“Come out here. I can hook you up with a free massage, a place to stay, a snowboard and discounted lift tickets.”
My sister then told me of her masseuse position in the luxurious RockResort Spa at Arrabelle in Vail, Colorado. It took me all of two minutes to find a direct roundtrip flight from San Diego to Denver via Frontier Airlines for a total of $149…including taxes.
The last time I had been to Colorado’s slopes resulted in an eight-year-old kid (me) frantically realizing that he hadn’t understood the pie-slowing techniques of skiing and slamming into a skilift’s cabin next to a line of laughing adults. I didn’t ski for the next ten years. But this time would be different. Hopefully.
Getting to and from Vail and the Denver International Airport couldn’t be more simple. I landed at 12:15pm and was on a shuttle, the Colorado Mountain Express (CME), by 12:45pm. CME offers frequent shared rides to and from Vail at $66 lasting a bit over two hours.
I always thought the Mile High City would be situated along precipitous peaks. I was still recovering from how flat Denver is – and the true rockiness of the Rocky Mountains – when we arrived in Vail.
Vail, named after the engineer Charlie Vail who designed the original highway passing through the valley, was founded as a ski resort in 1962. Walking around its two villages, Lionshead and Vail, is like strolling through a European village. And for good reason. Vail Village is modeled after those in Bavaria, Germany. With this community’s architecture set in front of the mountain’s blatantly abundant slopes and snow, it’s hard not to feel as though you're in the Alps.
Known as the 800-pound gorilla of American skiing, Vail offers 193 runs covering 5,289 acres of skiable area. The mountain’s options are intimidating, but also accommodating to any skier via its 18% beginner, 29% intermediate, and 53% advanced-level runs. And if that weren’t enough, the most groomed terrain of any resort in the world is found here.
It was 3:30 p.m., the mountain’s closing time, and my sister and I sat on our last ski lift ride of the day. “Let’s après (pronounced ah-prey) after we finish this run!” I’d never heard this verb before, but soon realized that she meant drinking at the nearby bar after skiing. I later learned its blatant etymology: the French word après means "after."
Language lessons didn’t stop there though. “Gaper” signifies someone from out of town and not familiar with the mountain. The background is not as easily tracked though. Gapers stand in areas that are accidents waiting to happen, with mouths agape. Or perhaps they sport a novice’s gaping hole between their goggles and ski hat. “Steezy” is casually thrown out when an individual is seen dressed in perfect coordination with loud colors. They are completely decked out with everything possible. “So steeeezy.” I quickly felt like a three-year-old learning five new words each day.
My sister and I were later “après-ing” at the popular Garfinkel’s Restaurant and Bar (garfsvail.com). The unadulterated satisfaction of sitting down to a beer after the day’s slope adventures and ten-plus falls was nothing short of palpable bliss. I had no need to speak; I sat there contentedly listening and looking around.
“You guys had a long night last night?” I heard a friend of my sister’s ask her. “Yeah, I didn’t get up until noon today” came the reply. But that wasn’t true – I woke her up at 9:50 a.m. I broke my comfortable silence to lend the information. They both looked at me, as if I were deranged, while explaining that this meant what time she started skiing. And this is exactly what Vail is about during these months.
The phrase “no friends on powder days” is a well-known one, and is used frequently when powder snow is present. At various times I found myself stuck on my back, glued to the snow in four feet of powder, wondering where my sister and friends had gone. I then understood the phrase’s reality.
The people of Vail I met had two factors dominating their schedule: skiing and then when they have to work. Everything else seemed to be just a bonus. Rides on the free shuttles to and from the villages are full of friendly chatter. Everyone seems to wear the snow-passion on his or her sleeves, not thinking about much else. The vibe is down-to-earth and consistently positive – especially after a snowstorm yielding the waiting powder.
So arrived my last day. With two sessions of snowboarding under my now non-gaping goggles, I had a decision to make. My free massage had been pushed up from 4 p.m. to 1 p.m., thus making both the treat of some more slopes and a masterfully designed spa treatment impossible. Which would it be? Right, as if I were going to pass up another day snowboarding at one of America’s top-ten ski resorts.
I found myself après-ing again (surprise) at Garfinkel’s after another awesome powder day in clear sunny skies. With only enough time for a 15-minute après session before I had to leave, I slammed down my beer, hugged my sister, received some warm farewells from new mountain friends, awkwardly ran to the bus only to get onto the wrong one, hopped off and luckily caught a taxi, and barely made my CME shuttle pick-up headed for the airport.
Sitting in the airport’s terminal, still wearing my wet snowboarding clothes, I slowed down my breathing and recapped the day in my head. I could have enjoyed a magical massage and gone about my day in a leisurely gait all the way to my plane ride home. And sure, that would have been soothing. But Vail had already gotten to me. That infectious passion for the mountain was in me and I couldn’t have passed up another chance to “shred the nar” (again, three-year-olds learn many new words a day). I had done it right. But hopefully my next visit will include the Arrabelle.