Shortly before sunset, up atop Sterling Mountain, beyond the fogs of condensation that cloud my view with each exhalation, the perfectly snow-frosted trees stand out against the pale whisper pink sky. After enjoying a brilliantly sunny day on the slopes, all the skiers have now left the mountain. In their absence the stillness of the mountain is humbling and serene. Just to the right of the Sterling chairlift is the Top of the Notch cabin where Smuggler’s Notch Resort hosts their weekly Snowshoe Adventure Dinner.

The authentically rustic (note: no washrooms) cabin, with its nine table-clothed, hexagon-shaped picnic tables is where tonight’s candle lit dinner will be served. Warmed by a cup of banana liquor infused hot chocolate topped with a spire of whipped cream, we strap on our snowshoes and head back out to explore the mountain.

Smuggler's Notch Resort

Top of the Notch cabin on Sterling Mountain at Smuggler’s Notch Resort
Credit: Julie Kalan

Tonight’s group of about 45 people, begin the snowshoe tour on a narrow path through the woods. Following like ducks, one by one we soon arrive at one of the three-sided huts that periodically dot the Long Trail (a hiking trail that runs the length of Vermont, from the Canadian border to the Massachusetts state line). The shelter protects against wind and rain but provides no other comforts. Stepping out of the woods, we snowshoe onto the frozen water of Sterling Pond. Not far beyond the pond, topping a small ridge I find myself mesmerized by the tiny lights of Stowe village down in the valley below.

Back at the Top of the Notch cabin, dinner begins with a fresh salad and a choice of soup. Aside from the hot chocolate earlier, all drinks are strictly BYOB and thanks to my dinner companions we had an ample supply of water, merlot and a delightfully refreshing cranberry wine from the nearby Boyden Valley Winery. Next is my choice of entree, Vermont chicken with Cabot cheddar and apple slices.

Although it feels like at least 11pm, it is only 8 o’clock when, thoroughly stuffed from dinner, we begin our descendent. The full moon is bathing the trails in a dazzling light and in the clear sky I can easily make out Orion’s belt and the big dipper. The crisp crunch of snow heard with every step testifies to the plunging temperature, but without any wind it is a comfortable trek down.

All along Rumrunner trail the snow crystals are sparkling like diamonds in the moonlight. The guides previously informed us that there are two sections of the trail where, if we choose, we can opt to sled down – sans sled. At the first spot I decide to continue snowshoeing and soon find myself painstakingly inching my way down this section of steep incline. For the second section I opt to take the quick way down, reclining in a semi-crunch position and letting gravity do the rest. Continuing down the mountain, about forty minutes after leaving the summit, the base lodge comes into view and my sterling adventure comes to an end.

Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah; Zip-A-Dee-Yeah!

High above the forest floor, this rope/wood bridge is part of the Arbortrek Canopy Adventures' course Credit: Julie Kalan

High above the forest floor, this rope/wood bridge is part of the Arbortrek Canopy Adventures’ course
Credit: Julie Kalan

Helmut on, harness secure, I simply lift my feet up slightly and begin hurdling through the air. Fear, excitement, apprehension and exhilaration all rush to mind, frantically vying for supremacy. This is the first of six zip lines on the Wild Winter Ride at the Arbortrek Canopy Adventures, located just down the road from Smuggler’s Notch Resort. Operating year round, anyone over eight years old, can soar among the treetops at Vermont’s first zip line canopy adventure.

Luckily I do not have a problem with heights, so leaning back off the edge of the second platform does not faze me. However, I do have a fear of coming in too quickly and crashing into a tree. The first two zip lines are relatively short, both under 200ft (61m) long, to help ease people into the rhythm of zip lining. The two guides on each tour (one on either end of the zip line) are not only trained in safety, and local ecology, but also how to help people conquer their fears on the course.

After one more zip line we come to the first wood/rope bridge – a wonderful opportunity to take a moment and appreciate the beauty of the winter woods. On the platform, preparing for the next zip line our guides tell us that we have successfully completed half of the six zip lines. I can’t believe it – already? Didn’t we just begin?

It Takes a Village

Smuggler’s Notch Resort is designed as a village, with the restaurants and stores at the base of Morse Mountain and condo communities radiating further out. Some communities offer ski in/ski out accommodations on Morse Mountain, but others require the use of the resort shuttle bus to bring guests to the village center. This sprawling layout provides accommodations in natural mountain settings with a chance to view birds and other small wildlife from your balcony. As for the shuttle bus, it is quick, user-friendly, and staffed by local outdoor enthusiasts. Hop on board the larger blue buses at the village center to access the blue square and black diamond trails of Madonna and Sterling Mountain. The resort covers three mountains: Morse Mountain at 2250ft (686m) is almost exclusively green, Sterling Mountain reaches 3040ft (927m) with a mix of glades, and blue and black trails, and Madonna Mountain at 3640ft (1109m) is home to the only triple black diamond in the east.

What’s in a Name

Smuggler’s Notch Resort takes its name after a narrow pass through the mountains, located alongside Sterling Mountain, known as Smuggler’s Notch. This mountain pass, or notch, was used to smuggle goods from Canada in the early 1800’s; later in the century slaves used this route to escape to Canada; and perhaps most famously, it was used to smuggle alcohol from Canada during the Prohibition years.

In the summer you can drive through Smuggler’s Notch, taking the one lane road with 1000ft (305m) cliffs on either side, but during the winter the only way through is on skis, snowshoes or snowmobile. Unfortunately, this makes traveling from Smuggler’s Notch Resort to Stowe Resort go from a twelve minute drive in the summer to an hour’s drive in the winter.

The Over Easy gondola ride at Stowe Mountain Resort links Spruce Peak and Mount Mansfield Credit: Julie Kalan

The Over Easy gondola ride at
Stowe Mountain Resort links Spruce Peak and Mount Mansfield
Credit: Julie Kalan

On the Other Side of the Notch

Stowe Mountain Lodge is a luxury ski in/ski out resort with concierge service and valets that take your skis at the front door and store them until needed. The lobby is decorated with birch logs, leather couches and a two-storey window wall that looks out onto Spruce Peak. Celebrities like John Travolta and James Taylor have visited the slopes of the resort’s two mountains. Mount Mansfield, 4395ft (1340m) high, and Spruce Peak at 3320ft (1012m) are separated by Mountain Road, but are conveniently linked by the 90 second, aptly named, Over Easy gondola ride. A new 420 seat Spruce Peak Performing arts Center hosts concerts ranging from the Stradivari Quartet to Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes.

My Ridgeline Studio room features views of Mount Mansfield from the balcony, a gas fireplace, marble bathroom with separate shower and tub, and is equipped with a kitchenette that even includes a mini dishwasher.

A Chipmunk’s Playground

Under clear blue skies I set out from Stowe’s cross-country and snowshoe center and ski into the pristine woodland. The icy patches along Timberlane trail slow my pace considerably but my snail-like speed gives me the opportunity to notice the forest fauna. A symphony of chirping birds is coming from the trees and in the snow, at the edge of the trail an adorable little chipmunk pauses and watches me pass by. The perfect conditions on Burt trail compliment the spectacular scenery. The trail follows alongside the tiny cascades, snow covered rocks and little pools of the Ranch Brook.

Healing Waters

Mount Mansfield overlooking the inviting pool at the Stowe Mountain Resort Credit: Julie Kalan

Mount Mansfield overlooking the inviting pool at the Stowe Mountain Resort
Credit: Julie Kalan

After a morning of nordic skiing it is time to try out the Spa at Stowe Mountain Lodge, specifically their Healing Lodge. The neutral coloured decor instills tranquility and the hot water in the Jacuzzi is quick to soothe my weary muscles.

My water-centric afternoon continues with a dip in the outdoor pool. Indoor access to the pool gives swimmers the benefit of entering and exiting the pool without being exposed to the cold winter air. The pool is large enough to include two lap lanes and still leave ample room to accommodate many guests. Framing the scene is Vermont’s highest peak, the snow covered Mount Mansfield. Even though the pool water is generously heated the late afternoon air temperature is cold enough to convince me to move into one of the two poolside hot tubs.

Only a few steps separate the pool from the hot tub, but I cannot get there soon enough. Earlier in the day I was dressed in warm layers; now as the temperatures dip, I am in a bathing suit, dripping wet, shivering and walking bare foot. Surely this must qualify as crazy! To my relief, after only a few minutes in this oasis of warmth I have built up enough heat to walk over to my bathrobe and re-enter the lodge before feeling the impact of the cold.

Cheesy Vermont Dining

The Cliff House restaurant, located at the top of the Mount Mansfield gondola, is not that far from the mountain’s highest point, known as “the chin”. The atmosphere is elegant and the food is on par with the very best, but it is the panoramic vista seen through the floor-to-ceiling windows that has completely impressed me. At this altitude the trees are draped in thick layers of snow and the view down to the valley is second to none.

Solstice, the resort’s signature restaurant, pairs a casual chalet feeling and open kitchen with scrumptious gourmet dishes. Taking a look at the menu I can’t help but notice two things: 1) the high priority placed on farm-to-table fresh produce, poultry and beef, and 2) Vermont artisan cheese is incorporated into almost every dish. A cheese plate is a great way to discover the array of flavours and the Maine Lobster Mac & Cheese will not disappoint.

Travel Planner
Driving from Montreal to Smuggler’s Notch Resort takes just over two hours.
Smuggler’s Notch Resort

ArborTrek Canopy Adventures

The drive from Montreal to Stowe Mountain Resort is just under two and half hours.
Stowe Mountain Resort
If you want to check out the shops or one of the countless restaurants in Stowe Village there is a complimentary Stowe Mountain Road Shuttle that runs between the resort and the village every 20-30minutes from 6:40am to 10:30pm, between late November and early April.