In Colorado, they call it a bluebird powder day—when an azure sky reigns over a fresh snowfall, casting an almost purple glow that makes the gentle swells sparkle like lustrous opals. It was just such a day when we crested Vail Mountain and I got my first taste of the legendary back bowls. After a couple of days on the front side’s neatly mapped terrain, I’d finally gathered enough courage to tackle the uncharted posterior. It had taken us one gondola, three lifts, two catwalks, and three runs to get here—the last, a long glide atop a ridge and into a forest of lodgepole pines that felt as lonely and enchanted as Narnia.
I’d thought nothing could be as spectacular as the alpine views from the west peak, with its breathtaking horizons that seemed to blur sky and land the way infinity pools reach into the ocean. But the back bowls are an otherworldly landscape, great craters carved by fire and water where skiers slice their own paths down wide-open faces. I imagined this is what it would feel like to go heli-skiing—or travel with Lewis and Clark.
Vail’s 5,289 skiable acres, the most of any resort in Colorado, provide a constant sense of discovery. Its nearly 200 runs draw skiers from all over the world, yet its thirty-one lifts (including a new gondola with Wi-Fi and heated seats) spread them evenly across the expanse. There are children’s conveyor lifts and green runs even at the top, so everyone gets to enjoy the views, which can stretch to mountain ranges fifty miles off. And, though Vail is home of the Burton U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships and has three terrain parks, snowboarders are relatively tame here. Why? Vail Village—home of both a Ritz-Carlton and a Four Seasons—is simply pricier, so it attracts more families and well-heeled tourists than daredevil shredders.
However, in 2010 Vail Resorts (which also owns Breckenridge and several other ski areas) upped its hipster cred by introducing the highly addictive EpicMix app. Scanners automatically read your pass each time you ride a lift, tracking data like vertical feet skied and number of days on the mountain. Skiers can compete against friends, time themselves against Lindsey Vonn, and earn hundreds of “pins.” (I got the Everest pin for skiing the equivalent of its height, thank you very much.)
Vail is the perfect ski destination for Atlantans because we can fly there directly during winter. It’s also a foodie haven, with a rep as one of the best dining scenes among ski towns. Hot spots like Restaurant Kelly Liken and Nobu’s Matsuhisa draw national attention. But our family opted for an experience we can’t get back in Georgia: on-mountain dining. A lunch of savory chicken-and-pheasant pot pie fortified us nicely at the 10th, a new slope-side restaurant whose modern alpine cuisine is the swankiest you’ll ever eat with hat hair.
Most memorable was our evening at the Game Creek Club. As holiday lights sparkled in the town below, we rode a gondola and then a snowcat to a private, Bavarian-style lodge nestled high against the mountain’s face. The prix fixe menu offered many highlights, but the meat dishes were most exceptional, especially the Colorado lamb. My niece sighed over dessert and pronounced a garnish of caramel foam “bubbles of happiness.”
Given that we were a party of eight, we passed on the four-star accommodations and rented a three-story townhouse ($600 per night). Vail operates the largest free bus system in the nation, so there’s no need to pay ski-in/ski-out prices (easily north of $400 for a single hotel room). Our unit offered expansive views, including the one from a hot tub on the top deck. We joked that the altar-like sun god sculpture in the living room would protect us as 2012’s Mayan calendar wound down. But then, we already felt closer to heaven.
This article originally appeared in our December 2013 issue.