HAMBURG, N.J. -- It was a scene I'd never witnessed at any golf resort.
As I was checking into the Grand Cascades Lodge, I saw a man carrying his clubs on his back, pushing a baby stroller. It was just an innocent moment in time, but it turned out to be symbolic of my stay at Crystal Springs Golf Resort.
The resort -- consisting of three different properties -- really does cater to golfers of all ages, interests and budgets, whether you're visiting with a family, a few buddies on a golf binge or that special someone on a couple's retreat. You don't have to bring a baby or golf clubs -- like that guy -- to find bliss at this unique golf destination tucked deep in northern New Jersey mountains less than 50 miles from Manhattan.
Crystal Springs Golf Resort: The courses
With seven courses, Crystal Springs covers every demographic in the game. Trophy hunters will head toward Ballyowen Golf Club, a links-themed course ranked second among the state's top public tracks by Golfweek. Low-handicappers can test their mettle at Crystal Springs Golf Club, a Robert von Hagge design ranked No. 36 among the country's top 50 toughest courses by Golf Digest.
Families are encouraged to play the nine holes at the Minerals golf course, where four-person carts allow golfers with young children to ride together. There are also two holes cut on each green, including a bigger cup for juniors and beginners.
Carmine Capone, of Parsippany, N.J., brought his sons, Andrew, 16, and Nicholas, 12, to play on a recent summer day. He said it's convenient because Andrew can't rent a cart at other facilities (he doesn't have a license) and his younger son isn't welcome on most courses.
"When I told (Nicholas) about the big holes, he was excited," Capone said. "In New Jersey, there are not a lot of kid-friendly courses. Even at the muni you have to be 12 and over."
Architect Roger Rulewich designed the dynamite Wild Turkey Golf Club and the nine-hole Cascades course conveniently next to the Grand Cascades Lodge. The Cascades nine uses two cups on each green just like the Minerals to promote beginner and family play. Much of the back nine of the Wild Turkey falls into a beautiful bowl of land below the lodge, although the quarry hole on the front nine, the par-3 seventh, is the shot everybody remembers most.
"I really like this course," said Ken Horan, of Jersey City, N.J., after a recent round.
Both the off-site Black Bear Golf Club and the Great Gorge Golf Club remain popular for outings. The 27-hole Great Gorge course sits next to the old Playboy Club and has embraced a 1970s theme. Elevated tees showcase the rugged countryside.
"The greens were in great shape," said Kevin Durn, of Hackettstown, N.J. "You can't beat the views. It is beautiful."
A David Leadbetter Golf Academy and a free all-grass putting course outside the Lodge complete an incredible array of facilities.
Crystal Springs Golf Resort: The hotels
The Grand Cascades Lodge, which opened in 2007, looks and feels like a luxurious mountain lodge transplanted from Colorado. It sits atop a ridge overlooking the courses.
There's complimentary valet parking upon arrival, the first sign that this is a place of unparalleled spoils. The higher-end suites are palatial with full kitchens and a fireplace in the living room. Families will gravitate toward the indoor/outdoor Biosphere Pool Complex with its indoor water slide set amid a rocky jungle-like setting. The other outdoor pool features a separate whirlpool that spins water round and round, which provides hours of endless entertainment for children.
Adults wanting to escape such madness can do so at the fire-and-ice themed Reflections Spa. Even foodies spoiled by the New York restaurant scene will savor Restaurant Latour and its 78,000-bottle wine cellar. The Crystal Tavern is quite elegant, too, although more family-friendly.
Dan Wagner brought his wife for a relaxation weekend from New Providence, N.J. While he played golf, his wife visited the spa.
"We are loving it," Wagner said. "We went out to Restaurant Latour. It was a wonderful dining experience. The food is phenomenal. You need a week to study the wine list. That restaurant alone is worth coming for just the weekend. There are good chefs here."
Down the road, the three-diamond Minerals Resort and Spa features 175 guestrooms, along with separate condominiums. It features the Minerals Sports Club, home to seven nature indoor-outdoor pools, tennis and racquetball and basketball courts, an indoor track and more. There's also a restaurant, a seasonal tiki bar and spa on site.
Several miles away in the ski area of Vernon, N.J., the Mountain Creek Resort offers accommodations at The Appalachian and the Black Creek Sanctuary. It's more of a ski destination than golf resort, but families might consider a summer stay for convenient access to the outdoor Mountain Creek Waterpark, one of the most extreme outdoor play-lands in the country. The thrills of cliff jumping and flying off a Tarzan swing into deep pools are nothing compared to a harrowing ride down the "H2-Oh-No" waterslide. Those who don't want to get wet can ride the Mountain Alpine coaster and Soaring Eagle. There's even a cool sports zone where youngsters can test their hockey, golf, soccer and tennis skills.
In families where dad is the only golfer, this is the perfect summer spot while dad's on the course. Nobody will miss him. At least that's what my children told me.