Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 19, 2017

© Stowe Mountain Resort / Brooke Kaltsas

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Snow days

Four ski resorts in Vermont for food and fun

Packed. Powder. Packed. Powder. My favourite two consecutive words drummed like a mantra in time to my wipers dispersing a swirling flurry of snowflakes from the windshield. It was early January and I was following the tail end of a monster blizzard from the laid-back lakeside university town of Burlington eastward for an hour to Stowe where my buddy and I were kicking off a week of skiing around Northern Vermont.

Drawing back the curtains the next morning at Stowe Mountain Lodge, I was blinded by a “bluebird day,” fairyland forests of “snow ghosts” — alpine trees heavy with the white stuff — starkly white against an indigo sky. From a vantage point atop Mount Mansfield, Vermont’s highest peak at 1340 metres, we peered down on a zigzag network of 116 runs blanketed in packed powder and unpacked glades with views of the Adirondacks to the west and New Hampshire’s hefty White Mountains to the east. It was my first ski day of the season and by the time I tucked into a steaming, pork belly, twice-baked potato lunch at the summit Cliff House bistro, I could hear nothing over the screaming of my thighs.

As an ex-West Coast Whistler ski-brat who moved to southern Quebec years ago, I soon learned to sharpen my edges for Eastern skiing from New York to Maine. Jay Peak, Vermont’s northernmost of 18 downhill resorts is just south of the border. Then there’s 1425 cross-country ski kilometres in 31 Nordic networks as well as the almost 500 kilometre Catamount Trail that runs the length of the state.

While my recent trip was prompted by reports of that looming blizzard, the foodie in me was also eager to head south of the border after a long absence: I had recently learned that Vermont (population: 620,000) not only has more cheesemakers and micro-breweries per capita than any other state, but that Vermonters also spend the most on locally-sourced groceries — 39 cents of every food dollar. Cheese, craft beer, local noshing and powder? Sign me up.

The state of play

Vermonters love their snow. It’s the number 1 state in the East for skier visits with an average of 4.1 million per season: third in the US after California and Colorado. With the highest ski resort count in New England, the hills are renowned for their diversity: big mountains like Killington and Stowe and advanced, ungroomed terrain such as gnarly Mad River Glen and lots of toddler-friendly family resorts.

OK. So they aren’t the Sierras, but they have decent descents with excellent snowmaking and grooming and, best of all, lineups are rare especially on weekdays. Recently, Vermont resorts spent more than $38 million upgrading downhill and Nordic resorts, much of it on enhanced, greener snowmaking. Eastern peaks don’t enjoy the West’s lofty altitudes to keep icy slopes at bay, nor do they wallow as often under giant powder dumps, but the skiing is good, especially fresh packed powder.

For me, skiing is the icing on the cake of any Vermont visit. While the leaf-peeping season is spectacular and the state’s busiest tourist-time, I love New England when its photo-ready villages are blanketed in white, pointy church towers, solid Yankee town halls, covered bridges ‘n’ all. In March, during spring skiing, maple sugar shacks steam during a statewide sugaring-off festival, but you can taste all things maple any time of the year from the crème brulée at Stowe’s Green Mountain Inn to Sapling’s Maple Liqueur which snatched gold at San Francisco’s 2011 World Spirits Competition.

Stowe, with its speedy gondola that climbs 650 metres of vertical, is Vermont’s second biggest resort and it’s come a long way since 1933 when its trails were cut by the Civilian Conservation Corps and it established the nation’s oldest ski patrol. Environmental award-winning Stowe Mountain Lodge (SML) at the base was built in 2008 as a sustainable luxury village with a 300-room hotel, condos and a concert hall, and it’s set to become bigger. “Bostonians and New Yorkers are increasingly balking at flying to ski in the West with its stopovers and winter delays,” said Leslie Kilgore of SML. “So we’re aiming at becoming the Vail or Aspen of the East.”

The base is 10 kilometres by free shuttle from Stowe Village — classic New England with a Heidi-ish feel in its Edelweiss Convenience Store, Innsbruck Inn, Matterhorn bar and Trapp Family Lodge, America’s first cross-country ski area started by the Austrian von Trapp family of The Sound of Music fame. Sam von Trapp, grandson of the original Maria, and a former Aspen and Chile-based ski instructor, runs the inn with its 60 kilometres of groomed trails — with old Slayton Pasture Cabin in the forest for hot soup — as well as backcountry and tamer “side-country” trails. Like most resorts, Trapp is into local cuisine. “The family makes its own cheese, we raise our own grain-fed cattle and,” said Sam, stoking their Nordic centre fireplace, “we have a ski-in, ski-out microbrewery.”

Before leaving Stowe we stopped for lunch at Crop Bistro & Brewery, the latest of more than two dozen Vermont craft breweries. On the front door was the familiar “Vermont Fresh Network” logo, a farm/chef partnership that flags establishments dedicated to serving local products. Like almost every menu I unfolded in the state there was a roll call of artisan food producers from baker and maple sugarer to trout supplier.

Breads and breakfast

We headed 50 kilometres south on scenic rural Highway 100, which travels the length of the state, through the town of Waterbury, where Ben & Jerry’s headquarters is an ice-cream theme park, and past red barns slouching with age or enjoying new careers as inns or performing arts centres. Even the base lodge of Sugarbush Resort, Clay Brook, is a stylized big red barn complete with rooms in a modern silo, all built in 2008. A classic old schoolhouse is the kid’s ski-school and daycare, and the locally-sourced Timbers Restaurant was fashioned after a round, 19th-century Vermont dairy barn.

Sugarbush at 1212 metres tops New England’s verticals with a skiable drop of 807 metres on 111 trails over 85 kilometres of slopes, which we often had all to ourselves. There are two peaks with Castlerock offering steep, narrow, winding New-England-style routes and more wide-open Mount Ellen. We skied-on-skied-off every one of its 16 lifts, but failed to encounter any of the moose sometimes spotted on the slopes.

Nearby was Warren, a tiny Vermont village with a church, town hall and the unique Warren Store where a “Breakfast Club” of old timers gathered next to the pot-bellied stove in the old 1839 stagecoach stop halfway between Boston and Montreal. Manager for 33 years, Jack Garvin took me upstairs where clothing and Vermont art are sold, then through the all-things-homemade kitchen that dishes up what SKI Magazine rates one of America’s top five ski breakfasts. The former stables-turned-bakery out back also produces bread and desserts for the Greek-revival style Pitcher Inn, a Relais & Chateau lodging across the street. “Every room has a Vermont theme,” said Garvin. “The Ski Room is full of memorabilia from Mad River Glen, even the original ticket booth.”

“Ski it if you can”

Mad River Glen, just 15 kilometres away, was our next stop and my thighs were quivering with fear. It’s an iconic ski hill that was created in 1947 by former Stowe skiers and other investors including members of the Rockefeller family. America’s only co-op-owned mountain is a haven for ski-bum purists: all natural snow through narrow glades, no grooming. Snowboarders need not apply. Of its four chairs, one is a single, one of only two in America (the other is in Alaska). After six runs ranked by SKI magazine as the East’s most challenging, I was in the retro bar that took me back to my childhood skiing days sipping a rare on-tap Lawson’s Finest Liquids international award-winning beer made in Warren. “It’s a small mountain, but it really kicks ass,” said a fellow baby-boomer beside me. No wonder Mad River’s motto is “Ski it if you can.”

There was one more mountain to ski and one more hard-to-find micro-brew I needed to sample on tap only at the Prohibition Pig resto-brewery in Waterbury. From there it was one hour north on Highway 100 past sugar shacks and farmhouses to the family-oriented Smuggler’s Notch. “Smuggs” has the second highest snowfall average in Vermont — over eight metres — after Jay Peak to the north. From the 1109-metre summit, I could see Stowe’s runs, separated by a summer-only, 18-kilometre zigzag “notch” (mountain pass) road used by smugglers since an 1807 Thomas Jefferson embargo against the British. It was also part of the Underground Railway for slaves escaping to Canada and during Prohibition.

Smuggler’s Notch sprawls across three mountains and the resort is comfy, casual condo-only, perfect for countless families who bring their kids here for ski schools. There’s also a winter Via Ferrata, ice-canyoning, a Fun Zone, zip-line and babysitting to keep youngsters busy (in early 2013 SKI magazine voted Smuggs number 1 in the East for the 14th consecutive year for family programs). Meanwhile, parents can enjoy long sweeping runs on 405 hectares of terrain, night snowshoe treks and cross-country skiing.

Ski conditions having warmed during a January thaw to just above freezing, we skied in sunshine one last time on a Saturday morning as the base lodge filled with excited three- to five-year-olds snapping onto their first snowboards. It was just a leisurely hour’s drive back to Burlington, but first it was time for lunch at the resort’s Morse Mountain Grille: a sustain-a-burger washed down with a luscious local Otter Creek Black IPA.

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