Panic rose so far up my throat that I choked. I could not, would not pull my body into the Niagara Escarpment through a hole the size of a toilet bowl. But everyone else had: my kids, my husband, the rest of the tour group – even the guides were on the other side. "There's lots of head room once you're through!" they called back. I did not find that encouraging.
What were we doing here anyway? This was supposed to be a ski trip. Albeit a ski trip that was still fun for a non-skier. It had taken months to persuade my husband to try a winter getaway somewhere cold, where the kids and I could indulge in our new-found skills on the slopes and he could – well, what could he do except watch us from the hot tub?
The biggest ski resort close to our Toronto home is Blue Mountain. No one in this city brags about ski vacations at Blue Mountain, that's for ski trips out West. But it's time to take another look at this local favourite, now in its 73rd season. Blue Mountain recently opened 25 hectares of beginner and intermediate ski terrain, including the longest green run in Ontario, at 1.6 kilometres. (It's part of a fresh injection of cash into the resort: In July, a revamped indoor tennis area will open as part of a $10-million expansion of the conference facility. In the past three years, a tree-top ropes course, zipline and mountain coaster have beefed up Blue's summer attractions.) The six runs that make up the Orchard, so-called because it used to be full of apple trees, were cut in 1987 and were technically out of bounds to resort skiers. This season, thanks to a six-person, high-speed chairlift, the area is open to all and it's a perfect place to hone my new skier's skills.
On the resort's website, I discovered a long list of outdoor adventures that might interest my husband. As I read them off – snowshoeing, skating, sleigh rides, tobogganing, scavenger hunts, ATV rides – nothing registered until "snowmobiling." Bingo! That was something he'd never done before. But what could we do as a family? Skating, sure. Caves? I vaguely remembered something about the area's famous Scenic Caves.
By the time we finally reached the resort (snow, rush hour, Toronto – say no more) everyone's nerves were rattled, so a little distance was called for. Jack went to his ski lesson, Bethany and I woke up our legs on easy runs, my husband burned off energy on the huge Mill Pond skating rink.
That night (after hearing, "Mom, would you just relax?" one too many times) I decamped to the Scandinave Spa. This outdoor oasis, sister to spas in Whistler and Mont Tremblant, is less than a 10-minute drive from Blue Mountain. Steaming thermal waterfall baths and brilliant blue plunge pools lured me through the hot/cold Nordic experience. On a Friday night, this place is Blue's hottest àpres ski spot, drawing young couples who snuggled and whispered to each other. I unwound to the point where I almost forgot I had a family.
Our time apart made the next day's activities sweeter. The kids and I headed to the Orchard. A variety of slope and pitch on the green runs make them more thrilling than the resort's older beginner trails, enough so that we branched out into more challenging ways down the mountain. Later, my husband returned with a wicked grin after snowmobiling all over the escarpment, regaling us with stories of his adventures over dinner.
All that fresh air put us in the right frame of mind to try something new. But let it be known: a "caving tour" in the Blue Mountains does not necessarily mean you'll be going to the well-known Scenic Caves (which are closed in winter). I had unwittingly signed us up for Free Spirit Tours' half-day snowshoe and spelunking of the escarpment. The hike in, along some of the Bruce Trail, was peaceful and picturesque. We drank from a fresh spring and admired thousand-year old white cedars growing at crazy angles along the limestone. In the Metcalfe Crevice, a natural corridor where the limestone was whitewashed with frost, there was a moody mist and fog hanging around the tree tops. It was spookily quiet. Jennie Elmslie, our guide, talked about its importance to the Petun natives, about portholes to the spirit world and the powerful native symbol in front of us – a cedar's long, braided root. She passed around a bag of dried sage for us to sprinkle as a sign of respect. Further on, we parked our snowshoes and slid down the snow and ice toward the cave opening, to visit an underwater spring about 20 metres below.
And that's when I balked. "If Dad can make it through, you can make it," reasoned my daughter's voice from the other side of the boulder. She had a point: He is bigger. My nine-year-old (the smallest in our group) had already gone down the next rocky rabbit hole, psyched to be leading a bunch of grownups. Perhaps, I said to myself, the family that caves together, stays together – or, maybe, if these walls are going to cave in, I should at least be able to hug everyone one last time. So I ducked my head and wiggled in. And prayed I had left enough dried sage on the snow.
IF YOU GO
WHAT TO DO
Ski: Blue Mountain's skiable terrain just increased 20 per cent, so it's time to explore. All-day lift tickets allow you to try the resort's 28 night runs, too: $55 for youth (ages 6-17), $72 for adults. bluemountain.ca
Snowmobile: Why ski down a mountain when you can race around it? Ride your own machine on a ripping hour-long run through the Niagara Escarpment. Book it at Activity Central in the resort village. $99 a person, $119 for driver and passenger. Gas extra. bluemountain.ca
Winter caving: Explore a little of the escarpment's underground world. Half-day caving tours are $70 a person. Or try the wine-tasting snowshoe hike to Georgian Hills Vineyards for $65 a person. 705-444-3622, freespirit-tours.com
Ridge Runner Mountain Coaster: More than a kilometre of downhill fun if you're lucky and the roller coaster is open; it's often closed in winter. Located near Activity Central in the village. $5 (under 12 years) or $15. bluemountain.ca
WHERE TO EAT
On the mountain: The Orchard offers the only on-mountain dining you'll find at Blue Mountain – and it's a Beaver Tails shack at the top of the Southern Comfort lift. At the bottom of the hill there's the Yeti Cheese food truck for goey grilled cheese, beef and veggie sandwhiches. Look for it in the parking lot.
In the village: Oliver & Bonacini Café & Grill is the classiest place in town for dinner. If it's on the menu, order the osso bucco. One of the restaurant's cocktails – Blood & Spice (cinnamon-spiked blood orange juice and whisky) – might also turn up as the fresh-squeezed juice of the day at breakfast (minus the booze). In the Westin Trillium House, 220 Gord Canning Dr., oliverbonacini.com
For a fun lunch, head to Firehall Pizza. The decor goes above and beyond the usual themed restaurant, and the pub grub is good. 162 Jozo Weider Blvd., 705-444-0611, firehallpizza.com
WHERE TO STAY
Westin Trillium House Blue Mountain: Fresh and modern, this is not your usual ski chalet, and all 224 rooms have undergone a recent multimillion-dollar refurbishment. There are two hot tubs and a heated outdoor pool, plus indoor access to the kiddie waterpark (extra fees apply). Kitchenettes, or full kitchens, in all rooms. From $199. westinbluemountain.com
Weider Lodge: This all-suite, chalet-style hotel is the closest hotel to a ski lift in the village. Plus, there's a complimentary ski valet. From $314. bluemountain.ca
WHERE TO ESCAPE YOUR FAMILY
Scandinave Spa: Nordic baths take the edge off, and a no-booze-by-the-pools rule means no one gets rowdy. It's bliss in the midst of 10 forested hectares. Must be at least 19, all-day access starts at $50. 152 Grey Rd 21, 1-877-988-8484
The writer was a guest of Blue Mountain Resort.