By MIKE NORTON For a while, I didn’t think I was going to see snow this month. But there I was, kayaking out in the middle of East Bay on Saturday afternoon when things started to disappear: first the sunshine, then the horizon, and one by one, each point of land along the shore, all fading to milky white as the advancing flurries swept past them. This is more like it, I thought as I paddled happily toward the beach. And even though it’s still warm down here around the water, it’s skiing weather in the high country. In Bellaire, just a half-hour’s drive away, Shanty Creek was open for business form the weekend, reporting 40 inches of snow (mostly man-made) at their upper and middle elevations, and 10 inches at the bottom of the slopes. That’ll do for Ohio businessman Steve Light. For the past 25 years, he’s been bringing his family and friends north each winter to ski at Shanty Creek. “There are higher mountains, and there are places with more runs, but the overall atmosphere of that area makes it a great place to get away to,” he says. “I can’t tell you how many friends I’ve brought up there, and they all have the same reaction. The overall experience is just hard to beat.” Steve is a member of the dedicated cadre of downhill enthusiasts who love the gentle glacier-carved terrain of northwestern Michigan, which prides itself on the diversity of its winter experiences, the physical beauty of its surroundings, and its growing reputation as a culinary and cultural hotspot. And in recent years, its relatively moderate winter price structure has made the area around Traverse City even more attractive as a ski destination. The snowsport superstar of the region is undoubtedly Shanty Creek. A 4,500-acre recreational complex perched above the village of Bellaire, Shanty is the region’s leading full-service winter resort for skiing, tubing and snowboarding. (Ski Magazine rates it the Midwest’s number-one ski destination in value, dining, lodging, weather and après ski activities.) Sprawling across an undulating plateau in our Chain of Lakes region, Shanty Creek is actually a complex of three interlocking “villages” — Summit, Cedar River, and Schuss — connected by trail systems and serviced by a reliable shuttle system. Its ski areas feature a 450-foot vertical with 53 runs for every ability level. Founded in the postwar years as an American version of Europe’s classic ski areas, Shanty Creek was purchased in 2006 by Trinidad Resort & Club, which spent $10 million on renovation and redesign work. Ski writer Mike Terrell of onthesnow.com calls Shanty “one of the more unusual snow sports resorts in the Heartland” — a combination of classic and contemporary encased in forested hills with panoramic overlooks of Lake Bellaire and northern Michigan. “There isn’t another setting quite like it anywhere around the Great Lakes,” Terrell writes. In recent years the resort has developed an impressive reputation as one of the region’s premiere snowboarding destinations, with four terrain parks and a tubing park, and it is continuing to hone that image with a major renovation and expansion of its Schuss Mountain terrain parks with more than 150 feet of new equipment, including a battleship box, an S-rail, a C-rail and a rainbow rail. Best of all? The resort offers what it calls “Michigan’s most affordable lift ticket,” the Summit Only package. At just $15 a day, it’s considered one of the best ski values in America, and includes a ski/snowboard rental option for an additional $20 a day. “People like that option because it’s so affordable,” says Shanty spokeswoman Lindsey Southwell (who just had her first baby, cute little Isaac). “A family of four can ski and get rental equipment for less than $150.” A number of other ski packages (including a $99 season pass and a $196 family package that includes skiing and lodging for a family of four) are available. To see them and to learn more about the 2011-2012 ski season, call 1-800-678-4111 or check their website at www.shantycreek.com.
For winter visitors who prefer to stay closer to Traverse City, two-day ski areas – Mt. Holiday and Hickory Hills – provide yet another alternative. There’s something quaint about these two ski areas; both are small, intimate places that hearken back to a simpler, friendlier time - and that informal, neighborly atmosphere is another attraction for visitors. Mt. Holiday is a community-run ski area just east of town with 16 runs, two chairlifts, a tubing run and terrain park, a pleasant day lodge, and awesome views of East Bay. On the other side of the city, Hickory Hills is a small municipal ski area nestled in a deep bowl of tree-topped hills less than five minutes from downtown that offers eight runs served by old-fashioned rope tows. Relatively small size and lack of name recognition haven’t prevented Mt. Holiday and Hickory Hills from developing a base of loyal fans who’d rather ski there than anyplace else. They’re relatively inexpensive, too; a weekend lift ticket at Mt. Holiday runs $25 for students and $30 for adults; while a weekend pass at Hickory Hills is $15 for children and $17 for adults.