From the balcony of my condo at the Antlers, I could hear Gore Creek burbling below me, and I could look up into Vail Mountain, its Aspens shimmering so brightly gold in the late afternoon sun that they looked like they were emitting light and not merely reflecting it.
I had spent the day hiking up to the summit, which you can’t even see from town. I took a zip-line ride. I ate grilled trout at a Creekside restaurant.
It was a home-coming of sorts.
I’ve had a 30-year relationship with Vail, Colorado, but I had been away a while.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, I was a magazine ski and adventure-travel writer, and I was a regular visitor to Vail, dropping in to interview downhill racers or ski-town chefs, or just to ski. I had my favorite guides, my favorite drinking buddies.
Then, somehow in the late 1990s, I got seduced away by Utah, which was easier to get to from Phoenix than Colorado, and didn’t require a two- to three-hour drive from the airport.
But on this particular fall weekend, the flights were cheaper to Denver than to Salt Lake City, and on impulse, I called around and booked the condo in Vail.
Back in the day, the word on Vail was that it was an ersatz Tyrolian village pinched between 1-70 and the mountain. It has grown. The Antlers is at the western edge of town in an area called Lionshead Village, after the Gondola station there. And the architectural style resembles classier cities I’ve visited in Switzerland and Italy, pastel stucco shops and restaurants, arches and cobblestones, and flower-planted patios, all under the glowing greens and yellows of the snowless ski slopes above.
It’s a pleasant place. Vail’s management has always made sure of that, unlike many Colorado resort towns where the attitude tends toward “I live here, you don’t.” It has a certain serenity, as if stress were not allowed by zoning. It was full of people on that weekend, but somehow it seems to absorb the crowds, and seems wide open.
But it’s also a self-contained Disneyland. Sure, you could plan long daytrips, map out scenic drives. I chose to stay on the property.
The first evening I walked along the length of town (there is a free shuttle bus) trying to decide where to eat before settling at Up the Creek, where I sat at a table right on Gore Creek.
I was up early in the morning and bought an all-day ticket for the gondola ($28) out of Vail Village. The ride itself is scenic, and it drops you off mid-mountain at a couple of trailheads across the slopes and through the woods to the top of the Lionshead gondola a mile or so away, where there is a family-oriented activity center.
There are ropes course towers for adults and children, stables and restaurants, a couple of zip lines (one of those activities, like ballooning and parasailing, that feels less dangerous than it probably is), and climbing walls.
And trails snake up to 12,500 feet where you can look out over the vast back bowls that make Vail one of the largest ski areas in the world.
A thunderstorm shut the gondola down briefly, and the rain cooled the air to jacket temperatures. But the clouds put on a worthy show, and I drank a coffee until I could get back down.
That evening, I drove to the supermarket and bought a bottle of red wine and a steak to cook on the grill on my balcony. It was cool enough to light the fireplace in the living room, and by nightfall, the skies had cleared enough so that the stars filled the slim slit of night sky between the mountain and the eaves of my balcony.
I’ll be back, maybe this winter.