Don't overlook 'the hills' for varied skiing pleasures

Email|Print| Text size + By Jaci Conry
Globe Correspondent / February 6, 2005

THE BERKSHIRES are known for Norman Rockwell, Tanglewood, and more recently, Canyon Ranch. That the region is also an appealing downhill skiing destination is, if not unknown, at least underappreciated. The Berkshire Hills include a vast selection of snow-covered slopes, some of which have been around since pre-chairlift days, when people carried their skis up the mountain. Today, the area offers ample terrain for even the most experienced alpine daredevil.

Bousquet, Pittsfield. Bousquet lays claim to being the region's first ski destination: In 1932, a group of winter enthusiasts approached Clarence Bousquet about using the slopes of his farm for skiing. In 1936, Bousquet became the first ski mountain in the country to offer night skiing, thanks to a partnership with Pittsfield-based General Electric that created a unique lighting program for the area. In the early '50s, Bousquet was one of the first ski areas to make snow.

In its early years, Bousquet (boss-KAY) lured skiers with one of the Berkshires' greatest travel promotions: snow trains that traveled from New York to Pittsfield (with a bus connection to Bousquet) for $2 round trip. The area doesn't draw big out-of-state crowds any more, but it does have a large band of local skiers who frequent the mountain several times a week. Its 200 skiable acres cater to novice and intermediate skiers, but there are also several demanding runs among its 22 trails.

Bousquet is known for its ski school. I took lessons there in my youth and can attest to the instructors' patience. The area also offers classes for adults, such as Monday-morning Ladies' Days. Though the old-fashioned rope tow was retired recently, two ski carpets (like moving sidewalks) take skiers up the beginner slopes and tubing area.

Bousquet also has a competitive ski team. According to the area's marketing manager, Sherry Roberts, ''The team usually ranks in the top four when participating in tri-state and New England races." Additionally, she says, ''the team has produced three US Olympic Ski Team members." To cultivate local talent, Bousquet has race clinics and programs such as Adventure Race Camp, offered during school vacations.

Jiminy Peak, Hancock. Jiminy Peak is the most elaborate ski resort in the Berkshires, with facilities and activities to compete with resorts in Vermont. It tends to be crowded here, but lift lines aren't unusually long, and employees as well as skiers tend to be good-natured.

Open since 1948, Jiminy Peak undertook an elaborate expansion in the 1980s, building an all-suite hotel, the Country Inn, as well as two- and three-bedroom condominiums on the mountain and at the base. Since then, enough condominiums have been added to the property to accommodate about 2,000 people. A handful of luxurious private homes and elaborate meeting and conference facilities also are on the property.

Jiminy has a vertical drop of 1,140 feet and an abundance of expert terrain. Of the 43 trails, spread out over 164 acres, about half are intermediate slopes such as Left Bank, which, at a meandering 2 miles, is Jiminy's longest. The area is a hot spot for snowboard enthusiasts, and just a short drive away is Brodie Mountain, a former ski area that was featured in the 1985 John Cusack film ''Better Off Dead." Jiminy bought it in 2000, and it now is the resort's tubing center.

Guest services at Jiminy are at the resort's bustling Village Center, which also includes shops and the Burbank Children's Center, where ski instruction programs for children are coordinated. Here, also, is the bright and colorful Cub's Den for children 6 months and older who prefer indoor activities.

In addition to Jiminy's main lodge at the base of the mountain, a day lodge with food and beverage services, where the weary skier can refuel, stands at the top of the main lift. For those craving something more elaborate than the usual lodge fare, the resort has two restaurants, Christiansen's Tavern and Founders Grille.

In summer and fall, Jiminy has a Universal Park featuring a rock-climbing wall, a Eurobungy-Trampoline, a stocked trout pond, a mini-golf course, and mountain bike trails. One of the eight lifts, the Berkshire Express (the only six-person high-speed chairlift in Massachusetts) also runs during the off-season so nonskiers can take in the magnificent vista of the Jericho Valley from the mountain's summit.

Ski Butternut, Great Barrington. In 1963, Channing and Jane Murdock took over a tiny, lift-less ski operation at the base of Warner Mountain and developed a much larger area called Butternut Basin, named for the many butternut trees on the property. The Murdocks sold 136 shares at $1,000 each to investors and borrowed $360,000 to create what they said would be ''the best family ski area in the region." Today, the mountain, now known as Ski Butternut and run by the Murdocks' son, Jef, thrives with family activity.

The original trails were cut by Channing Murdock himself, and today the area offers some of the finest groomed trails in the Berkshires. According to Matt Sawyer, who handles Butternut's marketing, the area's first commitment is to being family oriented. Its second commitment, he said, ''is to grooming the area. The whole mountain gets meticulously groomed every night." With 22 trails on more than 110 acres, Butternut has an even split of beginner and intermediate slopes, with about 20 percent expert terrain.

Snowboarders have two terrain parks, West Way and Twist. Tubers have a five-lane park with its own lift. Butternut's two lodges at the base of the mountain offer full food and beverage service. The 10 lifts include two quads (four-person chairs), several doubles, and a new 60-foot flying carpet as well as one of the last remaining rope tows in the region, serving the beginners' slopes.

Butternut sits on about 450 acres, and one of the draws is the 8 miles of cross-country trails that wind through the woods; trails are open Thursday through Sunday.

Otis Ridge, Otis. Though Otis Ridge is small -- about 60 skiable acres -- its old-fashioned, rustic charm makes it well worth a trip. You'll feel welcome and at home.

Otis was established in the 1950s by Dave Judson, a member of the US Army's elite ski-trained Mountain Division during World War II, who was later inducted into the National Ski Hall of Fame. (Another family has owned and operated the area for the last 19 years.) Since it has only 12 trails and a mere three lifts (a double chair, a T-bar, and a handle tow), many seasoned skiers may scoff, yet about one-third of the Otis terrain consists of challenging expert runs. Like bigger ski areas, Otis has snowboarding, night skiing, and a few cross-country trails.

Judson housed the snowmaking operations in the basement of the Grouse House, the area's restaurant and function room. Patrons often get a little jolt of noise and vibrations when the compressors and water pumps start up. (Tours are given of the snowmaking facility when it's operating.) On the top floor are moderately priced single and double guest rooms. However, accommodations are on the basic side, so don't plan to spend much time in your room. Bathrooms are shared and are at the end of the hall.

One special feature is the Otis Ridge Ski Camp, the oldest operating ski camp in the nation. For boys and girls ages 8-15, the camp includes overnight sessions during school vacations and weekends through March. Novice through expert skiers are welcome, and campers are supervised by ski instructors. In addition to ski or snowboard instruction, activities include night hikes, marshmallow roasts, talent shows, movies, and competitive ping-pong tournaments.

Jaci Conry is a freelance writer in Boston.

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