I grew up and still reside in Massachusetts. Yet, I have skied at only two spots in the Bay State: Wachusett Mountain and Nashoba Valley.
I’ve visited Blue Hills, where my son took some truly valuable lessons when he was 3 years old. I have hiked the trails surrounding the ski area countless times. But I’ve never snapped into my own pair of bindings at the popular spot in Canton. I once covered a racing event as a fresh-out-of-college sports reporter at the late Mount Tom in Holyoke. But, in those cash-strapped days, the money normally reserved for a lift ticket simply had to go toward ramen and a loaf of bread.
Odds are that I’m not the only Massachusetts skier who managed to always look north when planning an alpine excursion.
Call it an ignorance of my own backyard, lured in by the bigger fish that lay in waiting in New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine.
But then, 2020 happened. You know the rest.
It has been a frustrating beginning to the 2020-21 skiing and riding season for New Englanders. Not only did a Christmas warm-up decimate whatever terrain local resorts had managed to build over the first few weeks of the season, but also travel restrictions continued to limit the amount of places that skiers and riders could visit. As of press time, Vermont and Maine were still on lockdown to Massachusetts residents without a quarantine. New Hampshire, meanwhile, was open, but protocol in the commonwealth insisted that anybody traveling from the Granite State into Massachusetts undergo quarantine (or test) as well.
It probably all means that any Bay Staters who want to follow the protocol as best they can are likely skiing closer to home, at least to begin this winter.
That might just open up a whole new world of in-state skiing, particularly noticing what’s available in the sometimes-overlooked western half of the state. Indeed, the Berkshires are waiting for a new audience, ready to introduce themselves to Massachusetts residents who might normally have left the ski areas to skiers and riders of western Mass., not to mention border-crossers from New York and Connecticut.
Instead, this season might present the perfect excuse for Massachusetts residents to explore winter in their own state.
“It’s a huge opportunity for us,” Jon Schaefer, general manager at Berkshire East and Catamount, said. “A lot of people want to try skiing, and they associate with a brand because somebody’s grandpa used to have a house there. Sort of like geese tend to fly north in the summertime, people tend to go north to go skiing.”
Some industry representatives in the Berkshires, home to the likes of Jiminy Peak, Berkshire East, Bousquet, Catamount and Ski Butternut, already have noticed an increase in visitors from the Boston market this winter, a development that has gone hand-in-hand with a decrease in visitors from New York, thanks to COVID travel restrictions. The Boston metro area is an audience to which the Berkshire ski areas have never really had to advertise, figuring they might only travel as far as Wachusett in the middle of the state to get their turns in.
But COVID restrictions have changed the game, leaving skiers and riders looking for alternatives to the usual weekend up north.
“For Massachusetts residents who are trying to respect the travel restrictions, what we offer is a completely different experience from what is offered at some of the major brand resorts,” Schaefer said. “It’s much more of a throwback experience of being a family-centric, easily accessible skiing experience. I would say that’s across the board for all the Massachusetts resorts. There’s just something different about a regional mountain against essentially a major global branded mountain that presents itself.”
Despite what Schaefer classified as some “weather curveballs” to close out December, a month that delighted with a mid-month storm, only to sour in time for the holiday period with a Christmas washout, it’s a region of the state ready to put on a white coat this winter, one that should, hopefully, attract some eyeballs that might normally be looking elsewhere to ski and ride.
“I think the Berkshires have a wonderful opportunity here to kind of retool a bit of the way the world views us,” Tyler Fairbank, CEO of the Fairbank Group, which manages Hancock’s Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort, said during a Berkshire County Outdoor Recreation Summit in the fall.
“I do expect this year to be a great opportunity for people to ski in the mountains that are a little closer to home,” Diana Szynal, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, said. “I think we’ll do very well with that sort of drive market. People who are looking to not stay over somewhere, you can travel from Boston and ski out here very easily.”
Ski areas in the Berkshires might be under appreciated, from a Massachusetts resident’s point of view. Not enough have experienced Berkshire East’s gnarly glade runs, or spread out at Jiminy Peak, which boasts itself as the largest ski resort in the state, 2½ hours from Boston. This winter, residents have those opportunities, not to mention diving into the sport with a first-timer package at Ski Butternut or checking out the revival of Bousquet, heading into its first season under new ownership, which has made upgrades to the snowmaking and grooming systems, installed a triple chairlift, as well as a new beginner area.
“We’re looking forward to a great winter season,” Kevin McMillan, general manager at Bousquet, said during the recreation summit. “I think that we’ve created a great plan for enjoying outside space and staying as warm as possible in a winter environment. We are focused on creating some condensed, magic moments for folks. We’re looking forward to people coming to visit Bouquet and seeing all the new and improvements that are here and enjoying the vibe that we’ve created.”
It’s safe to bet that even with travel restrictions, some in-state skiers and riders would have had Berkshire East and Catamount on their season plans. Both ski areas are part of the popular Indy Pass, which affords those who purchased it two days at each of a handful of ski areas throughout New England. With five lifts and 38 trails, 30 percent of which are classified as black diamond, Berkshire East might just be the most challenging mountain in the state.
“One of the great things about Berkshire East is that it has a little mountain feel with a big ski experience,” Szynal said.
Of course, any ski experience this season includes a multitude of safety measures. Visitors can expect to find mask requirements at ski areas across the Berkshires (and New England) as well as the need to boot up, lunch and hang out at your vehicle with lodge space restricted.
“There’s a new relationship that will have to occur between everybody at a ski area to make sure that the season goes off without a hitch,” Schaefer said during the summit. “Guests will have to be on their best behavior and staff will have to be on their best behavior in terms of hygiene and sanitization so that we make sure this season is effective, efficient and is as healthy as possible.”
On that note, Berkshire East has erected a number of six-person, 8×10 timber-frame cabanas (personalized mini-ski lodges, Schaefer called them) that can be rented for $125 per day. There are 30 bungalows at Berkshire East, 35 at Catamount and 10 at Bousquet in Pittsfield, where Schaefer and his team are helping to consult new ownership.
The resort also expanded the patio area in front of its lodge and installed outdoor heating units.
“Berkshire East is taking some really excellent precautions to make sure you have a safe experience there,” Szynal said. “People want to move around. People want things to do, and they certainly want to enjoy some recreation. So, we’re just really grateful that we do have outdoor recreation opportunities here.”
That desire to be outdoors is something that the natural environment of the Berkshires can deliver, even if the resorts simply cannot promise the normalities that go along with a ski season as far as events and gatherings. Visitors should expect a laid-back, strong community vibe at each of the Berkshires’ destinations, not to mention a unique skiing heritage.
“These mountains have great race backgrounds,” Schaefer said. “So, a lot of Olympians have come out of western Massachusetts. There is a strong skiing culture. I’d say that there’s a strong skiing IQ from the people that choose our resorts, the long-term participants at our mountains. And it’s easy. It’s a little smaller, the trails all generally come back to one spot.”
That sense of community in the Berkshire hills hasn’t diminished, despite the lack of events.
“It’s been a little bit of a challenge, but the reality is that people are receptive to it,” Dillon Mahon, Ski Butternut’s director of marketing, said. “They understand the new normals that we’re living with. We are a big family here, a large community of skiers and friends and family and everything. That sense of community, it’s still there. Maybe put on hold as far as the gatherings and the get-togethers. But that sense of community will never go away just due to COVID and due to the lack of events and gatherings.”
In an effort to make the trip even more enticing, Berkshire East, Catamount and Bousquet combined this year to offer the Berkshire Summit Pass, good at all three mountains. Jiminy Peak, in the same management family as Cranmore Mountain Resort in North Conway, N.H., and Bromley Mountain in Peru, Vt., was part of a three-mountain pass that was on sale until early December.
“They’re generally family-owned mountains,” Schaefer sad. “If you have an issue, you’re going to deal with an owner or somebody pretty darned close to them. It’s a little more intimate, hands-on experience.”
Fairbank referred to the business his company’s resorts saw during the summer amid the pandemic. “People want to be outdoors,” he said. “They want to be in the Berkshires, they want to be outdoors doing things. We saw that in spades. It was a viable summer.”
But instead of looking north, as many eastern Mass. residents might tend to do when seeking a getaway, the western part of the state is now calling, a travel destination completely in line with in-state COVID protocol.
“A lot of folks out of Boston or eastern Mass. think north — Maine, New Hampshire,” Schaefer said. “The Berkshires are a pretty unique spot, and one of our broad goals is to get people from eastern Mass. and central Mass. to think about heading west for all of their year-round adventures.”
Indeed, the Berkshires could be an untapped playground for thousands in the eastern part of the state. The Berkshires are known in warmer months for some of the state’s best ziplining, whitewater rafting and fishing. This winter could serve as an enticement to convert some ingrained thoughts when it comes to outdoor destinations.
“Luckily, we can rely on outdoor activities for the tourists we attract,” Szynal said. “Coming here and spending the day outside on a mountain is safe to do. You can come here and engage in some activities that are really safe, and are going to feel fun, like a nice getaway.”
Adjacent to Berkshire East, the Warfield House Inn (warfieldhouseinn.com) is a rustic retreat, complete with views of the slopes. The Deerfield Inn (deerfieldinn.com) offers “charm and warmth” in the heart of historic Deerfield. For a bed and breakfast experience, try the Brandt House (www.brandthouse.com), a turn-of-the-century estate located in Greenfield. The Centennial House (thecentennialhouse.com) in Northfield bills itself as a boutique B&B that “blends traditional charm and modern comforts in a quintessential New England village.”
Located in South Egremont, minutes away from Ski Butternut, the Old Mill (oldmillberkshires.com) has been a Berkshires dining favorite for years, featuring a selection of both seafood and steak fare. The West End Pub (westendpub.com), located near Berkshire East, is a traditionally popular après spot, featuring burgers, pastas and salads to refuel after a day on the slopes. At Jiminy Peak, guests can sample from upscale dining at Christiansen’s Tavern or enjoy the more relaxed atmosphere at John Harvard’s Restaurant and Brewery, both onsite (www.jiminypeak.com).