Spike Berg slides off the new Comet Express six-pack one sun-splashed afternoon and looks down on Wausau, Wis., from the summit of Granite Peak. "I skied here before it was a ski resort, down through the trees on Northland pine skis that cost 80 cents a pair," he muses. "We wore golf knickers and really thought we were stylish." Years later, Berg, now 80, helped clear the runs for what was then called Rib Mountain, and when the ski area officially opened in 1938-the third in the U.S. after Stowe, Vt., and Sun Valley, Idaho-he rode the nation's longest T-bar.
A lot has changed since then-namely the arrival of Lutsen Mountain veteran Charles Skinner Jr., who bought Rib Mountain four years ago and has spent $9 million in upgrades-adding 58 trails (for a total of 72), five lifts and a second day lodge to ready the resort for the expected influx of weekenders. In 2002 he dumped the dowdy Rib Mountain moniker, cut the ropes and waited for Chicago skiers to catch on.
They did. Granite, which spreads across 265 skiable acres, offers the biggest vertical drop in the region (700 feet). Experts stick to the frontside, where the mostly black-diamond pitches up top funnel into relaxing runouts at the bottom. Families eat up the grab bag of 30 trails unveiled in 2002-a mix of steeps and narrow, curvy cruisers-all of which slither through towering sugar maples and red oaks down to the section's Cupid double chair. Intermediates looking for cruisers beeline for the 20 brand-new runs on the western flank of the mountain. The resort hopes to someday link two of the trails there-Western Frontier and Silver Birch-with ski-in/ski-out lodging. Another reason, perhaps, to keep an eye trained on Granite.
Slopeside condos are still a ways off, so most visitors bed down in Wausau, the country's top producer of Colby cheese, the world's No. 2 supplier of ginseng and home of an insurance company everyone pronounces "War-sawr." The downtown, set around a natural ice-skating pond, boasts a lively arts scene. On the pedestrian mall, a clutch of cafes, shops and inns complete the mix. "Some ski areas have spent decades trying to create a village, and there's still a sense of artificiality," Skinner says. "We've been able to focus on what Wausau has to offer."
Where to Stay
>Lodge at Cedar Creek Located 15 minutes from Granite, this new resort is a 140-unit, all-suite hotel with a rustic Northwoods lumber-mill theme. Its claim to fame is its indoor water park-a 50,000- square-foot facility with a lazy river, seven water slides and an adults-only hot tub. The 28 double queen suites, which easily accommodate a family of four, each have in-room fireplaces. $99-$399 per room, per night; 888-365-6343; lodgeatcedarcreek.com
>Plaza Hotel and Suites Also kid-friendly, the Plaza's indoor rec center has two pools (including a kid's pool with a spouting whale), two game rooms, continental breakfast and a shuttle to the ski resort. The rooms have been newly renovated. For a little more space, opt for one of the 12 one-bedroom suites. $69-$199; 800-754-9728; plazawausau.com
>Stewart Inn A Prairie-style mansion in Wausau's historic district, the Stewart is a high-end inn with five rooms, each with double steam spas in the bathrooms. The Sitting Room, Daughter's Room (both $170 per night) and Son's Room ($140) have fireplaces. A full homemade breakfast is served from 6 a.m. every morning. 715-849-5858; stewartinn.com
Where to Eat
>Hereford & Hops Steakhouse and Brewpub This Bavarian-tinged restaurant specializes in grill-your-own barbecue stations and rich desserts. Try the beer-battered cheese curds appetizer, then dig into a modest 40-ounce Texas sirloin, paired with Hereford's Rib Mt. Rye or the Atomic Brunette Stout. 715-849-3700; herefordandhopswausau.com
>Gulliver's Landing Set in a space resembling a ship's hold, Gulliver's peddles, of course, excellent seafood, plus bread baked on sitee and sinful desserts. 715-849-8409; gulliverslanding.com
>Carmelo's Italian Restaurant At Granite's entrance, Carmelo's serves hearty homemade pastas and daily specials that have earned this restaurant its loyal following. Monday's Linguini Monterrey-shrimp and artichoke hearts on garlic-oil-dressed linguini-deserves a nod. 715-845-5570
Where to Play
>The Bear's Den Tavern and Saloon Stashed in the basement of the 10th Mountain Chalet at Granite's base, the Den's rugged wood ceiling and hand-hewn stone walls and fireplace recall Rib Mountain's thick-with-history ambience. Order a large pie and a pitcher of Granite Peak Pale Ale for $23. 715-845-2846
>Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar Cash in on 30-cent wings on Wednesdays and catch the game on the big-screen TV. 715-845-9464; buffalowildwings.com