Lifting the Vail

This winter, the fabled village dazzles with new offerings both on and off the mountain.

By Cindy Hirschfeld October 31, 2013 Published in the November 2013 issue of Houstonia Magazine

The perfect post-ski spot: 10th Restaurant. Courtesy of Vail Resorts.

I took my first trip to Vail, Colorado, when I was 13. I was a skiing-obsessed girl growing up in New Jersey, and my mom, who is German, decided that we would spend the February school break in the Tyrolean-inspired Vail Village, exploring what it was like to ski on real—not manmade—snow. We stayed at the Enzian Lodge, had afternoon pastries at the Alpenrose Tearoom, and wandered Vail’s pedestrian-only byways, shopping for ski clothing and souvenirs. While my mom cross-country skied, I went to ski school, where I learned to navigate the hidden kids’ tree trails that crisscrossed the mountain. There, I developed a huge crush on my ski instructor—and a lifelong love affair with Vail.

Fast-forward a few decades. I now live in Colorado, just an hour and a half from my ski-resort crush. The Enzian is still there (it’s now a condo complex), as is the Alpenrose. I still love skiing Vail Mountain, and I look forward to taking my own child on the twisty tree trails, which have only multiplied since that first vacation—just one change of many I’ve witnessed. Vail’s ski area now encompasses almost 5,300 acres and includes Blue Sky Basin, a pair of peaks with more adventurous, gladed runs for intermediate and advanced skiers and riders. Neighboring Beaver Creek, which hadn’t even opened when I first visited Vail, is now a full-fledged resort and the site of one of the most challenging men’s downhill racecourses on the World Cup ski circuit. 

This winter everyone is gearing up for the 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, a prestigious event held every two years that features the world’s best skiers competing in two weeks of races. Those races will take place in February 2015 and reach millions of TV viewers worldwide, so it’s no surprise the resorts are already getting ready. This season, Vail and Beaver Creek visitors—including plenty of Houstonians, who have long made the resorts a destination—can look forward to faster lifts, remodeled hotels, and new dining options.

Last winter, Vail celebrated its golden anniversary by adding a second gondola. Now its already efficient lift system has become even more so. Vail regulars know that the most direct route up the mountain from Vail Village is the One Gondola to the Mountaintop Express (a.k.a. Lift 4). They also know that the wait time at the mid-mountain chair, especially in the morning, can be daunting. Good news: a new six-person lift has replaced the old quad, increasing Mountaintop’s uphill capacity by 33 percent. And that means faster access to the open snowfields of the famed Back Bowls, as well as Blue Sky Basin. First-time skiers also get a boost: the Gopher Hill lift, which brings beginners up the gentler part of Golden Peak, goes from a double to a triple chair.

Vail Mountain’s Back Bowls. Courtesy of Vail Resorts.

Beaver Creek isn’t getting any new lifts, but it is getting a big new on-mountain restaurant, the Talons. Located at the base of Grouse Mountain, the large, barn-style building will include two levels of seating plus a huge outdoor deck with a great view of the Birds of Prey downhill racecourse. With dishes like Colorado lamb burgers, thin-crust pizzas, and meats prepped in a smokehouse right outside, the Talons should ease the lunchtime crowds at the popular Spruce Saddle Lodge.

Lodging at Beaver Creek and Vail already trends toward luxe, but the digs get even cushier this winter with a pair of remodeled resorts. The Park Hyatt Beaver Creek sunk $4 million into redesigning its 190 rooms, adding contemporary furniture and large-scale nature photos. Over at the Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch, the first phase of a $15 million renovation debuted this past summer with refurbished guest rooms, lobby, and great room, showcasing works by local artists inspired by the surrounding mountain landscape. The second phase will be completed this winter and includes a new restaurant, Buffalo, which joins the top-rated Spago at the hotel. 

A remodeled residence at The Four Seasons Vail. Courtesy of the Four Seasons Resort and Residences Vail.

The Four Seasons Vail now offers six of its private custom residences for short-term visits—a stay comes with a “snow angel” (a personal concierge on call 24 hours a day). And although the Lodge at Vail’s rooms could still use an update, a major facelift has been given to the pool area, which now sports two big hot tubs with a fireplace in between them, a full-service bar, and a sound system.

While popular Vail restaurants like Kelly Liken, Larkspur, and La Tour are still going strong, some newer faces on the dining scene are eschewing more traditional formats in favor of smaller, shared plates and a markedly more casual ambiance (though, of course, the resort-town prices remain steep). The Four Seasons relaunched its steakhouse, Flame, with a less formal menu that includes starters like elk “corn dogs” and bison pot stickers, and a creative selection of rubs and sauces for any of the meats. And in a new program this winter, buzzed-about Four Seasons Executive Chef Jason Harrison will ski with guests for a morning at Vail, then grill up a custom lunch on the mountain. 

At the Sebastian, Vail’s hippest boutique hotel, the house restaurant was redesigned last winter as Leonora, a more relaxed spot featuring a wine and tapas bar, with seasonally changing selections of crudo and ceviche, as well as Alpine-inspired main dishes like seared ahi over a savory stew of white beans and chorizo. The hotel’s Frost Bar remains one of Vail’s most happening late-night scenes, especially on weekends, when a DJ spins tunes and the party often spills out into the adjacent lobby.

Roasted bone marrow at Mountain Standard. Courtesy of Mountain Standard.

Mountain Standard, the tavern that opened last winter by the team behind the much-loved Sweet Basil, has quickly become one of Vail’s hottest tables. The chefs bustle around the open kitchen cooking meat and fish over an open wood fire; other items, too, get the smoky treatment, like coal-roasted olives, coal-roasted squash, and delicious grilled flatbread with figs, ham, and gorgonzola. And don’t miss the roasted bone marrow.

Grilled lamb at Restaurant Kelly Liken. Courtesy of Restaurant Kelly Liken.

Over in Avon, a town adjacent to Beaver Creek, chef Richard Sandoval closed the cosmopolitan Cima at the Westin Riverfront Resort and reopened it as the more informal Maya, an outpost of his Manhattan Mexican eatery. In addition to standards like carne asada and enchiladas, the flavorful dishes include a squash blossom quesadilla, three kinds of moles, and spicy crab guacamole. An extensive tequila list includes house-infused versions and tasting flights.

Vail’s most scenic post-ski spot, hands down, is the mid-mountain 10th Restaurant, an airy wood, glass, and stone structure where diners can change out of their ski boots and into cozy wool slippers before enjoying cocktails like a bacon-infused bourbon Bloody Mary by the fireplace, perhaps with a brick-oven pizza. They’re free to drink up—there’s always the gondola to get down the mountain afterward. 

On to spas. Vail and Beaver Creek may well have more of these than any other ski resort in North America. Offerings include unique treatments like the Park Hyatt Allegria Spa’s Aqua Sanitas water sanctuary, or a massage at the Arrabelle Spa that uses energy-balancing gemstones. At the Vail Vitality Center in the Vail Mountain Lodge, ayurvedic consultations, energy healing, and Rolfing round out the more standard menu of massage, facials, and other treatments (as well as a newly expanded gym). And Terra Bistro, just upstairs in the lodge, offers dishes that prove healthy and delicious don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

The Aqua Sanitas at Beaver Creek’s Park Hyatt. Courtesy of Park Hyatt.

Crowds will descend during the skiing championships next year, of course. But really, there’s no one best time to visit Vail or Beaver Creek. January could have sunny, spring-like ski days, while March could bring deep powder. The resorts especially come to life during annual multiday promotions like Snow Daze (this year, Dec. 9–15) and Spring Back to Vail (April 7–20). The men’s World Cup ski races at Beaver Creek (Dec. 6–8) are always high-energy, and this year will also serve as a preview of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. There’s also a rare chance to see the world’s best women skiers, including Lindsey Vonn, at Beaver Creek (Nov. 29–Dec. 1); the women usually race in Aspen, but the World Cup schedule was changed just for this year.  

And the Burton U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships return (March 5–8) after moving from Vermont to Vail last year. In addition to attracting more than 100 of the world’s top riders (e.g., Shaun White, Kelly Clark, and Torah Bright) to compete in half-pipe and slopestyle, the event will be a chance to see athletes fresh from Olympic victories and attend parties and free concerts. Come to think of it, when I made that long-ago first visit to Vail, I’d never even heard of snowboarding. But if it’d been available then, I would have likely discovered one more thing to love. 

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