It turns out you don’t have to ski to enjoy a winter visit to Sugarloaf.
Watching the cars full of skiers piling into the parking lots on Saturday morning, I was very happy we’d arrived at the Sugarloaf Mountain Hotel on Friday afternoon for a weekend of fun. Our car was parked, we’d already enjoyed a great evening at the Shipyard Brew Haus and we had a day planned that included snowshoeing, a tour of the mountain’s shops and relaxation in the hotel’s amazing and huge outdoor hot tub — plus dinner at the hotel’s restaurant, 45 North.
While the hotel has a range of rooms and suites, we were in the basic Alcove Room, very adequate for a couple intent on enjoying a getaway weekend on the mountain. In addition to the queen bed, a very comfortable couch also pulls out into a bed. I’m typing this column while seated at a dining-room style table. There is also a neat breakfast nook bar with two chairs.
A kitchen area includes a large refrigerator, microwave, real dishes and glasses and, of course, the ultimate coffee maker — Keurig. I have finally figured out how to use it. The flat-screen TV is aimed at the bed, but the better view is out the large window where the Bigelow mountain range is captivating. On Saturday morning, I stood at the window with my hot cup of coffee, watching the sunlight work its way over and down the mountains. Wow!
A little after 6 p.m. Friday, we met my brother Gordon, his wife Janet and their friend Katharine Ayer for the short walk to Shipyard for a festive evening. Many come to spend Friday night here to enjoy great microbrews and food and listen to “Uncle Al and Ken” play and sing. I’ve known Kenny Cox for a long time and it was good to see he’s still making great music.
The place was jammed, keeping Alfred Oberlerchnner (who owns the restaurant with Shipyard’s Fred Forsley) very busy — but not too busy to tell me his moose-hunting story when he saw me photographing the moose antlers over the fireplace.
Alfred is an avid sportsman who spends his winters working in the restaurant at the Waterville Country Club. I’m afraid I kept him away from his front-of-the-house tasks while we exchanged stories.
The restaurant includes a variety of seating in three rooms, one of which includes a long bar. If you want a quiet meal, the room to the left is a good choice. We, of course, chose the pub room on the right, requesting a table in front of the fireplace and close to the music. The crowd was loud but not rowdy. The food was the big surprise.
Yes, they have burgers and fries, sandwiches and a kids’ menu. But there are also many creative appetizers, salads and entrees. We explained to Gordon, Janet and Katherine that their task was to order a lot of different choices for this column and we set to it, beginning with three shared appetizers.
My choice was the Crispy Deep Fried Duck Legs ($8.99) with a sweet and sour mustard dipping sauce. These were voted best appetizer by Gordon and me. The portion was generous — six legs — the crispy skin delicious, the meat tender and the dipping sauce divine.
Even with five of us, we had a difficult time choosing entrees. There are so many and a lot of them on the regular menu were calling my name — from the Jagerschnitzel to the Shrimp and Chicken Sausage to the Apple Glazed BBQ Baby Back Ribs.
But the Friday Night Specials were tempting, too, and that’s where three of us went, Catherine chose Pan Fried Terriyaki Rainbow Trout ($19.99), Gordon the Baked Stuffed Salmon ($21.99) and I had the Pan Blackened Cajun Catfish ($19.99).
Gordon also wanted the catfish, but I made him order something else. He was glad he did because the salmon turned out to be his favorite of all the entrees. It was very good, including the smoked seafood stuffing. The Rainbow Trout dish was lighter, partly because it came with pineapple rice and wilted kale.
For my part, I thought the Catfish was the star of the evening. The blackened skin, perfectly cooked fish and spicy sauce made for a very tasty dish. As I was exclaiming about the sauce, Lin took a gander at the menu and said, “Well it’s a hot bacon dressing. No wonder you like it!”
Despite the large entree portions, there were not a lot of leftovers on our table!
Comfortably occupying a nice room at the Sugarloaf Mountain Hotel afforded us easy access to the many special places on the mountain. Throughout our stay, the staff was super friendly and helpful.
Friday night we walked down to the Shipyard Brew Haus to enjoy live music and a great meal with Gordon, Janet and Katharine. I started with their Basil Crab Cakes which are served with pickled slaw and a lemongrass aioli. I thoroughly enjoyed one myself while passing the other to make the rounds at the table. Everyone’s conclusion: that was an exceptional crab cake!
I was craving a burger and that’s one thing I love about the menu here. You feel free to order a sandwich or burger at dinner instead of an entree. My Swiss and Mushroom Burger was perfectly cooked and needed no further condiments like mustard or ketchup. They have mastered the perfect French fries here — so crispy outside, while the soft interior delivers great potato taste.
Janet’s Pad Thai was fresh and light featuring crunchy sprouts, peanuts, hardboiled egg, snow peas and mushrooms, served over rice noodles. Everyone agreed this was a knockout dish.
We also agreed on — and shared — a single dessert, the Stout Cheesecake, combining what George and Katharine said were two of their favorite things. George was a bit disappointed that he had to share this, but the ladies all agreed a few bites saved each of us from eating an entire dessert.
We woke up Saturday morning to a frigid, blustery day, so we bundled up for breakfast at Narrow Gauge Station, located on the top floor of the Base Lodge. We split a delicious bacon and mushroom omelet while watching brave skiers endure the bitter cold wind gusting up to 24 miles per hour. Many were coming in for a break and to warm up. Even the most prepared skier with lots of protection was challenged by the cold that morning.
We were happy to walk through the village shops and stumbled upon Goldsmith Gallery where George introduced me to Bonnie Holding, one of the state’s top fly fishing guides, who spends her winters in this shop that features wonderful works of art, jewelry and other unusual things that were drawing the attention of lots of shoppers.
Bonnie gave us a rundown on lunch places and we opted for D’Ellie’s where we grabbed some great sandwiches to take back to our room.
It took a lot of convincing to get George to brave the elements for a snowshoeing adventure that afternoon. He would have been extremely happy to hole up in the room watching the Olympics and reading his book. Considering his reputation as an outdoorsman, it’s funny that my job sometimes is to tell him to “suck it up” and get outside.
We enjoyed an extremely pleasant snowshoe on the trails available right near the hotel. The wind had died down, the sun was shining and the trails in the woods were a bit more protected than the open mountain. George admitted it was a great trek.
After an hour we returned to the hotel for a soak in the hotel’s heavenly outdoor hot tub.This was recently built for hotel guests and holds up to 40 people. We donned our hotel robes, made our way out into the freezing cold and made a super quick transition to the delightfully warm water. Steam rises like fog, and the cold air on your face balances out the warm water. The hot tub is a big visual attraction for skiers as they ride the chairlift that passes overhead. I’m sure we looked pretty spoiled and lazy as we lounged in the hot tub while they got their exercise and continued to brave the cold. But I was okay with that.
The weekend, that included an elegant dinner at the hotel’s restaurant (45 North) and Sunday brunch in Stratton at Coplin Dinner House, was one to remember.
Visit George’s website — georgesmithmaine.com — for book reviews, outdoor news and all Travelin’ Maine(rs) columns, found listed in the “Best of Maine” section.