Steep in the East

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's understandable if you hear trumpets playing the Olympic theme as you push off for a run down Whiteface Mountain.

It's on these slopes that Sweden's Ingemar Sten-mark won two gold medals in 1980 and American Phil Mahre took a silver. In more recent years, gold and silver medallist Picabo Street competed in Gold Cup action here.

But you don't have to be Olympic-caliber to enjoy a little 'Face time.

The 4,867-foot mountain in upstate New York, once synonymous with bone-chilling cold and spine-rattling runs, has softened its visage.

Amenities, such as a snow sports school for youngsters and a midmountain bistro with an upscale menu, are part of the scenery now, while the nearby village of Lake Placid has restaurants and shops to fill off-slope time.

The entire package, wrapped in Olympic atmosphere, led readers of Ski Magazine this fall to give Whiteface the silver (behind Mont Tremblant in Quebec) for best venue in eastern North America.

"With the advent of improvements in snowmaking and trail grooming machinery and new ski technology and teaching techniques, a mountain that 30 years ago was scary is eminently doable," says Sandy Caligiore, spokesman for the Olympic Regional Development Author-ity (ORDA), the state agency that runs Whiteface.

And it's competitively priced.

A one-day adult lift ticket is $59, $105 for two days and $45 for each additional day. The price for teens is $46, $87 and $40, and for youngsters it's $29, $56 and $25. Holiday rates are slightly higher. At Vermont's Stowe, a one-day adult ticket is $60; Colorado's Vail is $71; and Utah's Deer Valley Resort -- home of the 2002 Olympic slalom -- is $67.

But that's not to say Whiteface is a cut-rate outing for wimps. The mountain has a 3,216-foot vertical drop -- the greatest of any ski area in the East and rivaling some in the West. Cloudspin and Skyward, the upper mountain pitches where Olympic downhill events were held, are still steep enough to make a skier's heart flutter. And then there's the cold and ice -- or, as Whiteface veterans call it, "New York hardpack."

There aren't a lot of distractions at the mountain -- just 73 trails winding through 220 acres, with clean air and unblemished views of the Adirondack Moun-tains. There are no condos competing with the evergreens, no foo-foo boutiques.

"You'll never see them here; never see condos, never see a strip mall concept in our base lodge," says Caligiore. "This is a skier's mountain."

Two-peak resort

Whiteface is actually two peaks. There's the main mountain, serviced by a just-installed $2 million quad lift that carries passengers to the top station in six minutes. Nestled just below and off to the side is 3,676-foot Little Whiteface, serviced by the almost-as-new, heated Cloud-splitter Gondola, which goes from bottom to top in less than eight minutes.

"The gondola changed Whiteface," says Jay Rand, the ski resort's general manager. "When we put it in, locals questioned the expense and need. Now they're spoiled. If it's not running, they'll sit in the cafeteria and wait until it is."

From the top of the main hill, thrill junkies can tuck and run on the Olympic-level steeps while the more civilized skiers can follow the Follies, an easier course, to Paron's Run, which links up with a portion of Excelsior.

Little Whiteface is diminutive in name only. This section is studded in black diamonds (the designation for experts-only trails), including Wilderness, which is used during World Cup moguls competition. But those with more modest goals will be equally happy cruising the full length of the snaking Excelsior.

For those on the adventurous side, Whiteface has six ungroomed, tree-lined areas. Experts can hike through the woods from the summit to ski out of bounds at the Slides or go to the top of Little Whiteface for the double-diamond heart-pounder Cloudsplitter Glades.

Farther down the mountain are plenty of beginner and intermediate runs, many of which end at Easy Acres Family Center.

The center has a separate base lodge, parking, conveyor lift, rentals and restaurant. It also includes a recently expanded Kids Kampus, with a nursery, play and ski program for ages 4-6, and the more advanced Whiteface Junior Adventure, for ages 7-12.

Access to the main base lodge is by lift and trail or by free shuttle bus.

"Parents can drop off their kids for lessons, ski a few hours on their own and then rejoin the kids for some family time," says Caligiore.

Whiteface's ski school uses short skis rather than full-length blades to get you up and running in its Parallel From the Start program. Instructors like to boast that they'll have first-time skiers making runs from mid-station in two days and from the top of Little Whiteface in three.

If two boards beneath your feet feels tame, Whiteface has a 450-foot half pipe for snowboarders that is serviced by a double chair lift, and a black diamond terrain park at Brookside. Novices can enroll in Whiteface's Board of Education for instruction.

That Olympic feeling

The first inkling that Whiteface is not just another ski resort hits you as you round a bend on Route 73, about a half-hour after leaving Interstate 87.

The graceful swoops of the twin ski jumps used in the 1980 Winter Games soar above the tree tops, with the larger of the two standing 26 stories tall.

"Those are like our beacons," says Caligiore. "You know when you see them that you've arrived."

Lake Placid earned its Olympic rings in 1932 and 1980 -- it's the only community to be the site of two Winter Games. But the region also has been the scene of the 2000 Goodwill Games and continues to attract 8,000 world-class athletes each year who come to compete in winter sports.

On Jan. 17-19, many of the athletes from the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City will compete in World Cup Freestyle skiing. A month later, the top bobsled teams will compete in the men's world championships.

"The Olympic presence is what separates us from the other resorts," Caligiore says. "You see athletes in the streets, athletes training. You ride a lift and maybe see a race going on. You are truly connected to the Olympic experience."

ORDA, the state agency that runs Whiteface, was established after the 1980 Winter Games to find a way to use the athletic venues as an engine for the local economy.

Although the athletes' village on the outskirts of town has been turned into a prison, the rest of the Olympic look remains. In the heart of Lake Placid is the Olympic Center, where the 1980 U.S. men's hockey team beat the Soviet team in the "Miracle on Ice." Just down the street in front of a high school is the Olympic Speed Skating Oval, where Eric Heiden won five gold medals. About six miles from town, the Mount Van Hoevenberg Recreation Area provides a training area for the U.S. bobsled, luge and skeleton teams.

But instead of putting up velvet ropes and "Do Not Touch" signs, ORDA waved everyone in.

Rent skates and take a turn on the Speed Skating Oval or grab a seat at the hockey rink to cheer youth and college teams. Ride the elevator to the top of the ski jump and contemplate the postage stamp-sized landing area below. If that's too laid back, spend $30 and fly a half-mile down the old 1980 Olympic bobsled track sandwiched between a professional driver and brakeman.

Of the 283 miles of cross-country trails in the Lake Placid area, 31 miles were used by Nordic and biathlon teams in 1980. The Olympic trails are virtual snow highways, 15 feet wide with bridges to take skiers over local roads. Choose between one expert, six intermediate or three novice loops.

ORDA sells a one-day pass for $39 that is admission to the Olympic museum, a ticket to the ski jump elevator, a passenger ride on the Cloudsplitter Gondola, a cross-country ski pass and a couple of spins around the skating oval.

"To a certain degree, we have built-in insurance for the family vacation," says Caligiore. "There are enough things going on that if the weather on the mountain goes bad, you don't have to sit around twiddling your thumbs."

Whiteface had a terrific season last winter, attracting 148,000 skiers and snowboarders, a 41 percent increase over 2000-2001.

"We're not overrun with people," says Caligiore, "and that's part of the appeal."

An ideal day

7 a.m.: Load up on pancakes or vanilla bean cinnamon swirl French toast at the Black Bear Restaurant. Make a mental note of the 10 daily offerings on the soup menu for later.

8:30 a.m.: Drop off the vertically challenged skiers at the Verizon Sports Complex Cross-Country Ski Center at Mount Van Hoevenberg. Make arrangements to rendezvous later.

9 a.m.: Arrive at Whiteface Mountain and buy a lift ticket and a $39 Winter Passport. Wish the novices good luck as they begin their Parallel From the Start lessons. Debate the merits of Whiteface vs. Little Whiteface while downing a hot chocolate at the base lodge. Hop on the heated Cloudsplitter Gondola for a ride up Little Whiteface and a warm-up run down Excelsior.

10:30 a.m.: After riding the high-speed quad lift to the top of the big mountain, pause and take in the view. Whiteface may not be the highest mountain (nearby Mount Marcy is), but its vistas are unrivaled. Take a deep breath and jump on the Follies to Paron's Run. Instead of cutting right to Excelsior, cut left on the Connector to Lower Cloudspin.

Noon: Grab some chili at Boule's Bistro midmountain before gliding down the New Boreen trail.

2 p.m.: Remember your obligations to your cross- country friends. Meet at the MacKenzie-Intervale Ski Jumping complex and ride the chairlift to the base of the 120-meter tower. Take pictures of each other perched bravely at the edge of the start area with the tiny landing area as a backdrop.

3:30 p.m.: Stop by the Black Bear for a bowl of soup and then walk across the street to the 1932 and 1980 Olympic Museum in the Olympic Center. Get a lump in your throat as you view a video of the U.S. hockey team defeating the Soviets as ABC announcer Al Michaels asks, "Do you believe in miracles?"

6 p.m.: After a nap and a shower, kick back at the Lake Placid Pub and Brewery, on Mirror Lake Drive, to relive the day's heroics. Order an Ubu Ale (Bill Clinton ordered one when he was here, and then had more delivered to the White House).

8 p.m.: Drive to the Chalet Swiss restaurant for a salad and Gruyere fondue. Marvel at feeling leg muscles you thought had disappeared. Plan the next day's ski adventure.

-- Candus Thomson

When you go

Getting there: By car from Baltimore, it's about a nine-hour drive. Take I-95 to the New Jersey Turnpike. Switch to the Garden State Parkway at Exit 11 and take it to the New York border, where you pick up I-87. Take Exit 24 in Albany, where I-87 changes names from the New York State Thruway to Northway. Take Exit 30, follow Route 9 north two miles to Route 73. Continue 28 miles to Lake Placid.

Southwest Airlines (800-435-9792; www.southwest.com) flies from BWI to Albany. US Airways (800-245-4882; www.usairways.com) flies from BWI to Burlington, Vt. Either way, it's still almost a three-hour drive to Lake Placid.

Lodging:

* If you've got the money (rates from $250), the Mirror Lake Inn (518-523-2544; www.mirrorlakeinn.com) is beautiful, and convenient to everything in the area.

* The Best Western Golden Arrow (800-582-5540; www.golden-arrow.com), the Lake Placid Resort Holiday Inn (800-874-1980; www.lakeplacidresort.com) and the Hilton Lake Placid Resort (518-523-4411; www.lphilton. com) are in Lake Placid and are chain hotels with typical amenities. Rates run from $79 to $189, but ski package deals are available.

* Art Devlin's Olympic Motor Inn, 350 Main St. (518-523-3700; www.artdevlins.com), is locally owned and reasonably priced (rates from $52). Art Devlin Sr.'s ski-jumping trophies are in a glass case in the lobby, and Art Devlin Jr. will check you in.

Dining: Options are many, but here are some moderately priced offerings:

* The Black Bear Restaurant, 157 Main St., Lake Placid; 518-523-9886. Best place to start the day.

* The Chalet, 189 Saranac Ave., Lake Placid; 518-523-3040. Swiss specialties.

* Nicola's Over Main, 90 Main St., Lake Placid; 518-523-4430. Italian and Mediterranean dishes well prepared.

* The Veranda, on the hill across from the Holiday Inn; 518-523-3339. American and French cuisine. Killer views of Mirror Lake. Site of President Clinton's 54th birthday party.

* Mr. Mike's Pizza, 332 Main St., Lake Placid; 518-523-9770. Because sometimes you've got to have a pie.

* The Hungry Trout, Route 86, Wilmington, N.Y.; 518-946-2217. Rainbow trout and Black Angus steaks with a view of Whiteface.

For more information:

* About visiting Whiteface: Call 518-946-2223 or visit online at www.whiteface.com.

* About Lake Placid: Contact the Lake Placid / Essex County Convention and Visitors Bureau: 518-523-2445; www.lakeplacid.com

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