Ski East: Learning From The Berkshires

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If the ski resorts dotting Berkshire County in Western Massachusetts go looking for a spokesman, they might want to hang around the base area at tiny Otis Ridge. Most winter afternoons, that's the place to find 14-year-old Jake Tonlino. A homegrown Berkshire County skier, Jake's been zipping around Otis Ridge since he was 2, and started racing gates for the local club as soon as he was old enough. He knows the hill like he knows the layout of his parents' house. He knows most of the people on the slopes, too, and they call out to him from the lift.

Jake has skied all over the Berkshires, from Brodie up north to Butternut a few miles west. "They're all different in their own way," he says. "But they're all good family places."

Give that kid a season pass, because he just said the secret word: family.

Talk to enough people wrangling their brood on the slopes, chasing them around the hotel pool or feeding them into slumberland at the region's restaurants, and you'll learn how the words "family" and "value" have made southern New England one of the best places to start your offspring on a lifetime of skiing.

If Tonlino's stomping grounds at Otis Ridge¿which imports New York-area kids by the busload every season¿is a classic "feeder" resort, the Berkshires is a feeder region, molding the next generation of skiers while keeping their parents entertained. The handful of resorts there are wedged into a beautiful 60-mile corridor along the western border of Massachusetts. Many of them employ "mountain" and "peak" in their name, but this is essentially hill country: The highest vertical drops barely top 1,200 feet.

"It's not a size experience," concedes Tyler Fairbanks, marketing director of Jiminy Peak, the region's largest resort. Fairbanks doubles as president of the Berkshire Visitors Bureau, which has seen the region's slice of the New England tourist pie grow to 2 million visitors a year, with almost a quarter of them coming for the skiing.

Still, few tourists outside the immediate vicinity have caught on to the region's year-round appeal, focusing instead on summer draws like the Tanglewood music festival.

"You can mention the Berkshires, and you can say Norman Rockwell and Tanglewood, and people say, 'Oh, I know that,'" says Peter Kenney of Bousquet ski area. "But as far as recognition for winter activities, it's not quite there yet."

Not even the most enthusiastic marketing director will try to convince you that this is Aspen¿or even Stowe. If Berkshire boosters can't point to an individual resort that's quite big enough to hold an experienced skier's attention for a full week, the compact size of the region makes it perfect for a smorgasbord approach.

An ideal week would involve shuttling between the larger resorts¿Jiminy Peak and Butternut Basin¿and the more intimate neighborhood hills, such as Otis Ridge and Bousquet. The latter hill is located so close to the urban center of Pittsfield that the night-skiing floodlights seem to illuminate the entire city.

Wherever you go, the house special is long, gentle groomers, perfect for novice adults and helmeted juniors. Still, almost every hill throws some red meat to experts¿or ambitious youngsters like Tonlino¿such as Catamount's double-diamond Catapult and Bousquet's short-but-sweet Roberto's Chute.

North of the Berkshires, the resorts of Vermont, New Hampshire and Quebec can count on a little more help from nature; the Berkshires, which get less than 100 inches of snow in an average season, depend on snowmaking and have nurtured both the equipment and personnel to keep things covered. At each resort, guns blaze day and night to ensure that even if it's balmy in your backyard, it's winter on the hill.

The buses and SUVs roll in from New York City, New Jersey and Long Island (a drive of 2-3 hours), as well as Albany, N.Y., and Boston. The Massachusetts flavor is especially pungent at Brodie Mountain, probablly the only ski resort in the world with a leprechaun as its trademark.

"We try to keep the element of fun prominent," says Matt Kelly, the second-generation general manager of the scrappy resort, also known as "the Irish Alps." On St. Patrick's Day, an entire slope is coated with green snow; the resort's lounge¿called The Blarney Room¿looks like the sort of joint where the Rat Pack might have enjoyed après-ski cocktails. Downstairs, the snack bar features a gallery of signed glossies from stars (Barbra Streisand, Paul Newman, Stevie Wonder¿not big ski names), thanking Kelly for his commitment to environmental causes.

If Brodie is the party-hearty Irish uncle in the family of Berkshire resorts, Jiminy Peak is the upstanding and ambitious older brother. The only resort in the region with a quad chair and a big-mountain-sized base area, its recent lodging expansion makes it the region's closest thing to a "destination" resort.

But family ownership lends each resort a unique character. At Butternut, it's expressed in the "groom at noon" policy, which ensures a fresh surface throughout the day. At Bousquet, scores of local skiers work on a co-op basis, putting in a few hours a week for a ski pass and giving the lodge the feel of a community center.

In 1998, an article in USA Today named Jiminy as one of the top 10 resorts for learning to ski, but instruction seems to be Job 1 at every Berkshire resort. "We have to be proficient, if not specialists, in teaching," says Al Hewitt, general manager of Otis Ridge.

Hewitt's bearish charm was characteristic of many Berkshire operators: Chain-smoking and garrulous, he shows off his hill like a proud papa, not a front-office smoothie. He believes a child who learns on a small hill is less likely to feel overwhelmed and more likely to develop the slopeside etiquette that comes from skiing alongside friends and neighbors.

In addition to ski schooling, the region places great emphasis on "cultural tourism," which decodes as "plenty to do when your Baby Boomer knees start to fade on Day Four."

There's a museum for every taste. The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown houses a world-class collection of works by Degas, Monet and Winslow Homer, while Stockbridge's Norman Rockwell Museum honors the dean of Americana, as well as other illustrators. The Hancock Shaker Village is close to Brodie and Jiminy Peak, while the kid-friendly Berkshire Museum¿where the midwinter 1999 exhibit was subtitled "Great Toys from Our Childhood"¿sits at the center of Pittsfield. Otis Ridge, Butternut and Catamount orbit around Great Barrington, a plusher community of great restaurants, funky book stores and an impressive "antiques alley" running south across the Connecticut border on U.S. 7, the route that forms the region's backbone.

While the Berkshire resorts have felt the cold wind of hard times and the warm breeze of lousy weather, they will continue to function like a well-oiled assembly line, taking in city kids and first-timers and turning them into well-mannered little hotshots.

"People learn to ski here," says Bousquet's Peter Kenney. "And they'll come back."