Read more: New England’s Small Slopes and Inns
We don’t have to remember wooden skis and cable bindings to feel nostalgic for the days before skiing became a Big Production — before terms like “mega” and “beast” started turning up in guidebook descriptions of ski areas. What we’re conjuring is an era when a ski trip was as cozy as a cup of cocoa, with small, familiar hills patronized by congenial crowds and warm inns to nestle into at night.
Fortunately, we don’t have to pull on a reindeer sweater, buckle into a pair of seven-foot hickories, and ski into the past to recapture the days before destination resorts crowded out the small operations. In Vermont alone, we’ve found areas ranging from boutique-size hills to low-key major players — all of them welcome throwbacks to the days when skiing in America was young. And none of them is more than a few miles from an inviting guest house, inn, or B&B, all of them among the coziest accommodations in the Green Mountain State.
The Woodstock Region is one of the cradles of skiing in North America, and two small, friendly areas stay true to the leather-boot era, when you could step away from the fireplace, look out the lodge windows, and pick your next run from a complete panorama of your mountain’s trails.
Dating back to the 1930s, Suicide Six — named for South Pomfret’s wild “Hill No. 6,” though it probably never lived up to its more fearsome moniker — must have once boasted only half a dozen slopes. Today it has almost four times as many and sprawls across a 1,200-foot hillside, not far from where a group of weekend ski pals set up the East’s first rope tow. It was purchased by Laurance Rockefeller in 1962 and is now part of the Woodstock Inn resort complex. Inn guests ski here as part of their package.
But the rest of us are welcome, too — welcome to tear down The Face, a minute’s worth of hell-for-leather schussbooming, or to meander the aptly named Easy Mile, a looping novice run. Head over to an intermediate cruiser called The Gully early enough after an overnight snowfall, and you’ll likely get first tracks. At the bottom, the big, open fireplace in the glassy lodge burns four-foot lengths of hardwood.
Even dedicated connoisseurs of the cozier Vermont ski areas may never have heard of Quechee Ski Hill — much less know that on weekends it welcomes folks who aren’t even remotely connected to the upscale Quechee Lakes development and its private Quechee Club. As for the way it welcomes them, Quechee is the only ski area in Vermont where you’ll ride from the parking area or lodge to the foot of the slopes in an open sleigh pulled by a pair of handsome draft horses.
Like the horses, Quechee’s trails are gentle and handsomely groomed. The lower reaches are wonderful learning areas for kids, but even a reasonably advanced skier or snowboarder can have a good time here. The Quechee Express, beneath the chairlift, has a good pitch, and you can veer off onto several broad, undulating chutes.
The Quechee Inn at Marshland Farm is the snuggery of choice in these parts. Its original section dates to 1793, and its talkative, wide-board pine floors are part of the pedigree every cozy old inn ought to have. Just as important is a big, antiques-filled common room with a crackling wood fire; here, each afternoon, you’ll find a plate of fresh cookies and complimentary coffee, tea, and cocoa. You can also curl up by the fire and order a drink from the bar before dinner, which chef Edward Kroes prepares with local ingredients, creating unique and flavorful dishes such as maple stout-braised short ribs.
The Quechee Inn stands at the head of the Wilderness Trails cross-country ski center, and it’s just a five-minute drive from Quechee Ski Hill. Inn guests pay a discounted fee at the Hill and can ski there even during holiday periods blacked out to the public.
At Middlebury Snow Bowl in hancock, the atmosphere is not only congenial but collegiate. That’s because the Snow Bowl belongs to Middlebury College — it’s the home terrain of its acclaimed Panthers ski team — though the area has been open to the general public since its first trails were cut by students and Civilian Conservation Corps workers in the 1930s.
The grooming is first-rate, giving the slopes a clean-cut, Ivy League-style corduroy look, and the terrain is remarkably varied for a small area. There aren’t too many intermediate trails, but the black diamonds aren’t all that scary — they’re divided between mogul runs and broad steeps. For novices, Wissler and Voter offer gentle cruising terrain.
The summit views are among Vermont skiing’s finest, with the peaks of the central Green Mountains rising to the north, south, and east. The ski chow in the big, sunny lodge is just about the most reasonably priced in the state: Plow into a tub of under-$3 chili, and you’ll feel as though you’re on a particularly generous college meal plan … maybe the one for champion skiers.
There are several decent inns along Route 125, the Middlebury Gap Scenic Road that passes the Snow Bowl, but our preference would be to stay some 20 minutes away in Middlebury, a lovely town for après-ski strolling and dining. A cozy place to put up is The Inn on the Green, an 1803 mansion with carriage house, adjacent to Middlebury’s town common.
The touch that puts this bright and sunny inn high on the coziness scale is breakfast in bed. It’s not an optional service here; it’s the only way to start your day. Just tell the innkeeper what time you’d like to have your tray delivered, and it will arrive laden with fresh-from-the-oven treats from Middlebury’s Otter Creek Bakery.
The past few decades have seen too many small, intimate Vermont ski areas disappear, but at least one has come back to life. Although Magic Mountain was so christened by founder Hans Thorner after the Thomas Mann novel, the successful revival of this Londonderry area adds more meaning to the name. Closed in 1991 following 30 years of operation, Magic reopened for the 1997-98 season after trails were recut and cleared of brush.
Magic’s strong suit is the challenging pitch of its slopes on Glebe Mountain, and what skiers call the “classic New England character” of its generally winding, narrow trails. But Magic isn’t all tough terrain. Although it has its share of double black diamonds, its popularity with families stems largely from the web of novice and intermediate cruisers on the mountain’s easterly flank.
Magic Mountain is amply served by lodgings on Route 11 and along its access road, but if cozy is what you’re looking for, head five miles north to The Inn at Weston. Long an icon among classic Vermont villages, Weston is home to craft shops, art galleries, and the Vermont Country Store. Its snug, compact character — a single street leading to a jewel of a town green — is reflected in the inn’s homey 1848 main building, carriage house, and Coleman House annex.
Homey … but with a luxe accent. Ample whirlpool tubs and gas fireplaces complement several of the handsome guest rooms, the pub is stocked with single-malt Scotches, and innkeeper Linda Aldrich might sauté shiitake mushrooms to top off a breakfast frittata made with Vermont cheddar. In the evening, she turns the kitchen over to chef Cassidy Warren, whose creations pair well with an award-winnng cellar list.
Other Vermont inns may have greenhouses, but none like this one. Those aren’t herbs and field greens out there; the glass walls cocoon Bob Aldrich’s collection of some 1,000 orchids, representing half as many species and hybrids, which he’s been cultivating for two decades. He moved them, gingerly, from New Jersey when he and Linda bought the inn seven years ago. “Probably 90 percent of our guests ask to see them,” says Bob, who graciously obliges with tours of the coziest little rain forest in the Green Mountains.
Way up in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, there’s a ski area big enough to have trained American Olympians, yet cozy enough to draw families. They know that Burke Mountain has the terrain and the variety to challenge skiers and snowboarders at every skill level.
Part of Burke’s allure is its two-tiered layout. A high-speed quad chairlift on the lower, gentler portion of the mountain delivers novices to a quartet of long, loping cruisers; ski here, and you’ll feel as though you’ve found a learner’s haven tucked away in a world of its own. But just a short slide from the top of that lower lift is a second quad that lofts the more advanced crowd to a summit with views of the entire Kingdom and beyond, into Quebec and New Hampshire’s White Mountains — and to a slew of zigzagging intermediate trails, daunting black-diamond runs, and some harrowing glades (Throbulator, anyone?).
If you can’t calculate the coziness factor of a 440-acre farm, you haven’t stayed at The Inn at Mountain View Farm, which occupies the core of hotel magnate Elmer Darling’s model dairy operation from the early 20th century. Although the original inhabitants are long gone, Darling’s imposing barns remain. (One houses a thriving nonprofit farm-animal sanctuary.) The present-day inn hosts guests in a rambling farmhouse and a tidy brick creamery that stand on a lofty byway scarcely 10 minutes from the slopes at Burke Mountain, and just steps from the 50-kilometer Kingdom Trails cross-country network.
The upstairs rooms in the creamery once housed workers who made butter and cheese, and who wouldn’t recognize today’s plush beds and cheerful colors. Lodgings here are the last word in quiet and seclusion. There are no phones or TVs in guest rooms, and the whole blissfully empty Northeast Kingdom seems to serve as insulation. The setting is so private and otherworldly that it’s a surprise to head downstairs in the morning and find that someone’s been making muffins, waffles, or omelets for your breakfast.
And that’s what cozy is all about.