Superlatives can be overused in the ski industry. We are sometimes guilty of bigging-up things as ‘awesome!’ or ‘fantastic!’ and that means that when you need a really big impact word – well… where do you go?! So with this in mind I headed out to Colorado to check out some of the Vail Resorts family and see if their ‘Epic’ tag rang true…I wasn’t disappointed.
The Vail resorts portfolio includes Vail, Breckenridge, Beaver Creek, Keystone and the Arapahoe Basin in Colorado, as well as Heavenly and Northstar in California. Each resort has its own character so there’s no ‘production line’ feel to things but the Vail Resorts brand does assure the guest of consistently high levels of customer service and excellent on-mountain facilities. Their Rock Resorts hotel brand maintains these standards off the slopes too.
My trip was an organized familiarisation for Tour Operators from all around the world (this is otherwise known as a jolly – heck, no one works in travel for the money!!) and the aim of the game was to experience as much as we could in the space of the week.
Our first stop was Breckenridge. This is a fun ski town with a long heritage that began with gold mining and while 100 year old buildings are ten-a-penny in the UK, they are a rarity in the USA so Breckenridge has an authenticity that many modern resorts lack. This month marks the 50th anniversary of skiing in Breckenridge and there are lots of events planned to celebrate throughout the season! It’s easy to walk around the village, but it’s even easier to use the on command shuttle service offered to guests staying in Vail Resorts properties! Until 11pm you can summon a shuttle to take you out or pick you up from anywhere in town! This means that it doesn’t make too much of a difference where you stay in the village – everything is within easy reach. From the on-mountain ski-in / out luxury properties of One Ski Hill Place, Crystal Peaks Lodge and Blue Sky Breckenridge, to the slope side convenience of the Doubletree by Hilton or the Village at Breckenridge – there is a lodging option to suit anyone. On mountain we enjoyed the smooth grooming that Colorado is famous for – and the crisp cold that keeps the snow light! Off the slopes we checked out some of Breckenridge’s other attractions: the roller coaster at One Ski Hill Place is like a toboggan run on rails and is great fun for all the family. We also sampled some of the whiskey and vodka made by the local distillery – they are producing some good stuff! The casks the Breckenridge Distillery are using have produced a malty wee dram that tastes more Scottish in character than a typical bourbon. Whisky enthusiasts should definitely leave a space in their luggage!
From Breckenridge, and with slightly fuzzy heads, we headed to Keystone. Keystone is hugely popular with the American market, but less so with the Europeans. We are missing out! With a larger ski area than Breckenridge, lower prices and a convenient slope side village of the style that Brits go mad for in the Alps. The resort prides itself on being family friendly, but it also has a cool vibe and is popular with the hip young things from Denver. They also have regular free concerts in the River Run Plaza for Après ski.
In-between Breckenridge and Keystone, and accessible from both by public transportation are the Silverthorne shopping outlet malls. This close to Christmas it was impossible to resist a bit of shopping – and with up to 60% off normal US retail prices you can get some great bargains from the likes of Gap, Ralph Lauren, Guess and many more. Shops are open late at least one night a week so it needn’t interfere with your skiing time!
Back on the road and over to Vail. Now I have a confession to make… last time I visited Vail there was a lot of construction going on. There seemed to be holes everywhere and it was very disjointed. I wasn’t that impressed with the village at all. Now, five years on, I am pleased to say that Vail has won me over. Vail village looks great now, and what used to be a hotchpotch of hotels punctuated by gaps and construction sites now flows like a proper resort. The biggest change has been in Lionshead – the unfashionable ugly duckling has become a very chic and stylish swan with enough shops, restaurants and bars to rival the main village. Staying in Lionshead used to mean compromising on dining and après options, now it’s the location of choice. The Arrabelle at Vail Square is the flagship Rock Resorts hotel and it’s a stunner! The rooms are huge and are modern with lots of luxury touches (TV in the bathroom anyone?). It’s definitely on a par with the Four Seasons – and I actually preferred the character of the rooms at the Arrabelle. Getting to the slopes could not be easier. The ski valet sits at the base of Lionshead and is less that a minutes’ walk from the lobby. They warm your boots, put sunscreen on your nose and feed you energy bars to get you pumped, and then after you’re finished for the day they’ll dry all of your gear and swap your skis for hot chocolate. Great service!
Now I always thought that Lionshead was a long way from Vail Village – not so. As part of my extensive resort testing I can confirm that to walk from the Rivabahn at Golden Peak to the Eaglebahn at Lionshead takes 20 minutes. And from the centre of Vail Village to the centre of Lionshead is less than 10 minutes. However, I’m pretty hardy, minus 25 degrees wasn’t cold enough to deter me, there is a free shuttle bus which runs about every 10 minutes with stops every 100 metres or so. The times of the next bus are displayed at each stop and are ‘real time’ so you know whether it’s worth waiting a couple of minutes, or having another hot chocolate!
On the mountain we were too early in the season to ski the legendary back bowls of Vail, but the front side of the mountain was in fantastic shape – particularly after 9 inches of fresh snow fell overnight! We got some great turns in light fluffy powder with blue skies and sunshine. When lunchtime came we decided to check out Vail’s newest on mountain dining experience: the Tenth. This is an upscale restaurant at Mid Vail. Upon arrival you are ushered into the cloakrooms to store your jackets, hats and goggles and swap your ski boots for fluffy slippers. There are even hairbrushes, straighteners and hairdryers for victims of hat-hair. OMG!! Heaven is lunch in slippers – but be warned: it’s not pleasant putting the boots back on afterwards! The food and service was excellent, and the prices were not much more than you would pay in the regular on mountain restaurants, so I’d thoroughly recommend this to anyone fond of a slightly longer lunch! Reservations are advised – it’s going to be very popular!
After a few nights in Vail we moved onto Beaver Creek. My previous visits to Beaver Creek were off- season, and that’s no way to really appreciate a ski-in/ski-out resort. It turns out early December is an ideal time to visit as they host the World Cup ski racing each year at the beginning of December. This created a buzz around the village, and concerts and events are planned to coincide with the races, so there was a real buzz about the place and it felt more like high season in town, but no lift lines and the slopes were empty. We had a great time! Curiously, the races did not seem to attract massive crowds – most people watching seemed to be attached to the sport in some way, making it really easy to get a good spot to watch. Ski racing fans will never have a better opportunity to get up close to the action.
Vail Resorts were keen to show off one of their more unique lodging options to us. Trappers Cabin is a 4 bedroom luxury cabin close to the top of the Bachelor Gulch Express Lift. We had lunch there and were treated to blue skies and sunshine once again. If only we’d had the foresight to bring our bathers and towels to make use of the hot-tub on the deck! The cabin can be hired for functions and lunches but it’s also available for lodging. A snowcat will bring you and your luggage up, and you can arrange to have the kitchen pre-stocked with groceries. There are four bedrooms, four bathrooms a large open plan living room and kitchen, and a games room with a pool table and big screen TV. For a get-together of family and friends this would be great fun! And the bears that have left claw marks on the trees outside are asleep in the winter, so it’s quite safe!
Beaver Creek Village is quite small – but how much do you really need on a ski holiday? I think they’ve pretty much got it covered. There are a few cafes and restaurants, a couple of bars, some galleries and boutiques and a well stocked general store / liquor store. The centre of the resort is the outdoor skating rink and around 4pm there is a delicious smell of melted chocolate and marshmallows wafting around the place as s’mores are cooked up around the warming fire pits. Beaver Creek is a resort of luxury, but it’s not brash: the underground heating that keeps the pavements ice-free, the escalators that save your legs from climbing up onto the slopes, the friendly resort ambassadors who are present on every corner with bottomless pockets stuffed with tissues, trail maps and sunscreen. It’s all there – but it’s subtle. Vail shouts luxury; Beaver Creek just envelops you in it!
Exciting things are happening at all of these resorts – but one of the most exciting developments in skiing has been introduced at all of them. Last year ‘Epic Mix’ was launched: This was a way to track your ski days, which lifts you had skied, and connect with your friends on the mountain: bringing après ski bragging rights bang up to date. This season they have taken the concept one step further and introduced Epic Mix Photo. This is the most fantastic thing ever! Green suited photographers lurk on the mountain at strategic viewpoints and are on hand to capture your image, sending it straight to your Epic Mix webpage. You can even connect it to Facebook and Twitter and set it up to ping the photos straight to your profile. Let’s face it – this is designed to make your friends jealous – and it works! The best thing about it? It doesn’t cost a penny! You have the photos taken and can store and view them digitally without paying a penny, but if you want a hard copy you can order one from the website for $20 a pop. Not bad at all – and it saves you from getting cold taking your gloves off or chopping off people’s heads or feet because you can’t see the viewfinder through your goggles. Genius! Epic Mix is available to anyone with an Epic or Summit Season Ticket.