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Cat Tracks 

At Sugarbush’s Allyn’s Lodge, getting to and from dinner is as exciting as the meal

In December 1988, Ira Schechter and his two children, Allyn and Evan, boarded the family’s single-engine Beech A36 airplane in Westchester County, N.Y., bound for Warren, Vt. The three were heading to meet the children’s mother for a few days of skiing at Sugarbush. But seconds after takeoff, the plane crashed, and all three passengers were killed.

The family loved Sugarbush — the resort was their second home. Allyn in particular adored the mountain. After cruising down Jester from the top of Lincoln Peak, she would often stop to shake off the cold at the warming hut on neighboring Gadd Peak, her favorite spot.

Today, thanks to a gift from the Schechter family, that bare-bones hut is a mid-mountain lodge that bears Allyn’s name and stands as a memorial to the passionate skier. When the Schechter children’s mother funded the renovation in 1989, she insisted on just one stipulation — that Allyn’s Lodge stay open 24 hours a day, every day, year round, for anyone who needed respite.

On a recent Saturday night, that person in need of respite was me. After a harrowing, white-knuckle drive along the twists of snow-caked Route 100B and up the impossibly steep Sugarbush Access Road during a near whiteout, I welcomed the soft glow of the lodge’s candlelit communal dining table. And I was ready to experience a meal like no other in Vermont — one where the journey to and from the table is half the excitement.

When the lifts are running, Allyn’s is just like any other lodge, serving snacks and hot drinks to skiers and riders needing a break. But on weekend evenings during ski season, the lodge is transformed into an intimate, European-mountain-style bistro. For $175 a person, diners are treated to a wine and fondue spread, followed by a four-course meal of locally inspired dishes set in front of a snapping fire.

The adventure lies in getting there. Dining at Allyn’s Lodge isn’t like heading out to just any restaurant. You can’t drive up to it and valet your car. There is no coat check for voluminous winter outerwear. And fancy togs are generally frowned on — ski boots are perfectly acceptable dinner attire.

After lift hours, Allyn’s Lodge is accessible by the Lincoln Limo — a 12-passenger Pisten Bully cabin cat that looks much like a trail-grooming vehicle with seating. If you’re adventurous and fit, you can also snowshoe or skin up to the lodge with a guide — an hour-and-15-minute trip. Since I prefer being chauffeured, I chose the cat.

So did my fellow diners — the Gallipoli/Mastro/Cantor family of Manhattan, and Jim and Kerry Westhelle — and with good reason. The cat ride up the mountain is thrilling.

When Sugarbush purchased the Lincoln Limo three years ago, it was the only resort on the East Coast to run such a rig. Cats are typically used out West for carting skiers to off-piste areas of untracked powder.

In the East, the vehicle is a novelty. Besides ferrying diners to Allyn’s Lodge, it allows Sugarbush to give skiers and riders access to first tracks before the lifts spin, as well as to fresh snow on Mt. Ellen after the northern peak has closed for the season.

Our trip up the mountain began with a lurch as the cat rumbled to life outside the Gate House Lodge. From there, we headed uphill, picking up speed as the vehicle’s tank-like tread dug in and churned up the snow. Our route took us up Gondolier and Lower Jester to Downspout.

We passed the Heaven’s Gate chairlift, watching our progress on the video screen at the front of the cabin. Heavy, sodden snow pelted the windshield as our driver expertly motored the cat up the increasingly precipitous trail.

Within 15 minutes of leaving the base of the mountain, we arrived at Allyn’s Lodge, a brick-red, timber-frame structure with two sizeable porches and an inviting stone hearth.

We unloaded and filed into the building, which was plenty warm thanks to the well-tended fire. After dumping our jackets on tables behind the fireplace, we retired to the main dining area for an abbreviated cocktail hour.

On a table lit with twinkling tea lights, we found pork and chicken pâté canapés topped with chutney, as well as the resort’s famous Vermont cheese-and-beer fondue. The Gallipoli and Cantor children — 15-year-old Eli Gallipoli and his stepbrothers, 10-year-old Nathan and 7-year-old Elliott Cantor — tucked into the fondue immediately and would have been happy to nosh on it all night.

Luckily for the adults in the room, there was more to eat than just bread and cheese. Chef Robert Kuiper started the meal with a smooth butternut bisque studded with toasted pumpkin seeds, and followed that with a mushroom-and-creamed-spinach tart garnished with a small spinach salad. For the main course, Kuiper prepared pork shoulder with herbed-butter asparagus and roasted-red-pepper gnocchi.

Christine Mastro has been coming to Sugarbush for years with her husband, Frank Gallipoli. For her, she said, the dinner was a different way to experience the mountain that she sees as a “home away from home.” The family had flown up the day before from New York City — Gallipoli has a private jet time-share — and hit the slopes less than two hours after takeoff. After spending much of Saturday earning turns, they were ready to eat.

Children aren’t a common sight at the Allyn’s Lodge dinners, says Jim Westhelle, vice president of lodging at the resort and our fellow diner on this night. Typically, groups of eight or more adults make the trip up for the unique dining experience. Occasionally, though, couples on dates or smaller groups of friends make reservations. When the diners aren’t already acquainted, says Allyn’s Lodge server Caitlin Redding, they should be forewarned they’re going to be eating at a communal table, to avoid any awkwardness.

Our table of nine had no trouble breaking the ice. The two rambunctious younger boys had free rein in the lodge and kept us entertained by — if not wary of — projectiles being hurled in our direction.

When we finished our dinner, Kuiper announced that we would have dessert at Timbers Restaurant at the base of the mountain. That meant it was time to go back down. Diners have two options to get to Timbers — hitch a ride on the cat, or ski or snowboard. I chose the latter. We were on a ski hill, after all, and it would be a shame to waste the opportunity to carve the empty slopes under my own steam. Plus, I wanted to imagine Allyn Schechter schussing down these same trails after warming her digits in that long-gone little hut.

After the dishes were cleared, I quickly changed into my snowboarding gear while Westhelle and Kuiper buckled their ski boots. We waved goodbye to the cat and hit the trails, completely shrouded in darkness.

Skiing or snowboarding at night is a wild experience. Rather than relying on your vision, you have to trust your instincts and your skills. Because you can’t see the pitch of the slope, you can’t anticipate the terrain ahead. So you feel it with your feet and hope you don’t go sailing off into the wilderness — or, worse, tumbling down the mountain in a snowball of your own making.

In other words, it’s terrifying. I felt tense as we slid across the Valley House Traverse to Snowball. Though we wore headlamps, they barely illuminated our path. A fog had settled around the mountain, and light from the headlamps scattered off the snow, reducing peripheral vision to nil.

At the end of the traverse, Westhelle advised us to cut the headlamps. Without the light, we wouldn’t be able to see the snow contours, but we would be able to make out the edges of the trail — and thus navigate away from the trees.

What had been rapid snowfall turned to an annoying sleet, covering the leaden earlier layer with a crunchy crust that required a Herculean effort to plow through. My turns weren’t pretty — the amount of tail whipping I was doing would have embarrassed the most novice rider — and I had to stop every so often to get my bearings. When I thought I had stopped, I found I was actually still moving — such was the sensory disconnect of riding in the dark.

But, with Westhelle cutting trail in front and Kuiper skiing sweep behind, I felt confident I’d make it down in one piece. And I did. From Snowball, we carved wide turns down Spring Fling to the bottom, where dessert was waiting for us inside the toasty Timbers.

The three-hour meal ended with a generous slice of spiced pumpkin cheesecake and some after-dinner drinks. I was soaked from the sleet, but beaming from the thrill of that single, nerve-racking run. Looking up the still mountain at the ribbons of white hemmed by thick, black trees, I knew Allyn Schechter was onto something.

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About The Author

Lauren Ober

Lauren Ober

Bio:
Lauren Ober was a Seven Days staff writer from 2009-2011.

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