo in the Adams House at Jackson Gore.  On a good day, our place would qualify as a ski-in, ski-out unit. But in mid-December, 2015, with temperatures remaining in the 40s, that option was off the table. The snow guns at Jackson Gore had yet to be fired up, so we back and forth to the main mountain each day.

Okemo, Vermont
Okemo, Vermont

Come morning, we walked next door to the Jackson Gore Inn for a complimentary breakfast of orange juice, yogurt, muffins, donuts and coffee. We ate in cozy chairs by the commanding stone fireplace, plotting our day on the mountain.

By then, the winds had swung around to the north, and the low clouds had disappeared. We had a great view east through Vermont and onto New Hampshire. Mount Ascutney rose up by the border, its peak shrouded in clouds all day.

Chair at Okemo
Chair at Okemo

At the base of the Sunburst Six bubble chair, ferns sprouted in mid-December like they’d fast-forwarded to April. The clover had new growth as well.

But at the summit the world had changed for the better. The pines were covered in snow and trails were in surprisingly good shape. We spent the day cruising Sapphire, World Cup and Nor’easter, with the warming temperatures providing the brooks with plenty to babble about, and making the snow quite forgiving for our turns.

Skiing in the conditions we faced in mid-December Vermont test you as a skier. As luck would have it, I was skiing with Mia, still tentative in her return to the alpine scene. So I took it slow, savoring my every turn, letting the carve drive me a smidgen uphill at the end of the turn, all the while exhaling as I transferred my weight to the downhill ski.

When the rain really started coming down at 2.30, we’d had enough, and we headed in Ludlow. As the rain intensified, so did our shopping.  At the Brewfest Beverage Co. on Main Street, we found an impressive selection of micro-brewed ales from Vermont for under the Christmas tree. The Blue Sky boutique had cool earrings and an assortment of gifts for the girls.  At Boot Pro, right at the Okemo access road, I sprang for a pair of goggles while Mia entered 21st century skiing by getting fit with a helmet

Ludlow’s food was fun, and funky. On our first night we ate at Mojo’s on the southern end of Main Street. You order off the chalk board in the downhome country eatery. Rock music plays, Jim Morrison has a quote at the entry way, and the Ramen noodles with shrimp were out of this world.

The next night, we ate at Goodman’s American Pie, where tenor troubadour David Soltz was playing for this regular Thursday gig. We sang along on a couple of James Taylor tunes.  When we were the only diners left, Soltz began playing his own composition, called Simplify. It made sense for this trip: “The tide is getting high, it’s time to simplify. Don’t ever let the music pass you by.”

Okemo last weekend
Okemo last weekend

More rain had fallen over night, and the skiable acreage has decreased from 124 to 109. We weren’t going to let what was left of the snow pass us by. We did laps on World Cup, took a few runs over at Solitude, and by 12.30 it was time to hit the road.

But we had one more stop to make in town. I couldn’t forget those Ramen noodles and shrimp at Mojo. The cilantro and lime broth, in a bowl brimming with shrimp and noodles fueled us for a ride back home. We looked forward to a mid-winter return, when all of Vermont would be covered in white again.


David McKay Wilson, a veteran journalist who lives in New York's Hudson Valley, is an avid cyclist, skier and swing dancer. His travel writing has taken him around the world, with his work appearing in the Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Hartford Courant, and several Gannett daily newspapers.
David McKay Wilson, a veteran journalist who lives in New York’s Hudson Valley, is an avid cyclist, skier and swing dancer. His travel writing has taken him around the world, with his work appearing in the Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Hartford Courant, and several Gannett daily newspapers.
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