Welcome to our new series, I Tried It. Milwaukee Magazine writers are getting out an about, trying all the new things our city has to offer so you don’t have to (or so you know what to expect when you do). Before you venture out, check to see if MilMag has tried it first. Read all of our I Tried It installments here.
Like many a born-and-bred Midwesterner, I’m used to long, cold winters, and I try to make the most of them by occasionally lacing up a pair of ice-skates or drinking warm cocktails inside chilly ice bars. I’ve always been interested in downhill skiing too. But, until last weekend, I’d only tried it twice.
The first time, I was about twenty and decided on a whim to spend an afternoon at a small ski resort near where I was attending college. The snow was fluffy and light, and I whooshed down the bunny slopes more easily than I’d expected. I even hopped aboard a chair lift to ski down a slope built for more advanced beginners and managed to make it down without falling.
So when I found out that a couple of my friends, both accomplished skiers, were planning a trip to a much larger ski resort later that same year, I told them I wanted to tag along too. And, after a couple of hours on my own, I joined them on a moderately difficult run. The snow that day was hard and slick, and I quickly built up speed. Too much speed. It felt like I was careening down the mountain at ninety miles an hour, and when I hit a patch of ice I lost my balance and tumbled down the rest of the slope head over heels until I reached the base of the run soggy and wet and thoroughly embarrassed.
All that is to say, I didn’t ski again while at school. And in the decade since my graduation, I’d sometimes gaze wistfully at ads for ski resorts, but I never put any effort into planning another trip to one.
Flash forward to last month, when I found out that the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa – conveniently located more or less between Milwaukee and Chicago – maintains a ski chalet with no less than 20 runs. I had some time to kill before joining my boyfriend’s family in the Windy City for the holidays, and the photos that the Grand Geneva posted to their website were thoroughly FOMO-inducing … so I decided to spend a day at the resort before driving down to Chicago.
The Mountain Top was built in the 1960s, when Playboy mogul Hugh Hefner opened a luxury hotel-cum-golf-course-and-ski-resort in the Wisconsin countryside. The chalet was designed by Alexander McIlvaine, the architect who masterminded the Squaw Valley complex for the 1960 Winter Olympics, and from overhead it looks likes two interlocking snowflakes. It’s very cool. Literally.
The resort sprawls across 30 acres and encompasses three chair lifts and two carpet lifts leading to 20 runs. Most of those runs were, fortunately for me, suitable for beginners. And though the chalet was originally known for the bunny ear-wearing women who worked its slopes (Is this where the term “ski bunny” comes from? Let’s say yes), it’s now a decidedly family-friendly destination. People of all ages were checking in when I arrived. Youngish couples. Older adults. Parents with kids who were probably already better skiers than I was.
I only had to wait in line for a minute or two to obtain my ski pass and pick up the boots and poles and skis I’d be renting for the day.
In no time I was out on the mountain, trying to figure out which slope to try first. I didn’t want to make the same mistake I made during my last unfortunate outing. So I decided to start with one of the chalet’s smallest, gentlest hills. I hopped aboard one of the carpet lifts (if you’ve never been on one before, picture a conveyor belt leading you slowly up an incline) and rode it all the way up. At the top of the – admittedly not very tall – hill, I had a great view of the surrounding resort and the people slaloming down its higher peaks. I took a deep breath, pushed off with my poles, and whooshed gently down the slope.
By the time I got to the bottom, I’d forgotten all about my disastrous second skiing attempt and was ready to ride up another hill. And then another, and another. I suddenly understood why some people build entire vacations around ski trips.
Even people who’d sooner jump into Lake Michigan in January than ski down a mountain could still find plenty to do at a chalet. This one also maintains an ice-skating rink, a sledding hill and trails for fat tire bikes and show shoes. And the on-site restaurant, Leinenkugel’s Mountain Top Lodge, offers panoramic views of the slopes and an extensive menu with some local brews on tap. I was tempted to order a pint of something before leaving but opted instead to nurse a cup of hot cocoa while staring pensively into the gigantic fireplace located at the heart of the chalet instead, very pleased with myself for working up the courage to strap on a pair of skis again.
All in all, the trip made for a pretty great weekend afternoon. And I sincerely hope that I won’t wait another ten years to try downhill skiing again. In fact, I’ve already marked my calendar for the town’s annual Winterfest celebration, which runs between Jan. 26 and Feb. 3. Spending another weekend at the chalet won’t make winter in Wisconsin speed by any faster. But it could make it at least a little more fun.