STOWE, Vt. -- They called it the Big Pig: a chairlift so slow that your face likely would be numb by the time you skied off and had to choose between Sterling Trail to the right or Main Street to the left. On the far eastern perimeter of Spruce Mountain at Stowe Ski Area, the trails were favored by locals, especially in late afternoon, when you could still bathe in sunshine while whisking through a placid tapestry of balsams and birches.
As of this year, the Big Pig has been laid to rest, replaced by a high-speed, detachable quad called Sensation. The 20-minute ride to the 3,390-foot peak of Spruce has been reduced to six minutes. It's one of many changes at Spruce as Stowe Mountain Resort is undergoing a massive overhaul.
''We've always attracted the core skier lured by the challenging terrain," says Mike Colburn, vice president of sales and marketing at Stowe. ''Now we want to open up the area to families, with beginner and easier intermediate runs."
The challenging terrain Colburn is referring to is made up of the legendary Front Four: Goat, Lift Line, National, and Starr. These double diamonds plummet down Mount Mansfield, Vermont's tallest peak, teaching young cocky skiers the meaning of the word respect. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Inspiration, the latest trail to be created at Spruce. This easy green run has a 10 percent grade, designed for the first-time skier. Lining Inspiration are new town homes and, in front of the base lodge, a huge pit will soon be the site of a 108-room hotel called Stowe Mountain Lodge. It's all part of a big real estate initiative to make Stowe one of the leading ski in/ski out resorts (or golf in/golf out resorts in the warm weather months) in the East.
It took more than a decade of negotiating with conservation organizations in Vermont to acquire the 32 acres Stowe would need to enhance adjacent Spruce Peak. The resort would have to donate the surrounding 2,000 acres to the state and allay fears of townspeople that this new community would not be self-sufficient, still relying on the town of Stowe for its dining and shopping needs.
In return, Spruce Peak would get to build 400 dwellings that include houses, town homes, and one- to three-bedroom condominiums in a new hotel. Then there are amenities like the new base lodge, a spa, retail shops, a 250-seat performing arts center, and heated roads to and from Route 108 so drivers won't have to deal with ice in winter. A shuttle service will run folks into town so they can leave their cars behind.
Construction began last summer and could last 10 years and cost upward of $250 million. The money is coming from AIG, the insurance company that owns the ski area. Maurice Greenberg, the company's former CEO, is an avid skier who has been behind the expansion from the beginning.
''AIG's checkbook is open on this project," says Walter Frame, Spruce Peak operations manager.
In the works for next winter is a chairlift that will cross Route 108 and connect the base lodge of Spruce Peak with the gondola at Stowe, eliminating the need for buses to run skiers between the two mountains. Frame is hopeful that Stowe Mountain Lodge will open for business in summer 2007. High on a ridge, the golf course is already finished. The view from the green on the fifth hole is one of the most glorious in all of New England. Smack dab in a valley, one gazes at Mansfield, with its ribbon of trails flowing down the ski area. On either side of the peak is uninterrupted forest, a carpet of maples and pines billowing from ridge to ridge as far as the eye can see.
The village of Stowe has also experienced many changes in the past year. Just down the hill from Trapp Family Lodge, the new owners at Ten Acres Lodge are keen on making changes to the property. Frank and Robin Wilson were living in Singapore, where he was head of human resources for
''People kept calling, nostalgic for the restaurant. I guess it's one of the few places in town that has that country inn appeal," says Frank Wilson.
Wilson was fortunate to hire Steve Super, former chef at the Relais & Château property in Aspen, Colo., The Little Nell. For starters, Super marinates the portobello mushrooms for more than a day, then flattens them to create a carpaccio. There's also a hardy Cabot cheddar soup, made with local ale. Entrees include a venison osso buco, where the meat was tender, braised with the taste of cranberries. For seafood, try the pistachio-crusted trout, served with wild mushroom risotto. The exciting dessert choice is bananas Foster, made tableside.
Ten Acres also offers parents the chance to dine alone while the children are shown a movie in the theater. Children are also quite content at Flavor, the latest restaurant to open on Mountain Road. Junior can use the crayons on the paper tablecloths, order from a children's menu, and then opt for one of the innovative desserts, such as hand-shaped sugar cookies. Six colored frostings can be used to paint the cookies before munching them down.
Parents will soon realize that Flavor is an apt name for Gary Jacobson's cooking. Jacobson comes to Stowe from Brooklyn, where he learned a thing or two about Middle Eastern spices on his strolls down Atlantic Avenue. One bite of his lambajin homemade flatbread with ground lamb, and they know they're in for a treat.
Contact Newton-based Stephen Jermanok at email@example.com.