Skiers cruising from the Sterling chair at Smugglers' Notch Resort in northern Vermont might be so focused on the signpost pointing the way down the mountain that they overlook a break in the trees to their left.
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The emergence of the Epic and Ikon passes has been game-changing. Robert Silk reports on how resorts are partnering, or getting creative to compete.
The tracks lead to Sterling Pond. And beyond the pond and through the backcountry is Stowe, Vail Resorts' newly acquired East Coast resort.
The ski areas are both partially in Mount Mansfield State Forest, and they're so close they practically touch. Way back in the day, those who skied the interconnect were even allowed a run or more at the other resort. But no longer. Skiing that out-of-bounds territory is not sanctioned, officially or otherwise. And in any case, Smugglers' Notch, or "Smuggs" for short, is not part of any ski collective, so a different lift ticket is required for both.
Not to mention the amenities and overall vibe of both resorts is completely different. A writer once called it the difference between "a Range Rover versus rusted old Subarus."
But still, the Vail purchase of Stowe from AIG has some wondering if at some point Vail could snatch up Smuggs, upgrade its facilities and make an uber resort out of the two. Could Stowe-Smugglers' Notch be a smaller, East Coast version of Whistler Blackcomb or Park City/Canyons?
Earlier this month I did back-to-back days at Smuggs and Stowe, and I was reminded that, for all their closeness, the distance between Smuggs and Stowe is still pretty great.
A view of Stowe and Mount Mansfield from the ski resort's Fourruner Quad chair lift. Photo Credit: Rebecca Tobin
First up is the Range Rover: Stowe, which is now part of Vail and on the Epic Pass. As far as terrain, there's plenty to keep people busy. The gondola or the high-speed quad will whisk skiers and riders up 3,600 feet in no time, perhaps to those famous Front Four double-blacks.
We dig the old-time feel of the original Mansfield Lodge, where an open fireplace bears a plaque from when the building was erected by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the early 1940s. But others will enjoy all of the modern shopping and dining at the handsome Spruce Peak base, which is also the home to the tony Lodge at Spruce Peak (formerly Stowe Mountain Lodge) which is managed by Destination Hotels.
Off the mountain, Stowe has a quintessential New England-y downtown, shopping and upscale dining, more lodging, the renowned Alchemist brewery (a must-stop if you're into award-winning IPAs) and an airport.
Off the slopes: The tasting room at the Alechemist Brewery in Stowe, Vt. Photo Credit: Rebecca Tobin
My ski buddy opined more than once that Stowe may be the prettiest ski resort in Vermont: Mount Mansfield, the tallest peak in the state, looms majestically over the Cliff House Restaurant at the top of the gondola.
Mount Mansfield also presides over Smuggs, albeit from a slight distance. But Smuggs doesn't have a grand resort hotel. Smuggs doesn't have a fancy base area. Smuggs doesn't have a bar at the summit. At Smuggs, two-person, fixed-grip lifts is all you get.
The other side of Mount Mansfield, as seen from Smugglers' Notch Resort. Photo Credit: Rebecca Tobin
But to keep that car analogy going, have you ever counted the number of Subarus on the road in Vermont? Answer: A lot. Some people love Smuggs. It has varied trails, excellent tree skiing (so I'm told) and a strong niche in the family market. Fans argue that slow lifts keep the slopes from getting crowded and contribute to the relaxed feel. Lodging includes serviceable condos operated by Wyndham.
Lift tickets at Smuggs also are a tremendous value for those who don't hold an Epic Pass; a search two days in advance for a Saturday lift ticket in late March was $119 on the Stowe website and $53 on Liftopia for Smuggs.
So even though both have great terrain and offsite apres-ski hangouts (the Matterhorn vs the Brewster -- discuss) the two resorts aren't exactly compatible.
At the Brewster River Pub and Brewery, a common sight in Vermont: The chalkboard of beers on tap, many of them local. Photo Credit: Rebecca Tobin
Except there is that question of geography.
At some point, might Vail ...?
Or perhaps that break in the trees at Smuggs will continue to stand untouched, a testament to the gap between the low frills of the hardy independent and the modern luxuries of a major ski corporation.
Update: This report was updated for advance lift-ticket pricing.