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AIMING HIGH CALIFORNIA SKI RESORTS ARE SPARING NO EXPENSE TO BROADEN THEIR OFFERINGS.

Byline: Jerry Rice Staff Writer

There's an old adage that goes something like this: It takes money to make money.

Ski resorts in and around Mammoth and Lake Tahoe are finding out how true that is this winter, rolling out hundreds of millions of dollars worth of high-speed lifts and gondolas, challenging terrain parks, new grooming equipment and assorted services and facilities.

``The big story is the new improvements,'' said Bob Roberts, executive director of the California Ski Industry Association. ``There's so much going on in terms of new facilities, especially in Mammoth and at Lake Tahoe.''

The biggest-ticket items are away from the slopes. A pair of European- style pedestrian villages - both built by Canadian resort developer and operator Intrawest Corp. - are entering their sophomore winter seasons, more stocked with restaurants, bars, shops and other amenities than they were a year ago at this time.

The Village at Mammoth grew the most. Last month's opening of the Grand Sierra Lodge added 110 condominiums (ranging from studios to three-bedroom luxury units), a ballroom, conference center and year-round swimming pool to the town's popular new gathering place.

``Historically at Mammoth, you'd drive to a restaurant and then drive someplace else,'' said Doug Ogilvy, Intrawest's regional vice president. ``Now a visitor can take the hotel shuttle to the village, decide where they want to go eat - and then they've got the shopping experience.''

There's plenty of eating and shopping also going on at the $250 million Village at Squaw Valley, which increased its inventory to 21 restaurants and stores.

``We had a good winter last year and a great events program at Squaw this past summer,'' Ogilvy said. ``Everything adds to the range of things for people to do when they're in the Tahoe area.''

And more is on the way. A spa is under construction, set for a spring debut, and a number of additional shops will be open by next summer.

Not to be outdone is Northstar-at-Tahoe, which is a year away from opening the first phase of its $200 million pedestrian-oriented village with an outdoor ice-skating rink.

``It's going to be very family oriented,'' said Northstar spokeswoman Nicole Klay, repeating a theme of the other new villages. ``We're also trying to cater to skiers who want everything in one location. If people want to go out and eat or go shopping, they won't have to go into town. We're trying to keep it very central.''

To make room, the resort ``de-constructed'' the North Clock Tower building in April (the idea was to recycle what could be salvaged out of the decades-old structure). In the meantime, the $1.5 million ski-in, ski-out Village Plaza is up and running, offering dining, rental services a fire pit, barbecue and even Wi-Fi Internet service.

Squaw and Northstar aren't the only Lake Tahoe resorts in the new village business. Similar facilities are still in their infancy at Heavenly and Kirkwood.

``People come to Mammoth and Tahoe for a lot of different reasons,'' Roberts said. ``They come to enjoy the downhill, they come for a winter break, and the kids obviously enjoy the terrain parks and the half pipes. But you've got to have shopping, and you've got to have something for the rest of the family if they're not sports enthusiasts.''

Here's a look at what else is new and improved this winter:

MAMMOTH

If it's a little more crowded on the slopes and around town, there's one reason: Village at Mammoth. Skier visits jumped 100,000 last season to 1.4 million - a figure the resort hasn't reached in more than a decade.

``The village has definitely taken over as the place to be in Mammoth,'' said resort spokeswoman Dana Vander Houwen. ``The apres-ski scene there is awesome. People can go there after skiing and have some drinks and have a lot of fun.''

Still, it's not the only place in the area where there's been a lot of action.

An extensive $4 million overhaul of the Mammoth Mountain Inn is now complete. There's a more rustic mountain feeling to it, along with shiny new guest rooms and condos that were redone almost top to bottom (new carpet, tile, curtains, beds, etc.).

And on the mountain itself, a new high-speed quad at Canyon Lodge - replacing a three-person, fixed-grip chair - offers quicker access to the beginner area. It's the ninth high-speed quad on the mountain.

``We have a lot of loyal Mammoth lovers who come up here all the time and are always stoked to find out they can get up the mountain faster, or they can try out a new restaurant or go back to the inn and have a different experience,'' Vander Houwen said. ``We've invested $95 million in improvements (on the slopes) over the last five years, which is a ton, and it's making the entire mountain experience better.''

LAKE TAHOE

The area's 17 ski, snowboard and cross-country resorts are in the midst of a four-year, $1 billion spending spree on major construction projects (the villages at Kirkwood, Northstar and Squaw) and much smaller - but still important - upgrades.

At Heavenly, the only resort in the country where you can ski and snowboard in two states on the same day, parent company Vail Resorts Inc. spent $10 million for on-mountain enhancements that include a remodel of the East Peak Lodge. The extensive makeover increased the number of indoor tables and seats, added a new outdoor grilling area and, perhaps most important, doubled the number of bathrooms.

``We really took a facility that was very dated and undersized for the demand and turned it into a very functional, great-looking, more-modern facility without starting from scratch,'' said John Wagnon, Heavenly's vice president of marketing.

The resort also added its second high-speed lift in as many years, the six-passenger Powderbowl Express on the California side of the mountain. It replaces two triple chairs that date to the 1980s and will cut the ride time up the slopes in half - to about six minutes.

On deck for replacement - possibly as early as next year - are two older fixed-grip lifts on the Nevada side. The new high-speed quad chair would travel from Boulder Lodge at the base to nearly the top of the mountain.

``It's a significant improvement that will make existing terrain much more usable,'' Wagnon said. ``In effect, it will reduce the traffic flow and congestion on the rest of the mountain because people will gravitate toward this fairly large area on the mountain that is underutilized at this time. It will tend to make the entire mountain seem less crowded on peak days.''

Northstar this winter debuted a family terrain park - filled with curve and dog-house boxes, rails and a mini-gateway - designed by X Games veterans Chris Gunnarson and Josh Chauvet. The features are for all ability levels, and there's even a slow skiing and riding zone for the kids.

Starting this month, the slopes will be accessed by a new high-speed quad lift, which replaces a 26-year-old Echo fixed-grip triple, the source of skier and snowboarder congestion on particularly busy days in the past.

Beginners should appreciate the new midmountain rental facility, stocked with new Burton equipment.

``We're not going to hand beginners the equipment and say, 'OK, now you have to get on the hill,' '' Klay said. ``They'll actually be on the hill when they get their boots and equipment.''

Squaw Valley USA also is improving the beginner experience with a new double chairlift that accesses the Papoose Learning Area that was upgraded a year ago. A second magic carpet is now running in the children's center, plus the rental shops are stocked with an assortment of new K2 Omni Sport skis.

``We wanted to focus on people who are new to the sport, encouraging them to come out and give it a try - and hopefully they'll stick with it,'' said Squaw spokeswoman Katja Dahl.

Besides the new rentals, intermediate and advanced skiers and boarders will benefit from new grooming machines. And the work to renovate all of the resort's mountain restrooms, which is good for everyone, is nearly complete.

Sierra-at-Tahoe, Northstar's sister resort that is about 12 miles south of the lake, revamped its terrain park. It boasts that it now has the most advanced features of any such facility in the region. Also new this season is a free bike taxi service, with drivers regularly patrolling the outer reaches of the parking lot ready to ferry new arrivals and their equipment to the entrance.

At Boreal, the closest resort to Bay Area skiers and snowboarders, several new ticket kiosks have been installed, eliminating the need to wait in line for lift passes. Once you're inside, five new rails and fun boxes are available in the terrain park.

And for the little ones at Boreal, there's a new Starlift moving carpet in the children's learning center for those who aren't quite ready for a chairlift.

IF YOU GO

Here's where to get information about winter sports resorts in Central and Northern California and Nevada:

Alpine Meadows Ski Area: (800) 441-4423; www.skialpine.com.

Badger Pass: (209) 372-8430; www.yosemitepark.com.

Bear Valley: (209) 753-2301; www.bearvalley.com.

Boreal Mountain Ski Resort: (530) 426-3666; www.borealski.com.

Diamond Peak: (775) 832-1177; www.diamondpeak.com.

Donner Ski Ranch: (530) 426-3635; www.donnerskiranch.com.

Heavenly: (775) 586-7000; www.skiheavenly.com.

Homewood: (530) 525-2992; www.skihomewood.com.

June Mountain: (888) 586-3686, (760) 648-7733; www.junemountain.com.

Kirkwood: (209) 258-6000; www.kirkwood.com.

Mammoth Mountain: (800) 626-6684, (760) 934-0745; www.mammothmountain.com.

Mount Rose Ski Tahoe: (800) 754-7673; www.skirose.com.

Mount Shasta: (800) 754-7427; www.skipark.com.

Northstar-at-Tahoe: (800) 466-6784; www.skinorthstar.com.

Sierra-at-Tahoe: (530) 659-7453; www.sierratahoe.com.

Sierra Summit: (559) 233-2500; www.sierrasummit.com.

Soda Springs: (530) 426-3901; www.skisodasprings.com.

Squaw Valley USA: (800) 403-0206, (530) 583-6955; www.squaw.com.

Sugar Bowl: (530) 426-9000; www.sugarbowl.com.

Tahoe Donner: (530) 587-9444; www.tahoedonner.com.

ROAD CONDITIONS

Caltrans: (800) 427-7623.

CAPTION(S):

7 photos, 2 boxes

Photo:

(1 -- 2 -- color) California's ski resorts have plenty to offer snowboarders and other daredevils, top. Resorts have invested vast sums in capital improvements, including Northstar-at-Tahoe, above, which added a terrain park, a high-speed lift and the ski-in, ski-out Village Plaza.

(3 -- color) Skiers ride the lift up Mammoth Mountain, which was one of the busiest resorts over the off-season. Mammoth greatly expanded its new village, adding the 110-unit Grand Sierra Lodge, a ballroom, conference center and year-round swimming pool.

(4 -- 5) The Village at Mammoth, top, offers more lodging, dining and entertainment for skiiers after they enjoy the terrain, above.

(6 -- 7) Sierra-at-Tahoe, above, and Northstar-at-Tahoe, left, also have made improvements in the skiing and snowboarding experience.

Box:

(1) IF YOU GO (see text)

(2) ROAD CONDITIONS (see text)
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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 12, 2004
Words:1793
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