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Schweitzer Mountain Resort: Altitude without the Attitude

By Pat VandenHeuvel

As residents of South Carolina’s lowcountry, we experience daily the reason Charleston is consistently rated one of America’s friendliest cities. So when Schweitzer Mountain Resort threw down the gauntlet, taunting us with their marketing campaign as an unpretentious, family friendly ski resort, we scornfully laughed: “Ha, let’s see if they know friendly!”

Turns out they do.

Schweitzer sits in Northern Idaho lurking over the funky little laidback town of Sandpoint, an hour plus north of Coeur d’Alene, with striking views of Lake Pend Oreille, three mountain ranges and our Canadian neighbors to the north. Although its peak (6,400 feet) is lower than the base of many Colorado and Utah resorts, Schweitzer averages 300 inches of (mostly) powdery snow and offers something unusual: short or non-existent lift lines, even during the weekend we visited in January.

With its 2,900 acres of Nordic playground and vertical drop of 2,400 feet, it’s Idaho’s largest ski area. Its promoters appear comfortable knowing that it’s not the tallest, the steepest, the glitziest – just friendly, accessible, affordable and fun. Good enough for us.

My husband Chris and I stepped out of our comfort zone and strapped on skis, the first time in more than 30 years for Chris and my first time ever. Despite my irrepressible fear of chairlifts, I reached deep down and said: I’m doing this for the kids. Our 17 year-old Maddy recently took up alpine and telemark skiing and was anxious to share her enthusiasm (and laughter). And our 15 year-old avid snowboarder Jamie couldn’t wait to take on some new runs. So we 40-somethings hesitantly went with the flow ... and in the process met some of the friendliest staff anywhere.

Good lord, what’s in the water at Schweitzer? From the guy who tended the bonfire on the village lawn to the women fitting our ski helmets, everybody apparently has drunk the Kool-Aid. We made a game of looking for a grumpy staffer – the worst we experienced was a harried waitress who was still painfully polite. In contrast to the gentile, Southern hospitality in South Carolina, these folks exuded outdoorsy charm that made us actually consider something as un-Southern as snowshoeing (ultimately, we only considered it).

The crowd was decidedly family-oriented, with tons of little and not so little tykes on snowboards or skis. The resort held a ski competition for young ones the weekend we visited (causing Jamie to wonder, “Who are all those little kids in spandex whizzing past me?”), complete with a boisterous awards ceremony in the charming resort village. Our ski instructor, Marty Party (who has the patience of Job, I’m telling you), said he teaches three year-olds, 80-year olds and everybody in between.

We coerced our skeptical teens to join us for some “family time” at Hermit’s Hollow snow tubing run, which was a tad anti-climactic after skiing and boarding. Although more suited for the younger set, the scenery at dusk was otherworldly in the glow of the night skiing lights – and it was sweet to see the two link their tubes and laugh their way down the hill, just like the younger kids and families.

The resort’s lodging choices also are perfect for families of many sizes. Our upscale two-bedroom, two-bath condo at White Pine Lodge, just fifty yards from the lifts, had a complete up-to-date kitchen, gas fireplace, cushy king-size beds and a stunning view of the lake. Across the lawn, Selkirk Lodge’s 82 rooms are more hotel-like, with wet bar, microwave and fridge for convenience, plus some new family suites that sleep five. Families also have access to many condos scattered along the mountainside, from suites to multi-bedrooms. Room rates at White Pine and Selkirk include a free buffet breakfast at the Selkirk’s Chimney Rock Grill – nothing fancy, just a hearty, pre-ski carb load with scrambled eggs, breakfast potatoes, coffee, fruit juice, cereals, oatmeal and fresh fruit.

Speaking of food, the Lakeview Cafe ski cafeteria provides a wide variety of hearty and healthy meals and snacks, from the chili fries we had for lunch to Mexican meals, great for a quick refueling before returning to the slopes. Since our condo had a full kitchen, we grabbed an après-ski snack of sausages, cheese (Jamaican jerk spiced!) and crackers from the cozy little Gourmandie Market for our ravenous snowboarder, plus some olives and wine for ourselves – the perfect antidote to a long day of falling down on the slopes.

Dinner options for families were more limited than we expected. Thor’s pizza place was closed, and Pucci’s Pub was packed. We eventually got a table at Chimney Rock Grill, where our meals were hit and miss. After dinner Maddy and I stopped by the little Mountain Market for hand-dipped ice cream and a movie rental (note: the store does not bill to guest rooms) while Chris and Jamie pumped iron in the small fitness room ... and successfully repressed the desire to splash into the large, steamy hot tubs perched over the slopes.

Before heading home our final day, we popped into Mojo Coyote Café, a cute little deli/coffee bar in Selkirk Lodge. The resort’s Solstice Spa had set up a massage chair for complimentary back and shoulder massages, offered on quiet Sundays. Both kids took advantage of the mini spa treatment – now if only they had offered a delicate massage for my aching calves ...

Over the years, our travels have taken us to many ski towns and resorts – Beaver Creek, Aspen, Park City, Zermatt, a wide smattering of others (where we only après-skied) – but Schweitzer’s lack of pretense and abundance of smiles set it apart. Maybe that’s the result of the lack of lift lines, minimal crowds, lower elevation ... who knows? But in the end Jamie had a blast snowboarding through the trees and powder, Maddy stuck closer to us for the comic relief and we safely left our comfort zone with the help of some very kind people.

How’d we do on the slopes? Well, in the past, when people asked, “Do you ski?,” we would sort of demur, not really knowing how to answer. Now we have a simple answer: apparently not. Or maybe just not yet, because we were surprised how skiing – skillfully or poorly – brought us together as a family. Marty Party initially encouraged us by noting how his 3 year-old students could often schuss down the mountain after a lesson or two. Perhaps we’ll simply need a few more. And I suspect Party Marty and his cheery compatriots would be happy to take us down the mountain again.

Before You Go:

For up-to-date rates and activities, visit the resort’s website at: www.schweitzer.com. Here are a few insights from when we went:

Terrain is 10% beginner, 40% intermediate, 35% advanced and 15% expert.

Ski instructors abound. Two “quick tips” ski or snowboard clinics are included in the resort room rates.

Depending on the season, there’s snowshoeing, cross country skiing, snowmobiling, mountain biking, guided hikes in the Selkirk Mountains, frisbee golf, treasure hunting using rented GPS (geocaching), photo scavenger hunts, a climbing wall, bungee trampoline, a giant outdoor chess/checkers game, tennis, croquet, bocce ball, badminton, horseback riding and more – check out www.schweitzer.com for a full list.

Selkirk Theater shows three free family-focused movies daily at 12, 3 and 6pm (Finding Nemo, Freaky Friday and Godzilla during out stay). Selkirk Lodge also has an outdoor pool.

KinderKamp (8am to 5pm) offers indoor/outdoor supervision and activities for kids ages 4 months to 6 years-old. Ski lessons and childcare are available for children as young as 3 and a half. Childcare also is available.

The closest major airport is Spokane, WA (GEG), under a 1.5 hour drive to Sandpoint.

Husband and wife team Chris & Pat VandenHeuvel have been writing about cities, resorts, destinations and the occasional restaurant for more than sixteen years. They call Charleston, South Carolina home and their favorite travel companions are their two globetrotting teens, both of whom profess to love the smell of a nice hotel.

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