Maine, No Pain - Ski Mag

Maine, No Pain

Travel East
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East 1105

As a general rule, memory supersizes reality. With that in mind, my expectations for a family weekend trip to Sunday River were fairly low. I hadn't been there in more than 20 years, and my hazy memories of the place could be summed up in one word: dinky. Friday evening, as we pull up to Sunday River's Jordan Grand Hotel, I realize just how wrong I was.

In fact, after checking into our plush slopeside suite and scarfing down freshly baked chocolate chip cookies in the lobby, it dawns on me that 15 minutes might not be enough to speed from Jordan, Sunday River's westernmost outpost and most recent addition, to South Ridge, the ski area's geographical center and the site of our assigned rendezvous with a dog-sled team. And judging by the faces on my two young boys, if we miss this, I'm toast.

Really, it's not my fault. The last time I was here was right when things started changing, when Les Otten began transforming not only this corner of Maine but ski areas across the country. Otten's purchase of Sunday River during the 1980—81 season initiated steroidal growth in trails, snowmaking, base facilities, condos, townhouses and luxury hotels. Skier visits rose from about 40,000 in 1981 to more than 500,000 in 1992. By 1998, Otten's American Skiing Company owned nine resorts from Maine to California, and Sunday River, where it all began, had grown from 70 skiable acres with one chairlift and two T-bars to 663 acres spread over seven peaks served by 18 lifts.

Fortunately, despite the makeover, that charmingly blunt and undomesticated Maine character endures. "That there's Killer," says our musher, Steve Krone, pointing to his lead dog. "He ate the rest of his litter and went on to be a real aggressive runner." My kids are transfixed by the raw energy of the 10 dogs and their partnership with Krone, who directs them to the right with "Gee!" and to the left with "Haw!" I ride the runners next to him, pushing with one foot on the uphills. "They kind of like it when they see you work," he explains.

At the top of the trail, Krone suggests I get off the sled for a "sort of sophisticated move." As my children slide away from me, he yells, "Haw!" The sled banks steeply on its right rail, making a hard left U-turn. The kids are silent, wide-eyed, until one yells from inside the thick blanket, "That was super cool!" Two points for Mom. If we do nothing else all weekend, this will have been worth it. But as luck and good weather will have it, we're just getting going.[NEXT ""]Our first task on Saturday, after breakfast at the hotel, is to shuttle the kids to ski school—again from Jordan to South Ridge Lodge, but this time on skis. Getting started is a snap. Just a few steps separate our room, the cafe, the ski check and the sliding doors that lead to the slopes. From the top of the Jordan Express, however, the famous Maine refrain, "You can't get they-ah from he-yah," comes to mind as we push, pole and cajole our 3-year-old across the expanse aptly named Kansas, a barely sloped commuter trail connecting Jordan to the rest of the area. It's tempting to abandon Kansas and dive into Oz's bumps, Tin Woodsman's steeps or Flying Monkey's glades, but we're on a mission—one best attempted only once a day with kids and perhaps not at all on a snowboard.

Alternatively, two connector lifts span the distance from Jordan's base to the North Peak Lodge hub, or you can simply hop the Mountain Explorer shuttle to anywhere in the resort.

Kansas takes us beneath Aurora Peak to Lights Out, a trail that offers slightly more gravitational help to continue beneath Spruce Peak and finally to North Peak. From there, despite the alluring aroma of fresh cinnamon rolls emanating from the North Peak Lodge, we continue on an easy blue/green meander to the South Ridge Base Lodge, command central for the ski school. Friends from home who vacation here rave about the ski school, and sure enough, "Mad Mike" instantly wins our skeptical yngsters over, leaving my husband, Chan, and me free to explore.

Like mine, Chan's Sunday River memories are distant and dinky, so we start with what we know, the original area of Barker Mountain. Beneath the Sunday River Express, skiers battle with themselves on Agony, a classically relentless Eastern bump run, but we continue cruising gently east on Ecstasy, through the lower runs of Locke Mountain and finally to White Cap. We can't resist the macho allure of White Heat, a half-bumped, half-groomed, double-black check-me-out special beneath the White Cap Express. A couple of runs later we find bliss on Obsession, a winding, rolling path around the flanks of White Cap.

Later, back at the Jordan Grand, the kids barely give us time to remove our boots—in what could be our suite's relaxing fireside setting—before bolting to the pool. "Heated" is a generous term for anything outdoors in Maine in winter, but at least there is an inside entrance to ease us into the water, and on the far edge of the pool, two gigantic hot tubs deliver salvation.

Tonight we are determined to venture beyond Sliders, the Jordan's in-house pub, though it served our purposes quite well the first night. The White Cap Fun Center at the opposite end of the resort, near the Grand Summit Hotel, boasts an arcade, skating rink and lighted tubing hill. Our kids are a bit young for that action, or at least too young to read about its existence, so we investigate the town of Bethel, where true après-ski tradition is alive and well at Suds, the wood-beamed pub beneath the Sudbury Inn. Suds is, in fact, too popular for our suddenly starving kids, and we foresee the same scenario at another local favorite, the Matterhorn, where regulars hang their beer mugs from the ceiling. So we opt for a quick fix at cozy Finish Line Pizza, an inexpensive, kid-friendly pizza joint—a ski-town rarity that fits Bethel just as well as Cho Sun, the trendy sushi joint up the street.

The next morning, Chan and I take turns, each making two high-speed, adrenaline-pumping laps on Jordan Express to the other's mellow cruise with kids down the gloriously rambling Lollapalooza. It's a perfect way to get our fix—as well as a sense of better living through snowmaking. With Sunday River averaging only 155 inches of natural snow per year, Otten's "It's the snow, stupid" philosophy led to a sophisticated snowmaking system, with 1,570 guns that make 10 different types of snow, depending on weather conditions at different elevations. The result is consistently good snow top to bottom, smoothing Maine's craggy terrain into mere undulations—albeit challenging ones. Step on the gas, and the whaleback kickers on Excalibur come at you with startling rapidity.

After a couple of hours, we're ready for another trek across Kansas so the kids can show off their territory. They take us to the bumps and jumps in Whoville and the kid-size paths through Enchanted Forest. When they spy Mad Mike in the liftline, their faces light up. "Hey!" he calls gruffly. "You just broke rule No. 1: No smiling!" They erupt with laughter.

Les Otten departed ASC in 2001, but he remains a board member of the company and a regular on the slopes. His former house, opposite South Ridge Base Lodge, lives on as the Phoenix bar and restaurant. ASC—owner of Sunday River and Sugarloaf, Maine; Attitash, N.H.; Killington, Pico and Mount Snow, Vt.; Steamboat, Colo., and The Canyons, Utah—moved its headquarters from here to Park City, Utah, but although its bustle is slightly diminished, Sunday River's transformation from quaint backwoods area to destination resort is irreversible. Three hours from Boston, one and a half from Portland and a hop over the border from New Hampshire, Sunday River draws heavily on New England day skiers. Its sprawling layout, with multiple lodges, each with a certain focus, effectively disperses the crowds. Meanwhile, destination visitors have their pick of overnight accommodations. The remote Jordan Grand offers a slopeside sanctuary for mountain recreation and relaxation, while the Summit Grand, at the busier end of the resort, is close to the activities at the White Cap Lodge. In between, condos, townhouses and even dorm rooms assure a range of convenient options. In town, the Bethel and Sudbury Inns offer more intimate, traditional stays.

If, by chance, the Northeastern weather turns nasty during your visit, Bethel provides a worthy diversion, starting with a local education at the Bethel Historical Society. For more modern thrills, the Bethel Outdoor Adventure Center offers bowling, laser tag and a climbing wall. Catch a movie at the four-screen cineplex.

For outdoor pursuits besides dog-sledding, the rolling countryside is ideal for snowmobiling or cross-country skiing.

By the time we leave, I know we'll be back soon, perhaps for the wife-carrying championships in October (a local tradition so wrong it's right) or in early December to jumpstart our Christmas cheer on Santa Sunday (when scores of Santas take to the slopes). More likely I'll be back in the spring, to watch my dad race in the National Masters Championships. And to show him around the biggest dinky resort I never imagined.

November 2005[NEXT "Signpost"]

Signpost
Sunday River
663 skiable acres; 2,340 vertical feet; 18 lifts, including four high-speed quads; 128 trails; one superpipe, one mini-pipe and four terrain parks; 155 annual inches; 92 percent snowmaking.

Tickets: adults $59 midweek/weekend, $63 holiday; juniors (6—12) $41/$43; young adults (13—19) $54/$55; seniors (65 and over) $41/$43.

Getting There
from Boston I-95 north to Exit 63 in Maine; Route 26 north to Bethel; Route 2 east to the access road.

Lodging
Slopeside
Grand Summit Resort Hotel or Jordan Grand Resort Hotel (lifts and lodging, $60—$155 per person; 800-543-2754). >In Bethel The Bethel Inn ($69—$249 per person; 207-824-2175) Sudbury Inn ($79—$350; 207-824-2174)

Dining
In town
Sudbury Inn: traditional New England cuisine in dining room with fireplace; 207-824-2174.
>At the mountain The Phoenix: fine dining, extensive wine list; 207-824-2222.
>Access road The Matterhorn: casual and family-friendly, with spirited après-ski scene and good live music; 207-824-6836.

Information
sundayriver.com; 800-543-2754. Snow conditions: 207-824-5200mote Jordan Grand offers a slopeside sanctuary for mountain recreation and relaxation, while the Summit Grand, at the busier end of the resort, is close to the activities at the White Cap Lodge. In between, condos, townhouses and even dorm rooms assure a range of convenient options. In town, the Bethel and Sudbury Inns offer more intimate, traditional stays.

If, by chance, the Northeastern weather turns nasty during your visit, Bethel provides a worthy diversion, starting with a local education at the Bethel Historical Society. For more modern thrills, the Bethel Outdoor Adventure Center offers bowling, laser tag and a climbing wall. Catch a movie at the four-screen cineplex.

For outdoor pursuits besides dog-sledding, the rolling countryside is ideal for snowmobiling or cross-country skiing.

By the time we leave, I know we'll be back soon, perhaps for the wife-carrying championships in October (a local tradition so wrong it's right) or in early December to jumpstart our Christmas cheer on Santa Sunday (when scores of Santas take to the slopes). More likely I'll be back in the spring, to watch my dad race in the National Masters Championships. And to show him around the biggest dinky resort I never imagined.

November 2005[NEXT "Signpost"]

Signpost
Sunday River
663 skiable acres; 2,340 vertical feet; 18 lifts, including four high-speed quads; 128 trails; one superpipe, one mini-pipe and four terrain parks; 155 annual inches; 92 percent snowmaking.

Tickets: adults $59 midweek/weekend, $63 holiday; juniors (6—12) $41/$43; young adults (13—19) $54/$55; seniors (65 and over) $41/$43.

Getting There
from Boston I-95 north to Exit 63 in Maine; Route 26 north to Bethel; Route 2 east to the access road.

Lodging
Slopeside
Grand Summit Resort Hotel or Jordan Grand Resort Hotel (lifts and lodging, $60—$155 per person; 800-543-2754). >In Bethel The Bethel Inn ($69—$249 per person; 207-824-2175) Sudbury Inn ($79—$350; 207-824-2174)

Dining
In town
Sudbury Inn: traditional New England cuisine in dining room with fireplace; 207-824-2174.
>At the mountain The Phoenix: fine dining, extensive wine list; 207-824-2222.
>Access road The Matterhorn: casual and family-friendly, with spirited après-ski scene and good live music; 207-824-6836.

Information
sundayriver.com; 800-543-2754. Snow conditions: 207-824-5200

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