In a year when snow in the Alps has been almost as rare as rain in Eilat and when Europe's ski resorts are abuzz with uneasy talk of global climate change and melting glaciers, it's good to remember that snow still falls reliably in that other Old Country: America.
Though it's been an unusually warm winter on the East Coast, out West the flakes have been falling fast and furious, as reliably as the rotation of the Earth.
So when I decided to go skiing this winter, I eschewed the nearby Alps for the distant Rockies, figuring that the quality of the skiing in Colorado would more than make up for the trip across the Atlantic.
I was aptly rewarded.
Pristine, powder-covered and varied, there's good reason the Centennial State has a reputation as the ski capital of North America. With its sweeping views of white valleys and jagged peaks that appear higher in the sky than the refulgent sun, this country seems handcrafted by the Creator himself expressly for skiing.
Having been away from Colorado for quite a few years, I forgot how favorably American resorts compare to European ones - not to mention Mount Hermon.
For one thing, the Rockies are much higher than the Alps, which makes for lighter, fluffier, more dependable snow - perfect for the powder runs skiers crave. For another thing, a whopping 100 meters of snow falls in the Colorado Rockies every year - far more than in the Alps.
And for skiers accustomed to the idiosyncrasies of Alpine skiing - cross-country trekking to get from where the trail ends to where the lift begins; getting stuck on the wrong side of the mountain at closing time and having to take a two-hour train ride to get home; skiing barnside trails that smell of manure and require negotiation between fences - skiing the American way is a nice, luxurious change.
At Beaver Creek (www.beavercreek.com), a picturesque resort about two hours west of Denver, a new gondola whisks skiers directly from the town of Avon up to the mountain, saving the trouble of having to wait for a 15-minute bus ride to the resort's main base area. At the mountain itself, escalators connect parking lots and rental shops to the lifts, sparing you that heavy trudge up the stairs. The rental shops and ticket vendors offer free granola bars and cough drops, and at the end of every day employees hand out complimentary, warm chocolate-chip cookies at the bottom of the mountain.
At night, the outline of the 3,488-meter mountain looks down upon thousands of twinkling lights and a postcard-perfect scene. Pretty shops line a main square bedecked with Christmas lights and anchored by an ice-skating rink where village children practice their figure-eights as their watchful parents sip hot chocolate.
Private cars are barred from the village, lending the town an air of bygone times - a cross between Norman Rockwell's America and the tranquility of a Swiss Alpine town. The crisp evening air is ripe with the pungent aroma of cedar emanating from chimneys in the gorgeous homes, expansive chalets and fancy hotels nearby.
Again and again during my week in Colorado, I found myself pondering the profundity of Beaver Creek's motto: "Not exactly roughing it." I thought about it while sitting in my lodge's outdoor hot tub, sipping a cold beer as flakes of snow fell on my icy hair. I thought about it on Friday night while singing the songs of Shabbat eve with my feet warming by the fire. I thought about it while taking a walk the next day, watching water gurgle under the ice from a footbridge on a snowy, deserted golf course.
With more than 1,800 skiable acres, a 1,230-meter vertical rise and 148 well-tended trails, the on-mountain experience at Beaver Creek is pampering, too.
More than half the resort's trails are meticulously groomed, making it easy going for beginners and intermediates who prefer cruisers to unsettled snow. For those who like things rough and powdery, there are plenty of trails left wild. Some runs are half and half, so ski partners with divergent skill levels can stay together.
A little more than a third of the mountain is expert terrain, including some pretty challenging moguls and steep racing runs where Beaver Creek hosts World Cup competitions. But the resort's extensive intermediate and beginner offerings - including a wide variety of ski-lesson options and off-mountain activities - makes Beaver Creek ideal for moderate-level skiers and families with a diversity of skill levels and interests.
There are three terrain parks and a halfpipe for snowboarders, spas and shops for non-skiers and a host of beginner trails at Beaver Creek's highest summit, so even first-timers can enjoy the mountain's grandest views. The resort also has a cross-country ski area near Bachelor Gulch's summit, at an elevation of 2,900 meters.
The resort actually links multiple mountains and three separate village areas - including one with a Ritz Carlton - so you can ski village to village like in Europe. At the end of each afternoon, I was able to ski right up to my hotel, the Elkhorn Lodge in Beaver Creek, and in the mornings I could avoid the crowds by boarding the little-used Elkhorn chairlift right outside my living-room window.
The Elkhorn Lodge was reason enough to come to Beaver Creek, even without the skiing. I stayed in a gorgeous, western-themed, two-bedroom, three-bathroom condo, replete with full kitchen, living room/dining room, gas fireplace and indoor and outdoor hot tubs. If not for the treats that awaited me outside my lodge, I would never have left the Elkhorn.
Perhaps the most distinctive of these was a horse-drawn sleigh ride at the 4 Eagle Ranch (www.4eagleranch.com), some 30 kilometers away.
After my companion and I were picked up at our hotel and driven to the ranch, we boarded a sleigh pulled by a pair of Belgian draft horses. Huddling under blankets for warmth, we slid through the snow under a brilliantly clear starry sky, past clusters of horses whose outlines we could barely make out in the darkness. The sleigh ride ended at a pair of 19th-century log cabins built by the ranch's original owners and preserved with period furnishings.
In the warmth of the ranch's cozy Nelson Cabin, a sumptuous buffet dinner awaited: steak and chicken (and specially prepared kosher fish for us), baked potatoes with mouthwateringly delicious butter, salad, hot cider and enough alcohol to get the crowd of children, adults and grandparents to sing cowboy songs along with the guitarist in front of the blazing hearth fireplace.
I sat under a stuffed deer's head, pondering the Old West and thinking of Gavin Gunhold's famous, yet brief, poem: "On registration day at taxidermy school, I distinctly saw the eyes of the stuffed moose move." The warmth and unpretentiousness of the 4 Eagle Ranch was a delightfully welcome break from the moneyed chic of Beaver Creek, and a must-do for families with kids, couples interested in a romantic evening and Old West enthusiasts.
Old West aficionados also would do well to visit Beaver Creek's SaddleRidge restaurant (1-970-845-5450), a reasonably priced, charming eatery stocked with an impressive collection of western artifacts, including Annie Oakley's gun and Buffalo Bill's desk.
Foregoing dinner one evening, I went to the Allegria Spa (www.allegriaspa.com) for a hot-stone foot-and-scalp massage. From the munchies in the spa waiting room, to the hot mineral aroma therapy soak after my massage, to the refreshing cool rain shower followed by a rest on a warm stone slab, the spa made all my aches and pains just fade away.
Then I got up the next morning and made them ache all over again - but this time at Vail (www.vail.com), Beaver Creek's parent resort, about 20 kilometers away (lift tickets between the two resorts are interchangeable).
There's plenty to make you ache at Vail - and ooh and aah.
With 33 lifts, 193 trails, seven open bowls and 5,289 skiable acres, Vail is the largest resort in North America. It also dwarfs its European counterparts: St. Moritz tops off at 1,822 meters - 600 meters lower than Vail's base elevation of 2,476 meters. Even the Alps' highest ski resort, the 3,230-meter Val-Thorens in France, doesn't match Vail's 3,527-meter peak.
Vail's famed back bowls, some of which take more than an hour of skiing and lift-riding to reach, are a big part of what makes this the Holy Grail of skiing in North America. Out of view of any towns or the interstate highway that runs along Vail's base, these back bowls are wondrously large, open areas where skiers can choose their paths down the mountain unencumbered by proper trails or woods.
There are smooth, groomed paths for intermediates, chunky, bumpy steeps for experts and scattered trees for skiers looking for a little quiet. In the Siberia Bowl, which abuts a closed wildlife area, I skied for more than a quarter of an hour without seeing a single other person. I did, however, spot what I thought were bear tracks.
Though Vail's popularity attracts large crowds, the preponderance of high-speed quads and seemingly endless acreage helps keep lift lines short.
The front side of the mountain, which has equally stunning views of the Gore Mountain range and its dozens of "fourteeners" - peaks exceeding 14,000 feet (4,267 meters) - is reserved mostly for intermediate terrain. As at Beaver Creek, there are some beginner trails near Vail's peaks, but they crisscross intermediate and expert trails full of speedy skiers. With 53 percent of the mountain rated black diamond, Vail is best suited for advanced skiers.
The traffic on Vail does not cease once the lifts close. The gondola from Lionshead Village, where I stayed, runs late into the night, giving visitors access to a 3,000-meter-high recreation area called Adventure Ridge where an ice-skating rink, tubing hill, ski bikes, trampoline, snow-shoe tours and restaurant are situated.
The gondola is also how diners headed to the swanky Game Creek Club (www.gamecreekclub.com, reservations required), an exclusive on-mountain restaurant, start off their unusual journey to dinner. Once they get to the top, a tank-treaded Sno-Cat takes them crawling down a steep hill on the mountain's backside to a well-appointed chalet where a gourmet dinner awaits.
This price-fixe, four-course feast can run up to $150 per person, but I'm told it's worth it. My kosher restrictions kept me from experiencing the full range of the chef's expertise, but he was kind enough to make some adjustments so that I could enjoy a delicious fish dinner.
By the time I got down the mountain that night, I was glad my hotel, the Marriott at Lionshead Village (1-800-648-0720), was just a three-minute walk away.
The Marriott's proximity to the gondola was even more appreciated after an exhausting day of skiing. A soak in the hotel's outdoor hot tub and a quick swim in the pool quickly restored me, as did the Swedish massage I took one day in the hotel's Golden Leaf spa.
Again, not exactly roughing it.
Jewish in Colorado
When I made the long trip from Jerusalem to Colorado, crossing oceans, frozen plains and some 14,000 kilometers, the last thing I expected to find on my vacation was yeshiva boys.
But when I got to the Rockies, I found that Colorado's fantastic skiing attracts more than a few members of the tribe. I shouldn't have been surprised: After all, ski lovers all pray to the same god of snow.
There's good reason for Jewish life in these mountains.
Nearby Denver has a sizable Jewish community, and more than a few of its members weekend in the mountains. Mezuzot mark condo door frames at Keystone ski resort, Beaver Creek has occasional Shabbat minyanim and Vail has its own Chabad center.
Chabad Rabbi Dovid Mintz prepares kosher food for delivery orders ($25 for a rotisserie chicken with rice), maintains an on-line sign-up list for daily minyans at www.jewishvail.com and hosts holiday and Shabbat events. He was kind enough to drop off an unsolicited halla and kosher grape juice when I arrived at my hotel late on Friday afternoon.
Unlike in Europe, where Jews interested in religious services must cluster together in subpar kosher hotels dominated by Israeli haredim - ghettos of a sort - Colorado offers Jewish services American style: on demand and any way you want it.
The preponderance of religious Jews in Colorado also meant that I didn't have to explain myself too much. When I told a waiter to hold the meat and scallops from my grilled romaine salad, he immediately figured me out and eagerly recounted his experience participating in the Maccabiah. Even my Korean-American ski instructor, Beaver Creek's Tim Han, hailed from a Jewish neighborhood on Long Island and needed no explanation of my kosher restrictions.
Of course, you don't need to see boys with tzitzit sticking out of their snowpants when you break for lunch at the mid-mountain lodge on your ski vacation, but does it really matter?