A New Jay Peak, in Vermont
By BILL PENNINGTON for the New York Times
December 9, 2011
SEVEN miles from the Canadian border in northern Vermont, Jay Peak has always been so remote that only the ardent found it. For those who did, the mountain’s miles of out-of-bounds terrain became a cultlike destination, drawing a loyal, if limited, following that included many Canadians. Most days, that did not add up to what you would ever call a crowd. Despite being blessed with an annual snowfall that usually exceeds that of every other Eastern resort, Jay Peak was largely overlooked by American tourists.
A glimpse of the local niceties helped explain why: Yes, there was running water in the lodge and electricity in the dated hotel. There was a cafeteria and congested bar. Ten miles down the road, you could stay at Grandpa Grunts, a $35-a-night hostel-like lodge with a basement B.Y.O.B. lounge.
But watch your step. On your next visit, you might trip into the just-completed wave pool at Jay Peak’s 50,000-square-foot glass-enclosed water park, which is heated like a tropical paradise — one with water slides and a retractable roof. It’s right there, a few steps from the all-suite hotel and the professional-size hockey rink that went up last year. From there, it’s a short walk to the new Nordic center and golf clubhouse. Soon, you will be able to get a penthouse suite overlooking it all at the 173-room Hotel Jay, which will have a conference center and three restaurants.
All this luxury and leisure activity at Jay Peak is north of Stowe, Sugarbush and Stratton — north of everything in Vermont but the customs stations entering Quebec. And where, oh where, has scruffy, unkempt but lovable Jay Peak gone? “It’s certainly a culture shock, but we will never lose sight of our core values,” said Bill Stenger, a co-owner of Jay Peak. “The mountain and the freedom to enjoy it are still the essence of the experience. But if we didn’t adapt, the ski operation by itself might not survive.”
The new Jay Peak is the latest example of an ever-expanding working model for a snow-sports resort, and it is built on this premise: diversify or die. Become a four-season resort (or at least a two-season resort), and the skiing and riding operation will be swept along with the ancillary profit. Try to make it as a major resort with only a stand-alone winter business, and one overly warm, snowless winter could bring bankruptcy.
“Jay Peak needed to give people other things to do,” Mr. Stenger said. “And there’s nothing wrong with that. In many families, there are people who don’t ski or snowboard. There are young children who don’t want to ski seven hours in a day.”
The hope is that a remade mountain resort can be all things to all people, without offending any constituency. Jay Peak, the fancied-up version, began its metamorphosis in 2008 with the construction of the all-suite Tram Haus Lodge, the first stage of a development entirely financed by the federal EB-5 program. The resort’s management raised about $250 million through the program, which permits foreign investors to obtain green cards in exchange for a minimum $500,000 investment in capital projects in high-unemployment areas. The project must create at least 10 new jobs. Jay Peak has found more than 330 investors from 55 countries and is recruiting more. The resort said that this has translated to more than 3,000 direct and indirect jobs in the life of the development.
On my first visit to Jay Peak 25 years ago, I walked into what seemed like an oversize hut next to one of the lifts. I asked where I could find the base lodge. The woman behind the counter began giggling, and that’s when I knew I was in the base lodge. But, oh boy, what a great day of skiing there was to be had outside that little building.
No one arriving at Jay Peak these days will wonder where the base of activity is. The hotels, rink and water park beckon, looming at the top of the resort’s access road, and I admit that at first they were jarring. But even I, a New England native and something of a skiing purist, had one of the most varied and entertaining trips to Jay ever over the recent Thanksgiving weekend. It started with several quick descents on reliable, top-to-bottom snow over the mountain’s east side. This was made possible thanks both to improved snowmaking ability and the phenomenon known as the Jay Cloud — a cloud that locals insist hovers over the mountain during snowstorms and had recently delivered nearly a foot of snow. The Jay Cloud is myth to some and meteorological reality to others, but the fact is that Jay Peak often reports 2 to 10 inches more snow than other Vermont resorts after most snowstorms. That pushes the season total beyond 400 inches some winters.
Still, on a warm weekend, even the Jay Cloud had its limits. By noon, the sun was softening the early snow, and it was time for lunch. Traditionally, lunch was a meal that offered little in the way of options beyond cafeteria chicken fingers and hot dogs, so most Jay veterans would bring their own, hunkering down in the small, cramped lodges with sandwiches and Tupperware. But on this trip, we found a place to sit at Alice’s Table, where the menu is replete with ingredients drawn from nearby farmers and foragers. Among the choices: butternut-squash soup, seared venison and grilled chicken breast with a Vermont Cheddar gratin.
But while the “new” is certainly omnipresent, notable efforts have been made to remind visitors of the mountain’s past. Old chairlift-tower wheels were assimilated into the design of the Tower Bar of the lodge, for example. The tables inside Alice’s Table were created from local reclaimed barn wood from neighboring farms. The throw blankets inside the 57 suites were manufactured by Johnson Woolen Mills 30 miles down the road.
In past years after lunch, the only Jay Peak choice would have been more skiing or snowboarding. And indeed, if it had been midwinter and the entire mountain was open, we would have happily headed back out. But with limited terrain open and a brand-new water park right there, I concede I was soon sitting in the 85-degree Pump House water park, where I gazed up at the snowy mountain trails I had just traversed through wide-paneled glass windows. And I did not feel too bad about that choice at all. It wasn’t until a few minutes later, when I was standing in the entry to La Chute, the Pump House’s signature water slide, that I started to question my decision. La Chute, it seems fair to say, was designed especially for those self-congratulatory hard-core skiers who might scoff at the softer pleasures a water park offers. If there is such a thing, La Chute is a double black diamond water slide. To enter La Chute, you step into an upright, cryptlike chamber with a glass lid that slowly and scarily closes around you head to toe. There is a countdown before an attendant pushes a button, which releases the trapdoor floor of the chamber, and you plummet at a rate of 45 miles an hour through the chute.
After several twists and turns, including a long upside-down flip, you splash into a collection area. I immediately understood why I was warned beforehand to tighten the drawstring on my swimsuit. La Chute is intense, and maybe not for everyone, but it was worth it. I’ll add that I was just as happy with my next decision: a drink at the 50-foot-long mezzanine bar overlooking the Pump House ground-floor playground.
Mr. Stenger said that lodging reservations for the 2011-12 season were already up 120 percent from last season. Some of the increase is due to the hockey teams playing tournaments in the ice rink that opened last year. Youth teams seem oddly attracted to the rink and water park combination. “Much of that added revenue will be funneled back into making the mountain experience better,” Mr. Stenger said. “It will mean more snowmaking, a better ticketing system, and we plan to develop another 250 acres for trails on the west edge of the mountain. It’s an area that gets a lot of natural snow, and we can add some intermediate tree runs and classic New England twisters.” The plan is to open that area in three years.
Still, for all the fun a tourist might have, not everyone was happy with the new direction at Jay Peak. The Internet chatter and protests registered by Jay Peak’s most staunch, and longtime, devotees was fiercest when the base-area development began in 2009 (though the jobs created by the extensive construction seemed to quell some of the dissent). On a different visit in February, when the Tram House Lodge and hockey rink had already attracted more overnight visitors, I occasionally heard the Jay Peak lifers complaining in lift lines, something you could not have heard before, since it was hard to find a lift line. In the Tower Bar at the end of the day, Bob Green, who lives in nearby Newport, Vt., noted that he never had to wade past a row of tourists to get a Sam Adams lager in the old Jay Peak days. Standing near him, his friend Tommy Sanderson added, “True, but at least we now have room to drink it.”
IF YOU GO
Jay Peak is not the easiest place to get to, which is part of its charm. Everyone who makes it there is a devotee. Or a local. Or both.
The mountain is about a six-hour drive from New York City with no traffic or four hours from Boston. Multiple airlines serve the Burlington International Airport, and it’s about a 75-minute drive northeast to Jay Peak.
Most of the lodging is resort-owned and at the base of the lifts, with the 57-suite Tram Haus Lodge (802-988-2611) now open and the Hotel Jay, more than three times as big as the Tram Haus Lodge, set to open in February.
There are several bed-and-breakfasts and small inns in the area, but they are generally spartan after years of catering to the ski-bum crowd. Grandpa Grunts (802-326-4572), an inexpensive hostel-like choice, is about 10 miles down the road if you are a college student or want to feel like one again.
If you go before the Hotel Jay opens, you will have a short walk to and from the Tram Haus Lodge when visiting the water park, so bring something to wear on the way back. Northern Vermont is especially cold with wet hair. Once the hotel opens, there will be a connected walkway to those rooms.
There are good dining choices at the resort, but have at least one meal at the Belfry (802-326-4400), just down the access road toward the little town of Montgomery, Vt. A former country schoolhouse, the Belfry is loud and rustic with a bar full of locals. Order from the large blackboard of specials, which always seem to include a surprisingly vast array of fish and steak, and you shouldn’t be disappointed.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: December 10, 2011
A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Bill Stenger as the sole owner of Jay Peak. He is a co-owner.