Amanda Jones
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Tamarack Ski Resort

The Los Angeles Times

If you are a skier of a certain age, you might remember a time in life when you woke with the sun, chowed a bowl of Coco Puffs and headed out the door to beat the other skiers to the “freshies.” Then possibly you got a little older. Your knees started to hurt. A good breakfast became critical. Or maybe you had children, and suddenly being seen at the hottest, hippest ski resort took a back seat. Features like the children’s ski program, the exuberance of employees, the wine list at lunch, and the distance to the parking lot mattered more than vertical feet, chairlift capacity or the ratio of beautiful people gracing the après ski scene.

At about this point, small, intimate ski resorts start to become alluring. Places with short lift-lines, hillside accommodations and no attitude. In California there aren’t many: there are too many of us and too few resorts. There are, however, a few a short flight away, and in December 2004, a brand new all-season ski resort called Tamarack opened in Idaho.

Located in the central west of the state, Tamarack is only the second US ski resort to open since 1981. The other new resort, Moonlight Basin—located in Montana’s Big Sky area, opened in late 2003.

Tamarack, named after the local trees, is a two-hour drive north of Boise, near the tranquil lakeside town of McCall. Aiming at the high-end family market, their goal is to recreate the intimacy and exclusivity of yesteryear’s ski resorts, when there was a convivial club-like feel to the crowd and everyone smiled as they swooshed down the hill.

Being a former hardcore skier who now has two young children and a bad knee, these boutique ski areas hold great appeal. Looking at the Tamarack Web site, however, I knew that my husband, who never lost his obsession with vertical drop, was not a Tamarack kind of guy. Despite having state-of-the-art technology and luxurious accommodations, the hill does not offer heart-thumping double black diamonds. It’s not about adrenaline at Tamarack—it’s about civility, convenience and sophistication.

Leaving the husband at home, I lit out with my eldest daughter, Indigo, aged seven, and a girlfriend, Jennifer Chapin. We flew into Boise, rented a car and drove through the Idaho Rockies for a four-day girl-getaway at Tamarack.

When we first pulled into the ski resort, the first impression was one of impermanence. The reception, the restaurant, the bar, the children’s ski school and the equipment center are housed in massive white domed tents, the kind used in the Salt Lake City Olympics. But once inside, it’s like being in a luxurious hotel with art on the walls, carpet on the floors, chic leather furnishings and mood lighting. The domes last up to 15 years, and what this has done for the resort, says Heather Stolz, head of reservations, is buy time to build the guest lodging and for management to tailor the permanent structures to need.

Right now there are only two high-speed quad lifts on the mountain, 700 skiable acres, and lift tickets are limited to 1, 500 per day. Being only months old, I’d hazard a guess that there were a lot fewer people on the slopes. What this means if you get out early enough, you can have runs all to yourself, giving the glorious impression that you’re a member of an elite, restricted alpine club.

On our first morning there, we woke to cornflower blue skies and snow crystals powdering the trees. We were staying in a ski-in-ski-out, two-bedroom Owyhee cottage, so we merely had to walk out our back door, step into our skis and take a Poma lift to get to the main lifts. Once there, there’s no fooling around buying lift tickets, they’re included in the lodging package.  The lift ticket inclusion is optional, however. Non-skiers can pay a straight accommodation fee.

There are currently 62 slope-side accommodations at Tamarack, and there is a ?? room lodge and more chalets slated to open for next season. The chalets and cottages are attractive stone-and-timber, two-  or three-bedroom mini-homes with a full kitchen, hot tub, fireplace, and large screen television.

Indigo was booked into the children’s ski center, a welcoming place with bouncy, shiny employees who seemed genuinely excited about spending the day scooping little people off the snow. Indigo was booked into a group ski lesson, but because there were so few children she had an instructor all to herself for the day.

When I’m on a mountain for the first time I also am a believer in engaging the services of a ski instructor for myself. It’s always fun and they take you to hidden runs you’d never know about otherwise. Plus, it removes the risk that you’ll ski off-piste and end up at the highway two days later. And instructors can even teach old dogs new tricks.

The snow was light, clean and beautifully groomed. Although there wasn’t a lot of un-groomed, there was plenty of powder to be had in the trees at the top. And the view from the top on a clear day was magnificent. For 360-degrees you are surrounded by the white-peaked majesty of nature.  Below is Lake Cascade, a large reservoir filled with glinting blue Rockies run-off. South you can see the Sawtooth Mountains, and to the west as far as Oregon.

The advantage of being brand new is that the resort has installed bleeding-edge technology. There’s no more rooting around for your lift ticket and having it hand checked, there’s a Rapidtron gate that reads the chip imbedded in the pass through your jacket pocket. The lifts are high-speed and padded, the snow makers are the latest and greatest, and the grooming machines leave perfect corduroy each night.

This cut-above approach also extends to the food. Tamarack has two eateries: Morels, a fine dining restaurant where you can choose from a staggering wine list and eat meals such as venison or sea bass. For more casual fare there’s the Canoe Grill where skiers can get gourmet paninis, stir-fry on brown rice, wood-fired pizza, homemade soups or mesclun salads—and all for reasonable prices, a pleasant surprise when compared to the gouging dollar amounts you have to fork over for a mediocre burger at other resorts. All facilities at Tamarack are designed for expediency with a hefty dose of the sybarite, hence the espresso bar in the rental shop and a gourmet food market in the parking lot.

On that first day Jennifer and I headed out early with Craig Panarisi, the ski school supervisor. Craig had an impressive background, and, like all other employees we met, he’d drunk the Tamarack Cool Aid. “It’s so beautiful here. Plus, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be a part of creating something totally new. We’re making history.” Craig previously taught at Vail, Snowbird and Jackson Hole, resorts many times the size of Tamarack. “We’ve got big plans here though. Next season there will be another lift. There’s cat-skiing planned and we’re opening more trails.” Cat skiing involves being driven up to a backcountry part of the mountain in a nine-passenger snowcat and skiing down without anyone else in sight. It’s considered the poor man’s heli-skiing and is growing in popularity all over the West.

Tamarack does indeed have big plans. Hanging on a wall in the Sports Dome is an illustration of what Tamarack’s owners envision for the future. An entire village for starters, but that’s a good fifteen years off completion.

After checking to make sure we could stand up on skis, Craig took us to what appeared on the map as a double black diamond, smothered in light, untracked powder. The run wasn’t what people who ski Squaw Valley or Jackson Hole would call double black, but it was plenty for me and we whooped through the trees, Craig giving us pointers along the way.

Later, when I went to collect Indigo from ski school, I found her barreling over a series of ski jumps with a confidence that made me shudder. At the rate ski schools teach kids these days, it won’t be long before my baby will be plunging off cornices. Until then, she gets to eat wholesome lunches like chicken soup and homemade pizza in the Tamarack kids café, accompanied by her very own ski instructor.

For a change of pace, Jennifer and I tried out the 14 miles of Tamarack’s cross-country ski track. While renting gear we met Alison Bradley, director of the Nordic ski school, another example of an uber-qualified ski expert who was attracted to Tamarack. Having competed on two Olympic teams and winning the Nordic World Championship, Alison came to here after ten years teaching at Sun Valley. Why did she leave the larger, better known, glitzier ski resort? “Because I fell in love with the beauty of Tamarack, and life is so peaceful and easy here. We have everything. Challenging mountain trails, great beginner runs, and the best grooming available.

It was a peaceful time gliding through aspen groves, on top of what, in summertime, is a state of the art Robert Trent Jones II-designed golf course. Tamarack is an all-season resort and there are plans for two golf courses, kayaking on the Lake Cascade, hiking and mountain biking. This year-round use has led to overwhelming demand for the resort’s real estate. Cottages, cabins and home sites can be purchased, and with each new release of property, prices have skyrocketed. A 2,400-square-foot, three-bedroom chalet started one year ago at $800,000 and now sells for over a million dollars. These are either put back into the rental pool or kept as private holiday homes.

For the last few days of our trip, Indigo, Jennifer and I skied together. Tamarack is the perfect mountain to ski with children, especially if they can cope with blue runs anywhere else. There is plenty of terrain to keep them challenged and parents from being bored. And when Indigo was antsy to get skiing while Jennifer and I were still lounging over coffee in the morning, we just sent her out the back door for a couple of runs on the Poma lift.  There are not too  many ski hills where you can do that and still keep an eye on them.

That night, we headed to Morels, the fine dining restaurant, for dinner. It was probably an ill-conceived plan as after three long days of skiing Indigo was tired. Halfway through dinner my normally sweet child turned into a monster, demanding that we leave the table and go to the lounge to play chess with her immediately. Just as her whine reached full crescendo, an employee of Tamarack—who just happened to be having a drink in the bar—swooped in, distracted her, and whisked her off for a game of chess, leaving us in peace to eat our venison. In my books, any place with employees who voluntarily devote part of their Saturday evening playing chess with a seven year old is a place worth its weight in snow. And Tamarack outdid itself on that front. I shall be returning.