Ski towns get a bad rap. Not during the winter of course. In season they are the gem of the landscape, visitors flocking to them with sole, unquestionable purpose. Somehow once the snow melts they are often ignored, mistakenly thought of as one note destinations not garnering the rapt attention they still deserve as multi season hot spots.
I’ve always loved a ski town in the summer. During my residence in Northern California I relished summer stays at Lake Tahoe, hiking the ski trails and enjoying the mountain ambiance without my 400 pound ski boots which caused me to lumber like a cave woman. When the opportunity presented itself for me to experience summer in Vail Colorado I jumped on it. I will be quite frank; my last visit to Vail was over 5 years ago to join some summering friends for the local July fourth parade. I found it tired and dated. I loved the spirit of the celebration but the visual throw back to the 1970’s heyday left a lot to be desired. I’ve heard rumblings about the updated food scene, vast remodels and updates all of which have peaked my curiosity. I went with an empty camera memory card and clean mental slate to experience what is the current Vail.
Even the most stunning of beauty queens needs a little lift after 50 years and Vail is no different. Holding the esteem of one of America’s most desirable ski enclaves the shine had begun to tarnish a bit. Destination cache still intact, 2.5 billion dollars has been pumped into the area to revive the exteriors, established and new businesses and streetscapes. What met me was not the tired, alpine metaphor but a revived beaming new berg that excited my sense of exploration immediately.
My first encounter was my stay at the Four Seasons Resort Vail. I pulled in at midnight, two hours after I was slated to arrive to a cheery valet and check in staff holding their own in the wee hours far better than was I. The hotel is a mere two years old and presents all you would expect in a Four Seasons with the elegant, earthy approachable vibe of a mountain destination. The service throughout my stay was easy and friendly. This is unquestionably a luxury hotel but one for real people. No personal Learjet? No problem. Everyone is treated equally and with the goal of an unmatched stay.
The Four Seasons Resort Vail is nestled in the middle of Vail Village making it an easy location for visiting restaurant in the Village and in the opposite direction toward Lionshead, the completely new/redone Bavarian inspired area next to the gondola. I was joined by four other journalists/photographers to experience the culinary gems of Vail as well as different means to see the area.
Our first excursion was a cruiser bike tour of three of the stand out dining spots: The Vail Chophouse, Sweet Basil and Larkspur. After walking through the Vail Village admiring the older Euro style buildings and high end shops we rented cruiser bikes at Christy Sports. They fitted us specifically and quickly with easy to ride bikes bearing shock absorbers to effortlessly glide over the charming cobblestone streets.
First stop was in Lionshead at the Vail Chop House. We landed at the restaurant patio at the foot of the gondola. A perfect spot to perch and watch the unending mountain bikers mount the gondola to be ferried up to the top of the mountain to ride their bikes down. The Vail Chophouse was our appetizer stop presenting us with a Seafood Tower that was breathtaking. Three abundant trays of fresh crab, lobster and every mollusk imaginable. I’m usually a bit wary of seafood served inland despite knowing current logistics allow fresh fish to be delivered anywhere in the blink of an eye. The quality of the seafood brought back the memories of the same fare being swooped from the sea before me and put on my plate. It was a spectacular sight and one that makes the center of a party easily.
In addition to the seafood we tried two of their cocktails in ‘mocktail’ form. A vinegary, biting Bloody Mary with a behemoth prawn and strip of Jalapeno Bacon (mouth watering in the recall of it). Also a fresh Blueberry Lemonade which I tried later avec booze and it was just as refreshing and fun.
Next stop was Sweet Basil. Having been established for 35 years it remains the ‘go to’ spot and has become the birth place of many high profile chefs who after a time at the restaurant have gone on to open their own restaurants successfully. The sampling of sides and salads here had a distinct truffle bent, and one that had our group still talking about it two days later. The restaurant has a current, hip décor spanning from the entrance in the Vail Village to the back room defined by full windows to the creek and green space. The cuisine was upscale and innovative yet with no airs.
Last stop was Larkspur. I’d heard a lot about Larkspur and in mere moments I understood why; they care. They were preparing for a wedding in the afternoon. We arrived with bike helmets on and cameras blazing to a gorgeous presentation of desserts we assumed were for the wedding only to learn they’d spent the time for us. Rolled cones of paper with our individual names printed on them holding caramelized popcorn, a beautiful small cake fit for a wedding, truffles, handmade truffle pops, and a Panna Cotta to die for. Despite their countdown to the wedding the pastry chef and Executive Chef made the time to greet us, tour us through the outdoor wedding site being constructed on their side lawn and show us their petite garden from which they harvest herbs and micro greens for the restaurant’s dishes. Food can be great at a restaurant but intent can be lacking and with Larkspur I felt the whole package. They made a lasting impression and I can’t wait to go back.
We split for the afternoon all able to explore Vail through our chosen excursion. The breadth of options was endless from learning to paddle board, touring the mountain top via jeep, rock-climbing to fly fishing. My choice was something I love to do and feel it a wonderful way to see a new area; on horseback. I rode the gondola to the top of the mountain to the site of Vail Stables on mountain venue. As luck would have it my early sunset ride was just Wrangler Carsten and I. My trusty stead Diesel, when not striving to eat weeds, aptly toured me up and over the mountain, through vast glens of towering Aspen trees, with vistas of the distant mountain ranges all under the cerulean skies we in Colorado count on for over 300 days a year. The ride was about an hour long and as with most stables offers rides for all skill levels. The horses are well trained so even if the riders aren’t it is a fantastic and very Western way to enjoy Vail mountain in summer.
A specific mission I bore was to find a cocktail hot spot (regular readers will not be surprised). My posse joined me at Frost the hip, happening bar at the uber cool Sebastian hotel. Sitting at the cobalt blue hand-blown glass bar we ordered a sampling of Frost’s drinks delving more into the seasonal and unique. My fave’s? The Cripple Creek, a bourbon lover’s dream with bourbon, chartreuse, basil and mint from the hotel’s garden all muddled into a murky green sophisticated libation. The other, Elixir No. 16, a summer sipper made light with St. Germaine, Prosecco, club soda and fresh berries. Frost was kind enough to share the recipe for readers to enjoy a taste of Vail at home.
Frost Bar's ELIXIR NO. 16
- 3 ounces Lamarco Prosecco
- 1 ½ ounces St. Germain liqueur
- 2 ounces Club Soda
- Fresh in season cantaloupe or berries
- In a wine glass pour the first three ingredients over ice. The soda controls the level of sweetness so taste to adjust for your preference. Add finely chopped cantaloupe or fresh berries; stir. Garnish with a berry.
We dined at the Solaris a new chic, majestically scaled plaza in Vail Village, a key addition from the expansion. Dotted by art (as is all of Vail Village and all the community parks through a very purposeful art share program) the nightscape was mesmerizing with a signature modern sculpture illuminating in alternating tones lending itself to a cosmopolitan feel. Matsuhisa, our dinner spot followed suit with soaring ceilings and contemporary touches. The restaurant was packed inside and out where we dined on the patio. Definitely a local hot spot, Matsuhisa offers Japanese cuisine from fresh sushi to more traditional dishes as well as South American fusion dishes.
With a bit of time to individually meander on Sunday, I enjoyed a walk through the Vail Farmer’s Market following a farm-fresh lunch at Elways (click here for details). The verve was undeniable, streets filled with live music, fresh foods, artisan foods, art and crafts. Activities for children and adults alike make this a destination with equal opportunity for any age, singles, couples or families.
With far more I wished to do than time at hand I poked into some excursions I’ll bookmark for a future trip. The Four Seasons Resort Vail offers an exciting new outing getting lots of press; wild mushroom foraging. Along with a mycologist (mushroom expert) groups will head up into the mountains seeking the delicious, culinary mushrooms growing wild to bring them back and cook them up.
I had hoped to go fly fishing when in Vail but sadly I could not squeeze in one more thing! More than wanting to fly fish I thought it would be fantastic to have the fishing outfitter then cook up your catch for dinner. With some sleuthing I learned of two excursions where they do just this. Local chef, restaurateur and Top Chef contestant Kelly Liken leads a two day ‘Float, Fish and Feast’ fishing trip in which she’ll also cook up your catch. Nearby Minturn Anglers offers a ‘Cast and Taste’ excursion in which you catch your fish and they prepare a wine paired four course dinner with it. They are not inexpensive outings but the unique opportunity to experience the Vail area in this way would be a memory-maker.
The Flame restaurant at the Four Seasons Resort Vail was our go-to for breakfast and a fantastic dinner showcasing their finest dishes from beautifully prepared steak sliced tableside by the chef and fanciful desserts of Maple Bacon donuts, deconstructed Snickers bars in tiny Mason jars. Being gluten free the chef graced me with my own Lemon Crème Brulee made in a hollowed out lemon served with chopped strawberries and other seasonal berries. It was sublime.
The Flame restaurant is a modern steakhouse and they are undergoing a menu change to offer approachable dishes of a classic American steakhouse that also bear an element of fun. The tableside service allows diners to be more connected to the kitchen and chat directly with the chef and family style dishes will suit dining groups to pass and share, with tables employing high end ‘lazy Susans’ to make the task effortless.
The weekend gave pause for thought. I felt Vail elegantly schooled me with all the updated sites, tastes, and activities that are readily available and abundant in the summer. There was not a fondue pot in sight and no sense of a seasonal slowdown due to no snow. Whether interested in a low key sightseeing venture, spa weekend, uber active sporty vacation, all with cutting edge food and drink, it can be found here. There are concerts, botanical gardens, museums to be explored, every sport imaginable all wrapped up the feeling of summer.
When was the last time you visited Vail in the summer? It’s definitely time to go.