Active Family Travel Review: Smuggler's Notch Ski Resort

“You know what I like about Vermont? It has better sticks.” - Shark Boy

While I have my doubts that the sticks of Vermont are of higher quality than the sticks of Ontario, Shark Boy does have a point that we were able to spend our vacation in a beautiful (fairly) natural setting at Smuggler’s Notch Ski Resort.  We try to alternate our spring break between hot places and ski vacations, so after last year’s trip to Mexico, it was going to be skiing, even if this was another brutally cold winter.  Having been to Quebec twice, we wanted to switch it up this year.  My wife did some research at the Toronto Snow Show, and while there was heavy competition, we decided on Smuggler’s Notch due to its reputation for families and the 20% discount deal that they offered us through the show.

Taxicab Selfie on the way to the airport

When I told people about the trip, most assumed we’d drive there from Toronto, but that would have taken longer than I generally like to spend time in a car, never mind with two bored kids in the back.  Flying Porter from the Toronto Island is actually a reasonably comfortable experience with young ones; they get excited about all the various stages - taxi, ferry, air-plane.  The line-ups aren't as long as at Pearson International Airport and the waiting lounge has free coffee and cookies.  Propeller planes are a little noisier and slower than jets, and they seem to have more turbulence (maybe due to a slower ascent into the more peaceful altitudes?) which is tough if you’re a nervous flyer like my wife.  It was also a bit of a bumpy landing into Burlington, VT.  Porter flights de-board in a weird satellite terminal which requires a shuttle ride to the main terminal.  We’d been expecting a shuttle that we booked with Smuggler’s Notch; they were supposed to have a sign with our name on it, but we were unable to find them either at the first terminal or the main one.  We did, however, get a lot of help and support from the driver of their regular inter-terminal shuttle buses, and we eventually found out that our driver had been told that our flight had been delayed when it actually hadn't.  The upshot was that I never felt genuinely worried that we wouldn't get our ride to the resort, everyone we dealt with was courteous, knowledgeable and professional.

We got checked into the resort, and driven to our condo which was in the "Liftside" section, and as the name implies, very close to the lifts.  If we hadn't had a second story apartment we could have walked onto the hill from the back door of our room.  It was also a very short walk to the main village which not only houses most of the resort’s restaurants, but the ski school, rental shop, and guest services so we were well off in terms of location.

We had our first dinner in the Pizzeria, Riga-Bello’s.  Frankly, I found it a little confusing because it looked like the kind of joint where you walk up to the counter and order a slice, but when we were directed to take menus, it made me think it would be a sit-down-server-takes-your-order experience.  My first instinct was correct, but we ended up having my wife run back and forth from the counter to our table to provide updates as to which pizzas were available by the slice versus whole pizzas - it just made dinner way more complicated than it had to be.  The pizza was okay, but nothing special.

Our apartment was quite nice.  We had our own kitchen, which we sometimes used to make breakfast (the rest of the time we fell prey to the lure of treating ourselves), and a living room area where the kids would watch TV while we prepared our (or more specifically their) equipment and outfits for the ski day.  We were all in one bedroom which worked well, with Shark Boy on a higher bed (he’s a little more stable in his sleeping patterns) and the Lightning Kid on a low trundle bed which felt safe.  One of the things we liked best, of course, was the en suite washer and dryer; which meant not only being able to have clean and dry clothes when we needed them, but kept our packing and luggage to a minimum (2 ski bags, 2 suitcases, a ski boot bag, one backpack, one laptop bag - the last 3 items were all carry-on).

Our first full day at Smuggler’s Notch started with a gorgeous breakfast at the Morse Mountain Grill.  I had the stuffed waffles, which I can highly recommend.  They have a great kids breakfast menu too.

Bringing the kids to the ski school involved some confusion for us.  The package we had booked gave us ‘Discovery Camp’ tickets for both boys, and at the intake/registration, upon hearing that the Lightning Kid had been on skis before (albeit with our help) and was toilet-trained, said he’d be ahead of some of the other students in his class (named Discovery Dynamos while Shark Boy would be in Trail Blazers).  This sounded promising, but we had envisioned him as being in more of a daycare situation with some one-on-one ski instruction.  The instructor who was leading his proposed group had some directed questions about the Lightning Kid’s ability to follow instructions verbally, and in programs like his Little Kickers Soccer class, he’s done better by being able to follow the other kids.  The instructor pushed the Adaptive Ski Program as an idea; Smuggler’s Notch is clearly very proud of their adaptive ski program for individuals of different abilities, as well they should be.  It’s just that we’ve found that he does better when he’s surrounded by typical peers in an inclusive environment - ultimately we know what’s best for our son.  We eventually opted for the Little Rascals on Snow program, which is run out of their Treasures daycare building.  

The Treasures daycare is a short distance uphill, but once we had him registered (a process which was impressively thorough for the safety and security of the children), he seemed comfortable enough, and my wife and I were off for a day of skiing!  The day before had brought some new snow so as we got higher and higher we were treated to some beautiful scenery; snow coated trees and branches.  Smuggler’s Notch has 3 mountains: Morse, Madonna and Sterling.  I guess we were still a little antsy about leaving the kids alone, and we weren't too confident in our own legs: we had said that getting in even a few runs alone would have been good enough for us on this vacation! We stuck to Morse mountain (the closest to our home base) and only did Blue runs that day.

I found it a little strange that even with 3 mountains worth of ski runs, Smuggs only has old-fashioned (read: slow, not high speed), two person lifts over the entire resort.  It seems quaint, and it didn't bother me that much, but I think it’s something you’d want to know so you can manage your expectations.

The hillside cafeteria food was basically the kind of fare you might expect, but somehow it all tasted a little above average.  There were a few novel treats too, like macaroni and cheese in a bread-bowl (carb city!).

Everyday at the Treasures daycare, they took the kids into their little backyard where they have what has to be the world’s smallest magic carpet and slope.  Already on the first day, he had done a little skiing on his own.  We’d pick him up in our ski boots, get him geared up, and I’d ski down the hill with him between my legs to the bottom, where we’d walk back into our condo and change for dinner.  Skiing like that is a little tiring (it’s like holding a deep squat), but this was often my favourite part of the day.

Before dinner, we gave the kids a little bit of free play in the Fun Zone, which is an inflated dome full of play areas for kids of various ages and adults.  There’s skee-ball like games, bouncy castles, inflated giant slides and obstacle courses as well as mini-golf.  There’s a few rules for the larger structures that also keep little ones like the Lightning Kid off them, but there was enough smaller play structures to keep him happy.  The Fun Zone was a daily highlight for both kids (even if there are no sticks in the Fun Zone).

We had dinner at the Morse Mountain Grille again.  We were serenaded by Rockin’ Ron the Friendly Pirate.  Ron has some corny pirate humour, but the songs were fun to sing along with and the kids were frankly entranced by him.  Vermont cuisine, in which as far as I can tell always involves Maple, Bacon or Green Apples, was always featured and always desirable.  I had the Maple Whiskey BBQ Steak Tips, which were tasty if a little tough, but what I really enjoyed was the local craft beer sampler, especially the ‘Sunshine and Hoppiness’ Ale.

On the second day, we dropped the kids off a little more efficiently after a breakfast of toast and peanut butter (supplied by items I bought at the General Store the night before), and we sampled Mount Madonna and Mount Sterling.  I had been warned that crossing between the mountains involved flat stretches that needed a lot of skating to get through, but having been warned, I gathered up plenty of momentum each time, and I don’t think it was really that bad.  One of our first priorities at Mount Madonna was to try one of their on-hill Waffle snacks.  I could smell them from several hundred meters away.   They were very tasty, but I’d decline the Nutella if I were you because cleaning up one’s face on the hill isn't easy.  

We got some good runs in, and I found plenty of Blues that still gave me a little kick with their twisty narrow turns.  One complaint I had was I found that branches would crowd the fringes of many runs; I nearly got taken out by a branch on two occasions, once because I was looking uphill at a run we were merging with - just like the caution sign suggested.  The morning weather was pleasantly mild, but it turned nasty and we spent most of the midday being drizzled on. Getting wet like that made us get cold faster. We knocked off a little early to pick up Shark Boy from his lesson and ski with him.  Being the older brother means getting less attention much of the time, so it’s nice to address that with some two-on-one time; plus we wanted to see what he’d learned!  He showed us some great linked turns and much better stopping than we’d seen from him before we came to Vermont.

We also picked up the Lightning Kid early. My wife wanted us to have a date night, and she found out about a kids' Fun Feast that would have the kids being looked after and fed, with games, movies and interacting with Mogul Mouse and Billy Bob Bear. She figured we'd have a dinner for two at one of the restaurants, but the reservations desk upped the ante... they were running a snowshoe adventure that evening where we'd take a lift Mount Sterling, do a little snowshoeing, enjoy a candlelit gourmet dinner (catered by their Hearth and Candle restaurant, but on the mountain the location is called Top of the Notch. Then we'd snowshoe down the mountain; and to boot, we'd be able to drop the kids off earlier than other parents who'd signed up for the Fun Feast (another trip to the Fun Zone for our boys).

We took the shuttle from the village to the bottom of Mount Sterling. We were briefed on how we could pick up our snowshoes, board the lift, and disembark - which was going to be more challenging and tricky than it would have been on skis. Not being able to slide off the ramp meant having to turn away from the chair and letting it pass, then crossing the ramp without getting hit by the returning chair. We managed it on our first try. We moved inside to Top of the Notch, where the guides explained the course of the evening. We sat with two other couples who had kids in the same Fun Feast and ski school, and they were even from the West side of Toronto - unfortunately, we were too big dorks to get their contact info... Beth, Richard, Dave and Jenn, if you read this, you can contact me at one of the links on the right side of the page! The head guide/host explained that calls of nature would have to be answered... in nature with a secluded area for the ladies, and the men just about anywhere else. He also invited the whole group for what he called a 'little hike' - it ended up being a mostly uphill climb all the way to Stowe! Some of the scenery was lovely, but that was a tough hike, and I'm surprised everybody managed it. Apparently we were the first group that had been able to accomplish that trek this season! I later kicked myself for not wearing my Garmin to track it, especially because the Garmin was actually in the backpack I had brought along for the event - the dinner was BYOB with the exception of a hot chocolate with banana schnapps. We both had trouble with our snowshoes staying on, but the guides were really good and making fixes on the go.

A pond just off the peak of Mount Sterling

We made it! A view from the top of Stowe...

Obviously the way back down was easier, though the sun was getting low and the air got colder. For spring, it was pretty cold, especially with the wind cutting through you. We had a lovely dinner, my pork was a little dry, but the wild mushroom ravioli was heavenly. We heard good things about the Vermont chicken too. Suddenly, it was time to go if we wanted to be on time to pick up our children. The mountain hadn't gotten any warmer in the dark, but it was a fun downhill hustle in snowshoes, and interesting to see some of the familiar runs of the daytime in the darkness, never mind going at a slower pace than on skis.

We picked up the kids and they were over excited, and over tired, never a good combination. It was St. Patrick's Day and the Lightning Kid had his face painted green for the occasion. In the spirit of many other St. Patrick's Day revellers, he also did a face plant in the village courtyard that left a nice little scrape on his nose.

Day 3 was our last full day at Smuggs; and I promised Shark Boy that we'd visit the pool after skiing. We'd been avoiding it since all winter long, every time we took the Lightning Kid skiing, he'd get a nasty cold - barking coughs, wheezy breathing, you name it. My wife booked a massage at the spa, and I wanted to get a few lengths in the pool; it was officially week 1 of my Half-Iron training program and besides the snowshoeing, skiing, lugging ski equipment and chasing the kids around the fun zone, I hadn't had any real exercise. I found out to my delight that the pool used a salt water chlorination process, but it was only 20 yards long. Ah well, better than nothing.

After that my wife and I met up for more skiing, but the cold winds were blasting up the hill. We got too cold, too fast, and the wind had also cleaned the hills of snow to a large extent. We did the best we could to enjoy ourselves, but getting inside for lunch was a pleasure that I have to say we dragged out longer than we would have otherwise. We only did 2 runs on Mount Madonna before opting to make the ski trek back to Mount Morse and the Village to pick up the kids. While Shark Boy had been a little resistant to go to a "Ski School" - we shouldn't have called it that because school means teachers which means rules and orders to follow - he didn't want it to end and was sad when he found out it was his last day. The instructors were great, and they use a GPS tracking technology (called Flaik) which not only lets them track the kids in case of emergency, but summarizes their runs, you can even map it out from the Flaik website.

One of Shark Boy's days on skis.

Swimming in the pool ended up being a lot of fun. I had Shark Boy do a swim test to prove he could handle the deep end, which I'm proud to say he passed with flying colours. The Lightning Kid has tubes in his ears, and we got custom earplugs to protect them; this was one of my first times working with them, and I lost them. Three times, but I found them every time, once in the drain filter, once floating nearby, and once in the middle of the pool where I did my best Hasselhoff impression with a daring aquatic rescue (Baywatch reference!). 

We took the kids to the Fun Zone which was next to the indoor pool so their hair could dry a little before going the the Hearth and Candle. It's a cozy restaurant which would have been nice for a romantic dinner in the basement where the fireplaces are, but the main floor accommodates families beautifully too. I got a chance to try the Vermont chicken which I had missed out on the night before and it was delicious. What I didn't enjoy as much was the Maple Bacon Manhattan; I blame myself, because it didn't taste any different than it should, I think I just expected to like it based on the fact that all the individual ingredients were things that I liked.

On Day 4, we weren't flying out till the afternoon, and Smuggs was nice enough to let us have a late checkout without any extra charges which meant being able to do a few runs as a family. And the Lightning Kid didn't seem like swimming had caused him to catch a cold! Oddly enough, it was the first time we'd gotten a real look at the beginner's runs and lifts. Apparently Shark Boy was able to ride the Mogul Mouse lift by himself, and he didn't like me lifting him up to get on the Village lift; turns out it was a good idea though because those chairs are a little higher and it nearly knocked him down - I managed to snag him in the last second. He actually rode mostly with his mother, because it was my job to get the Lightning Kid on the chairlift. Both my wife and I were nervous at the prospect, but I resolved to simply keep a good hold on him. The lift staff didn't bat an eyelash as I lined up for the lift.

I got a lift-selfie to mark the occasion
We moved over to make use of the magic carpet and were able to let Shark Boy ski independently while my wife and I got the Lightning Kid to ski unassisted. WHICH HE TOTALLY DID.... for about 6 feet, but still! I got him to put his hands on his knees which is something he's learned in the soccer program I mentioned earlier. That made his stance perfect with a low centre of gravity. Any time he wasn't being held up, he screamed, but he did ski independently which was a great moment for us. Another funny moment was when we convinced him to ski without being held, by distracting him and singing "LET IT GO!" (his all-time favourite song from the movie Frozen). We capped off our last day at Smuggler's Notch as a family of four skiers, and we couldn't have asked for a better outcome.

Our shuttle back to Burlington airport had all the info he needed to make sure we were there in a timely fashion and he even gave us a little scenic tour so we could see some of the mountains and learn about what some of the local villages have to offer; Underhill and Jericho Corners are great for hiking, for example.

We had a fairly uneventful flight back, and I think this trip stands out as a good example of how family vacations don't have to be stressful; there were hair-pulling moments of course, but altogether, we got what we wanted out of the trip.

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