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August 14, 2013 at 8:00 AMComments: 2 Faves: 0

An Adventure Up North: Exploring Crystal Mountain

By Rachael Ellen More Blogs by This Author

As the door latched behind me, I dropped the heavy suitcase to the floor with a clunk. I had packed enough clothes and toiletries to last me through an apocalyptic crisis (a little overkill for a five day va-ca).  I wanted to be ready for anything the weekend could bring, and this was the vacation I’d been waiting for all summer. After about an hour and a half’s worth of driving, a couple rest stops, and a drive-thru coffee, my entourage and I had ventured to Crystal Mountain in the beautiful woods of Northern Michigan.

After lugging up flight of stairs, I threw the suitcase onto the bed. The sheer volume I had compacted into my luggage had caused unfortunate pressure, resulting in an explosion of clothing once the suitcase’s zipper had been unzipped, but nothing was going to get me down. I grabbed my clothing in armloads and threw everything into a bulging heap back from whence it came, shoving the jumbled contents of my luggage into the bedroom closet, out of sight and out of mind. With my unpacking finished, I grabbed my book and made a beeline for the back porch couch. It was time to get my vacation started right.

Back home in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the July heat had been a doozy. The humidity had rolled off of Lake Michigan like body odor off of a flatulent old man. Up north in Thompsonville, Michigan, however, the dizzying heat was absent from Crystal Mountain with the cooler climate and the intervention of the morning breeze. I couldn’t help but melt comfortably into the chubby cushions of the wicker couch, distracted by the bubbling creek running behind the Cottages at Water’s Edge. I was beginning to doze, feeling my eyes get heavier as my muscles relaxed...


Being me, as I’m trying to relish in the relaxation I’ve been waiting for all summer, I had a blogger moment (an instance of realization that I must write something that should be shared with the world, and that it’s my duty to get the word out. I like to think of it as being comparable to Spider senses). From my cloud-like crevice in the couch cushions, I was enveloped by the natural beauty around me, specifically in reference to the breathtaking gardens.  I’ve traveled to Crystal Mountain multiple times, in every season, and each time I arrive, I’m impressed by the landscaping. Never have I seen a lackadaisical plant lining a sidewalk or protruding from a pot on the grounds of Crystal. I asked myself, how do they do it?

I formulated a game plan. I knew that, typically, during the day, one or two gardeners would pop up around the cottages to tug out some weeds or to trim the grass, so I decided that the first one I saw I would pounce on. Yellow notepad in hand, I strolled up to a dark-haired, pleasant-looking woman pulling up some weeds. She introduced herself as Mara, one of the Garden Managers on staff, and she was more than happy to meet with me that afternoon with her fellow Garden Manager, Kathy.

Perched on benches of Flag Park, I sat across from Mara and Kathy, clicking my pen into ready position as I started firing questions their way. To start, we covered the resort’s basics, including the acreage (which is not all landscaped, but it does put into perspective the sheer enormity that has to be tended regularly by the garden staff). Crystal Mountain is 1,500 acres of woods, golf courses, art parks, ski slopes, and housing amenities all wrapped up in an environmentally friendly package (the resort has received numerous awards for their “green” facilities, including the “16 Michigan Green Leaders” by the Detroit Free Press in 2009. Mara and Kathy explained that the summer season’s gardening is the responsibility of eight full time staff and five Weeders--young adults who attack any unwanted flower bed invaders for the duration of the summer. Crystal Mountain was not always the chart topping success it is known as today, and as the resort transformed, the landscaping evolved with it.

“Originally, we started with the front entrance,” Kathy explained, “and then everything was done in different phases. As the cottages were built, the landscape was done there. It didn’t all happen at one set time.”  

Kathy then went on explain that the entrance was meant to imitate an old, romantic garden and that theme went on to influence other aspects of the landscape’s design. Working together collaboratively, Clinton & Associates Landscape Architects and Johnson Hill Land Ethics Studio joined forces to devise the layout of the resort’s Cottages at Water’s Edge. Their beautiful, hard work paid off after they received the Perennial Plant Association Honor Award in 2008.

To keep the gardens blooming, the garden staff dedicate two and a half weeks to planting annuals each year before the onset of Memorial Day. Searching for a feasible number,  Kathy and Mara estimated  that nearly 5,000 bulbs are planted each year (remember, eight full time staff are accomplishing this feat!). Constantly, the grounds are in a rotation of greenery, as the gardeners experiment with the plant’s development in certain lights and soils. Often, plants will be upcycled from one area of the resort to the other. With Crystal being so environmentally conscious, the team utilizes trickle irrigation and relies on minimal fertilizing to show Mother Nature some love.

“That’s what the weeders are for,” Mara said “because we have the weeders, we don’t need to be using harsh chemicals to keep the weeds under control.”

“And the trickle irrigation allows us to save water because the roots are getting the direct moisture,” Kathy added.

I pointed out the potted plants circled around the benches blooming in the patriotic red, white, and blue, which Kathy explained were meant to celebrate the fourth of July.

“The pots are changed to match the seasons and holidays. Like, in the fall, we usually replace all of the pots with mums,” Kathy noted.

Even in the winter, the resort makes a statement with the use of LED lights strung around the buildings and lodges.  No season at Crystal goes unnoticed.

As I thanked the ladies for their time and headed back to the cottage, I admit that I did stop and smell the flowers, all cliches and jokes aside. It is hard not to take the romantic charm for granted when it covers every inch of the resort, but after a chat with these dedicated individuals, I held a whole new appreciation for the artistry around me. Crystal Mountain has done a fantastic job with their gardens and the natural beauty they’ve accentuated with their design choices, and the gorgeous Black Eyed Susans and Hydrangeas basking in the sunshine are living testaments to that.

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  • Looks like a beautiful place - I love the spa! Too bad the sessions get over so quickly!

  • I know! You're almost too relaxed! They do such a great job there.

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