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For fun in the snow, look to Stowe

The dinner crowd streaming into Trattoria La Festa seemed more like a gaggle of old friends than anonymous restaurant patrons.

There were hugs and hearty handshakes as the owners greeted diners. The scent of a pungent puttanesca sauce wafted by each time the kitchen door swung open.

And leaving the cozy restaurant on Stowe's Mountain Road is not much different. "See you on the hill," Antonio DeVito called out as his customers departed, ruddy-cheeked after a full day of skiing, moving more slowly after the bowls of pasta.

Nestled around Mount Mansfield, Vermont's highest peak at 4,395 feet, Stowe is a ski resort guests return to year after year. There's a chumminess about the place, where veteran visitors and residents mingle like recent grads and students at a homecoming football game.

An easily intimidated first-time skier, I was daunted by all this camaraderie. Sure, I could appreciate the snowy shimmer on a peaceful meadow, a sleigh ride at dusk, the occasional snort from the beefy horse breaking the twilight silence.

I knew how to be a tourist. What I didn't know was how to be a skier. I was tampering with my established low-level position in the active-sports hierarchy, and at middle age no less.

Still, I found Stowe inviting, not full of lunchroom cliques or snobs.

No one at the rental shop even smirked when I got winded putting on my ski boots, then tipped over when I stood up. Nor did I hear any chuckles when I nearly slid under the towrope.

At day's end, the expert skiers were not sitting on one side at Miguel's Stowe Away restaurant, the lowly beginners commiserating in a corner. The tangy margaritas flowed and baskets of warm tortilla chips recharged all those worn out from their time on the mountain.

Then again, Stowe has had a lot of practice welcoming skiers. In 1870, a toll road was completed to the top of Mount Mansfield; the first recorded skier to descend the stretch was a Dartmouth College librarian who, in 1914, challenged a friend on snowshoes to a race.

In 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps cut the first downhill trails and, three years later, famed Austrian racer Sepp Ruschp began teaching revolutionary techniques to the Mount Mansfield Ski Club.

Today, Stowe Mountain Resort boasts what is said to be the world's fastest eight-passenger gondola, more mile-long ski lifts than any other resort in the East, plus 39 miles of skiing and 48 trails.

The acclaimed "Front Four" trails _ National, Starr, Liftline and Goat _ challenge the experts, while ski and snowboarding wanna-bes start out at Little Spruce. Stowe remains one of the five premier ski resorts in the East; the others are Killington, Sugarloaf, Sugarbush and Sunday River.

Steve Boyan, an advanced skier who recently retired with his wife, Kitty, to nearby Burlington, has skied at Stowe more than a dozen times in the past 15 years. He has also taken to the slopes in much of the West, including Colorado, Utah, Montana and Wyoming.

"I like opening her up on the Gondolier trail (at Stowe)," the former college professor says. "I'll be there a few times this winter."

When I met the couple, Steve Boyan was cross country skiing, while Kitty Boyan, a retired elementary school teacher, was snowshoeing on a pristine stretch next to Mountain Road.

My adventure on the beginner's Little Spruce had ended abruptly the day before: I had persevered for hours, watching from my usual spot _ flat on my back, my legs contorted into a position mindful of a Cirque du Soleil performer. Toddlers buzzed past me.

I eventually graduated to a slope with a chair lift but gave up downhill skiing after more bruises, some tears and panic.

I told my sorry tale to the Boyans on a bridge spanning a pretty stream. Kitty Boyan sympathized and suggested I try snowshoeing. "Snowshoeing is safe and (the snowshoe) grabs and grips. And it's so peaceful."

She also pointed out there's more to Stowe than sports _ such as Stowe itself. Chartered in 1763, the town is actually several miles from the slopes, connected by Mountain Road, a two-lane artery lined with hotels, shops and restaurants.

Historic Stowe Village is situated at the bottom of Mountain Road where it intersects with Main Street. I wandered one morning through the shops, including Stowe Mercantile, an old-fashioned country store brimming with such items as maple walnut pumpkin butter and handcrafted sleigh bells. Vermont Furniture Works specializes in stunning reproductions of 18th and 19th century furniture.

"There is something so picturesque about Stowe. It's the quintessential New England town," said Kitty Boyan. She mentioned the Community Church's imposing white steeple on Main Street.

As I headed out of town, I returned to the Trapp Family Lodge where I began my Stowe excursion with a slice of raspberry and red currant Linzertorte. I was intrigued by the lodge's illustrious cross country history. And, still smarting _ mostly around my shins and definitely around my pride _ I was a little desperate to salvage my ski adventure.

Back in 1968, Johannes von Trapp, president of the lodge, opened what was one of the nation's premier cross country ski centers. More than 35 years later, nearly 28 miles of groomed trails and 62 miles of back-country trails are available, making this Stowe's largest cross country ski facility.

I watched as skiers in brightly colored jackets and leggings glided by, emerging from deeply wooded trails and skimming down an alabaster incline. I liked the absence of towering heights, the hush settling over the landscape.

As another batch of cross country skiers whooshed by, I realized that I'd return to Stowe, an ex-downhill skier with a slower, much less vertical dream.

Christina Zarobe is a freelance writer living in Shrewsbury, Mass.

If you go

GETTING THERE: Burlington International Airport is about 40 minutes by car from Stowe. U.S. Airways, United and Continental are among the carriers flying there. From Boston's Logan International Airport, it is an approximately 200-mile drive to Stowe.

Amtrak also offers service to the Waterbury-Stowe station.

STAYING THERE: Edson Hill Manor, 1500 Edson Hill Road, Stowe, VT 05672; toll-free 1-800-621-0284; From now through Feb. 12 and from Feb. 22 through the end of the ski season, doubles are from $139 to $199, including breakfast. Rates higher Feb. 13-21 (Washington's Birthday break).

Ye Olde England Inne, 433 Mountain Road, Stowe, VT 05672; toll-free 1-800-477-3771; High-season winter rates from $119 to $365, including breakfast and afternoon tea. Rates higher during the Washington's Birthday break.

Stowehof Inn & Resort, 434 Edson Hill Road, Stowe, VT 05672; toll-free 1-800-932-7136; Rates for a double from $110 to $215, Sunday-Wednesday, and $145 to $240 Thursday-Saturday. From Feb. 13-21, rates are $170 to $295.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: For details on skiing, contact Stowe Mountain Resort, 5781 Mountain Rd., Stowe, VT 05672; toll-free 1-800-253-4754;

Information on the town of Stowe is available at Stowe Visitor Information, Main Street, Box 1320, Stowe, VT 05672; toll-free 1-877-467-8693;