They thought it couldn't happen: Once ski resorts installed snow-making equipment, they thought Mother Nature couldn't fool them out of a ski season. But then came this on-again, off-again winter. You needn't be a physicist to figure out what 60-degree days can do to even man- made snow.

Woe unto the ski resorts from West Virginia to Maine, and woe also unto the skiers. Not only are we denied thrilling spills down long snowy slopes, but we can't even get away for a weekend -- or can we?

When the recent Christmas-New Year holiday dawned balmy and snowless, it caught my family preparing for a ski week at Vermont's Sugarbush. To go or not to go? When we searched our pocketbooks we leaned toward canceling the trip and saving our money (minus our deposit) for later in the season. But when we searched our hearts and took our morale's temperature, we found that what we wanted -- almost as much as a dash down the mountain -- was to get away. We rationalized that the midwestern storm dumping snow on the plains would surely land on New England while we were there. And if not -- or so we assured ourselves while loading the car -- at least the temperatures would plummet, the resort would make snow and we'd get in some limited skiing. But just in case, we also threw in hiking boots, running shoes and tennis gear.

No-snow isn't the best time to be at a ski resort, but it isn't bad. First, there's the setting: mountains, tall trees and lots of them, winding country roads (safer without their icy cover), crisp little towns with village greens and white church steeples.

Second, there are the no-shows. Unlike us, most people stayed home. We didn't need reservations at restaurants, and there was no crowding even at the little steak house that serves world-class steak au poivre at hamburger prices.

On the other hand, families with non-refundable deposits for four or five days were on hand. They came with racquets, sneakers, bathing suits and enormous numbers of small, raucous children similarly equipped. They inundated the indoor pool, made a puddle of the locker room and blocked out all the indoor-tennis court time. But we gladly left those facilities to others since the Sports Center charged $11.50 a person for the swimming pool, Jacuzzi and weight-lifting machines and $24 an hour for tennis and squash courts, plus an extra $5 admission fee for tennis players who didn't pay the pool fee.

Given the balmy temperatures and lack of snow the first day, outdoor tennis courts were not out of the question. On the second day we were treated to a two-inch snowfall. Hardly enough to make a practical difference on the slopes, but enough for cosmetic improvements. The hills and forests were now blanketed with a veneer of white.

The snow was accompanied by 20-degree nights and 30- degree days. The snow guns on the slopes were set at blast. Sugarbush opened a narrow trail, sold lift tickets at full price and stood back to watch the slipping, sliding and long lift lines. After enduring an hour and a quarter in line -- a slush-covered icy trail with bare spots -- and wayward skiers out of control, we decided to spend our days in other ways.

Our children didn't mind the conditions quite as much, but a strategy for them to make the most of the available snow and the least of the lift lines was imperative. The snow guns and grooming machines worked all night, so by arriving when the slopes opened at 8:30 in the morning, the children got in an hour and a half of line-free skiing on fresh, man-made snow. As the 10 o'clock crowd arrived on the slopes, the children took a group lesson. Instructors and their group can cut into lift lines and use the best snow cover. After skiing through the noon-to-2 lunch hour, the children were ready to quit and leave the deteriorating afternoon conditions to late arrivals.

The adults, meanwhile, headebad for the cross-country ski trails, not on skinny skis but in sturdy, mud-proof boots.

It was glorious on the trails. A thin cover of snow glistened on the open fields and brought dignity to the bare trees. Little streams eased around rocks and whispered against their muddy banks. We huffed and puffed up high, heavy hills to win a view of the valley to the east and the mountain, with its carved ski trails, to the west.

We started our hike dressed in long underwear, jeans, heavy sweaters, parkas and hats. By hike's end, parkas were tied around our waists and hats were in hand.

We also joined in running the country roads that thread from lodge to restaurant to inn. While we'd had the cross- country trails to ourselves, it seemed that everyone who had shunned the downhill trails had also slipped on their running shoes and taken to the road.

I found a women's exercise class held in a barn-like room over the hardware store in town. Along with other frustrated skiers and town residents, I stretched and strained and worked off the steak au poivre three times over.

One woman -- a vacation homeowner and avid skier -- said that between the exercise classes and a daily tennis game, she was getting more exercise this holiday than she did when snow was on the trails.

Seek and ye shall find. We uncovered a hot-tub emporium where we soaked away the stresses from hiking and running. We found craft shops with hand-made jewelry and fresh-from-the-kiln pottery. We came across a well- stocked bookstore easily worth a two-hour browse.

The exercise and wanderings made late-afternoon reading by the fire a just reward. Without the distractions of home, we and others in the house we shared even joined in marathon sessions working jigsaw puzzles.

It wasn't a perfect ski week -- not the vacation we had planned -- but we weren't sorry we had come. And in the future, just to be safe, we'll make sure we book our ski trips at resorts that offer at least a few alternatives to skiing.