The most depressing thing you can see outside your windshield while driving to a cross-country ski centre is bare ground. Correction: The most depressing thing you can see is bare ground being pelted by a hard rain. Especially if you're on a rare guilt-free getaway to one of the best places to X-C in the United States (with wife and daughters happily visiting the in-laws) and you've just come from another ski town where, sadly, there wasn't enough snow to hit the trails.
But bear with this bare-ground lament, because my trip to Vermont's Green Mountains has a happy ending.
The resort region around the town of Stowe features more than 250 kilometres of ski trails snaking through more than 1,200 hectares of conserved land, one of the largest systems in the country. Add awesome alpine vistas and a ski season that can start in November and end in April (thanks to the altitude and snowfall) and you've got a destination that measures up to some of the top cross-country spots in the West.
Driving up Route 108, however, all I see is rain, grey skies and mist rising off what little snow remains in the valley. I can even hear thunder echoing around the higher elevations. Pinched between 1,340-metre Mount Mansfield – the state's tallest peak – and the Worcester Range, this four-season playground is only two hours southeast of Montreal and less than five hours from my home in Ottawa – which is covered in heaps of snow. Which makes me wonder why I'm here.
But then I turn off the highway into Stowe Mountain Resort, dash through the downpour to the chalet and meet manager Scott Dorwart, who is – astonishingly – smiling. "Yep, you can ski here," he assures me. "The rain is supposed to stop soon, and the trails will be fine."
Sure enough, in the time it takes Dorwart to find me a pair of waxless touring skis in the rental shop (guessing my weight within two pounds), the deluge turns into a drizzle and then ends. The clouds part; sun and blue sky emerge. And with the early afternoon temperature five degrees above zero, I set off alongside a rushing brook, wearing only tights and a wicking shirt – no hat, no gloves – for a few hours of magical spring skiing.
Despite an early March heat wave, the conditions on the resort's 45 kilometres of groomed trails are fine. Heeding Dorwart's cautions about ice patches beneath hemlock trees (where less snow reaches the ground) and on open hillsides with southern exposure, I barely break stride, maintaining my momentum while swishing from flats to climbs to thigh-burning descents, carving turns in the soft snow like the downhill skier that I'm too afraid to become.
That night, after checking into the Trapp Family Lodge, whose cross-country trail network is linked to Stowe Mountain Resort's, I head to the intimate Topnotch Resort for a memorable meal at Norma's bistro, where my appetizer (shrimp dumplings with roasted corn and scallions) and main (king salmon with orange ginger glaze) go perfectly with a pint of local Switchback IPA.
The Trapp resort and cross-country skiing are also a good fit, I discover the next morning. Yes, the 1,011-hectare property is owned and operated by those von Trapps – the family that inspired The Sound of Music. Its patriarch is Johannes von Trapp, Maria's youngest child, but these days his son Sam plays the gregarious host, coming home to Vermont in 2008 after spending a dozen years as a globetrotting ski instructor and upgrading the 65-kilometre trail network (plus 40 kilometres of linked backcountry that is off-property) that you can ski onto from the lodge.
Which is precisely what we do. Fortunately, Sam is eager to guide me along the best routes. Unfortunately, he's just as good on skinny skis as he is on the slopes, and my potential for embarrassment is high.
My fears are unfounded. Sam stops periodically on the climb into the mountains to let me catch my breath and gives me polite pointers on my technique.
"Guests might come here because of the musical," he says, flinging branches off the tracks with his poles, "but we try to get them tuned into a healthy outdoors lifestyle."
We ski five kilometres to the resort's solar-powered backcountry cabin, where caretaker Mike Gora dishes out bowls of steaming corn chowder. Sam has to zip off to a meeting so I spend the next couple hours savouring crisp tracks and freshly groomed downhills. It's warmed up to nearly 10 degrees above zero, which leads to pleasures such as a symphony of meltwater droplets falling from trees onto the white blanket below.
But my day is not all bliss in the forest. Realizing that it's 4 p.m., I race back to the lodge. I've got a tee time with Sam at the Trapp's Frisbee golf course. And afterward, he wants to show me the family's brewery, which is situated, conveniently, beside the final hole. (Cross-country skiing may be my idea of ecstasy, but disc golf and craft beer are also high on the list.)
I make it back on time and stay on par with Sam on the course. Après, in the brewery, we sit at the bar with flights of four Austrian-style lagers and watch the sun dip down over the Green Mountains.
"You skiing tomorrow?" Sam asks.
"Maybe. Will the snow be okay?"
"Given a choice between skiing and not skiing," Sam says, "I always choose to ski."
So I ski. And again, it is glorious. Like I said, a happy ending.
IF YOU GO
Porter Airlines begins its second season of winter flights to Burlington, Vt., from Toronto on Dec. 15. The funky college city on the shore of Lake Champlain is a 45-minute drive from Stowe. flyporter.com
Where to stay: Trapp Family Lodge is more than a destination for The Sound of Music lovers. It's an elegant European-flavoured resort geared toward cross-country skiing, with an extensive trail network accessible from the main lodge, a well-stocked ski shop, rentals, lessons and a brewpub for après. trappfamily.com
Stowe Mountain Resort may be known as a downhill destination, but it goes beyond paying lip service to cross-country. With 45 kilometres of groomed trails, 30 kilometres of backcountry terrain, knowledgeable staff and links to the Trapp network, it's worth the trip from north of the border. stowe.com
Top Notch Resort and Spa boasts a destination spa – it has ranked in the top 10 in the U.S. – and local, organic cuisine at both Norma's and the Buttertub Bistro, plus the Nordic Barn ski shop (nordicbarnvt.com) and a ski path leading to the Stowe town centre. topnotchresort.com
Dan Rubinstein is the managing editor of Canadian Geographic. He skied and stayed as a guest of the Stowe Area Association. The association did not review or approve this story.