Ski East: Weekend at Smugglers' Notch

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Travel East
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The first time I skied Smugglers' Notch I was on the lam from classes at the University of Vermont. There's no better way to discover a ski area than on a midweek powder day, especially at a mountain known for quintessential Vermont terrain and unparalleled expert tree skiing. Or so I thought until about two decades later, when I brought a group of new in-laws to this same hallowed ground to learn to ski.

My wife Tricia's roots extend south to Music City (Nashville, Tenn.), and her sister, Rhea, was singing a happy tune when she called to announce that she was bringing her husband, Bill, and two kids our way to try skiing for the first time. For me, recently married (and a single ski bum for longer than I care to admit), it would mean a crash course in the rites of family ski vacations-and a chance to discover another side of Smugglers'.

Friday Night
After scooping up the Forte family at Burlington's airport we headed east, detouring through Underhill Center to take in sunset views of Mt. Mansfield. Smugglers' lies literally in the shadow of Mansfield, at its north end. Figuratively, it lies in that of Stowe Mountain Resort, just over the ridge. When it comes to family matters, though, few resorts can hold a candle to Smuggs.

If it takes a village to raise a child, Smugglers' Notch built the prototype. Beyond the three peaks and 260 acres of skiable terrain, the resort's bustling slopeside village is a smorgasbord for sensory-starved youths, with everything from a petting zoo for grade-schoolers to a yurt for teenagers. After we checked into one of the nearly 500 slopeside condos, it was a Smuggs original-the FunZone-that beckoned my niece, Kallie, and her brother, Dan, ages 12 and 10. My stomach growled "dinner!" but with a quick glance at Tricia, I discerned one of the first rules of a family vacation: Go with the flow.

Though it's pitched as a place for pre-teens, the Zone's appeal is ageless. Kids in stocking feet float from station to station, clambering on the revolving climbing wall and bouncing in the bowels of a hyper-inflated Wonder Whale. With a DJ spinning "Stairway to Heaven," the revelry was contagious, but I resisted the temptation to elbow out 8-year-olds for a turn on the giant slide.

Soon everyone's stomach was sounding the alarm, and we perused the resort's thick information pack for something close and easy. Seasoned pros recommend Cafe Banditos, just across the road from the resort, or Riga-Bello's in the Village Lodge, for eat-in or delivery. We opted for Banditos and what Rhea proclaimed "the best veggie quesadilla I've ever had."

Saturday Morning
Smugglers' terrain spreads north to south on three peaks: Morse, with the village at its feet, is beginner central; Madonna, in the middle, offers the highest summit and toughest trails; and Sterling, at the south end, has a mix of terrain, but mostly blue squares. Ski over the top of Sterling and you're at Stowe's Spruce Peak area.

From any address in the village, it's faster to ski than drive to the lifts. But with two never-ever kids, we took the shuttle to make it to the ski school at Morse by 9 am. I whispered a novena for having followed the Guest Services recommendation to get rental gear on Friday evening. Savvy and service-oriented, Smuggs keeps the rental shop open til 9 pm on Friday and 8 pm on Saturday, and it reduced the hassle by a factor of 10.

With Tricia off to join her own lesson, I assumed the role of coordinator. But with everyone enrolled in Smuggs' Snow Sports University, there wasn't much to do. So I left the kids in tow behind a learning carousel and set out in search of cappuccino.

Suitably fortified, I grabbed my boards and headed up the hill to check the progress. In less than an hour the wheels of the carousel had come to a halt and Dan and Kallie had graduated to Sir Henry's Learning and Fun Park, a wide-open, gently pitched slope with a handle tow. From the top of Sir Henry's, I looked wistfuy at Madonna Mountain-Smuggs' unblemished jewel, with its maze of classic New England trails tumbling off a 3,640-foot summit.

Redirecting my gaze, I saw an equally heart-warming sight: Dan, Kallie and an assortment of knee-high novices making turns on the gentle slope. It's hard not to smile at a place where you can bring children for their first day on skis, knowing that the mountain will have much to offer a lifetime later.

When the morning session ended, we regrouped for some laps on Morse. First up was the low and slow Mogul Mouse's Magic Lift, unintimidating at least to mid-station. One run down the Magic Learning Trail, twice down Wanderer, and the kids were beginning to find their edges and define their styles. Dan pushed for speed. Kallie emphasized technique.

A mom in a black one-piece stopped in front of me with an obvious dilemma: two kids with different gear ratios. "Wait, Mom!" her cautious one called, while her Type-A tyke pointed them straight down the gentle slope far below. Mom had brought them all the way from Florida, passing up Western resorts. The reason? "The No. 1 Daycare in North America-that's why we're here," she said, pointing to a beeper on her belt. "I know they're safe here," she declares, referring in equal measure to her toddler, enrolled at the Alice's Wonderland daycare center, and her 5-year-old, now darting another 50 yards ahead.

Saturday Afternoon
For lunch, many families ski back to the condo for homemade fare. If you prefer, there are custom-built sandwiches in a cafeteria setting at the fireplaced Green Mountain Café or sit-down service at the Mountain Grille, both slopeside. I may be the new uncle on the block, and Dan and Kallie a bit shy, but it was easy to read their body language at lunch. "Enough lounging," it said. "We want to ski!" I know the feeling, so we returned to the hill.

Over and over we worked the gentle hill served by the Mogul Mouse. The Village Lift moves twice as quickly, but the trails are far more crowded, so I suggested a trip to the top of Morse for better views and a history lesson. Smugglers' Notch itself (the geographic feature from which the ski resort takes its name) is a mountain pass once used to move Revolutionary War and later Prohibition contraband.

The Fortes decided to leave the summit for another day, but my wife and I couldn't resist a trip up. We were delighted to find that Morse, along with all its beginner terrain, offers more interesting options from the top. The expert Billy's Beartrap rocks straight down the fall line; a neighboring blue Snow Snake serpentines to the valley.

Because it was spring and cover was thin, our options were limited. It'll be a different story this year when a new 20 million-gallon reservoir triples snowmaking output. We dove down Rat Trap-an intermediate elbow off Garden Path-and for the first time since I got Tricia into skiing, I had to hurry to keep up. Give the gold star to her Snow Sports U. instructor.

Back at the condo I learned Family Vacation Rule No. 2: Kids love swimming, no matter what the season. Fortunately, Smuggs provides a hot tub adjacent to the Courtside Pool, so parents can enjoy a restorative soak. Next door to the pool is the tent-like Outer Limits yurt, which aims to please today's jaded teens. It's strictly off-limits to full-fledged adults, but is reputed to have Internet access, good tunes and low slung couches.

For dinner we again weighed two good choices: stay close to home or venture a mile down the road to the Lodge Restaurant. The Lodge, a log structure built by the University of Vermont Outing Club in 1966, flavors its fresh seafood and certified black Angus steaks with authentic Vermont ambience. But we found our Green Mountain refuge right at the resort in the Hearth & Candle, an independent establishment that offers segregated adults-only dining as well as a kid-friendly family room.

Sunday
The day dawned bright and warm, but the true gauge of conditions was the kids' eagerness to hit the slopes. Tricia took Kallie and Dan while I stayed to help Rhea pack, knowing that patience would have its payday when the sun softened the hill.

As Rhea and I finally made our way to the slopes, we couldn't help commenting on the transformation in the kids. "I'm so proud of them," she said in her sweet southern drawl. "They learned something new, and they'll go home with a new confidence."

As we clicked into our bindings by "The Way Up High School"-yet another of Smuggs' patented learning areas-I made a note for future visits that the Mountain Laurels condo complex is not only ideally located for slope access, but has its own pool. Just then, the Florida mom came gliding by, this time struggling to keep up with both kids. "We made it to the top!" she cried triumphantly.

Well, if the Gators can do it, Tennessee's ready, too, we reasoned. Riding the Mogul Mouse Magic Lift to the Morse Summit, we made a conservative call and opted for what looked like the easiest way down. Too late we realized that said trail, Midway, is just a connector trail to Madonna. But it made for another adventure, and no one begrudged the extra effort to return to Morse on Meadowlark.

After a glorious morning on the softening snow, we headed back for lunch. For stronger skiers, The Top of the Notch lodge on Sterling Mountain-with its summit perch and venison stew-is a must. But by then we were well-established denizens of Morse, and we picnicked at the base of Morse Highlands, a new five-run, beginners-only area with its own lift and lodge.

Sunday Afternoon
The women decided to explore the antique shops of Jeffersonville, a tiny hamlet 5 miles down the road, and Bill and Dan were content to hone their technique at Highlands, so I jumped at the opportunity to visit some old haunts. A recent 8-inch snowfall had put enough icing on the cake that intrepid skiers were cutting lines in the woods and glades of Madonna. The well-spaced Red Fox and Three Mountain glades both looked prime, but I knew there was more to these hills. Smuggs is famous for its trees, but the best aren't easily found. ("You gotta know where they are," says the local, "and I ain't telling.")

Fortunately for infrequent visitors, the area has put the most accessible routes on the map and in general given the green light to tree-skiing (with a buddy, not solo) from boundary to boundary. I realized it had been too long since I'd cut loose on Madonna. Robin's Run, once just a glimmer in some poacher's eye, is now an official trail, and the panoramic views of three states and Canada are startlingly beautiful.

Chilcoot, everyone's favorite cruiser, offers the perfect warmup on Madonna. Smuggs' racing kids can often be seen (but not caught) streaking down Rumrunner to Black Snake. The challenge and intimacy of Smugglers' Alley on Sterling and the 40-degree pitches of Madonna's Freefall and Liftline also receive raves from experts. With only one run, I had in mind the bumps of FIS, but was seduced en route by Madonna's most classic trail, the gladed Doc Dempsey. Always inviting, it's irresistible when the late afternoon sun lights up the hardwoods. Halfway down, I stopped to take in the Ansel Adams landscape portrait when a telemarker burst out of the trees and joined me with a grin.

Free-heeled, but helmeted, the 42-year-old tele-skier (and family pass-holder) had abandoned work for a quick run. Following his advice, I hit the soft stuff between the bumps, caught some air off the root mass of a fallen tree and spilled out at the top of the Madonna 2 lift. For intermediates-and experts fleeing crowds-Madonna 2 offers varied terrain and short liftlines. From there, I was tempted to say a prayer on Father Bob's, but instead veered off to hit one of Smuggs' best-kept secrets, Garry B's Northwest Passage, which took me back to Morse.

I coasted into the Village just in time to take in the quintessential Smuggs s true gauge of conditions was the kids' eagerness to hit the slopes. Tricia took Kallie and Dan while I stayed to help Rhea pack, knowing that patience would have its payday when the sun softened the hill.

As Rhea and I finally made our way to the slopes, we couldn't help commenting on the transformation in the kids. "I'm so proud of them," she said in her sweet southern drawl. "They learned something new, and they'll go home with a new confidence."

As we clicked into our bindings by "The Way Up High School"-yet another of Smuggs' patented learning areas-I made a note for future visits that the Mountain Laurels condo complex is not only ideally located for slope access, but has its own pool. Just then, the Florida mom came gliding by, this time struggling to keep up with both kids. "We made it to the top!" she cried triumphantly.

Well, if the Gators can do it, Tennessee's ready, too, we reasoned. Riding the Mogul Mouse Magic Lift to the Morse Summit, we made a conservative call and opted for what looked like the easiest way down. Too late we realized that said trail, Midway, is just a connector trail to Madonna. But it made for another adventure, and no one begrudged the extra effort to return to Morse on Meadowlark.

After a glorious morning on the softening snow, we headed back for lunch. For stronger skiers, The Top of the Notch lodge on Sterling Mountain-with its summit perch and venison stew-is a must. But by then we were well-established denizens of Morse, and we picnicked at the base of Morse Highlands, a new five-run, beginners-only area with its own lift and lodge.

Sunday Afternoon
The women decided to explore the antique shops of Jeffersonville, a tiny hamlet 5 miles down the road, and Bill and Dan were content to hone their technique at Highlands, so I jumped at the opportunity to visit some old haunts. A recent 8-inch snowfall had put enough icing on the cake that intrepid skiers were cutting lines in the woods and glades of Madonna. The well-spaced Red Fox and Three Mountain glades both looked prime, but I knew there was more to these hills. Smuggs is famous for its trees, but the best aren't easily found. ("You gotta know where they are," says the local, "and I ain't telling.")

Fortunately for infrequent visitors, the area has put the most accessible routes on the map and in general given the green light to tree-skiing (with a buddy, not solo) from boundary to boundary. I realized it had been too long since I'd cut loose on Madonna. Robin's Run, once just a glimmer in some poacher's eye, is now an official trail, and the panoramic views of three states and Canada are startlingly beautiful.

Chilcoot, everyone's favorite cruiser, offers the perfect warmup on Madonna. Smuggs' racing kids can often be seen (but not caught) streaking down Rumrunner to Black Snake. The challenge and intimacy of Smugglers' Alley on Sterling and the 40-degree pitches of Madonna's Freefall and Liftline also receive raves from experts. With only one run, I had in mind the bumps of FIS, but was seduced en route by Madonna's most classic trail, the gladed Doc Dempsey. Always inviting, it's irresistible when the late afternoon sun lights up the hardwoods. Halfway down, I stopped to take in the Ansel Adams landscape portrait when a telemarker burst out of the trees and joined me with a grin.

Free-heeled, but helmeted, the 42-year-old tele-skier (and family pass-holder) had abandoned work for a quick run. Following his advice, I hit the soft stuff between the bumps, caught some air off the root mass of a fallen tree and spilled out at the top of the Madonna 2 lift. For intermediates-and experts fleeing crowds-Madonna 2 offers varied terrain and short liftlines. From there, I was tempted to say a prayer on Father Bob's, but instead veered off to hit one of Smuggs' best-kept secrets, Garry B's Northwest Passage, which took me back to Morse.

I coasted into the Village just in time to take in the quintessential Smuggs scene: kids, cameras and cocoa. Mogul Mouse, one of the resort's half-dozen tot-beguiling mascots, was making the rounds, posing for pictures. "Hurry up Mom!" called 5-year-old Sarah Potter, afraid she'd miss her chance to cuddle.

"They can't get enough of this Billy Bob Bear and Mogul Mouse stuff," laughed her father, Tom. Like most in the crowd, his family has made Smuggs' visits a tradition. "We come from Jersey," Potter said with meaning. "It's an 8-hour ride with a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old, so that ought to tell you something."

It did. And as I walked away from the base area I heard another voice-this time an inner one-saying, "I can't wait to rediscover Smuggs again...with my own kids."gs scene: kids, cameras and cocoa. Mogul Mouse, one of the resort's half-dozen tot-beguiling mascots, was making the rounds, posing for pictures. "Hurry up Mom!" called 5-year-old Sarah Potter, afraid she'd miss her chance to cuddle.

"They can't get enough of this Billy Bob Bear and Mogul Mouse stuff," laughed her father, Tom. Like most in the crowd, his family has made Smuggs' visits a tradition. "We come from Jersey," Potter said with meaning. "It's an 8-hour ride with a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old, so that ought to tell you something."

It did. And as I walked away from the base area I heard another voice-this time an inner one-saying, "I can't wait to rediscover Smuggs again...with my own kids."