Author Sam Polcer Photography Sam Polcer
DAY TWO I am a little disoriented when I awake. It turns out the designers at the Sebastian, a recently renovated boutique hotel in Vail Village, deviated from the lodge and chalet playbooks, which deem that each guestroom must meet the minimum requirements of one antler chandelier, one vintage ski competition poster and one moose photograph or cowboy watercolor. Here, they’ve gone so far as to incorporate blue—blue!—into the decor, and I’ve nearly forgotten what I came for.
The sensation continues as I head downstairs: Oversize contemporary paintings, metallic sculptures and art books clutter the cathedral-ceilinged seating areas off the rustic-chic lobby. Ambient music pulses softly from hidden speakers. Every other guest is speaking Spanish or Russian.
Breakfast is a two-minute stroll away, in the glassed-in terrace of Ludwig’s, at the chalet-themed Sonnenalp Hotel, which has more than enough exposed timber to reset my compass. I’m seated across a table from Chris Anthony, a longtime pro skier and star of many Warren Miller ski films, who’s agreed to give me a few pointers for my stay in Vail, starting with the meal at hand. “This place isn’t publicized a lot,” he says. “But the buffet is spectacular.”
Three spectacularly stacked plates later, Anthony tells me that Vail is “a big resort with the personality of a small village.” As a waitress in lederhosen checks on us, he elaborates: “It’s easy to get lost in the Disneyland effect, but there are these families who live here and own businesses, and they’ll take you to another level of service. You create a bond with them. This place, the Sonnenalp, is owner-operated. The key is to seek out those special places. Find out who’s really invested.”
I consider filling another plate, but I’m supposed to be hitting the mountain, not trying to look like one. And what a mountain it is, topping out at 11,570 feet, with more than 5,200 acres of skiable terrain. I zigzag to the top, hurtle down toward the ant-size skiers on China Bowl and settle into a tuck all the way to the Skyline Express lift, which takes me up to the glades and secret powder stashes of the outlying Blue Sky Basin. At the top of the basin is Belle’s Camp, where burgers and brats are thrown onto gas grills amid expansive vistas of the Sawatch Mountains and the Ten Mile Range. One of the greatest views in Colorado, I’ve been told. It is a fine view, but I’m having difficulty tearing my eyes away from the plates in front of the feasting families around me. Time to head down to Vail, where lunch awaits.
Once I’ve managed to pry my feet from my ski boots at the Sebastian’s Base Camp valet service, I walk a couple of blocks to Mountain Standard, the casual offshoot of legendary eatery Sweet Basil, which sits above. Any regrets I may have had about missing the high-altitude barbecue go up in the smoke rising from the open wood fire. I quickly dispatch a platter of wild king salmon, the froth of an Upslope Brewing Company stout on my upper lip. It’s a burly scene—men with beards and tattoos tend the flames; bartenders in flannel shirts pour tumblers of whiskey—but the fish is delicate and juicy, served with avocado puree, watercress, pickled vegetables, mustard seed and radish.
I’m picked up outside by another hardy-looking type, this one decked out in waders and an unironic trucker hat. His name is Mike Geisler, and he’s a guide for Gore Creek Fly Fisherman. It’s time to go fishin’—which doubles as an opportunity to enjoy the Rockies without gasping for breath.
An hour’s drive northwest brings us to our launch point in Rancho Del Rio, or, as Geisler quips, “a sunny spot for shady people.” Geisler tells me he ended up in Vail because, years ago, that’s where his truck broke down. Now he has a family and, when he’s not teaching people how to read a stream, he runs a restaurant with his wife in the nearby town of Red Cliff.
He’s also extremely patient. In cold water like this, the trout we’re after meander along the bottom, their metabolisms slowed, wary of the bugs that appear out of nowhere in the dead of winter. Bites are hard to come by—and that’s before you factor in the complete lack of skill I’ve brought to the river, despite a few casting lessons from Geisler. The next hour or so goes like this:
Geisler [urgently, pleadingly, pointing at the bobbing bobber attached to my line]: “There!”
Me [yanking on the rod, too late]: “Whuh?”
But catching fish isn’t really the point, or at least not the whole point. We’re standing in this peaceful place, surrounded by snowy pines and amber brush, the river’s rippled surface vivid in the light of the low-hanging sun. “Still, I have to tell folks not to talk politics sometimes,” Geisler says. “It’s like, ‘Come on, we’re fishing!’” Just then I stumble, and he gives me a wink: “This is the Colorado River, bruh—you fall in here, we’ll pick you up at the Grand Canyon.”
As exciting as that sounds, it’s time to pack it in, get back to the hotel for a change of clothes and pop over to the village of Lionshead for something even more relaxing than being outwitted by fish: the “Sports Enthusiast Body Recovery” treatment at the Arrabelle at Vail Square spa. My casting arm (and skiing quads and biking calves) needs tending to. I’m subsequently exfoliated, heated, stretched and kneaded to the edge of unconsciousness. I might need a recovery from my recovery.
I leave the spa and wobble uncertainly toward dinner. I’m eating at the Game Creek Restaurant, located midmountain and requiring a gondola and snowcat ride to access. Night is falling, along with a fair amount of snow, which, whipped by the wind and seen in the ’cat’s headlights, lends the journey a suspenseful edge. Upon arrival, I enter a cavernous, glowing red dining room. The place has a ceremonial feel to it, and I’m tempted to ask the waiter where I can pick up my robe. Instead, I order the tasting menu: a sculptural arrangement of chicory, apple, walnut, blue cheese and duck confit; tender, slow-cooked elk with achiote, hominy grits and maitake mushroom; and a lingonberry bavarois for dessert.
Back down the hill, there’s time to meet up with Chris Anthony for a mudslide at the Sonnenalp’s Bully Ranch. Sitting beneath an elk-antler chandelier, I notice that there are “truffle tots” on the menu and wonder if maybe I should order some—but it’s late, I’m full of elk, lingonberries and vodka, and I have an early start tomorrow. I ramble back to the Sebastian, passing a party of Argentines gathered in the lobby, about to start their night out. I tell them there’s a spot up the street that serves tater tots sprinkled with truffle oil. “Yes,” says one of them, looking mildly alarmed. “Goodnight!”