As Colorado’s largest ski resort with nearly 5,300 snow-covered acres to glide through, Vail beckons in the winter. But there’s a reason to visit year-round: the food. If you want some après-ski spots or plan to travel to the alpine destination in the off-season, sink your teeth into our itinerary, which includes a llama lunch hike and shopping one of the state’s largest farmers markets.
Follow Forbes Travel Guide’s food-fueled road trip through Colorado in our four-part series. The journey started in Palisade, a wine region in the western part of the state. Next we went to Aspen, Colorado’s culinary capital, and then detoured to nearby Carbondale for cocktails. Finally, we end our tour in the Bavarian-inspired, cobblestoned mountain town of Vail.
WHERE TO STAY
Cozy up in warm mountain elegance at Four Seasons Resort and Residences Vail. Spacious accommodations — the largest in Vail Valley — reflect the surrounding nature with stone, wood and earth tones. All come with a gas-burning fireplace and most have a balcony or terrace.
We’ll tell you more about some of its don’t-miss amenities below, but be sure to schedule time for the Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star hotel’s 75-foot, heated saline pool in the sunken courtyard.
WHERE TO PLAY
A Llama Lunch Hike
For an unforgettable foodie experience, reserve Paragon Guides’ Take a Llama to Lunch tour. We set off to hike White River National Forest with guide and 30-plus-year Vail resident Joe Schmitt along with llamas Dude and Sneffles.
We weren’t sure what to expect with the llamas, but hoped they didn’t spit like their camel cousins. Our fear was unfounded — the mellow animals dutifully kept us company and let us pet them. Dude and Sneffles also kindly lugged our lunch spread — turkey, ham, baguettes, cheese, crackers, olives, fruit, hummus and strawberry-lemonade spritzers.
The seasonal hike can range from two to 10 miles, depending on your ability and how much time you book. As we trekked up to an elevation of 9,000 feet, we saw a bubbling stream, arnica, wild roses, geraniums and saxifrages. But our llama companions were the biggest highlight.
The Vail Farmers’ Market and Art Show
This June-to-October Sunday market makes Vail a big off-season draw. The more than 135 tents rotate yearly, but watch for Pastamore to pick up hatch green chile fettuccine (which pairs nicely with Alfredo sauce) and Burton’s Maplewood Farm, which sells flavorful maple syrup aged in whiskey, rum and peach brandy barrels (fans include respected Chicago chef Paul Kahan).
The food booths will also tempt you. Stop by German-Austrian restaurant Almresi’s wooden chalet-like stall for brats and apple strudel. Then make your way to 10th Mountain Whiskey & Spirit Company for its medium-bodied bourbon.
Betty Ford Alpine Gardens
Perched at 8,200 feet, the world’s highest botanic garden is open year-round. When it’s warm, meander along small waterfalls, bright perennials, alpine pools and towering Aspens among the rocky landscape. And when it snows, embark on a snowshoe tour through the tree trail.
Wander over to the adjacent Ford Park to see Hodgepodge, an installation of 20-foot-tall leaning stick huts from Patrick Dougherty, an artist known for his sapling sculptures. The piece is on view through 2019.
The Spa at Four Seasons Resort and Residences Vail
For the best spa in town, make an appointment at this Five-Star retreat. We eased into the elevation with the High Altitude Adjustment. The deeply relaxing massage alleviates shortness of breath, headaches and other symptoms.
After our aesthetician whipped us into mountain-ready shape, she thoughtfully gave us a vial of specially blended essential oils, in case we felt the symptoms return.
Then we slipped inside the inviting stone-walled, wood-floored relaxation room and curled up with a cup of coconut water and a dense lemon-poppyseed muffin. With the roaring fire and our loosened muscles, we could barely peel ourselves from the chair.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
While it looks like a traditional steakhouse, Four Seasons Vail’s Flame makes the experience fun. Select a cut, rub (housemade options like On Shrooms and Ancho Mama), sauce (Charleston truffle, black pepper love) and over-the-top butters (blue cheese or shallot and foie gras). Try the succulent strip with the Nagano cream (horseradish and wasabi) alongside the rich smoked Gouda and dill mac and cheese and the crispy Brussels sprouts with kimchi.
Don’t bypass the appetizers. Elk corn dog pops are encased in a delightfully light batter. Sous vide pork belly arrives smothered in a guajillo pepper glaze with goat cheese grits and charred tomato relish.
Opened in 1977, Sweet Basil is the oldest restaurant in town. Yet, the Vail Village fine-dining veteran continues to reign as a local favorite for its convivial atmosphere, 500-plus wine list and internationally influenced American fare.
King crab spring rolls get a flavor jolt from the dashi-lime aioli, and green harissa and Meyer lemon punch up the octopus a la plancha. For an entrée, order the saffron linguine loaded with fresh scallops, Gulf shrimp and San Marzano cherry tomatoes.
An indulgent brunch is on the menu at Vintage. French toast looks like stacked pancakes doused with huckleberry syrup and a mound of bourbon whipped cream and a bacon shard on top. Cut into the treasure inside: the thick brioche is stuffed with bacon mascarpone and dulce de leche.
Add on the Walk of Shame, a sparkling wine cocktail with Tru lemon vodka, strawberry puree and lemon juice.
From the Sweet Basil team, this hot gastropub turns out wood-fire-prepared dishes with a Southern twang. Grab a creekside patio table and dunk your grilled bread into the addictive pimento cheese layered with bacon cider jam and nosh on flaky buttermilk sea-salt-sprinkled biscuits with country ham and pepper jelly.
For more comfort on a plate, opt for the spicy wagyu meatloaf sandwich on buttery Texas toast with green garlic aioli, hot sauce glaze, melted housemade mozzarella and purple onions.
Game Creek Restaurant
Dinner comes with a lift ticket to reach this Four-Star restaurant. If you can pry your eyes from the Game Creek Bowl vista, feast them on the prix fixe meal of alpine cuisine. Expect starters like bison tartare with shallot, smoked salt, manchego, quail egg, red pepper coulis and sourdough, and entrées like local rack of lamb with root vegetable gratin, cipollini, red endive and tarragon jus.
Vail Brewing Co.
For a taste of Colorado’s craft beers, go to this small second-floor tasting room in entertainment hub Solaris Plaza. Order a citrusy Pete’s Stash Pale Ale and take in the local décor, like a Colorado flag mural with part of a chairlift on one wall and a Vail topography map plastered behind the bar. (Tip: Also try to time your visit in June for the Vail Craft Beer Classic.)
The Remedy Bar
Interesting cocktails and fire pits on the terrace overlooking the pool and mountains makes the lobby bar in Four Seasons Vail a great gathering place.
The menu offers Elixirs based on classic cures (Kills Your Caresaway with Dobel Diamante tequila, aquavit, caraway syrup, citrus) and Potions to revive the spirit (the effervescent V with Breckenridge vodka, lemon, blueberry, St Germain, Veuve Clicquot). But in the winter, the only prescription needed is the “haute” chocolate — melted Swiss chocolate, marshmallows and Chantilly cream. Spike it with Baileys or Jameson if you’re really ailing.