With some of the best ski slopes in the world, a glammed-up Vail is set to give Aspen a run for its money, writes Danny Weidler.
THAT thud you just heard is the gauntlet being thrown down. It's not something you can hide anymore - Vail is on its way to becoming the new Aspen.
Now before all the Aspenites crank up the hate mail, I know what Aspen has to offer and yes, Vail has a very different feel to the town that Aspen is. It's not dripping with movie stars and the nightlife still wins in Aspen.
While Vail doesn't want to be Aspen or enter a holiday war with its neighbour, make no mistake: this place is going upmarket in a big way.
In days gone by the level of luxury was never the reason I travelled the 20-odd hours from Mascot to Vail.
It was always for the big fat dry flakes on powder days. The kind that seldom fall in Perisher or Thredbo. It was always the lure of fresh tracks.
I'll (hopefully) never know the excitement those shoppers feel waiting outside a major department store on Boxing Day. But lining up at 8.30am waiting to taste the powder, thinking about which of the seven legendary bowls to hit and then getting out there and giggling and yahooing my way through the fluffy stuff ... that's been the beauty of Vail.
As one skier observed to his mate after a tree run at Blue Sky Basin on my most recent trip, "I hope I can find a girlfriend I love as much as this snow". Maybe you had to be there to appreciate the comment.
On this trip I am hosted by Vail Resorts' May Lilley, whose knowledge of the mountain and the powder takes us to runs such as Seldom and Never (her favourite) that I have never touched before.
We also have the luxury of Justin Melvey - a World Cup bumps skier, who should carry a parachute to slow him down - daring us to hit the moguls and ski trees. All along he is teaching us how to ski like him. He even shows our group how to snap a branch buried under the snow whilst skiing at high speed through the trees and not snap a leg. And until now that's what I thought skiing and snow holidays were all about. At least in Vail.
Perhaps it's because I've nudged past 40 and have a couple of kids who will soon be at an age where skiing will be an option, but I'm viewing the mountain differently - or at least I'm actually thinking about life away from the bumps and corduroy. I'm not saying an 8am coffee and a place at the front of a lift line is a thing of the past. But dumpy accommodation and supermarket sandwiches are.
Imagine bunking down in a gorgeous property tucked away in the glades of one of Vail's bowls, the Game Creek Bowl. Called the Game Creek Chalet, it's the kind of accommodation that skiers dream of. Decked out in typical European chalet style, you are sitting close to the base of the bowl in a three-bedroom, five-bathroom property with an outdoor hot tub that provides a view to kill for.
Yes there is internet access, satellite TV, fireplace and continental breakfast and daily housekeeping.
For those who don't fancy carting bags of shopping via a gondola and then snow cat ride from the supermarket down in the valley, you can instead devour meals prepared by a private chef.
On this occasion our man is Keith - a man who clearly loves his food. More Iain Hewitson than Gordon Ramsay in his approach (thankfully), he waxes lyrical about where the produce comes from and after a morning on the slopes I just want to eat.
The salmon, lasagne, salads and cake make it very tough to get back out on the mountain for a couple of late afternoon runs.
If you can get out after lunch - or perhaps the morning is a better option - you have access to a personal mountain guide who will provide you with lift tickets and private ski instruction.
When it comes to the accommodation, the most obvious change is to the area of Lionshead, now referred to as Vail Square, which is in the western part of Vail.
It was always a slightly less glam, out of the way part of Vail. Well, no more. It's gone from Joan Rivers to Miranda Kerr over the past 12 months.
Leading the way are the Ritz Carlton residences. Talk about luxury by the snow. Most of these joints are owned by Americans dripping with dough, who can drop a few million on a property they will use for a month, a year or thousands of dollars for a time-share option. But we are able to rent these properties.
The rise of the Australian dollar makes these residences far more affordable. And you can understand why they are pricey. Within walking distance of the Eagle Bahn Gondola, the residences are complemented by elegant lounge areas with full bar service and light dining fare, year-round heated outdoor swimming pool and hot tubs, an on-site fitness centre with movement studio and treatment rooms; plus an outdoor fire pit, ski valet and daily door-to-door shuttle service to the base of the Gondola.
Ski and snowboard rentals and retail merchandise are available on-site through Vail Sports. You can of course just go downstairs to the Vail Sports store within The Ritz-Carlton Residences building. Then there is the option in which a team can come to your room and fit you out with ski gear. For those who are not hardened skiers, it's a great option and experience.
All this and I have not even mentioned Beaver Creek. Always Vail's pretty sister, it's a 25-minute ride down the I-70 and it's the high end of the high end. Groomed to perfection, the cruisers are beautiful and there's also the Birds of Prey downhill run - one that is used on the World Cup circuit. Our bumps guru Melvey gives us a run down on how the racers attack the run and shows us how infrequently they turn. The speeds he hits are mind blowing - and the trip to Beaver is worth it for that run alone.
The must-do night time experience is dining at Zach's Cabin. Naturally you ride up the mountain in an open sleigh under the stars while your guide gives you a rundown of the constellations and a history of the resort and the cabin.
Perched on the mountainside high above Bachelor Gulch, it is hard to compare Zach's to any other restaurant. The cuisine is American with a distinctly Pacific flavour. Executive chef, Tim McCaw, is a Colorado native and, not surprisingly, he favours fresh Colorado produce.
If there is a must-do night out with your partner this is it. Even the chilly ride down the mountain late at night isn't offputting. You are layered in blankets and ushered into the Ritz Carlton Bachelor Gulch where a fire awaits.
So even the non-skier can enjoy moments like this and the luxurious accommodation and increased shopping options make Vail more of an all-round ski destination. There's even a new bowling alley and a new cinema that delivers high-class hot meals, snacks and alcohol while you watch the latest flicks.
With all of that going on, it's easy to miss some time on the slopes, with sleep-ins and half-day adventures on the mountain an easy routine to slip into. I have to admit I had the odd lazy day. But there is a simple solution to that. Have a longer stay.
The writer was a guest of Vail Resorts and United Airlines.
United Airlines (www.unitedairlines.com.au) flies from Sydney to Denver, with connections through Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as through to Eagle airport. Vail and Beaver Creek are about 2½ hours from Denver International Airport and about 40 minutes from Eagle Airport. Mogul Ski World (mogulski.com.au, 1800 335 724) offers packages to both Vail and Beaver Creek.
Colorado Mountain Express (ridecme.com) provides ground transportation to and from the resorts with regular shuttles in comfortable 10-passenger vans or private cars from Denver International Airport and Eagle airports, door-to-door to your lodging in Vail or Beaver Creek. There are also multiple transportation options for the 25-minute drive between the two resorts.
In Beaver Creek, Mogul Ski World is offering seven nights with a six-day lift pass at St James Place, starting at $1139 a person. A luxurious two-bedroom condominium at The Ritz-Carlton Residences, Vail, for seven nights, with a six-day lift pass, starts at $1490 a person.
Need to know
For ski and board rentals, go to any of Vail Sports or Beaver Creek Sports stores (vailsports.com). There are multiple stores in both villages and on the mountain so if you want to switch any equipment or collect from one location or resort and drop off at another, you can.
At only $US669 ($650) The Epic Pass (epicpass.com) is the best deal in the industry for Australians, offering unlimited, unrestricted access to Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Heavenly, Northstar and Arapahoe Basin — with no blackout dates.