VAIL, Colo. —The ease of getting to Vail has drawn me back repeatedly ever since nonstop flights from Chicago to Vail began in 1990. Barring weather delays, it takes me less time to get to the Back Bowls than it does to get to the top of Michigan's Boyne Mountain, and it is less hassle than driving the 350 miles to that resort.
With almost every hotel offering special deals of an extra night free or free skiing if you paid for the lodging, the value was too good to pass up.
Good weather meant that I arrived in Vail less than four hours after taking off from O'Hare International Airport.
My room wasn't ready when the shuttle dropped me off at my hotel, but the clerk said that I was welcome to change into ski gear in the health club and that my luggage would be delivered to my room when it was ready. Almost all the hotels are happy to accommodate visitors this way, but I opted for lunch first, and everything was waiting for me in my room after my meal.
It was about 1:30 p.m. by the time I actually used my free lift ticket, and the blue sky had turned an ugly gray. Halfway up my first ride on the Born Free Express lift, it started to snow. By the time I reached the top, it was a full-fledged storm.
I spent the rest of the afternoon getting accustomed to the altitude and skiing the tree-lined intermediate runs of the Lionshead portion of the resort. I found those few runs really helped jump-start my trip. It meant I could shake off the rust and awkwardness from the 10 months off the mountains.
Short as the afternoon's skiing was, the apres ski scene was calling loudly. The spruced-up Lionshead base area offers several upscale choices, but I went looking for an old favorite, Bart and Yeti's. It was always a great place to have a drink while watching the last of the skiers come down the mountain.
On my last visit, a huge construction site dominated the view from Bart and Yeti's patio. Today the Square at Lionshead is surrounded by high-end shops and lodging. The Arrabelle is a top candidate for "outstanding new lodge" on my personal list of ski destinations, but it really cuts into the view from Bart and Yeti's patio. Fortunately, the reduced view has done little to mute the enthusiasm of customers, and the margaritas are as good as ever.
The morning of my first full day dawned bright and cold. This was the day to tackle the Back Bowls and Blue Sky Basin, while my legs were fresh and the snow was not chopped up.
The Bowls were all as I remembered, expert runs such as Iron Mask and Heavy Metal mixed with runs such as Grand Review and In the Wuides, which a strong intermediate skier can enjoy. Skiers can vary their runs according to how much challenge they want. Blue Sky Basin is a mixture of bowls and trails, with very little grooming. The lack of grooming makes this challenging skiing for those accustomed to the well-groomed trails of Vail's front side.
A full day in the Basin and the Bowls might prove too ambitious for many skiers, but it is easy to return to the groomed slopes on the town side of the mountain.
On Day 2, I took the 15-minute shuttle ride to Beaver Creek to take advantage of the interchangeable lift pass Vail shares with its sister resort. Overcast skies did little to dampen my eagerness. The Creek has a reputation for some of the finest intermediate, groomed skiing in the world, and it always delivers on that renown.
Skiers can carve big cruising turns down runs like Gold Dust or Red Tail, or they can zip through the trees on Coyote Glade. But Beaver Creek also offers superb expert terrain, including the Birds of Prey World Cup downhill course and the Grouse Mountain section of the resort.
About every two weeks, Golden Eagle, the run that is the heart of the downhill course, is groomed. On those days, the course will give strong intermediates a real thrill. If it hasn't been groomed, leave the run to the experts.
My third and last day I spent enjoying the broad cruising runs on the front side of Vail mountain. Runs like Avanti, Whistle Pig and Simba are intermediate cruising runs where you can stop and enjoy the fabulous views of the Vail Valley. If you want a bit more challenge, try North Star or Gandy Dancer.
All those choices on the mountainside are reflected once the ski day is over. One of the great pastimes in Vail is deciding what to do for dinner. The choices are incredibly varied — burgers or steak; pizza or risotto with wild mushrooms; onion soup or pomegranate-lacquered duck breast — and it would take a full ski season to sample them all.
Among the new spots I sampled on this trip was Centre V, a brasserie on the Square at Lionshead, where the steak frites is hard to beat.
For burgers and beer, try the Tap Room in the heart of Vail Village. It can get a bit noisy, but you don't go to a pub for an intimate conversation.
In Beaver Creek, the 8100 Mountainside Bar & Grill at the Park Hyatt served a marinated elk loin that I will remember for a long time.
On mountain and off, you can cram a lot of vacation into just 3 1/2 days.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: American Airlines flies one nonstop daily from Chicago into Eagle-Vail Airport. Other major airlines fly into Denver, where numerous flights connect to Eagle-Vail. Colorado Mountain Express service provides a 20- to 40-minute shuttle ride from the airport to lodging for about $50 each way, depending on where you are staying.
WHERE TO STAY: Your preferences and budget will dictate your choices. Check out the early-season specials available through Vail's Web site, vail.com. Many properties are still offering packages such as paying for two nights and two days of skiing and getting the third free. Remember that the closer you get to the mountain, the higher the cost, and the holiday rates are the highest of the year. The Apex Condos in West Vail are a good option at the lower end of the price spectrum. They are about a mile from the mountain, but a free shuttle to the slopes is provided. The Arrabelle is a fabulous new lodge at the Square at Lionshead, but it is a real splurge.
WHERE TO EAT: Let you palate be your guide — burgers, pizza, sushi, game, steak, French, Italian — it's all available. Among my favorites are Cucina Rustica in Vail Village for superb Italian; Centre V in Lionshead for brasserie fare; Mirabelle at Beaver Creek for creative French cuisine; and 8100 Mountainside Bar & Grill for modern American dishes using local ingredients. It is never cheap to eat in a ski resort, so expect to spend at least $50 per person at most spots.
SKIING: Lift-ticket prices vary, depending on when you go. An adult three-day pass will range from $159 in low season to $267 over the Christmas-New Year's holiday period.