LIKE an aging star who's gone under the knife, Stowe Mountain Resort is in the midst of a $300 million makeover that its owners hope will restore Stowe to its place in the pantheon of world-class skiing.
No need to worry that the surgeon will cut too deep, though. The new development called Spruce Peak at Stowe bypasses Mount Mansfield, Stowe's most precious commodity. Instead, a new pedestrian village, base lodge, golf course, condos, hotel, single-family homes and town houses will be built on 35 acres at the base of Spruce Peak, the smaller mountain just across the road from Mansfield in northern Vermont.
The 10-year project began early in 2004, and this year skiers will begin to notice improvements. There is a new high-speed lift to the top of Spruce, a widened, recontoured top-to-bottom trail called Main Street, and a new automated snowmaking system.
Off the slopes, Stowe still has plenty to attract visitors, and the new development won't spoil the atmosphere. There is an active night-life scene, the magnificent setting in the Green Mountains and a wide range of winter activities including snowshoeing, sleigh-riding, dog-sledding, snowmobiling and Nordic skiing on one of the largest cross-country ski networks in the country. Stowe also has top-rated spas, sophisticated dining and enough shopping to inflict painful credit-card damage in an afternoon.
But the center of the action is, as it should be, on Stowe's legendary slopes. Its 48 trails boast the longest average trail length in New England, and Mount Mansfield, at 4,395 feet, is the highest peak in Vermont. Many of Stowe's trails are unique because each was hand-cut by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930's.
Experts who want thrills will head to the famously difficult Front Four top-to-bottom runs on Mount Mansfield. Beginners and those who want a more relaxed experience can take the resort's longest trail, the 3.7-mile-long Toll Road, which starts at the top of Mansfield and meanders gently down through the woods, offering stunning views of the valley around every corner. There is even a small stone chapel along the Toll Road for spiritual refueling.
For the downhill skier, sunrise signals a drive (or a ride in the free Stowe shuttle bus; check www.gostowe.com for schedule) to Mount Mansfield. After sampling Mansfield in the morning, many take the shuttle bus to Spruce Peak to take advantage of the lingering afternoon rays on the south-facing slopes. (As part of planned improvements, the bus ride will be replaced by an aerial lift next winter.) Alternatively, those who prefer the beginner and intermediate trails of Spruce, or who have signed up for ski or snowboard lessons, may want to spend the entire day at Spruce.
If your knees are weary of downhill, cross-country skiing is the area's most popular alternative. Stowe has the largest network of cross-country ski trails in the East, with more than 150 kilometers (93 miles) of groomed trails and more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) of backcountry trails. The daddy of all the Nordic ski centers at Stowe is the Trapp Family Lodge of "The Sound of Music" fame, about four miles from the downhill slopes, with its network of 45 kilometers of groomed and 100 kilometers of backcountry trails; 700 Trapp Hill Road, (800) 826-7000, www.trappfamily.com.
Stowe Mountain Resort has 35 kilometers of groomed and 40 kilometers of its own backcountry trails, (802) 253-3000, www.stowe.com, and guests at Topnotch Resort and Spa, 4000 Mountain Road, (800) 451-8686, www.topnotchresort.com, have access to 25 kilometers of groomed trails. Off the Mountain Road, which winds for seven miles through the valley down to the village of Stowe, is Edson Hill Manor, a country inn with 25 kilometers of groomed trails; 1500 Edson Hill Road, (800) 621-0284, www.edsonhillmanor.com.
Each of the cross-country centers has snowshoeing trails, and snowshoers, Nordic skiers and just-plain walkers can use the 5.5-mile-long free Recreation Path, which starts at the village and meanders through the woods and fields along the West Branch River on its way to Mount Mansfield.
Two spas at Stowe have recently expanded and upgraded, each seemingly trying to outdo the other. The 35,000-square-foot Topnotch Resort and Spa has 30 treatment rooms, an indoor pool, whirlpool with waterfall, sauna and steam rooms, yoga and Pilates classes and weight training.
The 50,000-square-foot spa at Stoweflake Mountain Resort and Spa, 1746 Mountain Road, (800) 253-2232, www.stoweflake.com, has 30 treatment rooms as well, plus pools, hot tubs, saunas, steam rooms, a waterfall, yoga, tai chi and fitness classes and a Hungarian mineral soaking pool. Should your health and well-being need further attention, there is also a 5,000-square-foot outdoor labyrinth for meditative walking designed by a Scottish expert in geomancy, the practice of identifying "earth radiations," or thermal energy. The circular stone pathways of the labyrinth are bordered by herbs, wildflowers and wood spices. Walking into and out of the center of a labyrinth is supposed to enhance right-brain intuition and creativity. "Whatever you're pondering or mulling over, you'll see in a new light," said Chris Pulito, Stoweflake's spa director.
For a break from all those mind and body experiences, spend an afternoon shopping in the village and along the Mountain Road. Well-Heeled, 2850 Mountain Road, (802) 253-0009, is a funky new shoe store in a town where the definition of fancy footwear is a pair of hiking boots with the mud scraped off the bottom. Nevertheless, buyers have been snapping up $275 hand-stitched clogs and $195 faux-crocodile stiletto heels, according to the owner, Lisa Hagerty.
The village of Stowe is a perfectly preserved 19th-century New England town, with a white-steepled church and virtually no chain stores. There are three blocks of crafts and gift shops, including Stowe Mercantile, a country store with big jars of candy and Vermont maple syrup products. Duck out of the weather for a drink at the Whip Bar and Grill in the Green Mountain Inn, at the corner of Main Street and Mountain Road, (800) 253-7302, and view the impressive collection of antique buggy whips.
You'll know you're in Stowe's premier ski bum hangout when you walk into the Matterhorn, 4969 Mountain Road, (802) 253-8198, and gaze up at the ceiling over the bar. Hanging from hooks are 130 beer mugs, each labeled with the name of a ski instructor or other mountain employee. Après ski here means beer, burgers and surprisingly good sushi, along with live music. If you're over 40, the place is sufficiently dark that you might just get carded. It could be their way of making sure you'll be back.
Another popular nightspot is the Rusty Nail Bar and Grille, 1190 Mountain Road, (802) 253-6245, where you can listen to live music or, if you arrive in time for the holidays, drink at the outdoor ice bar. Five tons of ice are sculptured into a chilly enclave of ice stools and round ice tables, surrounded by 10-foot-high ice walls studded with tiny blue and white lights. Don't forget your mittens.
If You Go
Stowe is a 40-minute drive east of Burlington International Airport. JetBlue offers nonstop flights from Kennedy Airport in New York for about $128 round trip.
Lodging and Dining
Stowe's only ski-in, ski-out lodging is the Inn at the Mountain, 5781 Mountain Road, (800) 253-4754, www.stowe.com, a complex a little more than two miles from the slopes with 33 rooms, 39 condo units, a restaurant and a fitness center with Jacuzzi. From here, skiers can take an 11-minute ride on the Toll House lift to the slopes on Mount Mansfield. Doubles start at $169 ($199 weekends).
One lower-priced option is the 45-room Town and Country Resort, 876 Mountain Road, (800) 323-0311, www.townandcountrystowe.com, with indoor pool, hot tub, sauna and game room. Doubles start at $94 ($112 weekends).
Locals know that McCarthy's, Mountain Road, (802) 253-8626, is the best breakfast bargain in town, and the place to get your carbs. The sticky buns, muffins and pies are homemade.
Harrison's Restaurant and Bar, inside a restored 1820 country inn, the Stowe Inn, 123 Mountain Road, (802) 253-7773, www.harrisons-stowe.com, has an elegant dining room with an antique wooden bar. Entrees include potato gnocchi with sautéed zucchini in smoked plum-tomato sauce ($15.95) and grilled ancho pepper-rubbed pork tenderloin ($18.95).
At Stowe, one-day adult lift tickets are as much as $70 in peak holiday periods. Multiday passes are cheaper. Check www.stowe.com for discounts, packages and lessons, or call (888) 253-4849.