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Hit the slopes
Early planning for ski season saves time, money

After coming through one of the hottest summers on record, it's hard to believe it's almost ski season. Even though we're a month into autumn, the sting of the August heat is still fresh in many of our memories.

If you are looking for the best ski resort deals, now is the time to plan. Whether you're planning to ski close to home or out West, you are sure to save dollars and headaches.

Skiing in the Southeast

With equipment rental or purchases plus transportation costs, skiing isn't cheap. That's why many of us in the area like to stay in the South for a winter-like adventure at resorts such as Appalachian Ski Mountain in Blowing Rock, N.C.

Appalachian Ski Mountain offers a smorgasbord of ski ticket packages, including multi-day rates ranging from two to five days. If you're a bit rusty or there is a beginner in your group, this resort has numerous lesson plans featuring the "Learn to Ski" package. As part of these lessons, offered in the early or late portion of the ski season, members of the French-Swiss Ski College give students the confidence to hit the slopes.

If skiing is not your thing, Appalachian Ski Mountain offers ice skating and snowboarding. The lighted ice floor allows for skating at night between the resort's slopes and the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains. Snowboarding has become the hot trend over the past decade, and more recently thanks to legendary snowboarder Shaun White, who competed in the last Winter Olympics. Appalachian Ski Mountain has tapped into this growing sport with first-rate snowboarding.

Appalachian Ski Mountain's season starts in mid-December and ends in early March.

Go West for skiing adventures

Sometimes you just want to splurge and go out West, where the air is cold and the drinks are warm. From California's Lake Tahoe to Colorado's Breckenridge, ski buffs put down their greenbacks to experience the thrill of a lifetime.

If you're like me and rarely go skiing, but still want to see this part of the country, don't be intimidated. Book an early ski getaway to avoid the serious skiers and crowds.

Recently I discovered Park City, Utah, where beginners are welcome. If you do your homework, you can find a decent plane fare into Salt Lake City. Frontier and American seem to have the most routes to this destination, but Delta, Continental and United also offer deals into Salt Lake City International Airport.

"Salt Lake City is a good home base to fly into because it gives you access to some of the country's best ski resorts," said Adam Barker, spokesman for the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The cozy ski enclave, located about 45 minutes from Salt Lake City, boasts three premier resorts: Park City Mountain, Deer Valley and The Canyons. Park City and The Canyons will open for the season Nov. 16 and 17, respectively. Deer Valley is set to open on Dec. 8.

All three resorts have distinct advantages, including a variety of lifts, trails and skiable acres. The Canyons measures in as the largest of the three, with 3,700 acres and numerous lifts, including an eight-passenger high-speed gondola lift and an impressive eight-passenger Cabriolet.

When you book your trip to Park City, inquire with your resort about booking a shuttle to pick you up at Salt Lake City's airport. Aside from the fact that it's a short drive from Salt Lake to Park City, there's another benefit to taking a shuttle - no driving on the snow. As you gaze at the Wasatch Mountains, you'll become acclimated to the elevation of the area, which is 6,720 to 8,460 feet above sea level.

An early-season visit might mean that man-made snow dominates these resorts, but then again, if you're a beginner, it won't make much of a difference.

"But you never know, because once every few years, we do get the real thing (early in the season)," said Craig McCarthy, spokesman for the Park City Chamber of Commerce/Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Avoiding man-made snow is one reason ski purists will likely arrive later in the season. Another reason might be the annual Sundance Film Festival, which will be in town in from Jan. 17-27. Even though those from the filmmaking world pretty much stay off of the slopes, rooms are difficult to find.

Lift tickets are easy to find at Park City. You can convert your airline boarding pass into a free same-day lift ticket at any of Park City's three resorts. This offering is known as the Park City Quick Start program. To participate, visit the city's Web site to complete the required registration.

Away from the slopes

After the Sundance Festival put Park City on the world's radar, shops and restaurants sprang up all around town. The eatery that has been receiving the most buzz is Zoom, located on Park City's Main Street. This elegant, reasonably priced restaurant serves up scrumptious fare including creamy, saffron-scented risotto and spinach fettuccine with sun-dried tomatoes.

If Zoom is a bit crowded, don't despair - you will not go hungry. Park City is home to more than 100 restaurants that serve a range of cuisine, from Mexican to Middle Eastern fare.

When you arrive and realize you might not have the right apparel for the climate, there are tons of shops in Park City's shopping districts.

SideBar: More Info

Appalachian Ski Mountain

www.appskimtn.com

Park City

www.parkcityinfo.com

Did You Know?

In Park City's mining heyday, more than $400 million in silver was extracted from the surrounding town.

One-third of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games events were held in Park City.

Park City has been the home of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team since 1974.

Appalachian Ski Mountain uses the French Swiss Ski-College for its ski lessons. This organization has taught more than 1 million skiers and snowboarders.

Snow-making machines are used in Park City resorts and at Appalachian Ski Mountains. In a given season, Appalachian makes snow about 600 to 900 hours between November and late March.

Sources: Park City, Utah Chamber of Commerce, Appalachian Ski Mountain