Vail is a behemoth that tries to be all things to all people — and largely succeeds — with an amazing array of lodging, shopping, dining, nightlife, activities and especially skiing. Its terrain is simply unparalleled, roughly twice the size of the typical A-list destination ski resort at 5,289-acres, including its seven famous “Back Bowls,” while most resorts are happy to have just one. As befits America’s largest — and most visited — single mountain ski resort, Vail never rests on its laurels, annually making major improvements on and off the mountain, and this winter is no exception.
On the slopes the big news is not one but two new chairlifts: the Mountaintop Express and Gopher Hill lifts. The Mountaintop Express is a high-speed, six-passenger chair that replaces and upgrades one of the resort’s most utilized lifts, formerly a quad that is the main gateway (and sometimes bottleneck) to the legendary Back Bowls, making it easier and faster than ever to access fresh powder. The Gopher Hill Lift is a triple replacing a double — another 50 percent capacity upgrade, this time for a big improvement in one of Vail’s beginner areas, where younger children in ski school must ride with an adult, effectively doubling the number of kids per chair and thus letting the little ones get much more actual on-snow time out of lessons.
These novel lifts come on the heels of last season’s biggest addition, the replacement of Vail’s main base area gateway lift — where the very first lift at the resort was built half a century ago — with a state-of-the-art, 10-passenger gondola complete with heated seats and Wi-Fi. It has never been easier to get onto the mountain’s nearly 200 trails. Vail Resorts’ Epic Pass is already the most widely accepted season pass in the world, good at more than 20 major resorts across the U.S., Switzerland, France and Austria; but for this season they added the Canyons Resort in Park City, Utah, the nation’s fourth largest resort, so you can ski Vail and the Canyons (along with Breckenridge, Keystone, Beaver Creek, Heavenly, Kirkwood, Northstar, and many others) on the same pass, designed so that if you put in more than one week of skiing at any of these resorts combined all season long, it is cheaper than buying conventional lift tickets.
Vail already had perhaps the best steakhouse in all of skiing, Flame at Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Four Seasons Resort Vail, but Flame has started regularly featuring locally popular 7X beef, one of the only places you can easily find this niche meat. The ranch in nearby Carbondale is quickly establishing a reputation for some of the nation’s tastiest beef, all from carefully raised Japanese cattle breeds, totally natural and entirely grass-fed. There is not much that is brand new for this winter on the dining front, but that is mainly because there were so many hot openings over the last couple of years in Vail, all across the culinary spectrum. Last winter’s biggest debut was Mountain Standard, which remains the favorite newcomer, a spinoff from the owners of locally beloved Sweet Basil. At the new eatery “modern” American cuisine comes by way of primal open-fire cooking, with much of the menu based on a live wood fire, the only eatery in Vail built on this premise, with everything from grilled flatbreads and coal-roasted olives as starters to grilled King salmon with coal-roasted squash and build-your-own burgers as mains. In 2011, the ski resort also took on-mountain eating to a new level with The 10th, named for the famed ski troops of the 10th Mountain Division, which thanks to the new gondola is comfortably open for après and dinner as well as lunch, and serves upscale bistro cuisine based on the mountain cultures of France, Switzerland, Italy and the Rockies — think ziti with elk Bolognese or buffalo meatloaf with potatoes gratin. In the heart of town, The Sebastian Vail hotel opened Leonora, Vail’s first tapas restaurant and popular spot for après ski, last year.
In Vail Village, Lion Square Lodge just finished back-to-back major renovations of its two buildings, with the south building reopening last winter after a $4 million facelift and the east building reopening for this winter after a larger $11 million project that enlarged every guest room, added elevators, redid the exterior and upgraded fixtures in guest rooms. And The Lodge at Vail, owned by the ski resort and located right by the base of the slopes, greatly remodeled its outdoor swimming pool area, already a very popular selling point of the hotel.
While most guests to Vail arrive via the large Denver International Airport, a United Airlines hub that also has nonstop service from all over the country and abroad on many other carriers, Canadian guests will be glad to know that for this winter, Air Canada, has launched new nonstop service into smaller — and much closer — Eagle County Regional Airport (EGE) from its main Toronto hub (available between December 14 and April 5). With immigration pre-clearance before departure, arriving guests can be checked into their rooms in Vail less than an hour after touching down.
Photos Courtesy of Ric Stovall, Jack Affleck and Four Seasons Resort Vail