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First stop; Sunday River. In truth, I can’t say I’m not acquainted with Sunday River. For starters, it’s just off Route 2, near Bethel. I drive through there—and past neighboring Mt. Abram—a dozen times a summer on my way from Vermont to the coast. Every November, my kids’ race club christens the new season with a four-day trip to Bethel for some early-season slalom training.
So it’s with a sense of familiarity that I turn off Route 2 for a quick spin through Bethel before heading up to the mountain. As charming New England villages go, they don’t get any cuter than Bethel. It lies beside the Androscoggin River about five miles from Sunday River. Built with logging money, its streets are lined with handsome homes of the lumber barons—most with big carriage barns out back. The gracious Bethel Inn fronts the town green, and the prim red brick buildings of Gould Academy welcome visitors from the East. A handful of restaurants, a few B&Bs and the inn are there to welcome skiers who prefer a genuine village atmosphere. But be warned: Bethel is small. I’ve never seen it during a vacation week, when I’m sure it buzzes with activity, but usually it’s a quiet little village.
Most Sunday River visitors opt instead for slopeside lodging up on the mountain, and there’s plenty of that, including two big hotels that bracket the slopes, one at the east end, just off the White Cap quad, the other at the west end, next to Lollapalooza trail. The fact that they’re some six miles apart tells you the first thing you need to know about Sunday River: It might not offer more than 1,630 vertical feet off any one lift, but it’s extraordinarily wide, so there’s more than ample terrain.
I check into the Grand Summit—the original east-side hotel—and grab a late dinner at the bar. I meet Jamie, a blue-collar guy who’s done well enough for himself to buy a timeshare. He loves the place, you can tell, and regales me with stories about how it used to rock back in the Les Otten days. (Now it’s owned by CNL Lifestyle Company and operated by Michigan-based Boyne Resorts; Jamie’s withholding judgment until they have a chance to prove themselves.)
In the morning, I click into my skis beside the hotel’s back door and set out with a plan and a deadline. As many times as I’ve been here, I’ve never skied Sunday River from edge to edge. Today I aim to finally do it—and be back at the South Ridge base area in time for a lunch date. It’s certainly doable, but I fail. After a morning spent working my way east, I’m on the Jordan Bowl Express, about five-sixths of the way to my goal, when I realize I’ll barely have time to get all the way back if I start now. This place just goes on forever. Anyway, I get a good refresher tour, which reconfirms my original impressions—that Sunday River has miles and miles of well-groomed novice and intermediate runs lined with state-of-the-art snowmaking infrastructure. But if it’s steep you want? Well, they’ve got some of that, too. I could’ve achieved my goal if I’d stuck to the cruisers, but White Heat and Vortex—two bona fide double-blacks—cost me time.
I make it back to South Ridge just in time for my meet-up, but after lunch it begins to precipitate—by which I don’t mean “snow.” The last thing I want is to start a three-day ski trip with wet gear, so I call it a day. I’ve already checked out of the hotel. All I have to do is clomp through the lobby and out to the parking lot on the other side. I throw my boots in back alongside the outboard motor for my skiff, and point the car east.