Windham Mountain: Catskill Skiing Goes Upscale

Windham, NY – Is there a ski area within easy driving distance of where you live that you never got around to – either because you heard that it’s too expensive, or crowded, or that the terrain wasn’t that interesting, or you didn’t like the crowd that hung out there, or some other reason that you can’t even recall? Most people have one of these canada goose Foxe Bomber blindspots, and Windham Mountain was mine.

(photo: Windham Mountain)

(photo: Windham Mountain)

Even though it’s one of the Catskill Mountains’ three main ski areas and barely two hours from my house, I never made it up there. And while Windham draws healthy ski day numbers, it seems to get scant attention from posters on Internet ski forums. All I knew was that Windham was popular with families — which was historically enough of a reason for me to go elsewhere — and had a corresponding reputation as a mellow mountain. But after being dragged kicking and screaming into the “ski family” demographic with a two-year-old son now in tow, I headed up the New York State Thruway last March to check it out.

Heading west on Route 23 and approaching the town of Windham, the first thing you notice is that the village surrounding the ski resort doesn’t have the down-at-the-heels feel that has pervaded many parts of the Catskills since vacationers began heading elsewhere 30 years ago. With new canada goose Kensington Parka sidewalks, period street lamps, well maintained housing stock, a handful of golf courses nearby, and new restaurants, the area is clearly on its way up.

Windham Mountain base lodge (photo: Windham Mountain)

Windham Mountain base lodge
(photo: Windham Mountain)

Not by coincidence, once you arrive at the ski area, Windham Mountain borrows elements of the Deer Valley/Stratton full-service, amenity-heavy operating model – uniformed valets who unload and store your skis, a well-appointed private locker room, two high-speed quads, a posh condo complex, nice eateries… you get the idea. Since a group of Wall Street masters of the universe led by majority owners Randy Frankel and Steven Starker bought Windham at the end of 2005, the resort’s transformation into the Catskills’ only upscale ski resort has shifted into overdrive. The new owners have invested more than $10 million – the largest single lump of capital improvements in Windham’s 47 years of existence – including $4.75 million in the base lodge for the coming season. Other changes have included new lifts, expanded terrain, and improved snowmaking, along with a bunch of extras aimed at the creature comfort crowd: Windham’s bread and butter. In addition to the Trail’s End Tavern at the Winwood Inn, the base area also includes a sushi bar, an organic smoothie station, and a freestanding on-hill waffle hut that allows skiers and boarders to glide up to the window for service. Part of this season’s investment in the base lodge is being used to create a private club for members.

Averaging only 110 inches of natural snow per year, Windham doesn’t kid itself about how to stay in business during the northern Catskills’ up-and-down winters. With a top-to-bottom snowmaking system covering 98% of its terrain, its operations team is skilled in bouncing back from tough weather episodes. In fact, at the end of January 2007, when it looked like the East Coast ski season had gone south for the winter, Windham managed to open 91% of its 265 skiable acres – including 33 trails, five terrain parks, and a half-pipe – with practically no natural snow. While the purist in me prefers not to see snowguns lining the slopes, that’s the price of entry in the ski business these days, particularly in this part of the country.

Click image to open a full-size Windham Mountain trail map in a new browser window.

Click image to open a full-size Windham Mountain trail map in a new browser window.

Luckily, my visit to Windham took place over St. Patrick’s Day weekend in mid-March, when the northeast was getting karmic payback for its no-show early season. In fact, conditions were pretty stellar. The day before we arrived, a storm barreled through the area and dropped a foot of dry snow. Although I may have missed the true powder day 24 hours earlier, between the completely untouched stuff in the trees, chopped up leftovers on the sides of the trails, soft bumps on the mogul runs, and flawless cruising down the groomers, things were about as good as it gets around here.

Windham’s terrain is located on a main peak with a reported 1,600 feet of vertical, with East Peak alongside at 1,450 vertical feet. Most of the terrain tilts toward intermediate, but up top, particularly on the skier’s far left, short steep pitches helped create some nice bump fields on the days I was there. Moreover, in the woods between the cut trails, I nailed a bunch of knee-deep powder runs. In another inadvertent parallel to Deer Valley, people at Windham didn’t seem to be in the habit of heading into the trees, which was fine with me.

Similar to Belleayre on the western edge of the Catskills, after the initial pitch at the summit, trails generally meander down the mountain as blue and green runouts. I was able to maintain a nice momentum on these rolling East Coast cruisers, none of which were excessively wide – something that I appreciate. While there’s obviously nothing at Windham that’ll make you reconsider a trip to Jackson Hole, Snowbird, or Mad River Glen, between the new snow, the smooth tree shots, and the lack of liftlines, we had no complaints. Moreover, after moving away from the main slopes leading away from the top of the lifts, the trail network did a nice job of spreading crowds out, even on a busy weekend day.

East Peak (photo: FTO/James Michaud)

East Peak
(photo: FTO/James Michaud)

The big on-mountain news in recent seasons was a bunch of long-awaited improvements to previously underused East Peak. After replacing the old G-lift triple with a high-speed quad, Windham cut two new trails to help people easily cross from the main hill to East Peak – making it feel like a single ski area instead of two individual ones. From the top of the East Peak Express, an entertaining narrow trail now slices down the skier’s left side. After holding a trail-naming contest that attracted more than 2,000 entries, the resort decided on the moniker “Wedgie” (the winning contestant got a free season’s pass). Also on East Peak are several fun single-black trails that spill down the fall-line, along with an easy green run that provides a nice view of the valley.

For the half-pipe/jib crowd, Windham has five terrain parks spread out across the mountain. The resort owns a new Zaugg pipe cutter, and a surface lift on Wilbur shaves several minutes off the ride back to the top of the park. Plus, the lift ensures that freeriding skiers and riders will encounter less people on the rest of the mountain, so everyone wins.

From the summit of the main high-speed quad, the trails of Hunter Mountain are clearly visible, but besides an identical reported vertical drop and lots of snowmaking, Windham has generally had very little in common with its neighbor. While Hunter clearly has more challenging terrain, especially on its west face, many runs there look like they were created with the liberal use of dynamite. Windham’s trails, on the other hand, wind through the trees in classic Northeast fashion. Because the two areas offer relatively distinct products, Windham doesn’t view Hunter as a competitor. Instead, its game plan is to lure families from downstate New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut who might otherwise head to southern Vermont for their Northeastern skiing fix. The challenge is to convince this big bucket of potential revenue that its overall package – terrain, grooming, lifts, accommodations, and amenities – can compete with those at Stratton, Okemo, or Mount Snow, but with less than half the drive time.

Night skiing at Windham is available for $33. (photo: Windham Mountain)

Night skiing at Windham is available for $33.
(photo: Windham Mountain)

While a good portion of Windham’s marketing efforts is targeted at people who aren’t counting their pennies, the resort hasn’t forsaken budget-minded daytrippers. In fact, they’re being thrown a couple of generous bones with very little fine print. The Everyday Gravity Card costs $99 early season and earns $25 off a weekday lift ticket or $15 off a weekend pass, excluding the typical holiday periods. The resort also provides the only night skiing in the Catskills for $33.

After our first day of skiing, we picked up our two-year-old from the well-run daycare center at the bottom of the hill and took him for his first official downhill ride in the snow at the six-lane tubing park a short drive away at the Windham Mountain Adventure Park. Like many resorts these days, the new owners are intent on developing Windham, with the Adventure Park as its centerpiece, into a four-season attraction designed to keep non-skiers and boarders entertained both during and after ski season. Already, it offers an ice skating rink that will convert into skate park during the summer, a rock climbing wall, a bungee trampoline, and paintball, with more to be announced soon.

On Monday, with the weekend crowds gone, we spent several hours cruising the deserted trails with Windham’s ski ambassador and loquacious big man on campus, Karl Plattner. A beloved fixture throughout the Catskills, the native Austrian – who moved to Windham in 1996 after an acrimonious breakup with Hunter Mountain, where he was the ski school director for many years – pointed out hidden stashes, gave my wife skiing tips, and told us stories of the heads of state, celebrities, and pro sports stars he’s skied with over the years. The only problem hanging out with Karl is that so many people stop to say hello and chat with him, unless you’re alone with him on the lift, he’s unable to finish a sentence without being greeted by someone.

In his friendly, relaxed manner, Plattner is representative of Windham’s focus on providing amenities and genuinely nice employees that help guests sidestep some of the logistical nuisances of skiing trips. Far from the high-strung tri-state nutcases you might expect at a ski area only two hours from Manhattan, the people we met during our stay in Windham, both at the ski area and throughout the village, seemed like they had been shipped in from Pleasantville, USA.

Windham’s warm and fuzzies don’t stop there. In addition to channeling heat from snowmaking compressors to provide 75 percent of the base lodge’s heating needs for an average winter, the resort is purchasing renewable energy so that it covers the electricity requirements for all of the lifts and the base lodge.

Where to Stay

(photo: Catskill Lodge)

(photo: Catskill Lodge)

We spent the night at the nearby Catskill Lodge, a cute Victorian bed & breakfast owned for years by an English woman and recently reopened last November by three young guys with day jobs in New York. Even without direct experience in the hospitality business beforehand, the owners did a great job in providing all the little things to please the full house that night, including a wine and cheese get-together before dinner, a big DVD movie collection that we watched on the flat-screen TV in our suite, and elderberry jam at breakfast supplied by a neighbor. Their secret weapon is a 14-person mini-bus that they use to shuttle guests free of charge from midtown Manhattan to the B&B. The bus has proven to be a big hit with Gotham skiers and boarders who don’t own cars and aren’t into the idea of paying triple the normal rate for a rental car.

www.windhammountain.com
www.catskilllodge.com

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