Ski East: Weekend at Hunter Mountain

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Since the early days of the Industrial Revolution, when leisure time was an embryonic ideal, the Catskill Mountains have been a vacation haven for New York City's working class. While the Catskills' summer tourist fortunes have sagged during the past two decades, its major ski areas continue to draw snow-hungry city dwellers in winter. None has captured the New York spirit more than Hunter Mountain. Though it may not be the "Snowmaking Capital of the World" that it calls itself, Hunter does a splendid job of both snowmaking and grooming. The area keeps the snowguns pumping at every opportunity through most of the season. And, with the right conditions, Hunter can turn a rain-soaked or sloppy mountain into a winter wonderland overnight. But the Hunter region will never be mistaken for Stowe, Vt., or North Conway, N.H. Both Hunter and its sister lodging and entertainment base, Tannersville, lack the charm of the former and the commercial bustle of the latter.

Skiing, however, is why most folks head to Hunter. The lure of close-to-home big-mountain skiing keeps skiers flocking there, especially on weekends. While other resorts might offer better amenities, Hunter does it best for pure skiing close to New York City-with 1,600 feet of often gnarly vertical, it's no Berkshire bump.

Friday Evening
Type A Manhattanites, Brooklynites and Long Islanders routinely try to the beat the under/over Hunter time-"Made it in less than 2 hours"-but those with a dose of reality, sanity and safety allot 2 1/2 or even 3 hours for a Friday afternoon rush-hour departure. Whether you want a late-night brew or a charbroiled steak dinner, a Friday evening arrival means a stop at PJ Larkins in Tannersville. Owners Pete Larkin and Jimmy Selkirk always know the latest gossip, and are more than willing to share it. You'll find one of Hunter's owners, Orville Slutzky, holding court at Larkins a couple of nights a week. Don't be shy about stopping by his table and saying hello. Larkins' large U-shaped bar dominates the center of the restaurant, with two TVs usually showing the evening's marquee sporting event. If it's still football season and you missed the office pool, you may be able to join the Larkins group.

Throughout the Eighties and into the early Nineties, Hunter had a devilish reputation as a destination for one long 48-hour party. Share houses were snapped up by city-dwelling Baby Boomers who poured in on Friday nights for a frosty replication of the steamy summer scene at the Jersey shore. The place has calmed down a lot-the partying is not nearly as long or as loud as it once was. The crowds seem a little older, and more families are making the weekend trek to Hunter rather than face five-hour drives to Vermont.

But the area still has glittering pockets of debauchery. Both Friday and Saturday nights, Tannersville's two prime dance clubs-Tanner's Tool & Die and Slopes-rock well into the morning, as does the Hunter Village Inn in Hunter.

Saturday Morning
This is a New Yorker's ski area and the pace is as fast and furious as Grand Central Station. Be prepared to compete for everything from a locker to a parking space. A school bus shuttles skiers from the outer reaches of the parking lot, but savvy regulars who miss the close-in spots head to the Hunter One beginner area and jump on C-lift to reach the main mountain lifts. (Note: Lift tickets are sold at the Hunter One area on weekends only.)

If you need to store gear in the main lodge and don't want to lug it from the lot, a drop-off area is next to the lodge. Remember to lock up your stuff or ask a friend to watch over it. Good skis have a tendency to grow legs.

When ticket lines become long, use the "cash only" or Guest Services windows on the side of the base lodge. Few people know you can purchase tickets there, so lines are usually nonexistent.

Hunter's SKIwee and MiniRider programs for kids are housed in a separate building to the left of the dge. Be sure to make reservations and arrive early. The scene can resemble a Wizard of Oz munchkin reunion. On peak days, the programs reach capacity, and if you're not registered by 9:15 am, your child's spot may be given away.

If you haven't had breakfast, grab a cup of java and some of the cafeteria's freshly baked coffee cakes-they put Drake's to shame-before heading out.

On The Hill
Beginners and low intermediates should turn left out the front door of the base lodge and head to Hunter One. Better still, sign up for a beginner ski or snowboard lesson and start the day with some game improvement. The beginner ski package ($45) gives you access to all the lower mountain trails and lifts, including Hunter's new Broadway Limited and 20th Century Limited fixed-grip quads. H-lift, at the area's far left boundary, is usually empty and is a great place for learners to practice their skills on busy days.

The AA-lift (everyone just calls it "The Quad") is dead center in front of the base lodge; it's Hunter's lone high-speed lift and the expressway to the top. Intermediates and above should take the quad to the summit and snake their way around the mountaintop to Hellgate. Don't let the name scare you; during early morning hours, this is an excellent place to ski the wide, sunny trail to midstation. By noon, the crowds have usually skied off the good snow, and Hellgate grows bumps that live up to its moniker. Experts may opt instead for The Cliff, a tighter but parallel alternative to Hellgate. From midstation, cruise down Seventh Avenue onto Gun Hill Road (hey, this is a ski area for New Yorkers) and head back up.

Skiers looking for a less challenging warmup should enjoy Belt Parkway, like its namesake city highway, a meandering cruise that runs back to the base. Essentially a ledge trail carved from the shoulder of Hunter's rocky flanks, it gets little sun and tends to glaze up earlier than other trails. Get your fill early.

After 10 am, the queue on the quad grows long. Hunter West, an experts-only area, should be open by now and better skiers should head there and stay off the main mountain. Even though Hunter West is served by two older doubles, you'll probably get in more skiing. Intermediates usually shy away from West because of its reputation, but Way Out, a relatively gentle expert run, feeds down to the West lifts. You can then ride up and see if you can handle West's testy main trails.

If not, find the Heuga Express trail, a wide, well-groomed cruiser that dumps out below midstation. This is a great trail for advanced intermediates and experts because the access is somewhat hidden, which means the run isn't as well-traveled as the rest of the front side of the mountain.

Mountain Dining
Creatures of the city's lunch-hour habit, Hunter skiers tend to flood the base lodge from noon to about 1:30 pm. The smart move is to grab a hot pretzel from the stand in front of the base lodge, a bit of barbecue slopeside, or just munch an energy bar and ski through the lunch crunch. Even better, pack a picnic and bring it up to the Wine Rock sundeck, which is smack in the middle of Hellgate just below midstation. You can grab some rays and feel like Moses as the snowboarders and skiers part around you.

If you break for lunch in the base lodge, the options are as varied as midtown Manhattan's. If you choose to brave the high-noon crowds and can't find a table in the cafeteria (where, incidentally, all the soups are great), try The Plaza in the west wing of the base lodge between the cafeteria and The Restaurant, a generically named sit-down eatery with marginal food.

For an overstuffed deli sandwich, go to Jerry's Mini Cafe, where they serve amazing corned beef, pastrami and roast beef. The Summit Lounge sushi bar makes first-rate California and tuna rolls. The Pizza and Bagel Bars are not bad, but for New York specialty foods, they fall just short of city standards.

Après-ski
Hunter's après-ski scene isn't what it once was, but that's not to say there isn't still a lot happening. Most skiers usually gather at one of the two base lodge bars, trying to decide on where to go and what to eat that night. Directly across from the mountain is a little strip mall housing Michael's Pub. There was a time when Michael's was packed with people dancing on the bar. Today, you can usually find a seat at the bar, and you can actually hear what the person sitting next to you is saying. About a half-mile up the road is Tequila's, a Mexican restaurant with an active après-ski bar and a friendly crowd that favors classic Seventies rock.

For a more romantic, low-key après-ski and dinner, try the Mountain Brook next to Schoarie Creek, just outside the entrance to Hunter. There's a comfortable couch to sink into near the bar, and the wood stove constantly roars in the dining area. It probably has the best food in the area, serving fine continental fare such as savory filet mignon.

Families and skiers still burning with energy head to Tannersville's Rip Van Winkle Rink for ice skating. If there is enough natural snow, nearby Silver Springs Ranch has snowmobiling, and there's cross-country skiing at Hyer Meadows. In Hunter, there's an aging single-screen theater that will have you yearning for the Sony multiplex near Lincoln Center. But if you must see a flick, it will do.

Catskill Corners, about 20 minutes from Hunter in Mount Tremper, is a good late-afternoon diversion. The renovated barn retail center boasts the World's Largest Kaleidoscope (an old barn silo with laser lights bouncing off the walls). Take-home versions are available in the adjacent Kaleidostore. The Spotted Dog restaurant in the Corners is a good family spot. The pub-style restaurant has pieces of old fire trucks inside, including cabs in which kids can sit and play firefighter. The Saturday evening Fireman's Follies comedy review is also fun for families.

Sunday
If skiing is the one and only reason you're at Hunter, then just get up Sunday morning and repeat what you did on Saturday.

For a change of pace, try the snowtubing hill built this past summer. Adjacent to the Liftside condos, there are two specially built tows to haul you and your tube up 1,000 feet. It's a great way to take nonskiing friends sliding. And if your friends decide to try skiing or snowboarding, the cost of their tubing ticket can be applied toward the price of a lesson package.

If Sunday means big breakfasts for you, try Maggie's Krooked Cafe in Tannersville for wonderful pancakes and French toast. The Pancake House in Haines Falls specializes in, well, you guessed it.

Unlike many other ski areas, there's no early afternoon exodus from Hunter. After all, that's why New Yorkers come here; it's just a couple of hours back to the Big Apple, so you can ski a full day and still get home at a decent hour. If the weather has turned sour for the ride home, take the alternate route (NY 214) through Phoenicia and pick up the Thruway at Kingston. It's a bit longer, but it's not as steep and twisty as 32A and 23A.

If you're a true New Yorker on the go, you'll eat dinner in the car on the way home. For big sandwiches on fresh baked bread, stop at Dolph Semenza's Village Market & Deli in Tannersville. And make sure to get a cream soda to wash it all down.b>
Hunter's après-ski scene isn't what it once was, but that's not to say there isn't still a lot happening. Most skiers usually gather at one of the two base lodge bars, trying to decide on where to go and what to eat that night. Directly across from the mountain is a little strip mall housing Michael's Pub. There was a time when Michael's was packed with people dancing on the bar. Today, you can usually find a seat at the bar, and you can actually hear what the person sitting next to you is saying. About a half-mile up the road is Tequila's, a Mexican restaurant with an active après-ski bar and a friendly crowd that favors classic Seventies rock.

For a more romantic, low-key après-ski and dinner, try the Mountain Brook next to Schoarie Creek, just outside the entrance to Hunter. There's a comfortable couch to sink into near the bar, and the wood stove constantly roars in the dining area. It probably has the best food in the area, serving fine continental fare such as savory filet mignon.

Families and skiers still burning with energy head to Tannersville's Rip Van Winkle Rink for ice skating. If there is enough natural snow, nearby Silver Springs Ranch has snowmobiling, and there's cross-country skiing at Hyer Meadows. In Hunter, there's an aging single-screen theater that will have you yearning for the Sony multiplex near Lincoln Center. But if you must see a flick, it will do.

Catskill Corners, about 20 minutes from Hunter in Mount Tremper, is a good late-afternoon diversion. The renovated barn retail center boasts the World's Largest Kaleidoscope (an old barn silo with laser lights bouncing off the walls). Take-home versions are available in the adjacent Kaleidostore. The Spotted Dog restaurant in the Corners is a good family spot. The pub-style restaurant has pieces of old fire trucks inside, including cabs in which kids can sit and play firefighter. The Saturday evening Fireman's Follies comedy review is also fun for families.

Sunday
If skiing is the one and only reason you're at Hunter, then just get up Sunday morning and repeat what you did on Saturday.

For a change of pace, try the snowtubing hill built this past summer. Adjacent to the Liftside condos, there are two specially built tows to haul you and your tube up 1,000 feet. It's a great way to take nonskiing friends sliding. And if your friends decide to try skiing or snowboarding, the cost of their tubing ticket can be applied toward the price of a lesson package.

If Sunday means big breakfasts for you, try Maggie's Krooked Cafe in Tannersville for wonderful pancakes and French toast. The Pancake House in Haines Falls specializes in, well, you guessed it.

Unlike many other ski areas, there's no early afternoon exodus from Hunter. After all, that's why New Yorkers come here; it's just a couple of hours back to the Big Apple, so you can ski a full day and still get home at a decent hour. If the weather has turned sour for the ride home, take the alternate route (NY 214) through Phoenicia and pick up the Thruway at Kingston. It's a bit longer, but it's not as steep and twisty as 32A and 23A.

If you're a true New Yorker on the go, you'll eat dinner in the car on the way home. For big sandwiches on fresh baked bread, stop at Dolph Semenza's Village Market & Deli in Tannersville. And make sure to get a cream soda to wash it all down.