It's the snow, stupid. And Sunday River, Maine, realized this fundamental truth of skiing long before other ski areas did.
In the early Eighties, Sunday River's then-owner, Les Otten, began investing in snowmaking and grooming to create the finest ski conditions possible. His single-minded devotion to product drove the sleepy day area in western Maine's Mahoosuc Mountains to become one of the leading destination resorts in New England and the flagship of the American Skiing Company empire. Skiers learned that when no other resort in New England had snow, Sunday River did; and that when other resorts had marginal snow, Sunday River's was reliably excellent.
Once he had perfected his snowmaking and grooming, Otten followed another mantra: Build it, and they will come. He grew Sunday River into a mega resort trail by trail, peak by peak, quad by high-speed quad. Today there are 127 trails (plus others regulars know but are loath to reveal), serviced by 18 lifts on eight connected mountains spanning three miles, from White Cap to Jordan Bowl.
If you want to ski your brains out, Sunday River's a good place to do exactly that. If you're looking for a more rounded holiday, perhaps including shopping or cultural alternatives, fine dining or even lodging with distinction, go elsewhere, or at least stay in Bethel, the peaceful New England town six miles down the road.
Sunday River's sprawling terrain translates into sprawling facilities. In addition to the main hub at South Ridge, where the Perfect Turn learning programs are located, there are lodges at the nearby White Cap and Locke Mountain bases. The Jordan Grand, the resort's newest condo-hotel, sits alone, five long, dark miles from the rest of the resort.
Despite its isolation, the Jordan is popular-and for good reason. Almost everything you'll need, with the notable exception of lessons, is available within the hotel. This includes day care, health club, outdoor heated pool, ski shop with rental gear and gift shop with video rentals. We arrived road-weary and hungry and were thankful to find the Sliders restaurant open.
Though the Jordan Grand is the resort's poshest hotel, think of it as Holiday Inn, not Hilton, posh. It isn't particularly sound-proof, and leaks aren't unusual. We went to sleep one night listening to the beep beep of the nearby elevator, then woke the next morning to a drip drip from a plaster stalactite hanging from the ceiling. It's also far from the kid-pleasing White Cap Fun Center with lighted tubing park. Still, you can't beat the slopeside location.
Saturday morning we purchased lift tickets at the front desk, picked up our gear at the ski check and skied down to the Jordan Bowl Express Quad. Jordan is the westernmost of Sunday River's peaks, but friends had warned us that it draws a crowd. It's best to ski there first thing in the morning, we were told, so we did. We warmed up on Rogue Angel, swooping down the mountain and catching air over the rollers. While most of Sunday River's trails are of newer design-wide and mostly straight down the fall line-man-made terrain features enliven the experience, as do glades and terrain parks. Sunday River has plenty of both.
From the summit of Jordan, we headed east on Kansas, which delivered us through Oz and Aurora to North Peak. Although this trans-resort highway is designated beginner, it bisects more than a half-dozen trails, most of which are expert runs. We quickly learned to stop at each intersection and look up for skiers, riders and sliding bodies before proceeding.
North Peak is the resort's heart. Human traffic pulses east, west, up and down as it moves from the center to the extremities. Adding to the general mayhem are clinics and scores of newbies cutting random turns on North Peak's gentle terrain. The South Ridge complex at the base is the resort's main facility, home to Perfect Turn learning programs and the Maine Handicapped Skiing progrram. One run down, and we knew this was an area to avoid if possible.One oasis worth finding amid this madness, however, is Lift 6, the Perfect Turn Express Quad. Lines seldom build here due to its out-of-the-way location. We cruised Escapade and Dream Maker, warmed up our knees on 3D, an intermediate bump run, then took the plunge on double-black Northern Exposure, seldom waiting more than a few minutes for the chair between runs.
After refueling at the North Peak Lodge, we considered a run on Spruce Peak, but our timing was off. American Express, Risky Business and Downdraft, long fall-line trails, are three of the most popular runs at the resort. We should have skied here earlier in the morning, when the snow was fresh and the skiers few. We slid over to Barker Mountain instead.
Barker and Locke Mountains are the core of the original ski area and still provide some of the best advanced terrain. As we rode Lift 1, The Sunday River Express Quad, to Barker's summit, we eyed Agony, an appropriately named bump run, but decided to conserve our quads. Instead, Right Stuff was just right, a playful plunge that invited long, carved GS turns. Next, we cut over to Locke on Jungle Road and descended T2, thrilling with each pop off the undulating terrain before hanging a right over to White Cap, which we dubbed Testosterone Peak.
White Cap is the home of Sunday River's most notorious trail, White Heat; the "longest, steepest, widest" trail in the East, the resort boasts. This trail, like a tragicomic mask, is divided in half vertically: One side is meticulously groomed, the other is mega-bumped. It's perfect for preen-and-show experts as well as those who aren't-but want bragging rights at the office on Monday. Serious skiers who don't need audience feedback from the chair above head to the double-black Chutzpah and Hard Ball glades, which flank White Heat, adding trees to the mix of bumps and steeps. On a local's advice, we sought out Shock Wave, which has nearly the pitch of White Heat, but doesn't attract the crowds. After a couple runs here, our legs begged for the hot tub.
We returned to the hotel via shuttle. Upon entering the hotel lobby, I noticed a display table and went to investigate. Good thing. A laid-back Georgian was handing out keys to BMWs for test rides. I reserved an X5 SUV for our use, at no charge, from 6 to 10 p.m. So, after easing out the kinks in the hot tub, sauna and steam room, we took a circuitous route to charming downtown Bethel in our BMW. We enjoyed a wonderful four-course dinner at the Victoria Inn, then returned just before curfew, actually savoring those previously cursed last five miles.
Purposefully, we'd saved the best terrain for this morning. Oz and Aurora are laced with black and double-black terrain, yet are the least-crowded peaks at the resort. Most skiers and riders pass through them on their way from one end of the resort to the other. No high-speed quads here; no base lodges, either. Posers move on quickly, which is just fine with the regulars.
Oz, especially, is a good place to hang if you want to befriend a local who might be persuaded to lead you to the resort's notorious tree-shots and powder stashes. We quizzed lifties and pass holders, seeking the wizard who could lead us to the promised lands, but to no avail. Instead, we skied the on-the-map glades, which are nothing to sneer at: Celestial and Flying Monkey both warrant their double-black ratings.
Late morning, I returned to the hotel for a quiet soak in the hot tub, followed by a massage. Under the skillful hands of Sarah, I eased into a dreamlike stupor as we compared notes about skiing. When she started praising Oz and Aurora, I wondered just how fat a tip it would take to get her to reveal the locations of her secret stashes.
Again, no such luck. Some things money just can't buy.