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Saturday, 24 January 2004





The American resort has theme park tendencies, but the skiing there has certainly improved, says Peter Hardy
It is the shop window of American skiing, the showcase to which every US resort aspires, and next spring its corporate owners plan to smash parts of it with a demolition ball.

In a move that ought to raise a few eyebrows in French architectural eyesores such as Tignes and Les Menuires, Vail is to raze the ugly 1970s buildings in the Lionshead suburb to create a new village at a cost of 270 million.

"The objective is to transform Lionshead into a first-class mountain resort that captures the timeless feel and ambience of the finest European villages," waxes a spokesman for Vail Resorts.

But why anyone would want to create an image of Europe in the mountains of Colorado has always been a a mystery to me. I prefer historic mining towns such as Breckenridge, Telluride and Aspen, which have developed into ski resorts.

The village of Vail, founded 45 years ago by a uranium prospector, is built in "neo-Tyrolean" style. It prospers, claiming to be the most successful as well as the largest one-mountain village in North America, with 33 lifts and 5,289 acres of mainly intermediate terrain.

However, from a European's point of view, it is 5,000 miles from Heathrow to Denver and a further two hours by car to Vail - an exhaustingly long way to travel when a 90-minute flight to Innsbruck would secure you the real McCoy.

What's more, Vail is progressing from neo-Tyrolean to neo-Disney. Along with the trappings of enormous wealth, it has assumed a theme park mantle that homogenises the whole skiing experience.

The latest gimmick is Trevvor, a downloadable animated desktop character who'll pop up whenever it snows with messages such as "Grab your skis, it's dumping up here".

As in many American resorts, anyone skiing off-piste faces arrest and possible imprisonment. The Yellow Jackets ski police patrol the mountain and those caught speeding in a slow-skiing zone risk losing their lift tickets.

However, the controversial expansion into Blue Ski Basin, 645 acres of mainly ungroomed skiing beyond Vail's famous Back Bowls, has done much to offset this lightweight image. After a couple of days of outstanding skiing, I have, for the first time in Vail, enjoyed enormously the challenge of a greatly improved area that now suits all standards of skier and boarder.

I cruised old powder through aspen trees and tackled relentless giant mogul slopes on the front face of Vail Mountain, with barely another skier in sight.

Getting up the mountain
Vail sprawls for more than a mile along Highway 1-70 from Golden Peak to Cascade Village, with six main means of mountain access. Queues tend to form only at peak times for the main Vista Bahn Express, Eagle Bahn Gondola, and at the Mid-Vail station.

Most of the ski area is not visible from the village. Only when you reach the 3,430m summit can you see full extent of the skiing, including the famous Back Bowls, a sequence of south-facing powder runs, and the north-facing Blue Sky Basin beyond.

Where to rent ski gear
Vail Sports (001 970 479 0600, www.vailsports.com) has seven shops in town. You can rent equipment here and exchange or leave it at Breckenridge, Beaver Creek and Keystone. Book online (www.rentskis.com) for a 10- 20 per cent discount. Skis and boots 13-26 per day.

Where to learn
Vail Ski and Snowboard School (001 970 476 3239) has the monopoly; prices are high, but so are standards. Group lessons 50-56, private lessons 270-300, both for a full day. Martin Bell, the former British Olympic racer, works for Vail and you can book a private lesson with him at these prices.

Where to lunch
Two Elk Lodge (001 970 476 9090), on the ridge separating the Front Face from the Back Bowls, is a cavernous self-service restaurant, an enlarged replica of one that was burnt down by animal rights activists in 1999. As well as hamburgers and hot dogs, it serves Oriental dishes such as sushi and stir-fries, 25 for two.

The Lodge at Vail's Cucina Rustica (001 970 477 3725) offers a good-value Italian buffet, 40 for two.

Where to dine
Terra Bistro (001 970 476 6836) is an upmarket bistro with an Oriental/Italian focus, 60 for two. Montauk Seafood Grill (001 970 476 2601) in Lionshead specialises in oysters and Rocky Mountain trout, 70 for two. Russell's (001 970 476 6700) offers the world from Wiener schnitzel to Alaskan crab legs, 70 for two. Bully Ranch at the Sonnenalp Resort (001 970 476 5656) is renowned for its Western-style beef and barbecue menu, 40 for two.

Where to party
The Red Lion (001 970 476 7676) in Bridge Street is the most popular apres-ski bar with live music. The Tap Room & Sanctuary (001 970 479 0500), also on Bridge Street, has dining and dancing; while 8150 (001 970 479 0607) in East Meadow Drive is Vail's hottest nightclub.

What else?
Adventure Ridge (001 970 476 9090 or 479 4383 after 5pm) comprises a selection of afternoon and evening activities for parents and children. These include tubing, skating, ski-biking and orienteering. You dine afterwards at the Blue Moon (001 970 479 4530), which has the best curries in Vail.

Further information
Vail Resorts (001 970 476 9090, www.vail.com/www.snow.com, British agent 01708 224773). Lift pass: the Colorado Ticket covers Vail, Breckenridge, Beaver Creek and Arapahoe Basin and costs 112-178 for six out of nine days when bought through a British tour operator. Lifts: 33 serving 5,289 acres of ski terrain. For Vail's plans for its new dawn, see www.newvail.com.

Peter Hardy travelled to Vail with Ski Independence (0870 555 0555, www.ski-i.com) and stayed at the Landmark Townhouses in Lionshead, where a three-bedroom unit costs 873-1,120 per person including flights, transfers and seven nights' accommodation, but no food.

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