Winter wonder: Michigan's small-scale slopes provide the perfect starting point for ski novices
Saturday 28 February 2009
Glancing at the icy speedometer as we barrelled along the narrow trail, I was astonished to see it creeping towards 50mph. Just minutes earlier, struggling to get to grips with this two-man snowmobile, 20mph had seemed absurdly fast. But then everything about this trip to the alternative winter wonderland of northern Michigan had proved pretty easy to master and, for a bunch of winter novices such as the five of us, wonderfully family-friendly.
Almost every Brit who flies the Atlantic in search of winter sports will end up on the eastern side –in Quebec or Vermont – or on the western side in the Rockies, Tahoe or Whistler. Yet the Treetops Resort in Gaylord, Michigan, probably offers the best value for money in skiing today. If you also have a family of non-skiers like I do, this is the stuff of holiday heaven.
Gaylord's faux-Alpine roots are the gateway to an exercise in pure small-scale family fun. The skiing is aimed almost exclusively at intermediates and beginners; the hills barely reach 500ft (intimidation factor – only slightly above zero); and the ease of getting everyone mobile on the slopes is hard to fault. With three boys (ages 10, 12 and 16) and a wife whose interest in skiing was hesitant at best, it had been a gamble to opt for the full winter programme at Treetops, which is better known as one of Michigan's top golf centres when not covered in snow.
The season here lasts just from December to March but does include night-time skiing and, when it takes roughly 10 minutes to get from your hotel room to the top of the slopes, it's hard to imagine anything more user-friendly.
Despite the encouraging noises from the ski rental and ski school staff, I was still apprehensive at unleashing five rookies on the range of 24 runs. The big difference, though, from my only previous ski experience 25 years ago in Austria? Everything explained in clear English and no long queues to get back on the lift after each run – I doubt if we waited more than half an hour in total on any day.
The thoughtfulness and efficiency throughout the resort was remarkable. Friends had told us to expect a warm welcome but the reality still came as a pleasant surprise.
Our rooms were generously spacious, and unusually for the US the rate included breakfast (and none of that continental nonsense, either; plenty of good, honest eggs, bacon and pancakes, with enough choice for even the pickiest eater – and the youngest can be pretty picky).
A full day's skiing was invariably followed by a trip to Legends On The Hill, the resort's main diner, which offered superb valley views as well as a kid-friendly menu, live music and, for the grown-ups, a blissful hot cider and cinnamon concoction that would give gluhwein a good run for its money.
There was also a lively sports bar and fine-dining restaurant. The best news, though, was all the boys were at least comfortable on skis after just an hour's instruction and everyone was fully mobile after a two-hour, one-on-one session with their own instructor.
Truth be told, the daredevil middle boy was soon disappearing down the full variety of blue runs and pleading for a chance to tackle the black-rated versions. In the interests of keeping the local medics out of business, I scotched that notion.
Treetops prides itself on its family facilities, so the ease with which we were all emulating the downhill ski fraternity was a solid testimony to their speciality.
We could also have tried cross-country skiing, snowboarding, snow-tubing, indoor swimming pool, intimate spa and extensive kids' club – although there was no way my tribe was going indoors with so much snow to play with.
We arrived to a base in excess of three feet and had almost another foot in the space of five days, interspersed with bright sunshine and one stunning morning of heavy frost that left the resort glistening like some outsize Christmas tree decoration.
Gaylord's other claim to fame, though, is typical northern Michigan, and that brings us back to those snowmobiles.
With up to 150 inches of snow a year, alternative transport is a winter priority, and that parlays into some alternative fun of the ski-and-track variety. Put simply, this is Snowmobile Central, and virtually everywhere rents these versatile little vehicles by the day.
We headed to the neighbouring resort of Marsh Ridge to meet up with a pair of guides, Rob and Madonna. We set out on a four-hour adventure that took us deep into the local wilds, along regular trails and through thickly wooded culverts where the snow hung heavy in the massed ranks of the ever-present, evergreen white pines.
Exhilarating only begins to describe it. Startling, thrilling, majestic and outrageously scenic also only scratch the surface. Or, to provide the teenage view: "This is so amazing there just aren't words for it." So I won't try any further. But you be sure to give it a try now. You hear?
Northwest Airlines/KLM (08705 074074; klm.com) flies from Heathrow and Gatwick to Detroit.
Carrentals.co.uk has all-inclusive weekly rates in Michigan from £115.
Treetops Resort, 3962 Wilkinson Road, Gaylord, Michigan (001 989 732 6711; treetops.com). Doubles start at $138 (£99) including one-day lift pass and breakfast. Daily ski rental starts at $25 (£18), ski lessons $45 (£32) per hour per student. Daily snowmobile rental (marsh ridge.com) from $135 (£96) .
Eating & drinking there
Bennethum's Northern Inn,, Gaylord (001 989 732 9288; bennethums.com).
Gaylord Area Tourism Bureau: 001 989 732 4000; gaylordmichigan.net. Michigan Tourism: 001 800 644 2489; michigan.org
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