The Sweetest Season

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At virtually every ski resort worthy of its mountain, the season ends with the best snow of the year. And we're not just talking about a season's worth of snowpack. At many resorts, some of the biggest storms of the year arrive, with uncanny timing, from late-March through mid-April.

The real irony is that when closing day brings a foot or two of powder, only resort staff and a handful of diehards are there to enjoy it. Resorts rarely close for lack of snow. They close because everyone's preoccupied with their bikes, boats and golf clubs.

But smart skiers know that the fun kicks into overdrive with the arrival of powerful rays and balmy days. Killington, Vt., transforms itself into "Snow Beach," with daily barbecues and deck parties. At Big Mountain, Mont., locals don their Seventies skiwear and hurtle down the mountain on overstuffed couches and chairs. At Breckenridge, you can ski the deepest base of the year and then, depending upon your ambitions, golf, catch a Rockies baseball game or go mountain biking.

The clincher, of course, is bargains: After Easter, resorts desperate to lure visitors offer discounts of 50 percent or more on lodging. And because Easter is coming early (March 31), you've got all of April to slide on corn snow. At the Village at Breckenridge Hotel (888-462-4983), a package that includes a slopeside room at Peak 9 and two adult lift tickets runs $160 per night in high season. Come mid-April, the cost drops to $95. Or consider the Zephyr Mountain Lodge (877-754-8400) in Winter Park, Colo. During high season, a deluxe one-bedroom condo costs $400 a night. Starting April 1, the cost splits to $220. The same applies at high-end hotels like the St. Regis (888-454-9005) in Aspen, Colo., where April 1-14 you'll pay $225 per night for a room, two lift tickets and breakfast at Olives. That's more than 60 percent off high-season rates.

Lift tickets are almost always reduced, although some resorts play a watch-and-wait game. And it's also an excellent time to take lessons. You'll pay group rates, but there's a good chance that no one else will have signed up, and you'll get a private.

But let's get back to the most important ingredient in a ski vacation¿snow. We compared stats at 25 resorts and were impressed by what they had to offer. In the following chart, we list the high-season ticket cost (of a one-day adult ticket); spring ticket cost (the same, during post-Easter season); 2000-01 snowfall; big spring dump; spring fling (the resort's trademark end-of-season bash); and, the projected closing date, which is somewhat approximate, because when big storms come in, more than one resort president has been known to extend the season by days¿or even weeks.

So turn click to the right to see where the action and deals are deepest. Then get out the wet-snow wax and start dialing.