Firsthand Report: Vail in the Fall 3
Author thumbnail By M. Scott Smith, DCSki Editor

I recently returned from a short trip to Vail, Colorado. And - I know this is going to be controversial, but I have to say it - the skiing stunk.

There. I said it.

As I stood at the base of the slopes looking up, my first thought was, “those are the worst snow conditions I’ve seen in my life.”

But this thought was quickly followed up with: “those aspen leaves sure are beautiful.”

OK, so it’s not exactly winter yet, and the slopes of Vail were covered in green grass as a bright sun bathed the valley. The temperature was pleasant, climbing into the 60’s, and the fall color was in its prime. I was visiting Vail in early October - a “book-end” season after the busy summer season but before the even busier winter season. I discovered that if you can resign yourself to being in the shadows of world-renowned ski slopes without the ability to ski them, this may well be the perfect time of year to visit Vail.

Vail in the fall. Photo provided by M. Scott Smith.

Crowds are non-existent. Luxury lodging properties slash their rates into Motel 6 territory, and high-end restaurants offer high-end meals for pennies on the dollar, especially during weekdays - no reservations required. (On weekends, Denver’s residents often escape the urban city for a fall weekend in Vail.) The weather can be variable, of course, but is generally beautiful and great for hiking: crisp fall days with golden yellow aspen leaves twittering and dancing in the breeze.

During this magical time, Vail is mostly populated with relaxed residents. There is a tangible peace and tranquility, as locals walk their dogs in Vail’s famed pedestrian village and catch up with each other. This is a time of year when the pace slows down, and locals (and a few lucky visitors) have the town to themselves. There’s even free parking in the parking garages.

Colorado’s Gore Range rises in the distance, high above the Vail valley. Photo provided by M. Scott Smith.

Vail was the final pit stop on a two week western trip that took me through Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Colorado. I spent two nights in Vail, October 7-8, 2008. During my visit, I met up with Marlene and Dave, two long-time friends who drove up from Ft. Collins, Colorado. They’ve been friends of the family for years: they taught me to ride a bicycle when I was a little tyke. Former residents of Washington, D.C., they now spend their weekends (and weekdays - the joy of being retired) hiking every trail they can find in Colorado, and remodeling their house. They stayed at the Hotel Gasthof Gramshammer in Vail, while I stayed at the Arrabelle at Vail Square, one of Vail’s newest properties.

Arrabelle is the crown jewel of Vail’s redeveloped Lionshead base area. Over the past few years, Vail has rebuilt and modernized Lionshead, one of the main base areas at the Colorado resort, and the starting point for Vail’s Lionshead gondola. During my last winter trip to Vail in January, 2006, Lionshead looked like a bomb had hit it: cranes and bulldozers were busy building the foundation for the new village in a sea of mud and concrete. Out of that mud and concrete rose a brand new, beautiful, modern village, complete with shops, luxury lodging, and outdoor gas “campfires” scattered throughout. Arrabelle provides different lodging options within steps of the Lionshead gondola, including 36 luxury hotel rooms and privately-owned condominium residences.

A room at the Arrabelle. Photo provided by M. Scott Smith.

A common theme at Arrabelle is service: in fact, the Arrabelle provides shared butlers who are available to help you with tasks such as pressing clothes, performing on-line check-in for your flight, or acting as a concierge. Butlers are available 24 hours a day. The Arrabelle also has a ski valet, who will meet you at the slopes and store your equipment when you’re done. Prices at the Arrabelle can be highly variable; during the fall low-season, I paid about $200 per night. That price can rise above $1,000 per night during the height of the ski season, making the Arrabelle one of the more expensive properties in Vail.

I stayed in a hotel room, which was modern and luxuriously appointed, about 550 total square feet. The comfortable room included a gas fireplace, humidifer (very welcome in the arid mountain environment), balcony, and five-piece bathroom. I was greeted by a bowl of granola, candies, and chocolate-covered pretzels, and the courteous butler arrived shortly after I checked in to provide an introduction and explain the room’s features.

Room service at the Arrabelle was delicious and prompt: a tasty waffle with a generous selection of berries and free hot chocolate. Photo provided by M. Scott Smith.

But while the Arrabelle was initially impressive, my enthusiasm slowly eroded during my stay. I was pleased to find lip balm included with the luxury toiletry products in the bathroom - until I discovered it had been used by a prior guest and not replaced with a new one. And then I discovered an apparent serious design flaw with the toilet: the “environmentally green” toilet did not flush very well, and had a tendency to send some contents of the toilet straight up and out of the toilet with each flush. To avoid this utterly disgusting behavior, you quickly learned to close the lid before flushing. While the bathroom overall was beautiful, the glass-enclosed shower was among the smallest I’ve seen in a hotel - perplexing given how large the bathroom itself was. There was barely room to turn around, and I’m skinny.

The housekeeping service was also spotty. Upon pulling the sheets back the first night, I was left with the strong suspicion that the sheets had not been changed since the prior guest: half of the bed was rumpled and had a few hairs. (Needless to say, I slept on the unrumpled side.) This is not something you expect to see in a luxury hotel. The pillows were very soft and the bed had a feather bed layer that provided little support; some may find this comfortable, but I woke up with a sore back and neck. Things did not improve the next day, when I left the room early in the morning, only to be greeted later by dirty towels on the floor at 3:30 p.m.: housekeeping had not yet visited my room. Other minor frustrations included a phone that had been programmed incorrectly: the room service button dialed the spa. And the Arrabelle charges a $45 daily “resort fee” on top of its room rates, which helps cover wireless Internet access and valet parking. You are charged the fee whether you use those amenities or not.

The Arrabelle is less than a year old, and may not have been firing on all cylinders during the slower off season. But a luxury property only gets one chance to make a first impression. Just prior to my stay I had spent a week at the Four Seasons in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, so was able to compare the two high-end properties. The Four Seasons was a finely-tuned machine, with consistently impeccable service. I provided candid feedback about the Arrabelle in an on-line survey following my visit, and quickly received a phone call from the Front Office Manager, who apologized profusely for the problems during my visit and seemed eager to earn my business back. He had recently joined the Arrabelle and was still gaining his bearings, but seemed committed to ironing out these types of wrinkles. Certainly, the Arrabelle has the potential to provide a luxurious vacation with arguably the best location in Vail, and my experience may have been bad luck, and not the norm.

Competition is coming, though. While the renovation of Lionshead is mostly complete, attention has now shifted east to Vail Village. Currently, multiple cranes rise high into the sky, making parts of Vail look like a mini Las Vegas, which is always under construction. These cranes are building new residential/lodging properties including a Four Seasons and Ritz Carlton. This will be Colorado’s first Four Seasons resort, which will include 120 hotel rooms as well as independently-owned units. Ritz Carlton already has properties in Colorado, including Denver and the Ritz Carlton Bachelor Gulch, located just down the road in Beaver Creek. These new properties are scheduled to open in late 2009, and will cap off Vail’s multi-year, half-billion dollar effort to modernize the town.

A fallen aspen leaf settles on a wood bench at the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens. Photo provided by M. Scott Smith.

A hike along the Gore Creek through Vail provided a firsthand view of Vail’s future and Vail’s past. After leaving the construction cranes behind, we enjoyed hiking through the valley, making stops at places such as the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, a public botanical garden that includes alpine plants, perennial beds, rock gardens, and waterfalls. This was a side of Vail I didn’t know existed, since my past trips have always been during the ski season.

Eventually, we made our way back to Vail Village, and stopped at Pepi’s for lunch on the porch. Pepi’s is a restaurant at the Hotel Gasthof Gramshammer. The hotel was established by Austrian-born Pepi and Sheika Gramshammer in 1964, and they’ve been running it ever since. Pepi was a member of the Austrian National Ski Team and Professional Ski Racers Association. At 76 years old, Pepi is still going strong; he still closely manages the hotel and restaurant (as well as a ski shop), and was having lunch at a nearby table, mingling with guests and locals. Pepi has mingled with many famous people over the years; dozens of photos along the walls inside the restaurant showed all the famous people who have passed through. (President Ford, who spent much time at Vail, was a regular visitor.)

Few things are more relaxing than dining on the deck of Pepi’s in the fall. Photo provided by M. Scott Smith.

Pepi’s offers European specialties including veal, pork, bratwurst, goulash, and wiener schnitzel. Being the picky eater that I am, I stuck with a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, but did have an obligatory apple streudel for dessert, which was delicious.

Marlene, Dave, and I then strolled through Vail’s various shops, picking up some t-shirts, marveling at art that was out of our price range, and gasping at the price of local real estate. (Flyers hanging in the windows of real estate offices advertised small condos with multi-million dollar prices; perhaps Vail is not suffering from the mortgage crisis.) Later that evening, we shared stories on the outside deck of a bar. It was chilly outside, but the bar had a gas heater on deck that kept us warm, and it was great to be under the stars of Vail on a beautiful night.

Admittedly, it was depressing be so close to Vail’s ski slopes and see high-speed lifts that, stubbornly, weren’t moving at all. But there was a small consolation: I knew I would be visiting again in December, this time with my skis. Even without skiing, would I visit Vail again in the fall? In an heartbeat. I hear spring is pretty nice, too.

About M. Scott Smith

M. Scott Smith is the founder and Editor of DCSki. Scott loves outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, kayaking, skiing, and mountain biking. He is an avid photographer and writer.

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Reader Comments

October 26, 2008
- utah is greater -
October 27, 2008
A great read! Ski areas are off season gems! A few weeks later and you might of been able to get some turns in.

Be sure to post your review of the hotel on TripAdvisor as well. I am sure others would be interested in your issues.
connie lawn
October 28, 2008
Fabulous! A great service to us all. Yours, Connie Lawn

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