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The 10 coolest U.S. ski resorts

Skiing is a sport for adrenaline junkies; everyone knows that. There's the wind whizzing past your ears, the powder flying underfoot and the thrill of forging off-piste trails.
Amangani in Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Amangani in Jackson Hole,
/ Source: Forbes

Skiing is a sport for adrenaline junkies; everyone knows that. There's the wind whizzing past your ears, the powder flying underfoot and the thrill of forging off-piste trails. These days, however, there's an even more pulse-pounding way to get your adrenaline up on a ski holiday--paying the bill.

Americans spent about $10 billion on their ski vacations last season, according to Colorado-based RRC Associates, a market research and consulting firm that conducts an annual demographic ski study for the National Ski Areas Association, also based in Colorado. While official international numbers do not exist, RRC projects that annual global spending could be three to four times as high as that. And last year, the 56.9 million skier visits recorded in the U.S. made it the fourth-busiest domestic season ever.

New resorts and fractional ownership clubs are springing up everywhere to capitalize on the ski boom. The Marriott (nyse: MAR - news - people )-owned Ritz Carlton has opened members' only clubs in Aspen Highlands and Bachelor Gulch, Colo., where for a membership fee of anywhere between $180,000 and $520,000--not to mention "association fees" (or annual dues)--members can enjoy luxury accommodations, ski-in/ski-out access to the mountains and a bevy of staff members, including ski valets who warm your boots, a ski boot master who fits your boots, a ski nanny and a personal concierge who plans the entire vacation.

"Our first time on the mountain, we got off the chairlift and found the concierge waiting for us," says Mark Pitchford, a member of the Ritz-Carlton Club at Aspen Highlands, who lives year-round in Evergreen, Colo. "Clearly, it was service of a higher order."

Other clubs are catching on. Spanish Peaks in Big Sky, Mont., charges members between $500,000 and $1.3 million for access to 3,500 private acres of skiable terrain and an 18-hole golf course. Tallus, a members' club in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., charges $795,000 for each member, along with quarterly fees of $3,418 and approximately $13,672 in annual fees.

The burgeoning destination club market for skiers is a good index of the overall rise in hospitality standards for the wealthy skier. Traditional hotels and resorts are taking notice, and the competition for this market is getting hot enough to melt the snow off any mountain. The largest ski resort sale in history was announced last month, when the Starwood Capital Group, parent company to Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide (nyse: HOT - news - people ), paid a reported $365 million to acquire Mammoth Mountain in California. According to published reports, the group plans to introduce a more luxurious ski experience at Mammoth--something along the lines of Vail or Aspen--even though the area has long been know for its down-to-earth, modest style.

Industry insiders weren't surprised. "A lot of ski areas are expanding their villages and towns," says Keri Hone, the director of events and projects at the National Ski Areas Association. "Shopping, restaurants and entertainment are becoming increasingly important in catering to family vacations, and to family members who aren't into skiing. There's a renewed focus on everything from lodging to dining to entertainment."

In fact, for the coming 2005/2006 ski season, RRC Associates expects capital improvements at American resorts to exceed $529 million, with $1.6 billion projected to be spent over the next three years--mostly on real estate and on-mountain facilities and support. These new facilities will cater to the type of skier Hone described: the young family or aging baby boomer who might not want spend every second on the slopes.

"As skiers and snowboarders have aged, they are spending less vacation time on the hill, and there's a greater dependence on what do you do besides skiing," says Nolan Rosall, president of RRC Associates. "While the initial phase of renovations has focused on on-hill improvements, such as more efficient lifts and better grooming, and the second phase moved toward better child care, restaurants, ski schools and rental-shop options, the third phase, which we're seeing now, is marked by an emphasis on facilities and real estate. The focus has shifted to amenities, shopping options--more of the full-dimension experience."

In anticipation of the approaching ski season, took a look at some of the most expensive ski resorts around the world. We ignored the destination clubs (they aren't really resorts, because you have to be a member to go) and chose the hotels and resorts, perched high in the mountains or nestled by their bases, where world-class skiing and world-class service meet--sometimes defying convention in the process. The Kempinski Hotel Mall of the Emirates in Dubai, for example, is right next door to the world's third-largest indoor ski resort, and offers the once-in-a-lifetime chance to ski in the middle of the desert. We listed each resort's nightly rate for its least expensive room during the high season, and in some cases indicated the price for the most luxurious suite as well.

This season, domestic ski visits are expected to fall in line with--if not exceed--last year's totals. "It's too soon to know yet, since many ski areas aren't open, but reservations for this year look solid," says Rosall. "Over the next five years, the industry's informal goal is to break 60 million visits."

So, take a gander at our list of the most expensive ski resorts, and start booking now. Whether it's Colorado, Canada or even Dubai, you're sure to find a resort for you. Just save some energy for paying the bill.