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Figuring out a way to get my kids to learn how to ski exhausted me.
It was mainly the tedious, multi-faceted preparation/research process that freaked me out, like deciding on a destination that was easily accessible from my home in northern New Jersey. And choosing a resort that was appealing, well-reviewed, and as parent-friendly as it was kid-friendly. And making sure that other activities were available to keep my 14 year-old son (Eddie) and 11 year-old daughter (Lee) occupied after their skiing. And finding a convenient lodging set-up where we all could comfortably collapse at the end of a long day.
My wife Sue added to my anxiety when she told me that getting our kids geared up for skiing would also be challenging: families would crowd the rental area in a frenzy of equipment try-ons/exchanges. A mad scrum of last minute bathroom stops would halt all forward momentum. Snack bar lines would be long. Patience and politeness would be tested and trampled.
(She would know: she went on many ski excursions with her family, and even though she owned her own equipment, she remembered the long and grueling process that renters endured and was happy to not be a part of it.)
I weighed my skiing apprehension against my (and Sue’s) desire to give our kids the opportunity to try it out and see if they enjoyed it. The latter won out, so I began researching options for our debut family ski journey.
We checked out a number of possible family winter resort destinations, including Hotel Hershey (Hershey, PA) and The Greerbrier (White Sulphur Springs, WV). Sue’s aunt recommended Skytop Lodge in Skytop, PA. While she hadn’t actually been to Skytop herself, she had heard from friends who stayed there that it was “fabulous”.
Not wanting to miss out on aunt-endorsed fabulousness, I took a peek at Skytop.com, investigated guest comments on a variety of travel review sites (there are lots of enthusiastic endorsements on Tripadvisor, Familyvacationcritic, Yelp, VirtualTourist, Orbitz, and many more), and presented my findings to the fam. They approved, and I got in touch with Skytop to arrange a weekend stay.
The drive to Skytop seemed direct: using Google Maps, the trip time was estimated at 90 minutes via Route 80, a wide interstate that travels across New Jersey and into eastern Pennsylvania. After passing through the Delaware Water Gap (the dividing line between NJ and PA), we exited Route 80 and drove for 15 minutes on local roads to Skytop.
Turning off of the main local road, we pulled into Skytop’s property, and our collective (but not simultaneous) “whoa!” reactions filled the car. An endless panorama of smooth, treeless, snow-covered countryside stretched across our view, as the entrance road climbed and curved for a quarter mile or so to the massive and majestic Skytop Lodge.
The opulent Lodge, which houses 125 guest rooms and suites, was constructed in 1927. One year later, the Lodge opened and was an escape for the well-to-do from New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia who sought the outdoor adventures that the area offered.
Load-in and check-in were quick, and we wheeled our stuff up to our room, which was cozy and charming. Famished, we went downstairs to the dining room to grab some lunch.
Skytop offers an all-inclusive meal plan for their guests. We’d never experienced this type of arrangement at a resort facility, so I wasn’t expecting anything monumental. For lunch, I figured it would be hearty, straightforward selections like soup, sandwiches, simple salads, and burgers. Nothing noteworthy, nothing elaborate, just “get-em-in, fill-em-up, move-em-out” type fare.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The menu selections were a surprise. Yes, there were soups (French onion), salads (mesclun and panzanella), and sandwiches (Angus burger, black bean burger, turkey panini, deli-style Reuben, and Philly cheesesteak). But there were also surprises such as blackened mahi soft shell tacos, cornmeal encrusted trout, a frittata with fresh vegetables, and chicken scallopini.
Impressed and really hungry, we ordered - and we were subsequently blown away by the presentation and quality of each of our meals, as well as the superb service.
(This kind of amazing cuisine, along with the outstanding professionalism and attentiveness of the Skytop servers, would be consistent throughout our entire stay, at all breakfasts, lunches, and dinners.)
After lunch, we took a tour of the Lodge’s indoor offerings. We found a pool that was packed with joyous little kids, a small yet tidy exercise room that featured an assortment of cardio and strength equipment, and a large, open game room area. Ping pong, billiards, mini golf, air hockey, and Guitar Hero were among the offerings, and we ended up spending lots of time here in the afternoons and early evenings throughout our stay.
Following a delicious dinner, we had just enough steam for some nighttime skating in Skytop’s indoor rink, which was a 2 minute walk from the Lodge. The rink was nicely sized and moodily lit with candles and multi-colored pin spots playing off of a rotating ceiling mirror ball. I laced up and did a few laps around the ice while the kids skated circles around me (literally) and had a blast squeezing out their last gusts of expendable energy before bed.
The next morning was Eddie and Lee’s first ski lesson. Convenient shuttles ran throughout the day between the Lodge and the rustic Skytop Adventure Center, where the skiing took place. Following Sue’s advice, we got there as soon as it opened, and boy oh boy, was that a good idea: both kids were sized up and out the door within 15 minutes. This rapid turnaround was due not only to our early arrival, but also to the Adventure Center’s attentive staff, easily accessible equipment in a variety of sizes, and well-rehearsed sizing/testing procedure.
(On a safety note, sanitized/disinfected helmets were included at no extra charge.)
After a speedy sign-in, Eddie and Lee met John, their ski instructor at the Skytop Ski School. John was an enthusiastic early twenty-something bro who was confident in his ability to get the kids up and skiing quickly.
John brought the kids to a short, gently sloped hill that was perfect for beginners. He gave them a brief explanation of how to get their skis back on when they came off, how to stand up without sliding down the hill, and most importantly, how to “pizza” (referred to in the old days as a “snow plow”) – which is the technique of pointing the back of the skis outward and the front tips of the skis inward to the point where they were almost touching (forming a pizza slice triangle shape). The pizza technique would allow Eddie and Lee to control their speed and direction while going down the hill. His lesson was also pole-free, which gave the kids a greater sense of balance and stability.
There were some obligatory slips and non-bruising tumbles, but after around a half hour, both Eddie and Lee were able to smoothly navigate the beginners’ hill with impressive grace and self-assurance. John felt they were ready to take a run or two down the area’s main slope (with a vertical lift of 295 feet), and the kids were pumped up to take on the challenge. Ascending the slope using the t-bar took some getting used to, and making their way down topple-free wasn’t quite as easy as they thought (John may have slightly overestimated their abilities), but overall Eddie and Lee loved the excitement and the experience. After two hours on their skis, their stokage factor began to fizzle, but they were ecstatic about their new skills and they were hooked on skiing.
Back at the Lodge, it was time to clean up, enjoy another awesome lunch, and take in some relaxing “après ski” in the rec area. Eddie and I took a walk around the back of the Lodge through a couple of feet of fresh snow. We admired the regal massiveness of the Lodge structure on one side of us and the beauty of the snow-covered trees that surrounded us in a miles long semi-circle on the other.
In the late afternoon, we strolled down to the Lodge’s magnificent Pine Room, where coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and fresh baked cookies were served. The Room’s high ceilings, gorgeous wood paneling, and opulence were transportative: it was as if we had wandered into the dignified state room of an early 20th century mansion (which, given the Lodge’s history, we kind of did). A large fireplace provided warmth, large couches and chairs offered comfort, and a woman playing pop standards from the 60s and 70s on a grand piano (her husband turned the pages of her music book) supplied background music.
It was a fantastic way to unwind and warm up after a day in the Poconos’ winter chill.
The next day, getting the kids geared up for their skiing lesson was even faster than the day before, thanks to the Adventure Center’s convenient policy of checking and reserving equipment (which prevented Eddie and Lee from having to get completely refitted). John was ready for them, and he got them going immediately on the main slope. This time, he stayed with the kids throughout each of their runs, giving them specific tips and advice along the way. After a few of these guided runs, Eddie and Lee made it down the slope with no spills, and on their own.
Our final Skytop activity that day was a guest favorite and came highly recommended on travel sites: dogsledding with a team of huskies.
Kim Darst operates Skytop’s dogsled tours. She led the first New Jersey team to qualify, enter, and run the Iditarod, the world’s foremost long distance (1,050 mile) dogsled race, which is held annually in Alaska. Darst has 38 huskies on her farm in Blairstown, NJ and she brings them to Skytop throughout the winter.
The team of eight dogs can pull approximately 1,000 pounds, and they actually love to run: when Darst signaled that a ride was about to begin, they yelped, barked, and howled to get moving. They were also very friendly with the guests, who lavished the energetic pups with attention, praise, and affection.
The sledding experience lasted for about an hour, and included a fascinating presentation from Darst about how she cares for and raises the dogs, and what it was like to participate in the 2009 Iditarod (she tells the amazing story in the children’s book “Cotton’s Tale”).
After the sled ride, we caught the shuttle back to Skytop, got changed, grabbed one final superb lunch (I can’t say enough about Skytop’s phenomenal meals), and headed back home to the Garden State.
Using Skytop as a location for Eddie and Lee to test the water (ok, make that snow) of skiing was an excellent decision, for a number of reasons:
For parents who are looking for a convenient way to get their kids hooked on skiing – and also have some fun themselves – a weekend at Skytop Lodge is an excellent, enjoyable, and anxiety-free choice.