New HPhoto Credit : Sara Gray
Yes, we know that ranking New England’s best winter towns has to be subjective. These communities are proud that they’ve welcomed travelers in all seasons for generations. Each one has its loyal boosters, who’ll tell you why their favorite place is the best and why they wouldn’t want to live or vacation anywhere else. We considered each town’s winter recreation, scenery, and vibrant tourism infrastructure; we know that we’ve left out towns that deserve their place in the winter sun. For this year, here are our 10 that make weekend (or longer) trips fun for everyone, whether you whisk down the mountains, traipse along snowy trails, or simply bask in a heated pool before dining in a cozy nook beside a glowing fire.
#1 STOWE, VERMONTA winter escape that’s accessible to all.
Energized by a hearty homestylebreakfast, we all rose from the table and went our separate ways. Our children, Melanie and Jake, grabbed their skis and took the gondola to tackle the trails atStowe Mountain Resort. Wife Lisa drove to the Trapp Family Lodge to cross-country ski up to Slayton Pasture Cabin, a 10-kilometer round-trip excursion, to earn her cup of soup next to the fireplace. I simply walked out the front door of Stowe Mountain Lodgewith water bottle in hand and headed straight up into Smugglers’ Notch.
Route 108, the road that leads from the historic town core of Stowe to the highest peak in Vermont, Mount Mansfield, closes in winter once you reach the outer edge of the Stowe ski area. This allows avid outdoorsmen the opportunity to ascend into a fantastic winter landscape of tall pines and birches, glacial boulders on the side of the twisting snowed-over road, and the iced-over cliffs that form the notch. I’m surrounded by hikers, snowshoers, telemark and cross-country skiers, backcountry boarders, even ice climbers and adventurers with full packs strapped to their backs. Stowe is truly a winter escape that’s accessible to all. Home to the most cele-brated winter carnival in New England, it embraces whatever comes its way from whenever the first snow falls.
Not too long ago, Stowe felt exclusive, strictly reserved for expert skiers who’d throw themselves down the face of 4,393-foot Mount Mansfield. The legendary Front Four trails, all double diamonds, instill respect, even fear, in even the most accomplished skiers, thanks to their steep pitch and serpentine fall line. Others, like myself, would shuttle over to neighboring Spruce Peak, where we’d happily navigate flowing intermediate cruisers. That all changed with the opening of Stowe Mountain Lodge in 2008 and a new base lodge at Spruce Peak the following year. New ski trails and lifts were created to better serve beginners and families.
The most sybaritic ski-in/ski-out resort in New England, the 312-room Stowe Mountain Lodge has the feel of a ski lodge in Jackson Hole, especially when you enter the lobby with its towering two-story-high ceiling. But it’s pure Vermont, down to the native birch twisting around the columns and Lake Champlain marble on the stairs to the après-ski bar, Hourglass. The staff here has been on a serious building spree since the resort’s inception, creating a performing-arts center, 36 holes of golf, and a spa with a heated outdoor pool in winter that rewards you with views of the mountain. A skating rink will open this winter, and a new family Adventure Center next summer.
This sudden burst of growth seems like a shot of adrenaline to other noteworthy hoteliers in town. Topnotch Resort, known for its large spa, lap pool, and tennis courts, has refurbished all of its rooms and transformed its restaurants. Trapp Family Lodge has added a brewery that makes a wonderful lager reminiscent of the founders’ Austrian roots. Edson Hill has tastefully decorated all of its rooms and added a cozy bar downstairs from its acclaimed restaurant.
Stowe is blessed with a wealth of backcountry routes that seem to connect all of the ski-touring centers in town—including the state-long Catamount Trail, the longest public ski trail in North America. On a recent trip, Lisa and I skied a section of the Catamount, around a pond through a tunnel of snowed-over birches, onto a meadow with lounging horses, and then atop a ridge with glorious vistas of Mount Mansfield’s craggy granite peak.
Afterwards, we treated ourselves to a meal at Plate, a popular new restaurant just down the block from the town church. We dined on tasty scallop chowder, seared salmon, burgers, and the house specialty, banana pudding in a mason jar, all washed down with the now-legendary hoppy Vermont IPA called Heady Topper.
#2BETHEL, MAINE Where artists, ski bums, and academics mingle in the mountains.
Long before Bethel boasted one of the top ski resorts in New England, Sunday River, it was a charming New England village with black-shuttered Victorian homes, the requisite village green and white steeple, and a private boarding school, Gould Academy. Today, it’s still a very walkable, unpretentious town of primarily artists, ski bums, and academics who mingle over the sublime bibimbap at Cho Sun or the tasty osso bucco at 22 Broad Street. If you’re looking for a low-key version of Stowe nestled amid the mountains of Maine, with all the activities that the Vermont town offers, Bethel plays no second fiddle.
Sunday River is famous for its snowmaking, its glorious wilderness panoramas from Jordan Bowl, and even more glades and expert terrain thanks to a 50-acre expansion last winter. The Mountain Explorer, a free shuttle, runs all day to get you from Bethel up to Sunday River. Bethel is also home to a second ski area, Mount Abram, known for its learn-to-ski program.
The cross-country skiing network here is the best in Maine, with close to 150 kilometers of trails when you combine Carter’s, the Nordic Ski Center at the Bethel Inn, and the Outdoor Center at Sunday River. Snowmobilers head off into nearby White Mountain National Forest. Registered Maine Guides Polly Mahoney and Kevin Slater, Mahoosuc Guide Service owners, will happily take you on a half-day, full-day, or overnight dogsledding adventure with their trained huskies. Another well-known Registered Maine Guide, Ron Fournier of Orion Outfitters, takes guests ice-fishing for large and small-mouth bass, brookies and brown trout, even salmon and Northern pike.
Then you’ll return to the Bethel Inn for a soak in its heated outdoor pool and a meal in its classic dining room as the sun sets.bethelmaine.com
#3 JACKSON, NEW HAMPSHIRE Escape to another era.
Blink and you’ll miss the turn-off on Route 16 to reach Jackson—and what a pity that would be. Venture through that covered bridge to enter another era, one where serenity and stirring scenery merge to create an ideal escape from modernity at any time of the year, but especially in the winter months. Jackson’s circular green, ringed by inns, antiques shops, and cafés, has been thriving as a resort town since the mid-19th century. But don’t expect any commercialism; that’s eight miles down the road in North Conway.
Jackson is also a gateway to Mount Washington and the Presidential Range. Peer up from the Jackson green and the panorama of peaks is mesmerizing—especially true when you breathe in the pines and venture out to one of the numerous trails maintained by the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation. This nonprofit organization’s web of more than 150 kilometers leads cross-country skiers alongside a brook on the Ellis River Trail or high up into the mountains; optional programs include techique workshops and guided tours. Downhill skiers can head to Wildcat or family-friendly Black Mountain, the oldest lift-served ski area in New Hampshire, boasting a stunning vista of Mount Washington and the Presidentials.
Afterwards, most folks are content to head back to one of the area’s cozy country abodes, such as theChristmas Farm Inn or Eagle Mountain House, to warm up by a roaring fire, sip an après-ski cocktail, and get ready to dine on inspired cooking. It’s a proven recipe for reinvigoration and the reason why outdoors enthusiasts return to this gem of a mountain retreat year after year.jacksonnh.com
#4WOODSTOCK, VERMONT Hard to top the charm factor.
When former Dartmouth ski coach Bunny Bertram installed one of the first tow ropes on a Vermont slope in 1936, he played an integral role in establishing one of the state’s top winter locales. In 1961, that ski area, Suicide Six, was sold to Laurence Rockefeller, owner of theWoodstock Inn, and it became the primary ski resort for the inn’s guests. But let’s not forget about giant Killington, a mere 30-minute drive down U.S. Route 4. While not a ski-in/ski-out destination (you have to drive to both mountains), Woodstock’s charm factor is hard to top once you return.
Within an easy walk of the Woodstock Inn (a misnomer, since it’s now a 143-room resort) are excellent restaurants, including The Prince & The Pauper, which serves innovative fare inspired by flavors that span the globe—yet are created from local produce and meats. The town’s intriguing mix of shops includes one of the state’s oldest general stores, F. H. Gillingham & Sons, stocked with Vermont goodies.
This past winter, the Woodstock Inn teamed with Tubbs Snowshoes to offer naturalist-led snowshoe tours and scavenger tours. The resort also features 10 kilometers of groomed trails at its golf course. For backcountry skiers and snowshoers, a better option is Marsh–Billings–Rockefeller National Historical Park, where you can glide or walk under the old-growth forest and around a pond called The Pogue. Across the road is Billings Farm & Museum, a favorite family stopover to visit the Jersey cows, oxen, and sheep, and to take a horse-drawn sleigh ride.woodstockvt.com
#5NORTH CONWAY, NEW HAMPSHIRE Endless shops, endless choices.
Bargain shoppers everywhere know all about the Settlers’ Green outlets in North Conway, but just down the road you’ll find a welcoming community for families offering every type of winter recreation. Step into the circa-1874 North Conway train station and take an old-fashioned Conway Scenic Railroad jaunt. Or walk across the street to Zeb’s General Store to grab a bagful of candy and a soda from an original Coca-Cola fountain. Long a four-season tourist magnet and a hub for mountain adventurers, this town of under 2,500 residents has more than its share of inns, B&Bs, and national-chain lodgings.
Rising above town are the 57 trails at Cranmore Mountain Resort, which in recent years has added a handful of other winter adventures to attract nonskiers. Get giddy on the Soaring Eagle zipline course, the amusement park–like Giant Swing, and the 10 lanes of tubing, especially fun under the night lights. A 15-minute drive on Route 16 North and you’ll find Jackson’s extensive cross-country ski trails.
Back in North Conway, grab your skates and head to the outdoor rink at Schouler Park. Then check out the après-ski scene at Moat Mountain Smokehouse, known for its tasty wings, ribs, and microbrews on tap. Don’t forget to hit the L.L. Bean store, too.northconwaynh.com
#6WAITSFIELD, VERMONT The heart of the Mad River Valley.
Nothing seems to change here, and that’s the way locals like it, especially when it comes to their two ski areas, Mad River Glen and Sugarbush.
Mad River Glen is truly a place where skiing seems little removed from the mountain’s gnarled, primal state. It still relies almost entirely on MotherNature’s snow and refuses to open its trails to snowboarders; it also boasts the only single chairlift in America. Sugarbush features the New England skiing of yore, a time when trails were cut by hand so they weren’t much wider than a hiking path. On the best trails, like Castlerock, you’re immersed in the woods as you whiz by a rolling tapestry of maples, oaks, birches, spruce, pine, and balsams.
Add the 30 miles of trails at Ole’s Cross Country Center, set on a 1,500-foot plateau that looks across at Sugarbush, plus one of the few round barns still in existence—now home to an indoor swimming pool at the aptly named Inn at Round Barn Farm—and you understand why we love Waitsfield.waitsfieldvt.us, madrivervalley.com
#7RANGELEY, MAINE A vast wilderness around a cozy inn.
It’s a winter wonderland of spruces and pines top-heavy with snow and dotted with iced-over lakes and rising ridges. In winter this vast wilderness is yours to snowmobile, snowshoe, or ice-fish. Skiers are hopeful that Rangeley’s big-boy mountain, Saddleback, finds funding soon to stay open—but if not, famed Sugarloaf is only 26 miles north.
The grande dame of these woods, the Rangeley Inn, offers rooms year-round, just down the block from the heavenly chili found at RedOnion. You can walk the small town in minutes, or simply grab one of those cozy couches at the inn and while away the day with a good book.rangeleymaine.com
#8CAMDEN, MAINE Magic along the bay.
Best known for its picture-perfect harbor and historic windjammers, Camden casts a magic spell come winter. A stroll along the waterfront atHarbor Park is perfect at any time of the year. Then warm up in the adjacent Camden Public Library, another beauty, which originated in 1796 with a donation of 200 books (present building constructed in 1928).
Yet the most intriguing perk here come winter is that this is the only locale in America where you can ski downhill and peer out at an expanse of ocean. Who can resist the salty smell of the sea while riding the double chair to the top of Camden Snow Bowl? One of the smallest peaks in New England, this ski area still has a mom-and-pop appeal, attracting many local families on the weekends. It’s also home to a 440-foot-long ice-coated toboggan chute, where a steep track lets toboggans drop off the side of Ragged Mountain at speeds exceeding 30 miles per hour.
Afterwards, you’ve earned your cup of chowder at Cappy’s and a seat in front of a fireplace at one of the many inns that stay open year-round.camdenmaineexperience.com
#9MIDDLEBURY, VERMONT A perfect college town.
Home to stately college-building façades, the circa-1827 Middlebury Inn, and memorable dining overlooking a waterfall at the Storm Café, Middlebury has a lot in common with Hanover, New Hampshire. After class, students at Middlebury and Dartmouth can carve perfect turns at those retro ski areas, the Middlebury Snow Bowl and the Dartmouth Skiway.
The kicker for Middlebury is that less than a 15-minute drive away are the western slopes of Green Mountain National Forest, where you’ll find a classic cross-country skiing inn, Blueberry Hill. Grab your skis and snowshoes and head out on more than 50 kilometers of backcountry trails through snowed-over pines. Then return to the cozy lodge to fill up on sublime chocolate-chip cookies in front of the fireplace.experiencemiddlebury.com
#10LUDLOW, VERMONT The Mueller touch.
All writers are nostalgic, and since my children grew up skiing at Okemo Mountain Resort, I happen to adore Ludlow. I savor the salad bar at DJ’s Restaurant, the “Vermonter’s Omelette” (apple, bacon, and cheddar) at The Hatchery, and an après-ski Long Trail Limbo IPA on tap at that red barn known as Tom’s Loft Tavern.
Ludlow’s enduring attraction stems from the fervent dedication of Okemo’s former owners and current managers, Diane and Tim Mueller. Year after year, they seem to unveil some new high-tech toy on the slopes, such as the resort’s mountain coaster, or its latest offering, an orange-colored bubble chairlift with heated seats. Plus, the Muellers’ finest achievement was launching the Jackson Gore Inn, easily one of the top three ski-in/ski-out properties in New England.yourplaceinvermont.com
HOW WE CHOSE OUR TOP 10 TOWNS
The finest ski areas don’t necessarily make for the finest ski towns. We looked for places that even nonskiers would love as a getaway, too, and that’s the reason why you won’t find Killington, Vermont, or Carrabassett Valley, Maine, on our list, even though Killington and Sugarloaf are two of New England’s premier ski areas. We didn’t discriminate against big or small locales, inland or coastal; even Newport, Rhode Island, a favorite getaway at any time of the year, was considered. We based our selection on the following essential categories:
Winter sports getaway. Is the town home to a renowned ski area? Does it offer a good network for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or other winter sports, such as dogsledding, ice-fishing, or ice-skating?
Scenery. Do we wake up with a fresh cup of coffee and walk outside to glance up at majestic snowcapped peaks or a freshly painted white steeple piercing the clouds overhead?
Variety of lodging. Handsome inns with the requisite roaring fireplace are integral, but we also wanted to see whether the town offered ski-in/ski-out condos and a full-service resort with spa.
Village charm. Are there fun boutique shops within walking distance of lodging, or special seasonal events, such as a winter carnival?
Cultural attractions. Is the town home to a good museum, a library, historic homes, a theater for plays and live music, or a place to see first-run films?
Guided winter tours and ease of finding winter gear rentals. Are there outfitters such as Tubbs in Woodstock or Umiak in Stowe, which offer guided snowshoe tours? And how easy is it to rent downhill and/or cross-country ski gear for your favorite outing?
Après-ski scene. Does the nightlife include live music and local microbrews on tap? Are the restaurants innovative, with a multiethnic mix and kid-friendly menus? Variety is key to a great après-ski experience.
Accessibility. We not only looked at ease of driving to the town, but whether the place offers public transportation or a shuttle, such as Maine’s Mountain Explorer, which goes from Bethel to Sunday River Ski Resort.