Ski Resort Life

Whitetail Mountain Resort: Beltway Getaway

Travel East

WHITETAIL MOUNTAIN RESORT MAY NOT BE, STRICTLY speaking, a “Southern ski resort. In fact, Mercersburg, Pa., is a strong snowball’s throw north of the Mason-Dixon line. But that doesn’t stop it from taking Southern hospitality to heart.

Its charm begins with the staff: Employees are under orders to smile and say hello if they come within 10 feet of a guest (though you suspect they would anyway). And it extends to every facet of your visit, whether your car needs parking, your skis need checking or you’re just hoping for a pleasant and orderly equipment-rental process.

The south-central Pennsylvania resort relies almost entirely upon manmade snow and caters to day-trippers from the D.C.-Maryland Beltway region. And it’s emphatically laid-back—especially in comparison to the more frenetic pace encountered at more northerly resorts. It’s refreshing to hear a teen snowboarder actually apologize for slicing by at close-shave range.

OK, it smacks a bit of Disney—perhaps too much so for some, especially those inclined to kick back with a cocktail or two after a day of skiing. Alas, it’s a “dry resort, so you’ll have to bring your own or do your tippling somewhere else. But Whitetail is big with families, and church and scout groups, as well as Beltway yuppies who want to shake off their loafers at the end of a business day and spend a few hours nightskiing. The atmosphere is low-key and relaxing—except perhaps on occasions when a member of the extended Bush family (and accompanying Secret Service entourage) whisks in for a visit,as was the case two years ago, when the president’s niece hit the slopes here.

Whitetail only opened in 1990, which makes it the East’s youngest resort, as well as one of the latest to be built anywhere in the nation. It’s the brainchild of Dr. Bruce Foster, a local physician who envisioned a ski resort in the midst of the region’s undulating farm country. He built it on the best mountain he could find within 100 miles of Washington and Baltimore. Using pencil and string on a U.S. Geographical Survey map, he pinpointed the 1,800-foot-high peak of Two Top Mountain in the Tuscarora Mountain range and renamed it Whitetail after the area’s ubiquitous deer. The 550-acre ski resort took nine years to plan and finance—but just nine months to build. “It was a minor miracle that we got past all the hurdles, says Foster, who was forced to sell his stake during the construction phase. “But the resort is close to what I envisioned. The terrain is lovely, there’s good vertical, and there’s potential to grow.

Today, Whitetail is owned by Snow Time Inc., which operates nearby Ski Liberty and Ski Roundtop, along with New York’s Windham Mountain. Snow Time took over in 1998, knowing that the challenge at Whitetail, with its 40-inch average annual snowfall and south-facing slopes, would be keeping its 19 trails white. The company immediately invested $2.5 million in snowmaking equipment, adding 75 state-of-the-artairless snow cannons.

Snow Time made one other key investment: luring Don MacAskill, former general manager of Okemo, Vt., to head Whitetail’s operations. MacAskill’s affable personality is infectious. Everyone—from lift operators to ski checkers—greets him with a hearty hello or a doffing of the baseball cap. “Don works hard to get his people to be friendly, says Irvin Naylor, president of Snow Time. “This doesn’t happen by accident. We run a series of programs teaching the staff how to dress and how to speak to people. For many of our workers, these are entry-level jobs. Let’s just say Don knows how to put facets on some diamonds.

ONCE STRICTLY A DAY AREA, WHITETAIL IS blossoming into a year-round destination resort, with mountainside residential properties, an 18-hole golf course and a swimming pool. During summer months, the resort lures hikers, golfers and anglers. A new tubing park gives nonskiers a snowsliding option, and there’s talk of adding a conference center and more townhouse Judy Bonciu, a real estate agent with Whitetail Realty Marketing, Inc., says nearly all of the 48 condos and townhouses built in 1996 have been sold, and many of the units, ranging from two to five bedrooms, can be rented. In addition, there’s a 17-room inn on the mountain, built in 2000.

Part of Whitetail’s appeal is its sense of serenity. It’s hidden amid the dairy farms and orchards of Cumberland County. Blairs Valley Road, the north-south access route, is undeveloped, save for a smattering of simple frame houses. Visitors arriving from the south pass through sleepy Clear Spring, a postcard-pretty Maryland town five miles away from the resort. It has a couple of bars, for those so inclined. Seven miles north is the more notable Mercersburg, home of the nation’s 15th president, James Buchanan, and a co-ed prep school. For history buffs, Gettysburg and Antietam, where the two biggest and bloodiest Civil War battles raged, are each an hour’s drive away.Mercersburg’s rhythms have not been drastically altered by the sleek ski resort. Skiers dine at James Buchanan Pub and Restaurant on Main Street, owned by Romanian exile Catalin Bonciu, whose wife, the Whitetail realtor Judy Bonciu, knows all the regulars and makes newcomers feel like friends. The highlight of tiny Mercersburg is its Civil War—era fieldstone houses, which are strung along Main Street. Otherwise, it’s an anywhere-in-America kind of town with a bank, a couple of gas stations, two pizza parlors and a library busy with locals on a Friday night.

Harold Wagner, Mercersburg’s 79-year-old recently retired mayor, says some things have changed in this town of 1,700 people. “Gosh, I can remember how just 10 years ago things were entirely different, says Wagner, a retired storeowner. “I used to be a grocer on Main Street. People would come to the counter, and I got the stuff they needed while they waited. I used to kill my own beef. Today everything’s gone to the big cities. Little businesses in small towns are a thing of the past.

Wagner says Whitetail has been good for the local economy, employing about 800 people in ski season. But he doesn’t expect resort visitors to commandeer the local real estate market or the town center any time soon.

Now that Whitetail is making snow more successfully and has a good night-skiing program, more visitors may be planning weekend stays. There are several inns and motels within a five- to 10-mile range of the resort.

WHITETAIL’S BASE LODGE, INSPIRED BY A SIMILAR one at Utah’s Deer Valley, is spacious and modern, housing two restaurants—the Marketplace, for basic fare, and Windows, which is fancier. On weekends, the smell of hot dogs and hamburgers wafts from a grill on the deck, which is dotted with picnic tables. The ski shop is downstairs, and there’s convenient free basket-check and a kiosk stocked with last-minute items.

The mountain, with 108 skiable acres, boasts the highest vertical in Pennsylvania: 935 feet. Although it’s compact, there’s enough terrain to challenge intermediates, with a grab-bag of short pitches to tease advanced skiers. Whitetail Express Quad is a high-speed detachable lift transporting skiers to the summit in four minutes. It’s the only chair on the heavily skied intermediate face, so advanced skiers must take the lift and ski down to access the Expert’s Choice quad.

The northern ridge—where nightskiing lights have recently been added—has some surprisingly serious steeps on four black diamonds—notably, the mogul-studded Exhibition and Bold Decision. Whitetail’s intermediate terrain is versatile, with gracious cruisers, wide and winding. Fanciful, the longest blue run at three-quarters of a mile, is steep and has a long straightaway. Limelite is less steep, but still a cool ride. Zip over to Angel Drop, where the last pitch is a steep one, or veer off to Homerun, a long cruiser. For those ready to drop in, the Terrain Park at Lower Angel Drop beckons boarders and New School kids with big tabletops, rail-slides and spines.

But mostly, Whitetail prides itself on service. In an age where gentility is increasingly hard to find, that’s what stands out. Here, it’s as if everything slows down—everything except a good fast run down Bold Decision, that is. Folks are friendly. There’s no sign of “ski rage. It’s just what you’d expect from a Southern ski trip, minus the mint juleps.

Click below for details.bletops, rail-slides and spines.

But mostly, Whitetail prides itself on service. In an age where gentility is increasingly hard to find, that’s what stands out. Here, it’s as if everything slows down—everything except a good fast run down Bold Decision, that is. Folks are friendly. There’s no sign of “ski rage. It’s just what you’d expect from a Southern ski trip, minus the mint juleps.

Click below for details.