USA Ski Holidays
USA

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Land of the free, home of the brave and, if you don’t mind a lengthy flight, some spectacular skiing and boarding! A 9-10 hour flight each way means that many people considering a ski trip to America opt for a 10 or 14 day holiday to maximise time on the piste. The snow falls in the States are in a similar league to Canada, anything from 6 to 11 metres a year, which puts it well above anything that Europe can offer. Perfect for families, boarders, beginners and experts, the resorts in the ‘Wild West’ really do have something for everyone! Lift queues are typically very, very short with patrolled off-piste that also benefits from daily avalanche control so you don’t need to ski with a guide. That said, the range of pistes you’ll find in the States is smaller than that found in the huge linked piste systems of Europe, for example the ‘Milky Way’ circuit in Italy offers over 1000kms of piste compared to Vail’s 210kms. Do bear in mind that the excellent grooming and patrolled off-piste comes at a price too, lift passes are generally a lot more expensive than in Europe and make even Zermatt’s £300 lift pass seem cheap. As a guide, a week’s pass for Vail over Christmas is £340 for an adult, and that’s if you book in advance! The catered chalet explosion that we’ve seen in Europe since the 1980’s has still not filtered across to America and self catered condominiums and hotels are still the most popular choice. This can mean lots of expensive eating out, so unless someone is willing to help out with the cooking you might be best off sticking to Europe. Do also bear in mind that childcare, lift passes and equipment hire can be really rather expensive – up to double that of many European resorts. Cuisine on the mountain is fairly unrefined, with huge cafeterias doing the job of feeding the masses. That said, there are a good number of high quality restaurants in the towns themselves as the majority are actual ‘Wild West’ farming towns rather than purpose built resorts. Drinking on the mountain is generally frowned upon, especially in Utah where the state maintains a monopoly over everything except fairly weak beer (4%). The only exception to this is if you head over to one of the small resorts in New Jersey such as Mountain Creek where on-piste drinking has a very ‘European’ feel!

Geography

The vast majority of resorts in the States are out in the west, spread amongst Wyoming, Colorado, California and Utah – most being on a line between Denver and Salt Lake City. (There are also a few smaller resorts dotted all around the States, but with vertical drops as low at 70ft these are little more than you could find at a snow dome or a dry-ski slope in the UK, so certainly not worth travelling across the Atlantic for!) One benefit to being so far west is that you can easily combine your ski trip with a stay in San Francisco or Las Vegas, which are both only around a 1.5 – 2 hour flight away. Both are serviced by some very reasonably priced airlines such as SouthWest, and as an example you can pick up a return flight from Denver to Las Vegas with 3 nights in a top hotel for around $200pp. With the local casinos subsidising the costs of the hotels and flights, why not make the most of it!

Families

The USA is generally a very family friendly country and its ski resorts are no different – families are openly welcomed. Older teens might find it a little bit on the boring side though as they won’t be able to drink if under the age of 21, and this is enforced without exception. Lessons are taught by professionals who take pride in their work and are actually fairly reasonably priced. The language barrier is non-existent, and with many children starting skiing from a young age you can find yourself being taught by an instructor with a good deal more experience than the British gap year instructor types you find in some French resorts! There’s also a superb range of dining options to suit all tastes and budgets, with everything from diner classics to top end seafood readily available. There really is something for everyone. Childcare is on the expensive side in the US, hence many people find it preferable to book their children into ski schools during the day. Some hotels will offer a kids’ club in the evenings, which means that adults can dine in peace, but more standard crèche facilities like those you find in Europe are few and far between.

Snowboarders

Freestyle snowboarding has always been incredibly popular in the USA, and Americans have dominated the Winter X Games heavily over the last few years. Riders like Kevin Pearce and Shaun White vie for the top spot and competition is fierce! Empty pistes and fresh tracks are a bit harder to find in the US than in Canada, due to the proximity of large cities like San Francisco and Las Vegas. Many local residents take the short trips to Salt Lake City or Denver in search of a weekend of snow based fun, but so much snow falls and it stays so fresh that it doesn’t get too tracked out like it does in Europe. Snowparks are always well maintained and have plenty of hits to keep even the most hardened freestylers occupied, with half and quarter pipes commonplace as well as the odd super pipe for those born without fear! Button and t-bar lifts, ubiquitously called drag lifts in the US, are very rare in the major resorts and you will only find them in the very upper reaches of the ski areas where more snowboard-friendly lift systems either wouldn’t fit or wouldn’t be safe. Magic carpet lifts are a far more common sight on the beginner slopes which makes life a lot easier for those just learning to ride! Do bear in mind that many American chairlifts don’t come with a safety bar – this can be somewhat disconcerting for those used to European lifts!

Skiers

Breckenridge and Vail are generally the two most popular resorts in the States and both tend to get very busy at weekends. Do bear this in mind if you’re keen to ski those wide cruisy runs that America is famous for. Another thing to be aware of is that the lifts shut much earlier than in Europe, sometimes by up to 2 hours earlier, with the top stations closing at 3pm. This makes a long lunch essentially impossible and also means that if you want to get a full day skiing in, you should be on the first lift, have a snack at 11 and then head home for a late lunch at about 2.30 or 3. The piste classification system is also different in the States, with green circles, blue squares and then single and double black diamonds in place of Europe’s green, blue, red and black markers. Different shapes are used on the piste markers in the States as well as different colours, to aid colour-blind skiers and boarders. The green pistes in America are the same as the green pistes in France, blues generally correspond with blue runs in Europe but also some of the easier red runs, so do bear this in mind! A single black diamond is akin to a steeper red or a black run and a double black diamond will be a very, very steep run, generally not pisted at all and often with a fairly serious drop in to start the run. If you don’t know what a drop in is then double black diamonds are best avoided! Of all the reasons to make a trip to the States for the snow, the spectacular off-piste there is what most Europeans make the journey for, and they don’t come away disappointed. The fresh snowfall is absolute A-grade champagne powder, very light, dry, fluffy and forgiving. The off-piste areas are avalanche controlled on a daily basis and also regularly patrolled, so a guide isn’t necessary. If you’re used to hiring a guide for the week this can actually save you a lot of money and offset some of the extra cost of the flights and lift pass! Heli-skiing and cat-skiing (taking a ride to the back country on a piste basher) are both widely available but if you’re on a budget then stick with the cat skiing – prices start at under £15 per trip, a bargain compared with the helicopter equivalent, if a little slower!

For Foodies

If your idea of a good lunch on the mountain is local cured meats followed by a nice steak then a tarte aux pommes with a chartreuse chaser, then stick to Europe as you just won’t find anything like that in America. What you will find though is plenty of filling and reasonably priced food served self-service in cavernous dining rooms and eaten on long communal benches. That said, the quality and value for money of restaurants in the majority of ski towns is superb. The portions are always vast, and many restaurants offer special children’s menus for a very low price. If you do want a bottle of wine with your meal do make sure that you’ve got your passport with you, as the blanket policy of checking peoples’ age when buying alcohol seems apply even to people well into their 30’s!

Groups

Groups in America are looked after quite differently to groups in Europe – unfortunately it’s quite hard to track down a catered chalet although a few do exist in Vail and Breckenridge such as the Chalet Chloe which sleeps 12-14. Chalets larger than this are very hard to come by and the overwhelming majority of groups will find themselves staying in a self catered condominium or a hotel. You can still find good group discounts though and you can pick up a week or 10 days fully catered for around £1200-£1500pp which, although expensive, perhaps isn’t as much as you would have thought. Eating out is much cheaper in the States, and prices in the bars can also be much more reasonable that you can find in many top end alpine resorts so do give one of our experts a call.

Apres-Ski

Europe is renowned for its lively après ski, but that’s not to say that the Americans don’t love to have fun after a day on the mountain as well! Many of the old ‘Wild West’ towns that have re-invented themselves as ski resorts have a great deal of character and ambiance about them, especially the likes of Jackson Hole and Vail where you will find bars with saddles as bar stools and great live music. Breckenridge also has its fair share of authentic spit ‘n’ sawdust boozers, where you’ll find guys downing shots of bourbon faster than Wyatt Earp. If you’re looking for a slice of true debauchery then take the 10 minute bus from Keystone to Arapahoe Basin, home to the highest and steepest slopes in America. As the snow lasts well into May there’s a real party atmosphere here at the end of each day, not in the bars but in the car parks, as deckchairs and kegs are unveiled to create the nearest thing to a frat party you can find.

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