A Sleeker Creek

Travel East
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East 1205

My grandfather once treated me to dinner at Morrison's, a well-known discount chain restaurant in Florida. Yes, we were there on time for the early-bird specials, and as we studied our menus he twice pointed out how reasonable the prices were. The second time, he hastened to add, "But I didn't take you here because it's cheap. I took you here because it's good.

I'm reminded of this every time I ski at Mountain Creek, N.J., which consistently tops SKI's reader poll for accessibility in the East—and appears in no other category. Like many in the New York City region, I've skied there a lot. Mostly because it's close—less than 50 miles from midtown Manhattan and within two hours of nearly 20 million people. But also because it's good.

It wasn't always so. Under the name Vernon Valley/Great Gorge, the resort enjoyed a raucous heyday in skiing's go-go '60s and '70s. It was so hip that Hugh Hefner built a Playboy Club nearby. And its summertime thrill- and water-ride business, Action Park, was even more popular. By 1997, though, the place was a shell of its former self. Action Park failed to open, and vandals descended. The ski area operated in receivership, and in an especially warm winter, it drew a paltry 87,000 sliders. It was like watching an old ski buddy let himself get fat and out of shape.

Then came the intervention. White-knight Intrawest Corp., among the winter resort industry's slickest operators, picked up the property for pennies on the dollar and set about reinventing it, investing $100 million over seven years on mountain operations alone. They yanked out 15 ancient chairlifts and replaced them with seven state-of-the-art lifts that provide express access to the slopes. Few new trails were cut, but the removal of so many lift towers effectively doubled the skiable acreage on many trails, giving the place a modern, open feel. Meanwhile, a massive new snowmaking plant and virtually unlimited water give Mountain Creek reliable snow conditions despite its paltry 65-inch average annual snowfall.

Today, Mountain Creek is the most popular sliding spot within the metro New York City arc. It's again spreading 350,000 skiers a year across its modestly tilted 1,040 vertical feet. Its season might still be somewhat short, but the lifts spin long into the night all week. In fact, more than two-thirds of its visitors experience Mountain Creek under the lights.

Intrawest has been slow to crank up the real-estate machine, but the company has developed the tasteful group of Black Creek townhouses, which sold quickly and have risen steeply in value. This season, the new ski-in/ski-out Appalachian Hotel and Conference Center opens with 100 luxury condo-style rooms, and another 75 rooms are underway. The hotel is the cornerstone of a long-stalled village development that promises to explode over the next decade. Construction of the main village, planned for what is currently the primary parking lot at the Vernon Base, is scheduled to begin next season. [NEXT ""]To be sure, there are still some rough edges. The staff tends to be young and inexperienced, and walking from most parking lots is a chore. (The lot at the Granite Peak base is the closest, but most services are located at the busier Vernon base area.) There's also the tent-like structure—the "bubble building—that serves as the main base lodge at Vernon. It's crowded and soulless, with uninspiring food. It's a temporary replacement for the original base lodge, which burned down in the late '90s. But it should be gone in three years, Mountain Creek officials say—replaced by something state-of-the-art. Mountain Creek has reclaimed its former glory by providing core slider values: great lifts, powerhouse snowmaking and good deals (something New York—area skiers prize above all else). Walk-up prices are typically over $50, but early-season passes are $349 per adult, $249 per youth/senior (add $100 after Dec. 1). Alternatively, the Triple Play ($59) provideshree days anytime, and the Creek Card (also $59) is good for 25 percent off weekend tickets and 50 percent off weekday tickets.

"It's so close and so cheap, you don't have to think twice about coming, says Chris Kelley, a 36-year-old Wall Street trader from Hoboken, N.J., about an hour away. Kelley, who grew up nearby, usually comes on weekends to ski with his brother, who still lives in the area, and his young nieces and nephew. But he still occasionally ratpacks it under the lights with old grade-school and college friends. "It's not terribly challenging, but it feels good just to strap them on. For me, Mountain Creek is usually about the people I'm skiing with, not the terrain.

The terrain is mostly easy and groomed. But the resort has started letting bumps grow on some trails, such as Zero G. And given the frequent warm fronts that push into northwestern New Jersey, there are plenty of spring-like sunny days with just-perfect slush bumps. But what's truly amazing is the international reputation The Creek has earned in the park-and-pipe world, particularly among snowboarders, who account for about half of its visitors.

"The park is what The Creek is all about, says 18-year-old freeskier Cara Sengebush, who has spent virtually every winter weekend there since sixth grade and is the only "skier girl among the regulars in the big park off the Cabriolet lift. "The guys in the Jib Lab have created some of the sickest terrain park features for us, says Sengebush. "There's everything, from easy rails for beginners to sick rollercoaster and S-rails that would challenge even the top skiers.

But it's the superpipe, acknowledged as one of the best in the East, that matters most. It's Olympic-size, and has twice hosted Snowboard Grand Prix events, which count as Olympic qualifiers for U.S. riders. The Creek has developed cachet as New York City's happening place among the snowboard crowd, and it comes off looking powerfully cool on the NBC and Outdoor Life Network telecasts of the event. The Grand Prix returns this winter, January 20—21.

As real-estate projects continue to take shape, Mountain Creek will surely trend older and draw more well-heeled families. But right now, it's a decidedly youthful place: Nearly two-thirds of its visitors are single or under 17. It may also be the most diverse ski area in North America, strongly reflecting the growing mélange of ethnic groups bootstrapping themselves up the economic ladder in the NYC region. Asians—particularly Koreans—are a growing presence at Mountain Creek, along with Russians and Poles.[NEXT ""]Andrew Cho, who first emigrated from South Korea as a 19-year-old in 1982, is a sports marketing executive whose company targets the Korean community. Last year, he helped organize a two-day Korean snow festival that drew about 3,500 people. The resort even let the group sell Korean culinary delicacies to all Creek customers, spreading culture through cuisine.

You'll find Cho on many winter weekends at The Creek with his grade school—age kids. "Koreans are crazy about sports, he says. "Go to the golf course on rainy days and you'll find mostly Koreans. Same on the bad days at Mountain Creek. Cho says many second-generation Korean families have adopted snow-sliding as their family bonding activity, and it's very popular among the large Korean Christian churches' youth groups.

And perhaps that's the greatest change at Mountain Creek. The place is cool again. There's even a surge of pride associated with being a Jersey slider, these days. ("Yeah, New Jersey is a popular rallying cry and T-shirt slogan.) And those oval, European-style bumper-stickers that Mountain Creek came out with—which said, simply, "Jersey—were widely coveted. To blatantly bastardize the most famous lyric of a native son, it appears The Creek is born—make that reborn—to run. [NEXT "Signpost"]Signpost

Mountain Creek Resort 170 skiable acres; 1,040 vertical feet; summit elevation 1,480 feet; 65 annual inches; 100 percent snowmaking; 46 trails; 11 lifts including one high-speed, eight-passenger Cabriolet gondola and two high-speed quads; nightskiing until 10 p.m. Tickets: adult weekend/holiday $53; young adult (13—18) $45; junior (7—12) $35. Adult midweek $40; all others $29. Adult weekend twilight (3 p.m.—closing) $35, midweek $32; all others, $29/$29. Children 6 and under ski free. mountaincreek.com; 973-827-2000

Lodging
The new slopeside Appalachian condo-hotel and Black Creek Sanctuary luxury townhomes are premier addresses with outdoor heated pools and hot tubs (from $79 per person, lifts and lodging; 888-767-0762; mountaincreek.com). The Alpine Haus in Vernon is a homey bed and breakfast run by longtime locals Jack and Allison Smith ($110—$225 per room, 973-209-7080, alpinehausbb.com).

Dining
Ten Railroad Avenue (845-986-1509) in nearby Warwick, N.Y., offers a casually elegant setting and fine Spanish and Italian cuisine. Ye Jolly Onion Inn (845-258-4277) in Pine Island, N.Y., serves expertly prepared continental cuisine in a comfortable upscale setting. Wok N Sushi (973-827-5662) in Franklin is affordable and unique.

Getting There
A huge web of highways makes for varied access. From the south or east, go west on Route 23, then north on 515, then south on 94. New Jersey Transit offers bus service from Port Authority terminal in Manhattan and various points in New Jersey.

December 2005 feet; 65 annual inches; 100 percent snowmaking; 46 trails; 11 lifts including one high-speed, eight-passenger Cabriolet gondola and two high-speed quads; nightskiing until 10 p.m. Tickets: adult weekend/holiday $53; young adult (13—18) $45; junior (7—12) $35. Adult midweek $40; all others $29. Adult weekend twilight (3 p.m.—closing) $35, midweek $32; all others, $29/$29. Children 6 and under ski free. mountaincreek.com; 973-827-2000

Lodging
The new slopeside Appalachian condo-hotel and Black Creek Sanctuary luxury townhomes are premier addresses with outdoor heated pools and hot tubs (from $79 per person, lifts and lodging; 888-767-0762; mountaincreek.com). The Alpine Haus in Vernon is a homey bed and breakfast run by longtime locals Jack and Allison Smith ($110—$225 per room, 973-209-7080, alpinehausbb.com).

Dining
Ten Railroad Avenue (845-986-1509) in nearby Warwick, N.Y., offers a casually elegant setting and fine Spanish and Italian cuisine. Ye Jolly Onion Inn (845-258-4277) in Pine Island, N.Y., serves expertly prepared continental cuisine in a comfortable upscale setting. Wok N Sushi (973-827-5662) in Franklin is affordable and unique.

Getting There
A huge web of highways makes for varied access. From the south or east, go west on Route 23, then north on 515, then south on 94. New Jersey Transit offers bus service from Port Authority terminal in Manhattan and various points in New Jersey.

December 2005

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