Just 15 feet. I’ve just made my last snowboarding run on the slopes of Vail and I’m 15 lousy feet short of having accumulated 25,000 vertical feet. At least, that’s according to my EpicMix iPhone app, which has been silently tracking my activities for the past four days. I have been gunning for the “Quarter Life” pin—a virtual badge of honor bestowed upon those in the 25K club—and now have to reconcile that I have come up just short. I slide out of my boots and park my snowboard one last time. Four days in Vail and it’s been amazing. I just wish I had earned that darn badge.
Such are the First World dilemmas in Vail, Colorado, the largest and one of the most colorful and beloved ski destinations in the US. While in human-years the resort is barely middle-aged, (it just turned 50 several years ago), Vail as a town retains a youthfully rebellious vibe, a product of its early days in the 60s and 70s when the mountain was a beacon of free-spirited winter culture. Back then, Vail was an undiscovered gem of powder-covered trails and pristine backbowls; the sort of place where a $5 lift ticket equaled frozen paradise. Over the years, the town has retained much of that free-for-all character (the city boasts the largest 100% free transportation system in the U.S.) and many of the “locals” freely display their rebel swagger as they follow their bliss. But like Bob Dylan once sang, the times they are a-changing.
Vail has come to a crossroads brought on by the onset of technology and demand for an upscale ski town experience. You can still find pockets of older, 1970s-construction Swiss-style chalet hotels and condos (charming but dated) as well as older (read: rustic or “crunchy”) restaurants and bars that retain the heritage design of Vail’s founding fathers. But many of these elder icons are disappearing in favor of sprawling mixed-use developments and luxury resorts. Should Vail honor its nostalgic past or clear a path for a new generation of skiers who expect the latest in luxury and technology? Rough it or ski in style? Highbrow or lowbrow? Who knows, maybe the two can co-exist.
A great example of forward progress is the Four Seasons Resort and Residences Vail, which offers fractional and private residences as well as luxe hotel rooms outfitted with splendid creature comforts like push-button fireplaces and foot warmers at turn-down. Families with small kids will be delighted when the staff transforms your room into a mini-campsite with a tent, flashlight, junior-sized robe and slippers to give the youngsters an indoor/outdoor experience. Even if it’s sub-freezing, you can still swim in the property’s full-sized, bathtub-warm outdoor salt water pool and dry off with toasty towels fresh out of a warming box. When it’s time to hit the slopes, the resort’s ski concierge will outfit your gear in the comfort of the lodge, then meet you at the base of the mountain with espressos, muffins and warm boots before you head up on Gondola One, a new 10-person heated seat/Wi-Fi enabled chairlift. At the end of the day, you can work on your sore muscles at the sprawling AAA 5-Diamond spa (the only one in the state of Colorado) or enjoy some kid-free après ski thanks to the complimentary kids club. The on-property steakhouse, Flame, plays rock music and boasts not fine dining but “fun” dining, serving decadent rubbed, dry-aged steaks with six sauces. Elegant and lodge-y without a spec of pretentiousness, indeed, winter is a season done extremely well by the Four Seasons.
Across the street from the Four Seasons, The Sebastian shows an even edgier side of modern Vail. With a boutique vibe, this property puts a refreshing twist on an alpine lodge in a youthful, avant-garde way. It’s almost like coming down the mountain and finding yourself in Manhattan or South Beach, with style and energy ablaze. Giant bronze statues by surrealist Leonora Carrington and other celebrated artists decorate the property as if you were living in a museum, with dazzling sculptures and paintings throughout. In the lobby, criss-crossed iron sticks create an artistic double-sided fireplace and the modern library lounge “warms” itself with roaring fireplaces displayed on wall-mounted plasma screens. Also in the lobby, Frost morphs from a gourmet cafe by day into a happening bar at night with hand-blown glass dripping from the walls and ceilings. Up on the second level, the restaurant Leonora (named for the aforementioned artist) serves gourmet breakfast before you hit the slopes and at night prepares amazing tapas and Alpine bistro dishes, featuring a massive mechanized 20-foot-tall cylindrical glass wine tower holding over 1000 bottles. Also featuring a ski concierge program and a spa, The Sebastian brings home all of the bespoke luxury experiences with a unique cosmopolitan panache.
There are still many thrills on the mountain that don’t require white glove treatment—tubing, zip lining, snowmobiling and dog sledding to name a few, which you can book independently. Plus there are still plenty of pizza, burrito and BBQ joints that are not out of reach cost-wise, catering to the more down to earth. And there are—and probably always will be—an army of young people on a shoe-string budget, tattooed and ebullient, working on and off the mountain, carrying a torch for the old Vail, a place where “you only live once” was cool before YOLO ever came along.
It’s the last night of the trip and the wife and I procure childcare through our hotel’s babysitting service and head out for a night together. We wander the dream-like Vail streets strung with lights, bookended with banks of white snow. We arrive at the Gondola One entrance and are greeted with blankets as we enter our private heated car and glide up the mountain towards our dinner destination, The 10th, which sits on a bluff halfway up one of the slopes called Mid Vail. The sun sets upon the snow-covered trees and the snow groomers come to life and growl up the hills like corduroy-making robots with headlights. The gondola reaches the end of the line and we are met by a snowcat that takes us the few hundred yards to the threshold of the restaurant, which looks out onto a massive panoramic view of the Rockies. It’s like a one of those fantasy dates from the TV show, The Bachelor.
Inside the restaurant, there are more blankets and roaring fires. We sip on Moscow mules and dine on pork tenderloin, fresh beets, halibut and elk bolognese with fresh pappardelle. At the end of the night, we walk out to a canopy of unlimited stars and ghostly shapes of mountains bathed in moonlight. The gondola returns us to base camp and it’s then that I notice that my EpicMix app has left me a notification: low and behold, thanks to our romantic dinner run up the mountain, I end up with 28,627 vertical feet and the coveted Quarter Life pin! The trip is a complete success after all and I am officially a believer in the new Vail.
Know Before You Go
- Your best bet is to fly into Eagle County Airport (EGE) via Delta. The ride from the airport to the resort area is about 35 minutes. You can also fly into Denver International Airport (DEN) where there are more frequent and often cheaper flights, but that drive is over two hours, and if there is snow in the mountain pass it could take even longer.
- Unless you are staying away from the resort and plan on lugging a lot of gear, I could not figure out a reason to rent a car. Colorado Mountain Express is a well-oiled machine, perfect for picking up and dropping off from EGE and DEN. www.coloradomountainexpress.com
- You can pre-book your lift tickets and even arrange rentals in advance online at www.vail.com
- The EpicMix system is an ingenious way to get your lift tickets, track your and your family’s and friends’ movements on the mountain, get access to photos of yourself taken while skiing and earn virtual badges. www.epicmix.com
- The Four Seasons kicks it to a new level and essentially fulfills your wildest pampering dreams in a skiing setting. www.fourseasons.com/vail
- The Sebastian brings sexy back to a ski town resort with luxury and style befitting a metropolitan oasis. www.thesebastianvail.com