January 20, 2013

John Christie: Waterville Valley regaining its grandeur

A few times every ski season I like to spread my tips a little and explore some undiscovered (by me) ski area either in Maine or beyond, or to revisit a favorite or two of mine outside the state that I've neglected for a long time.

click image to enlarge

Waterville Valley not only benefits from its location in an area that gets a lot of natural snow, but also has snowmaking across all of its trails.

Waterville Valley photo

The neglect is excusable, as we've got such great skiing and so many options available to us right here within our borders that it's tough to get motivated to journey very far afield.

But it's always nice, I've found, to be reminded that we don't have a complete corner on the market, and a brief adventure away can open our eyes to the fact there are lots of wonderful choices within a few hours of Maine.

And I usually come home with a renewed appreciation for what we have within easy reach right here in the Pine Tree State.

A couple of weeks ago I took just such a trip to an old but long-neglected favorite of mine, Waterville Valley in New Hampshire's glorious White Mountains.

I was reminded as I took the spectacularly beautiful drive across the Kancamangus Highway that Waterville Valley is only a little over 100 miles from Portland, and about 160 miles from my home in the midcoast. It's an easy trek to a historic and, thanks to new ownership, revitalized and re-emerging player in the eastern ski market.

In fact, a recent SKI magazine readers' poll ranked the resort No. 12 overall in the East, No. 5 for weather, No. 3 for family programs, No. 5 for on-mountain food, No. 5 for terrain parks and No. 7 for digital performance.

This is a far cry from the opinion of skiers a few short years ago after the resort became part of a large western ski conglomerate, Booth Creek, that in the minds of many completely neglected its east coast property, causing the resort's popularity to diminish substantially.

I hasten to add that my last visit was some 40 years ago during the area's halcyon days under the ownership and management of my dear old friend, Tom Corcoran, who parlayed a successful college racing career at Dartmouth in the 1950s and a fourth-place finish in the giant slalom at the 1960 Olympics into a distinguished career in the business.

His masters in business administration and a few years learning the business at the knee of Darcy Brown at Aspen didn't hurt, and his friendship with influential political insiders like the Kennedy family added to his ability to finance and promote the ski resort. It was created by combining private property and a lease from the U.S. Forest Service in a basin in the White Mountain National Forest that was a magnet for natural snow, not to mention its proximity to the Boston market.

Today's Waterville Valley stands as vindication of Corcoran's vision, and the current ownership and management team strike me as being the right people at the right time to return the resort to its earlier grandeur.

New Hampshire's well-connected Sununu family led an investment group that is now in its third season operating the resort, having purchased it from Booth Creek in the fall of 2010. John Sununu's son, Chris, is an active and visible CEO, and he has assembled a know-ledgeable management team with a long history of commitment to Waterville Valley.

Of particular note are two veterans who spent their early years at the resort and were lured back to play key roles in the rebirth of the area -- Bob Fries, Waterville Valley's president, and Bobby Foster, the marketing director.

Equally important are the terrain and the quality of skiing I rediscovered and enjoyed on the 4,000-foot mountain, and the ambiance of the integrated base village.

Comprising some 500 acres, the carefully designed resort offers panoramic views of the surrounding mountains, and gives skiers and boarders over 2,000 feet of vertical on 52 trails for every ability level.

Eleven lifts and six terrain parks spread the visitors around, not to mention that 100 percent of the mountain terrain can be covered with man-made snow, as it was on my recent visit.

Some 70 kilometers of Nordic trails originate right in the base village, where shops, dining, entertainment and ice skating are available in an architecturally appealing New England village environment.

If you're planning a trip out of Maine this winter, think about spending a few days at the new, nearby Waterville Valley. If you enjoy it just half as much as I did, you're in for a treat.

John Christie is a former ski racer and ski area manager and owner, a ski historian and member of the Maine Ski Hall of Fame. He and his son, Josh, write ski columns on alternating weeks. John can be reached at:

jchristie@fairpoint.net

 

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