If You Go
Through March 17, the Inn at Hidden Valley lodging rates range from $75 to $129 a night. Specials are offered as low as $62 per person, including room, lift ticket, continental breakfast and fitness center privileges.
The Summit offers condo living with all the amenities and great views ($325/night).
For reservations, call 1-800-458-0175. www.hiddenvalleyresort.com
An Aussie-style restaurant at the base of Outback Park that specializes in steak and seafood with innovative twists on the kids menu.
Laurel Mountain Inn
Casual dining at great prices. The white pizza was some of the best we've had and draft pints are only $1.75.
The Snowshoe Lounge
Located in the Inn at Hidden Valley, it features a roaring fire and extensive menu with plenty of comfort favorites mixed with something for every taste.
But that's exactly what greets our family when we arrive at Hidden Valley Four Seasons Resort in Pennsylvania's Laurel Highlands for a few days of communing with the mountain.
Now, this may seem like an odd trip considering that none of us has ever skied before. If that's not enough, my wife gets frostbite when she reaches to the bottom of our freezer, and my three kids are ages 7, 5 and not-yet-3.
But once we arrive, it's easy to see the year-round appeal of Hidden Valley. Condos, townhomes and near-mansions are neatly tucked behind rows of trees along the winding roads that lead to our accommodations at The Summit, overlooking one of the 12 chairlifts that deposit skiers at the top of a mountain with a 700-foot vertical drop.
This is more than a resort; it's a community, with the fast pace on the resort's 28 slopes gliding into peaceful tranquility everywhere else.
Our two-bedroom, two-bath condo offers a full kitchen, washer and dryer, wood-burning fireplace, upstairs sitting room, whirlpool tub and cable TV. Once we settle in, we head to Outback Park, where there's a 1,000-foot snow-tubing run (and its own tube-lift!), horsedrawn sleigh rides, a kids' winter playground, a cross-country ski center and our immediate destination, Dundee's Restaurant.
The service is great at this Aussie-style eatery and the food excellent: crabcakes featuring two huge lumps of succulent crab, a Philly steak sandwich made with big strips of tender beef and some surprising twists to kids-menu favorites (especially the fried mac-and-cheese wedges).
Since we were told that the weather would likely close Outback Park for the rest of the week, we let the kids burn off some of their pent-up energy from the 3 1/2-hour car ride at the Spa and Fitness Center pool (where there's also a hot tub for easing those ski-worn muscles).
By midmorning the next day, the slopes and my beginner ski lesson beckon â€” with a Swiss accent. Before coming to Hidden Valley two seasons ago, ski and board school director Iwan Fuchs taught skiing in his native Switzerland, where his grandfather was an instructor before him and skiing is more lifestyle than sport.
According to my wife: "He's the prototypical ski instructor: happy, handsome and completely into it."
Even in the constant drizzle that has closed Hidden Valley's mountain and trimmed the family skiing session down to just me, Fuchs' enthusiasm comes on like a blizzard.
"It's better not to introduce kids to the sport under these conditions," he says as we gather my equipment from the rental shop, while my wife and kids head over to Hidden Valley's new Kinder Ski School. "They wouldn't have any fun."
Having fun is the driving force behind the Kinder Ski School, which offers a variety of activities to gently introduce kids to snow sports. Everything â€” from the colorful indoor play area to the outdoor snow-tunnels to the numbered racing-style bibs worn during instruction on the Munchkin Slope â€” helps teach the rules and magic of skiing.
It's like learning a language, says Fuchs (who speaks several languages and has a master's degree in international business): the earlier the better.
Great, I think. What's that mean for me who barely got through high-school French?
But once I snap securely into the ski bindings on the small incline used for teaching, Fuchs' lesson moves like an Olympian through slalom gates, effortlessly mixing instruction, encouragement, his skiing philosophy and his vision for a built-from-the-snow-up Hidden Valley Ski School of the future.
"My heart is on the mountain," he says.
As a beginner, I am known as a "wedge skier." At first, we try sliding our skis in place, experiencing the sensation as they glide on packed snow. Then we inch sideways up the slight incline, using our "edges" (the sharp sides of the skis), keeping our skis parallel and our knees bent against the hill. Similar movements position our skis down the hill and Fuchs demonstrates the beginner's wedge: tips close at the front, back pushed out wide, forming a "pizza" that's designed to help control your speed and bring you to a stop.
But on my first attempt, the only thing that's stopping me is Fuchs, who's skiing backward, holding my tips close and encouraging, "Remember your pizza."
"Good," he says, even though he's done all the work. "How did it feel?"
Awkward and uncomfortable come to mind, but mostly it's exhilarating, even in this snowflake-sized dose.
We repeat the process a few times until I can sense the ski edges and the pressure it takes from my hip flexors, knees and ankles to create a pizza that would make an Italian chef proud.
"You're a natural," Fuchs says. I'm hooked.
I'm back in the ski school office a half hour after the resort opens the next morning. I need to learn how to fall and get up. Something tells me I'm going to need it.
Within minutes, Fuchs boots up and we're heading for the chairlift to actually ski. With a cottony fog hanging over the slopes, the mountain does seem magical â€” even though huge brown gaps of earth surround the narrowing patches of white. Only four people are on the entire mountain and I'm one of them.
Fuchs skis in front, guiding me through turns, reinforcing the skills we worked on yesterday, showing how to get up when I fall. And I do fall. But with each tumble, getting up is easier and I'm gaining a better understanding of how to control my skis.
The next run goes better â€” only two falls this time â€” and I'm already starting to ease into the next phase of skiing by coaxing my skis toward parallel out of the turns. By run three, I have visions of Austrian ski legend Franz Klammer dancing in my head. Until, of course, I'm going way too fast with a big "SLOW" sign posted on a plastic safety fence directly in front of me â€” and then my head and overinflated ego are tumbling over it.
No matter. I need to do this again. And I need to do it again when I head back to Cleveland, too. Fuchs has grabbed a little bit of my heart with his mountain.
The rest of the day is spent with the family, shopping in Donegal at The Old General Store, where all the old-fashioned candy overwhelms the kids. Next door, we grab doughnuts and cookies from The Country Pie Shoppe and browse through the two-story Collections by Marty country gift store.
All that's left is dinner and a night by the fire. All five of us snuggle into the pullout couch in front of the fireplace (and cartoons on the TV) and listen to the rain. The kids are too excited to fall asleep right away, but as the fire fades into embers, it carries us with it. n
Great Lakes Options
Instead of buying your Valentine chocolates this holiday, show her how they're made on a 45-minute tour of Harry London Candies. Afterward, you can ogle more than 500 varieties of chocolates and candies in its store. The cost is $3 for adults, $2 for children ages 3 to 18, and free for children 2 and under. Harry London is located at 5353 Lauby Road in North Canton. Reservations are recommended. For more information, call 1-800-321-0444 or visit www.harrylondon.com.
The Luck Boat
Feel like taking a gamble this month? Bet on enjoying a night aboard the Argosy IV casino riverboat in Lawrenceburg, Ind., 20 minutes from downtown Cincinnati. The riverboat has 300 hotel suites, five restaurants, 90 table games and more than 2,300 slot machines. It's located at 777 Argosy Parkway. For more information, call 1-888-Argosy-7 or visit www.argosycasinos.com. â€” Kim Schneider