It was blustery and cold as we rode upward into the night on the ski lift at the Seven Springs Mountain Resort in Pennsylvania. The gusting wind swirled around the chair, and we burrowed a bit deeper into our parkas for warmth.
As we began to ski along the ridge, we saw a young blonde wearing jogging shoes instead of skis. She greeted our ski instructor warmly before continuing her evening run through the snow.
The woman, the instructor explained, was a member of the Dupre family -- longtime owners of the year-round resort in the Allegheny Mountains that plays host to crowds of skiers throughout the winter months. The Dupres own thousands of acres of mountainside and have operated a resort here for the past 60 years.
Seven Springs is a busy and popular mid-Atlantic region ski destination -- the biggest in Pennsylvania -- and it serves 20,000 visitors every weekend and 10,000 midweek. Its hotel rooms and new mountaintop condominiums can accommodate 5,000 guests.
Overnight travelers come primarily from Baltimore, Washington and Virginia. Day skiers crowd into the resort from the Pittsburgh area as well as eastern Ohio, northern West Virginia and Maryland, and western Pennsylvania.
There's a festive, party-like atmosphere in the rustic main lodge, where hotel rooms, restaurants, shops and lots of apres-ski entertainment are conveniently located under one roof. The ski lodge is next door for equipment rentals, lift ticket sales, slope-side eateries and lessons.
Outside are the mountains, dotted with colorfully dressed skiers but still shimmery and tranquil. There are 500 acres of ski-able terrain, 30 slopes and trails that total more than 10 miles. An army of lifts, including two quads, seven triples, two doubles and seven rope tows, can move 24,000 skiers up the mountain each hour. Even on the busiest days, the wait in a lift line is usually only a few minutes.
The Ski School has 80 full-time and 200 part-time ski instructors providing hourly group, private and semi-private lessons for skiers of all ability levels, from beginner to expert. There's a four-hour, mid-day junior instructional program for youngsters ages 7 to 12. And the Tiny Tot Ski School has full- and half-day sessions that include lessons, snacks, lunch, play and rest time for 4- to 7-year-olds.
The lessons are great fun and help skiers of all ages to progress quickly. The Tiny Tot skiers learn to ski without poles and are a sight to behold as they form a long line and follow their instructor leaders in single file down the mountainside.
For the older beginner, lessons make the learning experience safer and more pleasant. Learning to ski can be intimidating, and the helpful advice of a professional instructor is reassuring to the uncertain novice who needs extra help in icy conditions or getting on and off the lift.
Devoted skiers as well as snowboarders -- who fly down the mountain on what look like small winterized surfboards -- can spend the entire day on the slopes. The lifts begin operating at 9 a.m. daily and carry skiers up the well-lighted mountain until 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until 11 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and holidays.
Tired or sore skiers -- and even non-skiers -- will find that there's also life after skiing at Seven Springs. Although the resort's drawing card is the snow-covered mountains, it has also earned a reputation as a destination where even a person who never puts on a pair of skis will have plenty to do. And visitors can park their cars when they arrive and never pick up the keys again until it's time to go home.
New this year are horse-drawn sleigh rides and snowmobile rentals at the top of the ski slopes. The resort has an indoor swimming pool, two game rooms, a miniature golf course and a bowling alley. There are handball and racquetball courts, a health spa, a roller skating rink and hot tubs. There are lounges featuring nightly entertainment and an assortment of shops, including a beauty salon, a florist and a photography studio. Baby-sitting services are also available.
From main lodge to ski lodge to mountaintop, there is no shortage of food. The Lake Tahoe Lodge at the top of the North Face ski area serves afternoon and evening soups, salads and snacks. Char-grilled hot dogs, kielbasa and beer are served outdoors near the ski lodge at the base of the mountain. Indoors, take your choice of pizza, sandwiches, baked potatoes, soft pretzels, waffles and pastries.
For a quieter meal in the main lodge, try one of several full-service restaurants. The Oak Dining Room serves a hearty breakfast buffet that can sustain even the hungriest skier until dinner time. (Diners can watch as their eggs are cooked to order at a grill set up in the buffet line.) Weekend dinner buffets are impressive both in the selection and quality of the food.
Another popular dinner spot is Helen's Restaurant, located behind the ski lodge in the building that was the original home of the Dupre family.
For those who want to take a break from the busy atmosphere at the resort, there's the Oakhurst Tea Room a few miles down the road from Seven Springs.
The cozy restaurant -- six miles west of Somerset on Route 31 -- is popular for its reasonably priced smorgasbord dinners, luncheon buffets and Sunday brunches.
Seven Springs Mountain Resort is the largest of 29 ski areas scattered throughout the state of Pennsylvania.
Blue Knob Recreation, Claysburg, Pa.: 21 slopes and trails, lodging at the ski area, (814) 239-5111.
Boyce Park Ski Area, Pittsburgh, Pa.: Eight slopes and trails, lodging in nearby town, (412) 733-4656.
Hidden Valley Ski, Hidden Valley, Pa.: 17 slopes and trails, lodging at the ski area, (814) 443-2600.
Edinboro Ski Area, Cambridge Springs, Pa.: 11 slopes and trails, lodging in nearby town, (814) 734-1641.
Seven Springs Resort, Champion, Pa.: 30 slopes and trails, lodging at the ski area, (814) 352-7777, (800) 452-2223.
Crystal Lake, Hughsville, Pa.: Four slopes and trails, lodging at the ski area, (717) 584-2698.
Whitetail Resort, Mercersburg, Pa.: 16 slopes and trails, lodging in nearby town, (717) 328-9400.
Ski Denton, Coudersport, Pa.: 20 slopes and trails, lodging at the ski area, (814) 435-2115.
Ski Liberty, Fairfield, Pa.: 13 slopes and trails, lodging at the ski area, (717) 642-8282, (717) 642-8288 (hotel).
Ski Roundtop, Lewisberry, Pa.: 13 slopes and trails, lodging in nearby town, (717) 432-9631.
Ski Sawmill Resort, Morris, Pa.: Eight slopes and trails, lodging at the ski area, (717) 353-7521, (717) 353-7731 (lodging).
Tussey Mountain Ski Area, State College, Pa.: Seven slopes and trails, lodging in nearby town, (814) 466-6810, (800) 733-2754.
Ski Snowpeak, Bernville, Pa.: Nine slopes and trails, lodging in nearby town, (215) 488-6399.
Blue Marsh, Bernville, Pa.: 10 slopes and trails, lodging in nearby town, (215) 488-6399, (215) 488-6396.
Doe Mountain, Macungie, Pa.: 12 slopes and trails, lodging in nearby town, (215) 682-7108, (215) 682-7109.
Elk Mountain, Union Dale, Pa.: 19 slopes and trails, lodging in nearby town, (717) 679-2611.
Montage, Scranton, Pa.: 18 slopes and trails, lodging in nearby town, (717) 969-7669.
Spring Mountain Ski Area, Spring Mount, Pa.: Seven slopes and trails, lodging in nearby town, (215) 287-7900.
Alpine Mountain, Analomink, Pa.: 17 slopes and trails, lodging at the ski area, (717) 595-2150, (800) 233-8240 (lodging).
Blue Mountain, Palmerton, Pa.: 19 slopes and trails, lodging in nearby town, (215) 826-7700.
Camelback, Tannersville, Pa.: 25 slopes and trails, lodging in nearby town, (717) 629-1661.
Fernwood, Bushkill, Pa.: Two slopes and trails, lodging at the ski area, (717) 588-9500, (800) 233-8103 (lodge).
Mount Airy Lodge, Mount Pocono, Pa.: Seven slopes and trails, lodging at the ski area, (717) 839-8811, (800) 441-4410 (lodge).
Mount Tone Ski Resort, Lake Como, Pa.: 11 slopes and trails, lodging at the ski area, (717) 798-2707, (908) 276-0998 (reservations).
Shawnee Mountain, Shawnee-on-Delaware, Pa.: 23 slopes and trails, lodging at the ski area, (717) 421-7231, (800) SHAWNEE (lodge).
Split Rock Resort, Lake Harmony, Pa.: Six slopes and trails, lodging at the ski area, (717) 722-9111, (800) 255-ROCK.
Tanglwood, Tafton, Pa.: 10 slopes and trails, lodging in nearby town, (717) 226-9500.
The Big Two: Big Boulder, Blakeslee, Pa.: 12 slopes and trails, lodging at the ski area, (717) 722-0100, (800) 468-BIG2 (lodge).
The Big Two: Jack Frost, Blakeslee, Pa.: 20 slopes and trails, lodging at the ski area, (717) 443-8425, (800) 468-BIG2 (lodge).
IF YOU GO . . .
Seven Springs Mountain Resort is located about 70 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, off the Somerset exit (10) of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. From Baltimore, it is a 3 1/2 - to four-hour drive.
The resort hotel is often booked, and advance reservations are ++ recommended. Accommodations are also available at hotels and bed and breakfasts in the region. Call Seven Springs at (800) 452-2223 for details.
Discounted ski package trips may be arranged by calling a travel agency or by contacting Ski Trips Unlimited of Falls Church, Va. -- the outside sales agency that represents Seven Springs. The phone number is (800) 722-2711.
Reservations are also required for horse-drawn sleigh rides and snowmobile rentals. Call Seven Springs, Ext. 7012, for information.
Daily fees: Lift tickets, $20-$33 for adults; $15-$28 for children. Equipment rental, $18 for adults; $13 for children. Lessons: $18, group; $35, private.
Junior ski program for children ages 7-12, $45. Tiny Tot Ski School for children ages 4-7, $40 half-day; $50, full-day. Sleigh rides, $12 a person for four people, $20 a person for two people. Snowmobile rentals, $37 a person per hour.