The images are the stuff that winter dreams (and ski resort ads) are made of: Skiers gliding gracefully down snowy, tree-lined slopes under a cloudless, cerulean sky. Happy, animated patrons engaging in spirited après-ski repartee around a blazing outdoor fire pit as the glow of twilight fades off the mountain. Lodge guests luxuriating in an outdoor Jacuzzi, the mist rising slowly into the night sky.
Anyone who has ever taken a ski vacation knows such dreams can, indeed, come true. So what's stopping ski trip virgins from making their own memories? It could be a combination of old-fashioned inertia and persistent misconceptions as to what a ski vacation is all about.
This year's ski issue is designed to help would-be schussers overcome three of the most pervasive myths that make planning an overnight skiing getaway seem much more intimidating than it needs to be.
MYTH #1: SKIING IS EXPENSIVE
To be sure, skiing is not a poor man's sport. Most of the cost involves equipment (skis, boards, boots and clothing) and expenses you'll encounter off the slopes (transportation, lodging, meals). The good news: There are ways to save.
Rent, don't buy
First-timers are much better off renting equipment -- it's relatively inexpensive and saves you the hassle of hauling gear from home. At Mountain Creek in Vernon, N.J., for example, skis and boots can be rented for $29.95-$39.95 a day, with mandatory helmets going for $9.95 a day. (As of Nov. 1, New Jersey became the first state to require all skiers or boarders younger than 18 to wear a helmet.)
While renting at the resort is generally the most convenient way to go, you can save money (and time) by renting from a ski outfitter before you arrive. At Sno-Haus retail stores in Huntington Station and Hempstead, adult weekend ski rental packages start at $39.
But don't bother renting beforehand if you are a complete beginner. Resorts offer standard learn-to-ski packages that include equipment rental, a group lesson and beginner area lift ticket for $70-$80 for ages 12 and older at most downstate New York and New Jersey resorts, $10 to $15 more in the Poconos and Catskills.
Lift ticket discounts
There's no getting around the cost of lift tickets, which seem to creep up a few dollars every season -- but there are still ways to help bring them back downhill. Buying online, for example, typically saves you about 5 percent (at Vermont's Mount Snow, that translates to roughly $4 a day for multiday adult lift tickets; there are no refunds). Also be on the lookout for the special deals and e-coupons that will begin appearing on resort websites after the Christmas-New Year's holiday.
The best on-slope savings, however, can be had by skiing midweek. Besides rates being lower across the board (adults save $9 a day at Belleayre in upstate Highmount), there are super-special deals to be had as well. All season long at Camelback in the Poconos, for example, two ladies ski for the price of one ($49) on Wednesdays. On Fridays at Mohawk Mountain in Cornwall, Conn., all skiers pay only $30 for an eight-hour flex ticket.
The best off-slope savings undoubtedly come from forgoing the indulgence of ski-in, ski-out lodging. Some resorts make midweek ski-and-stay packages so attractive you’d be foolish to pass them up (for example, $109 a night per person, including lift tickets and breakfast for two at Hunter Mountain’s luxurious new Kaatskill Mountain Club, is a serious deal). But weekend warriors can save a bundle by schlepping themselves and their gear back to the nearby village where there are several less-expensive hotels. Suites at Jiminy Peak’s Country Inn in the Berkshires cost $419 on weekend nights (including two lift tickets), but perfectly serviceable rooms can be had for less than $100 at dozens of hotels, motels and inns that are minutes away along Route 7.
Nothing can take a bigger bite out of your travel budget than a leisurely full-course dinner at a resort’s signature restaurant. Two solutions: Head into the nearby village for a choice of casual, family-style eateries or upgrade your room category to include a kitchenette and prepare your own meals.
If you have children, make sure you understand the age group categories for lift tickets — some resorts charge adult rates for 12-year-olds. At others, the cutoff age can be 13, 14, 16, 17 or even 18.
MYTH #2: LEARNING TO SKI IS DIFFICULT
You’re going to fall down — a lot. There’s still no shortcut to learning how to turn and stop, but advances in equipment design have made learning to ski or snowboard much easier than it used to be. Novice skis, for example, are now shorter, with bindings that are much more forgiving.
Likewise, beginner snowboards are made with a softer flex and deeper side cut. In addition, resorts themselves have generally been redesigned to sequester beginners on their own slopes, well away from the rest of the action. Novice-friendly “magic carpets” (uphill moving sidewalks that require only stepping on and stepping off) stand in for traditional lifts.
Long Island rookies should consider taking their first ski trip to a smaller resort with beginner and gentle novice slopes. At Ski Butternut in Great Barrington, Mass., for example, fast learners can easily transition from the SkiWee beginner area to the wide, Cruiser novice slope. This tends to be less intimidating than journeying to Killington, Vt., or New York’s Olympic mountain, Whiteface at Lake Placid.
If you’re new to the slopes, this is one aspect of a ski vacation where frugality is downright foolish. No matter how patient and experienced a friend or family member might be, there’s no substitute for learning from an impartial trained professional. Under no circumstances should you try to teach yourself.
MYTH #3: THERE’S NOTHING TO DO BUT SKI
When the sun goes down, you’re hardly relegated to finding something to eat and decamping in your hotel room with a movie.
If the kids still have energy to burn at the end of the standard daytime session, night skiing is a great way to let them do it. Rates are generally forgiving — at Catamount in Massachusetts, daytime weekend lift tickets cost $50-$61, but night skiing tickets go for $32-$35.
Many resorts have tubing runs, which involve careening down groomed chutes of snow in specially designed inner tubes, then riding back up to the top on moving carpets for another spin. Tubing is offered day and night and is typically priced in timed sessions. Big Boulder in the Poconos has an impressive 20 chutes, and a three-hour session costs $25.
Over the past few years, large resorts have added even bigger thrills in the form of mountain coasters — essentially a downhill roller coaster sculpted into the natural terrain of the resort — and zip lines to their menu of off-site attractions. For Long Islanders, the nearest mountain coaster can be found at Jiminy Peak, which will take you down its 3,600-foot course at speeds up to 25 miles an hour ($7 ride with lift ticket purchase, $9 without). True thrill-seekers will want to head for the SkyRider, Hunter Mountain’s high-flying, high-adreneline zip line. The complete course takes three hours and costs $119. (There’s also a smaller, mid-mountain course for $89.)
Brand new this season at Windham in the Catskills is a kids’ snowmobile park, in which children who weigh less than 120 pounds get to tool around at reduced speeds on their own snowmobile for $5 a ride.
At the lodge
After-ski options have been enhanced, with most medium- to large-size resorts offering indoor pools, fitness centers and game rooms. For a special treat, search out one with a heated outdoor pool. There’s nothing quite as memorable as having snow fall on the top of your head while the rest of you soaks in 100-degree water.
Last, but hardly least, don’t underestimate the appeal of going out after the slopes close. Get out of your wet clothes and unwind — be it in front of a roaring fire at the lodge lounge, by candlelight in a restaurant or at a club. Not surprisingly, it’s the larger resorts that cater primarily to overnighters that offer the most options. The scene is particularly active at Stratton, Vt., where the village has a string of restaurants, microbreweries, sports bars and live music spots.
Fortunately, for this quintessential element of any complete ski vacation, no prior experience is required.