WITH the Alps only a short flight away skiers and snowboarders from the UK have long favoured the traditional resorts in France, Austria and Switzerland.
While some more adventurous winter sports fans have ventured farther afield in a bid for cheaper lift passes and apres ski, few have bothered crossing the Atlantic to check out the resorts offered by our American friends.
New England may be the closest but it’s Colorado you should head to for guaranteed snow.
While many resorts in the Alps struggled for snow last year the slopes in the Rockies were absolutely over run with the white stuff.
Resorts around the Denver region were dumped with powder opening earlier than ever before.
My friend Geoff and I headed to the 150-year-old frontier town of Breckenridge, nestled at an astonishingly high 10,000ft.
We had heard the resort boasted both ski-in convenience and a great nightlife and as 30-something men we were looking forward to sampling some of Colorado’s terrific microbrews and steaks.
I also found out during my trip, that Breckenridge was where the Jim Carrey flick Dumb and Dumber was filmed (it’s set in nearby exclusive resort Aspen).
Much of the accommodation in Breckenridge is within five minutes of the main thoroughfare, imaginatively called Main Street.
Our condo at the Blazing Saddles complex was both a short hop from all our eating and drinking needs and across the road from the culmination of the famous three-and-a-half-mile long Four O’Clock run, enabling us to literally ski to within a few paces of our apartment – a real bonus after a hard day’s fun on the mountain.
With a free ski shuttle bus doing the rounds to the range of lifts and the gondola, getting up to the peaks each day was also a breeze.
For the uninitiated, the pistes in the USA, much like the roads and everything else, tend to be wider. And while many resorts in Europe have the pistes taped off, in the States tree skiing is a big deal and routes meandering through the evergreen forests are fair game – just make sure your turns are up to scratch.
For advanced skiers ‘Breck’ also boasts some pretty extreme terrain, with more than a third of its runs marked as black or double black, along with a range of man-made jumps and a halfpipe.
With all these boasts you may worry about crowded lifts. Yes it’s popular, but with such a large selection of lifts linking the four peaks, resort bosses claim to be able to take more than 40,000 people uphill per hour.
Food and drink slopeside is typically pricey but at least free water is plentiful unlike on the continent.
From Breckenridge we drove 90 minutes south west to Buena Vista. In the summer the former railroad town is the gateway to world-class whitewater rafting. But in the winter, our hosts Buffalo Joe’s Rafting Company, operate another high adrenaline past-time – snowmobiling.
After being kitted out with all the clothing and safety gear we drove up from the downtown office to the wonderfully remote Cottonwood Pass. There’s no ski-lifts up here, so the only way up is by snow shoe, cross country ski or what the locals call a “sled” – otherwise known as a snowmobile.
Following a briefing on how to ride our sleds we found ourselves in convoy following our guide uphill through beautiful undeveloped snowy mountainside. Unlike the ski-resort, we had this wintry playground all to ourselves and during the next four hours we would only see one other soul, a solitary cross-country skier.
Guests on Buffalo Joe’s half-day trips get plenty of time to master their sleds and we soon found ourselves whizzing around at high speed and learning the intricacies of handling the motorbike engine powered machines.
The whole experience was a privilege and truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a city dweller such as myself.
For those who fancy more of an adventure Buffalo Joe’s also offer a full day of backcountry fun and even overnight trips into one of the most isolated valleys in Colorado.
Moving south again we headed to the Four Corners area where the state lines of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico meet, to the city of Durango.
While it’s not a slopeside resort, Durango’s burgeoning popularity lies behind its proximity to 10,000 foot peaks and its excellent facilities. As a popular college town it has a large selection of restaurants, shops and hotels yet is just a 40 minute drive from the well maintained slopes at The Durango Mountain Resort (formerly Purgatory).
Although smaller than the majority of the resorts in northern Colorado it has been upgraded in the last five years to include more slopeside accommodation for those who don’t want to travel back and forth to town.
With a warmer climate in the Four Corners area T-shirt skiing is a genuine possibility in March and April and with quieter slopes and easier groomed runs the resort is certainly more suitable for those who want to operate at a slower pace.
Durango itself still looks like the scene from a John Wayne movie with its Main Avenue complete with original 19th century hotels and saloons.
On top of the delights of the wild west, the region also offers a wealth of non-winter sport attractions including a steam train trip up through the mountains to Silverton and a significant archaeological heritage site at Mesa Verde.
Websites: www.breckenridge.com, www.buffalojoe.com, www.durangomountainresort.com