BEAVER CREEK, Colo. -- It's a bright winter day at Colorado's Vail/Eagle Airport, with the blinding sunshine rivaled by crowds outfitted in Louis Vuitton and Prada skiwear. Fresh arrivals stream forth from a handful of gates: a parade of fur-lined hats, dark sunglasses, and high-heeled boots wholly impractical for use in the snow.
This, however, is where the road to the ski trail diverges. Rather than join the high-fashion masses headed for Vail's glitzy slopes, I'm on my way to Vail's fresher-faced sister resort.
With an intimate, laid-back mountain scene, family-friendly Beaver Creek has been quietly amassing a devoted following since 1980. World-class but not too showy, the resort does upscale on a smaller scale. Its unusual layout puts beginners at the top: A cluster of gentle green runs at the 11,440-foot summit of Beaver Creek Mountain -- Red Buffalo, Jack Rabbit Alley, and Flattops among them -- lets newbies experience high-altitude mountain views typically accessible only to experienced skiers.
Beano's Cabin offers an unusual dining experience. Page E5.
Lest you think this mountain is tame, however, there's a lot more ground to cover -- namely, the Talons. With 40 trails covering about a third of the mountain's skiable acreage, this expert territory extends from the Birds of Prey Express Lift to Grouse Mountain Express and over to Larkspur Bowl. This season, the site already has played host to four World Cup races.
This year, Beaver Creek has added a super-pipe to supplement three other freestyle terrain areas and built two new high-speed, four-person chairs, which provide faster and more convenient service from the resort's lower parking lot and the Bachelor Gulch area back to Beaver Creek's main base village. Bachelor Gulch is a recent development on the ski hill; it includes a Ritz-Carlton hotel with its posh residence club and Remington's restaurant, a great place to have a light lunch and watch skiers glide down the slope.
The trails we zoom down are on National Forest System lands, and the mountain is managed in partnership with the Forest Service. From the lifts, we spot meandering fox and rabbit tracks between tree areas purposefully designed to give animals shelter as they make their way across the mountain.
On the other side of the ridge from Bachelor Gulch, we find Beaver Creek's main base village is just as carefully planned. It's a compact, pedestrian-only center with high-end restaurants, galleries, shops, an ice rink, even a performance center. Heated escalators carry visitors from the lower village to the base of Centennial Express, the resort's central high-speed quad. Free shuttles run to and from the village; several ski-ways also link the base area to Beaver Creek's ski-in, ski-out properties.
One of these is the Pines, just up the hill from the Strawberry Park Express Lift and a short stroll across the footbridge from Centennial Express. The lodge is owned and managed by RockResorts and has a charming ambiance all its own.
Hot chocolate and teas are laid out every afternoon near the lobby fireplace. Encircled by overstuffed sofas, it's a lovely spot to read the paper, take a snooze, or just kick back with a plateful of warm chocolate chip cookies.
Rooms at the Pines are cozy and well appointed for a ski getaway. There's a pillowy bench near the door to facilitate the process of putting on or pulling off cumbersome ski or snowboard boots, and a humidifier to keep your air passages from drying out in the crisp mountain air. Other thoughtful touches include cubbies for tucking things away, a row of coat hooks in the entry, boot-dryers in the closet, and, of course, floor-to-ceiling glass doors overlooking the mountain scene below.
The hotel restaurant, Grouse Mountain Grill, is also one of the mountain's best; the chef, Rick Kangas, has been honored by Wine Spectator, Zagat, and the James Beard Foundation. Friendly, attentive service is paired with rich dishes that manage an inventive flair without being gimmicky. Seared scallops on black barley are perfectly browned and plump, the mussels in red chili sauce surprising and delicious, served with a glazed sweet potato bread excellent for soaking up the complex, spicy sauce. For dessert, apple bread pudding with homemade cinnamon ice cream is outstanding. The restaurant feels intimate, though a hopping jazz band and the buzz of conversation liven up the piano bar area. Ask for a seat by the fireplace for maximum warmth and ambience.
The rest of Beaver Creek's culinary scene is equally impressive. At Beano's Cabin, Thomas Gay offers an innovative fixed menu that spotlights wild game (roasted pheasant breast, venison chop with a fontina cheese and potato tart); Daniel Joly's Mirabelle features Belgian-French cuisine (sweetbread and spinach cannelloni with watercress flan and ginger foam); SaddleRidge showcases the largest private collection of Western artifacts (Annie Oakley's gun, historic paintings and photos, Custer's saddle) along with a menu strong in game and seafood (try the house special, citrus-soy marinated duck with shiitakes and horseradish mashed potatoes).
David Walford's Splendido is also a winner, serving modern American dishes influenced by French Provenal cooking (Dover sole with caper brown butter sauce) and Italian (pan-roasted rabbit with prosciutto, sage, and macaroni and cheese) at the opulent Chateau Residence Club in Beaver Creek.
You don't have to spend big to get great food and drink here, however. The resort's liveliest apres-ski scene is at Coyote Cafe, a favorite with ski patrollers and locals. It's Beaver Creek's self-proclaimed "first bar and restaurant," where Colorado-crafted microbrews (11 are on tap, and another 11 are available by the bottle) and a really good burrito reign supreme. At each table, condiments are stored in six-pack cardboard containers bearing the names of local breweries such as Flying Dog and Oscar Blue. Popular menu staples include quesadillas, hefty burgers, crispy beef tacos, and tuna melts in panini.
Beaver Creek is an alpine paradise that hasn't forgotten what it's like to be small. After 3 p.m., volunteers in white chef's togs wait for skiers at the base of Centennial Express and throughout the village, serving warm cookies on silver trays. From the elated expressions on the faces of everyone from shivering, pink-nosed 4-year-olds to 60-something mountain veterans, you'd think that they had each just won a new pair of skis.
Like the lights that twinkle in the village after dark, it's just one of the tiny touches that make Vail's little sister postcard perfect and big at heart.
Bonnie Tsui is a freelance writer in California.