Developers aim to add posh to L.A.'s favorite mountain

After WWII, the U.S. Forest Service couldn’t sell Mammoth Mountain. Too high, too much snow, too far from Los Angeles.

Last October, hotel mogul Barry S. Sternlicht paid $365 million for Mammoth, the most ever spent on a ski resort. The mountain is still 11,053 feet high, accumulates 410 inches of snow a year and takes 5½ hours to reach by car from Los Angeles — but at least one of these will change if Sternlicht has his way.

“Mammoth is basically a weekend resort,” says Marc Perrin, managing director of Sternlicht’s Starwood Capital Group. “We need to make it into an all-season destination resort.”

Mammoth attracts about 1.5 million visitors each year, a tally second only to Vail, Colo. However, half a century ago, the mountain fell into the hands of the only guy who wanted it: Dave McCoy, a folksy champion skier and hydrographer.

“For Dave, it wasn’t so much a business as a bunch of friends skiing,” says Rusty Gregory, who’s now CEO of Mammoth Mountain but started as a lift operator for chair 16. McCoy “didn’t worry about the particulars as much as the community.”

Under McCoy, the mountain grew from a tow pull (which he helped invent) to its current 28 chairlifts and 3,500 skiable acres. However, the growth of the surrounding town centered on burger-and-beer restaurants, no-nonsense condos and a solitary Vons Supermarket.

“Basically, (McCoy) was saying, ‘Hey, it’s not camping, so don’t bitch,’ ” says developer Sean Combs, who envisions a raft of luxury lodgings, high-end eateries, a performance art center and even a film festival. For now, his Meridian Development is building 80|50 Mammoth, a five-star “fractionally owned residence club” slated to open this spring with features that include plasma TVs, heated stone floors, wine cellar, rooftop spa and personal ski valet.

Transportation is key if Mammoth is going to make the leap to what Ski magazine termed “Vail-ification.” Despite lawsuits by the Sierra Club and others, expansion of Mammoth-Yosemite Airport has been approved. Commercial planes will shuttle 80 passengers from L.A. to Mammoth Lakes in under an hour as early as December.

“Mammoth isn’t the next Vail,” says Combs. “It’s the next Aspen — without the fur and bald guys with ponytails.”

If 80|50 and Starwood Capital Group are the tipping point, Intrawest Corp. was Mammoth’s prime mover. The world’s largest resort developer, Intrawest runs Mont Tremblant in Quebec and Whistler in British Columbia. After buying into Mammoth in the mid-’90s, they quickly constructed the Village and hand-selected upscale retail to fill the storefronts.

“It’s insta-resort: Just add water,” says L.A. architect and snowboarder Sean Gale.

But long-term residents like Janice Gray, a ski instructor-turned-Century 21 realtor, see it both ways.

“Intrawest put in sidewalks and lights. Old-timers must like that,” she says. “(But) locals don’t hang out at the Village. We go there when there’s guests in town. It’s like Disneyland.”

Wine bars and sled dogs: maneuvering mammoth

“In five years, you won’t recognize this place,” says Sean Combs, principal developer of 80|50 Mammoth. Until then, here’s how to spend a weekend in Mammoth without ever waxing your skis.

Friday 7:30 p.m. Drop your bags at the Grand Sierra Lodge, a luxury condominium in the Village within walking distance of shops, restaurants and the Village Gondola. Furnished condos feature rustic slate floors, stone fireplaces, granite countertops, daily housekeeping and, best of all, an underground garage; parking is a drag.

8:30 p.m. Walk across Minaret Road to Nevados (Minaret and Main Street, 760-934-4466), for what many consider the best food in Mammoth. And a bargain: for $44, you can get the three-course prix fixe with seared lobster and scallops in a ginger dressing and osso bucco with provencale vegetables. No reservations mean a wait.

10:30 p.m. Stop for a nightcap at Petra’s wine bar (6080 Minaret Rd., 760-934-3500), with 28 wines by the glass (or half-glass) as well as sparkling and dessert wine, port and bottled beer.

Saturday 9 a.m. Start the day at Old New York Deli & Bagel Co. (6201 Minaret Rd.; 760-934-3354) with a bagel and brie melt or challah French toast. Beware: Arrive too early and you’ll line up behind skiers and boarders looking to fuel up on Mammoth Burritos. Crowds dwindle after the first lift opens at 8:30 a.m.

10:30 a.m. Catch a free shuttle (Main Lodge/Snowcreek Line) from the Village to the Main Lodge. There, for $16, you can take the Panorama Gondola to the summit. Mammoth boasts 300 days of sunshine a year, so chances are you’ll have a perfect view of the Eastern Sierra mountain range. For a shorter trip, take a free ride on the Village Gondola through the treetops to Canyon Lodge.

Noon Stock up on mountain wear in the Village. First Street Leather (760-934-8515) carries Jekel fur and leather coats, Koru sweaters made with Australian possum fur and shearling boots by Ulu, dkode and Born. Pair with a James Perse silk turtleneck and Paper Denim & Cloth jeans from ChaTo (760-934-9719) and a Bond-girl quilted down jacket with beaver fur trim by Prada at Panache (760-924-7077).

2 p.m. Side Door Café (760-934-5200) opened in November and is already a popular Village spot. Order a buckwheat savory crepe like the Climax (black forest ham, mushrooms and bechamel sauce) or try Maddie’s veggie panini (foccacia filled with roasted peppers, basil pesto, cranberry aioli and brie). Pair with one of 30 wines by the glass or one of 300 labels from the cellar.

4 p.m. Head back to Grand Sierra and call Mountain Mobile Massage (760-709-1329). The Ultimate Body Bliss targets tense spots with Swedish and deep tissue massage, acupressure and reflexology.

7 p.m. Dinner tonight could be Restaurant Skadi (587 Old Mammoth Rd., 760-934-3902), where chef Ian T.N. Algeroen prepares “game with city sensibility.” Try the seafood smorgasbord (cured salmon; Carlsberg poached shrimp) and roasted duck with arctic lingonberries. Or try Parallax (McCoy Station, 800-626-6684), where a five-course dinner starts with a glass of champagne at Main Lodge, followed by a ride to the mid-mountain restaurant in a Snowcat. Cost is $150 per person; reservations are necessary.

10 p.m. Any more life in you? Tiki bar Lakanuki (760-934-7447) has live or DJ music and a young crowd. Just don’t be surprised if Captain Morgan and a gaggle of damsels come by to pass out shots. If an espresso martini is more your style, cross the Village to Lulu’s (760-924-8781), where wine flights are generously poured.

Sunday 9 a.m.
Head to Good Life Café (126 Old Mammoth Rd., 760-934-1734), tucked in a strip mall in the old part of town. Whole-wheat pancakes with fresh fruit and fresh-squeezed carrot juice are worth the drive. Before leaving the Village, buy the Sunday paper at Busy Beez’ General Store (760-924-2899) or the only news you’ll get will be from the free real estate listings stacked outside.

10:30 a.m. Tour Mammoth’s back woods with a team of Alaskan Malamutes and Siberian and Alaskan Huskies. Mammoth Dog Teams (Main Lodge, 760-934-6270) offers half- and full-hour rides with 30-mile views of the San Joaquin Valley and White Mountains. Tours leave from the Mammoth Mountain Inn at the Main Lodge.

Noon Pick up parting gifts in the Village at Gallerie Barjur (760-924-0027). They carry ceramics, metal work, hand-blown glass and jewelry. Or go for a caramel apple at Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory (760-934-6962).

2 p.m. Hit the road early to avoid traffic. Thirty minutes en route is Erick Schat’s Bakkerÿ in Bishop (763 N. Main St., 760-873-7156), the pit stop of choice for weekenders on their way home. Lines are long, but the raisin bread and sandwiches made on their own Sheepherder’s sourdough shouldn’t be missed.

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