In Ellicottville, New York, one of the most popular ski destinations in the United States, I faced my own mountain challenge.
Participation in the press trip that brought me to Ellicottville was part of the Travel Bloggers Exchange (TBEX) conference. This post may contain affiliate links, which means if you make a purchase through said link, we'll be paid a small commission and we thank you for your support.
If you love watching CSI marathons as much as I do, you'll no doubt have picked up on a particular habit of shift supervisor Gil Grissom. When the introverted, cerebral, bookish Grissom needs to unwind, he heads to one of Las Vegas' spectacular roller coasters and lets the breakneck speeds and thrilling loops clear his head.
Like Grissom, I too love bees and books (dead bodies, not so much...) Could I possibly love roller coasters as well?
The answer is a resounding NO! If you follow my Facebook page, you'll know that roller coasters are one of the many "nope" activities for me. Bungee jumping, hang gliding, mountain climbing, roller coasters - they're all "nopes". They terrify me!
But what about a mountain coaster?
What exactly IS a mountain coaster?
A mountain coaster, or alpine coaster, features cars similar to bobsleds. The car stays close to the ground and follows the contours of the terrain - with a few embellishments here and there. Compared to a roller coaster, it's a much more individual experience. You ride solo (or with one other person if you have a child with you) and you determine your speed with the use of levers. Part of the fun is that it operates in all kinds of weather - snow, sunshine, even rain- and it offers riders a fantastic experience in nature in addition to a thrilling ride. Andorra boasts the world's longest mountain coaster track at over 5 km long but most are considerably shorter.
While distances are easy, it's rather challenging to measure mountain coasters in terms of how they rank with regards to extreme adventure but make no mistake - I came face to face with the most intense, the most excruciating, the most dangerous one in the world!
Getting acquainted with Holiday Valley's Sky High Mountain Coaster
From a purely truthful point of view, I must admit there's little to indicate that Holiday Valley's Sky High Mountain Coaster actually IS the most extreme or intense in the world - other than the fact that I declared it thus. Similar to my experience with an RIB ride in Sweden (... the world's fastest speedboat as far as I'm concerned...), I was less concerned with official, accurately measured speeds and heights and more focused on my own 'brave-o-meter'. Based on how much grit and pluck I had to muster to tackle this ride, I'm going to go ahead and declare it monumentally extreme.
Much more genteel is the setting. Holiday Valley is a four season resort with a strong focus on skiing and golf in Ellicottville, New York. In addition to the mountain coaster it also offers mountain biking, aerial adventures including zip-lining, and tubing (all of which I am far too chicken to ever try).
Like any large resort, there is a strong focus on safety. Prior to riding the mountain coaster, we watched a safety video, received verbal instructions before heading out, and there were safety and information signs in several places (.... more on that in a moment).
Squaring my shoulders and holding my head high, I marched towards the waiting mountain coaster cars, selected one near the back like the quavering warrior I am, and waited to depart.
A "false" start actually made all the difference
With a superhuman level of bravery, I boldly eased my lever forward, propelling myself up the hill and down a few small dips to gradually bring myself to the top of the course, a vertical rise of 283 feet. I found this beginning section of the course to be an equal measure of exhilaration and serenity, reveling in my new found valor and fortitude. I squealed with delight as I boldly restrained myself from pulling the brakes all the way back as I coasted down a small slope and sighed with pleasure as I enjoyed the beautiful, sunny afternoon.
There was just one problem, one that I realized long after the fact. All my lever pulling meant nothing! The uphill section of the ride is AUTOMATIC. The ride itself propels you forward at a slow, steady, consistent rate until you reach the top, at which point you're in charge of controlling your speed via the lever. All those squeals of bravery were for naught. I wasn't releasing my inner speed demon. The car was doing all the work for me and my speed never changed!!
All this I would have known had I taken the time to read the information signs, as pictured above. Thankfully, while I feel quite foolish now, it was actually all for the best as the placebo effect gave me untold confidence!
Turns out I'm a mountain coaster MASTER!
If the automated ride to the top was thrilling, the descent was downright intoxicating. Death defying plunges and loops (okay, a 23% downhill grade) were so much fun. I may have had some serious doubts along the large, sloping curves where the coaster slanted to the left and the right. It felt like I might just tumble out and I wondered exactly how much oomph was left in the aging seat belts. Bravely, I lived to tell the tale and had such a great time that I actually clambered into a new car as soon as mine came to a stop so I could ride the loop again. I think this might be an anti-adventurist first! This time though, I knew about the automatic pull to the top! I just relaxed, leaned back, and enjoyed the ride.
I couldn't help reflect upon how much the fictional Grissom would have enjoyed this ride, even if it produced slightly less adrenaline than a monster coaster on the Vegas strip. My elevated vantage point let me look down on the trees, wildflowers, and even a creek. It was an incredible nature experience in addition to being an extreme sporting adventure. Hey, I know MOST people wouldn't classify it as an "extreme sport". But my blog, my rules. The anti-adventurist scale of intensity allows for liberal amounts of artistic license.
Where to stay in Ellicottville, New York
Every extreme athlete needs their sleep and championship level mountain coasters (aka: me) are no exception. While in Ellicottville, I stayed at the Inn at Holiday Valley. My top priority for any accommodations is that I sleep well and the Inn delivered. I slept soundly and the room was dark, quiet, clean, and comfortable.
The rustic country decor was a tad dated for my own personal aesthetic but this of course is a matter of taste. I did appreciate that there was a large bench at the entryway, which would be great for skiers wrangling with their gear, as well as a second bench inside the room that was equally handy. My strongest criticism was the quality of the breakfast. It was more inline with what I'd expect at a much more basic chain hotel and I'd love to see more local food in the future- maybe fresh fare from an Ellicottville bakery to start.
Where to eat in Ellicottville
As all extreme sportspeople know, you have to treat your body like a temple. And Finnerty's Tap Room is a great place to worship beer, carbs, and tunes. They specialize in Irish food with a few twists, like the Friday fish fry which has a classic American feel to it. The appetizers are meant for sharing (check out the massive deep fried mac and cheese bomb above!) and local beer is given top billing. Live music is common in Ellicottville's pubs and my novice opinion is that Finnerty's has the best. I was fortunate to be there when Geno McManus was playing and he was absolutely fantastic.
When it comes to hydration, dedicated mountain coasters will be thrilled with the selection at the Ellicottville Brewing Company. Their brewing prowess means that there's abundant choices but you can narrow down your options by choosing a flight of six generous samples. Much to my surprise, my favourite was their best selling Blueberry Wheat Ale. Even if you think this is the last thing you'd like - and I was one of those people - you should give it a try. Ellicottville Brewing Company has large menu to accompany all their different beer and I had the chance to sample their guacamole and chips (superb!), the spicy peanut chicken soup, and the veggie burger with fries. Superb fuel for a rigorous coaster training program!
This anti-adventurist moment is for everyone
If you're a member of the "nope squad" and consider yourself a big travel scaredy cat just like me, take heart. Mountain coasters were made for us! It can be as fast or as gentle as you like and it's a good mix of adventure, nature, and exploration. Ellicottville is the also perfect place to give it a try - with plenty of treats and tunes to soothe your nerves or celebrate your triumphs (or both!) after the fact.
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