Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Steamboat: The Olympians' Choice

Steamboat Champagne Powder - courtesy of Steamboat Ski Resort
Four Points Lodge Steamboat courtesy of Steamboat Ski Resort
An Italian feast 9,716 feet above sea level was a great way to cap off our recent Steamboat visit. Dining at the Four Points Lodge - reached by starlit gondola and then short snowcat ride - is a signature experience, with wine tastings, hors d’oeuvres and five creative courses served in the subtly transformed ski lodge. White tablecloths and intimate settings are illuminated by the roaring flames from the towering stone fireplace with attentive wait staff circulating, all dressed alike in smart ski sweaters. Fab food and a romantic experience we’ll remember for a long time. 

Dr Simon Hudson, practicing what he preaches!
I was there with Dr Simon Hudson, who was researching customer service excellence in Steamboat for an article for Hotel Business Review in www.hotelexecutive.com. In 2014 Steamboat Ski and Resort Company and Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association started an innovative project to train the entire town in topnotch customer service skills. Having written about this originally in our book, Winter SportTourism, Simon was there to monitor its progress. You’ll have to wait until his upcoming article to find out his conclusions!

Olympian Linas Vaitkus
The Northern Italian slow-food philosophy at Four Points Lodge gave us the chance to digest the downhill portion of our trip, which had started two days before with a sensational ski day with Olympian, Linas Vaitkus. One of an amazing 88 Olympians living in town, Linas grew up at Steamboat, skiing down from his mountainside home to the resort base. 

Racing during university in New Mexico and Colorado, he became the Head Alpine Coach for the USCSA ski team. To fulfill his dream of competing in the Olympics, he used his Lithuanian citizenship, becoming the first alpine ski racer in the history of Lithuania at the Nagano Games in 1998. He funded his competitive career himself through carpentry work in Steamboat during the summers.

Linas with me at Ragner's Steamboat - photo by Simon Hudson
Now owner of Snowcap Construction (and a Fire Captain/EMT with North Routt Fire Protection District), he lives in a log home he built in the Hahn's Peak area - a fully self-sustaining, environmentally-friendly dwelling to which he plans to add an extension this summer. “My house is off the grid, I use solar energy and RV technology,” he told us while on the gondola. “I use a snowmobile to get high into the backcountry and ski amazing untracked powder on my days off.” 

Linas with me - photo by Simon Hudson
In winter he is a race trainer as well as a PSIA Level 3 Certified Ski Instructor. “There are more Olympians here than any other ski town in North America,” says Linas. He attributes this to the great snow and terrain in Steamboat, a strong ski culture, and impact of the legendary Olympic skier, Buddy Werner who, Linas says, put ‘Ski Town, USA’ (Steamboat’s logo) on the map. There is a statue of Buddy (who died young in an avalanche during a Bogner film shoot in Switzerland) opposite the Storm Peak Express download on Mt Werner – originally called Storm Mountain but renamed in Buddy’s honour in 1965. It is considered good luck to tap him on the shoulder as you pass with a ski pole. “He was very inspirational, a charismatic character as well as a great skier,” Linas explained, as he guided us down Buddy’s Run – a trail that we would return to early the next morning to take advantage of the nine inches of overnight powder.


Pole tipping the Buddy Werner statue at Steamboat for good luck - photo by Simon Hudson
Taking us to the shaded slopes all morning, sticking to the lefthand side where he told us the snow, shadowed by the towering trees, is always the best, Linas then guided us back to Ragner’s for a nourishing Norwegian lunch. With sit-down service, a Scandinavian menu, and a rustic décor motif, Ragner’s has an inviting European atmosphere encouraging you to linger. But we still had a full afternoon of skiing ahead of us exploring the southerly slopes and, while we had been eating, a storm had moved in, covering everything with two inches of fresh. Linas took us on all the wide blue cruisers and also some of the newer style of slopes being built in concert with the existing topography. “These are more of a natural shape, following the contours of the mountain,” Linas explained. “They are more environmentally friendly and, because there are more twists and turns, more fun for intermediate and expert skiers.” One of the iconic Steamboat black runs we did was Rolex, named for the former president and CEO of Rolex USA Roland Puton, who still visits every year after coming to Steamboat for annual corporate retreats. “It was his 82nd birthday when he came a couple of weeks ago,” said Linas, who guides him during his visits. “And so he aimed to do 82 consecutive turns to match his age.”

Steamboat piste map showing the extensive night skiing area

We finished the day off by skiing through the night-skiing area where cutting-edge Ultra-Tech lights illuminate the five runs and terrain park features off the Christie Peak Express - with great clarity but minimal light pollution - every Thursday through Monday (and every day during the Christmas season). 

Steamboat’s skiing encompasses a complete mountain range with 2,965 skiable acres over Sunshine Peak, Storm Peak, Thunderhead Peak, Pioneer Ridge, and Christie Peak. There are 16 lifts, 165 trails (14% beginner, 42% intermediate and 44% advanced) as well as a Superpipe and terrain park. Powder paragons flock to the glades of Pioneer Ridge, Sunshine and Storm Peak. The longest run, 'Why Not', goes on for over 3 miles, snaking its way through Burgess Creek and the aspen glades of the Routt National Forest, back down to the Thunderhead Express. On top of the hefty 349"/886cm of snowfall annually, the resort has snowmaking capacity for 375 acres.

Sunshine and soft snow, magical ingredients for a ski holiday at Steamboat - by Louise Hudson

Me in the pow - by Simon Hudson


Our second day we experienced some of that 349 inches, waking up to nine more which had fallen overnight, plus crystal clear skies. Needless to say the gondola lift-line was lengthy even at 8:15 am, with the singles line actually longer than the regular line, so we skipped it and made our way up to Buddy’s Run via the chairlift system, asking other skiers the way. 


We skied pristine powder – lightest on skier’s left as Linas had promised - until 10:30 and after that had to look much harder for untrammeled tracks but there was good snow all day, especially in the aspen glades. 






It was great being able to pop back to our apartment at the Steamboat Grand for a late lunch, just over the road, with a handy ski valet to leave the skis near the gondola. There’s also a large, well equipped gym, which we used for stretching, and sociable hot tub area. And the free buses, linking downtown and all the resort facilities in between, stop right outside the Grand



Downtown Steamboat Springs - courtesy of Steamboat Ski Resort
Exploring Steamboat Springs is a must – especially the 112 year-old western footwear and clothingstore, F. M. Light & Sons which we had seen advertised on countless ancient billboards dug into the rolling ranch lands en route from Breckenridge. Founded in 1900, Steamboat has many historical buildings still intact including the Romanesque Revival style First National Bank/Rehder Building - which has gone through regular reinventions from Ford Garage offices, a creamery and cheese factory, an auto parts store, dentists, retail space, photography studio, and three restaurants. It was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1994. 

LOW Country Kitchen Steamboat - photo courtesy of LOW

Fried chicken at LOW Country Kitchen
But it’s not all history and heritage: Steamboat is modernizing, with newer shops and eclectic eateries popping up. One of these is LOW Country Kitchen, which serves Carolinian culinary concoctions in an upbeat, trendy ambiance. Southerner, Katy Vaughn and husband Chef Brian Vaughn pride themselves on providing a healthier version of items such as fried green tomatoes, fried chicken, grits and cornbread. Everything is home cooked using slow marinating methods and much less grease than is prevalent in Carolina cooking. Since opening in 2014 the concept has really taken off, leading to a second branch which has just opened in Denver

A recent housing boom in Steamboat Springs has echoed this modernizing motif with new builds featuring contemporary designs, open floor plans, modern windows, low pitched roofs, steel, salvaged timbers and other environmentally-friendly materials – what is increasingly being called ‘Rocky Mountain Modern’.
 
Smartwool underlayers
One of Steamboat’s staples is Smartwool, the merino wool specialists, which has been based there since launching in 1994“The Smartwool story started on a rugged Colorado ski slope with the belief that toes don’t have to be cold," explains Molly Cuffe, Smartwool global communications director. "Now we continue to challenge convention while seeking comfort solutions for the entire body." 

Pushing the boundaries of merino wool design and textile technology, the company builds smart products for active outdoor lifestyles inspired by the Steamboat Springs environment. "Our goal is to deliver extraordinary comfort from the inside out," says Molly. "We start with the highest quality Merino and place it next to the skin where the natural benefits of wool really shine – moisture management, breathability, temperature regulation, etc. By using gender-specific body mapping in our products, all ventilation and heating zones are strategically placed zones to help the body work more efficiently.  Ultimately, this keeps people more comfortable outside doing what they love." 

The savvy Smartwool Fan Field Tester program creates brand ambassadors who drive product innovation by assessing apparel and sharing feedback. Products - including everything that can be made of this warmest of wools from socks to hoodies, hats, gloves, dresses, underwear and sweaters - can be found in specialty ski and outdoor retailers, and online at Smartwool.com. "Of course, all Smartwool products come with a 100-percent satisfaction guarantee,” Molly adds.

Other local businesses worth checking out include Honey Stinger which makes honey-based nutrition bars and snacks. For more decadent delicacies there is Daniela’s Chocolates, where Swiss-trained pastry chef, Daniela creates toffees, truffles and roasted nut confections. There are four craft breweries in town, notably Storm Peak Brewing, launched by brothers Wyatt and Tyler Patterson in 2014, which has developed a range of beers now distributed across Colorado. And there are lots of unique shops in town such as Nutterly By Nature (gluten-free), Moon Hill Dairy and Little Moon Essentials for natural bath and body products. 
Hot Springs at Steamboat courtesy of Steamboat Ski Resort
Strawberry Park Hot Springs - courtesy of Steamboat Ski Resort
Hot springs are a signature Steamboat attraction with Strawberry Springs one of the most famous for its fairy grotto setting,104 degree natural mineral water and adult-only hours after 4:30 pm (someone told me swimwear wasn’t necessarily mandatory!) Check out the private massage huts and watsu therapy in the private pool. Book a tour to avoid driving difficulties but if you do go independently bring cash to pay for entrance fees and make sure you have a 4WD with snow tyres or chains.

Steamboat Ski Resort is around three hours drive from Denver and you can also fly into Steamboat Springs Airport. With a huge variety of accommodation both on the hill and in town, there are lots of lodging/ski packages available and, if you’re going with kids (or grandkids), check out the 12-and-under ski free deal on 5-day visits. 


Del's Horseback Riding - Courtesy of Steamboat Ski Resort 
As well as all the sensational skiing, snowboarding and varied après ski options, other activities include horseback rides, snowmobiling, sleigh ride dinners, multiple hot springs choices, spa services, and winter photography tours, most of which regrettably we didn't have time for as we were only there a couple of days. But the skiing, the snow, the scenery and the established ski culture made us want to go back soon for more!


Cardboard Classic at Steamboat - photo by Larry Pierce/Steamboat Ski Resort
If you're going, Spring events have already started at Steamboat, with free concerts planned for every Saturday at 3:30pm in Gondola Square from now until closing day. Coming up April 9 is the beach-themed Toes on the Nose Surf Jam followed by the crazy Cardboard Classic on April 15, now in its 37th year. The Splashdown Pond Skim celebrates the last day of the season on April 16. All the event info, including pass and package deals, can be found at Steamboat.com/spring. And you can connect with the resort by:



The annual Pond Skim at Steamboat is judged by costume, distance, style, crowd response and air - photo by Larry Pierce/Steamboat Ski Resort

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