As Snowpak's primary blog writer for over a year now, I've written a lot of posts on the ins and outs of having your best ever ski vacation. I've put together comprehensive guides to resorts across the world based on specific interests; I've composed lists of insider tips on skiing, dining, and spa-ing at the best resorts in North America; I've also chosen to reach out to experts in the field on topics like Getting the Most out of Your Ski Lesson and the quite popular How to Love Skiing with Your Kids. But there was something that I hadn't yet touched on – something subtle but all-pervasive when it comes to some ski vacationers. This is the question of, well, how to be cool as a tourist on your ski vacation.
Most of us have been there: landed in a new place, as a tourist, and wondered if we're really getting the best lodging deal, booking at the best restaurants, and finding the coolest après parties on the hill. There's this longing that can come with any sort of traveller to delve deeply into the culture of a place, and while one can find plenty of information on travel sites, sometimes it takes knowing a local to truly get initiated into the mountain town scene – even if it is just for a vacation week.
Instead of reaching out to one of my many mountain town friends for this one, I opted to enlist myself as the expert. Not only have I been frequenting mountain towns since I was three, but I am also an avid world traveller that has a knack for dropping into a culture with just the right amount of "cool" – whether that's chatting it up with the chai wallahs on the streets of Rishikesh or huddling up with ski mountaineers in Montana's backcountry huts. Of course, living like a local is always place-specific, but I've answered the questions below in order to give you some general guidelines on how to fully drop into mountain town culture on your next ski vacation. Keep reading for my insider basics on living like a local this ski season.
Where are you local?
I was half-time local to Okemo Mountain Resort growing up (although most Vermonters would roll their eyes at that!) I lived one season in Bozeman, Montana as a local of Bridger Bowl, and four years in Jackson Hole.
How does the town change in tourist season?
We can always feel a general buzz coming on and the winter chill comes back in the air. Friends who leave to go travel around the world in the off-season roll back into town, restaurants are busier, and there's a big shift from not much work and lots of play to not much play and lots of work. But this definitely isn't all bad – especially because locals in ski towns usually make their livings in the service industry. I personally love watching the town light up again, obviously having some more income, seeing friends out and about and still knowing where all the secret spots are for a quick bite to eat or fresh tracks on a powder day.
Do you eat/ski/party at tourist hot spots, or stick to local secrets?
Sometimes tourist hot spots are local hot spots: it all depends on where the best drink specials are, what bands are playing, and what the snow is doing that day. On a powder day I have my go-to routes, a lot of which most tourists wouldn't know about (but when it's snowed 41 cm since lifts closed and I know that first tram lap is going to top anything else, I'll wait in line with my breakfast burrito for first box). The Jackson Hole base village isn't huge, so après options are limited, but each place has its own flair. I have noticed that some places (like the Spur) wouldn't be so obvious to tourists – if you want to know where the best après spot is day-to-day, simply ask around. I don't party much in high season because it's mostly work, but in ski towns, live music is big, and I determine my outings based on that.
What's the best way for a tourist to find the best runs/powder stashes?
This is a tough one: if you've ever heard that old adage, "No friends on a powder day," you understand why. I guess you can look online at reviews and social media all you want to try to figure out where to go, but the best way to really get to the goods in riding the singles line (or picking up a single on your group chair) and ask a local's advice. We're not keen on spilling our secrets to the entire internet, but most people I know will share one-on-one. If you're lucky they might even show you the way!
What are some basic rules for on-hill ski etiquette?
There are so many! Really, based on what kind of skiing you're doing, what resort you're at…you'd be so surprised about all the little quirky things that skiers can get annoyed at. Don't let any empty chairs go by when you're the next in line at the lift – if there's confusion about who is riding with whom, just load the lift however makes sense. Skiers ahead of you always have the right of way, so try not to cut anyone off. On powder days especially people can get edgy, so watch yourself there – don't let the gondola line turn into a stampede when the gates finally open. Lifties are there to help – with your skis, with your kid – so let them.
How do you find the best places to après?
Here again we have the golden rule of asking around. Know that sometimes the most obvious place isn't actually the best party – if there's a big band with loud music and not many people, they clearly went somewhere else. Check social media sites – the resort's and local bars and restaurants – to see where the drink specials are.
Where are the big events listed?
This is dependent town to town, but I've found that most ski towns now have a social calendar both in the local paper and online. You can search these sites by type of event (like concerts, food specials, etc.) Public transportation often has advertisements – like inside the buses that run from resort to commuter parking lots. And (you know what I'm going to say by now) always ask someone who looks like they know what they're doing! If it's a dude with a beard and a PBR tall boy wearing a puffy coat with duct tape repairs, there's a good chance he's local.
How do you find the best shopping – not just the souvenir T-shirts?
First of all, some of the souvenir T-shirts out there these days are actually pretty great. And funny. And the stores that sell them have also upped their game in the past 5 years, so that even when I walk into one I feel like I'm in a pretty classy clothing store. But let's see…for the really good stuff? Know what you're looking for, or at least what the ski town is known for. If you were going to Okemo I'd say find a "sugar shack" that makes authentic maple syrup. In Jackson Hole, there are some great shops with high quality western ware, and super hipster retailers specialising in handmade, local gifts. I love shopping and I don't want to miss anything, so whenever I go to a new mountain town I make sure I park somewhere downtown and walk around. For hours – and not just on the main streets. Peek into side streets and check out flyers in coffee shops. If you know exactly what you want, map them online and go from there.
How do you get into the best restaurants if they say they're booked?
This is a frustrating issue with the best restaurants, especially during tourist season. Know that Friday and Saturday nights (especially Saturdays!) book up quickly at reservation-only restaurants. Early and later seatings (like 5:30 or 8:45) have some more opening. Sometimes parties cancel last-minute, and you can leave a message with the host to call you immediately if something opens up. Most restaurants also have some walk-in tables, or keep bar seats available for walk-ins. Think good thoughts and hope for the best. If you're flexible, something somewhere will open up.
What are 3 big tips you'd offer to tourists who want to live like a local?
- Be nice – to ski valets, servers, bartenders, ski instructors, lifties, bus drivers, hosts, and everyone else trying to do their best to make great experiences. It will get you a lot further than freaking out about the small things, and you'll fit right in with the laid-back mountain town vibe.
- Buy local – this goes for shops, food, and brews (including coffee). Supporting the local businesses means respecting the community and weaving your way into its lovely little economy. You'll get cool points with the real locals as well.
- Try an activity other than main-stream tourist stuff. Drop into a yoga class, sniff out an open mic night, or ask about other quirky things specific to whatever mountain town you're visiting. You'll get a great taste for local flair and dip into the town's fabric more than just as a tourist.