Ski East: Weekend at Loon Mountain

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Loon Mountain, in central New Hampshire's White Mountains, may not win any awards in individual categories¿it's not the steepest or the most glamorous¿but it is one of New England's most well-rounded ski resorts. It's also one of its most popular, thanks to an agreeable edge-of-the-wilderness feel, big-mountain services and amazing accessibility. Bostonians can turn the key to the door of their condo two hours after leaving the city.

Loon was cutting edge when it opened in 1966; it had a gondola, two chairlifts, an octagonal base lodge and a radical policy of limiting lift ticket sales. While many things have changed at the resort today, that policy is still in place, making Loon one of the few ski areas in North America to restrict the number of skiers on its slopes.

A new Loon era began this past summer when Booth Creek Holdings, a major player in the national ski area consolidation wars, bought the resort. What that means for Loon skiers remains to be seen. It is likely, however, that the resort's new owners will push hard for the long-anticipated expansion onto South Mountain, which would create new trails and lifts rising directly out of the nearby town of Lincoln. Two trails were cut last season, but a request for an Environmental Impact Statement has delayed the project for at least one year. (See East News, "Whose Woods Are These?") Despite a new owner, one thing is certain: Loon will remain a prime destination for skiers looking to get away for the weekend, and every Friday night, a steady stream of cars will head up I-93.

Friday Evening
OK, a two-hour commute is not always realistic. The fact is, the ride up from Boston can be very slow, especially if the weather is even a little dicey, so plan accordingly. Leave early if you can. Pack snacks. And accept the drive as a small price to pay for a weekend of fun.

Once you arrive, both Loon and nearby Lincoln have plenty of lodging options¿the area has 13,000 beds and rates that are among New England's most reasonable. Most inns and condominiums have ski-and-stay packages that offer good value. The Village at Loon has condominiums in a range of sizes and rates¿all located across the street from the slopes. The best and most expensive hotel is the slopeside Mountain Club on Loon, with rooms and suites that sleep up to eight people. Guests have access to the hotel's fitness center and spas. In Lincoln, the modern 96-room Mill House Inn has an enclosed walkway leading to the town's theaters and shops. Once an industrial logging town, Lincoln has evolved into a busy tourist center. People looking for a more romantic destination should head to North Woodstock (just three miles from Loon) and stay at the Woodstock Inn. For those on a tighter budget, Parker's Motel in North Lincoln has clean, basic rooms.

Dining options are equally varied. Say you check into the Mountain Club, but you're so wired from the drive that you can't stand the thought of assembling the troops around a restaurant table. Solution: Call room service and have a pizza delivered from Foodees, a reasonably priced restaurant conveniently located in the hotel. If a big-screen TV and a burger sounds about right, head for the Granite Grill, also in the hotel¿it's open until midnight. Craving classic ski town gestalt¿fireplace, prime rib, barnboard siding, dart board? Try the Common Man, but beware: Though it has just been expanded, it's so popular you may still have to wait for a table.

Saturday Morning
Daily ticket sales are limited to 6,100 and, while sellouts are rare (it happened twice last year), it doesn't hurt to book your lift tickets in advance (603-745-8111, ext. 5530). Lessons, rental gear and a spot in the daycare center can also be reserved. If your kids are headed for the Children's Center, drive to the small drop-off area near the facility. You can also quickly unload the car in one of the turnaround spaces by the base lodges. on has added some new close-in parking, though the nature of the narrow crescent-shaped base area limits any major expansions, making parking here somewhat of a hassle.

The resort does plan to improve its transportation system this year, including a free lodges-to-slopes shuttle bus, which is probably your best bet if you're sleeping off-campus. (Mountain Club guests have free overnight parking at the club.)

If you plan to ski the easiest terrain, start from the Governor Adams base area. If you want to be near the gondola and the tougher trails, make the Octagon your headquarters. Both lodges have baskets and lockers in which to stow your gear, and a small train travels the few hundred yards between the two base areas all day.

On The Hill
Loon is an intermediate's mountain, with 64 percent of the runs designated blue. The bulk of the beginner's terrain is to the far right (looking up the mountain) off the Kissin' Cousin double chair, but novices can also work their way down from the summit on Upper Bear Claw to Lower Bear Claw¿a trip worth taking for the views alone.

The steepest trails, such as bumped-up Flume and rolling Upper Walking Boss, are off North Peak, accessible from the gondola and the North Peak triple chair. The gondola opens at 8 am. If you arrive at 7:30 am, you'll find hardcores already in line to catch the first car up. But forget about the gondola after 10 am; it's jammed. Instead, take the Seven Brothers triple chair and then the East Basin double or the North Peak triple to get to the summit. Then ski the top half of the mountain until lunchtime.

Ski the intermediate cruisers off the Kancamangus quad chair in the afternoon. Runs such as groomed Lower Picked Rock and meandering, "skiers only" Blue Ox catch great late-afternoon sun. Some of the best skiing is on Sunday afternoon, when all the type-As have pointed their Saabs south and you have the mountain almost to yourself. If it has snowed overnight, you may even find mid-day freshies on Basin Street, an intermediate run off the summit that doesn't get nearly as much traffic as black diamond Angel Street. If there is enough snow to open it, Triple Trouble¿an ungroomed, old-time twisty trail¿is the best expert run on the mountain. You can reach it from the East Basin chair or the gondola. The East Basin lift, by the way, often has no liftlines even when the North Peak chair is jammed.

Twenty miles of cross-country ski trails flank the resort as well. The East Ridge trails are the most interesting. The resort's Nordic Center (603-745-6281, ext. 5568) offers rentals, instruction and guided tours. Snowshoeing gear and skates are also available for rent there.

Dining/Après-Ski
The resort has several decent choices for lunch. Stop in at the mountaintop Summit Lodge, a small, 1966 vintage cafeteria with a tiny kitchen, hanging spider plants and wonderful views of the White Mountain National Forest. Sit at the funky Formica counter (you'll feel as if you're eating at a high-altitude Woolworth's) and order the fajitas¿they're big enough to split with a buddy. Be sure to walk down to the lookout point below the building for a great view of Loon Pond.

If it's a sunny day, eat BBQ outside the Camp 3 Lodge at the base of North Peak. You'll have plenty of company, but the food is worth the wait. The deli in the Octagon base lodge makes good sandwiches, but it's also crowded. It's best to go early or late.

After skiing, families beeline to The Wildlife Theater in the barn across from the main parking lot. The 4 pm show features indigenous mountain animals, including many being rehabilitated from injuries. Resident creatures include mountain lions Abby and Darby, Natick the owl, BB the crow and ferrets Lenny and Squiggy. Admission is $5, or $3 with a current day's lift ticket. Children under 5 are admitted free.

Worn-out adults can rejuvenate at The Paul Bunyan Room in the Octagon. It's Loon's bar of choice¿especially if you hit it on a sunny day and the action has moved out to the deck. Sip a locally brewed Loon Golden Ale and eavesdrop on the patrollers who gather there most afternoons. If you finish the day at the Governor Adams Lodge, you can grab a quick beer at Babe's.

Hardbodies push on at The Fitness Center at the Mountain Club, open to the public from 7 am-10 pm. Day passes ($10 for adults, $5 ages 6-16) allow guests to use the pool, weight room and Jacuzzis.

The Evening Out
You want romance? Book a table at The Clement Room in North Woodstock's Woodstock Inn, where specialties like tenderloin with crab legs are served on an enclosed wraparound porch amid Victorian lamps, floral wallpaper and lace curtains.

The Woodstock Brewing Company, also part of the Woodstock Inn, features specialty ales, porters, stouts and root beer that complement a good pub menu. After dinner, stop in at Woodstock Station where everyone who is even remotely hip goes to hear local bands such as the Knucklehedz and Smokin' Toads. The place rocks until 1 am.

Those looking to party back in Lincoln should check out the Top of the Town in the Millfront Marketplace. Jammed with locals and college kids, rock bands play here every Friday and Saturday night.If you can't muster up the energy to change out of your sweatpants, drive over to North Woodstock and pick up a freshly prepared dinner at the Half Baked Food Shop, billed as "the place to go when you want to stay home." Pop it in the oven back at the condo and voila¿dinner is served! The creative pastas, the seafood lasagna in particular, are especially good.

After dinner, you may feel revived enough to rally the kids and head back to the hill for some snowtubing under the lights. It's well worth it. For $6 an hour, you get a tube, lift rides and a major adrenaline rush every time you fly down the lighted Snubber trail.

Sunday
If you're staying in town, stop in at the sunny Millaway Cafe for fresh-baked breads and muffins. Or grab a cup of fresh-brewed java at Granite State Coffee and head to the mountain, where the Octagon cafeteria serves surprisingly good muffins and bagels. Come noon, skiers should mosey into North Woodstock for brunch at the Woodstock Inn¿the Clement Room's sticky buns are legendary.

Because the crowds have thinned out, Sunday afternoon is a great time to try snowboarding. Loon offers a Discover Snowboarding lesson starting at noon for $45, which includes board, boots and a two-hour clinic. Once you've mastered the board, check out the resort's snowboard park. Head for home when you've been thoroughly thrashed. The nice thing about I-93 is that it's plenty big to handle the traffic cruising back to the big city. Loon's bar of choice¿especially if you hit it on a sunny day and the action has moved out to the deck. Sip a locally brewed Loon Golden Ale and eavesdrop on the patrollers who gather there most afternoons. If you finish the day at the Governor Adams Lodge, you can grab a quick beer at Babe's.

Hardbodies push on at The Fitness Center at the Mountain Club, open to the public from 7 am-10 pm. Day passes ($10 for adults, $5 ages 6-16) allow guests to use the pool, weight room and Jacuzzis.

The Evening Out
You want romance? Book a table at The Clement Room in North Woodstock's Woodstock Inn, where specialties like tenderloin with crab legs are served on an enclosed wraparound porch amid Victorian lamps, floral wallpaper and lace curtains.

The Woodstock Brewing Company, also part of the Woodstock Inn, features specialty ales, porters, stouts and root beer that complement a good pub menu. After dinner, stop in at Woodstock Station where everyone who is even remotely hip goes to hear local bands such as the Knucklehedz and Smokin' Toads. The place rocks until 1 am.

Those looking to party back in Lincoln should check out the Top of the Town in the Millfront Marketplace. Jammed with locals and college kids, rock bands play here every Friday and Saturday night.If you can't muster up the energy to change out of your sweatpants, drive over to North Woodstock and pick up a freshly prepared dinner at the Half Baked Food Shop, billed as "the place to go when you want to stay home." Pop it in the oven back at the condo and voila¿dinner is served! The creative pastas, the seafood lasagna in particular, are especially good.

After dinner, you may feel revived enough to rally the kids and head back to the hill for some snowtubing under the lights. It's well worth it. For $6 an hour, you get a tube, lift rides and a major adrenaline rush every time you fly down the lighted Snubber trail.

Sunday
If you're staying in town, stop in at the sunny Millaway Cafe for fresh-baked breads and muffins. Or grab a cup of fresh-brewed java at Granite State Coffee and head to the mountain, where the Octagon cafeteria serves surprisingly good muffins and bagels. Come noon, skiers should mosey into North Woodstock for brunch at the Woodstock Inn¿the Clement Room's sticky buns are legendary.

Because the crowds have thinned out, Sunday afternoon is a great time to try snowboarding. Loon offers a Discover Snowboarding lesson starting at noon for $45, which includes board, boots and a two-hour clinic. Once you've mastered the board, check out the resort's snowboard park. Head for home when you've been thoroughly thrashed. The nice thing about I-93 is that it's plenty big to handle the traffic cruising back to the big city.