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Appreciating après-ski

Matthew Leach of Somerville, left, and Brian Kuhn of Worcester warm up with the après-ski menu at the Foggy Goggle at Sunday River's South Ridge Base Lodge in Newry, Maine. Matthew Leach of Somerville, left, and Brian Kuhn of Worcester warm up with the après-ski menu at the Foggy Goggle at Sunday River's South Ridge Base Lodge in Newry, Maine. (FRED FIELD FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
Email|Print| Text size + By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / January 28, 2007

NEWRY, Maine -- For many weekend skiers, the après-ski scene can be as torturously demanding as navigating a black-diamond nightmare laced with washboard moguls, hidden ice, and out-of-control snowboarders. Dancing and drinking until 2 a.m., sandwiched between two marathon days of skiing, is an Olympian test worthy of downhill bad boy Bode Miller.

But here at Sunday River ski area -- a sprawling complex of 131 trails, 18 ski lifts, and eight connected mountains -- the laid-back concept of a "family resort" applies to many of the social options available after the last run of the day.

Instead of pulsating lights, ear-bending music, and ski bums and bunnies on the make, much of the night life here in the mountains of western Maine tends toward the mellow. Instead of disco shoes, après-ski at Sunday River is more like fuzzy slippers.

That doesn't mean the skier seeking off-slope fun will find the pickings this winter as bare as some of the Northeast's snow-starved trails. It just seems that some of the pubs and restaurants near Sunday River tend to hibernate well before the wee hours.

Phil Ottone, general manager of the popular Foggy Goggle, offers this explanation for the early-to-bed, early-to-rise rhythm here: "People have been on the mountain all day."

Even at the Foggy Goggle, whose towering windows at the South Ridge Base Lodge offer spectacular mountain views, the patrons often leave early for their slopeside condos or bed-and-breakfast rooms in nearby Bethel.

"At lunch, everybody's doing well," Ottone says of business at the Foggy Goggle and other après-ski establishments. "Afterward, it's more like, 'Come on in, have a couple of drinks, and relax.' "

For Sunday River, which is a 3 1/2-hour drive from Boston, that old-shoe feel is well-suited for a state that disdains the flashy and flamboyant. Here, the scene is all about roaring fireplaces and big-screen TVs, dart boards and pool tables, bartenders who know your name, and waitresses with a smile.

It's après-ski for skiers who like to ski, rather than skiers who want to be seen.

Most of the dining and night life options at Sunday River are clustered at the slopes and its access road, or in the postcard-quaint downtown of Bethel, about five miles away. At Sunday River, the Foggy Goggle reigns as monarch of the late-afternoon après-ski scene. Ottone, who is in his first season at Sunday River after 10 years as a restaurant manager in Lake Tahoe, Nev., says business is up this year after an ambitious renovation and a near-complete turnover of the bar staff.

Now, the indoor ambience is airy instead of cluttered, with wooden walls, track lighting, and a new $30,000 sound system all designed to comfort the skier after a bumpy day on the trails. Ottone insists that past complaints about tardy food and surly bartenders are only memories.

"No one wants to get kicked in the teeth," Ottone says of his customers. "The goal is to be lively, fun, and friendly."

The Foggy Goggle offers live entertainment on the weekend that consists mostly of cover bands, Ottone says.

Matt Stellato, 46, a hard-core skier from Beverly , says he regularly makes the 50-minute drive to Sunday River from his ski-club lodgings in Jackson, N.H.

"I like a good band, good music, a good time, and pretty girls," Stellato says. "Here, you get that."

But even on weekend nights, Ottone says, closing time comes at 11 p.m. Besides the Foggy Goggle, on-mountain entertainment also can be found at the Shipyard Brew Haus at White Cap Lodge.

Across the access road from the South Ridge Base Lodge is the Phoenix House & Well, the core of which was once the ski home of Les Otten, the driving force behind the development of Sunday River and now vice chairman of the Boston Red Sox. A big bar with plenty of elbow room fills the rear of the place while dining tables, a huge projection screen, and great views of the resort dominate the front of the building.

Outside, a 15-foot-high fireplace warms those patrons who can't get enough of the outdoors. Inside the Phoenix House, the scene is quintessential ski lodge -- all parkas, turtlenecks, scarves, ski pants, funky hats, chapped lips, and pink cheeks. An acoustic singer provides entertainment on Friday and Saturday from 4 to 8 p.m. On Saturday, a live band plays from about 9:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.

A short ride down the access road toward Route 2, which takes skiers back to Bethel, is the Matterhorn. There, behind a 13-foot statue of a grizzly bear, is a two-story former farmhouse that co-owners Roger Beaudoin and Patrice Miller have fashioned into an eclectically infectious gathering hall, where wood-fired brick-oven pizza is the house specialty.

The Matterhorn's rustic wooden walls are festooned with vintage skis, helmets, ice skates, trail maps, mountain-climbing memorabilia, and even a mounted brown bear wearing Hawaiian beads. Televisions seem to be everywhere, including a 67-inch flat-screen monster, but they're not the conversation-stifling focus that often turns sports-bar patrons into smack-talking automatons.

"The thing I like the best is to walk around on any given night, and see happy, smiling faces here," Beaudoin says. In other words, a bar that is the après-ski equivalent of a St. Bernard with a brandy keg.

Shortly after 4 p.m. on a recent Saturday, when the lifts had stopped running and the skiers had slalomed to their favorite indoor venues, the Matterhorn began to rock. Ales and lagers flowed from a fantail of taps and members of the Matterhorn's 700-strong beer club began to be served in personalized, numbered mugs.

Marc Smith, 46, of Portland, was one of the happy campers. A mug in his hand and a grin on his face, Smith said the Matterhorn offered the right combination after a long day of skiing. To wit: "You walk up to the bar, they know your face, they pick up mug No. 168, and they say, 'Hey, Smitty, what are you having tonight?' " The Matterhorn offers live bands from about 9:30 p.m. to 12:45 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, with acoustic music from 4 to 9 p.m. on Saturday.

Away from the resort, the atmosphere is more sedate. At the Suds Pub, located downstairs in the stately Sudbury Inn on Main Street in Bethel, the music that Saturday night was an acoustic brand of easy-listening rock and ballads.

One reason might be that the inn, built circa 1873, is a popular destination with 18 rooms that don't have blast protectors between them and the music. The innkeepers, Nancy and Bill White, said the old days of rock 'n' roll from dusk to dawn are over, replaced by their working model of family-friendly comfort.

The peace and relative quiet must be appealing, because the Suds Pub on one evening had a two-hour waiting list after darkness closed the slopes.

For Suds Pub bartender Bob Lausier, 37, the pace suits him fine. Although he skis 150 days a year -- in the Northeast and out West -- the Lynn native long ago chose to make Bethel his home.

"Sometimes," Lausier says, "we call it a hidden secret."

Contact Brian MacQuarrie at macquarrie@globe.com.

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