OK, it’s now or never. I will either get this ski thing down pat or I’m doomed to the bunny slopes for eternity. After seven years of random snow trips − with glacial-speed progress − I’m primed to get to that “it’s like riding a bike” stage. And, if anywhere is going to inspire me to hone my powder craft, it’s Steamboat in Colorado.
In fact, Steamboat has even trademarked its own snow as the only place in North America with “Champagne Powder”. (Quick trivia: the phrase was coined in the early 1950s by a local rancher named Joe McElroy, who was out skiing and said the snow tickled his nose like champagne.) The area’s unique snow averages six per cent water content compared to the 15 per cent more typical at other locations, and this makes for epic ski conditions right into the spring months.
Getting to Steamboat is around a three-hour drive from Denver International Airport, but it feels like a halfa as we glide through gullies and majestic valleys, which pretty much headlock my soul with joy. Our base for the trip is perfectly situated a mere few minutes from the central gondola at Steamboat Grand hotel. A stalwart of the town, this dependable old dame has a vast portfolio of mini condos and is just so convenient, giving the option to either eat-in or explore
the town’s great food scene.
Skiing Miss Daisy
Boasting 169 pistes (note to snow newbies: this is ski terminology for an inclined run of compacted snow), Steamboat Resort has a slope to suit every skier. It’s an ideal place to learn as there’s a generous area at the base with a pitch that won’t freak out first-timers. As a fairly cautious intermediate myself (read: Driving Miss Daisy on skis, and if you don’t get the reference, watch the ’80s classic film), I love the beautiful Sunnyside area of the mountain as it’s pretty hard to go wrong and end up accidentally hurtling down a double black diamond and sliding down on my bum. If you need more of a challenge than me, hop on the Storm Peak Express lift and try chutes one, two and three.
My instructor from the resort’s ski school is Krista. She guides me through the idyllic tree-runs with epic spring views over the famed powdery Colorado snow. The great thing about having a private instructor is how much you can learn and improve in a short time. Krista tailors my lesson specifically to finessing my parallel ski technique after we chat about my goals and she observes my current form. It’s not even lunchtime yet on day one, and I have so much more control over my speed and ability to stop (with an expert’s panache, I might add!). All this in just half the lesson time. Perfect.
I’m learning that better technique equals more confidence, too. A few years ago I was surprised to experience a slight niggling vertigo on a ski slope that I hadn’t even felt at the top of the Empire State Building. This trip is pivotal for me to overcome that vertigo, safe in the knowledge that I know what I’m doing better and learning more efficient ways to navigate different degrees of steepness.
Our pit stop for lunch is Hazies, a casual dining ski-in eatery with dramatic views across the valley. Here, I find an unexpected opportunity to go for a healthy ski lunch. The contemporary menu is perfect if you want a break from the usual ski-in menu of melted cheese with a side of fried cheese, drenched in cheese (as much as I love cheese!) ... but still fancy a celebratory wine.
Although well-known in the USA, this mountain town still retains the air of a hidden gem. One of its greatest treasures is the longest mountainside roller-coaster in the US, the Outlaw Mountain Coaster. This giddy joy sits at the base of the mountain and is for kids, but I join a long queue of adults wanting to end the day with some tomfoolery and an obligatory Bud Light.
Get Your Thermal On
After flinging yourself down a mountain all day, what do you need? A hot tub, of course! And here, we’re spoilt with access to nature’s version. On day two, after said “flinging”, we head to Strawberry Park Hot Springs, just outside of town. Offering a pretty unique way to unwind, the park has various naturally heated, or icy, pools where you can max your Insta-worthy muscle-recovery temperature of choice. I favour a bone-chilling 30 seconds in icy spring water promptly followed by the mineral pool. Call me old fashioned.
A trip to Steamboat would not be complete without a generous apres-ski indulgence. I’ve shed enough kJs to warrant a cocktail and a decent meal to recharge my weary legs. We head downtown to Laundry to de-ski with their signature Fiery Margarita. The hot stab of chilli in this concoction practically takes all the hairs off my chest and beard. The food is a delicious spin on the kind of comfort food you want after a day in the snow. My go-to is the roasted beetroot with blue fondue and pistachio, and the blackened yellow fin tuna with pineapple puree.
When craving the cheatiest of cheat meals, the Low Country Kitchen serves up Southern fried chicken in wood-panelled chic digs, styled somewhere between hipster Brooklyn and Alabama. For a bit of a Steamboat experience, the sleigh ride and dinner at the Haymaker is a picturesque treat, taking views of the entire valley from a horse-drawn sleigh. Our chariot steeds are Annie and Bueller who pull us around rolling hills, just like a snow-covered Teletubbies scene, which we find out is actually a golf course in summer. In the fairly intense sunset light, it really does befit the cliche ‘winter wonderland’.
Cliches aside, the destination is anything but. It’s a true gem of a ski town. Added bonus: Steamboat resort is also part of the Ikon Pass chain, so snow lovers can use their season pass to tour the world’s best mountains. The Ikon motto, ‘Ski Unique’, pretty much typifies my experience of Steamboat. The resort stands out for its amazing snow quality (no longer am I an intermediate – I talk about grades of powder), blue bird skies and friendly people. Transport me back, please!
Airport to snow in no time
The trip from Salt Lake City International Airport to a ski area is the quickest I’ve ever experienced in the US. Add to that the option of a pretty affordable airport limo service, and you arrive in the town of Park City, Utah, or Deer Valley Resort from the Delta Air Lines hub in just 30 minutes. All this limo style will make you feel right at home in the celeb-friendly snow favourite that also hosts the iconic Sundance Film Festival – as well as winter getaway cabins (read: mega mansions) for the likes of Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber and US senator Mitt Romney.
Ski and board aplenty
Apart from celeb spotting, the area boasts two of the premier winter sports draws in the whole of the continent. Park City Mountain covers around 265km of piste, making it the largest ski resort in the US and the 13th largest in the world. Its mammoth expanse of terrain suits all levels. Just a short 10-minute drive away is the less-imposing, skier-treasured Deer Valley Resort (another beloved destination you can access with your Ikon Pass). The treasure in this case is its unique standing as one of three ski-only resorts in North America. It certainly takes the pressure off and makes for a different atmosphere on the slopes.
Catch some Zs
Accommodation caters to a wide gamut of price points. There’s the ritzy-but-chic, ski-in-ski-out gem, Montage Deer Valley, which boasts a Veuve Clicquot yurt bar, and a world-class spa for the ultimate A-class apres-ski. On the other end of the price scale (but no less chic) is the mid-century-inspired funky Park City Peaks Hotel in town.
Before heading out for skiing in Deer Valley Resort, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better brekkie than at the base of the mountain. 5 Seeds is a cafe-slice of Melbourne if you’re hankering for proper Aussie coffee and avo toast to fuel your slope time. My stand-out on-slope dining spot is Lookout Cabin at the mid-station lift, between the adjoined Park City Mountain and Canyons Village. The true delight is skiing over to the restaurant and feeling like I’ve truly earned a five-star menu. Truth is, there’s more to Park City than skiing, snowboarding and Sundance. The small mountain town boasts an impressive dining scene that’s an MKR contestant’s dream. My picks are 350 Main, Firewood and local favourite Handle. This farm-to-table organic delight gives me my first taste of the unexpectedly tender bison bavette steak as well an entirely locally-sourced menu. Delicious.
...and don’t miss
After an epic day of powder, you need to check out the most unlikely destination for a whiskey brew shop on earth: the High West Distillery. Only a few steps from the chairlift at the bottom of the Quittin’ Time ski run at Park City Mountain, this is the only ski-in, ski-out whiskey distillery in the world. It definitely makes for a pretty unique way to service your apres-ski cocktail needs. Cheers!
The best of Banff
Head to the vast wild Canadian Rockies for scenery to die for. SkiBig3 is a unforgettable ski destination consisting of three world-class resorts: Banff Sunshine, Lake Louise Ski Resort and Mt Norquay. Within the boundaries of Banff National Park, SkiBig3 delivers a winter holiday that feels like you’ve truly escaped it all. A stunning drive from Calgary Airport weaves you to a snow holiday that feels remote and almost off the grid. If you feel like touring from other spots in the US, you can use your Ikon Pass to make full use of the ‘pillows of powder’ this Canadian treat has to offer.
Off the grid
Expert skiers and riders looking for a challenge can head to Goat’s Eye Mountain at Banff Sunshine. Here, they’ll discover the South Side Chutes, starting well above tree line and boasting a ridiculously steep line before twisting into the trees. If you want a cruisier time, all of the resorts offer a range of amazing intermediate runs that’ll be kinder to your knees. I can personally vouch for Sunshine being a great place to learn, as I first set skis onto snow in Banff.
Let it snow
When the snow is falling at SkiBig3, the powder action heats up. Head over to The Rock Garden at Lake Louise Ski Resort for some super fresh piles to plough. Surrounded by trees, this hidden bowl offers soft pillows you can jump and carve around all day long.
In winter, Lake Louise transforms into a frozen icon. This romantic outdoor rink is the perfect spot to take a spin under the stars. If you visit in January, be sure to stop by during the Ice Magic Festival, where you can check out incredible ice sculptures and frozen castles.
Eat and stay
The perfect go-to hotels are the Fairmont Banff Springs and Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. Both epitomise the adage “location, location, location”, but retain great service and a casual mountain vibe with views to make you weep.