Why Go Now: Didn’t book a ski trip this season? Or maybe your spring break plans got broken, or never planned? Don’t put away your goggles just yet. Not only is there still time to spend a weekend, or week, at the country’s biggest mountain—Vail—before the season closes on Easter Sunday, April 24, there are a bowl-full of good reasons to go. And not just the 33 lifts, the 193 trails, the 3,450-foot vertical drop and the 5,289 skiable acres—you know, the usual ones that either inspire or intimidate (or perhaps just bore) you….
For One New Thing: four large-scale, high-end lodging options have come online since last season: the Solaris and Ritz-Carlton all-residence developments and the Sebastian and Four Seasons Resort hotel-and-residence properties.
For Another: there’s the weather: Vail has dug out, again and again, from record snowfall this winter. As of mid-January this season was already the fourth best in Vail history, and by mid-February a total 322 inches—more than 26 feet had fallen. And that was only at mid-mountain. In one 24-hour period during the long weekend I visited, 17 inches of powder poured down. Then after a short break, it snowed more. Which (kind of) leads to another reason to make a last-minute trip: if a snowstorm doesn’t get in your way, it can be very easy to find yourself on Vail’s broad slopes and awesome back bowls; in peak season nonstops into Eagle County Airport, 40 minutes away, land almost hourly from 10 U.S. airports.
On the Town Today: You go primarily for the mountain and the snow. That was true when the resort first opened, in 1962, and it’s still true today. As for Vail Village itself, it’s a long, low collection of lodgings and shops, bars and restaurants, and some are very fine, some very fun, but the town is short on authentic charm. Picturesque Telluride, it’s not. Pressed into a thin sliver between the base of the mountain and Interstate 70, which runs parallel to the base right along Vail Valley’s narrow floor, the community is more purposeful than pretty, despite its Alpine touches (flowerboxes, belltowers) and ranks of expensive condos. There’s a Manrico store here, a fur salon there, but the two women I saw wearing full-length pelts in the pedestrian-only commercial core looked dressed less for Vail than they were for Aspen or even nearby Beaver Creek, Vail’s younger but richer sister just 30 minutes away. Here it’s sportiness that means you belong, not swankiness.
New-School Vail: Fortunately my hotel, the Sebastian, was both sporty and chic. Constructed a few years ago and originally opened as the Vail Plaza, the 100-room (and 39-residence) property was acquired last winter by an investment firm owned by a Mexico City family with long ties to the area, then renovated and rechristened this past fall. From the outside the Sebastian still conforms to the town’s quaint style, but once inside you are definitely not in Ye Olde Tyrol anymore. Bold works by Mexican abstract artist Manuel Felguerez—including two large moody paintings in the lobby library, and smaller sculptures in shiny metal that could be Braque figures come to life—are right at home in a mod-lodge setting. Upstairs the rooms and residences retain a more-typical Western look (Indian-print pillows, square-leg oak tables), but overall the Sebastian is worldly and full of personality, making it well-suited to couples but also appealing to well-traveled families.
Old-School Vail: Devoted Vail visitors (and there are many) will still, however, prefer the Sonnenalp, the Sebastian’s neighbor across the street. And if you like your ski-hotel staff in lederhosen or some version of it, this is your place, too. (Even if you don’t, the attire immediately conveys both old-fashioned efficiency and somehow, despite the thigh-high socks, comfort. Who can argue with that when you’ve come in from the cold and want a Scotch and good service?) With its proper version of coziness, the ‘Alp is something of a time-capsule property for those who remember Vail The Way It Used To Be. But under the continued ownership and direction of Johannes Faessler, whose family opened the property in the 1980s (and have been hoteliers for four generations), the Sonnenalp remains the only place to be for many of its guests.
Vail’s Belle: Several blocks west of the village’s center, in the Lionshead area of town, the Arrabelle at Vail Square, a Rockresort hotel and residence property, has come on strong since it opened three years ago and now matured into a confident player on the scene; to some it’s now Vail’s leading lady. It offers a less-stiff update on the Sonennalp style, with more-modern rooms, a child-friendly outlook and a location that, although at the side of the mountain, is ski-in/ski-out—something that none of the other top-level lodgings have, except for the Arrabelle’s older Rockresorts sibling, The Lodge at Vail, practically flush against the main base. (All of Vail’s premier properties have valet outposts at the main base, so even though guests have to either walk or shuttle 5 or 10 minutes through town to reach the lifts, they never have to carry their skis or boots more than a few yards.) Vail The Way It Should Be—that’s the Arrabelle’s promise, and set slightly apart in its own shop-filled mini-resort, it delivers, giving great access and accommodations in a single, if busy, property.
The Big News: There is more delivery, of amenities and high-priced aesthetics, at Vail’s latest major arrivals. Conceived and begun pre-bust, the Solaris (right in the center of town), the Four Seasons (near the Sebastian but closer to the interstate) and the Ritz-Carlton (in Lionshead, past the Arrabelle) — all opened this fall after years of development, and taken together they mean that Vail suddenly has a large inventory of grand-scale properties and can rival any ski resort in the country in terms of premium lodgings. Still, at heart Vail is a small community, and while the newcomers don’t quite loom over the place, they’re not yet integrated either; they’re akin to expensive stage sets awaiting the arrival of their casts. In the case of the Four Seasons, make that very expensive: the property’s price tag was $350 million. Very beautiful, accordingly, but still a little hushed, the Four Seasons may turn out to be better for summer than winter, given its terrific outdoor pool and its distance from the slopes, slightly more than that of its peers. For its part the fortress-like five-story Ritz may prove simply too out-of-sync with its surroundings (and the facade’s yellow hue, anything but mellow, doesn’t help—calling Extreme Makeover: Resort Edition). The Solaris’ residential units are still mostly dark at night, making it a rather ghostly presence in the center of the village, but at least on the building’s lower levels its bowling alley, ice rink and “cinebistro” (where moviegoers can have meals delivered directly to their seats) were doing a good business selling their up-market versions of popular pastimes. And that seems entirely apt. On the eve of its 40th birthday, and true to its founding as the country’s first purpose-built ski town, Vail is still noticeably democratic despite its glossy reputation. Huge mountain above. Small-town pleasures beneath. And plenty of snow for everyone.
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