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Southern skiing stars in North Carolina town

BOONE, N.C.

A day's drive from Florida and situated near three ski resorts, it's no wonder this western North Carolina town is a popular winter destination. • The elevation (3,333 feet) and average snowfall (41 inches) can't compete with well-known locales out West, but what this college town lacks in magnitude it compensates for with Southern mountain charm. • Nestled in a valley in the High Country, Boone is home to Appalachian State University, a funky student-influenced culture and a year-round adventure hub. • The town provides a great base camp for exploring the three ski hills within 12 miles. It offers a main street filled with art galleries and antique shops, dive bars and a growing list of fine-dining restaurants. And similarly, the quaint nearby towns of Blowing Rock and Banner Elk deeper in the mountains are definitely worth exploring. • It's an affordable road trip for families and fitting for beginner and intermediate skiers and those who enjoy time off the slopes. • Not to mention this winter's El Niño weather pattern means colder and snowier conditions in the southern Appalachian Mountains. • To make the most of the visit, miss the crowds and the resort clutter with these tips from locals who know the area the best.

Sugar Mountain Resort

The largest ski resort in North Carolina, Sugar Mountain offers the best skiing in the Southeast. This means skiers will find the biggest vertical drop (1,200 feet) and the longest ski run (1.5 miles) in the state. Like most resorts nearby, it caters to beginners, but experienced skiers can find speed and thrills on the upper black diamond runs, such as Whoopdeedoo and Boulderdash. If you can ski the famous East Coast hardpack (i.e. ice) you can surely ski the hard-core slopes out West.

Its only fault is its popularity. On holidays, when church buses fill the parking lot, locals avoid the resort like the plague. But recent lift upgrades put uphill capacity at 8,800 people per hour, and improvements in snowmaking mean better conditions on more of the mountain. To avoid the masses, come first-chair early when most people are still sorting out rental gear and ski during lunch when the crowds head for the lodge. If you need to rent, find better equipment and better service across the street from the resort entrance at Ski Country Sports (skicountrysports.com; toll-free 1-800-528-3874). The mountain also offers ice skating, snow tubing and snowshoe tours.

Trails: 20

Lifts: 7

Skiable acres: 115

Peak elevation: 5,300 feet

Vertical drop: 1,200 feet

Hours: 9 a.m.-10 p.m. (closed 4:30-6 p.m.)

Information: skisugar.com or toll-free 1-800-784-2768

Beech Mountain Resort

With the highest elevation of any resort in the state and smaller crowds, Beech Mountain is a favorite among locals. The resort gets more natural snow than its competitors and forecasters predict a 90-inch total this year. When it's open, few runs can beat the steeps on White Lightning, a black diamond run, and the intermediate Oz trail on the backside of the mountain, which is often deserted. A local who earned top grooming honors out West also guarantees numerous laps on freshly groomed slopes.

The resort features the fastest quad-occupancy chair lift in the Southeast and more affordable rates than Sugar, especially during the week (Tuesday is half-price, and lift tickets are $25 on Wednesday). For families, the resort offers a daylong youth program that amounts to babysitting on skis and a beeper-monitored nursery at the base of the mountain. And ice skating and snow tubing make it fun for the whole family.

On the way to the mountain, stop at Edge of the World in Banner Elk (edgeoworld.com; (828) 898-9550), a snowboard shop with the coolest boards, gear and apparel in the area.

Trails: 15

Lifts: 10

Skiable acres: 95

Peak elevation: 5,506 feet

Vertical drop: 830 feet

Hours: 9 a.m.-10 p.m. (closed 4:30-6 p.m.)

Information: skibeech.com; toll-free 1-800-438-2093

Appalachian Ski Mountain

Dwarfed in size and vertical footage compared with its peers, Appalachian Ski Mountain is the little engine that could. With only 365 feet of vertical drop, you'll take lap after lap and spend a good bit of time on the chairlift. But it's rarely crowded and boasts the best snowmaking in the area, guaranteeing soft turns. The mountain makes its name teaching people to ski and snowboard with expert lessons from French Swiss Ski College instructors.

But where Appalachian really excels, in style and substance, is its terrain park (appterrainpark.com). Major ski companies often host events here, and the rail and jump features are located on three different parts of the mountain. At the start of the year, the parks included 17 features, including two medium table tops, a trapezoid rail and a 30-foot down-flat-down rail. For those who know this lingo, it's the best offering in the area. And for those who don't, just know it's good theater as snowboarders and skiers perform their tricks.

Locals like to ski at night after trails are freshly groomed and most crowds go home; just watch out for the snowmaking machines.

Trails: 11

Lifts: 5

Skiable acres: 27

Peak elevation: 4,000 feet

Vertical drop: 365 feet

Hours: 9 a.m.-10 p.m. (closed 4-6 p.m.)

Information: appskimtn.com; (828) 295-7828

Things to do

Off the ski hill, outdoor activities abound. One of the most popular is snow tubing at Hawksnest Resort (hawksnest-resort.com; toll-free 1-800-822-4295), a former ski hill that features 20 tubing lanes, including one that's 1,000 feet long. The resort is now offering zip lining on its extensive cable course in the winter months, too.

Do-it-yourself (read: free) sledding hills also provide the fun. In the town of Beech Mountain — the highest town in the East — snow machines keep the hill next to Town Hall white and slippery all winter. And outside Blowing Rock, where U.S. 221 and the Blue Ridge Parkway connect, a locals-favorite slope will fulfill the need for speed.

To get a bird's-eye perspective on the frosty landscape, drive to the top of 5,946-foot Grandfather Mountain (grandfather.com; (828) 733-4337). If conditions permit, take a hike along the behemoth's steep ridges. For a more mellow trek, try the trail system starting at Bass Lake outside Blowing Rock. From here you can reach the backside of the Moses H. Cone Memorial Park and its expansive pathways if the parkway is closed due to weather, as is often the case. But before venturing out, all locals know to check Ray's Weather Center at raysweather.com for a specialized forecast for the mountain area.

Once the outdoor adventure ends, save some energy to explore the quintessential towns in the area:

• In Boone, take a walk down King Street and don't miss the eclectic Artwalk, which features local and regional artists (artwalkboone.com; (828) 264-9998). Off a side street, grab a warm jacket or try the climbing wall at Footsloggers, the top local outfitter (footsloggers.com; toll-free 1-800-262-5121), and then stop for a coffee and a good read next door at Espresso News/Mosaic Books, a frequent den for studying students (call (828) 264-8850).

• In Blowing Rock, wander through the trendy boutiques and antique shops along Main Street and visit the cozy cafe, Tucker's on Main (tuckersonmain.com; (828) 295-4231), which rightfully features a sign that says "Best Coffee in Town." With warm drink in hand, find a seat on the park benches for some great people-watching. For those looking for a little luxury, take a short drive out of town to get pampered with a treatment at the Westglow Resort & Spa, the area's finest (westglowresortandspa.com; toll-free 1-800-562-0807).

• On the other side of the mountain ridge, discover Valle Crucis' Original Mast Store, a creaky, clapboard mercantile built in 1883 and registered as a historic place (mastgeneralstore.com/valle_crucis.cfm; (828) 963-6511).

Where to eat

When it comes to eating, split time between the dive joints and the emerging fine-dining restaurants. Grab breakfast in Boone at the Dan'l Boone Inn Restaurant, where staffers in period costumes serve a country family-style breakfast for the whole table, but come early to avoid the long line (danlbooneinn.com; (828) 264-8657). After wandering the streets all day, nothing beats fish tacos or a White Trash BBQ burrito at Black Cat, a hipster hideaway off S Depot Street (blackcatburrito.com; (828) 263-9511). Another great spot is Our Daily Bread Delicatessen on King Street, a small cafe where you can find sandwiches and soups made with organic and local produce and a lengthy list of microbrews (call (828) 264-0173). At the far end of the main drag, try Vidalia for lunch or dinner (vidaliaofboonenc.com; (828) 263-9176). The menu includes comfort food favorites done with style, like Southern fried chicken in a Creole batter and pumpkin seed-encrusted trout from North Carolina. The locals also rave about the creative tastes at Reid's Cafe and Catering in the old jailhouse at the end of S Water Street (reidscateringco.com; (828) 268-9600).

Find the best mountain cuisine at Gamekeeper Restaurant, a hidden gem outside Blowing Rock along Shulls Mill Road (gamekeeper-nc. com; (828) 963-7400). Featuring fresh local ingredients and a rustic cottage atmosphere, owners Ken and Wendy Gordon redefine what is possible with a grilled mixed game appetizer featuring a sample of meats and locally grown ostrich fillet with sun-dried tomato jus. Two more locals' favorites just outside downtown Blowing Rock are Bistro Roca Restaurant with its artisan wood-fired pizzas and elegant Antlers Bar (bistroroca.com; (828) 295-4008) and Woodlands Barbecue and Pickin' Parlor featuring the taste of world-famous North Carolina chopped pork and slaw (woodlandsbbq.com; (828) 295-3651).

Where to stay

Skip the brand-name hotels in Boone and rent a cabin (or condo) in the woods to make the trip complete.

For two of the best property rental agencies, call Blowing Rock Resort Rentals (blowingrockresortrentals.com; toll-free 1-866-800-9899) and Blue Ridge Rentals (blueridgerentals.com; toll-free 1-800-237-7975) and ask for accommodations near the ski hills.

Another great option: one of the dozens of area bed and breakfasts, like the cozy Banner Elk Inn (bannerelkinn.com; toll-free 1-888-487-8263); the centrally located Azalea Inn in Banner Elk (azalea-inn.com; toll-free 1-888-898-2743); or the renowned Mast Farm Inn in Valle Crucis (mastfarminn.com; toll-free 1-888-963-5857). For a posh retreat, try the stately Westglow Resort & Spa (www.westglowresortandspa.com; toll-free 1-800-562-0807) and the Gideon Ridge Inn, which features amazing views of the mountain gorge near the legendary Blowing Rock attraction (gideonridge.com; (828) 295-3644).

John Frank is an avid skier and has visited the North Carolina mountains for the past decade. He has also worked at numerous ski shops in the Southeast. He can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Southern skiing stars in North Carolina town 01/09/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 12, 2010 2:44pm]

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