Powder Days Beckon At Vail And Beaver Creek

“We’re waiting for a powder day,” our driver said as he whipped along I-70 from Eagle County Airport to Vail. We looked around. The mountains looked white to us. Later, a waiter greeted us at a local bar with his own snow prophecy. “Powder up ahead,” he smiled. In fact each concierge, ski patrol and tour guide we met predicted mythical, legendary powder. Snow is life at Vail and a “powder day” is the reason visitors from New York to Brazil flock to the region all winter. That, plus top-notch service, world class dining and endless activities on and off-piste. It was my first time skiing out west. I didn’t know from powder. I grew up in a golfing family, where childhood vacations meant sunshine, beaches and kids clubs. 15 years ago, my husband introduced me to skiing and it’s been a journey ever since. Sometimes I love it. Sometimes I don’t. Unlike other sports, skiing is not merely a test of skill. It’s about braving physical elements, quieting fear and don’t even get me started on the gear. Let’s just say it’s not tennis. But as my skis floated down that first run, I felt the magic of skiing Vail. Powder or no powder, the snow was incredible.

Vail’s Back Bowls

We spent four days in Vail and three at Beaver Creek. Both mountains are operated by Vail Resorts, a publicly traded company with a portfolio of 14 mountains like Whistler, Park City, Breckenridge and Stowe. Just 12 miles apart, Vail and Beaver differ dramatically. Vail is a massive enterprise founded in 1962 by Pete Seibert, a World War II veteran and Earl Eaton, an Army engineer. Over the years the property changed hands, went in and out of bankruptcy and is now Vail Resorts’ flagship. Beaver Creek, on the other hand, is relatively new to the ski world. It opened in 1980 as a result of Seibert’s unrealized dream that Denver host the 1976 Winter Olympics. Vail is classic, Beaver is contemporary. Vail is sweeping, Beaver is intimate. Everyone has a preference. “At Vail, you have a 360 degree skiing opportunity,” said our ski guide Andy Gould, who favors Vail for its epic back bowls behind the front-of-mountain runs. “I never get bored here. I have close to 5,000 days in uniform and everyday it changes.”

Vail’s 195 trails and more than 5,200 acres of ski terrain operate like a city map. If you ski Northwoods, you can pick up Flap Jack, which gets you to Log Chute. It offers endless combinations but takes an experienced Vail skier to navigate the routes. Twice my husband and I attempted to ski to our children on one side, only to realize we were too far down the mountain to get there. But the runs are wide open, the lookouts breathtaking, and the snow is far superior to the Northeast ice sheets I’m used to sliding down.

Marriott Vail

At the western side of Vail mountain sits Lionshead, with resorts like The Arrabelle, Ritz-Carlton Club and Marriott – whose lodge-like feel reminded us of hotels we’ve come to know in Vermont. It offers little mountain touches like shag rugs, vintage ski photos and local beers on tap behind the check-in desk. With crackling fires and sweeping views, the Marriott is homey and convenient. Vail’s in-town bus stops directly outside. In general, Lionshead is easy to navigate. Upscale eateries sit right at the base. Luxury condos sit overhead. It feels the newest and most deliberate of the three villages. At night its Eagle Bahn gondola runs guests to a snowcat that transports them to Game Creek Club, a private club by day and intimate restaurant at night. It’s an experience just getting there, not to mention the selection of local game meats and over-the-top desserts that await diners at 10,000 feet.

But iconic Vail is Vail Village, the central resort town with time-worn restaurants like the Red Lion and Los Amigos that play live music to a bustling après ski scene. Or there’s the contemporary White Bison, where we had a wonderful New Year’s Eve dinner of lamb chops and Rocky Mountain trout as fireworks burst outside. Vail Village has art galleries and western-themed boutiques shelling $4,000 shearling coats. It also houses activewear favorites like LuluLemon, Northface and Patagonia. Bars and cafes sandwich specialty ski shops like Surefoot, where co-owner Russ Shay padded my boots after a painful first day. Further east sits Golden Peak, a quiet area known for its children’s ski school and daycare. Golden Peak was our first and last stop each day, as our children, aged 4 and 18 months, took part in its offerings.

White Bison

If our kids had a good time at Vail, which they did, then they lost their minds at Beaver Creek. This intimate, exclusive resort is a winter wonderland. It’s Disney World in the mountains. It’s Arendelle from Frozen. At the town’s center sits an ice skating rink with floating stars overhead, where kids skate along to pop songs by Pharrell and Taylor Swift. Each day during December’s Winterfest, a children’s parade winds its way through the village with ice princesses and storybook characters. At 3:00pm daily chefs walk the mountain base with trays of fresh chocolate chip cookies. As for the skiing, Beaver Creek is smaller than Vail and, while the runs appear mellow, it offers tough terrain that’s home to World Cup racing. It also houses two additional villages, Bachelor Gulch and Arrowhead that are quieter and less traversed. “Beaver Creek is intimate in size and more exclusive than Vail,” said Travis Achen, our ski guide there. “It also offers plenty of cruising green runs at the top, which makes the top of the mountain approachable for beginners.”

Beaver Creek Village

We closed out each day at Beaver Creek with s’mores and hot tubbing at the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek, a mountain lodge made for modern times. The property not only boasts the best location on the mountain but offers amenities ranging from ski concierge to personalized boot service. On my first day there, an employee happily walked my skis halfway across Beaver’s base to his favorite lift. The Park Hyatt gets what an indulgent ski experience is about, like an outdoor champagne tent and a decadent hot chocolate bar with Patron Cafe and Chambord whipped cream. It was the perfect place to call home after a day on the mountain.

Outside Park Hyatt Beaver Creek

Guests at Beaver Creek should spend one evening on the mountain at Beano’s Cabin. The ride alone is worth the trip. Bundled up in blankets and ponchos, we were transported to the restaurant in an open sleigh, where Colorado stars appeared an arms-length away and Aspen trees took on a luminous shade of blue. Once there, we shed our boots for the restaurant’s own slippers and delighted in a carnivorous four-course meal. Like most diners, we spent the evening wondering how soon we could return to this fantasy mountain resort that feels worlds away from reality.

By the end of the week, we all became stronger skiers and at peace with mountain life. I skied my first black diamond. My son barreled down a green run with a confidence found only among early adaptors. Later that night, as we packed our bags and took one last dip in the hot tub, it began to snow.

The next day, powder.

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