Ski Midwest: Weekend at Crystal Mountain

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Tucked into the pine forests just south of Traverse City in the northwestern area of lower Michigan, this charming ski resort has a reputation for doing every little thing right. Owned by George Petritz and his family since 1981, Crystal Mountain Resort is celebrating its 45th anniversary this winter. Last season, the addition of a high-speed quad and eight new runs gave skiers more room to roam. This year the final touches¿including a new bar¿have been added to the Crystal Center, a three-level state-of-the-art skier services building. Details such as these help explain why last year's New Year's was the biggest day in its history (with 4,000 skiers) and why so many people spurn larger Michigan resorts to ski at Crystal.

Another reason for Crystal's popularity is its "civilized solitude." It's easy to get to by car from major Midwest metro areas such as Detroit (3 1/2 hours), Chicago (4 1/2 hours) and Indianapolis (5 1/2 hours), yet it's still far enough into Michigan's snow belt that the area receives 11 feet of Lake Michigan's lake-effect premium powder each winter. And while, for the most part, the skiing is decidedly genteel¿the terrain is comprised of 18 percent beginner, 52 percent intermediate and 30 percent advanced¿Crystal has many hidden pockets that constantly challenge you to explore.

Virtually all of Crystal's skiers stay in accommodations right at the resort, so be sure to book in advance. Luckily, it offers many lodging options, ranging from hotel rooms to large vacation homes. For privacy, try off-slope spots such as the Pinehurst Green Townhouses or the Wintergreen Condos. Slopeside, choose the Hamlet Condominiums or the elegant Inn At The Mountain. New this winter are the Mountain Top Townhomes perched above the ski mountain. Ten out of the planned 33 units will be finished this winter.

Friday Evening
If you're a hard-charger wanting to enjoy every molecule of powder your money can buy, plan to get there early on Friday afternoon because Crystal's packages include skiing from 3 pm on arrival day. Twenty-two of the 34 slopes are lighted for night skiing and are open until 10 pm. For the more laid-back, enjoy six of the resort's 35 kilometers of cross-country trails, which are lighted for evening treks, or take a horse-drawn sleigh ride around Crystal's 1,500 acres of property.

On the way up Friday afternoon, remember that Cadillac is the last town you'll pass through before you drive the final 39 miles to Crystal. Buy groceries, get last-minute items at Wal-Mart and check out the sales at the Sun-n'-Snow ski shop. For an early dinner, stop in downtown Cadillac at Hermann's European Café for authentic Austrian fare, or check out Maggie's Tavern for the area's best chicken burrito.

Saturday
You can do something at Crystal that's virtually unheard of in Midwest skiing: ski in the sunshine all day. Crystal's front side (26 of its 34 runs) faces east and gets the most traffic, so be prepared to start skiing there when the lifts open at 9 am.

Drop the kids off at the Totem Park Learning Center on the northern edge of the ski complex. This is a self-contained beginner area accessed by passing under a massive archway held up by two 20-foot totem poles. Here, Crystal has blended its learn-to-ski program with an environmental component that teaches children and their families about Michigan's native birds and the lives of the Inuit Indians. Kids get to adopt the identity of their group's mascot¿falcon, red-tail hawk, saw whet owl¿as they enhance their skills on specially designed terrain props.

Experts will then want to head to Loki and Thor, two fly-on-the-wall steeps that rank with anything in the region. Both tumble down the northernmost of the three peaks at Crystal and are serviced by side-by-side chairlifts, one triple and one double. Intermediates can ride the same chairs and ski any of six blue trails that wind through the rdwoods around the shoulders of the 1,132-foot summit.

The best intermediate slope on the front side is Buck, serviced by its own quad chair. This huge expanse of open terrain cascading from the top of the southernmost peak is just perfect for arcing wide GS turns. You can also jump off Buck's northern cornice into The Gorge, a short and nasty, black-diamond bump run.

Everyone from rank beginner to gnarled veteran can find something to like at Crystal. The new Crystal Clipper high-speed quad accesses the top of the western peak, from which you can ski a nice collection of tree-lined trails to the north of the chair, including Glacier Valley Glade. To the south is the wide-open Main Street, a half-mile-long green cruiser. This winter a scenic observation deck will open at the top of the Clipper, so take the time to climb up and see Lake Michigan in the distance.

Snowboarders have their own area called "The Boarder Zone," complete with a terrain park and a halfpipe, all custom carved by Crystal's Pipe Dragon grooming machine. The best chair to access this area is the Cheers lift, next to the NASTAR racecourse.

Saturday Afternoon
After a hearty soup-and-sandwich lunch in the Main Street Grill at the base of the Crystal Clipper high-speed quad, it's time to pop over The Ridge and ski west into the sunset. Eight new trails were added last year, all intermediate and simply delightful. Sliced out of a dense forest, the runs spill into a valley below and range from testy drop-offs to wide boulevards, all serviced by the Ridge Runner triple chair. Snow coming off Lake Michigan makes The Ridge one of the best hidden powder caches in northern Michigan.

For some variety, try cross-country skiing from the top of the Buck lift. You can ride the lift with a separate XC trail pass ($10) and ski off the back of the peak on green trails until you connect with the main trail system. However you end your ski day, top it off by relaxing your tired legs in the Vista Lounge, located in the upper level of the lodge, overlooking the slopes. You'll even find live entertainment there on Saturday nights.

Saturday Night
The Wildflower is the prime dining option at the resort, with excellent native Michigan fare. A favorite is the Northwoods Pasta¿grilled strips of chicken served on a bed of fettuccine and covered with a sauce made with morel mushrooms and dried sweet cherries. There aren't many other dinner choices at the resort, though. You'll have to drive about 20 minutes to get some variety. Two unique places are the Brookside Inn in the village of Beulah (8 miles away) and the Hotel Frankfort (15 miles away) on the shores of Lake Michigan in the town of Frankfort, both moderately priced with dinners ranging from $10-$25. The Brookside features Swiss Stone cooking, a healthy way to prepare your dinner right at your table. The homemade breads and pastries are sinful. The Hotel Frankfort has an eclectic menu, with everything from Greek-style baby rack of lamb to Shrimp Tempura. Be sure to check out the wine cellar located at the bottom of the winding staircase. For more family-oriented dinners try Papano's Pizza in Beulah, or the southwestern dishes at the Road House in Benzonia (6 miles away).

Sunday Morning
Traffic on M-115 tends to get heavy after noon on Sundays, particularly south of Cadillac, so you might want to slide out early after a few runs on the hill. If there's fresh snow head to the glades and ski the edges of powder troughs such as Abendroth's Trail and Canyon. For a leisurely end to the weekend, a snowshoe hike into the Michigan Legacy Art Park will be memorable. The 30-acre park, donated by Crystal, is a system of forest trails dotted with sculptures and carvings and attracts more than 20,000 visitors annually. If you prefer topping off your weekend with a dash of adrenaline, glide out onto Crystal's cross-country ski trails and do battle with Screaming Eagle and Glacier Valley, true black diamonds that combine steeps, twists and eye-watering speed sections. Then stop for a late breakfast at Burke's Waterfront Restaurant or the Frosty Cup, both in Cadillac West.y, true black diamonds that combine steeps, twists and eye-watering speed sections. Then stop for a late breakfast at Burke's Waterfront Restaurant or the Frosty Cup, both in Cadillac West.

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