Ten great places to learn to ski
If you’ve always wanted to hit the slopes, this may be your month. January is “Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month,” the industry’s annual push to lure newbies onto the slopes. To mark the event, areas in Vermont and New Hampshire are offering low-cost or even free beginner deals. But take note: All lessons are not created equal. Here are 10 of the best places to learn in New England, each with its own philosophy and teaching method. Prices reflect the range in rates between group and private lessons, and those for children and adults.
1. WACHUSETT MOUNTAIN, Princeton
978-464-2300, www.wachusett.com, $45-$199
Wachusett’s proximity to Boston isn’t the only reason why the Princeton ski area is a good place to learn. Under the guidance of Bruce McDonald, Wachusett’s learning center director and a 43-year veteran, the facility takes pride in being classified as a “feeder hill,” a ski area where “first-timers,” as beginners are referred to at Wachusett, can hone their skills on suitable terrain before taking on the challenges that await in the mountains in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. Beginners can start at “Ollie’s Area,” a section of the mountain cut into the slopes on the right-hand side rather than interspersed with the rest of the area’s trails. The 10 percent grade provides an environment aimed at tackling what McDonald said are the two biggest fears for beginners: getting hurt and fear of heights. “You don’t try to put them in their fear factor right away,” he said. “You gradually move them along. I think that’s a great feature at Wachusett.”
2. SADDLEBACK MOUNTAIN, Rangeley, Maine
207-864-5671, www.saddlebackmaine.com, $45-$299
Mark Robie, head of instruction programs, focuses on “taking the factory element out.” You won’t find “magic carpet” conveyor belt lifts here, packed with beginners as on some kind of assembly line. Saddleback has an impressive 4 miles of beginner terrain, featuring novice glades and a terrain park, separated from the more advanced trails of the mountain’s 2,000-foot vertical. Children ages 3 to 6 get one-on-one instruction, and every class carries a maximum of five skiers or riders, no matter age or level of ability. According to Robie, those are the lowest ratios that aspiring skiers and riders will find anywhere. Yes, the remote Saddleback is a hike (about 220 miles from downtown Boston), but it is one of the most unique, satisfying, and underrated ski areas in the Northeast. The same might be said for Robie’s teaching approach.
3. CRANMORE MOUNTAIN, North Conway, N.H.
603-356-5543, www.cranmore.com, $59-$299
How could the home mountain of the father of modern skiing not make the list? Hannes Schneider, a North Conway legend, arrived in town in 1939, after escaping his native Austria, which had fallen under Nazi rule. Schneider, already internationally renowned as the developer of the Arlberg technique, brought his method for teaching downhill skiing to Cranmore. His tradition lives on in the area’s ski school, where the Arlberg Children’s Center offers a separate reservation and ticketing area away from the bustling main lodge. With a pair of magic-carpet lifts and genteel slopes secluded from the rest of the mountain, Cranmore offers youngsters a comfortable and enjoyable approach to skiing and riding. Adults can also choose from a number of private and group lessons including the GET (Guaranteed Easy Turns) package for skiers and riders ages 8 and up, which assures that a student will be able to turn left and right, as well as stop after 90 minutes, or the next lesson is free.
4. KING PINE AND PURITY SPRING RESORT, Madison, N.H.
603-367-8896, www.kingpine.com, $40-$77
Tucked away in sleepy Madison, N.H., King Pine offers a range of learning programs and boasts a family-friendly reputation. Next month, King Pine’s Ski and Snowboard Camp, geared toward boys and girls ages 8-16, celebrates its 75th anniversary, a true testament to the mountain’s history of teaching the sports. This year, there will be two sessions of the seven-day camp, one the week of local school vacation (Feb. 18-24, $799) and the other during the period that covers school vacation for most of the rest of New Hampshire (Feb. 24-March 1, $649). The fee includes lodging, meals, and lessons for the entire week, but not rentals ($88-$116 for the week).
5. MOUNT SNOW, Dover, Vt.
802-464-3333, www.mountsnow.com, $48-$301
With some 400 instructors on its ski school staff, one of the largest in New England, Mount Snow has long been regarded as a top destination for learners. The resort has a dedicated building and training area, including three surface lifts and an old triple chairlift slow enough that even the greenest of novices can quickly master getting on and off. This season marks the addition of Burton Riglet Park, a new training area for aspiring snowboarders, ages 3-6 (previously, the youngest snowboarders at Mount Snow were 4 years old). The park utilizes riglet reels, which attach to the nose of the snowboard so that instructors can pull the student along while they learn standing sideways (two-hour sessions run $80 and include equipment). You have to wonder how many more gold medals Kelly Clark might have snagged if she could have had that sort of thing at her disposal when she was starting out in West Dover.
6. SUNDAY RIVER, Newry, Maine
207-824-3000, www.sundayriver.com, $58-$300
With 132 trails for those of various abilities, Sunday River is one of New England’s most popular ski resorts. So naturally, one might expect some bustling chaos at its busy ski school on weekends. But the resort handles it all with ease, thanks to its capable “Perfect Turn” staff, whose streamlined and organized approach inspires focus and calm. Once on the hill, beginners will find all the learning amenities they need, from professional instruction to ease of shuttling up the slope with the use of magic carpets. A three-day, learn-to-ride package ($180) also affords students the ability to take a lesson at fellow Boyne property Sugarloaf on nonconsecutive days.
7. STRATTON MOUNTAIN, Stratton, Vt.
802-297-4000, www.stratton.com, $59-$595
Groomers. Groomers. Groomers. While Stratton may not epitomize the daredevil skier’s idea of an enticing vertical destination, it’s among the best in New England for those who love to rip the fresh corduroy from mountain-grooming machines, which also makes it ideal for beginners. Stratton features dedicated lessons for a number of different groups, including snowboarders (it is, after all, the home mountain of such pro snowboarders as Ross Powers and Lindsey Jacobellis) and women-only classes. And if you find yourself tossing your poles in frustration, there’s always the European-style base village, with some two dozen shops and restaurants in which to drown your day with retail therapy.
8. ATTITASH MOUNTAIN RESORT, Bartlett, N.H.
603-374-2600, www.attitash.com, $59-$270
Unless you’re hiking the backcountry, the word “free” doesn’t get tossed around in too many skiing and riding circles. That’s not the case at Attitash, where a free, lift-serviced area debuted this season at the Bear Peak section of the resort. “It’s an initiative to bring new skiers and riders into the sport,” Attitash spokesman Thomas Prindle said. As at nearby Bretton Woods, which boasts a free learning area for children, skiers and riders new to the sport are welcome to test the waters at Attitash only for the cost of a rental (full-day packages $16-$36).
9. WATERVILLE VALLEY, Waterville Valley, N.H.
603-236-8311, www.waterville.com, $42-$410
Just two hours north of Boston, Waterville Valley has always been a major destination for day-trippers, and it has much to offer novice skiers and riders. The mountain’s accessibility is enhanced by its ski-school instructors, who welcome a wide range of abilities and ages. Waterville really shines, however, in its “Kids Kamp” programs, classes expressly designed to prevent children from feeling intimidated (classes are broken down into three divisions: age 3, ages 4-6, and ages 7-12). The cost ($97-$113) includes instruction, lift ticket, lunch, and snacks. Rentals for the camps run $22 per day.
10. SUGARBUSH, Warren, Vt.
Hey, you should never stop learning right? Sugarbush’s extensive list of ski-school programs aims at teaching both the young and the not-quite-so-young, no matter the ability — in fact, there are even offerings for experienced skiers. The “Adventures With John Egan’’ program pairs the former star of multiple Warren Miller ski movies with students seeking advanced instruction ($219-$659, each additional person is $45). Nobody is going to promise that by the end of the day you’ll be skiing like Egan, but for bragging rights, it might just be right up there with a 4-year-old’s excitement about making his first turns without falling.