On a bright, Colorado bluebird day in January, I found myself slaloming through an evergreen forest at high speed on skis, madly chasing my husband, who was pushing his own gear to its limits. Every muscle in my body burned as we flew through Beaver Creek Resort's Royal Elk Glades, an expert-only zone that demands tight turns, the occasional jump off a boulder and speed.
We were killing time between dropping off our kids at ski school and meeting up with our own instructor (euphemistically called a private mountain guide) for the day, and we'd decided - without discussing it - to pummel ourselves in the trees.
Maybe it was because we secretly chafed at the idea of hiring an instructor, which we had talked ourselves into on the basis that a tuneup couldn't hurt. Or maybe it was because the snow was so good - eight inches of fresh powder that hadn't been touched by other skiers. Whatever the reason, by the end of our second lap, I slid into the lift line sweaty, panting and slobbering. I was a hot mess, the absolute antithesis of Beaver Creek's tagline: "Not exactly roughing it."
Beaver Creek is by far the most luxurious of the Vail Resorts' mountain destinations. It was built in 1980 in Avon, Colorado, about 15 miles west of Vail off Interstate 70, specifically for the luxury traveler. Guests find heated sidewalks, "ambassadors" to carry gear to the lifts throughout the village, always-full escalators adjacent to staircases and homemade chocolate chip cookies - which are passed out regularly around 3 p.m. If Vail, the company's flagship resort, is famous for its rowdy terrain, expansive back bowls and rocking nightlife (not to mention its most famous resident, Olympian Lindsey Vonn), Beaver Creek is more like a country club golf course - impeccably designed, appreciated by experts, but on the sleepy side of things.
Except, of course, that's not the entire story.
Beaver Creek has some of the best tree skiing in Colorado. Aspens cover much of the mountain, and skiing through these well-spaced stands feels magical. Better yet, few people venture off the slopes, leaving powder lingering for days. On last winter's trip, I discovered a trove of tree stashes simply by looking around and finding one or two tracks leading into a thicket. (Said thicket almost always opened up two turns later.) My favorite quickly became Three Tree Glades, just off the Larkspur Express - a short, steep, and challenging shot that demanded attentive skiing.
Beaver Creek also has an incredible dining scene. Saddle Ridge, a restaurant accessible only by skis or snowcat, was designed by Ralph Lauren and feels like a museum of Western art and artifacts. It's an interesting place to discover at a ski area - hardly your typical, crowded ski-lodge cafeteria. Eating our elk and bison chili amid the leather saddles, fringed chaps, paintings of cowboys and Native Americans, and artifacts such as peace pipes, tomahawks and feathered headdresses gave us a sense of how wild this place once was.
One night, we took a sleigh ride up the mountain slopes to Zach's Cabin for a three-course meal served at a beautiful table next to a massive river-rock fireplace. The elk tenderloin and beef short ribs exceeded our expectations. The sommelier stopped by to help decode the inch-thick wine menu. Having spent the day preparing the restaurant's submissions for the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence, he was impressively informed about every selection.
Despite the decadent meal, it was the ride up that stuck with my family. Watching the sunset paint the sky a mosaic of pink, blood red, orange and dusty rose from underneath heavy blankets was like starring in our own movie. (Full disclosure: My kids preferred the crepe shop at the base area and insisted that the on-mountain Candy Cabin, which looks like an old-fashioned sweet shoppe, was the best ski-in/ski-out "dining.")
Not surprisingly, customer service is top notch at Beaver Creek. A cynic might be skeptical of all the smiles and courtesy, but I found it refreshing. Ski towns are itinerant places, and often that translates into rude food servers, lift operators or even instructors.
Not so at Beaver Creek. The majority of instructors at the snowsports school are longtime veterans who offer deep institutional knowledge and an easy friendliness between staff and clients. After seeing the school's state-of-the-art building, the Ranch, a short gondola ride from the base, I understood why it refers to itself as the "Ivy League of Ski Schools," even if the nickname is a bit too self-satisfied for my taste.
To be honest, after spending the day with Coker Baldwin, our guide, I didn't care what the ski school called itself. I was simply grateful for Coker's tips. It took him all of 10 minutes at the beginning of our day to point out my biggest weakness (getting off balance and leaning too far back) and explain its consequence (quads that felt on fire). Throughout the day, and in between pointing out fun, steep chutes and trees, Coker gave me a handful of specific instructions to center my balance and initiate turns through the tips of my skis. In theory, skiing with Coker let us skip the lift lines (instructors get priority boarding), but Beaver Creek rarely has lines. Still, it was worth the hefty price tag to get the fine tuning and insight into the mountain's secret stashes.
There's so much more we discovered, including a nearly 20-mile mountaintop Nordic area, McCoy Park, that is accessed via chairlift. There are plenty of spas at the myriad luxury resort hotels; world-class acts at the Vilar Performing Arts Center, a 535-seat theater in Beaver Creek Village; Thursday Night Lights, a fireworks display; and free shuttles around the village.
Which is to say, the resort's tagline is accurate, but it doesn't tell the whole story. There's more to Beaver Creek than posh trappings, and there seems to be something for everyone, even that sweaty, overeager, middle-aged mom trying to cram as much ski action into her day as possible before picking the kids up from ski school.
I certainly wasn't roughing it at Beaver Creek. But I wasn't holding back or going easy, either. I was reconnecting with my formerly aggro ski self, indulging my inner gourmand, playing with my kids and exploring McCoy Park on snowshoes.
I loved it all.
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Walker is a writer based in Boulder, Colo. Find her on Twitter: @racheljowalker.
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IF YOU GO
Where to stay
The Pines Lodge
141 Scott Hill Rd.
A dog-friendly, ski-in/ski-out hotel with 60 guest rooms and three-bedroom condominiums, this hotel also has ski storage and a boot room that dries and heats your footwear overnight. Starting rates for rooms range from $160 (early season) to $650 (holidays).
Where to eat
44 Meadows Ln.
A gourmet, on-mountain establishment that's a short ski (or snowmobile tow) from the slopes, this huge building is equal parts Western museum and contemporary cuisine. Open for dinner daily, and lunch Sunday through Tuesday. Lunch entrees start at about $10 and dinner entrees start around $35.
214 Beaver Creek Pl.
Situated up on the mountain overlooking Bachelor Gulch, part of Beaver Creek Resort, this elegant restaurant serves dinner Tuesday through Saturday during the winter. Patrons arrive via snowcoach-drawn sleighs and have complimentary slippers waiting for them at the restaurant. Open daily for dinner, and sleigh rides depart in several waves. Reservations in advance are required. Dinner is a la carte, and entrees start at $38.
Blue Moose Pizza
76 Avondale Ln.
A casual pizzeria in the heart of the ski village, Blue Moose is exceptionally welcoming to kids and serves piping hot pies and hearty salads. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., with pizzas starting at $13.95.
What to do
26 Avondale Lane
Beaver Creek is part of Vail Resorts, whose Epic Pass season pass allows unlimited skiing and riding; pass prices start at $460. Individual day passes are available; prices start around $140 a day, but may increase during the holidays. The resort also has a snowsports school, operates a Nordic center on top of the mountain and offers guided ski tours.