Vail’s claim to fame has always been being the largest single ski mountain in the United States. The town was built in 1962 as a base around the Vail Ski Resort and the precious design and perfect landscaping seem like they belong in Disneyland. But there’s a lot more than meets the eye in this ski town.
Locals who flock here from all across the country will tell you that in Vail, you come for the winter but stay for the summer. After visiting the last weekend in May, I understand completely. The mountains and forests here are breathtaking, and in summer it can be an even more immersive sensory experience. Listening to the rushing rapids and smelling sweet pines gives you a sense of place that’s completely different from the snowy winter landscape. Instead of skiing and snowboarding, there’s hiking, whitewater rafting, mountain biking, and rock climbing to keep you active and having fun.
Where to Stay
The Sebastian Vail – Lobby
The Sebastian is the newest boutique hotel in Vail Valley and very different from the expected dark ski lodge. Instead of hunting trophies and antler chandeliers, there are countless contemporary Mexican sculptures and paintings from the owner’s personal collection on display throughout the property. I love the skylights in the lobby and the cozy library, where you can play chess or tic-tac-toe and admire original abstract paintings by Manuel Felguérez. The entire lobby area feels like a massive living room with a concrete log centerpiece and all the guest rooms were renovated just last December. Every evening, you’ll find a different cookie on your nightstand – one night I enjoyed chocolate crinkle cookies and the next, chocolate pistachio biscotti. The hotel definitely makes sure you’re well fed. The complimentary sweet and savory trail mixes in the minibar are just the thing to pack for a hike.
Another great hotel that has a strong emphasis on wellness is Vail Mountain Lodge. With just 20 rooms, this is an even more intimate accommodation, in more traditional warm wood tones with a gas fireplace and tub in each guestroom. If you’re looking to jump-start a healthy lifestyle, you can get metabolic testing, body composition analysis, and a functional movement screening at the adjacent Vail Vitality Center, allowing your personal trainer to design the right exercise and nutritional regimen tailored to your body. At Vail Vitality Center wellness also incorporates mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing, so there are stress management, meditation, and yoga classes in addition to fitness. Everyone, from Pilates instructors to personal trainers and spa therapists, is so passionate about what they do and will inspire you to be the healthiest, happiest version of yourself.
Where to Sweat
Vail Vitality Center
As soon as you drive into Vail, you’ll be itching to get out on the mountains. Work with Ellen Miller, the outdoor fitness specialist at the Vail Vitality Center. “Being here in the mountains is so invigorating,” she says, gazing up to the mountaintops still dusted with snow. “I’m lucky that this is my office every day.” Ellen has climbed Mt. Everest on multiple occasions and now trains the US Women’s Mountain Running team, but don’t be intimidated. She’s an encouraging and compassionate coach for guests of all fitness levels so you can start with simple hikes and maybe eventually graduate to trail running.
You can also hire Paragon Guides for all kinds of summer adventures. They’ll take you hiking, mountain biking, fly-fishing, and rock climbing depending on your interests. If you’re really adventurous, you can even take a multi-day trek into the remote Rocky Mountain wilderness with llamas and stay in the 10th Mountain Division Hut System. The huts are remnants from the army division’s vigorous training during World War II and are a neat historical shelter for back country exploration.
I was not quite that hardcore, and instead chose a moderate half-day hike on the Gore Creek Trail with guide Donny Shefchik leading the way. The day before our hike, Donny called me to discuss my fitness level, the weather forecast, and where I wanted to go, and I so appreciated the personalization. This was my first visit to Vail, so I left it up to him. In late May, we still saw quite a bit of snow, but also the first wildflowers of the season and budding aspen trees. Donny was incredibly knowledgeable – he’s hiked this trail countless times over the decades, and pointed out a couple of his favorite fishing and camping spots along with wild strawberries.
Where to Spa
Spa at Vail Vitality Center
Vail truly offers the best of both worlds in terms of pure nature and luxurious pampering, as evidenced by the Four Seasons Vail Spa, one of only two Forbes five-star spas in Colorado. Spa facilities, including wet and dry saunas, whirlpools, and cold plunge pools are open to all guests, even without booking a treatment. You’ll want to indulge in a facial here though.
For a smaller, more intimate experience, Bloom Spa at The Sebastian offers unique treatments utilizing local ingredients. A body polish with indigenous wildflowers or a pedicure with a locally brewed Crazy Mountain Pale Ale beer bath for your toes wouldn’t be found anywhere but Vail. Several treatments help protect your skin and body from the natural elements and high elevation. If your skin is feeling parched, the Blossom Renewal shea butter body wrap will do wonders in both relaxing your muscles and restoring moisture.
For expert hands and the best massage of your life, check in to the Spa at the Vail Vitality Center and ask for Shinji. The Kyoto-native has been working his magic on sore bodies here since 1999 and after an invigorating coffee and kelp scrub, he gave me a combination myofascial release and deep tissue massage that was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I was literally melting on the warm massage table and my circulation was noticeably better for days afterwards.
Where to Dine
Photo Credit: Amber Gibson, Sweet Basil
Sweet Basil is akin to Gramercy Tavern in Vail – it’s been around since 1977 and serves the most memorable and mouthwatering food in town. The white tablecloths disappeared a year and a half ago, so the focus is squarely on the innovative, bright flavors in each of executive chef Paul Anders’ dishes as opposed to the formality of classic fine dining. Each dish is complex – utilizing unique flavors like black lime dusted compressed mangoes in an arugula kale salad or crispy oysters and nuoac cham with cashews and grilled organic salmon – pushing Sweet Basil to the level of top restaurants in big cities like Chicago, New York, and San Francisco. Save room for the signature sticky toffee pudding that’s been on the menu for more than 20 years. Pastry Chef Amanda Andrews has put her own twist on the classic by topping the decadent cake with brown sugar rum ice cream and peanut brittle.
Terra Bistro is another great option, especially if you seek out organic, sustainable food. Bread service doesn’t come with butter here, but a housemade dal spread in chili oil. Eating healthfully has never been this easy and delicious – start with house sprouted quinoa butter lettuce cups with balsamic macerated tomatoes and avocado followed by local trout stuffed with golden raisins and pine nuts. A small scoop of passion fruit sorbet will cleanse the palate and offer a guiltless sweet respite.
Carnivores will love Flame, the only restaurant in the Vail Valley with its own dry-aging meat locker. There are a half dozen housemade rubs and sauces to dress your bison, lamb and steak just how you like. The garden chimichurri was a perfectly herbaceous accent to marbled Rosen Farms lamb chops. Get a side of crispy kimchi Brussels sprouts and a glass of Four Seasons’ exclusive Iconoclast Cabernet Sauvignon to complement the juicy meat.
You won’t need a car at all. The Colorado Mountain Express takes you right from Denver International Airport to wherever you are staying and the ride through the mountains is beautiful. Once you’re here, use Vail’s free community bus system, the largest of its kind in the United States. June and September are excellent months to visit – room rates are often only a quarter what they would be in peak winter season and restaurants and boutiques offer special discounts – like half-priced entrées at Terra Bistro.
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