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Nice article in the NYT today about Sunday River:

January 9, 2009
Ski Report

Deep in the Maine Woods, a Giant

WHAT’S the largest ski resort in the Northeast? Killington, right? Everybody knows that.
But what’s the second biggest? Stowe? Whiteface? Okemo?
Wrong, wrong and wrong.
If you asked people leaving a ski store in the metropolitan New York area this question, as I recently did, it would be a very long time before someone mentions Sunday River, the vast resort of eight peaks in central Maine. With 668 skiable acres, it is the Northeast’s second-biggest resort.
Sunday River is the behemoth of the Eastern ski industry that only Boston-area skiers seem to know about. Even people in Vermont, upstate New York or Southern New England don’t often venture to Sunday River. It is a sprawling mountain getaway with few crowds. It is the unhurried, somewhat untried giant waiting to be fully discovered 50 years after it opened.
Perhaps most significant, Sunday River offers a distinctive Maine mountain experience that is subtly different from skiing or riding in the ski capitals of Vermont, New Hampshire or New York. For hard-core snow sliders, and even families who take one or two ski trips each year, there can be a sameness to annual winter journeys because people reflexively flock to the same familiar ski areas.
But if you have an adventurer’s spirit, or want to be surprised, now might be a good time to try New England’s “other” snow sports state: Maine. It won’t be the same old ski trip.
There are, of course, some very good reasons why Sunday River is a bit off the radar, recording 525,000 skier visits in an average winter — a respectable total but only half the number that regularly visit Killington.
The chief reason is geography.
There’s no getting around it, unless you already live in Maine moose country, getting to Sunday River, near the mountain town of Bethel, is going to take some perseverance. The resort is roughly 400 miles from Manhattan and 50 backcountry miles from the nearest highway, regardless of your approach.
“The longer trip keeps the yahoos and pretenders away,” said John Egan of Weymouth, Mass., who has been coming to Sunday River since the 1980s. “I like that not everybody can hop on and off the Interstate and be here in a flash.”
And Sunday River management recognizes the collective attitude. “The fact that it’s not easy to get here becomes a badge of honor,” said Jim Costello, Sunday River’s director of marketing and sales. “It separates those who want to be here and those who don’t have that same loyalty. There’s a camaraderie with all the others who made it all the way here. Maine people are used to working hard.”
You can also fly into the Portland, Me., airport. Now JetBlue, Continental and United each have round-trip, nonstop flights starting at around $125 from airports in the New York area. But you will still have about a two-hour drive into the countryside.
Sunday River may be remote, but that doesn’t mean it is primitive or outdated. It is a sprawling, modern resort with 131 trails and 16 lifts that have the capacity to carry 32,000 skiers. The lifts include a new one called the Chondola, which mixes chairs and gondola cabins and whisks riders to the 3,140-foot summit in seven minutes. There are two slopeside hotels, 700 condominiums, several base lodges and views that seem to reach from Canada to the Atlantic Ocean.
The eight peaks that make up the resort span three and a half miles, and Sunday River owns another 6,000 surrounding acres that it might expand into.
Today, Sunday River has several peaks large enough to stand alone as medium-size resorts, and each is fun to sample for individual character. If you make your base the Jordan Grand Hotel, you are steps from Jordan Bowl, a snow playground promising uninterrupted, varied runs.
It’s a great place to start and finish your day. On a visit late last month, I was riding the speedy Jordan Bowl quad at 8:30 a.m., and as I looked down on the slopes, I could count on two hands the number of skiers or riders I saw slipping past. Nearly 1,500 vertical feet awaited with virtually no one in the way.
I hopped right onto the Excalibur trail, a wide cruiser that has devilish dips. It starts with some steeper drops and eventually lulls you into a rhythmic descent of gentle rollers. But if you pick up speed and catch the rises just right, you can get all the stomach-sucking feel of a roller coaster for about 400 yards. A Jordan Bowl warm-up can also include the Wizard’s Gulch glades or the precipitous entry of the iCaramba trail.
If you can handle that, you’re ready for Oz, the peak just to the skier’s right from Jordan Bowl. Oz is packed with ungroomed steeps and glades, like Tin Woodsman. You could spend all day on these two mountains, but then you would miss the Spruce Peak with its signature intermediate trails and a popular, testing black diamond run, Downdraft.
The Barker Mountain peak has more great terrain and another 1,400 vertical feet but is almost overlooked by the crowds heading to the White Cap peak and the rite-of-passage bump run, White Heat.
All of this skiing and riding is done in what Mainers call nature’s cathedral. “It’s not an artificial environment created for the construction of a ski area,” Mr. Costello said. “It’s rugged. It’s part of the Maine brand that we support.”
And what is the Maine brand when it comes to a ski resort?
It means no fashion police on the slopes. It means unpretentious, if somewhat muted, lodges that lack glamour but have the rudimentary services. It has the friendliest and most entertaining lift operators I have come across anywhere. It is a place where a guy — most likely not from Maine — talking loudly on his cellphone about some business dealings back home (and talking so loudly everyone must hear him) was certainly noticed as a nonconforming presence. But he was not bothered or shushed, although since I am an adopted New Yorker, the thought crossed my mind.
For the uninitiated, there will be some adjustments to Maine skiing. For example, about 75 percent of the people in the lodge will, somewhere on their person, be wearing apparel celebrating the Boston Celtics, the Boston Red Sox or the New England Patriots. If you’re riding a lift and someone asks you how often you come to “The Riv-aah,” try not to look confused. The answer most likely is, not as often as they do, since Boston’s heavily accented suburbs are only about three hours away.
Sunday River regulars are in a good, welcoming mood to outsiders these days because the resort’s new owner, Boyne Resorts of Michigan, has been spending money on needed infrastructure improvements, like snowmaking.
Basics, like putting more snow on the hill, has made it easier for visitors to focus on their basics: coming to the woods to ski and ride in the big outdoors of New England’s biggest state with vast mountain terrain that has got a little bit of everything you need, except maybe a mid-station espresso bar.
Sunday River isn’t everything for everybody. While there are spas and several fine dining choices in the quaint village of Bethel, there isn’t a wealth of options for night life. There are boisterous après-ski options on and off the mountain and some live music choices, but little Bethel is not the Killington access road either.
Maybe people go to bed early because they are just too tired from the long drive to get to Sunday River.
But a challenging trek should not keep you from branching out from your customary winter choices. Lots of great mountains (Aspen, Mont Tremblant, Jackson Hole and Smugglers’ Notch) aren’t always so easy to get to. Sunday River might be one, or two, states farther up the road, but it is an important and major resort in a distinctive place.
If late on a Saturday afternoon you catch yourself on Sunday River’s winding Lollapalooza trail at the resort’s northwestern edge — just before making a stop in the entry-level black diamond glades of Blind Ambition — you will gaze across the sweeping view of the Mahoosuc Mountain range. It’s likely that there might not be another soul in sight. And you will know why you took all the time to come all the way here.
They may be far from your Main Street, but Maine vistas are second to none.