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Travel and Beaches

North Carolina an unlikely haven for skiers

Tribune correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 08:29 AM

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Taken at face value, the ski resorts of North Carolina's High Country are statistically challenged.

Here's one: 365 feet. That's the total vertical drop at Appalachian Ski Mountain, a height just slightly greater than the 27-story Tampa Marriott Waterside.

Here's another: 1. That's the total number of high-speed lifts in the entire region. Escalators at International Plaza move faster than most Carolina chairlifts.

And then there's perhaps the most damning stat of all: 66 inches. It's the area's average annual snowfall. I'd wager the freezers at Bern's Steak House produce more frost.

So why am I pleasantly satisfied as I slip into my seat for the short flight back to Tampa after three days on the Carolina slopes? Maybe it's because statistics don't tell the whole story.

They ignore the fact that the High Country's trio of resorts - Appalachian Ski Mountain, Sugar Mountain and Beech Mountain - are within a day's drive of most of the Florida peninsula or a quick flight from anywhere in the Sunshine State. They overlook the unique personalities of each resort and the fact that the average North Carolina ski trip costs substantially less than heading out West.

Most of all, they don't account for the fact that an area with little natural snowfall can actually have lots of snow. Mother Nature just needs a little help.

Appalachian, at the lowest elevation of the trio, spent nearly $2 million to increase its snowmaking capability over the past three years. At peak capacity, its snow-gun arsenal can convert 6 million gallons of water to snow daily.

"We've gotten now where we can virtually cover the whole mountain in a new layer of snow overnight," says general manager Brad Moretz. "Even during rain or warmer weather, if we have a cold night, we can blanket the area with snow."

I used to think manmade snow was just ice with a more consumer-friendly name. But the white stuff I experienced made me think again. The computer-controlled modern equipment responds to changes in temperature and humidity to produce better quality snow. Resorts typically blow snow at night and spread it where needed with grooming equipment.

Still, the stuff that falls from the heavens is best, and this winter has been heaven-sent for a state coming off two hellish seasons. Locals say more than 24 inches fell at Christmastime alone, and weather watchers are predicting season totals well above average. During my stay the first week of January, snow and unseasonably cold temperatures turned the place into a literal winter wonderland, with base depths as much as 120 inches.

Each area has its niche. Appalachian Ski Mountain is the biggest anomaly - a "mountain" with only 27 skiable acres and five lifts but an amazing capacity to make snow. This miniscule resort has a fleet of groomers who meticulously shape the corduroy twice daily, a rare outerwear rental program that can outfit a Southern family right down to gloves and goggles, and a ski school that has taught more than 1 million lessons since 1969.

Appalachian is also a favorite for its three excellent cutting-edge terrain parks, obstacle-filled runs that attract the area's hottest freestyle skiers and riders.

Sugar's claim to fame is simple. It has the biggest vertical (1,200 feet) and the state's longest run, the 1.5-mile long Upper and Lower Flying Mile. It's here I also enjoyed the steepest runs, non-intimidating black diamonds such as Boulder Dash and Tom Terrific that most visitors overlook. Sugar also offers some nice wintry alternatives, such as snowshoeing and ice skating.

Beech Mountain reminded me most of a larger Western resort. Just accessing the slopes involves a steep, multiple-switchback climb up the mountainside. Once there, I found plenty of natural snow (locals hope for 90 inches this year), the state's highest elevation (5,506 feet) and a widespread layout. Advanced skiers will enjoy White Lightning, Southern Star and Robbin's Run on the hill's face, while intermediates will appreciate the wide-open Oz, dropping off the mountain's backside.

I'd be remiss if I didn't caution the experience at any of the three can be like navigating Forrest Gump's infamous box of chocolates - you never know what you're gonna get. Depending on the weather, you may be condemned to the icy concrete the East is often known for, or rewarded with lightweight Western-style powder. Even during ideal times, resorts occasionally have snow guns running during operating hours to add to the total, or a dusting of fresh snow hiding an icy base below.

There's no question, however, that recent storms and cold weather have allowed resorts to stockpile snow for the coming months. Appalachian is currently scheduled to stay open through April 11, the latest date ever for a North Carolina ski area.

Not into skiing or boarding all day? Try one of the numerous snow tubing areas, including the East Coast's largest at Hawksnest. (Use a little caution if conditions are icy; I found out firsthand that tubing isn't always the no-worries laugh fest it's pitched as.) I had big fun riding Hawsknest's new array of zip lines, a suspended cable system that allows you to strap in and fly directly over the tubing lanes before zigzagging your way farther down the hill on a series of progressively longer cables. Two of the lines extend more than 1,800 feet.

Of course, exploring the towns that host these areas provides hours of entertainment. To describe them as quaint would cheapen the experience. These are the kinds of places where a real guy named Fred holds court in Fred's General Mercantile, a wonder emporium of anything-and-everything crammed into a three-story farmhouse. Here, locals purchase a snow-making gun on a whim to construct a kids-only sledding hill next to the Town Hall.

These towns feel real because they are, not because the local tourism council sought to cash in.
One final number: 2. Next to natives themselves, Floridians are the second most frequent visitors to North Carolina's ski resorts.

Maybe that's the statistic that means the most.

If you go

• Boone is the largest city in the region and a good place to get supplies, but other towns offer a better glimpse of the high country. For mainstream accommodations, check out the Best Western in Banner Elk (bestwesternbannerelk.com). More upscale choices include the beautiful Chetola Resort in Blowing Rock (chetola.com) and the luxury condos perched high overlooking Sugar Mountain (seesugar.com).

• Weekends can get crowded, especially at Sugar and Appalachian. Try to visit during the week when locals are in school. If a weekend getaway is your only choice, hit the slopes early; crowds arrive after lunch.

• Looking for a memorable dining experience? Bistro Roca is a local's secret in Blowing Rock. And don't miss Jackalope's View at Archers Inn in Banner Elk. Nestled right into the side of Beech Mountain, it offers an amazing panorama of Grandfather Mountain, along with the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains.

• For an adult night out, try the Banner Elk Winery. Here, you can sip local favorites while seated around a cozy fireplace.

On the Web
Appalachian: www.appskimtn.com
Sugar: www.skisugar.com
Beech: www.skibeech.com
Bistro Roca/Antler's Bar: bistroroca.com
Jackalope's View: www.archersinn.com/jackalopes.htm
Banner Elk Winery: www.bannerelkwinery.com

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