Sun Mountain Lodge is a bit like the restaurant atop the Space Needle. It's in a spectacular spot; how much harder does it have to try? We'll end the comparison there...

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WINTHROP, Okanogan County — Sun Mountain Lodge is a bit like the restaurant atop the Space Needle. It’s in a spectacular spot; how much harder does it have to try?

We’ll end the comparison there. Without making the restaurant manager go all fetal atop the Needle, let’s just say that Sun Mountain hasn’t had the same problem breaking out of the pack. Not only is the lodge perched atop a 3,000-foot, snow-covered foothill faintly reminiscent of the Grinch’s Mount Crumpet, it has achieved a level of professional hospitality and country comfort that puts it near the top of the heap among Washington’s outdoor-oriented resorts. Since 1994, both the lodge and restaurant have earned AAA’s coveted Four Diamond rating, awarded to only 3.4 percent of more than 60,000 lodgings and restaurants reviewed by the organization.

But as for the lodge’s best attribute, don’t be mistaken: Location, location, location.

If you can’t figure that out during the winding, uphill drive off the highway, as you pass the Methow Valley Rodeo Arena and signs pointing right and left to ski trails, the best place to judge might be from a window table at the lodge’s restaurant, looking down on a landscape that in snowy softness suggests the folds of a powder-sugared blintz.

If you go

Sun Mountain Lodge

Getting there

Sun Mountain Lodge is about 10 road miles southwest of Winthrop in Okanogan County; about 240 miles from Seattle (depending on your route). Allow at least five hours driving in winter, depending on pass conditions.

Via Snoqualmie Pass: Take Interstate 90 east to Cle Elum, then go north over Blewett Pass (via Highway 970 and Highway 97). Continue on Highway 97 through Wenatchee, then north to Pateros. At Pateros, go left on Highway 153, which becomes Highway 20. Six miles west of Twisp, just past Milepost 196, turn left on Twin Lakes Road and follow signs to the lodge.

Via Stevens Pass: From Interstate 5 in Everett, take Highway 2 east over Stevens Pass. At Wenatchee, continue north on Highway 97 to Pateros, and follow instructions above.

North Cascades Highway: This popular route, following Highway 20 from Burlington to Winthrop, is closed for winter. It usually reopens in April.

Rooms and rates

Winter/spring rates good through June 14, based on one or two persons per room:

• Main lodge, $160-$235

Gardner rooms (named for nearby Mount Gardner), adds fireplace, balcony and sitting area, $205-$265

Mount Robinson rooms (newest); adds fireplace, balcony, sitting area whirlpool bath, mini-bar, $235-$320

Children 12 and younger stay free in parents’ room. Extra guests 13 and older: $25.

More information

800-572-0493 or www.sunmountainlodge.com

And while summer has its merits, this is a wonderful place in winter. The Methow Valley Sport Trails Association’s valley-wide network of 125 miles of groomed trails for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing starts right outside the lodge’s door. While the Old West-style town of Winthrop isn’t far down the hill, there’s really no need to leave the resort.

Plus, this is a boffo year for snow in the Methow. The resort expects enough snow for skiing well into April — at least a month later than typical. (Trail grooming usually stops around the end of March, but that won’t stop hardy skiers.)

“My personal goal is to ski on the first of May!” said Andy Miller, a ski instructor at the lodge. “It’s great — you’re skiing along on packed snow with wildflowers poking up on each side of you!”

The rooms

If you’re traveling this far and spending a chunk o’ paycheck anyway, you might as well pay for Sun Mountain’s best: the Mount Robinson Rooms, added to the lodge in 1996.

Arriving after a long drive, instead of unlocking the door to a silent tomb of a room where I had to fumble for light switches, I stepped in to find soothing chamber music playing on a built-in sound system (even in the bathroom) and dimmer-switched, parchment-shaded lamps casting a soft glow on an oversized chair and matching sofa of lacquered wicker.

Wheat-colored linen draped a king-sized four-poster bed of contemporary wrought iron. A flick of a switch set the gas fireplace flaming, and a pull of the drapes revealed a roomy, covered balcony with padded iron chairs where you could sit and peek through giant icicles hanging from the eaves to a panorama of trackless snow. The jagged peak of Mount Gardner rose in one direction and Mount Robinson in another.

The details:

• A glass coffee table filled out the seating area. Atop a desk: a small stereo system for bring-your-own music. A mini-bar occupied one corner, next to a large closet with louvered doors that (rather nicely) switched on an interior light when opened, revealing terry robes, an iron and ironing board. (Tip: Beware the mini-bar’s $22 wine; buy it for half that at the Cle Elum Safeway and use Mother Nature’s natural cooling system: Set it out on the deck.) Hot-chocolate mix and vacuum packs of Starbucks came with a two-cup coffeemaker.

• The bed, comfortable and well-pillowed, lacked the mountains of down-filled duvets one finds elsewhere at this nightly rate.

• None of the lodge’s rooms have TV. My room had two phones. Lacking coverage for my cellular, an 11-minute phone call to Seattle, charged to my room, was $4.80.

The bathrooms

The Mount Robinson Rooms upgrade the standard room’s shower and tub to a deep whirlpool tub with separate glass-enclosed shower. Surrounding the tub on two sides, large windows offer a view of the mountains (hey, there was nobody outside to look in). Close the wooden louvered blinds if you prefer not to flash the mule deer.

The details:

• Toiletries by Gilchrist & Soames, of London: facial soap, skin-care bar, body lotion, shampoo and conditioner, all in the same generic herbal scent.

• The bathroom counter looked like granite; felt like Corian.

• Towels were thick, white and plentiful.

• Also: Wicker storage drawers, numerous pegs for hanging robes, a lighted countertop mirror for makeup or shaving, and a full-size hairdryer.

Common areas

If you’re happy to spend lots of time outside, which makes sense at Sun Mountain, or you pop for one of the roomier rooms, you’ll be hard-pressed not to be content here. But if you’re counting on lots of kick-back time in a classic Northwest lodge lobby crowded with overstuffed chairs, game tables, vintage artwork, a huge if smoky fireplace and perhaps a happily hissing espresso machine in a corner, try someplace like Lake Quinault instead. The lobby here is pretty spare. There is a large fireplace, but with room in front for only a couple chairs, and no strong feel of a place you want to linger.

Making up somewhat for that is the lodge’s comfy take-a-book, leave-a-book library. A game room features billiard tables, ping-pong, foosball and a large TV with VCR and DVD player.

The details:

• Lodge décor includes a large collection of taxidermied animal heads, the collection of a Methow Valley guide who asked the lodge owners to purchase and display the collection before he died in 2005.

• In winter, two outdoor hot tubs lure those adventurous enough to clamber through the snow. Two heated outdoor swimming pools are open in warmer months.

• A well-outfitted workout room is in the lodge basement (with no view).

• For meetinggoers, an upgrade is in progress to enlarge conference capacity from 200 to 350 by this spring and open up views with more windows.

• A full-service spa offers everything from face peels to “Double Decadence” massages for couples (with champagne and strawberries, $275). I got a haircut ($25). Even on a drop-in basis, they took me within 15 minutes. Service was personable and professional.

Dining

Sun Mountain Lodge history


The lodge originally opened in 1968, the creation of Methow Valley resident Jack Barron. In 1987, the Haub Brothers from Germany, who had discovered the lodge in visits to the Methow, bought and renovated the resort, and expanded the grounds to 3,000 acres. Today, the main lodge includes 47 guest rooms, with another 28 rooms in the adjacent Gardner building and 24 rooms in the Mount Robinson building. In 2002, Sun Mountain spent $2.5 million renovating rooms in the main lodge and reconstructing cabins at nearby Patterson Lake, which provide guest access to all the resort amenities. Annual improvements continue; last year, the dining room opened a new kitchen. This April will see completion of a $2.5 million expansion to meeting facilities.

The lodge’s cozy, wood-beamed restaurant is ideally positioned for best views — it literally hangs over the edge of the hilltop. Ask for a table by the wall of windows (but bring a sweater).

This time of year, you’ll have to book the first dinner seating (5:30 p.m.) to see much before dark. You might do just as well to enjoy a room-service dinner and save the restaurant view for breakfast.

But the food is a fine attraction by itself. In a county where you’re likely to encounter almost as many deer as people, I tried venison for the first time. The medium-rare venison medallions ($23), served with an espresso-game jus, were rich and tender (though I detected some bitter looks the next day as I drove past deer foraging in an orchard). Grilled asparagus was the perfect side dish, suggested by my server. (“Hi, I’m Deb and I’ll be your waitress!” seemed hackneyed, but hey, it’s Winthrop — folks are friendly here.)

The details:

• A sampling of other entrees: Cedar-plank roasted Columbia River steelhead, $18; rack of New Zealand lamb, $42; Kobe beef and lobster tail, $34.

• The encyclopedia-like wine list is among the dining room’s star attractions, listing the contents of the lodge’s 5,000-bottle wine cellar. You have to ask for by-the-glass selections, and be sure to ask prices, too. (I didn’t, and my glass of San Juan Cellars chardonnay was, at $11, the most expensive single glass of wine I’ve ever purchased.)

• For less-formal and less-expensive meals, there’s the lodge’s Wolf Creek Bar and Grill, where you’ll find peeled-log furniture, Buffalo wings ($9), French dip sandwiches ($13) and sports TV.

• You can also order from an extensive room-service menu.

Activities

In winter, cross-country skiing is what this place is about. Bring your own ski gear or rent from the lodge’s ski shop, which also sells passes ($18 for one day) for the local groomed ski trails. Snowshoes also available. (For a complete list of programs and rates: www.sunmountainlodge.com/rates_winter.html).

Methow Valley Ski School offers twice-daily group lessons at the lodge, for beginners or for skiers who want to learn “skate skiing.” I took a one-hour skate-skiing lesson and picked up good tips on how to jet along the ski trails ($22 per person for an hour lesson). The skinny skis — like 6-foot chopsticks — were trickier than my customary downhill boards, though: Just when I thought I had the hang of it, I galumphed down to the lodge and took a spectacular pratfall.

The details:

Our protocol


Seattle Times reporters reserve and check-in anonymously and spend at least one night sampling a resort’s amenities and service before introducing themselves to management or employees. Reporters pay commonly available rates for all services and goods and accept no special considerations from lodging operators. Impressions are based on a single visit.

• An ice rink outside the lodge is itsy bitsy (skate rentals: $4). This might be a place to teach a small child to skate, but it’s almost too small to hold more than one person skating in circles.

• Also offered: daily sleigh rides ($9-$12, pulled by draft horses), and Saturday evening sleigh rides with dinner served in a tent ($25-$35). There is also a sledding hill.

• Warm-season activities include horseback riding, mountain biking, fly fishing, paddling sports and more.

• For kids, afternoon and evening programs this time of year include such activities as ski lessons, sleigh rides, snowshoeing, ice skating, and arts and crafts ($35-$48).