This winter, the real action is inside at a growing number of luxe private ski lodges. We cut the lift line for a look.
(FORTUNE Magazine) - Ever since banking magnate Averell Harriman dispatched Count Felix Schaffgotsch westward in 1935 to find the getaway that would become Sun Valley, the alpha-est of capitalists have had a fascination with creating the ultimate ski utopia. After all, sailing is epic but sedentary, polo pretentious, and golf, while essential to business, is not essential to manliness.
Not having had the Dark Ages in which to learn how to properly mull wine, however, North American resorts have always fallen short in the charm department compared with their European counterparts. "The apres-skiing is important," says Sir Richard Branson, who, when in Zermatt, prefers the Hotel Alex. "I'm afraid some of the restaurants in American resorts leave much to be desired."
That's changing though, thanks in part to a growing number of ultraprivate mountain clubs, about a dozen of which have now been built or are in the works at America's top resorts. The club movement gained traction in the mid-1990s after executives at Vail decided to try selling $60,000 memberships to a parking lot at the base of the mountain--and sold out fast. "We were amazed that saving 20 steps was so important to a guy who's going to ski all day," says Jim Thompson, then the president of Vail Resorts Development. That paved the way for Vail's Game Creek, where members like Henry Kravis and Ross Perot can hit the slopes at 7:30, an hour before the park and ride crowd, and trade their boots for warm slippers at lunchtime. But while Game Creek and other older places like nearby Beaver Creek Club, the Aspen Mountain Club, and the Stratton Mountain Club have waiting lists of up to ten years--along with rigorous admissions committees--several newer clubs are accepting members now. True, some require buying a multimillion-dollar alpine getaway along with a membership. But given the growing appeal, that may just be a wise investment. We threw on our winter whites for a tour of the top new clubs.
Talisker: Who needs Vail? That's what Jim Thompson decided last year when he left the world of Game Creek (and three other private resorts he'd launched) for Deer Valley in Park City, Utah. He was poached by Toronto developer Talisker to one-up Vail, and describes his new club--set to launch later this year--as "over the top." It will have a base lodge and golf clubhouse designed by star architect Robert Stern, a private on-mountain restaurant, and a back-country cabin for fly-fishing. Expect the club's annual dues of $3,000 (after the $100,000 initiation) to rise over time.
Stowe Mountain Club: Since 2002, Eastern skiers like Tommy Hilfiger have frequented the private Stratton Mountain Club in Vermont, but soon there will be competition from Stowe. Owned by insurance giant AIG, Stowe has long been a stronghold of ex-chairman, Hank Greenberg. Under Greenberg's watch, ground was broken in 2003 on a $300 million to $400 million development, including 438 residential units, a base lodge, and a 21,000-square-foot spa that will form the backbone of the Stowe Mountain Club. (Neither Greenberg nor the club would comment on whether he's a member.) "There's so much discussion of extreme and back-country skiing, but at the end of the day guests are still looking for the pamper factor--a massage, a nice bottle of wine," says David Norden of Stowe's Spruce Peak Realty.
Yellowstone Club: Lumber baron Tim Blixseth liked the idea of a private club so much that he bought 13,400 acres in Big Sky, Mont., and in 2000 began building one from scratch. In addition to its 18-hole golf course, Blixseth's Yellowstone Club boasts a 2,200-acre ski mountain, with 65 trails, 13 lifts and a terrain that Hank Kashiwa, the club's VP of marketing (and the 1969 U.S. national ski-racing champion) says offers plenty of world-class skiing. Yellowstone's planned 864 members--who must be personally approved by Blixseth and his wife, Edra--are granted permission to build a home and pay an additional $250,000 initiation fee, the latter refundable if the Blixseths decide you're out. "It's a benevolent dictatorship," concedes Kashiwa. On the honorary board of directors are sports personalities such as Annika Sorenstam and Warren Miller, as well as politicos like Jack Kemp, Dan Quayle, and business hotshots like News Corp.'s Peter Chernin. Who cares about the snow with lift partners like that?