LIKE MILLIONS of others, I had an image of North Jersey formed mostly by how it looked from the congested Turnpike, with unsightly oil tankers framing its borders. Who thinks of vacationing in New Jersey, unless you're headed toward the shore with a pocketful of coins and a beach bag filled with tanning lotion?
Spas, skiing and luxury resorts in North Jersey? As Tony Soprano would say, "Fugeddaboutit."
But that's exactly where my husband, Weller, and I found ourselves headed one three-day weekend.
Instead of speeding toward the New York skyline, we were headed to the Grand Cascades Lodge and its sister resort, Minerals Hotel & Spa, at Crystal Springs Resort in Hamburg, N.J., about 2.5 hours from Philadelphia.
Take Exit 11 off the Garden State Parkway and soon you'll be treated to the forested countryside of the Sussex Skylands, a five-county, pastoral region.
This time of year, you may find snow-covered fields and forests. In the fall, you'll seldom see foliage ablaze in red, gold and yellow. A visit during the warmer seasons takes you through bucolic towns where yellow forsythia blooms and flowers tumble from front-porch planters and farmers tend fields.
Though don't become too distracted once you leave I-80. Traveling the pretzel-twisted two-lane roads make it easy to get lost on your way to the resort.
With the Kittatinny Mountains as its backdrop, the Grand Cascades Lodge provides a commanding view as you swing into the driveway. The lobby's gray stone floor and the massive wooden beams crisscrossing the soaring ceiling invoke the fine style of Western ski lodges.
Grand Cascades Lodge is a 250-room luxury resort that opened in 2007 under the same ownership as nearby Minerals Hotel & Spa in the tucked-away playground of Crystal Springs, a resort complex of homes, golf courses and hotels.
The weekend we visited the Lodge, two weddings were taking place, and the bridal parties and their guests were yukking it up in the lobby bar. A foursome was shooting pool in the game room as the bellman chatted happily about how corporate retreats keep the staff busy.
Besides the Elements Spa at nearby Minerals (a second spa is due to open in April at the Lodge), there are walking trails and seven golf courses. Minerals has a ski-in, ski-out area, as well as an entertainment complex with an indoor/outdoor pool, racquet and basketball courts, a fitness center and several restaurants and cafes. Guests at one resort can use the other's facilities, and there's a free shuttle between the two.
Of the two properties, located about eight minutes from each other, Minerals has the more casual, wallet-friendly accommodations. With so many activities under one roof, it's also good for families.
Mountain Creek Ski Area is adjacent to Minerals hotel. If you don't ski but your children do, you can drop them off at the mountain, then walk back to enjoy the comfort of the lodge. Available, too, are two- and three-bedroom condominiums for rent.
The one- and two-bedroom luxury guest rooms and suites at the Grand Cascades Lodge are more elegantly designed, with fully equipped gourmet kitchens, dining areas and sitting rooms with stone hearth fireplaces.
There are balconies, some with outdoor fireplaces, that offer either sweeping mountain or golf course views.
If you're into self-pampering, it's easy to settle back into the elegant, rustic decor of a bedroom that features comfy, king-sized beds, fine linens, a flat-screen television and a bathroom Jacuzzi tub.
However, we managed to pull ourselves together for an unparalleled, old-worldly experience in the cool, dim wine cellar of the Lodge's Restaurant Latour.
Dinner is pricey ($65 to $75 a person, or a seven-course menu with five wine tastings for $140 a person), but it's an extraordinary experience. We were led through tastings of lobster agnolotti, mascarpone-enriched pasta, scallops with a citrus sauce, a veal dish and seared monk fish prepared by Chef Michael Weisshaupt. Wines such as Pierre Moncuit Blanc de Blancs, New York sparkling wine and rich, round Burgundy were paired and poured by John Osborne, the resort's nationally recognized wine director.
With the thoroughness of a grade school teacher and no hint of snobbery or condescension, Osborne explained the wines and his reasons for the pairings. He also talked about the award-wining cellar's collection of more than 3,600 labels. Before or after dinner, Osborne also gives tours of the cellar where the wines range from a modest $15 to a whopping $28,000 a bottle.
The wine dinners are in demand, so make reservations at least a month ahead. Guests can arrange similar tastings in Latour's main dining room, while gazing out of a panoramic wall of glass at the Kittatinny Mountains.
The next time you're looking for a luxurious, romantic getaway or a family-friendly ski destination removed from the noise and bustle of urban life, try New Jersey. You'd probably be perfect together. Capisce? *
P.J. Thomas is editor and co-publisher of Pathfinders Travel Magazine for People of Color, a nationally distributed publication founded in 1997, and co-host of "Travel With Pathfinders" on WPGC-AM in Washington, D.C. For travel questions or comments contact her at