It had been some time since I skied Boyne Highlands. What once was a family tradition had disappeared with the passing of my grandmother. We called her, Nan. And, she often joined my father, brother and I on long weekends in the quiet still of the Highlands. She didn’t ski but she loved the lodge, the heated pool, and the atmosphere of the mountain. My last memory of the Highlands is of hot cocoa on the deck of the cafeteria, saddened and perhaps a bit cynical over our loss, while the lifts continued to escort skiers to the top of the hill.
“Don’t they know a fine woman has passed?” I thought.
After some time I got back on my skis and headed to the chairlift. It brought me up through the trees, over a ridge, then another, through the silence of the woods, and she was there. Her spirit. All around. Finally, enjoying a ride with me up the mountain.
Years later, I’m pulling up to the Main Lodge with my wife and two little boys – five and three. They were listening to the Beatles for hours; the last 6o minutes a constant loop of Don’t Let Me Down and The Ballad of John and Yoko. I love John, Paul, George, and Ringo as much as anyone but at some point I switched to the Classical station coming out of Interlochen.
That’s not my Hummer in the featured image, by the way. But our wiper fluid gave out in Crooked Lake, leaving it nearly impossible to see through the windshield.
As a kid, when my father ran out of fluid, he had me hold the steering wheel while he rolled down the window, leaned out of our wagon and, using whatever material he found rummaging through the glove compartment and side-wells of the doors, smeared a swirl of sludge across the windshield for visibility – all while maintaining speed. On a few occasions, we made the 280 mile trip north from Detroit to Boyne with no fluid at all; stopping to pilfer the slushy mix of cleaner, water, and grime from gas station squeegee buckets all along I-75 – West Branch being our favorite.
Anyway, Mozart was busy tickling the keys as we made our grand entrance.
Stepping inside the Main Lodge, in what is now known as The Highlands at Harbor Springs, is quite an experience. The decor is Old Scottish Manor, with heavy wood beams, wrought iron railings, and slate flooring. I love the ambiance of the lodge, with skiers moving about in their gear, emitting the unique sound of ski boots, heel to toe, heel to toe, over carpet, wood, and stone; bustling conversations in seating areas; the smell of coffee; and, through a wall of glass doors the sight of Boarders and Skiers buckling up for a day on the slopes.
After check-in we loaded into our rooms – Hazel Two Queens Deluxe for the boys and connecting Glen King Standard for the lovely couple. Very happy to report that the accommodations in real life look and feel just as they’re depicted on Boyne’s website. Beds are perfect for bouncing and the bathrooms in glass and marble are very well done. Luxurious, actually. There is a trick, however, to increase the temperature in the shower. But I’ll leave that discovery to you (as everyone loves a mystery). Connecting rooms provided plenty of space, with room-length windows offering a beautiful view of the mountain. We made ourselves at home, had a few snacks, and then changed into gear for an evening hike.
The Enchanted Trail
We pulled our boys by sled down a trail through the woods illuminated every so often with enchanting displays of light. The sky, black. The air, stinging our cheeks. Stark, white snow, reflecting the glow of incandescent and LED installations that lit the path for maybe a mile or more. Once or twice, another party passed en route or back from a rustic Yurt we were assured lied ahead. But other than that we were alone in the forest. We listened for birds. We listened for small animals. We sang wintery songs. And, just when we reached the point the cold began to set in … a woodland scene of light and garland ahead in a clearing.
Apparently, the Highlands launched this adventure only a year or two ago. We watched the video on their website and, while it is well done, I have to admit the experience was better than I expected. The lighting installations are artfully done, varied in design, and appropriately spaced. And, the one mile trail length to the Yurt is a comfortable hike.
A host greeted us at the door. We leaned our sleds against a tree and entered the warming hut. Inside, a leather sofa and chairs sat by a fireplace. A table supporting large canisters of Hot Cocoa stood center room. Opposite the seating area, a full service bar, with two barkeeps ready to provide warm, adult elixirs. Quite a cozy affair.
Our boys got out of their gear and warmed themselves by the fire. They had hot cocoa with large marshmallows. Nette and I conversed with other travelers. Skiers from New York, Ohio, the U.P. and Chicago. At one point, the bartender turned the conversation to the band KISS and someone from each party had a story to tell. The staff was very friendly and happy to accommodate.
Filled with the ingredients for S’mores, a large silver chalice stood by a second door that opened to an outdoor setting. Trees and a pair of old barn structures were decorated with lights. A pair of fire pits crackled with wood, while families and couples warmed themselves and roasted marshmallows. And, the ambient music – curated by the tenders of the bar – added perfectly to the fairytale setting. Our boys loved it. We loved it. After we had our fill, it was time to head back up the snowy trail; continuing to our warm beds in the lodge.
Breakfast in the Main Dining Room
Breakfast begins with coffee and a panoramic view of the Highlands. The second floor restaurant, with it’s vaulted ceilings, sunken dining area, and large windows accentuate the northern Michigan alpine experience. It feels big. And, our boys were fascinated by the taxidermy, wrought iron chandeliers, and wood carving of a brown bear holding his skis.
But, their eyes really lit up at the Buffet – Belgian waffles, bacon, and all the blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, they could eat. I remembered the feeling well. As a child, I stood at the Buffet delighting in the color and variety of offerings. The lodge is where I had my first Cheese Danish. That, and my first Yoplait, which came from the Cafeteria, made me feel very European.
We enjoyed three mornings of breakfast during our stay. Each, with a slight change to the menu. Pancakes were changed to crepes. Canadian Bacon to Roast Beef. But, always fresh omelets, scrambled eggs, bacon, potatoes, oatmeal, yogurt, fruit, cheese, pastry, juice, and coffee – sourced from Leelanau Coffee Roasting Co., which is nice. The Buffet is fun, and as healthy or naughty as one makes it.
But the best part of the meal, just as it was when I was a kid, is the view of the Highlands and its promise of adventure. Skiers know; it’s a great time to check your map, discuss lifts and runs, and to enjoy the smiling faces of those sharing a table.
A Midwest Winter Wonderland
The Highlands opened in 1963 and, like all of us, has undergone some refurbishing. From ski lifts to improved snowmaking methods, the addition of terrain parks and downhill runs, the Resort moves forward while maintaining an aesthetic generations of boarders and skiers have come to love.
The Highlands at Harbor Springs is in the midst of a transformation that extends through 2030. Apparently, 30 rooms in the main lodge will be fully refurbished, a new Après venue and European-style spa will be added, and the lobby area will expand to include a bar. President and CEO of Boyne Resorts, Stephen Kircher says The Highlands will once again be the “Grand Dame of Midwest Resorts.” I’m thrilled for my boys. A European spa is a level up from a serving of Yoplait.
Stephen Kircher’s father, Everett founded Boyne Mountain in 1948. After purchasing the original single chair that made Sun Valley famous, Everett installed Michigan’s first chairlift. He then landed Norwegian Olympic Gold Medalist, Stein Eriksen and later Austrian Olympic champion, Othmar Schneider to lead Boyne Ski School. After the opening of Disneyland in 1955, it was said that Everett Kircher endeavored to make Boyne its northern equivalent – A Midwest Winter Wonderland.
70 years later, Boyne Country includes 12 resorts that stretch coast to coast, from Cypress Mountain (British Colombia), to Big Sky (Montana), to Shawnee Park (Maine). Not bad for a family-owned business legend says started with a $1 land deal.
To Ski Or Not To Ski
In fact, my first ski lesson was at Boyne Highlands. I was seven or eight and pretty nervous. My father led me up a small incline to a group of kids outfitted in full regalia – hats, goggles, bibs, ski pins and patches. While I did have a cool pair of Northland skis, in sort of an American star and stripes design (with, I think, a pair of Henke boots), the rest of me was dressed for recess – jeans, winter coat, and no goggles.
Avoiding conversation, I tended to some corn snow packed in my buckles with the tip of my pole when a hourglass vision in bodysuit appeared on skis – long flowing hair backlit by the morning sun. She planted her poles and leaned over to reveal a gorgeous tanned face and extremely bright, white smile.
“Hallo,” she said, in an accent I would come to discover was Austrian. “I am your Instructor, Bathilda.”
I was awestruck.
Immediately, I knew I wasn’t good enough to be her student. She led us to the MacGully lift and, since I was odd boy out, had me ride with her. Nervous, I nearly fell as the chair swung around to pick us up. But, she grabbed my arm and positioned me in our seat.
“My God, she’s strong,” I thought.
It was an awkward ride up the lift. We didn’t talk much. She stretched out her legs to clear snow from her skis. Muscles taught beneath the fabric. I wondered if we might kiss. Travel. Be together.
The end of the lift interrupted my daydream. Bathilda grabbed my arm just in time to keep my skis from catching the ramp. My dismount was dreadful. Legs wobbling like a fawn. Annoyed, Bathilda skied to the edge of Kath Run. I followed. She gave quick, decisive instructions. Everyone nodded, while I hurried to get my hands in my mittens. My pole fell. I leaned to pick it up and began to slide. Slowly at first but enough to crest the edge until I slid, arms flailing, into the bowl of fresh snow.
“Fall Down!” Bathilda shouted. “Fall Down!”
My balance gave out at the base of a group of trees. I laid in the snow staring at the clouds. Bathilda skied over and pulled me out of the chowder. Though she was now speaking full Austrian I sensed that she was upset. Bathilda positioned me between her legs and shoved off downhill, expressing frustration in lovely flourishes of her native tongue all the way to the end of the run.
I don’t blame Boyne. I don’t even blame Bathilda. But a family gene that sometimes reveals itself in situations like these. So, I was more understanding than maybe I should have been when my 3 and 5 year olds decided they weren’t ready for ski lessons. Which, was fine. Nette and I improvised.
We pulled our boys in sleds along the base of the Highlands – up and down hills – for the better half of the afternoon, before stepping inside the Day Lodge for hot cocoa, French fries, and the warmth of a fire. Later, my family went swimming in the heated pool, watched shows, and had snacks in our rooms, while I hit the slopes like a “Jerry”.
Swimming Beneath The Stars
My youngest held my hands while I pulled him through the water. We watched the stars and tried to guess how many were in the sky. I remembered my father doing the same with me. My wife and eldest were on the other side of the pool, barely visible through the steam, when I caught my son gazing into my eyes.
“What are you thinking?” I asked.
“I just like it when I hold your hands, and then you hold my hands, and then you pull me in the water,” he said. “I’m never going to forget this, dad.”
Wow. That hit home. These are the moments that become memories.
“Neither will I, son.”
As we evolve, the outdoor heated pool and hot tub evolve with us. When we’re young we excite over the idea of swimming out of doors in winter. We challenge ourselves to run a lap around the pool before jumping back in to warm our bodies. We swim with family beneath the stars in a sort of a magical environment, and dream.
Later, we roll in the snow, jump in the pool, and laugh about the day’s killer wipeouts. Later still, we drink, smoke, and maybe find ourselves in the hot tub with a group of Finnish ski bunnies (but, that’s a story for another time).
On it goes until coming full circle.
And, like my father before me, it was now my time to introduce the experience to my family – what a privilege. I think we spent an hour or so each day and night between the pool and hot tub. Each time, loving and hating that moment of getting out and putting on our robes, before making our way to the shower room.
Day Trip to Petoskey
Just south of the Highlands is the little town of Petoskey. One afternoon, we took a few hours to visit Petoskey Winter Sports Park, where we went sledding, ice-skating, and enjoyed giant soft pretzels by the fire. The hill was fun. Seems a well used spot by locals. And, there are two ice rinks: one, an actual rink and the other, a giant pond. The warming hut has free wifi, plenty of seating, and a cozy, little fireplace. Admission is free. Skate rental is $7. Hot Pretzels $3.
Slopeside Lounge and the 80s Arcade
Après Ski would not be complete without dinner and drinks in the Slopeside Lounge. Actually, for those among us traveling without children, a wild evening in the Zoo Bar might be more complete. But for Nette and I it was a lovely order of Fish and Chips (beer battered walleye with truffle parmesan fries), paired with Cava.
The boys enjoyed crayons, kids menu puzzles, junior Boyne Burgers and fries – paired with milk. And, the warm glow of the fireplace cast an amber hue throughout the lounge, creating a cozy space for couples or families to end their day.
But the big hit was the authentic 1980s basement Arcade, which remains much as I remembered it from my youth. That’s right! Complete with air hockey, pool table, claw machines, dart board, and an assortment of 80s and 90s vintage video games. It even has a sticker machine full of vintage Boyne stickers. My boys totally lost their minds at the sight of it.
We spent a good hour or so playing every game. And, while they didn’t have Asteroids or Space Invaders (maybe, the only professional criticism I can think of during this trip) they had more than enough to entertain my boys. In fact, my wife was crushing it on Primal Rage, or something
On the way out some kids traded their rubber bouncy balls with whatever my boys scored from the Claw. And, wouldn’t you know it – just like when we were young – they instinctively knew it might be cool to launch them down the hallway on the way back to our room.
Of course, my wife put a stop to it, immediately.
But, in my mind, I was laughing.
So, What Does It All Mean?
The Highlands at Harbor Springs is alive and well. And, while it’s just as I remembered, it feels like it’s moving forward in a manner families, who have skied Boyne for generations, will appreciate. I know mine enjoyed their stay. We hope to continue the tradition I let pass for too many years.
As I loaded the SUV, my boys discovered a mountain of snow the plows had pushed alongside the parking lot early that morning. Six new inches. They climbed up, slid down, and were really having a blast. It’s the simple things.
My wife appeared, surprising me with one final piece of her luggage, right as I assembled the puzzle of bags for our journey home. She started a snowball fight with the boys, while I began the process of packing all over again.
Good thing I came up playing Tetris.