Wintergreen Resort mixes scenic beauty with fun for all climates

By Patrick Jones, Contributor

WINTERGREEN, Va. -- Not unlike Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, vacationing in the Mid-Atlantic States in March means that you never know what you’re going to get.

Overanxious blooming daffodils in this area of the country frequently find themselves buried by six inches of snow for their presumptuousness in trumpeting spring’s exact arrival. Winter’s final attempts to keep the landscape covered in white are just as quickly foiled by temperatures soaring into the 70s.

Mother Nature in these parts can be as unpredictable as picking the Final Four teams in the NCAA’s Men’s Basketball Tournament.

Speaking of March Madness, what are recreational travelers to do this time of year? Play golf and tennis, or ski and snowboard? And that’s not to mention the seasonal libation conundrum: Do you stay warm with coffee and Kahlua or break out of the deep freeze with blenders serving up frozen margaritas?

The correct answer is to prepare for any and all of the above.

On a recent March weekend, my wife and I loaded up our Ford Explorer for the 210-mile trip from Cary, N.C., to Wintergreen Resort in Virginia. Our beloved cargo included our 2-year-old son, enough gear to open up a Play It Again Sports franchise, and a large collection of disparate seasonal items ranging from sunscreen to ear muffs and ski parkas to golf shorts.

Our (emotional) baggage included no elbow room in the vehicle – good thing we left our three dogs at home – and an uncertainty over upcoming weather conditions that you don’t normally dwell upon when departing for, say, a vacation to Sanibel Island, Fla., in July.

No need to pack the long johns – just in case – for that trip.

Wintergreen is an 11,000-acre resort in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains that provides one of the best-rounded mixes of sheer scenic beauty and recreational diversity found east of the Rockies and south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Golf is a big part of Wintergreen’s offerings. There is the mountaintop Devil’s Knob course, a 6,576-yard, par-70 layout by Ellis Maples. At 3,850 feet, it is the highest course in Virginia. There is also the 27-hole Stoney Creek course located 3,000 feet below in the Rockfish Valley near the town of Nellysford. The Rees Jones creation features much of his trademark mounding throughout the three nines.

The Devil’s Knob course still remained closed for the winter during our visit. The condo we rented was along the No. 9 fairway. We saw deer on the course and a brown, furry creature. My wife and I couldn’t decide whether it was a beaver or a muskrat, neither of us being wildlife biologists and both of us with corrected myopia.

Other than the indigenous mountaintop fauna, the two-legged emptiness of the course did allow us to stroll a few holes in solitude. Our son practiced for April’s upcoming Easter egg hunt by excavating range balls plugged for months in the wet sod on the driving range. He proceeded to bounce one on the cart path that rebounded into his noggin, but the tough guy didn’t cry. We quickly took his orange-colored, Surlyn-covered treasures away. After all, a 2-year-old is too young to learn that the exceptional game of a lifetime can sometimes provide painful experiences. That lesson will come soon enough in adolescence when he suffers his initial four putt.

First on our Wintergreen itinerary was to slide down the mountain, keeping all appendages in one piece. The resort prides itself on its top-notch ski patrol. Our desire was to admire their stylish red parkas emblazoned with white crosses from afar, not while covered in blankets being hauled up the mountain in a basket hitched to a snowmobile.

Skiing and snowboarding season in the American South is, understandably, short. And it is not always sweet. Exposed red clay along with frozen granular conditions can be the norm on some hills audacious enough to solicit cash for lift tickets at latitudes lower than here.

Wintergreen Resort’s skiing conditions will never be confused with those in the Swiss Alps, but they are arguably the best and most easily accessible for schussers and boarders venturing from destinations such as Baltimore; Raleigh, N.C.; Richmond, Va.; and Washington D.C. Snowshoe Resort in West Virginia boasts similar amenities and more skiable terrain, but it is a more remote, inland destination from many East Coast cities.

Wintergreen is now in a class by itself in this region for its skiing conditions. A recent investment of millions into snow-making machinery keeps the 20 slopes and trails well covered until almost the end of March. The resort’s marketing literature advertises: “Give us 30 degrees and 36 hours and we’ll give you a winter wonderland.” Cynics are thinking, “Give us a break and we’ll give you…,” but the promises of sufficient man-made frozen precipitation held true on our visit.

We skied on a sunny Sunday morning. After I chided my wife for the 10th time for forgetting to pack our ski pants, we hit the slopes in our blue jeans, looking to the entire world, in my mind, like we just stumbled in from doing the Boot Scoot Boogie at some nearby Shenandoah Valley honky-tonk. I think you go to jail in Vail for such a denim fashion faux pas.

The conditions at Wintergreen Resort were very good considering this was not the backcountry at Whistler, Heavenly or Alta. We made numerous uneventful runs (a good thing) over a couple of hours. We were able to carve our intermediate skier’s controlled S-turns with enough room to maneuver out of harm’s way from the Generation X Extreme Games wannabes who barreled down the mountain with no regard for retirement planning, theirs or ours.

After each run, we were whisked back to the top of the mountain by the Blue Ridge Express, a high-speed, six-person lift that is the envy of other resorts in the region. The days of burning off the fingertips of your gloves on tow ropes and holding up the entire line after falling in the path of the T-lift are, thankfully, long gone.

On Monday we pulled out the golf gear and played Stoney Creek’s Shamokin nine. (Please, no Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura impressions.) It was a good thing that we brought our ski parkas on the trip. We didn’t need them on the slopes, but they came in handy to cut down the wind chill on a cloud-covered, brisk day in the valley. We had the course mostly to ourselves and whipped around in 10 minutes a hole. The highlights were my wife’s birdie, my three consecutive pars and blasting the heat in the Ford when the round was done.

The nine we saw before we had to thaw provided a good mix of challenging golf holes and a gorgeous backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Taking full advantage of the two hours we had left through the resort’s babysitting services, we stopped by the Wintergreen Vineyards on the way back up the mountain and then played an hour’s worth of tennis at the resort’s indoor courts. Along with its highly regarded golf – Stoney Creek was ranked as the state’s No. 2 course during the ’90s – Wintergreen’s tennis facilities are also top notch. There are 19 clay courts and three indoor courts. Tennis magazine votes Wintergreen one of its Top 50 destinations for whacking the fuzzy green ball.

There are several dining options inside the Wintergreen compound, including the upscale The Copper Mine restaurant. For our dinner one night, we chose to venture into Charlottesville. It’s a 40-minute drive to the vibrant city that’s home to the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home and, most importantly to our existence, a Mellow Mushroom pizza joint that provided the meatball topping our son had been clamoring for all day.

The following morning, tired but invigorated, we reluctantly packed up the SUV, soaked up a final look at the spectacular views offered by Wintergreen’s vistas, and began descending the mountain. A flurry of snowflakes bid our quick March getaway, and the final vestiges of winter, a final adieu.

Fast Fact

Skiing ends March 28.

Patrick JonesPatrick Jones, Contributor

Patrick Jones was the senior producer for ESPN's "Lower Your Score with Tom Kite" CD-ROM instructional golf training series. He spent six years as a full-time sports writer and was awarded first-place honors for column writing from both the Florida and Texas sports writers associations.

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