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Vail Mountain Ski Resort, Colorado

Vail is a complete area, lacking none of the essential ingredients that form the magical stew of a world-class ski resort.

Vail Ski Resort, ColoradoVail was conceived as an Austrian village with condominium convenience, energetic nightlife, quiet lounges, fine dining and pizzeria snacking.The resort opened on Dec. 15, 1962, with one gondola, two chairs, eight ski instructors and a $5 lift ticket. Today Vail is as complete as a ski resort can be. Its off-slope activities are unsurpassed—shopping, skating, movies, museums, galleries, performing arts, sleigh rides and so much more—everything money can buy. Bring lots of that money—temptations abound and bargains are few. But you can find great deals during non-peak periods (early season, January and April).

Village and expenses aside, there is above all Vail Mountain— a single, stoop-shouldered behemoth. Though it does not have ultra-steeps or deeps, what it does have is three distinct mountains: There’s a huge front face of long and very smooth cruisers, an enormous back-bowl of wide-open adventure spread across six miles unlike anything this side of the Atlantic, and Blue Sky Basin providing lift access to boundless backcountry trails.

As important as it is, skiing and riding constitute only part of the total winter-vacation experience. A true world-class resort must have amenities and atmosphere, and Vail is one of a kind in both areas. You’ll find city conveniences like 24-hour pharmacies (which you don’t appreciate until you need medication). You won’t find the typical Colorado mining-town atmosphere because Vail never was a mining town. Forty-some-odd years ago it was pasture. Developers who saw the potential of the mountain built a village styled after an Austrian ski town. Vail seems to have transplanted most of the good from the Austrian template and eliminated a lot of the bad. Heck, they actually did a pretty good job.

Vail is sort of “urban skiing,” if you get my drift.This city-town just doesn’t feel rural. It bustles with traffic—and people—jams in peak periods. You won’t see too many stars at night in the village—too many streetlights. But for many of the urban guests, Vail is just rural enough to let them feel they are getting away from it all. They find the well-lit streets comforting. They want the amenities of big-city life and they don’t mind paying for it. Vail is their kind of place.

The LionsHead area makes up the western end of the front side of Vail and is a good place to start if you’re staying on that side of the village. The main access is the Eagle Bahn Gondola, but three more chairlifts also serve the trails here. Born Free Express, directly parallel to the gondola, is rarely crowded—that’s where the ski school and locals start off to dodge the occasional hordes.

At Blue Sky Basin, skiers and snowboarders will find an experience unlike anything else at Vail—from the rustic character of the buildings to the views, the snow, and the challenging glade skiing and steeps. When some of the trails are groomed, low-intermediates can ski this remote area, which is peaceful and secluded. If they are not groomed, you need to be a strong intermediate who can handle powder and dance through some trees. It’s really quite exciting. The two main areas of Blue Sky Basin were named for Vail founders Pete Seibert and Earl Eaton (Pete’s Bowl and Earl’s Bowl). Blue Sky is to the south of Vail Mountain’s Back Bowls, on the south side of Two Elk Creek.

No grass grows under this resort’s feet, as it continues to reinvent itself while staying in the forefront of ski resorts world-wide. In addition to enhancements on the mountain, Vail is in the process of its five-year, $500-million redevelopment plan with construction of Vail Square in the LionsHead area. When completed in 2007, Vail Square will be home to The Arrabelle— a RockResort luxury hotel — a full-service spa, condominiums, ice skating plaza, restaurants, shops, and skier and guest services. Check www.newvail.com for construction updates and road closures. Elsewhere in the village, you’ll likely notice the $183 million in upgrades to hotel rooms, spas, restaurants and shops, as well as community facilities.