Forgive me for being a killjoy. But, if you want learn how to hate the sport, visiting these Jersey snakepits is a surefire way to go about it. The slopes are absurdly short. The lift lines are sickeningly long. And the crowds? I don't know what's worse: Their daunting numbers or the lack of control and judgement they exercise on the slopes. Names might have changed. And years might have passed. But it's pretty much the same dopey scene I encountered as a teen in my alcohol-infused high school ski club. (My most distinct memory of Great Gorge/Vernon Valley: Trying to zip my ski jacket over my head on the chair lift to shield myself from the icy assault of the snow cannons and accidentally zipping my lips into my zipper in the process. Tumbling off the lift with my lips still zipped into my coat while my friends laughed their asses off pretty much sums up what my teen years were like) .
Here's my suggestion: If you want to spend a Saturday skiing, head up the NYS Thruway to Belleayre Mountain. Granted, it's a little too long a drive for a one-day trip, so you'll need to skip town Friday night. Granted, with its gritty, no-frills lodges and East Coast conditions, it's still a far cry from Colorado. But it's real skiing on a 3,325-foot mountain (compare that with 1480 at Mountain Creek), as well as one of the best bargains you'll find anywhere.
Here's the deal:
Sleeping over means serious savings: The Belleayre region is so starved for tourism bucks they make it almost cheaper to spend the night and ski than it is to visit for the day (okay, I'm exaggerating a tad). Crashing overnight at one of the very modestly priced local inns, hotels or motels that participate in the area's promotional program means kids under 17 can stay free in your room and ski scott free, too (limit is two kids per family; adults pay $55 for a lift ticket). That's not just a big savings on the youth tickets sold at the mountain. I did the numbers and my family only ends ups paying about $40 more for a mini sleepover vacation at Belleayre than we would if we day-schlepped over to Mountain Creek.
You'll only need about 24 hours: We skedaddle out of town right after work on Friday nights and are up at Belleayre in time for a 7 or 8 pm chow. With an early rise the next day, we beat daytripping crowds to the slopes by 9 am, are in the car by 3, and are back in Montclair in time for Saturday evening dinner and hijinx. UPDATE: We day tripped a few times this year and it was actually quite doable. A 6:00 AM departure from Montclair got us to the mountain by 9 sharp, with a hearty diner breakfast en route. A full day of skiing 'til four landed us back in Montclair about 6 PM with zippo traffic. Definitely an option if you don't have really little kids.
You shouldn't expect Aspen: Belleayre is about an hour and a half up the Thruway from Northern Jersey, 45 minutes west on Rt. 28, and a steep descent into the belly of the Recession. Once you pass Woodstock, "For Rent" seems to be the most popular retail sign and most buildings haven't seen a fresh coat of paint in decades. Belleayre itself kind of sits on its own, with a handful of once-cute-but-now-sort-of -haunted little towns spilling off either side of the highway. Since the Mountain is run by the NY Department of Environmental Protection, the whole place has a no frills feel to it. Expect a crowded, slippery cafeteria, grubby bar, and chilly lockers. No Colorado cushiness, whatsoever. But it's all about the skiing here, which is pretty darned good considering how close to home and affordable it is.
You'll Teach Your Children Well: Learning to ski for lots of kids is misery, either because their parents are screaming at them or they're stuck in ski school, where they spend a good part of their time shivering on the ski slope, awaiting their turn to practice whatever the teacher is telling the group to do. Charging just $65/hr ($35 for each additional skiier), Belleayre makes private lessons a viable alternative and a golden opportunity for anyone who wants to learn to ski. Paul and I had the boys start off every visit with a shared 2-hour private lesson when they were young and it was an investment we don't regret. Every instructor they ever had was wonderful. They learned what they had to learn without hating us. And Paul and I got some much-treasured time to ski together on our own. If there's one reason to come to Belleayre, this might top the list. And just FYI: There's lots of room to grow at Belleayre. The Tomahawk lift services some pretty respectable blacks and double blacks that continue to keep us and the boys plenty happy and challenged.
Wait and Watch: No real need to commit to anything far in advance, as long as you're not coming over a holiday weekend (which we avoid at all costs anyway). If the stars align weather- and committment-wise, log onto the Belleayre website, click on the lodging tab and start calling around to see who has a room. Don't get all fussy--the goal should be to find whatever place will fit the most of you into the fewest rooms (cots are fair game). Remember, you are only CRASHING here. You're not looking for mints on the pillow or Stickley accent pieces. For the most part, you can expect wall-to-wall carpeting, wood panelling, and limited cable service. (There are some higher-end options, like the Emerson, but they are so not worth it considering how briefly you'll be staying and what you're coming for, in my opinion.) The pleasant surprise: I think some of our best family memories come from sitting around playing dumb board games or giggling in the dark with each other at these funky places. Kind of like those great memories I have of staying at HoJo's when I was a kid, ordering room service ice cream sundaes in those styrofoam cups, and running down the halls in our footie pajamas. With nostalgic treasures like that, who needs Paris, right?
Wanna Go? Need to Know:
Where to stay: I'm not tipping my hand too much because I don't want to fight you for rooms. The towns of Pine Hill and Fleishmanns are both a stone's throw from the Mountain and offer a number of options. We tend to prefer lodges and B&Bs over the motels since they offer common spaces for us to hang out together. Log onto http://www.bealleayre.com/ and go to the lodging page. It lists every option, including exact distances from the Mountain. If you really want specifics, shoot me a flattering email and I'll probably cave.
Where to Eat: Options are limited. The Pine Hill Arms (also a lodge) serves up one of the best bacon cheeseburgers on the planet, kick-ass chocolate cream pie, and a range of other hearty ski fare. There's also a weird Mexican restaurant in the town of Fleishmanns that we think doubles as a disco at certain times. Ask your innkeeper or motel owner where to eat and just go with it. A cold beer and some calories is all you really need before you ski, right? As for lunch at the slopes, bring your own unless the kids really require hot food. The cafeterias are pricey and pretty gross.
Alpine Intelligence: Lifts start operating at 9 am, but the mountain opens at 8. Take advantage of this if you have to rent equipment so you don't spend precious ski time in a rental line. If you are beginner skiiers or need to rent equipment, you'll need to park in the Discovery Lodge lot near the base. If you are a bit more experienced, avoid the base lot and drive right up to the Overlook Lot, which puts you at a nicer lodge and at the lifts for the higher trails. If you are experienced skiiers, skip both of these lots and park at the Tomahawk Lot. It services the more challenging trails and is a far less-crowded scene. There's no lodge at Tomahawk, but there is a ticket kiosk. Parking is so convenient, you can simply keep your supplies in the car and run over and get them when you need them. In any case, plan on getting to the slopes early to avoid having to park in the overflow areas, which are a haul from the lifts, even with the help of shuttle vans. If you are just learning to ski, check out the special introductory packages. They do involve group ski lessons, but they are free, so you don't have much to lose.
What to Bring: We bring nothing but the clothes we are wearing and our ski stuff. There is no reason to bring anything whatsoever to make yourself the least bit appealing. Unless, of course, you still have some sense of personal dignity. Which I lost when I zipped my lips into my jacket long ago!