There is a strong, inescapable sense of nostalgia as you exit Interstate 91 in Brattleboro, Vermont, and make the final 30-plus mile jaunt to Stratton Mountain. If your GPS is like mine, you’ll duck onto Cedar Street in Brattleboro, where the Harris Hill ski jump appears almost out of nowhere. Carved into the hillside with a corridor of trees to either side of the jump and long, steep landing area, Harris Hill dates back to the 1920s, and still hosts events.
You’ll then take a hairpin left onto Route 30, which hugs the West River, and motor northwestward. Along the way, you’ll pass the now-defunct Maple Valley Ski Area in Dummerston, one of those classic New England “learner” hills that spawned generations of local skiers but has sat dormant since 2000 (despite numerous rumors of re-opening). The narrow two-lane meanders through a number of historic Vermont towns, like Newfane and Jamaica, conjuring memories of ski vacations with the kids crowded into the “way back” of the family station wagon.
The long access road climbing from the valley floor up the hill to Stratton, which begins just past the Startingate ski shop (if you’re traveling north), is reminiscent of so many New England resorts, and particularly Killington and Sugarbush. Four miles later, you roll into the village of Stratton. Most ski resorts boast a “village” at the base, but that’s usually a turn of phrase. Stratton offers a real village, built in the true Tyrolean style — like a miniature version of Ischgl or St. Anton am Arlberg in Austria — with a wonderful assortment of restaurants, bars, shops, a market, a delicatessen and a day spa, populated by carved black bears (Stratton’s mascot) large and small, surrounded by lodging options. But more on those later, because you’re here to ski, and Stratton has the goods.
To be perfectly honest, Stratton is an ode to the wonders of intermediate terrain. I say that as an unqualified compliment. Yes, it has expert trails, and challenging glades, but those are unquestionably in the minority. During our recent visit, the trails that shone the brightest were the playful variety of blue-square routes, from wide-open cruisers to gentle serpentine tracks that let skiers and boarders work their turns without picking up too much steam.
The breakdown at Stratton looks like this: There are 99 trails spread out across almost 700 acres of terrain — with another 160-plus acres if you include the glade areas — spilling off the 3,875-foot summit, the highest peak in southern Vermont (with fabulous views to the north and east, including Bromley). Top to bottom, the resort offers 2,003 feet of vertical drop, and the longest trail — Mike’s Way to Wanderer — is three miles long. To say the least, it has come a long, long way from the ski hill that opened in December 1961 with eight trails, three double chairs, a three-story base lodge and a pockmarked access road that terrified drivers (said one long-time Stratton skier).
According to Stratton, the breakdown of terrain is 40 percent novice, 35 percent intermediate, 16 percent advanced and 9 percent expert. But we found even some of the advanced terrain — notably Upper Kidder Brook — was solid intermediate. Which, again, isn’t a bad thing (and it’s reassuring to beginners, or parents with youngsters, to know that they can always find gentle terrain leading back to the base lodge).
Upper Kidder Brook, along the eastern edge of the resort, gets ample sun, and in the right conditions the trail is a celebration of fast, carving GS turns, where you can really set your edge and feel your skis pop out of each turn. Just a delight. But its pitch is manageable for almost anyone other than an absolute beginner. The same can be said for Upper Standard, which runs underneath Stratton’s gondola. These are broad-shouldered trails that, because of their topography, offer up a reliable canvas for the snow-making and grooming crews, and therefore offer consistently solid conditions.
Speaking of the overnight crew, Stratton officials claims they have roughly 95 percent snowmaking coverage (which is something of a stretch), with more than 1,200 snow guns pumping out manmade fluff. Even during this mercurial winter, when mid-season warm spells and rains gobbled up tons of snow, the snowmaking and grooming crews at Stratton have done a remarkable job keeping the majority of the trails open. That bodes well for this spring.
Getting everyone up the hill is a collection of 11 lifts, highlighted by the sixperson gondola (which, I don’t mind saying, is a godsend on cold, windy days), four six-pack chairlifts, and three quad chairlifts. All combined, the resort can move 34,000 skiers and boarders up the mountain every hour, an impressive number that keeps lift lines moving quickly.
During our recent visit, the trails that shone the brightest were the playful variety of blue-square routes, from wide-open cruisers to gentle serpentine tracks that let skiers and boarders work their turns without picking up too much steam.
Don’t know where to start? The resort offers free tours with a Stratton ambassador at 10 o’clock every morning. Expert terrain, such as Bear Down, Grizzly Bear, Upper/Lower Liftline and Upper/Lower Spruce, as well as glade areas like Moondance, Vertigo and Shred Wood Forest, require more precision and legs like shock absorbers. If you possess both, you’ll love these runs. They also require more natural snowfall, and are prone to closures if Old Man Winter isn’t cooperating. But when he does, these trails are a blast.
Our favorite intermediate trails were found on opposite sides of the hill. From the summit of Shooting Star six-pack, Black Bear is a rollercoaster to the base of the Ursa Express 6, or you can continue to the base of the Sunrise Express 6 by hopping directly onto Gentle Ben. From the summit of the Snow Bowl quad (which is new this year), Get My Drift/Upper Drifter/Lower Drifter also is a real treat, with undulating turns that reward cardio fitness as well as youthful exuberance. Frank’s Fall Line, Upper Tamarack and Upper/Lower Switchback are similar but with a bit more pitch for gravity fans.
Frank’s and Tamarack also funnel into the Mid-Mountain Lodge, home of Mountain Smoke. A terrific lunch option, Mountain Smoke serves up house-smoked barbecue from Vermont farm-raised beef, chicken, turkey and pork, traditional sauces, house-made sides, beer brats and salads. As the restaurant says, “Slow cooked, served up fast.” The Mid-Mountain Lodge also hosts the resort’s Snowcat Dinner Excursions through March, featuring seasonal beverages and a threecourse fine-dining experience.
Grizzly’s at the base lodge is another excellent midday or après-ski dining option, with outstanding views, a spectacular wood bar and vaulted ceilings. The base lodge itself also has a nice selection of food options. You’ll pay top dollar — an Asian noodle and vegetable bowl runs $14, while a burger and fries will set you back $15 — but the people I spoke to all agreed the food was delicious.
The base lodge also is home to Mugs Coffee Shop, “the cleanest ski bathrooms in Vermont,” said one Stratton loyalist, and a boot bag check, which always provides a little extra peace of mind. Taking “peace of mind” to the next level, the nonprofit Carlos Otis Clinic, located just behind the gondola, staffs orthopedic surgeons and emergency physicians providing urgent care. The fact that the base lodge is situated close to both the gondola and American Express six-pack is another bonus, especially if you have youngsters in tow.
Parents also will appreciate the extensive menu of lessons offered by the Stratton Ski School, which has been a presence since the resort first opened, and teaching snowboarders how to link turns since 1983. In fact, Stratton was home to the first Burton Snowboard School. Stratton also is home base for the Stratton Mountain School and several local colleges. You can find racers zooming around the hill almost every day of the week, not to mention the race courses, which are set first thing in the morning, as well as dedicated moguls and ski-cross courses.
For families (or couples) that have someone who either doesn’t ski at all or isn’t interested in grabbing the first lift and last lift of the day, the resort’s village provides diversions for a variety of interests. Shops range from skispecific items at First Run Ski Shop and Boot Lab, Stratton Sports and Head Case (anything you need from the neck up, including helmets and goggles), snowboard-specific product at the Burton Store, clothing options at the North Face Summit Shop, Lole, Stratton Clothing Company, Syd and Dusty’s, and the Dashing Bear Boutique, confectionaries at Mountain Sweets, and even fine jewelry at Von Bargen’s.
The Day Spa at Stratton is open seven days a week to take care of all those knots that can result from stress, or skiing (or boarding). Reservations recommended. For something a bit wacky but tons of fun, bring the kids over to the Coca-Cola Tubing Park at Sun Bowl, which offers lift-service tubing (guaranteed to help you find your inner child) under the lights.
After a day full of turns, Lauri and I turned our attention to après ski. And Stratton really shines here as well. We had a dizzying selection of restaurants and bars, ranging from Bar 802, the Green Door Pub and Benedicts to Verde (specializing in high-end Mediterranean fare), Snowfish Sushi Room, Elevation at the Stratton Mountain Club and Table 43.1 at the Black Bear Lodge. We popped into Mulligan’s, bellied up to the bar and struck up a delightful conversation with a couple from New York who were just finishing their lobster specials.
After defrosting with a couple of cocktails, we made our way back to our room at the Long Trail House, located just across the street from the village (see Check In/Check Out), me for a well-deserved nap and Lauri for a welldeserved date with the hot tub.
For dinner, we opted for the Fire Tower Restaurant and Tavern, intrigued by a number of their small plates. The ahi nachos (featuring tuna tartare, crispy wontons, pickled onion, wasabi aioli, hoisin-lime and Daikon radish), coupled with the jerk chicken (Jamaican spice rub with a tamarind aioli) and a winter salad (mixed greens, spicy pecans, Chevre cheese crumble, dried cranberries and truffled vinaigrette) made for a full meal. Bourbon lovers really ought to treat themselves to a bacon old-fashion (house-infused Maker’s Mark with bacon, Vermont maple syrup, muddled cherry, orange bitters, bacon garnish and a splash of soda). You’ll thank me later.
I also have to give a tip of the hat to the Fire Tower for offering outdoor tables with gas fire pits, allowing patrons to enjoy a cigar along with their cocktails. Clearly, though, some took this amenity for granted, and insisted on copping “the world is my ashtray” attitude. The next morning, as Lauri and I shuffled over to the base lodge, we spied several cigar butts on the stone walkway, revealing a distinct lack of respect for the beautiful surroundings. I mean, why spend a ton of cash to stay here, and then trash the place?
That said, Lauri and I really enjoyed chatting up the Stratton regulars we met, whether it was the couple from Manhattan at Mulligan’s, or a host of folks on the lifts. There was a pair of hilarious local guys who insisted on calling themselves “Ver-Monsters,” some old-timers sharing stories of surgeries (“You two are probably too young for this conversation,” one told us. “Oh, don’t worry, we fit right in,” replied my wife), and a slew of visitors from the metro New York area, including New Jersey and Connecticut, many of whom now own second homes in the area. Being a New Jersey native (though 45 years removed), I loved their unmistakable accents and garrulous nature.
And that’s what skiing ought to be —having fun, getting outside, tackling the elements and meeting likeminded enthusiasts. Stratton checks off all the boxes, with a manicured hill, ample lodging and a welcoming and diverse village.