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Ski resorts aren't just for skiing anymore

By Lisa Rathke

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Nov. 25 2010 8:35 a.m. MST

MONTPELIER, Vt. — Never mind the double black diamond slopes. How about whizzing through the trees on a zip line or careening down the hill on a roller coaster?

Appealing to the adventurous crowd, a number of New England ski resorts have added year-round zip lines and Mountain Coasters.

"It's a matter of being harnessed by one of our guides and letting gravity do the rest," said Sunday River spokeswoman Darcy Morse, of the Newry, Maine-resort's zip line tour, in which users are suspended from a cable on a pulley.

Vermont's Smugglers' Notch is building a "canopy tour" — 4,000 feet of zip lines where riders will cross sky bridges and rappel from trees — to open by the end of December, with a mini course ready by the end of this month. New Hampshire's Bretton Woods and Loon Mountain, along with Maine's Sugarloaf, all plan to have their zip lines — popular in the summer — open this winter.

"It's kind of a unique way to experience the White Mountains and kind of seeing it from a different angle, you know rather than from the skis or from the slopes, but being up in those old-growth hemlocks and seeing it from up there," said Craig Clemmer, director of sales and marketing for Omni Mount Washington Resort, which includes Bretton Woods.

The zip lines range in length and cost, from around $25 for a short trip at one resort to $110 for a guided tour lasting more than three hours.

If you prefer to be closer to the ground, several resorts are offering another thrilling way down the mountain — on a roller coaster. At Okemo in Ludlow, Vt., riders in sled-like cars carrying two passengers will zip down and around steel tubular rails, controlling their speed. The "Timber Ripper," which is expected to open in mid-December, first climbs 1,600 feet and then drops 375 feet on a track with added features like waves, camel backs and banking loops.

"It looks like it's going to be crazy, but fun," said Okemo spokeswoman Bonnie MacPherson.

Mountain Coaster rides are an option, too, at Cranmore Mountain Resort in North Conway, N.H., and Attitash Ski Resort in Bartlett, N.H., which this year was bought by Missouri-based Peak Resorts. The company will offer season passes and tickets good at both Wildcat Mountain Ski Area and Attitash.

For skiers and riders who like the "backcountry" experience, Sugarloaf in Carabassett Valley, Maine, is expanding to a neighboring peak. This season the resort will open roughly 270 new acres of gladed terrain and tree skiing that Sugarloaf says will make it the largest New England resort in terms of inbound developed acres. Eventually 655 acres will be added.

Jay Peak Resort in northern Vermont is in the midst of a $140 million development that includes a new indoor ice arena and next year an indoor water park while Vermont's Stowe Mountain Resort is turning to the arts, with a new 420-seat performing arts center for theater, music, dance, film and lectures.

To make themselves attractive destinations year-round and to get vacationers to return, resorts are giving visitors more options for fun.

"I think it's a continuation of the expansion of the amenities and offerings and programs far beyond what was always just a core component of skiing and riding of years past," said Parker Riehle, president of the Vermont Ski Areas Association.

So far this year, Vermont resorts are seeing a spike in season pass sales, particularly on early season deals, said Riehle.

But resorts are hoping that skiers and riders, who gave up the extra spending on food, lessons or equipment during the recession, might feel more comfortable this season to spend a little more. Last year, resorts saw a slight uptick in that extra spending but not to the level of years past, said Riehle.

University of Vermont economics professor Art Woolf is cautiously optimistic about ski area's fortunes this season.

"If we have a good weather year, we'll probably see a little growth in ski season because people are feeling a little better, feeling a little more comfortable, a little less worried about the future," he said.

Meanwhile, Bretton Woods has seen its zip line, added in 2008, grow in popularity, spread by word of mouth.

"We get all these little letters from people saying it should be on everybody's bucket list of things to do," said Clemmer. "It's such a wonderful experience."

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