Last January, I found myself schussing through 50 inches of virgin powder, alone with a couple of ski-patrollers in the enormous, unpeopled wilderness behind Vail, Colorado. The area, known as Blue Sky Basin, was opening to the public in just two days, adding 520 skiable acres to what was already the largest ski resort in the United States. Though my guides had skied the area many times before, we still got lost occasionally. The rolling, gladed terrain was simply too vast and too new for anyone to have yet mastered. The size, the trees, and the relatively few groomed, marked-off trails epitomize Blue Sky's appeal: an inbounds and lift-served backcountry experience. The three of us took several runs, plunging through deep, trackless snow, dodging shrubs and pines, until we were exhausted. Later, hungry for our bagged lunches, we took a lift to Belle's Camp, an 11,480-foot peak at the top of Blue Sky with awesome views of Mount Holy Cross and the Collegiate Range to the south and Vail's Back Bowls to the north. Belle's Camp consists of a warming hut, some bathrooms, a ski-patrol outpost, and lift houses designed to look like an old mining camp. Pointing to lift houses modeled after log cabins, one of the patrollers observed, "They're concrete. They can't be burned."
In October 1998, two days after the first tree cutting began for Blue Sky Basin, a group of eco-terrorists calling themselves the Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for seven fires, which destroyed Vail's Two Elk Restaurant, its ski-patrol headquarters, and the Camp One picnic area and damaged four chairlifts, all resulting in some $12 million worth of destruction -- the most expensive act of eco-terrorism in U.S. history. "Putting profits ahead of Colorado's wildlife will not be tolerated," the ELF announced in a post-fire communiqué. "This action is just a warning."
Ironically, the Skiing Company (which publishes SKI magazine) had recently presented an award to Vail for its environmental efforts in Blue Sky, calling it the most environmentally sensitive ski-area expansion ever undertaken in North America. SKI editor Andy Bigford said the project underwent more environmental studies than the Denver International Airport. A further irony: While it highlighted a longstanding grudge between Colorado's environmentalists and those in favor of development, the ELF's action only caused Vail's residents to tighten ranks. "No matter what side of the issue people were on, this was considered their mountain," explains Vail Resorts communication manager Kristin Yantis.
The Vail community's bonding seemed to work. At Blue Sky's ribbon-cutting ceremony earlier this year, attended by some 6,000 skiers including Jean-Claude Van Damme and MacGyver's Richard Dean Anderson, there were no protesters to be seen, just blue skies and champagne powder. The lifts damaged a year earlier had been fixed, and, in defiance of the eco-terrorists, Vail had completed rebuilding an even larger Two Elk Restaurant, with towering wood beams, on the same spot as the original. By this winter, another 125 acres, accessed by a new, high-speed quad chairlift in Pete's Bowl, are expected to open, giving skiers and snowboarders a total of 645 acres of terrain.
For years, Vail has been the classic sybaritic ski destination for New Yorkers, our country's answer to Gstaad. Its vast territory offers every imaginable form of drop, dip, and slope. And with their stunning 270-degree panoramas, the Back Bowls must be one of the most breathtaking sights in the world. Unlike most other resorts, Vail has a sophisticated nightlife, unblemished by backslapping faux cowboys, theme clubs, plastic moose heads, or embarrassing Friday-night cover bands. Since Vail opened, any number of high-end luxury ski resorts have followed its lead, but they often seem to be trying too hard. Vail has an easygoing, we've-been-doing-this-forever attitude toward extreme comfort, which turns out to be a good thing, because skiers don't like to admit they want coddling. The opulence isn't stifling, but it's there, stoked like a crackling fire in the lodge, just waiting for you to warm your feet by it.
Incredibly, Vail boosters have always claimed that it's anti-glamour and less of a Hollywood outpost than Aspen. And though it's true that Vail operates with a somewhat lower-wattage glitz factor than Aspen -- you're less likely to bang your skis into a Rolls -- ever since President Gerald Ford began vacationing there in the seventies, Vail has attracted a huge number of A-list names, everyone from Bill Clinton and Al Gore to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Clint Eastwood. (Years ago, I almost knocked over Vice-President Dan Quayle and his wife in a lift line.)
The pampering starts with the mountain itself. Many visitors come to Vail for its famed Back Bowls, a truly immense (2,734-acre) stretch of open, south-facing runs for intermediates and experts. But the average Vail skier loves nothing so much as making first turns in what's called corduroy, the freshly groomed runs with low, soft ridges made by the grooming machines. To me, the effortless arcs one makes across ribs of corduroy on Vail's many groomed runs represent the ultimate in luxury skiing.
The indulgence continues off the slopes, where Vail cultivates a country-club feel. The Bavarian-style pedestrian village has a range of excellent restaurants and accommodations. On Wednesdays throughout the season, crowds dance to free outdoor concerts in Vail Village; a surprisingly good salsa-and-mambo band played the week I was there. After skiing, you can drink and dance at the Red Lion or Pepi's or kick back with a cigar at Club Chelsea. You can shop in art galleries, clothing boutiques, fine home-furnishing stores, ski-and-snowboard shops, and handcrafted-jewelry stores. Or you can get the treatment at one of the resort's three spas: Athletic Club Hotel & Spa, the Sonnenalp Resort, and Vail Cascade Club Hotel & Spa.
Yes, Vail is expensive: During peak season (December 23-March 31), lift tickets will cost as much as $59 per day; the best restaurants are as pricey as those in New York, and hotels can run as high as $1,300 a night. I stayed in the Lodge at Vail, the resort's centerpiece in the sixties and, it turns out, the spot where my parents stayed on their honeymoon. Situated right at the base of the mountain, it's still considered Vail's finest hotel. Everything contributes to its cushy effect, from the elaborate breakfasts in its Cucina Rustica and the extraordinary game dinners at its Wildflower restaurant to its overstuffed bedding, opulent marble bathrooms, and attentive service.
After a few days at the lodge, I reluctantly headed up the road to nearby Beaver Creek, Vail's sister mountain in the Vail Resorts empire. I'd never even thought of skiing Beaver Creek, assuming it had been tacked onto Vail to handle overflow from the flagship mountain. How different could it be?
It's different. Beaver Creek is a self-contained total luxury experience, like Utah's Deer Valley or Idaho's Sun Valley. However spoiled you feel at Vail, Beaver Creek ramps it up to a whole new level. And where Vail feels like a hopping mini-metropolis, Beaver Creek is more like a self-contained little Shangri-La.
Unlike at most resorts, the mountain at Beaver Creek is laid out upside down, so beginners can take in the vistas from up top; it also has its own mountaintop snowshoe and cross-country park. As in Europe, you can ski from village to village on long, gently sloping runs.
Built around a picture-perfect outdoor skating rink, Market Square Village provides elevators to transport guests to the slopes, and from the Vilar Center for the Arts, located underneath the skating rink, up to the square. My huge condo had a bank of windows overlooking the square, a full kitchen, a living room and separate bedroom, and a bathroom lit by tree-stump-like candles with a marble tub fit for a Roman senator.
Beaver Creek is family-friendly, with no cars in the village, so kids can safely run around on their own. It also has family activities scheduled nearly every night of the week, along with kids' day camps so parents can take advantage of diversions like the Allegria Spa in the Hyatt Regency, which has the gamut of massages, scrubs, water therapies, and facials as well as workout facilities.
Beaver Creek also has a more literal answer to Vail's country-club feel: the Beaver Creek Club, a 12,000-square-foot private club for BC homeowners. Members are entitled to eat at Beano's, Zach's, Allie's Cabin, and the Arrowhead Yurt (a plush round tent hidden in a stand of trees), all of which are closed to the public during lunch. (Beano's and Allie's are open to the public for dinner.) In the evenings, nonmembers can take a romantic sleigh ride high up the slopes to Beano's Cabin, where you can dine on first-class venison, Colorado lamb, and fresh trout while gazing out over the moonlit mountains.
Beaver Creek has fewer skiers than Vail; it's rare to find a lift line. The terrain is almost as good as what you find at Vail, and they are striving to groom a third of it every day. Racing fans should try out the Birds of Prey course, designed by ski legend Bernard Russi and considered one of the three best downhill courses in the world. Each year after the early-December World Cup events conclude, the 2,460-foot course opens to the public. Thinking I could handle pro-level speeds, I tried to tuck it from top to bottom. Big mistake. After about ten seconds in the racing position, I was shooting down the mountain faster than I usually drive my car. I had to stop, catch my breath, and make long, speed-cutting turns like a sane person.
People go to most mountains for single pleasures -- the runs or the nightlife, the pampering or the powder. Vail and Beaver Creek offer the whole mental-and-physical-health package: It's not just the best of both worlds; it's the best of many.