Lay of the Land
In his book Vail: Triumph of a Dream, the resort’s late founder, Pete Seibert, recounted the winter day in 1957 when he and a friend, Earl Eaton, first ascended some seldom-seen slopes in the middle of the Colorado Rockies, a few miles west of what is now Vail Pass, on Interstate 70. “In all our backcountry explorations, we had seen nothing like this,” he recalled. “Beneath the brilliant blue sky, we turned slowly in a circle and saw perfect ski terrain no matter which direction we faced…Much of it was better than the finest recreational ski sites in all of Colorado—hell, in all of North America!”
My own experience on these same slopes dates to 1978. Although Vail had by then grown into a world-renowned resort, with attendant crowds and sophisticated shops and lodges, I clearly remember standing at the long ridgeline of Vail Mountain and feeling much the same awe as I stared, almost in disbelief, at the vast terrain. Dozens of north-facing trails rolled and tumbled through the trees at angles from gentle to alarming, ending down in the Bavarian-accented ski village right on Gore Creek.
Off to the south was an even more astonishing view: a series of enormous treeless bowls full of powder that stretched into infinity, “a landscape so vast that it was best described by the name we would later pick for one of the most famous slopes of them all: Forever,” as Seibert wrote.
Today, Vail has grown beyond anything even the visionary Seibert could have imagined. It’s now the largest single-mountain ski resort in North America, with some 5,200 skiable acres, and regularly sits atop Ski magazine’s ratings of the country’s best ski resorts. The name Vail evokes a prosperous, well-groomed summer and winter resort with restaurants, shops and nightspots that befit its stature. Real estate prices have approached pre-recession levels of $3,000 per square foot for some new projects.
At the same time, Vail can be extremely crowded on a warm spring weekend, and yes, the highway noise from that interstate can remind you that progress has its downside.
But what remains for me, after the last bottle of excellent California Pinot Noir is drained at dinner at the Larkspur restaurant, after I’m tucked under a cloudlike down comforter at the Sonnenalp Resort, is the allure of same ski slopes that so captivated Seibert and Eaton. “We looked at each other,” Seibert wrote, “and realized what we both knew for certain: This was it!”
Although the town of Vail isn’t large, booking a hotel in the right area is essential. The Vail classics, both located in the village center, are still the Sonnenalp and the Lodge at Vail, although since 2009, Vail has seen four large-scale, high-end lodging options come online here as well. There’s the Solaris and Ritz-Carlton all-residence developments, as well as The Sebastian and Four Seasons Resort hotel-and-residence. And a few other lodges have been spiffed up significantly. While every property mentioned above has fitness and spa facilities, none can touch the extensive options available at the Vail Mountain Lodge, right in the center of town. And for those with a value-conscious mind, the rebuilt Tivoli Lodge, a Vail original, represents a fine hotel option for families and groups of friends and enjoys a great location.
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 in 2007. It offers an airy update on the cozier Sonnenalp style, with a child-friendly vibe and a location that, although on the far western side of the mountain, is essentially 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, flush against the main base. (All of Vail’s premier properties have valet outposts at the main base, so even though their 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.) For families who need easy access to ski school, the Lionshead area is an excellent choice.
Flying to this pristine slice of Colorado paradise continues to get easier. Airlines have expanded nonstop service into the Vail/Eagle County airport, meaning skiers from major cities on both coasts–and in between–can now land an easy thirty-minute drive or shuttle ride from the slopes. Eagle County Airport is located in a famously warm and sunny pocket of the mountains, and most flights arrive and depart at midday, when the weather is likely to be at its best. When those flights are sold out (which happens quickly, as this airport also serves Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and even Aspen for those willing to drive a bit), the most common way to arrive is via Denver. Be aware that while the flight from Denver to Eagle is a quick one, it’s often delayed or canceled due to weather.
The drive from Denver is frequently treacherous crossing Vail Pass. Tip: ski free the day of arrival by showing your boarding pass at the ticket window (call 800-503-8748 for more details). Rental cars are really more of a burden than asset in Vail, unless you plan to spend a day skiing at nearby areas such as Beaver Creek, Copper Mountain, or Breckenridge. Most lodges offer transfers from the airport, and numerous other shuttles and taxis are available. Once in the compact village, getting around on foot is easy, and a free bus runs through town.