Some holiday decisions are harder than others and one of the most difficult can be skiing. Choosing between a short hop to the Alps or a long haul to the Rocky Mountains of North America. It’s a first-world problem, sure, but for snow bunnies there’s much to weigh up.
The benefits of shelling out euros versus dollars, scoffing apple strudel or apple pie, dealing with often belligerent European queue jumpers or disciplined American lift lines, where courteous people take turns to merge.
Compelling as these side-show considerations undoubtedly are, the main event is obviously the skiing and snowboarding. The snow in the Rockies is famous for always falling light, dry and powdery - mostly because it’s a thousand miles from the nearest ocean.
Not only are conditions sensational on untracked pistes, this sort of snow also packs into ice-free runs on even the most busy and popular runs. European snow is a lot heavier thanks to its much higher moisture content which is why it so easily and often turns to ice. You can of course get outstanding days in the Alps but they’re not every-single-day-without-fail like this.
Trail-grooming is also standard for every beginner and intermediate piste in the States, packing this delicious ice-free powder into thick, white, corduroy-esque stripes which helps create easy to negotiate surfaces.
Basically, nothing in Europe stands a chance in hell of coming near to these sorts of relentlessly heavenly snow days that make your skis and heart sing and - I’m sorry but it’s true - you don’t know the meaning of the word powder until you’ve skied these parts.
Now that British holidaymakers are allowed into the US for the first time since March 2020, Vail Resorts, the world’s largest and most sustainable mountain operator with 34 resorts across the US and Canada – including Aspen, Park City and Whistler – is champing at the bit to welcome us back.
The Vail Resorts Epic Pass makes the destination choice easier too. The ultimate season pass for mountain lovers means you can fly into Denver and then experience several resorts in Colorado during the same trip. For $819 USD you get unrestricted, unlimited slope access to the entire portfolio of resorts all season long, whereas you pay 250/300 EUR for a week in the same resort in France.
I decide to head for Vail first, which was always a ritzy Disneyland for skiers but has taken luxury even further with a serious revamp during lockdown.
A common saying amongst those in the know is that ‘celebrities go to Aspen and CEOs go to Vail’. This isn’t entirely true, however, because the Kardashian family’s favourite run is in Vail – indeed, they’ve had it closed down in order to use it for filming a number of times. I skied it and a huge part of me does not want to admit this but here goes: it was the hardest one we did in an action-packed day and covered in moguls at the bottom. Go Kim, Kylie, Kourtney, Kendall and other Ks: I am reluctantly impressed.
We’ve covered the powder situation already, but I haven’t yet mentioned the scale of the place – mind-blowing, in a nutshell. Until I landed up here I thought my old favourite Whistler was the best and biggest terrain in the world but my eyes have been opened and a reassess has taken place.
Vail Four Seasons
Nothing comes close to this vast area with the natural grandeur of the surrounding Gore and Sawatch ranges alongside the sheer scope of Vail’s back bowls.
There are more than 5,200 acres of developed ski and board terrain, including seven limitless back bowls. Larger than many entire ski areas, including Snowbird and Jackson Hole, these bowls command legendary status. For fans, these vast powder fields are what make Vail the best destination in the world.
There are tonnes of places to stay but one of the snazziest and jazziest, where you are guaranteed extreme comfort, exceptional service and pleasingly perfectionist levels of attention to detail is Four Seasons Resort and Residences in Vail Village, the valley’s main hub.
Aside from the massive rooms complete with fireplace in front of the bed, a 14,000-square-foot spa, the most crazily luxurious hot chocolate I’ve encountered and onsite sensational steakhouse Flame, a big draw for me is the clientele. It’s just lovely to be surrounded by good-looking, friendly, fit people with perfect teeth and glowing skin.
Much as I do love a good people watch, the dedicated ski concierge mere steps from the Gondola One chairlift which gets you up the mountain in the mornings, also deserves special praise.
However sporty we might feel, it’s a treat not to have to carry skis and boots around straight after breakfast – which is big, this is America – and another treat to be able to dump them right off as soon as you get down and start looking around for apres entertainment. Details like this might seem small but they make a big difference to relaxation levels.
Vail Village is a deeply pleasing place. Mostly pedestrianised, user-friendly, squeaky clean and with a wealth of bars, restaurants, shops, spas and activities. There’s lots of fur and Moncler in the boutique windows, Lululemon everywhere and a life-sized bronze statue of a moose, which is useful in case you come across one on the mountain because it’s a true shock to see how big they are.
There are tonnes of high-end restaurants but my favourite was Matsuhisa, part of the Nobu brand but one of only four in the world which bears the chef’s surname. The others are in Aspen, Beverly Hills and Mykonos, in case you’re there and fancy plate after plate of high-end Japanese joy.
Petrolheads and danger junkies will adore the fast and furious Top of the Rockies snowmobiling tour with Nova Guides. I’m pretty sure Bob, our guide, did not adore my panic attacks as we reached elevations of 12,500 feet in the White River National Forest at Historic Camp Hale.
Views from the top are apparently 360-degree panoramic and spectacular but we did it in a white out, hence the occasional moments of terror racing around up there – I must say that no one else cried. Go figure, as they say here. This is the largest commercial snowmobile trail system in the area, they’ll pick you up from your accommodation and lunch is included.
Just 40-minutes’ drive from Vail is the authentic, hip mountain town of Breckenridge. Referred to as ‘Breck’ by locals, it’s absolutely worth a visit and covered by your handy Epic Pass. With a rich mining background and 350 historic structures, walking down Main Street is like stepping back in time – oh, except for the clinical bright white and very popular Medical Marijuana dispensary. Staffed by heavily pierced and tattooed cool kids wearing lab coats, here’s a friendly reminder to take your passport if you want to make a purchase.
Get the true Breck effect by staying at the laid-back 60-room Gravity Haus. It’s the polar opposite of Vail’s Four Seasons but located such a short walk from the base of Peak 9, it’s the closest thing you’ll find to a ski-in/ski-out property here.
With five huge peaks, 167km of piste, four terrain parks, a 6.7m superpipe, the highest chairlift in North America, Imperial Express (I’ve never experienced such shaky legs in all my life than looking down on the clouds from up here) and a world-class ski and snowboard school there’s tonnes of reasons why everyone loves Breck.
Down the mountain, must-visit Briar Rose is a classic chophouse specialising in steaks and wild game with crazy sauces like lingonberry demi-glace. The elegant interior is heavy on wood-panelling, lush fabrics and white table cloths which fit the exquisite service. It’s like something out of a Wes Anderson movie and I could practically feel the old West heritage seeping into my bones as I ate. For the full cultural experience why not pop into a few of the quintessentially American bars along Main Street for digestifs on the way home.
Flying back from Denver I was transfixed by the airport signs for a tornado shelter – yet another reminder that you’re a long way from Geneva or Grenoble. What with the whole new continent, the wildlife, the landscape, the steakhouses and the weed shops, skiing out here feels much more like travelling than popping over to the Alps. If ever there was a season to head further afield in the hunt for better pistes, bigger mountains and perfect, powdery snow then surely this must be it.
Rates at Four Seasons Resort Vail start at $550 for the winter season. Guests can purchase an Epic Pass for $819 USD, which provides unrestricted, unlimited slope access to the entire Vail Resorts portfolio of 37 owned and operated resorts all season long, plus 3-7 days each at 46 partner resorts worldwide. For more information, see vail.com and breckenridge.com