Ski season may be at its end, but that's no reason to put ski resorts out of your mind. In fact, if you’re like me, you look more forward to summer in the mountains than winter. After all, what better way to escape the oppressive Texas heat than to hop up to some refreshing mountain air for a few days?
As a creature of habit, I confess I’ve spent most of my summer mountain trips in Breckenridge. The quaint little town offers everything you could ask for in the way of shops, restaurants, outdoor recreation, laid back atmosphere and of course, mountain breezes. But if you’re looking for something with just a little more panache; a place that offers the rusticity of mountain life combined with a little luxury and pampering, I’d pass the exit for Breckenridge on I-25 and head about 30 minutes over the pass to Vail.
When it comes to excellent hotels, a full stable of delectable restaurants and a wide variety of summer mountain activities, you really can’t beat Vail.
Yes, I know. Vail is synonymous with skiing. And, as I soon found out during the week of Easter, it’s the top destination for international skiers — primarily Mexican Nationals during the week of “Semana Santo.”
And yes, Vail is posh. The way I’ve always heard it, Aspen is the ski town for Hollywood, and Vail is the ski town for New Yorkers — and the aforementioned international crowd. So why would an unexperienced skier from Austin with little-to-no interest in fur-lined boots — or even “faux” fur boots at that — want to tout this place as one of her new favorite spots to splurge?
Because when it comes to excellent hotels, a full stable of delectable restaurants and a wide variety of summer mountain activities with the added luxury that you can enjoy all of it without really even lifting a finger to make it happen, you really can’t beat Vail.
During the summer, the key word is "outdoor entertainment." You can catch a music or dance performance at the outdoor Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater or bike along the Vail Recreation Path, a trail that winds for 15 miles from West Vail to East Vail and has 1,100 acres of open space available to the public and is surrounded by 350,000 acres of national forest.
And even though Austin is home to a few amazing farmer’s markets, Vail’s Farmers’ Market and Art Show during the summer is not to be missed. Every Sunday, you can stroll through myriad stands of local produce and products as well as an entire showcase of local art in everything from clothing and jewelry to handmade home items.
Though ski lifts may be closed, you can still reach the top of the mountain at the summit of the Eagle Bahn gondola in Lionshead where daily operations take you straight to the top for a Alpine hiking and scenic views.
Mountain biking and hiking back trails is all wine and good, but to be honest, I’m most interested in getting my feet wet, or more accurately my wading boots wet, in some of the area’s surrounding streams for a little trout fishing. In new spots, where the rivers are unfamiliar and you haven’t had a real ear to the ground on how the different fisheries are doing or what the season has brought in the way of different fly hatches, the best advice is to simply book a guide and let the professionals get you out on the water to achieve your primary goal: catch fish.
I spent a day wading with Jeff “Cookie” Cooke on the Eagle River just outside of town and not only caught a few brown and rainbow trout, but also found myself on some of the most beautiful mountain streamscape I’d ever seen
I love the folks at Gore Creek Fly Fisherman. Not only are they friendly and professional — read warm and approachable for novice and advanced angler alike — but they also know all the prime spots to put you on fish without feeling too much pressure from other fisherman. I spent a day wading with Jeff “Cookie” Cooke on the Eagle River just outside of town and not only caught a few brown and rainbow trout, but also found myself on some of the most beautiful mountain streamscape I’d ever seen — which is really what makes fly fishing so magical.
As for dining, the foodie in me is on Cloud 9 in Vail. Just a year ago, Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, known to most of the world as “Nobu,” opened an upscale Japanese-sushi restaurant, Matsuhisa, in Vail Village giving the ski resort the distinction of being home to one of the best sushi restaurants in all of Colorado. The omakase (chef’s menu) is the way to go and it’s worth the splurge to pair it with Nobu’s very own creme-de-la-creme dai ginjo sake.
On the other dining spectrum is the new Elway’s Steakhouse, where the steaks are thick-cut, USDA Prime and seared to perfection with a little signature Elway’s rub. Try to forget what you know of the football pro-turned-car dealer tycoon-turned football franchise owner, or what you may think of his decisions regarding Tebow and Manning — if only for a moment — and trust me when I say that this steakhouse is everything you might expect out of a top Kansas City or even Texas spot, with a more contemporary environment and a very uniquely flavored steak. (Apparently Elway’s sources a breed of beef that was formerly a dairy breed out of Wisconsin that produces even marbling and a beautiful flavor.) The lamb chop fondue as an appetizer is a decadent starter as is the equally devilish homemade chocolate “ding dong” — the kind you had as a kid — to finish. The wine list, as you might expect, is top notch. (Ask the amenable sommelier Jim Lay for the perfect pick.)
You could also make a stop at the nationally-acclaimed Kelly Liken, named for the chef/owner who edged her way to the final weeks of Top Chef a few seasons ago. The menu is creative and seasonal. During the summer, Liken hosts a Summer Harvest Sundays collecting what bounty she can from the Vail Farmer’s Market and serving it up for a fixed price multi-course menu under $40 that very evening.
Of course, if you’re looking for something a little more paired down, you can do as the locals do and grab a Coors Light on tap and a good old greasy burger at Garfinkel’s (Garf’s) in Lion’s Head, where you won’t find as many fur-lined boots, but you will find a friendly staff and a pretty good burger for under $10.
For accommodations, you can book any number of swanky digs from the Four Seasons Vail to the historic Lodge at Vail. But I also like the Bavarian-inspired Sonnenalp. Not only does it boast an authentic European chalet feel — minus the kitchsy details you might expect — but is also home to the patio of Ludwig’s restaurant, which is the gold standard for breakfasts in Vail, particularly if you opt for the Euro-style buffet. On a warm summer day, the glass patio rooftop is rolled back to let the cool mountain air wash over you. Another bonus, the Sonnenalp Spa is home to a refreshing oxygen bar, something us low-altitude Texans may want to consider taking advantage of in this sub-10,000 foot elevation.
And then there’s the Arrabelle at Vail Square, an elegant French Chateau-style hotel where rooms often come with a terrace and turn down service comes with a robe, a mint on your pillow and foot lotion and fragrant temple balm for a good night’s sleep. The rooms are just cozy and luxurious enough that you may not want to leave, but if a twinge of hunger or a sudden thirst grabs you, the downstairs Tavern on the Square has a great selection of Colorado beers and tasty menu of items including bison tenderloin lettuce wraps with mango chutney and waffle fries topped with Maytag blue cheese, crispy bacon and green onions.
You may have to endure a little bit of a trek to get there — it’s a good two-hour drive from the Denver airport — spending a few days in Vail can certainly bring a renewed perspective on life; the kind that reminds you to enjoy life while watching the sun set over the Rocky Mountains.