When, after summer golf, have you thought about a thrilling sled ride? At Crystal Mountain in Michigan two golf courses pair with two ski lifts, one serving the bobsled course, and you think about it. On Main Street of the mini alpine village, hop on the chairlift to the top of the mountain. Look back, down and all around for a tummy flutter. Two parallel runs curve down the slope for full speed ahead or slower control with the lever but don’t stop or the person behind might not! Safety instructions clear riders for takeoff, wheee!
The Crystal Mountain Ridge Course begins at the other ski lift at the base of Buck Hills. Golf carts are loaded for a 5-minute ride up the path and through the woods to the 1st tee and practice area. A bear sign at the starter shack cautions golfers. We saw none. But purple wildflowers were prevalent along with herons and a large vee of flying geese. Ample fairways make the Ridge a forgiving course through the forest. Elevation changes make it another exhilarating ride.
Distinctively, Betsie Valley is a lush course along the river basin. The front 9 features short target holes except number 6, the toughest on the course. The back 9 flows up the mountain but still feels like a river valley. Berries are organic, not sprayed so snack away. Ray Hearn renovated the layout about 20 years ago and according to Greg Babinec, Michigan’s golf pro of the year in ’18, Jason Farah is the best superintendent for both courses. Greg has a soft spot for Crystal Mountain where he sank a hole in one after his mom had passed, attributing it to her angel kiss.
Previously Greg worked for 11 years at Arcadia Bluffs Golf Club, one of the dozen or so spots in Crystal Mountain’s extended championship golf packages. Arcadia is just minutes away but make time to stop at the pullouts for some gorgeous shoreline views. At the clubhouse, you will know you have arrived! The picture-perfect setting overlooks fairways and ocean with a row of Adirondack chairs positioned to enjoy. Did we say ocean? It’s actually Lake Michigan disguised as an ocean. The Bluffs Course is seriously fun to view and play. Coliseum sized greens are encircled by velvet cuts of “not rough,” lining the fairways. There is a true sense of being in Ireland. Bunkers are notably deep. In fact, the number 4 green side bunker is like something out of an Indiana Jones movie, a very steep pit. Number 5’s par 5 can be a real feat but if you just listen to the flyover advice on the cart screen for shots’ positions and execute well, you’re there. Take a camera up the hill to the green for wide water views. Afternoon tee times make a race for the finish as the sun sets brilliantly over the back nine. Hole 11 might look like Torey Pines from the distance. Many holes have lake views which are simply awe inspiring.
The new Arcadia South Course might be absent the lake views, but it is a pretty layout and the lake winds do come in to play. Remember when it’s breezy, hit it easy. Bunkers are rounded with a slip and slide entry when least expected. By the end of the round you might think you’ve figured out the contouring, then hole 16 comes along. The staff advises to hit it right side or you’ll slope to the “pit of doom,” a wide collection area unseen from the tee box. 17’s fairway could be a bunker stairway to trouble. Hit wisely and 18 will be a triumphant return to the clubhouse.
Views are again spectacular for a 19th hole celebration at the Bluffs or on the way back to Crystal Mountain, we recommend stopping at Iron Fish Distillery. It is a family affair beginning with Co-owner David who was a vet and retired from Dow Chemical. His wife Heidi is a CPA who “consults ironically on retirement.” They bought a cottage by Betsie River, then 40 acres when he was 55. When the nearby 75-acre farm came up for sale with a barn, they bought it for tractor storage. Now it is a wedding venue. The house was renovated for Heidi but serves as the perfect rental for golf groups. The idea of the distillery came on a big birthday trip in Scotland, after loving the peat scotch. Other family members on the trip are still involved. It is the first farm-based distillery since prohibition and named after the steelhead trout from the river.
They use Caribbean molasses for their rum, corn of course for their bourbon, local wheat and rye grains for their vodka. It is their gin however that is most special. A burly associate came in one day with a piece of fir tree and suggested they add it to the still resulting in a citrusy licorice flavor at the end. It took 4th place behind Hendricks in the Cigar and Spirits competition. While it is good for just sipping, Iron Fish has creative concoctions like the Wile E. Coyote – gin, jalapeño syrup, lime juice, cilantro and mint. We bought a bottle of Iron Fish gin to try this at home. It was a smashing success. Chloe the
bartender shared the secret for the simple syrup. Simmer equal parts of sugar (we chose half stevia and brown sugar) with water and 2-3 jalapeños. “When you taste it and go whoa, then it’s ready.” Drinks combine with an excellent menu, music events in the Corn Crib and al fresco dining with down home ambience.
Back at Crystal Mountain, accommodations are made to order with suites, hotel rooms, studios, bungalows, cottages, condominiums, town homes and resort homes in the mix. Food is exceptional at various restaurants and amenities are plentiful with activities scheduled all day and night. Besides traditional workout facilities, there are indoor and outdoor pools; the latter with a rope course and zip line above, plus the Crystal Coaster Alpine Sled for all who are game. In the winter Greg stays to teach cross country skiing techniques on Betsie Valley, how to balance one foot at a time. The core is key he says. We don’t winter well but a few days skiing with him and all the amenities of Crystal Mountain is very enticing. Surely the Crystal Spa could warm our souls if not the Iron Fish gin. 28 miles from Traverse City, plan your trip at www.michigan.org/golfing