A double diamond of a ski resort
STOWE - I jump off the Sunny Spruce Quad, slip my hands around the poles, and make my way down Side Street, following the line of my trusted ski instructor, Steve Dever. As we merge with another trail, I stop to take in the glorious vista. To my right is the craggy granite atop Mount Mansfield and the ribbons of white trails that snake down the Stowe Ski Area. Straight in front of me on Spruce Peak is a low-lying cloud socked into a valley, looking like a smear of marshmallow fluff. It was the day before Christmas and the fragrant pines were already bent over with heavy snow.
This year marks Dever’s 38th season teaching skiing on these two mountains. When he started, many of the instructors were tough Austrians who learned their trade in the Tyrol. They had little or no patience for novices who didn’t catch on quickly enough.
“Bend your knees, dummkopf, they would yell. Don’t you have any muscle?’’ Dever blurts out in his best impression of a harsh Austrian accent.
The hardened Austrians seemed to be perfectly suited for hurtling themselves down the face of 4,393-foot Mansfield, where the legendary Front Four trails have always taught the brazen the meaning of respect. All double diamonds (most extreme), Starr has a 37 degree pitch, while Lift Line and Goat are narrow serpentine trails where you have to turn on a dime. But it’s National that instills panic in most skiers as they look over the lip and declare, “I think I’m gonna try something else.’’ Smart decision.
Ever so slowly the Austrian guard on the mountain retired and the only sound of the old country was “Edelweiss,’’ sung by the Trapp Family Singers down the road (we’ll get to them later). Even more remarkable, Stowe Ski Area softened, with the expansion of Spruce Peak to accommodate beginner and lower intermediate skiers. Trails were cut, the Over Easy gondola was created to shuttle skiers across Mountain Road to the base of Mansfield, and townhomes were built to signal that Stowe was no longer solely the hub of hotdoggers and experts, but a deserving family destination.
The construction culminated in the opening of a new resort and base lodge in 2008. Enter the two-story lobby of 139-room Stowe Mountain Lodge, crafted in native wood and stone and furnished with leather couches, and you quickly realize this is the most luxurious ski-in, ski-out hotel in the East. Stowe sought to use as much indigenous building material as possible, so Vermont birch adorns the columns, and the marble on the stairs that lead to the bar comes from Lake Champlain. Add an upscale restaurant, Solstice, a welcoming après-ski bar, a spa to massage weary legs after a day of skiing, and outdoor hot tubs that reward you with views of the mountain you just conquered, and you really have no need to leave the resort.
The same Vermont stone, wood, and granite were also used to create the base lodge, and the food and amenities complement the decor. Sure, you can grab a bowl of chili and sit at one of the large tables under the octagonal post-and-beam roof, but you might want to opt for a Cobb salad or grilled panini next to the roaring fireplace in the bar area, where five Vermont microbrews are on tap. Indeed, Stowe might have lost some of its Austrian heritage, but it gained a resort and base lodge that feel right out of the Austrian Alps.
“Austrians think Americans treat skiing like going to work, trying to get in as many runs as possible,’’ says Dever, who was persuaded by his fellow ski instructors to spend time in Austria. “The Europeans like to take many breaks, suntan, grab some schnapps, then hit the lifts again.’’
I decide to take a break from downhill skiing and drive 10 minutes to the Trapp Family Lodge. I know I’m in the right place when I spot a road sign that reads: “A little of Austria. A lot of Vermont.’’ Perched on a ridge overlooking the town of Stowe, Baroness Maria von Trapp and her husband, Georg, known as the Captain, found a worthy substitute for their beloved Salzburg. They bought a working farm and began welcoming travelers to their Austrian-style homestead in 1950. When the large family was not traveling the world as the Trapp Family Singers, they entertained their guests.
We all know what happened then. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II immortalized the family in their 1965 blockbuster musical, “The Sound of Music,’’ and generation after generation have been making the pilgrimage to Stowe in search of a von Trapp.
“Our Trapp family history tours are still very popular,’’ says Kristina von Trapp Frame, granddaughter of Maria, who helps run the resort with her parents and brother, Sam. While her grandmother had a more musical mind, it was her father, Johannes, the last of three children Maria and the Captain had together, who had the business savvy to expand the Trapp Family Lodge. Three years after the debut of “The Sound of Music,’’ he opened one of the first commercial cross-country ski centers in North America.
I rent equipment at their ski center and off I go on Sugar Road. Within minutes, I’m surrounded by snowy maples, birches, and pines. The Parizo Trail forces me to work my way uphill, but some 5 kilometers later, I’m inside a cozy cabin, a highlight of Trapp’s cross-country skiing network if you can reach it. I take a seat next to a toasty fire and listen as a violinist plays “Silent Night.’’ Similar to a ski lodge, the cabin sells food and drink for lunch. I get a bowl of homemade soup and peer out at the front porch, where a downy woodpecker is grabbing his lunch at the bird feeder.
The wiener schnitzel and apple strudel will have to wait until later in the week, when I return to Trapp’s for dinner at their main restaurant. Kristina notes that they have plans to open a microbrewery near their Austrian bake shop and that Sam is busy carving out mountain bike trails that could one day rival the Kingdom Trails in the state’s Northeast Kingdom. In the meantime, Stowe seems to be bustling with skiers who like their winter sports spiced with dashes of Austrian flavor.
Stephen Jermanok can be reached at www.activetravels.com.