By Khristi Zimmeth
Every winter, Dianna Stampfler makes the same New Year’s resolution — to try one new thing every month. “I’ve tried snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, even winter kayaking,” the Plainwell, MI, resident reports. “Whether it’s a new food, a new activity or checking out a new destination, it has helped me broaden my horizons and has made getting through the winter a lot more fun.”
Let’s face it — winter is a fact of life here in the Great Lakes State. Rather than moan and groan your way through the season, why not embrace it? Read on for five fabulous ways — both indoors and out — to warm up to winter. One is surely right for you.
The area around Hillman is home to the largest elk herd east of the Mississippi. When Melanie Libby and her family, who own Thunder Bay Resort (www.thunderbayresort.com) were searching for something new to offer winter guests, they decided to capitalize on one of the area’s natural resources.
“People would come to our front desk and ask how they could see the elk,” she remembers. “When we took inventory of what we had in our area that was unusual, the elk were at the top of the list.” The resort began offering elk-watching/gourmet dinner trips in 1992; today they’re among their most popular activities.
Guests board sleighs pulled by Belgian and Percheron horses for the hour-long ride over the Thunder Bay River and through the woods to the resort’s 135-acre preserve and log cabin, where dinner is served. If you’re lucky, you’ll see newborn calves and the large bulls the resort proudly calls their “bachelors,” part of the more than 80-member Rocky Mountain elk herd now owned by the resort.
The five-course gourmet meal is cooked by Libby’s mom on two antique stoves. “She’s a fabulous cook,” she boasts. The event has proven so popular that it’s now offered year-round, although winter remains the most popular season. Prices start at $86 per person without lodging; $182 with a two-night stay.
The resort is also justifiably proud of being named one of the top 10 sleigh rides in the country by USA Today. “The evergreens are heavy with snow, the stars are amazingly bright, you’re full and warm under the blankets and everything around you is breathtakingly beautiful,” Libby says. “You feel as if you’ve stepped into a Currier and Ives print.”
Flying without the aid of a plane or helicopter is a thrill few of us will experience, but you can come close on a new zipline adventure at Boyne Mountain and Boyne Highlands (www.boyne.com). After a successful launch at their resort in Montana, Boyne decided to offer the adventure in Michigan, says spokeswoman Erin Ernst. The resort is one of the few places that offers the activity — which they describe as “all thrills, no skills for all ages” — in winter.
The 2 1/2-hour trip starts with a chairlift ride to the top of the slopes. After suiting up with a body harness, ropes and helmet, you “fly” along a series of suspended lines through the trees, criss-crossing the mountain at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour before eventually ending at the bottom.
Ernst admits that the jump from the first platform is a little unnerving, but adds that “it’s very, very safe. We double-check every line, but there is definitely an initial rush when you jump the first time. One time, however, and you’re hooked.”
Guides try to get everyone to hang upside down at least once. Doing so, says Ernst, is surprisingly easy — and fun. “It feels great,” she says, “You just tilt back, kick your legs up and the next thing you know you’re upside down.”
Weekends book quickly, but you don’t have to stay at the resort to sign up. People with limited time can opt for the 45-minute twin zip, a shorter version for two that starts at just $15 per person; the longer version starts at $59. Both will leave you exhilarated, says Ernst. “It’s definitely a different perspective on winter.”
The River Mild
Exhilaration comes easier in Indian River, where you can enjoy a milder adventure on the Sturgeon River. Winter and rafting aren’t usually words that you hear in the same sentence, says Pati Anderson, owner of Big Bear Adventures (www.bigbearadventures.com), but that doesn’t mean the two aren’t perfectly compatible. The outfitter has offered family-friendly winter rafting trips on the Sturgeon River for a decade.
“Unlike many of Michigan’s other rivers, the Sturgeon doesn’t freeze,” she explains. The 1½ hour trips include an experienced guide who shares river lore and does most of the work.
The outfitter is proud of their zero-tip history. “We went to winter rafting because rafts are much more stable than canoes and very family friendly. They’re also more peaceful than summer outings. The only thing you hear is the sound of the water, which is quite relaxing,” she says. “In winter, you basically have the river to yourself. “
You’re also more likely to spot wildlife along the way. “It’s very easy to spot them because of the snowy white backdrop,” she says. “It’s one of the few activities where you can sneak up on them in their natural habitat.” Sightings include deer, mink, beavers, eagles and wild turkey.
Rafts accommodate up to six people and are popular with both families and, more surprisingly, girlfriend getaways, says Anderson. Prices start at $34 per person and vary with group size. “It’s just breathtaking when we have a fresh snow on the low-hanging cedars along the river,” says Anderson. “It truly is a winter wonderland.”
The trip is an easy way to enjoy the challenging river, which ranks as one of the fastest in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. “Everyone gets a paddle, but the guide really does all the steering and hard paddling,” Anderson says. “You can just sit back, relax and enjoy the show.”
You don’t have to brave the elements to try something new, insists Connie Verhagen. The Muskegon resident is in her third year of winter cooking classes at Chateau Chantal winery and bed and breakfast (www.chateauchantal.com) near Traverse City.
“It all started because I didn’t know what to get my husband for his birthday,” she recalls. “I always try to do something fun and he likes meat, so I called a bunch of friends and we all got together for a weekend cooking class. It sort of snowballed from there.”
The gourmet getaway has become a tradition, with 15 friends from across the state gathering at the European-style bed and breakfast the first weekend in January. Now in its third year, the group enjoys getting together for a relaxing weekend that combines food and fun, Verhagen says.
“We pretty much take over the cooking class and the bed and breakfast for the weekend,” she says. “We come up on Friday night, have a group dinner in town, and then go back to the winery. We all put on our pajamas and have a pajama party in the winery, with as many samples as we want. The next day, we have breakfast and the guys go to the casino or the girls shop before we all meet up for class.”
Class is very hands-on. “The first year, we cooked 16 different meat recipes during the five-hour Saturday class,” she recalls. “You don’t cook with your spouse, so I learned four recipes and he learned four, then we all got together to eat at the end. Last year, we learned to make our own pasta.”
This year, the group is bringing snowshoes, with plans to snowshoe to other area vineyards for tastings. “We try to add something new every year,” says Verhagen.
Brian Lillie of the 11-room inn and winery says that many people make weekend getaways out of the five-hour class, which costs $125 per person (reduced accommodation rates are available for class participants). The chateau was also recently named one of the top 50 culinary destinations in the U.S. by Joe David, author of Gourmet Getaways.
“Culinary offerings are a natural fit with wine,” he says. “What makes it so successful is the intimate experience. It’s very hands-on.”
Feathers and Finesse
Want to learn a new skill closer to home — without braving the elements? One of the most unusual is Belgian feather bowling, which is offered in two pubs on Detroit’s east side. Best described as a cross between bocce ball and shuffleboard or curling without the ice, Belgian trough bowling, also known as “feather bowling” has been played at Detroit’s Cadieux Café (www.cadieuxcafe.com) since Belgian immigrants settled in the area in the 1920s. The point is to roll the three pound wooden balls that bear a resemblance to rounds of cheese down a 60-foot lane, coming as close to the feather at the end as possible.
A bumper sticker on the café wall reads, “It’s beautiful to be Belgian,” but you can enjoy the sport whatever your heritage. Once a Prohibition-era speakeasy, the café still offers spirited leagues and Belgian specialties such as mussels, escargot, mussel soup and Belgian beer stew along with top-name bands on weekends. The café was recently featured on Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” on the Travel Channel. You can bring a few friends and try your hand at the unusual sport any day but Tuesday or Thursday; prices start at $25 per hour.
For many years, the Cadieux Café was the only place in metro Detroit (some say the country) where you could enjoy feather bowling. In 2001, however, the sport moved northeast to the Bath City Bistro (www.bathcitybistro.com) in Mount Clemens, MI, where it has attracted even more enthusiasts. Lane rental is $20 per hour Monday through Thursday; $30 on weekends. An online coupon lets you bowl for free on certain nights with a $25 meal purchase.
On a recent weekend, the Garavaglia family could be found enjoying the first-floor lane, one of three offered at the pub, which also sports brick walls, a large roaring fireplace and an enticing menu.
“We have a large family that comes in for the holidays and about 25 of us gather here every year,” says Anthony Garavaglia of Macomb Township. “It’s a great family sport and any age can play.” His cousin Jeff McMahon comes in every year from Paris, KY, and enjoys not only Michigan’s weather, but also the Detroit area’s unusual pastime.
“I really enjoy my trips to Michigan, even in winter” he says. “We just don’t have anything like this in Kentucky.”
MORE HOT OPTIONS FOR COOL WINTER FUN
Dog sledding: Boyne Highlands (www.boyne.com) offers regular rides; or sign on for the weekend at the Terrace Inn (www.theterraceinn.com), which offers a dog sledding weekend, complete with the chance to be the head musher, Feb. 18-20.
Luging: For a revved-up adventure, visit the Muskegon Winter Sports Complex (www.msports.org), where you can sign up for a “Learn to Luge Experience” through mid-March, weather permitting. Other activities include x-c skiing, ice skating and snowshoeing.
Spa & snowshoeing: Solace Spa at Boyne Mountain (www.boyne.com) mixes a 50-minute spa treatment of your choice along with a guided winter rafting trip and snowshoeing.
Moonlight meal: Jordan Valley Outfitters (www.jvoutfitters.com), near Petoskey, offers guided winter rafting with a moonlight dinner option.
Ice fishing: Try your hand (and your reel) on a guided ice-fishing excursion on Saginaw Bay with Capt. Dan Manyen and Walleye Express (www.walleye-express.com).