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Friday, September 21 Sports

Prepping for season’s best snow conditions in Vt.

Ask a skier or snowboarder how their season is going and you’ll likely hear some wicked weather stories.

Like the times it was minus 30 degrees, when the upper mountain lifts were closed because of high winds or when big snowstorms went out to sea.

Then there was the three feet of snow that fell in one week in Vermont.

Yes, it’s been a winter of extremes when snow conditions have been good and, not so good.

Just when the next big snow will come is hard to predict. Longer range forecasts from the Climate Prediction Center call for above average temperatures and precipitation through early March.

Historically, from late February to at least, mid- March, is the time for the season’s best snow conditions with most trails open. And March is the snowiest month of the year in places like Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

Realistically, I think we have at least six weeks of good conditions left. Yes, some areas are open through most of April and some into May. But once we get deeper into spring, temperatures start to rise, causing variable snow conditions throughout the day.

Personally, I prefer powder/packed powder conditions, colder temperatures and faster snow.

Now is the time to carve out some time, and money, and plan a trip up north to enjoy what will likely be the best conditions of the season.

But, don’t wait until the big snow comes. A couple of feet of powder often triggers a rush on room bookings. Wait and you may end up with a room costing more and farther from the mountain.

Years ago, it was much harder to plan ahead.

Before the internet, finding a good place to stay meant calling up a ski area lodging association and have it book a room based on the price you want to pay. Ski resorts also published their own winter guides with listings of lodges, prices and whether food was included.

One of the big things in the 1960s and 70s, was the “ski week” where you would spend days with the same people and ski instructor. Included in the week was après skiing with wine and, of course, fondue. Maybe, more.

Today, you can do everything by yourself. We’re pretty much on our own to plan our time - and how much we want to pay.

For a destination, I’m suggesting Vermont because it’s easy to get there - a straight shot up I-91 - and because I’ve been there many times, I know my way around this beautiful state, once known as “New Connecticut.”

By the way, if a Vermonter starts calling you a “flatlander,” respectfully mention that the Green Mountain Boys’ Ethan Allen was born in Litchfield ... Connecticut. Yup, Connecticut.

History aside, Vermont has big mountain skiing and resorts that have their own special appeal for families (Smuggler’s and Okemo) to au naturel (Mad River Glen with no snow-making or fancy amenities). All resorts can also rebound quickly after “non-frozen precipitation” falls.

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If you’re not sure which area to visit, go to Ski Vermont. It has all the info on the resorts, deals, updated snow conditions and events for all alpine and Nordic areas. There’s also direct links to individual resorts.

Once you decide what mountains to ski or ride, choose the days you want to be there.

Do not, repeat do not, buy your tickets at the ticket window; most ski areas sell their tickets online at prices up to 50 percent cheaper. For example an online Stratton lift ticket for Wednesday, March 7 goes for $49. Buy it at the ticket window and you’ll pay $66 more.

Many areas offer discounted spring season passes that start around mid-March. If you’ll be skiing or riding at a resort for several days, the spring pass could be cheaper than buying a multi-day ticket. It’s one of those do the math things.

Ski areas also have lifts and lodging packages. You can book packages yourself or have someone find it for you by simply calling the lodging number on an area’s web site.

For lodging, I like to use Trivago because it’s simple to navigate and allows you to compare prices and properties from multiple web sites. It also tells you about free cancellations, whether a pre-payment is needed and lots of candid reviews. One of its coolest things is its search feature; just type in the name of a ski resort (like Mount Snow, Killington or Stratton) and it finds all the lodging in the area.

Make sure to read the details of the property. For example, resort-owned properties often charge a resort fee, in addition to lodging taxes. Sometimes there are ads showing a per person price for a condo. But often that price is based on maximum occupancy of the unit; less than max occupancy means the price will be higher per person.

Pick the dates

First, midweek is best not only price, but lodging availability. You’ll also get lower prices on lift tickets and much fewer people on the hill and in the lift lines.

Getting there

The most direct route to Vermont is I-91 north. From southern Connecticut, it takes a little over two hours to cross the Vermont state line. Try to schedule your trip to avoid rush hour delays in Waterbury, New Haven and Hartford.

Yes, you can get to Vermont by taking Route 7 (that begins, or ends, in Norwalk), but I wouldn’t do it because there are so many towns with traffic lights, especially in Massachusetts, that it will bog you down and add lots of extra time.

Instead, take Route 22 in New York state; just a few miles west of Route 7. It passes through small towns and farmland with most speeds about 55 mph. You can connect with Route 7 in Hoosick Falls, N.Y. to Bennington, Vermont in southern Vermont for access to Bromley, Stratton and Magic Mountain.

Keep in mind you’re traveling to ski or snowboard, not take in the sites.

Take I-91.

It’s not only the quickest route, but gives you more options. Everybody loves options.

Stops along the way

Coffee stop: An easy-on, easy-off Starbucks is right off I-91 Exit 6 in Springfield, Mass. It opens at 4:30 a.m.

Pit stop: The Vermont Welcome Center in Guilford is five miles over the Vermont border. The post and beam barn pays tribute to Vermont’s agricultural roots down the farming tools in the yard. There’s 24-hour access to to restrooms, vending machines, ATM, free wi-fi, and maps.

Diners: If you got the time, eat with the locals in a classic Vermont diner before getting to the ski area. Personal favorites on the way to Mount Snow include the Celsea Royal Dinner in West Brattleboro and Dot’s Restaurant in Wilmington. On Route 30 heading to Stratton, there’s the Townshend Dam Diner. On the road to Okemo and Killington on Route 103, there’s The Hatchery in downtown Ludlow.

Watch your speed: Sure you saved a lot on lift tickets, but don’t lose that money by getting a speeding ticket. The best places to get nailed is in smaller towns like Woodstock, Bridgewater and Ludlow, Vermont.

The local police are smart by stationing themselves in places not easily seen, like curves in the roads or hidden on the sides of buildings. Revenue generators? Maybe, but be smarter: don’t speed in their towns.

On the way back

Vermont Country Store: Yes, it’s touristy, but it has lots of good products from clothing (some made in Vermont), kitchen gadgets, food (including a deli) and toys. On Route 103 in Rockingham, the store also offers samples or Vermont cheeses, crackers and other food delights.

Vermont Food-Co-Op: Located in downtown Brattleboro, just off I-91, this supermarket; it’s go everything like cheese, maple syrup, locally raised meat, deli and local craft beer and hard cider. Every time I drive through its downtown, I marvel at the restored late 19-century building that line its streets. Nearly all have businesses like the Brattle Burger and Sam’s Outdoor Outfitters.

From Brattleboro, it takes about 90 minutes to reach Hartford. Compute your drive time from Vermont if you want to avoid the peak PM traffic (from around 4 to 7:30 p.m.). Those two or three extra runs could cost you lots more time stuck in traffic.

jshay@ctpost.com

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