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High Value, Low Glitz : CALIFORNIA : Wild Bunch of Bargains

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the nation’s economy seemingly on the verge of sliding downhill faster than Jean-Claude Killy, the most popular course at ski schools this winter may turn out to be survival training.

But barring a complete financial collapse, a lot of Americans are still going to go skiing just for the fun of it--to inhale that crisp mountain air, know the exhilaration of successfully carving a high-speed turn and revel in the camaraderie of kindred spirits.

If it is indeed going to be a long, cold winter, then skiers at least know how to make the best of it.

The trick, on and off the slopes, will be to enjoy the lifestyle of the famous without being rich. To drain every penny out of every dollar--a currency, unfortunately, that won’t go too far in the Swiss Alps at the moment.

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Fortunately, there is plenty of excellent skiing within reasonable driving distance of the Southland, and it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg (oops, let’s not get into that aspect of the sport).

Whether you can get away for a day, for a weekend or--lucky dog--a week, there are certain basic ways to maximize the value of a ski trip. Such as:

--Plan to go during off-peak, non-holiday periods. January is ideal. Any time after mid-March is also likely to get you reduced rates, and crowds, at most resorts.

--Include as many midweek nights (Sunday through Thursday) as possible in your stay. Lodging generally costs less, and some ski areas reduce their lift-ticket prices on non-weekend days, even though there’s less waiting between rides.

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--Buy a package deal when possible to include accommodations, lift tickets, lessons and (if needed) equipment rentals.

--Look for special bargains offered to beginning skiers, seniors, students, children under 12, etc. Also, in the Reno-Lake Tahoe area, casinos frequently cater to skiers, providing cut-rate rooms, buffet meals and other incentives to get people within tempting distance of their tables.

--If you’re not planning to be on the slopes until late morning anyway, wait and buy half-day lift tickets at 12:30 p.m. Sometimes these tickets also include night skiing.

--To get more uphill rides and downhill runs on busy days, break for lunch at either 11:30 a.m. or 1 p.m. This enables you to ski while others are munching away.

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--Select the type of accommodations that most suits your purpose. If you plan to ski hard and do little but sleep in between, a motel might do. If you have a family in tow or are with another couple or a group, a condominium could be the way to go, providing a cozy fireplace as well as a kitchen to cut down on the cost of meals. If you like a lively apres -ski atmosphere, a slopeside inn or lodge with dancing and entertainment would put everything in one place and keep the car in the garage.

--Choose a ski area appropriate to your level of ability. Some smaller hills are just fine for novice or low intermediate skiers who might not go near many of the lifts they’re paying for at larger resorts.

In selecting where to go, another obvious factor is time.

A mad one-day dash to Mammoth Mountain, five or six hours each way, for a maximum of seven hours of skiing is not out of the question, as many have proved. Realistically, though, Big Bear would be a better option for such a trip. Tahoe requires at least a long weekend (or three midweek days) to make it worthwhile, and a week is preferable.

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Whatever the time frame involved, there are ways to obtain full value, without the glitz, at just about every ski resort in California, whether you travel 100 miles, 300 miles or 500 miles.

Within two hours of many Southern California communities, there are 10 ski areas, of which four have sufficient snow-making capacity to ensure skiing throughout most of the winter. They are: Mountain High, near Wrightwood; Snow Valley, near Running Springs, and Snow Summit and Bear Mountain, formerly known as Goldmine, both at Big Bear Lake.

Bear Mountain, which plans to have its new high-speed, detachable quad chairlift, Big Bear Express, operational in time for the Christmas-New Year’s holidays, offers a midweek lift/lodging package called “Ski the Lake.” It includes two days’ skiing and one night’s lodging, Monday through Thursday night, from $69 a person, double occupancy. For more information on Bear Mountain, call (714) 585-2519.

Nearby Snow Summit, which has similar packages available, also likes to promote its “Skier Satisfaction Guarantee.” If a skier is dissatisfied for any reason, he or she has 75 minutes from the time of issue to return a lift ticket and receive a ticket voucher good for another day. For Snow Summit information, call (714) 866-5766.

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To make lodging or ski-package reservations for Bear Mountain and/or Snow Summit, you can call one number: (714) 866-7000.

Snow Valley offers discounts and packages of various kinds, with details available by calling (714) 867-2751. One package, at the Lake Arrowhead Hilton Lodge, is priced at $118 per night with a two-night minimum, Sunday through Thursday, and includes two nights’ lodging plus one day’s lift tickets, equipment rentals and ski lessons for two. For information on this package, call (714) 336-1511.

Mountain High has 11 cabins, each sleeping up to six people, available for rental at its western base area, Mountain High West. Rate for two is $69.45 per night, Sunday through Thursday, $98.45 a night on weekends. It costs about $3.50 per night for each additional person. Call (619) 249-5477.

Mammoth Mountain, a short distance off U.S. 395 in the Eastern Sierra, is one of the few major resorts in the country that did not raise its basic daily lift-ticket price this winter. It’s still $35.

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Frequent skiers at Mammoth and June Mountain, about 30 minutes farther north, can reduce that figure to $25 a day by purchasing a $59 Mammoth Club card at any time during the season. This card also provides discounts on air fare (if you decide not to drive), lodging, merchandise, race clinics and ski-school lessons.

Both Mammoth and June, whose ski operations are owned and operated by legendary ski figure Dave McCoy, also offer free skiing for anyone 6 and under or 65 and over, as well as for beginners taking a ski-school lesson.

McCoy, now 75, has been operating lifts for skiers in the Mammoth Mountain area since the late 1930s. He acquired June Mountain in 1986. The eventual plan is to link the two areas with a high-speed transportation system and additional lifts for the terrain in between.

Between them, Mammoth and June have 38 lifts, and one of the big improvements for this season was the refurbishing of the June Meadows Chalet. Lift tickets, which can be bought at a discount for three, four or five consecutive midweek days, are good at both resorts.

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Lodging is plentiful and varied at both Mammoth Lakes and June Lake, with a wide range of rates. There are several reservation services whose numbers can be obtained by calling Mammoth Mountain at (619) 934-2571 or June Mountain at (619) 648-7733.

Mammoth Mountain Inn, located across from the ski area’s main lodge, offers a three-day, three-night midweek package that includes a standard room, tax and lift tickets for as low as $199 a person, double occupancy. Call (800) 228-4947.

On the other side of the Central High Sierra, both Yosemite National Park and Bear Valley are accessible from the San Joaquin Valley.

Yosemite offers both downhill skiing, at Badger Pass, and extensive cross-country skiing. Badger is an especially fine area for beginning skiers to take their first lessons while enjoying the spectacular scenery. Shuttle buses operate daily to the ski area from Yosemite Valley, where accommodations include, in addition to the famed Ahwahnee Hotel, the more reasonably priced Yosemite Lodge and Curry Village. Reservations: (209) 252-4848.

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Bear Valley, on California 4 at Ebbetts Pass, has grown steadily during the last two decades, giving skiers a feeling of being away from it all, at a generally moderate price. Accommodations in the valley include both hotels and condominiums. Shuttle buses run frequently to the lifts on Mt. Reba, which has runs for all levels of ability. Reservations: (209) 753-BEAR.

For skiers with at least a week to spend on and around the slopes, there are few better places than the Lake Tahoe Basin. Five major ski resorts and several smaller ones are within about two hours of one another, offering both world-class skiing and a proximity to big-league entertainment in Reno and just across the Nevada line at South Lake Tahoe.

There’s glitz here, true, but there are also bargains and deals.

One is the Ski Lake Tahoe Interchangeable Ticket, which may be used at all five resorts--Kirkwood, Heavenly Valley, Northstar, Alpine Meadows and Squaw Valley. Providing access to 99 lifts serving more than 400 runs on 30,000 acres of ski terrain, the ticket is available at the ski areas or through travel agents. Price: $170 to ski 5 of 6 days, $204 to ski 6 of 7 days.

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Each of the five resorts has its own ambience and its own way of helping skiers contain the costs of a vacation.

Kirkwood, south of the lake on California 88 at Carson Pass, is similar to Bear Valley in that it’s rather isolated. A daily lift ticket costs $35, but frequent skiers can buy a Kirkwood Kard for $15, which cuts the lift-ticket price to $30 any day of the season.

Accommodations are mainly in condominiums and private homes available for rent, or skiers can stay in motels at South Lake Tahoe, 30 miles away, and commute daily. Reservations information: (209) 258-7000.

Kirkwood has a relatively high base elevation of 7,800 feet, giving it dependable snow from late November into May. A first-rate cross-country ski facility is located nearby.

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Heavenly Valley, which straddles the California-Nevada border at the southern end of Lake Tahoe, has been the site of numerous World Cup races and claims to have the most ski terrain in the United States--20 square miles in two states. The daily lift ticket costs $36.

Recently sold to the Kamori Kanko Co. of Sapporo, Japan, which also owns the Steamboat ski resort in Colorado, Heavenly is the place for skiers who have the desire, and the energy, to rock around the clock.

Rooms in the four major casino hotels are usually expensive, but a variety of smaller inns and motels are situated nearby, along with several condominium developments and private cabin rentals. Package rates vary according to the time of the season, which is split into three periods: Value, Dec. 1-20, Jan. 2-14 and April 1-14; Regular, Jan. 15 to Feb. 14 and Feb. 18 to March 31, and High, Dec. 21 to Jan. 1 and Feb. 15-17. Reservations information: (800) 2-HEAVEN.

In the Value season, to cite one example, Caesars Tahoe offers a five-day, five-night package for as low as $323 a person, double occupancy. Call (702) 588-3515.

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The other three members of the Ski Lake Tahoe group are at the north end of the basin, each just a few miles from Interstate 80, which runs between Sacramento and Reno.

Northstar, a family-oriented resort, has a few hotel rooms but offers mainly condominium accommodations within walking distance of its lifts and small-scale village. There are also inexpensive, rustic motels to the north in Truckee and to the south along Tahoe’s North Shore. Reservations information: (800) 533-6787.

Alpine Meadows and Squaw Valley, site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, are neighbors, located off California 89 between Truckee and Tahoe City. There was once a plan for three interconnecting ski lifts. But some of the land between them was declared a wilderness area, and man-made structures were prohibited.

No matter, Alpine Meadows is a major resort in its own right. Extensive snow making has enabled it to get the jump on most of its competitors in the High Sierra at the start of the season, and to operate until Memorial Day some years.

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Accommodations near the lifts are limited to a few private home rentals, but lodging is plentiful in Tahoe City and adjoining communities. A ski-week package, available Jan. 6-11 and 13-18, Feb. 24 to March 1 and March 3-8, offers five days’ skiing and instruction, five nights’ lodging, social activities and transportation to lodging from $499 per person, double occupancy. Information: (916) 583-4232.

Other reservations information can be obtained from the Tahoe North Visitors and Convention Bureau: (800) 824-6348.

Squaw Valley, which opened in 1949, is in the middle of another expansion program that has included construction of a new ice-skating rink at its 8,200-foot elevation, and an increase in its ski lift total to 32, of which two serve the new Resort at Squaw Creek.

Set at the edge of the 6,200-foot-high meadow, Squaw Creek has 405 deluxe hotel rooms, a conference center, three restaurants, shops, a fitness center and swimming pools, and eventually will adjoin a Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed golf course.

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The Resort at Squaw Creek is scheduled to open Dec. 20, with all but the penthouses available. The cheapest room is $235 a night, weekend or midweek; it doesn’t matter. Call (800) 327-3353.

It’s not exactly the place to stay if you’re trying to contain costs, but worth a look anyway, since it is helping to make Squaw Valley a world-class destination resort . . . at last.

The mountain, though, is what makes Squaw Valley special. There are lifts going everywhere and runs for all kinds of skiers. Squaw Valley, like Alpine Meadows, charges $38 for a daily lift ticket.

Squaw Valley’s “Fun in the Sun” program enables first-time beginners 13 and older to obtain a free lift ticket, free ski rental and free instruction any Monday through Friday (holidays excluded) from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. A $38 refundable deposit is required; registration is in the Cable Car building.

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A variety of accommodations are available in Squaw Valley, as well as in Truckee and at Tahoe’s North Shore. Reservations information: (800) 545-4350.

In the valley itself, the Christy Inn (916-583-3451) and the Squaw Tahoe Resort (916-583-7226) each have rooms for as low as $125 a night. Another option is to stay at River Ranch, located at the junction of California 89 and Alpine Meadows Road, just two miles south of the Squaw Valley entrance. Rooms at this rustic inn on the Truckee River can be obtained for as low as $75 a night. Call (916) 583-4264.

So, as you can see, all it really requires is a little planning to keep on skiing downhill right through, as the chairman of the Fed likes to call it, the “economic downturn.”


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