Traveller Lowdown - Vail

For a spectacular winter destination that also positively shines in the summer, Vail, in America’s Southwest, is pretty much unbeatable. ALEX BENASULI, who’s been visiting for decades, reveals his insider tips to the popular Colorado resort.

It’s not hard to see why Vail is consistently ranked as one of the most popular and successful ski resorts in the world. With more than 5,000 acres of the most diverse skiing on the planet, and state-of-the-art ski lift and snow making technology, not to mention a smart and buzzy pedestrianised centre boasting first class restaurants and shopping, Vail achieves excellence in almost every glamourous foot it puts forward. Add to this jaw dropping Rocky Mountain alpine vistas, and masses of dry powder matched with brilliant sunshine and ruggedly irresistible Western American charm, and Vail more than lives up to its moniker of “like nothing on earth.”

For a place so deeply embedded in nature, Vail is remarkably easy to reach. Eagle County Regional Airport (EGE) is only half an hour away, and served by direct flights from numerous US aviation hubs. But despite the convenience of landing minutes from Vail, I prefer to land in Denver – at the foothills of the Rockies – and embark on the two-hour ascent along Interstate 70, Colorado’s main mountain artery. As you traverse this epic highway, the High Plains yield almost immediately to tree-covered hills and mountains.

Narrow passes and soaring peaks compete with national parklands and former mining towns (straight out of central casting) to create a growing, verging on theatrical, sense of anticipation well before arriving in Vail. This is a veritable Rocky Mountain experience right from the start, and a must for any traveller’s first trip to Vail. Colorado Mountain Express provides almost hourly van and private connections between EGE and DEN airports and Vail. If you’re travelling solo be sure to bag the front seat next to the driver for the most legroom and best views (www.coloradomountainexpress.com).

Unlike other Colorado ski resorts like Aspen and Breckenridge, whose mining town origins date back to the mid-late 1800s, purpose built Vail was founded in the mid 1960s by a group of friends who fell in love with the Gore Mountain range in which the resort sits. Almost 70 years later, their dream of creating a winter sports mecca is stronger than ever. And What Vail perhaps lack in period charm, it more than makes for it in terms of world-class facilities and all-round convenience.

Vail Village is a compact pedestrian center, built in charming Tyrolean style within a narrow valley pass, enclosed by mountains on all sides. The clock tower at the corner of Bridge Street and Gore Creek Drive is the de facto village square, in the shadow of the ski mountain, surrounded by shops and restaurants. On New Year’s Eve, the clock tower and adjacent streets become one, giant wintery street party.

Gore Creek, a tributary of Eagle River, ambles through the middle of the mountain valley pass that makes up the length of town – gurgling in summer and near frozen in winter – connecting Vail Village to the adjacent neighbourhoods of Lionshead to the west and Golden Peak to the east. From one end of town to the other is a thirty-minute walk.

Free bus services also connect Vail’s three main areas and further afield, providing warmth, shelter and convenience during winter when skis, boots and snowboards are in tow. During the ski season, Vail village is a magical winter wonderland, with snow-laden tree branches glistening in the sun and moonlight. In summer, everything turns green and mountain flowers bloom – a completely different yet equally visually spectacular natural experience.

The main event at Vail is the ski mountain, and what a main event it is. Surpassed only by Whistler in Canada, Vail has the largest amount of skiable acres on the continent, and the most groomed ski runs of anywhere in the world, appealing as much to beginners and intermediates as it does to experts and off-piste aficionados.

Unlike most of Europe, where much of the skiing is above the tree line, the entire front of Vail Mountain is carpeted in evergreens, with the ski runs and connecting walkways carved in amongst them. This not only creates distinct runs and divides the mountain, but also provides for stunning scenery, and, given the high altitude, Vail is virtually assured of good snow conditions throughout the season. Dry air delivers the much-acclaimed champagne-like powder, as well as frequent, crystal clear blue skies when the sun is out.

Vail is famous for its legendary Back Bowls – endless expanses of open, mostly south-facing, more advanced terrain. The Back Bowls and adjacent Blue Sky Basin border wilderness extending for miles and miles, literally on top of the world, offering dramatic views towards some of North America’s highest peaks. Even during the season’s peak periods, you can be carving virgin tracks in fresh powder in the far reaches of the Back Bowls on any given day.

During the rest of the season and for early risers, the terrain is so expansive you can have parts of it practically to yourself. One of the striking attributes of skiing or snowboarding at Vail, is that beginners and intermediates have access to almost all parts of the mountain, including the upper reaches. This makes it possible for groups of various abilities to spend the day together, with the advanced and more intrepid peeling off from time to time, and re-joining the group when they feel like it, either at the bottom of chairlifts or at one the many slope side restaurants.

Located near the top of chairs 14, 17, 21 and 36, the cavernous Two Elk sits at a lofty 3,425 metres, atop the China Bowl, and is a great option for a relaxed meal. Amazing views combine with traditional timber lodge architecture to deliver an excellent resort-run mountain top restaurant and meeting point (+1 970 754 8245). For a more refined mountainside dining experience, complete with a menu of updated culinary classics with a quintessentially alpine feel, head to The 10th, located atop Gondola One at Mid Vail. Here slippers are provided once ski boots have been removed, and diners feast on lamb, venison, elk and bison whilst taking in spectacular views of the Gore Range (www.the10thvail.com).

For some, après ski means shopping, and if you go to just one boutique in Vail let it be Gorsuch. Synonymous with high-end fashion, home accessories and lifestyle items, Gorsuch also offers an excellent range of ski equipment and winter wear. Be prepared to splurge but it will be worth it! (www.gorsuch.com)

In terms of après ski entertainment, Vail tends to be more relaxed and casual than upscale and fancy, with a friendly western US vibe pleasantly palpable in most venues. Garfinkel’s in Lionshead (or Garfs as it’s affectionately known locally), is conveniently positioned at the base of the slopes, has a large sundeck, popular happy hour and a DJ (www.garfsvail.com). In Vail Village, the Red Lion often has live music (www.redlion.com), whilst Los Amigos serves basic yet tasty Mexican fare and offers great views towards Vail Mountain (www.losamigos.com).

When it comes to premium dining experiences travellers are spoilt for choice in Vail, with a number of excellent restaurants showcasing the best contemporary American cuisine. A favourite is Sweet Basil, where a vibey bar for pre-dinner drinks and nibbles gives way to a fabulous main dining room overlooking Gore Creek. The innovative American farm to table cuisine, coupled with a superb wine list, skilfully showcases the region’s freshest ingredients (www.sweetbasilvail.com). For a slightly more casual meal, head to Bully Ranch in the Sonnenalp Hotel, where southwestern and American classics – including ribs, buffalo and beef burgers – are the hearty gastronomic order of the day (www.sonnenalp.com).

Those seeking an authentic Colorado culinary experience will want to take a 20-minute drive to frozen-in-time Minturn, a former mining town just west of Vail, and home to the Minturn Saloon, established in the ‘70s. Here, taxidermy and 80’s ski posters adorn the walls of the bar, where skiers and boarders cluster by the fireplace downing pitchers of the legendary house margarita. Meanwhile, the saloon’s restaurant serves Mexican food, ribs and wild game, in a rustic and boisterous setting, especially around 7pm! Don’t let the somewhat rowdy atmosphere put you off though – Minturn Saloon is as firm a favourite with the well-heeled as it is with the locals. (www.minturnsaloon.com).

Vail offers a myriad of accommodation options, from motels to condos, and luxe lodges to deluxe five-stars with all the bells and whistles. Whilst there’s a Four Seasons in the village (www.fourseasons.com/Vail) and a Ritz-Carlton in Lionshead (www.ritzcarlton.com), the grande dame of Vail’s luxury hospitality offerings is the Lodge at Vail, one of the village’s only truly ski-in-ski-out properties. Built in 1962 and operated in the style of a European chalet, the Lodge at Vail was the resort’s first hotel, and continues to set the bar for exclusivity, whilst also being perfectly situated at the base of the mountain and just steps from Gondola One. Whether you stay in a room, studio, suite or private on-site residence of up to three bedrooms, all of the lodge’s accommodation is beautifully finished and oozes rustic elegance. There is truly no better address than the Lodge at Vail (www.thevailcollection.com).

For a slightly more intimate affair and arguably the resort’s best spa, you can’t beat the Sonnenalp for its alpine style, charming rooms and incredible breakfast. Run like a family-owned property, but achieving excellence in every way, the Sonnenalp is also home to some of Vail’s best restaurants. Listening to a live performer’s rendition of John Denver’s ‘Rocky Mountain High’, beside a fireplace in the hotel’s King’s Club lounge, is surely the highlight of any trip to Vail (www.sonnealp.com).

There is a saying in Colorado, “People come for winter but stay for summer”. Indeed, the warmer months see fireside cosiness and snow-covered magic replaced by al fresco wonders and an eruption of different shades of green. Summer temperatures are comfortable rather than hot, with average highs of up to 75°F and evenings that necessitate a sweater and possibly also a jacket. Relative to buzz of the ski season, everything quiets down to a whisper, bar the gentle babbling of Gore Creek through the centre of town. Vail Mountain becomes a steep field of thick grass, where a forest of birches in full leaf join the evergreens to complete the glorious tableau. The mountain and some of the lift network remain open for walking and hiking, and the experience can only be described as spiritual – it really is that beautiful.

In fact, in summer the whole of Vail is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. From cycling to horseback riding, and river rafting to fly-fishing, there’s arguably a greater variety of things to do than during the ski season. There is not just one but seven golf courses located within the valley, many of them award-winning, all featuring gorgeous views. Summer also sees Vail’s cultural scene explode, with various music, arts and food festivals from June through September. Though still popular, summer is technically off-season for Vail, meaning that great accommodation bargains can also be had.

Winter or summer, jet-setter or local, everyone who visits Vail is drawn by the amazing scenery, a love of the outdoors and the allure of the American Southwest. And whilst superb restaurants, great shopping and a burgeoning arts scene are the icing on the cake, the real show-stopper are the majestic Rockies. Vail is one of the best places in the North American continent to enjoy this incredible mountain range and be immersed in the beauty of Mother Nature, whilst also enjoying the creature comforts of warm 21st century hospitality. For me, Vail truly is like nowhere else on earth. (www.vail.com).