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Vail Country

Bowls of powder.

There is skiing. There is après-ski. If skiing tops your list because, well, it is a ski vacation, then Vail’s your venue. Skiing is the undisputed attention hog here. Mother Nature’s generosity in snow affords Vail the opportunity to credibly lay claim to being a resort, as their tagline states, “Like nothing on earth.”

When ski enthusiasts spate about “the bowls,” they’re talking about areas like Sun Up’s Yonder Gully and Siberia’s Rasputin’s Revenge—loosely spaced, powder-smothered spruce fields that roam along the bowls’ rims before diving down merry fall lines. If it’s long, sweeping blues that are your esprit, then you will worship Blue Sky Basin’s In the Wuides and Grand Review. And should you overhear folk complaining that the “front side gets crowded,” you’ll know they’ve made the rookie mistake of entering the Mid Vail vortex around lunchtime instead of exploring the moguls of Highline, the vertical slopes of Prima Cornice, and the glades in Cheetah Gully.

Vail is a magnificent mountain in the heart of the Rockies, long regarded as one of the best, and although it’s the largest ski mountain in the United States, it has often been defined in relation to its rival 165 kilometres down the road. Aspen is West Coast; Vail is East Coast. Aspen is Hollywood; Vail is Wall Street. Aspen has the quaint village, an old mining town in authentic 19th-century Western expression. Vail has the mountain, a collection of peaks that harbours a seemingly endless series of vast bowls and 5,289 acres of wide-open slopes.

Statistics, though, can’t tell you the whole story. This is one ski hill you need to schuss for yourself. There is no lack of sensory stimuli here. You can carve your signature on a fresh palette of 193 runs; the powder, often thigh-high, is so light that skis brush through it. Vail is the place one dreams about when the first snowflakes fall.

The resort experiences bluebird skies 300 days a year, and Vail is one of the few resorts with first-timer terrain at the top of the mountain. Take the Eagle Bahn Gondola, and at the top, the beginner area offers an inspiring 360-degree view. (A group of short green runs are served by the Game Creek express lift.) Intermediate skiers and boarders will run out of vacation time before they explore all the trails. Blue Sky Basin is all about intermediate skiing. The trails tend to roll from the top of the gondola down to the valley like party streamers; each trail has a steeper section followed by an easier stretch, and steep is a relative term. Few other mountains offer such expansive intermediate terrain.

Not visible from any populated place or Vail mountain’s front side, the back bowls comprise more skiable acres, 3,017 in total, than most entire ski resorts in North America. Morning or afternoon, early season or late, sunny skies or blizzard, possibilities abound within the seemingly limitless boundaries of this vast array of natural basins, each with its own distinct character, pleasures, and challenges. These bowls are about as good as skiing gets.

Vail is the place one dreams about when the first snowflakes fall. You can carve your signature on a fresh palette of 193 runs; the powder, often thigh-high, is so light that skis brush through it.

Located at Mid Vail, the 10th, Vail’s on-mountain restaurant, is as good as on-piste dining gets. Not one year old, the restaurant takes its name from the veterans of the 10th Mountain Division, including Vail founder Pete Seibert, who certainly would have pulled up a chair here. The food is best described as upscale alpine comfort food with fancy takes: hand-cut fries with black truffle and parmigiano; grilled sharp cheddar cheese on brioche with bacon and heirloom tomato soup; lamb chili made with local Colorado lamb; chicken and pheasant pot pie; slow-cooked elk Bolognese. If deep powder beckons outside, an express menu is offered—or even better, have a late lunch after the snow is tracked out. Done for the day? The wine list and the s’mores deep chocolate sundae encourage lingering. There are also slippers for tired feet and sunscreen for sun-smooched faces.

Founded in the early 1960s, Vail was quiescent until the early 1970s, when it underwent an epic boom. Scads of condos sprang up around the gondola building west of Vail Village, an area dubbed Lionshead. Developers put condos and timeshares on the market before they even broke ground, and the public snatched them up, fuelling more construction—until development became stalemated amid the oil crisis of 1973.

While the town of Vail was in a freeze, the culture of American skiing was changing. New shaped skis, improved technology, and increased grooming of runs have made skiing easier for beginners and baby boomers with aging knees. High-speed lifts, meanwhile, have made it possible to get what used to be a full day’s skiing in before lunchtime (mountain fact: Vail’s total uphill capacity is 59,069 people an hour), leaving the rest of the day free for the requisite après-ski, dining, and all-round pampering.

Over the past four decades, Vail has evolved into one of Colorado’s most polished resorts. Dubbed the “Billion-Dollar Renewal”, Vail has recently undergone a $2-billion (U.S.) redevelopment. What began as a speculative gamble by a handful of young skiing enthusiasts has long since morphed into a playground for affluent boomers and their pack. New to Vail are the Ritz-Carlton Residences, Four Seasons Resort, Solaris, the Arrabelle, a RockResorts property, as well as a boutique movie theatre, fine dining restaurants (including only one of four Matsuhisa restaurant locations in the world), ski shops, outdoor skating rinks, and a fancy bowling alley.

The most ambitious project, Ever Vail, has yet to come to fruition, but upon completion it will be the country’s largest green resort. The master plan for Ever Vail—a mixed-use project of nearly 13 acres of environmentally sound condos, hotel rooms, and retail—achieved a LEED Platinum certification for neighbourhood development when proposed in 2008.

“The vastly transformed base village redefined luxury in the travel industry and injected new life into Vail mountain,” says Rob Katz, CEO of Vail Resorts, whose involvement has led the momentum to the Vail redevelopment. (Vail Resorts runs the ski operation and owns several key properties.) “Last winter proved itself to be the most challenging winter in the history of the United States ski industry,” he says of the cumulative snowfall levels, which were less than 50 per cent of the usual snowfall. And yet, “Despite these unprecedented conditions, Vail Resorts demonstrated incredible resilience.” In light of this renaissance and irrespective of conditions, Vail continues to attract visitors.

Vail continues to shape the great American ski vacation. Aware that skiing and snowboarding have always been about sharing mountain experiences and talking with friends and family about the formidable runs or a powder day, Vail Resorts launched EpicMix, an online and mobile application, two seasons ago. RF scanners have been installed at all of the lifts, and an RF-enabled chip embedded in season passes and lift tickets automatically tracks guests’ lift rides, calculating vertical feet skied and total days on the mountain. The system will also recognize special achievements and accomplishments by granting guests commemorative, collectible digital pins. In addition, EpicMix photographers are present on the mountain—dressed in lime green—to capture portrait and action photos that are automatically delivered to the skier’s EpicMix account, all free of charge.

According to Katz, photos are one of the most critical parts of creating memories, and because Facebook, Twitter, and storage sites like Flickr and Shutterfly have simple integration with EpicMix, those pictures will be published to the selected sites right away. No need to highlight the runs skied on a resort map each night; EpicMix is a hands- and hassle-free tracker that leaves you more time to get in just one last run.

Vail has its reputation for good reason; its neighbour Beaver Creek, a 15-minute drive and tucked away in the mountains, will have you asking yourself: Is this for real?

Vail has its reputation for good reason; its neighbour Beaver Creek, a 15-minute drive and tucked away in the mountains, will have you asking yourself: Is this for real? It is a quaint Bavarian village, with escalators that make the typically chaotic, booted schlep to the chairlifts near effortless; a ski valet at your hotel who, after helping you into your heated boots, carries your skis to the chair; swift, well-placed lifts, that, in brisk minutes, deposit your mixed-ability brood at the summit, where you can feel at ease sending the kids off to explore Piney, Mystic Maze, and Jack Rabbit Alley while you test your quads on Golden Eagle, the country’s only FIS downhill course. It’s real, all of it. Right down to the warm chocolate-chip cookies at day’s end.

If you have a penchant for world-class grooming, then Beaver Creek is your domain—805 acres of meticulously groomed terrain. Larkspur Bowl is a beautiful scooped-out run whose centre is always corduroy—slope slang for freshly groomed runs, after striped ridges of snow are left by the grooming machines—and whose left-hand side often has boot-deep powder. Then there’s Grouse Mountain, a tree-skiing powder fest down Royal Elk Glades where you’re more likely to run into an elk than another skier.

After a week in Vail country, you’ll still be discovering new pitches and trails. Your legs—despite a good chance they’re feeling like Jell-O—will forgive you; the addiction to get out and get in that last run is too strong to abate. The champagne pow pow (slang for “powder”) is legendary and definitely a mountain-state phenomenon (the snow is extremely dry, light, and fluffy due to the excess air between the individual flakes). Vail celebrates its 50th anniversary this winter, and although you shouldn’t need a reason to be out in the crisp mountain air, who wouldn’t want to be a part of such a significant milestone? (A state-of-the-art 10-person gondola with heated seats is new for the 2012 season.) No invitations needed for this party; all you need to do is show up.