Vail Satisfies Hearty Appetites for Food and Frolic

Reed Travel Features senior editor Felicity Long spent a few days skiing and eating at the Lodge at Vail. Her report follows:

Reed Travel Features

VAIL, Colo. -- Like most New Englanders caught off guard by the three feet of snow Mother Nature unceremoniously dumped on us last April, I was ready to get out of town on the day I was due to leave for Colorado. Imagine my surprise on arriving at Eagle County Regional Airport, located about 30 miles from Vail, to find that the weather had followed me.

The area, famous for its world-class skiing, trendy night life and postcard-perfect setting, also is known for its spring skiing. "Don't pack too much," friends told me. "People will be skiing in T-shirts and shorts." Not quite. Temperatures hovered in the 20s during our stay, and continuous snowfall limited visibility and dampened our hairdos every evening.

So how was it? It was fabulous. For one thing, spring or no spring, snow is what skiing in Vail is all about. And the unusually low temperatures offered our group two days of the squeaky, champagne-powder snow that draws skiers to Colorado from around the world year after year. The Village of Vail itself, with its Tyrolean-style architecture and handpainted floral exteriors, was designed to be at its best when blanketed in snow.

We arrived at the Lodge midmorning to find a cheery fire in the hotel's great room and views of the mountains or the village from our guest rooms.

The hotel, a member of Orient-Express Hotels and Preferred Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, is situated at the base of Vail Mountain. There are 63 rooms with marble baths and terraces, 40 suites featuring kitchens and wood-burning fireplaces, and 40 privately owned suites.

There is a ski shop on the premises, which offers complimentary overnight ski storage for guests. Although the ski rental area is not at the hotel itself, staff members at the ski shop will return rental skis for guests upon request.

While waiting for our rooms, we ate a skier's lunch buffet at the Cucina Rustica, which features such Italian fare as grilled seafood, fresh pastas, garlicky olives and assorted berries. This first meal proved to be a theme of the trip, for in addition to offering great skiing, the area prides itself on having a wide variety of gourmet restaurants and unusual eateries. In fact, our visit had been timed to coincide with the seventh annual Taste of Vail, for which more than 30 of Vail's restaurants and 50 vintners were on hand to celebrate their wares at a number of local events.

It was in search of one such event -- a Taste of Vail mountaintop picnic -- that I set out for Vail Mountain with my boots and goggles firmly in place. My instructions were to find the Lionshead Gondola, ride it to the top and be transported by "people mover" to the picnic area. Since Vail Village is a pedestrian-only zone, walking from the hotel to the shuttle stop is easy and picturesque.

Boutiques, restaurants and a babbling creek lure you along the two-block walk to the corner where a free bus with a cheerful driver picks up passengers and deposits them anywhere along the main road in the village. Five minutes later, I found myself standing in line at the gondola entrance.

Despite the heavily falling snow, the ride to the mountaintop is beautiful and relatively quick. The lay of the land at Vail is such that skiers take the gondola on arrival and ski either the relatively tame areas at the top of the mountain or the steeper, more advanced terrain farther down. The Back Bowls, known for their deep powder and moguls, are a little beyond my skill level, but those in our group who later ventured out there returned triumphant and in one piece. The people movers at the mountaintop turned out to be large snow cats with plenty of seats for the rest of the journey.

Due to my late arrival and the heavy snow, the picnic had telescoped into a wine tasting in a large outdoor tent. While there, I checked out the other activities available at the mountaintop area, called Eagle's Nest. Visitors who want a break from skiing can take snowmobile tours, visit a tubing and sledding park or go ice skating. There also is a new restaurant at Eagle's Nest, called the Game Creek club, open at night. The restaurant, which offers mountaintop views -- and even a clear sighting of the Hale-Bopp comet during our visit -- is open at night. It is accessible via gondola and people mover.

When it comes to skiing, visitors to Vail have the option of either Vail Mountain or Beaver Creek, both of which are owned by Vail Resorts. Because we had two snowy days to fill, we skied both and found them to be very different in atmosphere if not quality. Vail is the hands-down winner when it comes to size, fame and diversity of terrain. And regardless of the skill level of the skier, the mountain lives up to its hype. The somewhat lesser-known Beaver Creek, however, was an exciting discovery to those of us who were unfamiliar with the resort. The ambience is more intimate, more family oriented and less crowded than Vail without sacrificing the quality of terrain or services. In fact, while expressing my reaction to Beaver Creek at dinner, a local said, "We know how wonderful it is. Please don't tell everyone else."

After a hard day of skiing, we attended the Taste of Vail dinner and auction, held at the Marriott in the village. The event was mobbed by chefs and vintners vying for the attention of the thousands of guests milling around sampling foods that ranged from venison to sushi. Wine choices also were eclectic, ranging from elegant French labels to the Fess Parker Winery. The three-day event, including all of the tastings and activities, draws upward of 25,000 people a year to the area. Travel agents can advise clients interested in future Taste of Vail galas that -- as is often the case at Colorado ski resorts -- anything goes in terms of wardrobe. The invitation reads "mountain elegant" attire, which turned out to include everything from rhinestone cowboy hats to sequined gowns.

To round out our eating fest in Vail, we also dined at the Lodge's Wildflower restaurant, which offers more elegant fare than the Cucina Rustica, and visited Mickey's Piano and Wine Bar for apres-ski.

To counteract all that food, there are exercize facitities, an outdoor hot tub and an indoor sauna. The property features underground parking, conference facilities and secretarial services.

For additional information about the Lodge at Vail, call (970) 476-5011, (800) 331-LODG; fax (970) 476-7425. For group sales, call (800) 231-0136; fax (970) 479-9921. For information about activities at Vail, call (970) 476-9090; at Beaver Creek, (970) 845-9090.

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