17 Mar 2013

Altitude

"Most resorts are lucky to have one bowl" said the headline on the poster at the lodge. And below a panoramic picture of the terrain including its seven skiable bowls, it proclaimed: "Vail isn't most resorts."

Indeed it isn't. When I told my boss, an avid skier herself, about my plans to spend a few days in North America's second-largest ski area (with Whistler-Blackcomb already off my bucket list), she told me to expect beautiful runs and excellent infrastructure. But she also raised my expectations by pointing out that Vail, along with its Colorado neighbor Aspen, is considered über-posh.

Looking at the cost of our lift tickets and the rent for the chalet, I could definitely agree. At almost $100 a day, access to the resort's runs certainly doesn't come cheap. On the other hand, a day in Mt. Tremblant will set you back by the same amount, and the Laurentian Disney on Ice simply doesn't compare to the Rockies' vertical drop and fluffy powder.

Not even United's mishandling of our skis could dampen our anticipation when we hit the road from Denver. Through heavy traffic, it took us to over 3'400m of elevation and into Vail. Unlike most alpine ski towns, which are up some narrow valley and require you to drive up a curvy mountain road, Vail is a purpose-built town directly off Interstate 70, with the same faux charm that I have come to expect from Tremblant and Whistler. But that is where the similarities end.

Clearly, Vail offers "high-touch" skiing, right from the get-go. As you approach the gondola, a cheery attendant hoists your skis into  the rack. While you soar upwards, you can update your Facebook status or check on your stock options, thanks to the free in-gondola wifi. At the top, brightly dressed staff hand out not just daily grooming reports, but granola bars, too. They are as free as the drinking water available everywhere - much appreciated by thirsty skiers at over 3'000m of elevation.

Runny noses are an inevitable part of any ski day, and even at Tremblant and Whistler I was pleased to see tissue paper dispensers at every lift. Vail, however, takes service to another level: When you walk into any of the lodges, smiling ladies greet you and hold out a box of Kleenex. Once your nose is taken care of, you can then browse lunch choices including salad bars, Asian wok and Mexican burritos, and help yourself to free chocolates sprinkled around the tables. And should you need to use the washrooms, you'll find them stocked with lotion, sunscreen, and scented candles.

Delighted as much by all these thoughtful touches as by the stellar snow conditions, I barely noticed just how often my credit card was swiped around the mountain. Looking at my statement now, the term "champagne powder" certainly takes on a whole new meaning.

Not that I'd have any regrets. The resort's nifty mobile app kindly tallied up 51'199 vertical feet for me, and I've enjoyed every one of them. It is safe to say that Vail takes skiing to a whole new altitude. 

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