Saturday, March 6, 2010

Heavenly Mountain Resort spans two states

Resort covers 4,800 acres

Overlooking Lake Tahoe, Heavenly Mountain Resort straddles the border of California and Nevada across 4,800 acres within its ski-area permit. Negotiating that huge expanse can be challenging for first-time visitors.

Skiers can start at one of four different base areas-- two in each state. The oldest base, the California Lodge, sits below the famous Gunbarrel mogul run. The gondola in Heavenly Village is located a few hundred yards inside California, just a short walk from the "casino corridor" across the border in Nevada. The Boulder Lodge, catering to beginners, and the Stagecoach Lodge are the two options actually in Nevada.

“It’s a humongous resort, 4,800 acres, largest resort in California and there’s just something for everybody, said Russ Pecoraro, Heavenly’s communications director. “The challenge is finding that. There is a plethora of hidden stashes and great tree runs and things like that that aren’t intuitive to the naked eye. They don’t look like much on the trail map so it’s imperative for people who come here to do some research.”

For some professional research help, "Adventure Sessions" are a group full-day guided tour and some less formal instruction for intermediate and expert skiers.

Offered at all five of the ski areas owned by Vail Resorts for the first time this season, the program is designed to give visitors the locals' view of the mountain for $119 per person. As a bonus particularly on crowded days, the groups may jump to the front of liftlines.

"You get a couple buddies and you get this guide and he shows you the spots, where to go," said Pecoraro. "I don’t think there is any mountain of the Vail Resorts (also including Vail, Beaver Creek, Keystone, and Breckenridge) that it is more applicable than Heavenly. I think it’s something people are really going to take advantage of."

Gondola acts as stairway to Heavenly

The gondola carries visitors above terrain outside the ski area boundaries from an elevation of 6,255 feet in Heavenly Village to at 9,156 feet. The top of the gondola puts skiers in the midst of trails as blue as the lake itself. For intermediate skiing, the Tamarack Express, Comet Express and Dipper Express chairlifts serve classic Heavenly cruisers such as Comet, Orion and Big Dipper.

“You get out there first thing in the morning and you kind of follow the sun,” Pecoraro said. “The sun hits those runs first, so they’re always groomed, beautiful mile-long runs each one of them. You can get some get some good skiing in first thing and then kind of follow the sun over to California in the afternoon.”

Midwest skiers head to Boyne Mountain

Particularly for Midwestern families looking for a complete resort experience, Michigan's Boyne Mountain offers a more affordable alternative to flying out West. At just 500 vertical feet, Boyne makes the most of its modest topography.

The 2005 opening of the base area's Mountain Grand Lodge and Spa, along with the adjacent Avalanche Bay Indoor Waterpark, elevated the resort to another level in terms of the guest experience. The hotel's family atmosphere with faux Swiss and Austrian decor has a slight Disney-esque tone.

As such, there is a reason why Disney World and Boyne Mountain for that matter are so popular with families. Entertainment and amenities are always close at hand.

After a day of skiing, a family can leave their equipment at a free ski check just outside the hotel, change into swimsuits in their room, and never need to go back outside for an indoor waterpark visit. At 88,000-square-feet, Avalanche Bay is the largest indoor waterpark in Michigan.

"A lot of times there are two families, they all might not ski," said Ed Grice, Boyne Mountain general manager. "But there are a lot of things like Avalanche Bay, like the zipline, that don’t necessarily take the skiing skill and they still come here and have a great time."

Mountain Grand feels like castle to kids

Accommodations in the Mountain Grand range from hotel rooms to four-bedroom suites that sleep up to 10 people. The three-bedroom Salzburg Suite at $453 per night is well-suited for sharing by two families with a couple of kids each. The children's room with two sets of bunk-beds definitely has that Disney-like flair with a creative "fairy-tale castle" facade.

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Skiers explore 415 skiable acres

The skiing and snowboarding, nonetheless, are still the main attractions at Boyne Mountain. Sophisticated snowmaking provides good coverage for the 415-acre area that generally receives under 150 inches of natural snow each winter. When the natural snow has filled in however, a few off-piste delights can be found. In particular, the unnamed glades just off the top of the Superbowl chairlift can give a decent taste of skiing in the West on much bigger mountains.

While Boyne does have a few short, steep shots such as Nose Dive and Devil's Dive, beginners have even more options. "If I have kids with me, I like Disciples," said Cary Adgate, former Olympian and Boyne's ski ambassador. "It about traffic. It’s a little longer trek to get back there, but there’s less traffic. It’s more of a relaxed pace and you can do what you want to and you’re not worried about what any one else is doing and with kids with you, you’re not rushed."

Thanks to 10 chairlifts, including the world's first six-person lift installed in 1992, Boyne usually has the lift capacity to handle the weekend rush without long liftlines. During non-holiday weeks, lines are definitely not an issue.

"If I lived downstate and I had to chose between three weekends and doing a whole week up here, I’d go for the week every time, because you really get your choice of everything," Adgate said. "I just like midweek because you get the run of the place. It’s like having your own private ski area."

The lift tickets at Boyne Mountain are also good at Boyne Highlands Resort about a 30-minute drive to the north. Both Boyne Mountain and Boyne Highlands offer night skiing on Wednesdays through Saturdays. Boyne Mountain is located 250 miles from Detroit, 340 miles from Chicago, and 405 miles from Cleveland.

(Disclosure:Travel accommodations were provided during visit to Boyne Mountain.)

2010 Olympics Recap: Top skiing stories

Alpine Skiing

5. Aksel Lund Svindal wins three medals: The Norwegian skier earned a complete set of medals in Whistler, Canada. Svindal, 27, started with a silver in the men's downhill, won gold in the super-G, and showed he could succeed in technical disciplines also with a bronze in the giant slalom.

4. Lindsey Vonn performs under pressure: The American arrived in Vancouver with perhaps more hype than any other athlete at the games. After weather delays helped give her injured shin more time to heal, Vonn, 25, responded with a gold in the women's downhill. She added a bronze in the super-G, but failed to post a time for a single run in any technical race. After leading the downhill portion of the super combined, she crashed during the slalom part of the event. She also failed to complete the course in both the giant slalom and slalom.

3. Julia Mancuso rises to the occasion: While her U.S. teammate Vonn entered the games with fanfare, Mancuso, 25, was largely under the radar due to her lackluster World Cup results in recent years. The defending Olympic giant slalom gold-medalist, however, skied into the spotlight. She became the most decorated U.S. female skier in Olympics history. Her silver medals in the downhill and super combined gave her a record three career medals.

2. Bode Miller comes back with three medals: The 2010 Olympics turned into a redemption story for American Bode Miller. After falling way short of expectations at the 2006 games, Miller, 32, joined Svindal as the top individual performers with gold, silver and bronze medals. The two-time silver medalist at the 2002 games won gold in the 2010 Olympic super combined, silver in the super-G, and bronze in the downhill. His five career medals set a record for American skiers.

1. U.S. Ski Team records historic performance: The Americans turned in their best alpine-skiing performance in Olympic history. Split evenly between the men's and women's teams, the eight medals for the United States doubled the next closest nations, traditional powers Norway and Austria with four.

Freestyle Skiing

5. China misses gold in women's aerials: The Chinese were predicted to possibly sweep the podium in women's aerials. Australian Lydia Lassila, however, prevented a Chinese sweep by taking gold in front of Li Nina and Guo Xinxino.

4. Ashleigh McIvor wins women's ski cross, Chris del Bosco fourth in men's: Canadian Ashleigh McIvor delighted the home fans in the debut of women's ski cross. Her victory helped ease the disappointment of home-country favorite Chris Del Bosco's crash in the men's ski cross to finish fourth a day earlier. Despite being born and raised in Colorado, Del Bosco was competing for Canada, because he holds dual-citizenship due to his Canadian father.

3. Ski cross makes Olympic debut: In ski cross, the sport itself was as much of a story as the medalists. Following the lead of snowboard cross debuting at the 2006 games, men's and women's ski cross were the sole additions to the Olympic program for 2010.

2. U.S. skier Hannah Kearney beats Canada's Jenn Heil in women's moguls: On the first weekend of the Olympics, Kearney surprised Heil to keep the host country from earning its first gold of the games.

1. Alexandre Bilodeau wins Canada's first gold of games: A night after Heil's disappointment, Bilodeau became a national hero by winning gold in the men's moguls.