Gigi Girard, an OB-GYN in Louisville, Ky., says she has been to Vail approximately 50 times over the last 20 years. So, over dinner during our overlapping visit this month to Colorado's largest ski resort, I figured she'd be a perfect person to ask about how much her Vail experience during this Covid-19 winter differed from the norm.
Her answer: Very little, except that masks are mandatory and the nightlife shuts down early.
"For me, when you're on the mountain, you forget that Covid even exists," Girard told me. "I think the experiences and the people and the food, that is the same. It's this beautiful European-style village with people from all over the world."
I mostly nodded my head in agreement. After all, despite Covid-precautions, I certainly didn't feel like I had to give up any of the luxuries one comes to expect when visiting a resort like Vail.
Through this winter, I've closely observed the ski experience during what is now 10 days at a combination of three Colorado ski areas. In some ways, things have been considerably different than usual. Notably, indoor on-mountain dining was closed per state and county orders at most Colorado ski areas in December. That was an inconvenience for sure, especially when the wind came up, the toes got cold, and an extended warm-up break would normally have been my course of action.
Over the past month or so, on-mountain lodges at some ski areas, including Vail, have been open at partial capacity. I've still yet to eat indoors on-mountain due to a disinterest in standing in line, and as a personal Covid precaution.
Otherwise, my main skiing complaints this year have been about the lack of snow and periodic long lift lines.
My sponsored visit to Vail Feb. 5 though 8, though, was my first true destination experience this year after several daytrips from Denver. Much like Girard, I found it relatively normal. Surprisingly so, in fact.
With Vail having been hit with its best set of storms of the year, long lift lines were a concern through most of the weekend.
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Lines are exacerbated by Covid precautions that effectively reduce the average number of riders per chair. But for the right price, you can buy the luxury of ducking those lines with a private guide ($905 for a half day and $1,165 for a full day). On Saturday and Sunday mornings, Vail provided me with a guide who offered some great skiing tips in addition to quick lift access.
Masks predominated on the streets of Vail village, and naturally, on the mountain. But Covid hadn't put an end to the apres ski scene. Indeed, after that first day on the mountain I enjoyed a beer on the enclosed patio of a village restaurant. Capacity was reduced, though I'm not sure to the mandated 25% level.
At my hotel, the Lodge at Vail, Covid protocols were in place. No cash. Reservations for the hot tub. The spa was open for massages, with other services suspended. The outdoor pool was open and heated to a steaming 90 degrees or so.
Around the village, and during a nearby snowmobiling excursion, I met people from Ohio, California, Texas, Kentucky, Florida, Argentina and Russia. As Girard said, Vail remains an international type of place, even now.
Over those three days, I skied, swam, soaked in the hot tub, enjoyed a massage and had three fantastic dinners. I never forgot I was living through a pandemic, but I was able to enjoy everything I normally would during a ski vacation, if sometimes in slightly altered form.
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Still, I did ask myself whether all this activity at Vail and in other ski areas is driving high levels of Covid spread.
Data on that cuts both ways. Relative to many U.S. states, Colorado has had a fair amount of success in controlling the virus. That remains the case now, with the state in a three-way tie for the 19th-lowest per-capita infection rate earlier this week, according to the New York Times.
However, it's also true that the counties in Colorado that are still designated as Level Orange for Covid-19 -- third-highest on Colorado's six-level Covid scale -- skew heavily toward destination ski counties. That's the highest level currently held by any county in the state. Vail and Beaver Creek's Eagle County, along with the counties that contain Winter Park, Breckenridge, Telluride and other destination ski areas, are Level Orange.
My take: Be safe on your ski vacation, both on and off the mountain. At Vail, and surely elsewhere, you'll still have a great time.