Out of Town: Winter Adventures at Vail and Beaver Creek

by Andrew Collins

Colorado's most famous gay ski weeks are held in Aspen and Telluride, in mid-January and late February respectively, but over the past few years, Vail Gay Ski Week http://vailgayskiweek.com has begun drawing serious crowds. The gathering takes place in late March and includes the usual mix of fun on the slopes and hobnobbing back around the fireplaces and hot tubs. In winter, skiing and snowboarding may be the region's big draws, but it would be unfair to describe Vail http://www.visitvailvalley.com and nearby Beaver Creek http://www.beavercreek.com as mere ski towns. These scenic communities in the heart of the Colorado Rockies offer plenty of diversions.

Another misconception about Vail http://www.vail.com is that it's a crowded, freeway-side ski park. True, the resort's Front Side can get busy on weekends and does overlook Vail's bustling villages and I-70, and this facility is one of the largest in North America, with some 5,300 skiable acres and nearly 200 runs. But there are many places on Vail Mountain to escape from the crowds, and skiers of all abilities will find challenging, varied terrain.

For more solitude, ascend to the upper slopes of Vail's Front Side to access the fabled Back Bowls, a glorious - and vast - swath of less-trammeled runs that descend down the back of the mountain. From there, additional lifts carry those seeking truly secluded terrain into Blue Sky Basin, a stunning patch of wilderness developed by the resort in 2000. In reality, from the majority of Vail's ski runs, you can't see a single mile of freeway or village infrastructure. Just avoid the Front Side, which is possible as long as you're comfortable with intermediate terrain.

If you're planning to ski at more than a couple of the seven facilities owned by Vail Resorts (Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, and Arapahoe Basin in Colorado, and Heavenly and Northstar in Lake Tahoe, California), consider buying an Epic Pass http://www.snow.com/epic-pass.aspx, which offers great deals whether you're skiing for a week or a full season. Standard lift tickets for Vail are also good at nearby Beaver Creek.

Vail was developed as a planned resort community in 1962, designed with a nod toward the quaint chalet-inspired architecture of the Alps. Dozens of resorts, condos, shops, and restaurants have sprung up over the years, the earlier ones retaining the vintage, occasionally kitschy, aesthetic of Bavaria or Tyrol. More recently, Vail has seen a surge in ultra-luxury condo and hotel development. Several notable newcomers - Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, and Arrabelle at Vail Square among them - have upped the town's posh factor.

You don't need a car in Vail - the 10-mile paved, multi-use Gore Valley Trail wends through the village, and free buses run regularly among the key neighborhoods and connect with low-priced service throughout the entire valley. You can reach Vail by flying into Eagle County Airport (with direct flights to about a dozen cities), which is 30 miles west, or flying to Denver and renting a car or taking a bus - Vail is a two-hour drive from Denver (allow another 45 minutes from DIA, and account for slow-going on weekends and during rough weather). Vail is a 20-minute drive (shuttle bus service is available) from its smaller, swankier cousin, Beaver Creek.

The small but dapper town of Avon lies at the base of the Beaver Creek ski area and is home to several good restaurants as well as the superb Westin Riverfront Resort. It's a short, winding drive up the hill to reach fashionable Beaver Creek Village, home to 1,800 acres of superb skiing and snowboarding. Chains like Hyatt and Sheraton have impressive hotels set at Beaver Creek's main base village, which is also anchored by a large skating rink. Lifts and ski runs join Beaver Creek's main area with Arrowhead and Bachelor Gulch mountains - the latter has runs that trickle down to a sumptuous Ritz-Carlon. Almost improbably, given its location down on the Eagle River, the Westin Riverfront is an actual ski-in, ski-out resort - a gondola carries guests to a lift at Lower Beaver Creek Mountain (or you can take free shuttle buses up the hill to Beaver Creek Village). Head five miles west of Avon, and you'll find more upscale dining, lodging, and shopping in the town of Edwards.

It bears repeating that these communities abound with the usual diversions you might associate with acclaimed winter resorts. You can snowshoe, cross-country ski, take snowmobile tours, or simply stroll among the dozens of high-end shops in each village. You'll also find more than a dozen full-service spas among the area's resorts. At the Westin Riverfront, Spa Anjali offers a memorable Himalayan-inspired Abhyanga massage treatment as well as a red clover and mountain honey body mask. Other spas of note include the plush RockResorts Spa at the Arrabelle at Vail Square, and the serene Spa at Four Seasons Vail.

If you're planning a visit outside the snow season, note that several festivals take place in the area from late spring through early autumn, including Taste of Vail in April, the Vail Valley Music Festival from June to August, and the Vail International Dance Festival in late July and early August. The area is also renowned for mountain biking, hiking, fly-fishing, golf, and horseback.

Dining and lodging

The dining scene in Vail and Beaver Creek has begun to earn serious acclaim in recent years. Many of the top special-occasion restaurants are in resort hotels. In Vail, you don't want to miss Flame at the Four Seasons http://www.fourseasons.com/vail, which is renowned for its sterling service and artfully presented food. Montauk Seafood Grill http://montaukseafoodgrill.com in Lionshead is quite good, and Terra Bistro http://www.vailmountainlodge.com/terra-bistro at Vail Mountain Lodge can be counted on for exceptional and innovative American fare. Atwater on Gore Creek at Vail Cascade http://www.vailcascade.com/atwater impresses diners with its reasonable prices and tasty updates on American comfort food, from seared wild salmon to Angus beef sliders. And Centre V http://arrabelle.rockresorts.com/dining at Arrabelle resort in Lionshead turns out excellent French bistro fare (including addictive truffle-parmesan frites and Moroccan chicken tagine) in a romantic but informal space.

At the Westin Riverfront, the stylish but relaxed Restaurant Avondale http://www.avondalerestaurant.com is well worth visiting - celeb chef Richard Sandoval took over operations here in fall 2011, giving the food the same creative Pan Latin spin he's made famous at his Denver restaurants. Up at Beaver Creek Village, there are few more romantic places to dine than Grouse Mountain Grill http://www.grousemountaingrill.com, whose commitment to local ingredients is evident in such dishes as pan-seared Colorado striped bass over lentil ragout. And in the village of Edwards, the smart but casual Juniper Restaurant http://www.juniperrestaurant.com has a splendid wine list and specializes in creative American and Continental fare.

More casual options include Blue Moose Pizza http://www.bluemoosepizza.com in Lionshead Village, and and Rimini Gelato http://www.riminigelato.com, with locations in Vail and Beaver Creek, a fine choice for sweets or a cup of hot cocoa. There are no gay bars in the Rockies, but the dozens of convivial nightspots in these parts are consistently gay-friendly. In Vail, excellent options for enjoying regional ales and lagers from Colorado's bounty of craft breweries include the Tap Room at Bridge Street and Garfinkel's Bar and Grill. A best bet among dance clubs is Samana Lounge, but Vail is more about listening to live music than dancing to DJs. In Beaver Creek Village, head to the hip Osprey Lounge for tapas and artful cocktails, or check out the scenes at Vin 48 wine bar and Loaded Joe's Coffeehouse and Lounge, both down in Avon village.

Vail and Beaver Creek are home to some of the finest resorts in Rockies. Venerable long-time favorites include the centrally located and beautifully designed Lodge at Vail http://lodgeatvail.rockresorts.com, with its excellent spa, hot tubs, pool, and warmly furnished rooms, including suites of up to three bedrooms. It's the flagship of the venerable RockResorts brand, which also operates the sumptuous Arrabelle at Vail Square http://arrabelle.rockresorts.com in Lionshead Village. The Four Seasons Vail http://www.fourseasons.com/vail has been wowing visitors since it opened in late 2010. It's a fairly intimate member of the illustrious brand, with just 121 rooms and the personal, top-notch service Four Seasons is famous for.

Up in Beaver Creek, you'll find two more excellent RockResorts properties, the hip and contemporary Osprey at Beaver Creek http://ospreyatbeavercreek.rockresorts.com and the more classically elegant Pines Lodge http://pineslodge.rockresorts.com. The Ritz-Carlton at Bachelor Gulch http://www.ritzcarlton.com excels on service and has beautiful rooms within a many-gabled lodge-like building. And Avon's Westin Riverfront http://www.starwoodhotels.com has huge, contemporary rooms with large windows, extensive kitchens in suites, and plenty of luxe perks - it's LEED-certified and designed with a clean, modern, yet unquestionably cushy aesthetic.

Down within walking distance of the many shops and restaurants in Edwards, the Inn at Riverwalk http://www.innandsuitesatriverwalk.com is a reasonably priced, upscale option, perfect if you don't mind being a short drive or bus ride from the slopes. Vail's Christiana Hotel http://www.christiania.com/ is another mid-priced option, and there's also a perfectly comfortable, nicely updated Comfort Inn http://www.comfortinn.com in Avon.

Finally, the area has a dizzying variety of condo rentals, which can be ideal for groups of friends traveling together. Rocky Mountain Vacation Rentals http://rockymountainvacationrentals.com/ is the official go-to for condo rentals during Vail Gay Ski Week and is a great bet any time of year.

Andrew Collins covers gay travel for the New York Times-owned website http://www.GayTravel.About.com and is the author of Fodor's Gay Guide to the USA. He can be reached care of this publication or at OutofTown@qsyndicate.com.

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