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2018 Feb

Winter Wonderland in Western Maryland

As the Belgian draft horse trotted across the snow-covered meadow, my husband Peter and I snuggled close under thick, soft blankets in the backseat of an old-fashioned sleigh. It was our very own Currier-and-Ives moment.

The congenial driver, Ray, wearing a warm cap and a full beard, guided the horse across the fields with quiet commands.

“Whoa, Bud,” Ray said as we passed over an uneven spot. “Now, trot.” We sailed over the smooth snow, admiring the tranquil scenery as merry bells jingled across the Maryland countryside.

All around us fields white with snow glistened and sparkled. The winter sun filtered through pale thin clouds, and the landscape glowed with a golden patina. In the west the Cumberland Mountains looked like frosted cupcakes against the horizon. Nearby stood a silent forest of naked trees and evergreens. Ray told us these very woods had been the setting for numerous marriage proposals.

“We set candles along the path, and it’s so romantic,” Ray said. “Once we even made an altar in the woods. I always leave the couple alone for a while.” With a wide grin, he said, “We’ve had a 100 percent yes.”

I imagined the scene in the woods and how the bride-to-be must have felt as she realized that this was no ordinary sleigh ride. This ride was taking her toward a future with the thoughtful gentleman who planned such an amazing marriage proposal.

I looked over at Peter and thought about when we became engaged—on a hot July day at a beach house far away. I can’t remember if he got down on bended knee to ask for my hand in marriage. He probably did, and we likely laughed nervously at the solemnity of the occasion.

Now here we were many years later dashing through the snow—wow—in a one-horse open sleigh. Over hills we go, laughing all the way. You couldn’t ask for a more romantic setting. When Ray wasn’t looking, Peter and I stole a kiss, and I felt as if we were in a Christmas card, one that will always come to mind whenever I hear “Jingle Bells.”

PRISTINE BEAUTY
Peter and I were vacationing with our sons in Garrett County in Western Maryland and escaped for a short while to enjoy this romantic interlude. We’d dropped off our sons—Scott, Jasper and Ross—at Wisp Resort earlier, and they were likely sailing merrily down snowy white slopes on their snowboards.

Originally, we’d been attracted to this area for the skiing and snowboarding opportunities at Wisp, but it didn’t take us long to realize that there was much more to this region than the slopes. We discovered a winter wonderland—a world of outdoor fun, perfect for those who savor the crisp cold air of winter and the pristine beauty of fresh-fallen snow.

The region has attracted vacationers since the early 1900s, many from nearby D.C. and Pittsburgh. Besides Wisp Resort, which has been in business since 1955, the county is also known for Deep Creek Lake, created in 1923 when the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Savage River. With over 65 miles of shoreline, Deep Creek Lake is Maryland’s largest inland body of water, perfect for swimming, boating and fishing. In fact, after getting to know the area, my family wants to come back in summer to enjoy warm-weather recreational opportunities.

In the 1980s, the region began to take off, and now hundreds of homes and condos line the slopes and the lake’s shores. Recently luxury rental homes have begun to spring up. Many are slopeside and offer the option of hitting the trails right from your front door. We opted for a lovely lakeside property called Almost Paradise.

The spacious home sleeps 11 and offers a fabulous view of both the lake and the slopes at Wisp from its second-story deck. The boys enjoyed the pool table in the den downstairs (as well as having their own hang-out), and I loved the jetted tub in the master bedroom. There’s also a cozy gas fireplace and an outdoor Jacuzzi. While this vacation home wasn’t adjacent to Wisp, the five-minute drive to the slopes was a breeze. Visitors can also opt to stay at Wisp, where an onsite hotel sits conveniently beside the ski lifts.

LAKE-EFFECT SNOW
I know what you’re thinking. It sounds funny to say skiing and Maryland in the same sentence. But nestled against the West Virginia border, tucked away like an afterthought, this part of Maryland has mountains as high as 3300 feet and gets an average of a hundred inches of snow per year.

What’s unique about the region is its microclimate, explained Lori Zaloga, director of marketing for Wisp Resort. “We’re on a plateau,” she said, “and believe it or not, we even get lake-effect snow from Lake Erie, just five hours away.”

My family’s visit in January coincided with a blast of cold weather from the north and twenty inches of new snow. We arrived on the slopes on a Thursday morning ready to play. The temperature was in the teens and snow was falling, but everyone was excited about all the snow. Besides we’d brought plenty of warm clothes, and once we got out on the slopes, we knew we’d warm up pretty quickly.

People who don’t ski usually have trouble understanding why anyone would want to venture out in sub-freezing weather, all bundled up, and slide around on snowy, sometimes icy surfaces. In fact, until recently, I belonged to that group of nay-sayers. Then I tried skiing; actually I tried it a few times. Slowly the sport grew on me, and now I understand its appeal.

You’re outside inhaling some of the freshest air on the planet. You’re surrounded by beautiful landscape—pine trees, a view for miles, and snowy frosting that gives everything a fairytale appearance. You’re getting great exercise. You’re in the company of happy people. And most of all, you’re having fun, living in the moment, letting your worries whoosh away as you dance down the mountain.

It’s taken me a while to get to this point. I began skiing at age 39, and it’s never been very easy for me. I still stick mostly to green slopes, although every so often I’ll venture down a blue.

Wisp has quite a few green slopes, each with a different feel, a new view, and varying degrees of difficulty. I rode up the lift once with a volunteer Red Cross worker and said proudly that this was the first time I’d skied without taking a lesson. When he heard I stuck mostly to green slopes, he said maybe I’d still benefit from a lesson. I’m sure I would. There’s always room for improvement.

ICE FISHING
Turns out fishing is a winter sport in Garrett County. One morning we woke up to see a couple of gentleman on the frozen lake in front of our rental house. We soon realized they were ice fishing. Peter went down to chat and found out these men, who hailed from West Virginia, had been ice fishing at Deep Creek Lake for many years. They showed Peter how they made holes in the ice and, using old-fashioned, handmade wooden tools, enticed fish to their lures.

While Peter was standing there, a line started reeling out and the men hauled in one of the biggest fish they’d ever caught: a three-foot pike. I watched from the deck of the house, and even from a distance I could tell it was huge. Peter took some photos, and then the men returned the pike to the lake, saying they wanted him to spawn more generations of sizeable fish. Other winter sports in the area include snowmobiling, cross country skiing, snow shoeing, and even dog sledding.

Looking back, my favorite experience in those snowy Maryland mountains was riding the one-horse open sleigh with Peter, snug and warm under thick soft blankets. We’ll have to go back one day and take a ride into the woods where candles gently shimmer in the muted light. There in the stillness of the forest maybe we can have another go at that marriage proposal.

For more information:

• Wisp Resort – www.wispresort.com
• Garrett County Visitor Information – www.visitdeepcreek.com
• Taylor-Made Deep Creek Vacations – www.deepcreekvacations.com
• Pleasant Valley Dream Rides – www.pleasantvalleydreamrides.com/sleigh.htm

Peggy Sijswerda

Peggy Sijswerda is the editor and co-publisher of Tidewater Family and Tidewater Women magazines. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Old Dominion University and is the author of Still Life with Sierra, a travel memoir. Peggy also freelances for a variety of regional, national, and international magazines.

Website: www.peggysijswerda.com