I hear Little Nell is the place to stay this winter," insists the sleek blonde in a shimmering silver ski suit that deflects sun into my eyes.
"Where's the first World Cup race? I need pointers." says the guy on the left wearing form-fitting racing pants and a rainbow gold sport shield that protects his eyes.
"My wife swears she'll try skiing this year. Anyone know a place where we can take the kids, get everyone lessons and still afford to eat out?" a third skier queries as we slide off the high speed quad chair and prepare to ski downhill.
Ride time at most ski areas isn't simply for heading uphill. It's also for comparing lists of what's trendy, what's not, what's new and where should you go next. Here's a chairlift-length list of suggestions for the coming season:
Best Bizarre Event: Pack a party lunch and get ready to laugh, if, that is, you don't have the stamina to enter the pole, pedal and paddle race April 17 at Jackson Hole, Wyo. Contestants in the serious classes ski down the 4,000-vertical-foot mountain, glide around a 10-kilometer cross-country circuit, bike 19.8 miles to the Snake River, then paddle 9 miles to the finish line. But anything goes for entrants in the unlimited and fun classes. In past years, contestants have been seen biking down the ski slopes and skiing (on pontoons shaped like skis) on the river. One year, a group of 15 friends on a raft loaded with "refreshments" took first place in a class where the slowest entry won.
Trendiest New Digs: Service to make the high prices you'll pay seem like a bargain is the goal at these luxurious new hotels. Little Nell is a posh, small hotel nudging the gondola at the base of Aspen Mountain, Colo. You'll never see your skis unless they're on your feet, because a ski valet will hand them to you (freshly waxed) each morning, and take them away each afternoon at the door. The hotel's van will take you to Snowmass when you want to go--forget about using public buses. Workaholics can even check out a cellular telephone to work out deals while heading up the gondola. (And get a copy of the signed contract via the fax machine at the top of the lift.) You get the drift.
The 350-bed Chateau Whistler is at the base of two fabulous ski mountains--Whistler and Blackcomb in British Columbia--and recently was rated No. 1 by writers and readers in Ski magazine's survey of North America's top resorts.
When guests enter the new Hyatt at Beaver Creek, Colo., they get special slippers to use while their ski boots are warmed and dried. And that's just a sample of the pampering promised at this large hotel opening this season at the base of the main lifts at Beaver Creek.
Best Place for Personal Pampering: The Lodge at Cordillera, a posh European-style auberge in Edwards, Colo., with a 21st-Century health club, runs one-day programs during which you will be exercised, pampered and treated to a spa lunch from the kitchen of Belgian executive chef Philippe Van Cappellen, who owns a Michelin-rated restaurant. The $145 day includes the chance to sweat in exercise classes, or on the cross-country trails threading this isolated mountaintop, followed by an aqua-aerobic class and an easy stretch class. Once your body is worn down, specialists will revive you with a massage, your choice of a facial or a hydro-tub treatment, and a variety of other beauty treatments. Transportation from Vail and Beaver Creek, 20 minutes away, can be arranged. If you couldn't care less about being at the slopes when the lifts open, book one of the wonderful lodge rooms.
The Season's Glitziest Party: At this celebrity round-up, the wealthy and famous will mush dog sleds, tangle with slalom gates and totter around Alberta's spectacularly scenic Lake Louise on skinny cross-country skis. But the real race, during the 100th anniversary of the fabled Chateau Lake Louise, Jan. 18-21, will be for space on the masseuses' time sheet. While you're in Canada's Banff National Park, ski at Lake Louise Ski Area, which stretches over two mountains, and at nearby Sunshine Village, perched on the edge of the Continental Divide.
Best Case of the Blues: Mellow sounds, laced with free-floating riffs, waft from the Thunderbird Lodge in Taos Ski Valley, N.M., during the Eighth Annual Jazz Legends sessions. Two jams nightly feature traditional jazz, Jan. 2-10 and Jan. 12-17. (Reserve early. Sessions sell out and preference and discounts go to lodge and dinner guests. Skiers who want to enter Taos' ski school weeks stay in the tiny valley. The less fanatic lodge in Taos, 20 minutes away.
Finest Bargain for Novices: Crested Butte, Colo., will offer free lessons, lifts and rentals to first-timers, Nov. 27 through Dec. 15. For your entire stay, not just the first day. Companions also get a break: $10 lift tickets, plus half-price lessons and rentals. Lodging rates are $25-$30 per person, per night.
Best Commoner's Bash: Oom-pah-pah music overlays the laughter of imbibers in the Bavarian Beverage Gardens at the annual Hof Winter Carnival in Ogden, Utah, Jan. 26-28. This Oktoberfest-style festival was created to salute Ogden's sister city of Hof, Germany. The street festival includes ski races on the snow-covered main street, parades and a cross-country progressive dinner. Ogden anchors the region's three ski areas: SnowBasin, Powder Mountain and Nordic Valley; and it's an easy drive from Snowbird, Alta, Park City and Deer Valley.
Best Beach Bash : Arapahoe Basin's Memorial Day "Beachin' at the Basin" party promises beer, bikinis and bumps so soft they disintegrate when you bash 'em. Seasoned beach bums ski in the morning, then park on deck chairs around the mid-mountain barbecue grill and rate spectacular crashes and bronzing bodies. Of course, you'll stay at Keystone Resort, opening up all the activities in Colorado's Summit County.
Best Bet for Timid Women Skiers: Some women learn best in a pressure-free atmosphere (translate that as without spouses or male friends offering "friendly" advice). The three-to five-day women's ski seminars offer an opportunity to improve skills while skiing with women who applaud when you link a great set of turns and show compassion when you throw a yard sale, sending skis, poles, goggles and gloves to the wind. Female instructors are trained to bring out your best efforts and deal with your inner fears about the sport. Aspen, Snowmass, Copper and Telluride in Colorado, and Squaw Valley, Calif., all run programs. Women who want to try heli-skiing should contact Canadian Mountain Holidays about women's heli-ski week in the Bobbie Burns region of the Canadian Rockies.
Best Racer-Chaser Events: You can try Park City, Utah's two new chairlifts, while the racer-chaser in your group watches America's opening World Cup races. The men's and women's slalom and giant slalom races are scheduled for Nov. 23-26.
Steamboat, Colo., is planning a Western welcome to recreational skiers coming to watch the season's first women's downhill World Cup Race, at the Subaru USA Ski Town Classic, Dec. 9-10. (Ask about VIP status packages.)
Best of the Serious Amateur Competitions: The Skimeister of the Year title goes to the winner of a grueling combination of Nordic and alpine races at Sun Valley's Skimeister Centennial Championships, in Sun Valley, Ida., Feb. 1-3. Scheduled are competition classes for ski areas, states and nations; an elite class for pros and high-level amateurs, and a class for Idaho residents.