Steamboat Springs offers 1200 skiable hectares plus horse-riding and a hot soak.
Steamboat Springs offers 1200 skiable hectares plus horse-riding and a hot soak. Kieran Nash

USA: White magic


YOU'RE in the car, on the way up your local mountain to what will surely be a trying day of battling through slush, scratching over ice and being buffeted by wind and rain.

One wiseguy pipes up from the back seat, telling of a land with limitless powder runs in a country where ice is found only in sculptures and you can walk to the chairlift from the hotel.

They must have been to Steamboat Springs, Colorado - a small ski village high up in the mountainous state, four hours' drive from Denver. For a first-time visitor to the land of the free, it offers a lesson in local hospitality and totally alien snow conditions.

First, the ski action.

There are 1200 skiable hectares on the mountain, which starts at 2100m and rises to an impressive 3200m. You can ski or ride from summit to base non-stop and it will take you half an hour, give or take a spill or two. You can ride for days and still discover new runs. Then there's the tree-riding. More on that later.

The town is a dinky little village of just over 10,000 people, where locals wear cowboy boots without a hint of irony and the atmosphere is refreshingly devoid of resort-type pretension.

Inside the Steamboat Grand Hotel, a huge fireplace is ablaze, surrounded by leather loungers.

The night view from my room shows an eerily still snowscape; a lonely streetlight catching fat snowflakes making their way to the ground under the watch of the mountain.

Breakfast here is a lesson in classic American hospitality. Rather than the surly grunts which often greet you in New Zealand, a cheery waiter introduces himself and pours me what will be the first of many cups of steaming-hot coffee.

Buckets of the stuff wash down heaps of bacon, eggs, and sausages, with a side of biscuits and gravy. I start feeling the need to run to the summit to burn it all off, but opt instead for the far more sensible gondola option, which rapidly transports me to a chairlift halfway up the mountain.

Here's a tip: take a trail map. It's easy to get lost on the dozens of trails, almost half of them suited to skiers of at least advanced level.

By the afternoon, I have mustered the courage to have a crack at tree-riding. Pristine conditions and amenities aside, this is the one thing which really makes the resort stand apart from any in New Zealand and, I'm told, most of the world.

Steamboat's wide-open meadows are separated by thickets of trees. Rather than being a natural barrier, they invite you to venture inside.

Cut a turn and you're within a magical playground, where powder lies heaped like piles of fresh meringue, all sound is muffled and sunlight rakes through in bars of gold over the white.

As long as you have your tight turns honed and your wits about you, you can weave whatever path you like through the natural slalom, shooting out back on to the open runs at whim.

A day of that and I'm exhausted and in need of another good feed. Handily, Cafe Diva is a gentle stroll from the hotel. Although the ambience suggests something out of a big city, the long row of stetsons above the coat-check give away the eatery's small-town location and ranching history.

I order the surf 'n' turf with a lovely cab sav and inquire about the elk I'm eating, convinced it must be local as the beasts thrive in this area. "No sir, the elk is actually from New Zealand!" the waitress beams.

The next day I take a break from the knee-deep powder to go horse-riding with Ray Heid, rancher and local legend.

I'm greeted in the carpark by a large tan coat with a fur pelt hanging off it, topped with a worn stetson. Inside is Ray, a leathery old fella in his 70s.

In the car, I enquire about the impressive jacket and he says the leather is elk and the fur is beaver - both of which he found on the road, skinned and sewed together. I'm talking to the real deal.

Half an hour and some insurance waivers later and I'm atop a wizened nag, Bluebell, spending an afternoon weaving through a track cut from shoulder-deep snowdrifts, the peace broken only by the crunching of hooves and Bluebell's snorts. All the while, Ray points out coyote tracks, and tells tales of ranching life and the history of the town.

The next few days bring more riding, eating at places with great names like The Truffle Pig and Cottonwood Grill, and drinking fat tyre - a local beer which shatters the expectations I had of domestic American brews. Then, one clear evening, it's off to Strawberry Park Hot Springs for a dip. Half an hour of bumpy gravel road, passing the occasional log homestead and I arrive at the springs, a gathering spot for locals and visitors.

It's quite something to be sitting toasty-warm in 30C water when you're surrounded by snowdrifts and, for the adventurous, there's always the neighbouring stream to splash in: a tradition which feels like someone is trying to rip your skin off.

The day we're due to leave there's one last treat - first-tracks skiing, where early-risers head out half an hour before the lifts open to the public.

The previous day's snowstorm has cleared and with early sun casting long, splintered shadows over the freshies, it's time to strap in for the best riding I have ever experienced. The quality of snow is unbelievable. Whether going full-steam down steep black runs knowing there is only soft landing or carving litres of foam off the heaped drifts, my only problem is that the snow is sometimes too deep.

My board submarines under the snow and at one point I bog out when the powder gets to thigh-level.

With the odd satisfaction of having to walk to where the snow is a bit shallower, I realise nothing back home will ever compare.

This season, I'll be that person boasting from the back seat. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

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