Vail, Colorado, conjures mental images of newly powdered slopes, fresh mountain air and wintry perfection upon which to set down one’s skies. While all of this is indeed correct, Vail and its surroundings also offer exquisite cuisine, high-altitude adventure and, of course, even more examples of Rocky Mountain State craft beers.
It’s a special place, and one that caters to a certain clientele at this cozy hamlet built in the style of a European alpine village. On a recent trip to experience it firsthand, The Washington Times found much to recommend about this singular winter paradise set high amid the country’s tallest peaks.
Views, brews, blue skies and, oh, such wintry wonders.
You get the sense as you descend toward Eagle County Regional Airport that you might actually hit the Rockies. Even descending from 35,000 feet toward the runway, it strikes you how close those peaks are — feeling almost like we might crash headlong before the wheels touch down.
Something still doesn’t seem right, but then you realize that this airfield sits at a lung-busting 6,540 feet above sea level — even higher than Denver.
It’s a small airport, and there is no jetway, requiring passengers to descend stairs onto the tarmac itself. It’s a fairly mild day, and even without my sweatshirt on, I’m not feeling uncomfortable. The air smells great and the sun shines finely this day.
I meet my driver Patrick with the Colorado Mountain Express, an extremely friendly sort who heaps my bags into the Suburban that will take me the 39 miles from the airport to Vail. As we head east on I-70, ascending heavenwards with every mile, Patrick tells me of his writerly ambitions, and we swap war stories from the trenches of the inkwells.
I get to Vail itself, a sort of New World imitation of an Alps ski chalet. The town was founded in the early 1960s specifically to bring skiers to the mountains. After all, they would need a place to stay.
My place to stay is the Sonnenalp Hotel (20 Vail Rd, Vail, Colorado, 81657, 970/476-5656), an Old World-style resort that aims to link the Rockies, and its favorite wintertime activity, with the mountains of the Old Country where skiing began. It immediately jumps out how multi-ethnic is the staff here, with the clerk checking me in from Peru and a German standing near her.
My room door opens onto a small foyer, with a full closet directly ahead for coats and such. Immediately next to it is the bathroom, which features both a stand-up shower stall and a bath not quite big enough for two, but certainly fine for soaking wounded muscles after a hard day on the slopes.
Heading toward the living area, there is another closet, outfitted with two bathrobes as well as cubbyholes for all of my skiing paraphrenalia. I hang up my ski pants and jacket after their long journey from D.C.
The living area itself features two comfortable swivel chairs before an electrically charged fireplace. A TV on a swivel stand is atop the dresser, from whence it can turn to face either the living room chairs or the incredibly large — and incredibly comfortable — king bed. French doors open up onto a small balcony, but as it’s covered in snow, I might just use it to fetch some cold air into my little home away from home.
It’s beer o’ clock, and I’m Colorado, so I hail an Uber and rock a few miles down the highway to Vail Brewing Co. (41290 US-6 B-2 & B-3, Vail, Colorado, 81657, 970/470-4351). It’s a comfy space, with the hip and the local packing the joint on a Thursday night. (The quirkiness is on full display with the funky tap handles that come in forms such as bicycle pedals.) I’ve been on a self-imposed diet, and it’s my first brewery of the year, but I’m ready for this.
Siddling up to the bar, I opt for the six sampler. Pete’s Stash Pale Ale is light and drinkable, but perhaps better for the warmer months. The Free Rye’d Pale has a rather different taste profile from “the usual,” with a malty aftertaste to complement its yummy foretaste. The Coconut Porter is OK but not amazing (I can be a wee cranky about experimental brews), and the Hut Trip Winter Warmer Ale brewed with chai iced tea is very unique and pleasant, but I’m not sure I’d buy six of them. The Aplenglow Amber Ale is incredibly smooth and very refreshing, and the Hot Mess Blonde is absolutely blissful.
Ubering back to Vail, I make my way to the base of Gondola 19, where I meet my hostess for the weekend, Maggie Meisinger, senior specialist for communications at Vail Mountain, and who has worked tirelessly for months to bring me here. Friendly and upbeat, Maggie fills me on local history and the business of Vail as we take the Eagle Bahn Gondola up to the Eagle’s Nest, with the lights of town and scattered illuminations on the surrounding peaks all that brightens the dark.
While waiting for the next transportation leg to arrive, we grab a quick round of drinks at Bistro 14 (970/754-4530),
which offers a healthy and creative cocktail menu, including the pumpkin white Russian, which, on top of the beers I’ve already had in the valley several thousand feet below, makes me happy.
From there Maggie and I hop into a snowcat for a brief roll up the hill, seemingly into the dark primeval, that deposits us at the front door of Game Creek Restaurant (970/754-4275), a five-star chalet-style place that impossibly sits up here, thousands of feet above the valley and far from civilization. The staff must take a lift here every day and then down again.
Requiring such an effort to get here, one certainly hopes the meal will be worth it. But any doubts are instantly dispelled as I behold the prix fixe menu Game Creek Chef Steven Topple of Portsmouth, England, has fashioned. The knowledgable sommelier recommends the Chassagne-Montrachet Les Chaumees 2011 for dinner.
Up first is a salmon tartare with chive fresh creme and caviar with apple and parsnip. It’s a heavenly way to whet the appetite, and goes perfect with the Chassagne-Montrachet.
For my four-course excursion I opt for the trout chowder, scallops, arctic char and porter dessert, absolutely all of which are out of sight. (Typically I can find at least one complaint, but not here.)
More full than I can recall being in some time, Maggie and I take the snowcat back to Eagle’s Nest and then assay the gondola back to the village. She deposits me back at the Sonnenalp, where, after one more glass of vodka, I fall into a deep sleep.
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love to sleep, but when you’re in a ski town, that means waking up “early,” which, for someone like me who works the evenings, means just about anything before noon.
Not surprisingly, I have a bit of a headache and my lips and mouth are extremely dry. Up here in the mountains, any combination of dehyrdration, altitude and, yes, alcohol, will have its way with you. Always remember to stay hyrdrated, kids, especially when out drinking.
Feeling excited, I walk from the Sonnenalp down the way to the Vail Sports — Mountain Plaza shop (151 Vail Lane, Building D, Vail, Colorado, 81657, 970/477-5740) to rent my skis and boots. As with the hotel, the staff is from all over the world, and the lad who waits on me hails from South America.
After getting my equipment, I find Maggie at the base of Gondola 1, where she introduces me to Marc Barnwell, a local photographer who is to be both my guide and instructor for my time on the mountain.
Marc, Maggie and I load up our skies on the gondola and take it to the part of the mountain known as Mid-Vail, and from there we roll up the Mountaintop Express to 11,250 feet above sea level.
Marc spends hours showing me all sides of Vail, from the so-called “front” and on back to the Blue Sky Basin and the famous Back Bowls, natural curvatures of earth known the world over for being a skier’s paradise thanks to a combination of topography and gravity.
After a quick break for hot chocolate and a “Belle’s Bar” at Belle’s Camp near the Bowls, we head back out for more some more trail exploration. I haven’t had a ski lesson in over two decades and have only hit the slopes a handful of times in the intervening years, so this is really the first time in years when I’ve had someone to coach me on my technique and posture. Like a great teacher, Marc gently critiques my form, telling me to lean more forward instead of back, to get my shins up against the tongues of the boots, to try to put the innate fear of pointing skies directly downhill to the back of my mind as I work on getting more control from my approach to the sport.
It’s incredibly helpful — and clearly needed. As I ski typically once or maybe twice a year, it’s always great to have an expert by your side to guide your growth.
I’ve worked off a hell of a lot of calories, so we head back to Mid-Vail to have lunch at The 10th (Main Vail, Vail, Colorado, 81658, 970/754-1010), named in honor of the 10th Mountaineering Division, which trained for World War II alpine combat at nearby Camp Hale. (According to Vail.com, a veteran of the 10th Mountain, Pete Seibert, returned home to Colorado after the war and would later co-found the Vail ski area.) The 10th even offers up cubbies to store your ski clothes and, even better, slippers if you care to shed your ski boots — which I’m always happy to remove — and walk around in the restaurant without getting your feet wet on all the melted snow deposits.
We start noshing on some housemade bread with jalapeno cheddar cheese, and then immediately dig into what Maggie says is a house specialty, the truffle fries served with black truffle aioli, herbed parmesan and white truffle essence. It’s a flavorful medley, and I’m almost gorging myself before the main course.
I was torn on going for the burger, but as this is all about new experiences, for the main course I select the elk chili, which is prepped with goat cheese cream, black eyed peas and micro cilantro. It’s good but not amazing. However, it’s definitely filling, and I have to leave a portion of it behind.
After lunch Maggie bids us adieu to return to the office, but Marc takes me back down to the Vail Sports to get my boots resized. He’s been telling me all morning he didn’t feel that the ones I had on were right for my feet, and judging by the response we get at the shop, he was absolutely right. The manager apologizes and offers me a coupon for a future rental to make up for it.
Back on the slopes, Marc has me try out the new boots to see if I feel better — the change like night and day. Not only do I not have to work as hard, but I can turn and make corrections with far, far less effort. Marc advises that someday down the line, I should purchase my own pair of boots.
Marc leaves me for the day, which means it’s time to commune by myself with the alpine air. I take Gondola One and the Mountaintop Express back to 11,250 feet, and from there enjoy a long, leisurely run back down to Vail Village. Marc worked me hard today, so a pleasure cruise down Vail’s slopes is needed for the day’s final run — alone with my thoughts and the quietude of the heights.
I walk back to the Sonnenalp to shed the ski gear. I’m already sore, so I change into one of the robes provided and head into the Sonnenalp Spa. Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten my trunks — I always forget something — so I’ll be limited to the men’s room, which has both a stream room and dry sauna. However, I do manage to go and sit outside and stick my legs in the hot tub to have the jets sooth my feet.
The most interesting part of the spa is an “oxygen bar,” the use of which aims to help those suffering from altitude sickness symptoms to better acclimatize. The oxygen comes in many “flavors,” but I prefer the no-scented option.
After cleaning up I head over to meet Maggie for dinner at Sweet Basil (193 Gore Creek Dr., Vail, Colorado, 81657, 970/476-0125). As we are seated, just within ear range, I can hear several different languages, testifying to how international is the attraction of Vail.
At first the place is very warm. I ask the waiter if they can turn down the heat, and to his credit, the place did cool down. To toast our collaboration, Maggie and I get a bottle of La Ragnaie Sangiovese Rossa di Montalcino 2013 from Italy.
I learned last year in Utah that seafood comes in fresh from both coasts daily to the Rockies, and thus I’m pleasantly happy with the raw oyster offerings, which I enjoy along with a Fox Hole martini made with tequila that hits the spot after an arduous day. Appetizer course is ahi tostada, which comes in an amazing presentation, and king crab cannelloni. For main course I try the red snapper romescada, which is served with king crab, octopus, mussels, white shrimp, hazelnut romesco, fennel and migas for a taste tour sensation.
For dessert Maggie and I split the sticky pudding toffee cake, absolutely decadent with flavor. To close the evening out, I opt for a Sambuca, which never fails to help with digestion.
Maggie wishes me goodnight and I head back to the Sonnenalp — past some amazing ice sculptures of thrones and benches — for a hot bath, a vodka and a tall glass of water. (See, I learned.)
With my new boots in hands — er, on feet — I meet Marc back at Gondola 1. As we ascend he has me download the app EpicMix, which tracks your vertical feet and number of lifts ridden as it connects with your lift ticket’s chip — thereby giving Big Brother one more way to follow you.
Today Marc wants me to work on my form, especially my turns. Going over bumps and moguls, Marc offers the sage advice to already be looking for the next bump mid-turn — by the time you make the turn, the next one should already be there. I’ve forgotten how difficult moguls can be to shred, and it was a lot more fun when I was in my teens. However, I appreciate Marc’s guidance, even if I’m thoroughly winded by the end of the mogul run.
Over hot cocoa and a treat at Buffalo’s [http://www.vail.com/diningdetail/vail+-+buffalos.axd] Marc and I discuss our theories of who Rey’s parentage will turn out to be in the next “Star Wars” film, as well as our respective thoughts on “Rogue One.” It’s gratifying to know you can chat nerd culture almost anywhere.
Marc takes me over to Adventure Ridge [http://www.vail.com/activities/adventure-ridge.aspx?page=viewall], which is about the only area of the mountain I have yet to check out. Here guests can snowtube, ski bike, snowshoe or even ride a snowmobile.
Now while seeing a smoker burning amid piles of snow seems a bit incongruous, smelling the wonderful aromas wafting from Wildwood Smokehouse will instantly make you forget all about how impossible it seems to be here. Wildwood boasts a very homely, communal atmosphere. There are no reservations or servers, and you must walk up to the counter to order your food — and then roll the dice on if you’ll ever get a seat (make friends!).
I order the 2-Mile High Platter, which is a stacked-to-the-rafters plate of brisket, pulled pork, ribs and mac n’ cheese. The brisket is good, the brisket a tad on the dry side (I poured much of the house hot BBQ sauce over it), and the ribs are to die for. The mac is tasty and prepped al dente for maximal chewing efficiency.
Alas, I must move on. I take a long, lazy trail back down to Vail Village, return my equipment, pack up and then am on the Colorado Mountain Express headed back to Eagle County Airport.
Thank you, Vail. Thank you, Colorado. Thank you for allowing me to experience such Rocky Mountain highs.
Eric Althoff is Travel Editor for The Washington Times.