Wachusett: fantastic skiing is minutes away

The commuter rail’s new ski train is simplifying the trip to the trails. In December, the MBTA, in a partnership with the Wachusett Mountain Ski Area, unveiled the train to promote both public transportation and the resort.,Heads up to ski bums and snow bunnies: powder-covered slopes are practically a hop, skip and a jump from the city.

The commuter rail’s new ski train is simplifying the trip to the trails. In December, the MBTA, in a partnership with the Wachusett Mountain Ski Area, unveiled the train to promote both public transportation and the resort.

For $7.75, skiers and riders can hop aboard the weekend ski train to Fitchburg, Mass., then take a free Wachusett shuttle to the mountain. The train leaves North Station in Boston on Saturdays and Sundays at 8:35 a.m. and arrives in Fitchburg at 10:06 a.m. From there, the shuttle takes 20 to 25 minutes to get to Wachusett Mountain.

Before jumping off the bus, all passengers are handed a coupon to reimburse the cost of a one-way train ticket. The $7.75 credit voucher can be used toward lift tickets, rentals and lessons, but not food or merchandise.

The whole package is a deal: a round-trip ticket to Fitchburg is $15.50, but half can be credited at Wachusett to contribute to a $49 weekend full-day lift ticket. This ticket is good from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. and costs $41.25 with the discount.

Students fall into the most expensive group (ages 13 to 64), but cheaper half-day tickets are also available for $44 ($36.25 with coupon).

This may be a better option for beginners, those not planning on skiing all day, or those who want to eat lunch before hitting the slopes. Afternoon half-days start at 12:30 p.m. and go to 4 p.m. and work well with the ski train schedule.

Most riders file off the shuttle and into the lift-ticket line, which leads to some waiting time. If rentals and/or lessons also need to be arranged, do not plan on skiing before noon. Hustlers with their own equipment should be able to hit the slopes closer to 11 a.m.

According to the Wachusett Mountain snow report at wachusett.com at press time, seven lifts and 21 trails are open following the recent 10 inches of natural snow. Even without new snow, the conditions are good with machine grooming and man-made snow.

Lunch before the lifts and a half-day ticket would save money but is not for eager skiers who want to get out before 12:30 p.m. Although the process of getting to the mountain can take all morning, the rest of the afternoon is open. The shuttle back does not leave until 4:45 p.m., so skiers can go strong until 4.

Don’t make the mistake of starting on the Minuteman Express. This quad chairlift does not come close to living up to its name. On busy weekends, the line barely moves and the organization is so weak even the lift attendants look confused. The lift itself is speedy and ends halfway up the mountain but is not worth the wait.

The trails off the Minuteman are considered easy to more difficult, and most every trail at Wachusett fits these two categories.

The mountain has a decent number of nice, wide trails with slopes that are more gradual than steep. But because the terrain is great for beginners, it is full of them, so beware.

Two of the three diamonds, or more difficult trails, are at least somewhat challenging for the average skier. Moguls line the left side of a steep section on Upper Tenth Mountain, and a personal favorite, Upper Smith Walton, has a drop-off with a spectacular view. Both are off the summit lift, the Polar Express Quad, which was a much smoother lift operation.

The ski area’s reputation as the most accessible (ranked number one in the East by Ski Magazine in 2006) and its being the only one that can be reached by Massachusetts public transportation make Wachusett popular. Expect crowds, and plan to be patient.

A few tricks of the trade include avoiding the Minuteman lift and escaping to the slower but less-used Victory Bowl triple lift. Although getting there requires riding either of the two base quads, the trails off this lift are fun and not very difficult. Waiting in line should not be a problem here, as it tends to be at the other two main lifts.

Keep in mind that the crowded chairlifts do not reflect how busy the trails are. Since most people are tied up in line, less are on the slopes.

The best time to beat the crowds at any ski area is during the lunch power hour (noon to 1 or so). The masses start heading out of the lodge and back on the mountain between 2 and 2:30p.m.

Inside the lodge, a wide variety of foods fit most tastes. Ski Magazine also ranked Wachusett the best in the East for on-mountain food.

The food court offers everything cafeteria-style, from chili and charcoal burgers to pizza and deli sandwiches. Starbucks Coffee and specialty drinks are served at the new Balance Rock Coffee Company. At any ski area the food is expensive, so packing a bagged lunch is a good way to save.

For those that want finer dining, The Black Diamond Restaurant is on the second floor and offers pub fare. The over-21 crowd can warm up by the fire with drinks and appetizers at The Coppertop Lounge.

Wherever you eat, the lodge’s cozy atmosphere makes it hard to step back outside.

If you still want to stay at the end of the day, the mountain is open for night skiing. Skiers can add an additional $10 to a full- or half-day lift ticket and ski until 10 p.m. The Wachusett Village Inn offers discounted rates for riders.

The Ski Train Stayover Special is $89 per person and includes a one-night stay (on Saturday), a Sunday lift pass and a train ticket back to Boston.

Reservations can be made on the Thursday before arrival, and more information on the deal and the ski area are at Wachusett.com.

The train returns to North Station at 7 p.m. and runs Saturdays and Sundays through the ski season. Skis and snowboards can be secured on the ski train’s specially designed racks. On the way to Fitchburg, a conductor explains the process of getting to and from Wachusett and answers any questions. The trip is an exciting excursion and gives city slickers a much-needed breath of fresh air.