The un­bear­able light­ness of ski­ing

Begin­ner’s luck at two Colorado resorts

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - JANE NI­CHOLLS

My com­plete ski­ing CV con­sists of a trip to Falls Creek in high school, a cou­ple of week­ends at Per­isher in my 20s and some gen­tle cross-coun­try in Canada a few years ago. Still, when asked to check out the ski scene at Vail and Breck­en­ridge, Colorado, I say, “I’ll be there, with sleigh bells on.” I am 52 years old. Crazy, or what?

Snapped into shin-dig­ging ski boots that could moon­light in a tor­ture mu­seum, I gaze at the gi­ant peaks of “Breck” from in­side my ski gog­gles and re­alise my bravado has bolted. Chair­lifts go up, up and away in all di­rec­tions. It’s snow­ing lightly. Pop mu­sic is puls­ing from loud­speak­ers. Peo­ple suited top-to-toe in syn­thet­ics are clomp­ing about hap­pily. Four-year-olds are zoom­ing down the slopes on teeny tiny skis.

But at Breck­en­ridge and Vail I dis­cover that ski­ing is per­haps the most fun you can have with (lots of) clothes on. These resorts have so many op­tions for those who don’t want to ski all the time (or at all); there’s ex­cel­lent food, and ski in­struc­tors are an­gels, borne on long, thin planks in­stead of wings.

Ben Pleimann of Breck Ski School, and Sil­via Prieler of Vail Ski School, there’s a spe­cial place in heaven for you. It’s re­plete with moguls and jumps and black-di­a­mond runs and all the other scary ski­ing things you love. We never do any of it when we’re to­gether, and yet you make me feel like you’re hav­ing a ball. “I’m on skis, I’m happy!” says Ben.

He takes me out first, at Breck. Af­ter a few runs on the bunny slopes, I’m still smil­ing, and he reck­ons we’re good to go on our first chair­lift. We do it. And then a poma. And an­other chair­lift. He’s gen­tly push­ing me on, giv­ing me point­ers and shout­ing, “Less talk, more ski!”, as he slides off to watch me ex­e­cute my new skills.

When we move over to ski in Vail, Sil­via looks af­ter me like a lov­ing mother. She has dif­fer­ent cues to Ben’s, call­ing out “Weight on left! Weight on right!”, as I turn-turn­turn down slopes so steep that, when I look back up, I can’t be­lieve that I’ve made it. She’s a crafty mama, never giv­ing me time to think about it at the top. (She’s Aus­trian, mar­ried to a Kiwi-Aus­tralian, and was tech­ni­cal coach for the Aus­tralian Par­a­lympic ski team in 2002. You can imag­ine how un­wor­thy I’m feel­ing, but she won’t have a T-bar of that talk.)

The No 1 rule is to take lessons wher­ever you go, even if you’re a good skier. Pri­vate in­struc­tion is a pricey priv­i­lege, but there are ski-school op­tions aplenty, in fam­i­lies, with friends, grouped by abil­ity or even by gen­der.

In 2 ½ days Ben and Sil­via get me rid­ing chair­lifts and nav­i­gat­ing blue runs, one level up from begin­ners’ green runs. At first, the thrill comes from mak­ing it to the bot- tom of a long run alive. Soon, the grin­ning glee of zoom­ing down­hill wraps me in a eu­phoric hug. Up and over yon­der, there are dozens of spec­tac­u­lar runs for ex­pe­ri­enced skiers that I won’t get to see. But the beau­ti­ful begin­ners’ runs at these resorts make my heart skip a beat.

Ski-town gon­do­las aren’t like the ones in Venice, silly. (I’m talk­ing to my­self here; I look around for ice­break­ing wa­ter­craft when told we’re catch­ing a gon­dola.) These ones are en­closed cable cars that trans­port you around the re­sort and up and down peaks.

The jour­ney to din­ner at Game Creek Club be­gins with the Ea­gle Bahn Gon­dola from Lion­shead, one of Vail’s vil­lages. We’re given blan­kets and the lights of Vail dis­ap­pear as our car is ca­bled up the moun­tain. In a few min­utes, we’re at Ea­gle’s Nest, our blan­kets are whipped away and we await our next trans­port, which is a snow­cat, and a to­tal adren­a­line rush.

At the chalet, a mem­bers-only club by day, the food more than lives up to the lofty al­ti­tude (about 3140m). From the prix fixe menu, I or­der Arc­tic char with spat­zle, tomato, as­para­gus and mus­tard for my main. Ev­ery dish, served among heavy fur­ni­ture and wood-pan­elling, looks light and de­li­cious. We want to be snowed in so chef Steven Top­ple (an English­man from Portsmouth) can make us break­fast, too, but the waiter tells us that’s never hap­pened.

Game Creek is a peak, but there’s top food all around. Steaks, chops, prime rib and buf­falo fea­ture at Briar Rose chop­house in Breck­en­ridge’s his­toric district (shout out to su­per wait­ress Sab­rina).

Lob­ster mac and cheese at Pioneer Cross­ing, at the top of the In­de­pen­dence Su­perChair in Breck, seems like a sen­si­ble ski­ing lunch. As does crab cake with spicy re­moulade on brioche and truf­fle fries at The 10th, at Vail’s Gon­dola One.

At Mat­suhisa, one of Colorado’s three tem­ples to the Nobu faith, black cod with miso and spicy tuna with crispy rice are both hymn-wor­thy. As is the cater­pil­largreen Gar­dener cock­tail of Hen­drick’s gin, ser­rano pep­per, cilantro, ginger and lime.

There’s more off-slopes mer­ri­ment at Breck­en­ridge Dis­tillery, the world’s high­est. Its main game is award­win­ning bour­bon but I stick to the de­li­cious “vodka with an al­ti­tude” made from pris­tine Rocky Moun­tain snowmelt. Colorado pears are used to jazz up one vodka, and alpine herbs (hand-har­vested, they say) go into Breck­en­ridge Bit­ter, a yummy aper­i­tif.

Af­ter a tast­ing ses­sion and tour of the bar­rels and stills, have a hearty, shared-plates din­ner in the ad­join­ing cav­ernous res­tau­rant, where you can keep the bour­bon com­ing in flights if you so choose.

I meet with Jenn Cram from Breck Cre­ate and Molly Ep­pard from Vail Art in Pub­lic Places to find out about the lo­cal art pro­grams. In Breck­en­ridge, the coun­cil has spent $US25 mil­lion ($33.5m) restor­ing build­ings in the charm­ing his­toric district, an in­vest­ment in “cre­ative tourism”. There are per­for­mance spa­ces, stu­dios (ceram­ics, yoga, and more), gal­leries and a year-round pro­gram of events, shows and classes.

Each Jan­uary, a snow-sculp­ture con­test is a high­light, with up to 16 teams from across the globe work­ing on 3.6m blocks of packed snow to cre­ate frozen art. Teams of four spend five days and nights chip­ping and shav­ing the blanks into in­tri­cate mas­ter­pieces, with noth­ing but snow per­mit­ted to sup­port the sculp­tures. There’s no cash prize, only warm ac­claim.

In Vail, the Art in Pub­lic Places pro­gram be­gan in the 1980s and now the art trail in­cludes 47 (and count­ing) mu­rals, in­stal­la­tions, paint­ings, sculp­tures and play­ground com­po­nents. Dur­ing Win­ter­fest, AIPP cre­ates a free out­door cin­ema in the vil­lage, with an ice screen and over­sized chairs and lounges carved from ice.

Also in Vail Vil­lage, the Colorado Ski and Snow­board Mu­seum (re­open­ing later this year af­ter ren­o­va­tions) amazes me with the story of World War II’s 10th Moun­tain Di­vi­sion. About 16,000 sol­diers trained for moun­tain com­bat in Europe here at Camp Hale, which was hastily built in April, 1942. Pete Seib­ert, one of the di­vi­sion’s elite ski troop­ers, led the charge to found Vail in 1962, when a lift ticket cost $5. Most Fri­days, Sandy Treat, one of the last sur­viv­ing 10th Moun­tain veter­ans, gives vis­i­tors a first-hand ac­count of Camp Hale.

At Breck, we stay at Hatari Lodge, an over-the-top man­sion on Shock Hill, within walk­ing dis­tance of the Breck Con­nect Gon­dola, which goes to the main base area. With home movie the­atre, pool table, gi­ant kitchen, out­door hot tub and five bed­rooms, the lodge can be rented through Lux­ury Re­treats, which has plenty like it.

The Lodge at Vail is a short walk from Gon­dola One, which takes you up the slopes (and here at the base, the ho­tel has a valet service to store your skis). It’s a classy ho­tel where dogs are al­lowed to stay in some gue­strooms, with spe­cial beds and house-made treats.

The Lodge at Vail also has a snow-de­fy­ing out­door pool heated to 28C; gas fire pits blaze all around and there are two in-ground hot tubs. It’s called Pool One, be­cause it was the first in Vail, and I, for one, adore it.

Jane Ni­cholls was a guest of Vail Resorts.

• vail­re­sorts.com • art­in­vail.com • lux­u­ryre­treats.com

Breck­en­ridge, Colorado; on the slopes at Vail, be­low

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