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Lessons, lodging and lunching at Okemo Mountain Resort

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"You're not giving yourself enough credit. You're a solid intermediate skier." These are the words I've been longing to hear for nearly 20 years since I started skiing on a frigid cold night in February. Not knowing any better, I wore jeans and a cotton jacket. I must have fallen a hundred times that night; It's a wonder I ever got on skis again.

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I traded in my ill-prepared outerwear for ski pants and a proper ski jacket and became a regular skier. I took a few lessons and pronounced myself "good enough" to get down the mountain. But I never progressed past "good enough" and picked up some bad habits and poor techniques along the way. Twenty years later I find myself at Okemo Mountain Resort under the expert tutelage of ski instructor Sue Gallo. After one group lesson (I was a group of one), Sue pronounces me a confident skier with intermediate ability.

This winter, I'm researching ways that active families can stay active without spending the next four months hibernating indoors on the couch or attached at an electronic device, not-so-patiently waiting for winter to be over. Hot chocolate and a roaring fire are nice (we'll get to that later), but I'm seeking adventure-filled activities that help us embrace the winter rather than dread it. Skiing and other winter sports are ideal for active families: fresh air, exercise and togetherness outside the boundaries of home are a surefire prevention for cabin fever.

Lodging at Okemo Mountain Resort

Staying at the Jackson Gore Inn we rolled out of bed and found ourselves on the slopes. Nearly everything is just a few steps or a lift ride away on the Coleman Brook Express Quad. Sure, a short shuttle ride to the mountain isn't too painful - that is, unless you've experienced the convenience and luxury of a ski in/ski out property. While it is nice in the morning and at the end of the day, we find the convenience of slope side lodging pays for itself throughout the day when we want a break. Staying at a ski in/ski out hotel makes running back to your room a possibility, whether to add or remove clothing, retrieve a forgotten glove or come in out of the cold without heading into a crowded lodge. This is especially good for families with small children and inexperienced skiers who want time away from the slopes throughout the day. If your unit has kitchen facilities, preparing some meals in your condo can save valuable budget dollars. But at Okemo, the on-mountain dining options are just too tempting to pass up.

Our one-bedroom suite has all the comforts of home and then some: a gas fireplace, balcony, jetted tub, two full bathrooms and sleeping space for 8 (although we think it would be a little crowded at maximum occupancy). I appreciate how clean and well-maintained everything is and that the closets are stocked with extra blankets and pillows and that there are plenty of towels. Not one call to housekeeping is made except to decline room freshening service mid-stay; we had everything we needed.

Okemo Mountain Resort offers a multitude of lodging options for every budget. An economical choice is to stay at the main base area (Clock Tower) at The Mountain Lodge at Okemo. I've personally always been entranced by the condos terraced along the hillside near the Solitude base area, located mid-mountain at the Solitude Peak. There are eight Okemo-owned lodging properties in all.

Early season (mid-December) ski conditions were excellent: short or non-existent lift lines and superior snow coverage with 93 trails/13 lifts open. Winter storm Electra dumped 16 inches of powder overnight and we awoke to a winter wonderland. The snow makers and grooming staff worked hard all night to groom some trails and leave others perfectly au natural. Pillows of soft bumps formed on some intermediate slopes for a thigh burning run that challenged even the fittest skiers. Being the solid intermediate skier that I am (thanks to my confidence-building lesson), I was drawn to Okemo's many wide, groomed cruising trails. The aptly named Mountain Road trail - you can drive on it in the summer - winds its way from peak to base for 4 1/2 miles. Although I never made it to Okemo Mountain Peak, I hear that there are a few steep enough black diamond runs up there to satisfy the adrenaline junkies and a few double black diamond runs too.

Activities at Okemo Mountain Resort

Should you tire of the skiing, Okemo offers many other ways to stay active that don't involve strapping two boards to your feet and hurtling down a mountain. You could, instead, strap blades to your feet and take a spin around the ice at The Ice House, Okemo's open air covered ice pavilion. The Timber Ripper Mountain Coaster, another way to hurtle yourself down the mountain, is loads of fun for all ages. Just steps from the Jackson Gore Inn is the Spring House where fitness buffs never have to miss a workout thanks to a fully equipped fitness center, fitness studio and indoor pool. If you never want to leave the warmth and comfort of the Jackson Gore Inn you can still get in a swim: Just take the elevator from your guest room to the lower level where you'll find a steamy room with large indoor hot tub and an indoor swim-out entrance to the even larger heated outdoor pool. Hint: the colder and snowier it is outside, the more fun this pool is! It's covered at night to maintain the heat and the pool deck is heated to keep snow from accumulating. My family had tons of fun jumping from outdoor pool to the outdoor hot tubs and back again, despite the single-digit temperatures.

Lunching at Okemo Mountain Resort

Okemo Mountain Resort is a stellar example of how chefs honor ingredients that come out of their own backyard. Jackson Gore Inn's primary restaurant, Coleman Brook Tavern, serves fare familiar enough for kids and gourmet enough for adults. Gracious staffers serve dishes composed of locally sourced products with unexpected pairings of flavors. I had some of the best cheese of my life - a locally produced chocolate stout cheddar - at the Tavern. Yes, the holy trinity of chocolate, beer and cheese.

If you're used to Chefs that hide in the kitchen, you'll be pleasantly surprised at the outgoing nature of the Chefs at Okemo Mountain Resort. When I met Executive Chef Scot Emerson, he was assisting misdirected guests in finding their way though the hotel corridors. I asked him what he was cooking that evening and he proudly described his brand-new winter menu: the one-pound strip steak, the yellowfin tuna and perhaps his most prized dish, the short ribs of beef. My vote for best dish was the Baked Lille' with its buttery, cheesy goodness wrapped inside flaky pastry and served with crusty bread. Paired with a roasted beet salad it was a sensational seasonal dinner.

Just because you're wearing ski boots doesn't mean you have to settle for lunch in a crowded lodge. Okemo's dining scene is a counterpoint to standard ski lodge cafeteria fare (although you can find some of that too). When noontime hunger struck, we made our way over to Epic Restaurant on Solitude Mountain for a sophisticated, white linen lunch experience. Epic's new Chef Jason Tostrup, also in the outgoing category, has plenty of surprises in store for you in this slopeside restaurant that offers a full bar with outstanding wine list and circular fireplace. We feasted on umami-style Kobe beef burgers, orange duck confit salad and a trio of desserts that made us regret that we hadn't saved more room. The star ingredient on Epic's delightful menu, cider, found its way into a rich pie, a tangy vinaigrette and a sweet jelly that glazed the pulled pork.

When the lifts close, adults can opt for traditional après ski pursuits at Jackson Gore's outdoor fire pit or indoors at Coleman's Lobby Bar. The more daring set - adults and kids alike - can choose snowcat rides to the top of the mountain, snow tubing and the popular snow playground. With snow swirling around us, I rode shotgun in the Grey Goose snowcat with the driver and learned about the grooming and snow making process from a seasoned veteran. These guys love their jobs!

Our weekend at Okemo was many things: a relaxing family getaway, challenging skiing, a culinary adventure and at last, an improvement in skills. We'll be back!

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