By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/16/2011 9:55:43 AM ET 2011-02-16T14:55:43

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Explainer: Ski resorts roll out new ways to play

  • Image: skeleton
    Courtesy Utah Olympic Park

    Ski resorts — they’re not just for skiers (and snowboarders) anymore.

    Instead, they’re also attracting people who want to ride ski bikes and snowcats, try curling or ice climbing or hit the zipline or sliding center. “Skiing used to be all about a chairlift, a bar and a hotel,” said Dan Sherman, director of marketing for tour-operator Ski.com. “Now there’s so much else to do whether people are skiing or not.”

    Then again, the shift may have less to do with target marketing than simple muscle fatigue. “With detachable quads, people can get so many more runs in that the average person can only ski or snowboard from 10 until 2,” joked Michael J. Ballingall, senior vice president at Big White, B.C. For those seeking something different, the following activities promise plenty of thrills, chills and, no doubt, the occasional spill.

  • Skeleton

    Image: skeleton
    David McColm

    Been feeling the need for speed? If so, head to the Whistler Sliding Centre, where you can be among the first members of the sliding public to experience the Olympic sport of skeleton firsthand. Launching on Feb. 16, the 3.5-hour Skeleton Sport Experience — about $130 — starts with an orientation and safety briefing and ends with two head-first runs down the same track used during the 2010 Winter Games. With your face just inches from the ice, it’s like sledding on steroids, complete with rapid-fire turns and speeds of 55–60 mph. The Utah Olympic Park, site of the 2002 Games, offers a similar experience, starting at $50 a ride.

  • Ziplining

    Image: ziplining
    Courtesy New York Zipline Advent

    Talk about putting the “zip” in ziplining. The new SkyRider tour ($119) at Hunter Mountain., N.Y., starts out with a bang — a 3,200-foot-long ride that soars 600 feet above the slopes and hits speeds of up to 50 mph. After that, four more side-by-side lines and assorted suspension bridges traverse another four more miles of cable, allowing the resort to lay claim to the longest, fastest and highest zipline tour in North America.

    Prefer something less death-defying? Big Sky, Mont.; Kirkwood, Calif.; Smugglers’ Notch, Vt., and Sunday River; Maine, are all offering new or expanded zipline tours this winter.

  • Mountain coasters

    Image: mountain coaster
    Courtesy Okemo Mountain Resort

    True coaster fanatics may scoff, but for twisty, curvy mountain fun, there’s nothing like taking a spin on a mountain coaster. Sitting upright on two-person sleds, riders roll through the woods along elevated tubular rails, following the natural contours of the mountain and hitting speeds of up to 30 mph.

    The Timber Ripper at Okemo, Vt., for example, descends 375 vertical feet along 3,100 feet of track, crossing a double-decker bridge and over an active railroad line along the way. (Rides are $13 for drivers, $9 for passengers.) For coaster counters, other new rides are now open at Breckenridge, Colo.; Spirit Mountain, Minn., and Cranmore and Attitash (both in New Hampshire).

  • Ski-biking

    Image: snowbiking
    Courtesy Lenz Sport

    Ski-bikes, also known as ski-bobs, have been around for years, but these days, they’re going high-tech with full suspensions, skis that actually carve and foot pegs instead of those miniature skis you have to wear on your boots. Known as “peggers,” the newer models provide a more BMX-like ride, allowing you to get air, hit the bumps and head off-piste. This winter, Winter Park, Colo., is offering a first-time ski-biking package deal, including bike rental, lesson and lift ticket, for $99. Head instead to Purgatory, Colo., where the 4th Annual International Skibike Festival (Feb. 22–26) promises free demos, slalom races and big-air acrobatics.

  • Snowcat driving

    Image: snowcat driving
    Courtesy Crested Butte Mountain

    Why ride a bike when you can drive a big rig? At Crested Butte, Colo., guests can try their hand at grooming with the Snowcat Driving Experience ($275), which combines classroom instruction with an hour of drive time in a fully functional Prinoth 275 snowcat. Work the 12-way front blade, create some corduroy and maneuver around the closed course and you’ll have new respect for the men and women who do it for a living. “It’s much bigger than a car and more fun than a tractor,” said Erica Reiter, marketing project coordinator for the resort. “After all, you’re on snow — how could it not be more fun?”

  • Ice climbing

    Image: ice climbing
    Courtesy Big White Ski Resort

    Used to be you needed a large frozen waterfall and expensive equipment to go ice climbing. Not any more, at least at Big White, B.C., which now offers the activity on a 60-foot-high manmade ice climbing tower (one climb, C$20; all day, C$55). Taught by certified mountain guide Jim Ongena, participants use crampons and handheld ice tools to scale the tower’s various faces. “It’s a much gentler sport than people think,” said Ongena, who cautions against the tendency to kick and strike too hard. “It’s also quite photogenic — you can really get that hero shot.”

  • Curling

    Image: Curling
    Jay Peak Resort

    Ice may be anathema to skiers and snowboarders, but it’s proving to be a popular substance at Jay Peak, Vt., where the new Ice Haus Arena offers ice skating, hockey games and, wait for it, curling lessons. Taught by local curlers, the two-hour sessions ($15) will teach you how to throw the rock, sweep the ice to control speed and direction and, perhaps, understand why curlers liken the sport to chess on ice. “There’s a lot of strategy involved,” said Dennis Himes, Ice Haus manager. “The first time it looks easy, but it’s a lot harder than you think.”

  • Inner tubing

    Image: inner tubing
    Park City Mountain Resort

    A big rubber donut, a tilted slope and absolutely no steering mechanism — it’s almost impossible not to have a screamingly good time when you’re careening downhill on an inner tube. At Gorgoza Park, just outside Park City, Utah, new conveyor lifts offer improved access to the facility’s seven tubing lanes and the Fort Frosty play area, which also features a unique tubing carousel for the two-and-under crowd. Lit for night riding, the facility is perfect for families and those seeking an alternative to the Park City party scene. Two-hour sessions are $12 (lower lanes only) to $22 (all-mountain access).

  • Heli-touring

    Image: heli-touring
    Courtesy HeliTahoe
    heli-touring

    Why should heli-skiers and snowboarders have all the fun? Based in South Lake Tahoe, HeliTahoe offers a variety of sightseeing tours that provide stunning views of the “Jewel of the Sierras.” Tours range from 10-minute over-flights of Emerald Bay ($70 per person) to 60-minute sunset flights around the entire lake ($325 per person). The best deal, though, may be the Lake Tahoe Tour and Dinner ($190 per couple), which includes a flight over Emerald Bay and dinner for two at the new Flight Deck Restaurant at the Lake Tahoe Airport.

  • Snowkiting

    Image: snowkiting
    Trisha Smith

    OK, you’re going to need skis or a snowboard for this one, but for sheer thrills, it’s hard to beat snowkiting, in which you use a specially designed kite to sail across, through and over the snow. (Think kitesurfing, but with less chance of drowning.) Based in Sun Valley, Idaho, Snowkite Soldier offers basic training sessions (1.5 hours, $80), “advanced missions” (2–4 hours, $160–$275) and multi-day camps. If you’d rather view it than do it, head to nearby Fairfield and watch the pros soar during the 5th Annual Snowkite Soldiers event and North American Snowkite Tour Championship Feb. 24–27.

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