A family group enjoys airboarding at ‘Smuggs’. Photos by Sonja Star
By Sonja Stark
It’s midnight and everyone is sound asleep to a beautiful cacophony of nocturnal creatures. Hard-working snowcats and snowmobiles are out in full force, dancing circles around steep pistes, whistling, rumbling and scraping up dreams for an eventful tomorrow at Smugglers Notch resort in Vermont.
Few things are more comforting to a skier than the sounds and shadows silhouetted by manpower and machinery on the inside walls of his or her’s cozy little condominium studio. Mine is called Liftside, a one-bathroom studio apartment with a fireplace and all the conveniences of home.
We are a party of three (my Mutti, yoga instructor and myself) sharing a last-minute decision to drive four hours north from Albany, New York, to Jeffersonville, Vermont, and split the fun.
All Ages and Abilities
The alarm goes off at 7 am, just in time to catch a fissure in the clouds spilling a fresh quilt of accumulation. The sun peeks through and promises a friendly start to our adventures in a state that looks more like Montana, minus the bowls, during this time of year.
With 50 years of experience, Smugglers Notch is also known as Smuggs and it’s billed as ‘America’s Family Resort’ — the quintessential fun spot for people of all ages and abilities.
But, I’m a solitary alpine skier, sans husband and kiddies, and not too keen on crowds, commercialism and tiny tow ropes. I’m in luck – Smuggs is still locally-owned with acres of elbow room and for the past nine years, selected as the “Best Resort in North America” by Ski Magazine.
The two-seater lifts offer breathtaking views at Smugglers Notch in Vermont.
“This is not a wimpy mountain, not at all, ” says Barbara Thomke, public relations director, happy to clue me in on the grown-up terrain and resort activities.
“Smuggs is a very exciting mountain and one of the best kept secrets in Vermont. There’s even a 3-diamond run called “The Black Hole” with cliffs, obstacles and glades. Most people don’t dare ride it without a guide!”
Now I’m super psyched! Hairpin turns and impossible speeds await us as we hop onto a rather anachronistic two-seater metal lift. The lift assistant secures the run-away cushion before it scoops me into the sky. That alone gives my belly butterflies.
At Smuggs, two-seater lifts are the norm. They aren’t nearly as fast as modern quads but useful for injecting an appreciation for the winter wonderland and the aesthetic beauty of the area.
It’s cold at the summit.
Taking in the views is breathtaking but I’m too anxious to sit still and besides the winds are whipping so strongly that my yoga instructor’s nose looks frostbitten already. As soon as we lift the safety bar and the chair dumps us off, we explode out of the seat like racehorses at Saratoga.
Madonna Mountain is the tallest of 3 peaks, 3,640 feet, buffered between two smaller mountains, Morse and Sterling. By Northeast standards, it’s grossly elevated, so a warming hut awaits you if you need to de-thaw your toes before you start.
Intermediate and expert runs like Upper Chicoot, Upper Drifter, Upper F.I.S. (For Instance Satisfaction, perhaps?) and dozens of new glades make for some serious adrenaline rushes.
The snow is absolutely perfect today. Pulse-pounding steeps dressed with experienced professionals are everywhere. I never would have thought that a mountain with so many diaper-donning neophytes could also simultaneously cater to double-diamond mavericks.
Of course, coming up Madonna Mountain (appropriately named), I should have known a party paradise prevails seeing deciduous trees dressed in bras and beads. Could this be Mardi-Gras residual from Fat Tuesday?
The snowboarder I was tailgating
My best skiing comes when I secretly tailgate seasoned skiers better than myself. It’s an instant confidence boost when I can achieve a run in relatively the same manner and speed as someone faster and stronger.
For this first run, I decide to stalk a grisly, bushy-bearded snowboarder, very Vermont – very cute, with a wonderful smile and nice goggles. “Let the steeplechase begin,” I whisper to myself.
Like a cat stalking a mouse, we careen down the mountain, me emulating his every move – zipping around bends, sticking to the sides and then towards a terrifying glade called Doc Dempsey. I stop short from entering. The boarder continues without so much as a moment’s hesitation.
Most, if not all, of the newest glades are the artwork of Oliver Blackman, also known as Smugg’s “Glade Architect Extraordinaire.” Oliver has worked in the logging and ski business for roughly 35 years. He’s the ideal woodsman for the job.
“Skiing in trees predates skiing on trails”, says Oliver. “There were trees long before there were trails. It was only after the war (WWII) that we started to create trails with lifts”.
Oliver assures me that the glades he makes are not cut willy-nilly. There’s an environmental science and skill needed to preserve and balance the forest.
A view of Madonna Mountain
In fact, Oliver was interviewed for the Weather Channel only a few weeks earlier for his expertise in weather patterns that affect glade cutting. His climatic and scientific approach is appreciated but what I really need to know is how to ski one of his man-made creations.
“Look for Openings”
“Golfers talk about looking where they want the ball to go. If they look off the fairway, then the ball goes off the fairway. Skiing glades is much the same way,” says Oliver.
“You look for openings (in the woods) then try to dive into the openings as opposed to focusing on the trees as obstacles. Kids, in particular, like to ski in glades and oddly enough they have an advantage because they are smaller. Something that feels really tight for us feels very easy for kids.”
Roughly 22% of Smuggs 1000 acres are glades and despite Oliver’s wisdom, I’m still stuck on top of Doc Dempsey with nowhere to go.
Hearty classics at the Three Mountain Lodge
Future Olympians, no taller than my kneecap, whiz by with little or no effort or fear whatsoever. They dart in and out of glades like little white winter moles. Smuggs is a great place to learn new tricks, but my ego prevents me from tailgating a 12-year-old. Instead, I take a deep breath and scream my way down.
The great outdoors builds up a ferocious appetite and by 6 pm my crew of three stops for reservations at a fabulous log restaurant one mile from Smuggs called The Three Mountain Lounge. It’s so close (in the summer, it’s walking distance) that my car windows are barely defrosted when I pull into the parking lot.
Veteran owners Colleen and Steve Blood, prepare us a traditional dinner of hearty classics: chicken pot pie, rainbow trout and North Atlantic halibut. A dollop of yummy homemade Vermont maple walnut icecream, split three ways, tops off the meal.
The Three Mountain Lodge at Smugglers Notch in Vermont.
Built in 1966, the Three Mountain Lodge is a rustic, tongue-in-groove log cabin warmed by a fireplace on one side and cast iron wood burning stove on the other. Lovely quilted patchwork tablecloths and romantic low-lit candles create the ideal place for Valentines or an anniversary.
Rather than sign a guest book, the owners make sure that everyone staples their business card to the beams in the foyer for easy advertising and a touch of genuine memories.
Solar Hot Water
With our stomachs full but muscles still throbbing, Nola, Mutti and I decide to skip cocktails at Bootleggers Lounge and head straight for a dip in the nearby bubbling hot tub. Depending on which condo you stay in, pools and hot tubs are a short walk from your front door.
The Aquatics Center in the Tamarack Condos is the newest solar hot water system, powered by a windmill on the side of the building. Smuggs has exercised the green scene with “Reuse, Recyle and Reduce” philosophies long before sustainable slopes were fashionable.
Smuggs also offers cross-country skiing.
A young Ohio bruiser with a tender black eye and cut lip is marinating his wounds in the warm waters of the hot tub when we arrive. I caught Robby earlier recuperating in the cafeteria from his terrible collision atop Madonna Mountain – a collision spurred on by an apologetic boarder friend wearing an iPod at the time.
But friends who board together stay together, no matter what or how injuries happen, and Robby’s accident-prone buddy was basking his own share of bruises as well. I grinned, thinking what a disaster it would have been to tailgate teenagers like these through Oliver’s glades.
One More Run
A wide spectrum of activities like cross-country skiing, outdoor ice skating, airboarding, private snowmobile riding and snowshoeing can entertain the masses as well.
The Resort even has a pet-friendly policy that encourages you to bring your beloved best friend along for the trip, provided you pick up after him.
In the morning, our socks, suits and skis are all dry but we decide to give Smuggs one more run for our money. It’s this last run where I slice some big air in the Morse Mountain Terrain Park.
I do so by knocking off one more back-seat driving scheme, this time chasing a parent doing the same with his 8-year old in the lead.
His youth is wearing short skis with squarish tails and bouncing over molehills like popcorn in a blender. His hot-dogging skills far exceed his dear ol’ dad’s, and mine as well, but we suck up our fear and stay the course. It turns out to be the best chute of the whole trip.
Reservations and Information:
Smugglers Notch Resort
4323 Vermont Route 108 South
Smugglers’ Notch, Vermont 05464-9537
Sonja Stark is an award-winning, freelance videographer and the founder of PilotGirl Productions. She shoots professional 4K video for top-rated television productions, shows and documentaries. She is GoNOMAD’s most regular blogger, click to read her latest post about travel and life in video.