Story & photos by David McKay Wilson
Vail and Beaver Creek will become the center of the ski world in early February when the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships return to the Colorado Rockies for 14 days of ski racing and partying. My son and I visited the resorts – just 11 miles apart on I-70 – in mid-December as an electronic sign at Beaver Creek’s entry counted down the hours until the opening ceremonies.
We met up in the mountains after he’d completed his first term in college, and I’d found a way to thrive, for yet another year, in the trenches of daily newspaper journalism. There’s nothing like a few days in the mountains to reconnect, and recharge. As my sons grow older, there are fewer pursuits we can enjoy together. Skiing remains one activity that can captivate us for days.
We’d rolled the dice on a pre-Christmas ski vacation, uncertain if the snow gods would do their light and fluffy thing so early in the season. As luck would have it, they delivered. We hit it just right, arriving on Monday, just after 17 inches of snow had fallen. A day later Beaver Creek opened Grouse Mountain for the season, with more than three feet of powder for the taking that memorable morning floating down Bald Eagle and Raven Ridge. We finished up the week at Vail, which was awash in powder in the Back Bowls, with ample swaths of fresh snow welcoming us a week after the major storm.
We cavorted in Siberia Bowl, finding deep snow in Gorky Park and making graceful turns through the trees in the Shangri-La Glade. Even the boulder fields off the top of Blue Sky Basin on Steep and Deep had enough coverage in mid-December.
“I could ski these bowls all week,” my son declared. “There are so many lines to ski, and so much snow.” The powder alerts from Vail on my phone following our visit provided prodigious evidence that Colorado was in for a fabulous 2015: twelve inches on Dec. 22, eleven inches on Dec. 23, eight inches on Dec. 26 and another inches on Dec. 27.
This was good news for Vail Resorts, one of the world’s biggest ski companies, which owns 11 ski resorts, including Vail and Beaver Creek. The publicly traded company bills itself as “the premier mountain resort company in the world and a leader in luxury destination-based travel at iconic locations.”
We’d arrived in Beaver Creek, just a week after the company had announced that its most recent purchase – Park City Mountain Resort in Utah – would merge in 2016 with its adjacent Canyons resort to form the world’s largest ski area, with 7,300 acres of skiable terrain. Vail Resorts plans to connect the resorts with a gondola, as part of its $50 million investment in the merger over the coming year.
Flights were too expensive into nearby Eagle/Vail, so we took the 6:30 a.m. United flight to Denver out of New York City, and were on the mountain skiing by 1:45 p.m., after stopping at Christy Sports to rent a pair of Rossignol Soul 7s for my son. We stayed in Beaver Creek, in a well-appointed Highlands Slopeside condominium, one of 230 managed by East West Resorts. Slopeside meant we could ski down to the lifts in the morning, and find our way down from the Buckaroo Gondola at days end. Staying at the Slopeside gave us privileges at Allegria Spa at the Park Hyatt, which featured an outdoor pool and hot tub, with a warm waterfall of steamy water that fell ever so gently on my tired shoulders.
After my soak, I had a glass of Fat Tire Ale at the Park Hyatt bar, where I met Dr. Kelly Grimes, a physician from Fort Worth who was settling in with his family for a few days on the mountain, which included a sleigh ride up the mountain to a cabin for dinner one night, and a day of snowmobiling with Vail Valley Tours later in the week.
“This place is off the chain,” he said.
Beaver Creek is one of those exclusive resort towns constructed in the mountains, set off from the town, which you enter through a guarded gate. There’s a bit of a Disney World feel, with many of the buildings connected with underground tunnels, a high-end boutique shops in the ski village, and chocolate chip cookies served each day at 3:30 p.m. Its winding roads on the mountainside don’t lend themselves to walking in the winter, but the Beaver Creek free transportation system is a charm. We were on the Eastern Route, which came around every 20 minutes or so.
But you could call for your own free ride to anywhere within the resort by calling Dial-A-Ride, which came promptly during the pre-Christmas lull. I was warned they can take longer during busy holiday weeks.
There are ample opportunities for fine dining – both on the mountain and in town. Our best dinner came one night at Maya, a Richard Sandoval restaurant at the Westin Riverfront Resort and Spa, just outside the gates of Beaver Creek, in Avon. I’d worked up a mighty thirst on the slopes, which was slaked with a mango margarita. Our waitress made us two guacamoles at the table – one with bacon, and another with tuna tartare. My entrée was divine: chipotle rubbed salmon, with lacinto kale and sweet potato puree.
At Vail, we skied to The 10th, in Mid-Vail for lunch in the resort’s sit-down restaurant, where you take off your boots and put on a pair of slippers, and order from menu. I found sustenance in a cup of steaming hot chocolate, the tomato-filled minestrone soup and a tasty grilled panini.
Parking at Vail can be expensive, so we did as the locals do: we parked on North Frontage Road in West Vail, and hopped on the free bus from the stop by the Safeway grocery sore to the Sandstone stop. We lugged our skis across the walking bridge spanning I-70 and jumped on the lift at Lionshead.
Vail/Beaver Creek could get busy come early February, when skiers from more than 70 nations descend on the two ski towns for the world championships, which were last here in 1999. Hopes are high for the hometown gals, Lindsey Vonn and Michaela Shiffrin. Beaver Creek has emerged at the United States’ premier alpine ski racing venue, with the annual Birds of Prey downhill race. In February, there will be 11 events over two weeks, with all but one of the races in Beaver Creek. The awards ceremonies, and the evening free, and ticketed, concerts, meanwhile, will be in Vail. The races will be held off the Birds of Prey lift, so the rest of the resorts trails won’t be affected by the races. Spectators can watch the races for free – either in the temporary stands that went up in December, on by hiking up the hill and watching trailside.
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