Because I write about travel – especially ski travel – for a living, people constantly ask me for vacation advice. I love to help, but it takes time, so sometimes I cheat. When they ask, “What’s the best place to go skiing?” I usually just say “Vail.”
Vail is the straight-A student of ski resorts. With the possible exception of its excellent ski school, it’s not the very best at any one subject, be it food, lodging, or expert terrain, but across the board, Vail is very good at everything. In the High School Yearbook it would be voted “Most Likely to Please.”
It’s also huge, with several base areas and terrain so vast it can overwhelm. There are 31 lifts, 193 trails, and nearly 5,300-acres of skiing, including seven enormous bowls. To make Vail simple, here is everything you need to know.
Town: Vail is linear, stretching along the “front” side of the ski mountain. From east to west there’s Golden Peak, the simplest base area; Vail Village, the original faux-Swiss Alpine streetscape; Lionshead, which recently underwent a massive expansion and is the new center of the action; and sleepy West Vail, home to the large Vail Cascade Resort. Vail Village and Lionshead are the best locations, with tons of shopping and dining, but also the priciest, with lodging getting cheaper towards the periphery. All have lifts, and a free bus system links everything.
Lodging: There are endless choices and a new luxury Four Seasons opening December 11. To date, the best luxury options are the boutique and expensive Arrabelle, anchoring Lionshead, and the wonderful Sonnenalp in Vail Village. One price point down is the charming 28-room Vail Mountain Lodge and the resort’s two biggest hotels, the Marriott in Lionshead and the Vail Cascade. For more budget conscious folks, especially families, the best buys are myriad condos around all the base areas, which also have kitchens to save on breakfast (these can be most simply found through the resort’s central reservation service, Vail.com).
Dining: Vail has great and not so great food at every price range. For fine dining, the very best is Kelly Liken. The eponymous chef uses local farm fresh ingredients, but while this is a ubiquitous trend, she does it absolutely right. Close seconds include Larkspur, whose signature croutons of pan-fried mashed potato cubes are to die for, and the Game Creek restaurant, open only for dinner atop the gondola. My hidden gem is La Bottega, a traditional enoteca serving wines by the glass and delicious Italian small plates. For a burger or casual fare, hit Bart & Yeti’s in Lionshead. Next to the Arrabelle is a welcome addition, a gourmet gelato shop.
Skiing: The mountain is big and confusing, so try not to move around too much. Instead, break your visit into chunks, as each section has great terrain for multiple abilities. There is so much the website gives a detailed 4-day itinerary to see it all! The Back Bowls and Blue Sky Basin take several lifts to reach, so go for at least a few hours. If it’s a powder day, locals will go first thing, and so should you. On the front, Game Creek Bowl is a concise area with intermediate and advanced runs. In the center, just below Mid-Vail, are easy to reach double-blacks, with more good expert runs off the Northwoods Express Chair. There’s a good intermediate stash off the Mountaintop Express Lift and plenty of greens and blues at either end, far skier’s left or right. To help get your feet wet, there are guided mountain tours for all abilities, Blue Sky Basin Tours for intermediate and advanced skiers, and a 50+ Tour, all free daily. You can save cash with the EPIC Season Pass, cheaper than 10 days of tickets and also valid at nearby resorts including Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, and Keystone, or for shorter trips, the EPIC 7-Pack.
New This Winter: The most exciting addition is Cinebistro, a movie theater serving snacks like a popcorn bucket of fried calamari! On the mountain, new Chair 5 replaces the antiquated High Noon lift, a weak link that always caused bottlenecks accessing Vail’s bowls on powder days. At twice the speed and twice the capacity, it will improve traffic flow mountain-wide. Ski school adds “Adventure Sessions,” whose tagline is, “If ski school had recess, this would be it.” For advanced skiers who find the breadth of the mountain daunting, it reduces instruction to on-the-go pointers and adds tour guide and lift line cutting aspects to produce a best-of-the-mountain, best-of-conditions ski day with some learning at affordable group prices ($129 per person for no more than 5 skiers).