Travel

It's still Mammoth at heart

The sky is falling.

The end is near.

And Mammoth is turning into Aspen.

Only one of those statements proved wholly true during my recent visit to this eastern Sierra ski resort: The sky, indeed, was falling. Tiny, fluffy snowflakes floated down from the heavens. Children romped. Snowboarders shouted for joy.

Whether the end is near and development is destroying the town's rustic appeal depends on one's point of view — of which I heard many during my visit just before the Thanksgiving weekend opening of the Village Gondola, the heart of a new town center.

From a traveler's standpoint, the new Mammoth looks good. But some visitors, especially its longtime devotees, still may worry how much change has come to Mammoth Lakes, the town, and Mammoth Mountain, the ski resort. Do the new upscale lodging, restaurants and shops fit like a glove or a cramped ski boot? And is this pleasantly unpolished place — this skier's ski resort — losing its soul?

Some visitors may wonder whether there was a soul to lose. The 325-mile drive north from Los Angeles along U.S. 395 is, of course, scenic enough to lift anyone's spirits.

But swing onto Highway 203 toward Mammoth Lakes, population 7,700, and the portrait of white-capped peaks quickly melts into motels, strip malls and parking lots. Businesses are strung along two intersecting thoroughfares, Main Street and Old Mammoth Road, and undistinguished condominium complexes elsewhere contribute to a suburban hodgepodge.

The Village is an attempt to change that. A few blocks off Main Street, the mini-mountain of timber and stone rises along Minaret Road. Four floors of guest rooms sit atop ground-level shops and restaurants lining a central promenade, all built in an Arts and Crafts style but tarted up in the soft hues of a rainbow trout.

With the new gondola connecting guests to one set of ski lifts (at the Canyon day lodge) and shuttles running to another (at the Main day lodge), visitors can stow their vehicles in an underground parking garage and theoretically spend their days skiing, shopping, eating, drinking and sleeping without ever hopping back into the car.

I parked and checked into a fourth-floor room at the Village, whose 166 studio and one-, two- and three-bedroom units were sold like traditional condos but are managed like hotel rooms: When owners aren't home, visitors move in. Each unit has virtually the same woodsy, contemporary décor and standard hotel amenities, including daily housekeeping service.

My one-bedroom was small — about 600 square feet — but appealing. The compact kitchen was well equipped, and though the living area had room for little more than a sofa bed, an easy chair and a TV cabinet, other details made the space feel comfortable and inviting: framed Sierra landscape photography, a gas fireplace with a stone facade, a deck that overlooked the shopping promenade.

Although the room didn't quite reach the level of "luxury" touted by developers — the polyester-blend sheets were so abrasive I think I exfoliated as I slept — the accommodations were a couple of notches above other hotels in town, the class act of which is an above-average Holiday Inn.

Given critics' consternation over the Village's upscale target market, I half-expected the restaurants to be Spago-esque.

But the mood and menus were casual in true Mammoth style. My best meals were a barbecue chicken sandwich (good) at an outlet of the Southern California chain Hennessey's and a Thai chicken sandwich (better) at a kitschy tiki bar called Lakanuki. At both restaurants, most entrees were less than $10.

The shops were another story. In the Mammoth Memories gift store, as I pondered who would pay $19.95 for an 11-ounce bag of Mammoth Potpourri, a sales clerk told me no one had yet purchased the leather-bound Mammoth Mountain day planners selling for $200 each — not exactly a surprise.

Mammoth regulars have feared that an influx of corporate chains would ruin the town's iconoclast image. Despite the opening of a Starbucks and other alleged signs of the apocalypse, I found a surprising sense of place in the goods that Village tenants sell and in the people who sell them.

You won't find Toys R Us but rather a children's boutique called Munchkins, owned by a 20-year Mammoth resident who relocated the shop from across town. Instead of a Thomas Kinkade showroom, there's Mammoth Gallery, where one wall is lined with baskets crafted around moose and elk antlers, the work of California artist Janet Johnson. And in lieu of standard-issue mall tenant Victoria's Secret, there's the Lingerie Lounge, whose mother-daughter owners, Alicia Provancher and Marlene Rheault, report the customer favorite is a purple couch where women can safely stow husbands weary from shopping.

I was surprised that the complex was so small, a 90-second walk through the central promenade. Even more surprising was how few stores had opened. You'd think more entrepreneurs would hurry to cash in on a potential tourism gold mine in a community founded by miners.

But during my visit, only about a dozen of 32 planned stores and restaurants had opened. A few clothing and sports equipment outfitters have since opened, but the expansive space under the gondola — envisioned as a skier services building with lift ticket sales, equipment rentals, an activities desk and more — still isn't ready. The Village, which opened in April, is clearly a work in progress — and slow progress at that.

Skiing for $4 a dayMammoth's role as a serious place for serious skiing dates to the early '40s, when a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power snow surveyor named Dave McCoy began running a rope tow for friends. To offset the cost of operation, he charged 50 cents a person. The first day's take was $15.

That was the beginning for a man many regard as an industry legend and town hero. After the Forest Service failed to sign a developer for a proposed lodge and chairlift at Mammoth 50 years ago, McCoy stepped in. A modest Mammoth ski resort opened on Thanksgiving Day 1955, and Southern Californians lined up by the hundreds for the privilege of schussing down the mountain for $4 a day.

By the mid-'80s, the number of skier visits had grown to 1.4 million a year. Years of anemic snowfall followed, as did increased competition from out-of-state resorts. By the early '90s, skier visits had plummeted to 450,000. Even as places such as Vail, Colo., and Whistler-Blackcomb in British Columbia began wooing skiers with better restaurants and lively nightlife, Mammoth's après-ski scene remained moribund.

McCoy, now 88, still is involved in the management of the ski operations, but the rest of the tourist infrastructure is driven by Canadian giant Intrawest, developer of Whistler and about a dozen other North American resorts. The company decided to expand the off-slope offerings and put them on par with Mammoth's world-class skiing.

The town has long had its good spots, hangouts that were intrinsically and authentically Mammoth. Venture outside the Village and you'll still find a line for barbecue at Angel's, a homey restaurant on Main Street where I had deliciously tender tri-tip. At Whiskey Creek, one of the town's few nighttime gathering spots, patrons continue to head upstairs to hear live music at the bar.

The Village is really not a replacement for what existed but an addition, a welcome widening of choices.

That's especially true of lodgings. More than half of Mammoth visitors stay in condominiums, compared with about 30% in hotels, motels and inns, surveys show. (The rest have second homes, stay with friends and relatives or drive in for the day from out of town.)

I checked out some of the nicest and most expensive condo complexes. I saw a couple of dingy hovels and an array of mediocre homes where weekend rates run about $200 a night for a one-bedroom unit, $250 to $370 a night for two bedrooms. All subject guests to the owner's decorating whims (faux animal skins), maintenance failures (chipped laminate furniture) or marketing ploys (in one unit, living room furniture consisting solely of bunk beds). None had the ambience of resort accommodations, and only one was appealing.

Those prices are less expensive than the Village, where winter rates start at $210 for a studio and $310 for a one-bedroom condo. But if I'm going to overpay for accommodations, I'd at least like to get a decent room. After seeing exorbitantly priced older condos, my shoulder-season special of $117 a night at the Village seemed a steal.

Price inflation is everywhere, even at the Mammoth Mountain Inn, the resort's modest ski-in, ski-out complex at the base of the main lifts. Six years ago, a Times colleague noted that a loft room that went for $210 in winter was "drably furnished and afflicted with broken towel racks." The refurbished version of that same room now starts at $285, and the tiny standard room I inhabited for one night before moving to the Village went for $155. New carpeting, drapes and furniture make the Mammoth Mountain Inn more inviting, but the motel ambience (colorblind décor, plastic drinking cup etc.) pervades.

The supply-and-demand scale has tipped in favor of demand ever since McCoy embarked on building the resort, so perhaps the new rooms will help balance the equation. The problem is that the increased supply may generate more demand, clogging the ski runs and marring the surrounding Ansel Adams and John Muir wilderness areas with added pollution and environmental ills.

These are valid concerns at a time when Southern California drivers constitute about four of every five visitors. Expansion of the Mammoth Yosemite Airport six miles southeast of town would bring jets full of out-of-state visitors into the fray too. Environmental groups led by the Sierra Club have successfully sued to delay construction and force more thorough environmental studies of the expansion's impact.

The mountain matters mostAs the debates continue, Mammoth marches on. From my room in the Village, I watched construction on the Grand Sierra Lodge, another wing of condos. The 110-unit building, which will open in stages as early as next summer, will be home to an outdoor pool and an expansive lobby that will serve as the check-in station for all Village guests.

For now, the Village seems well received by visitors and locals, some appeased by the fact that Mammoth Lakes' master plan stipulates that only four of the city's 25 square miles can be developed; of those four square miles, 30% has yet to be built on.

"We're still a small town," Mammoth Lakes Visitor Center employee Kitty Van Stelle told me after recounting the history of what she called "Dave McCoy's mountain." Sure, more affluent folks are driving up and the times are changing, she said. "But the mountain will always be the mountain."

I knew what she meant. Talk of room numbers still takes a backseat to mountain stats: 3,500 skiable acres, 27 lifts, 3,100 feet of vertical rise and an average annual snowfall of 32 feet.

One day I rode the shuttle from the Village to the main skiing base, then took a gondola to Mammoth's lookout station at 11,053 feet. The cloud-kissing peaks were as beautiful as ever, and skiers and snowboarders made trip after trip down the mountain. The town's look may have changed, but Mammoth was still Mammoth.

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GETTING THERE:

No carrier regularly flies into the Mammoth Yosemite Airport. The nearest major airport is in Reno, three hours away, so Southern Californians may want to drive. From L.A. to Mammoth Lakes, the route north along Interstate 5, California 14 and U.S. 395 is 325 miles.

WHERE TO STAY:

The Village at Mammoth, 100 Canyon Blvd., Mammoth Lakes, CA 93546; (800) MAMMOTH (626-6684) or (760) 934-1982, fax (760) 934-1494, http://www.mammothmountain.com/plan/lodging/village . Condos are rented like hotel rooms. Units are in two virtually identical wings, White Mountain Lodge and Lincoln House. My one-bedroom condo was small but had pleasant, contemporary, lodge-inspired décor. It overlooked the promenade of shops and restaurants. A gondola connects skiers to Canyon Lodge base area. Published winter rates: studios from $210 a night, one-bedroom units from $310, two bedrooms from $440 and three bedrooms from $525.

Mammoth Mountain Inn, 1 Minaret Road (P.O. Box 353), Mammoth Lakes, CA 93546; (800) 228-4947 or (760) 934-2581, fax (760) 934-0701, http://www.mammothmountain.com/plan/lodging/mmi/ . Recent renovations put a fresh face on what are still motel-quality accommodations. My room was an unfortunate mix of mauve, olive, maroon and spearmint green — all in the sickly glow of fluorescent lamps. The main plus: great location by the slopes and Main Lodge. Standard doubles start at $155 in winter.

Alpenhof Lodge, 6080 Minaret Road (P.O. Box 1157), Mammoth Lakes, CA 93546; (800) 828-0371 or (760) 934-6330, fax (760) 934-7614, alpenhoflodge.com. If you want to experience the Village for less, try this lodge across the street. The main building looks like a hokey replica of a chalet, but its rooms have been renovated with restrained décor. Rooms in the adjacent motel wing have not been renovated. With doubles starting at $115 midweek and $120 weekends, it's a budget choice in a prime location.

WHERE TO EAT:

Many of the Village's restaurants have not opened. Of the limited choices, my best meals were at Hennessey's, (760) 934-8444, serving burgers, sandwiches, steaks and other hearty food, and Lakanuki, (760) 934-7447, a tiki-themed bar with mostly Asian-inspired casual fare. At both places much of the menu is less than $10, and the most expensive entrees are less than $20.

Angel's Restaurant, 20 Sierra Blvd. (at Main Street), (760) 934-7427. A homey barbecue joint with burgers, ribs and good tri-tip. Entrees $7-$17.

Whiskey Creek, Minaret Road at Main Street, (760) 934-2555. A popular spot serving mostly steak and seafood. Entrees $15-$25.

Restaurant Skadi, 587 Old Mammoth Road, (760) 934-3902. A promising, easy-to-miss European restaurant on the second floor of a tiny shopping center. I stopped for dessert, an Alsatian hazelnut and apple tart. Dinner menu includes pan-roasted salmon with brown butter and pine nuts, and beef filet with a black truffle sauce. Entrees $21-$29.

TO LEARN MORE:

Mammoth Lakes Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 48, Mammoth Lakes, CA 93546; (888) 466-2666 or (760) 934-2712, http://www.visitmammoth.com .

— Craig Nakano

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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