A battalion of concierges, masseuses, chefs, sommeliers and valets has secured another frontier outpost, establishing a stronghold of luxury here in the midst of the Rocky Mountain wilderness.
The weekend before Thanksgiving, I was lucky enough to come in from the frigid night of winter's first big storm and warm myself by a crackling fire at the year-old Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch, the latest in a string of high-end hotels to open in the Eagle Valley, two hours west of Denver.
Like its major competitors in the area, the Ritz-Carlton melds two disparate types of vacationing: the pampering of a luxury hotel and the excitement of a wilderness experience. Its home is Bachelor Gulch — about 25 minutes from Vail — one of three villages that make up 1,600-acre Beaver Creek Ski Resort, one of the state's fastest-growing resort areas.
With the addition of the Ritz, visitors to the slopes of Vail and Beaver Creek find that nearly every ski run leads to an up-market hotel: Six area lodges made the 2003 Condé Nast Traveler readers' poll of "the best in the world."
In Vail, these include Sonnen- alp Resort (No. 13), Lodge at Vail (42) and Vail Cascade & Resort Spa (60). Beaver Creek's winners are Beaver Creek Lodge (31) and Park Hyatt Beaver Creek (37). All of these were named in the best North American resorts category. The Ritz at Bachelor Gulch was No. 41 in the best North American hotels category.
Although only 22 years old, Beaver Creek has Old World charm. Because nearby Vail has one of the highest percentages of European visitors in North America, Vail Resorts — which owns both Vail and Beaver Creek — modeled it after a European ski resort. Other pluses: Three-fourths of the resort's lodgings are ski in, ski out, and nearly everything is within a convenient walk or free shuttle ride.
A 10-minute shuttle ride from Bachelor Gulch and the Ritz-Carlton carried me to the Beaver Creek Plaza, where I had dinner reservations at Splendido. The piano bar and elegant atmosphere made me feel as if I were dining at the heart of a big city, until a fox ran by my window during dessert.
After dinner, I strolled over to the giant bonfire outside the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek. To wind up the evening, I stopped at the Dusty Boot, a favorite with local residents where no one cares if you dance on the bar.
Joining the crowd at the bar was fun, but the real reason I came — and why most people do — is the skiing. Few are disappointed.
With 5,289 acres spread across a prime seven-mile stretch of the Rockies, Vail Mountain is among the largest resorts in North America. The ski media consistently rank it among the top resorts on the continent. Almost anyone would agree that Vail's famous back bowls, a 2,724-acre playground, are the best place to be in Colorado on a powder day. While the back bowls are dominated by black diamonds, less difficult blue runs are interspersed to allow intermediate skiers access to the area.
Then there's Beaver Creek, which is often thought of as the place to go when you're in the mood to be pampered at places such as the Ritz-Carlton or the Park Hyatt. Not me. It's where I go when I'm in the mood to be challenged.
I'm not the only one. I heard Austrian gold medalist Hermann Maier — the Hermanator — talk about what a challenge Beaver Creek's famed Birds of Prey course is. The course, which was set up on the double diamond (expert only) hill, was host to the men's downhill, Super G and combined downhill and slalom at the 1999 World Alpine Ski Championships. The runs — Golden Eagle, Goshawk and Peregrine — start at the dizzying height of 11,500 feet before dropping 2,500 vertical feet through intimidating accelerations.
It's hard to believe that on the other side of the same mountain is the Cinch Express Lift, which serves a mountaintop full of easy greens, with amazing views from the 11,000-foot elevation.
Yet another mountain
Beginner and intermediate skiers have another mountain at their disposal too, on the other side of Bachelor Gulch. Arrowhead Mountain, accessible from Beaver Creek and Arrowhead villages, offers a face full of green and blue cruisers topped off with a snowshoe and cross-country ski track.
Visitors who want to roam farther afield can venture into the White River National Forest, home to eight designated wilderness trails. Popular backcountry activities include cross-country skiing, sightseeing, photography, hunting, fishing, hiking, snowmobiling and snowshoeing.
Other winter Beaver Creek activities include tobogganing, telemarking and ice skating at the rink in the center of the village. If there are children in your group, you'll find plenty for them to do, both on and off the mountain. The resort has set aside areas for kids to ski and snowboard, including safe racing courses. Children can visit Beaver Creek's Kids Adventure Zones, where young visitors are introduced to a mock bear cave, a ghost town and an ancient Indian burial ground. And then there's the pampering. I have to admit I indulged at the Ritz-Carlton, which has a 21,000-square-foot spa besides other amenities.
The hotel wasn't what I had expected. It is part of a new trend in the hotel chain toward "sense of place" architecture.
"It would be ridiculous to build a classic Ritz hotel out in the woods with Persian rugs and oil paintings," said Vivian Deuschl, vice president of public relations for the chain.
"We want to reflect the beauty of a place's surroundings."
The hotel emulates the West's national park lodges, such as those in Yosemite, Yellowstone and Glacier. The style is called "parkitecture." A variety of materials, including hewn logs, timbers, stone and other indigenous natural materials, was used in its construction. The lobby is a great room arranged around a three-story moss rock fireplace.
"The idea is to bring the outside in and incorporate nature into the luxury of the hotel experience," said Kristin Yantis, the hotel's public relations director.
The result is an impressive centerpiece for Bachelor Gulch village.
With the Beaver Creek base village to the east and Arrowhead base village to the west, Bachelor Gulch is the final phase of the area's village-to-village ski experience. The isolated community was connected to Beaver Creek Ski Resort when the Bachelor Gulch high-speed quad lift began running in 1996. It is a "bedroom community" for skiers, with homes that have ski-in, ski-out access.
The bachelors who gave the Gulch its name when they settled the area in the early 1900s wouldn't recognize the place today. Many of them were miners who had tuberculosis and were looking for a better way of life when the Homestead Act of 1862 made it possible for them to purchase land.
Instead of mining for silver in underground tunnels, these first settlers would now find themselves lounging in a candlelit grotto with slices of cucumbers on their eyes in the Bachelor Gulch Spa. Instead of downing hooch by the campfire, they could sip Scotch while a "fire concierge" tends the blaze. And when it came time for bed, they could sleep beneath Frette linens topped with a down comforter.
Although the valley isn't as quiet as when the bachelors first staked their claim, by 21st century standards Bachelor Gulch is one of the quietest retreats one can find in the Colorado high country. The community doesn't have the noise-generating attractions of most resort areas: a pedestrian mall, nightclubs, ice skating rink.
"People come here for the quiet," said Scott Bandoni, a broker with Prudential Gore Range Properties. "They've done the resort village scene, and now they're looking for something more relaxed, more isolated."
Only partly visible from Interstate 70, Bachelor Gulch has been zoned for privacy with a density level that's only one-quarter that of Beaver Creek. Only 678 residential units will be allowed: 106 single-family home sites and a mixture of townhomes, condominiums and hotel rooms. The 237-room Ritz hotel — with 23 privately owned condominiums and 54 timeshare units — is the only game in town if you're looking for a hotel.
"We can give our guests all the comforts of a luxury hotel here," said Yantis, "but we're still out on the edge of the wilderness."
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It's all downhill from here
From LAX to Denver, nonstop service is available on United, American and Frontier; connecting service (change of planes) is available on America West and Delta. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $178.
WHERE TO STAY
Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch, 0130 Daybreak Ridge, Avon, CO 81620; (970) 748-6200, fax (970) 748-6300, http://www.ritzcarlton.com . A luxury ski-in, ski-out hotel, with restaurant, deli, sports bar, fitness center, pool and spa. Doubles start at $185 a night.
Park Hyatt Beaver Creek, P.O. Box 1595, Avon, CO 81620; (970) 949-1234; fax (970) 949-4164, http://www.beavercreek.hyatt.com . This high-end ski-in, ski-out hotel is at the base of Beaver Creek, with the ski mountain on one side and the village shops, restaurants and skating rink on the other. Doubles start at $139 a night.
Pines Lodge, 141 Scott Hill Road, Avon, CO 81620; (970) 845-7900, fax (970) 845-7809, http://www.pineslodge.com . This lodge on the western slope of the Beaver Creek Resort is about six blocks from Beaver Creek Plaza. It has ski-in, ski-out access to the runs, and it overlooks the Beaver Creek Golf Course. Doubles start at $135 a night.
WHERE TO EAT
Remington's at Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch; (970) 343-1093 . The specialty is game, with such dishes as elk, venison and buffalo. Entrees $19-$38.
Splendido at the Chateau, 17 Chateau Lane, Beaver Creek; (970) 845-8808, http://www.splendidobeavercreek.com . Modern American cooking — with Mediterranean, French and California influences — is featured at this beautiful Beaver Creek restaurant. Entrees $22-$36.
Swiss Stübli, 76 Avondale Lane in the Poste Montane Building, Beaver Creek; (970) 748-8618. Enjoy traditional Swiss cuisine, featuring fondues, raclette and a wide selection of other dishes. Entrees $22-$35.
The Blue Moose, Village Hall, Beaver Creek Plaza across from the ice rink; (970) 845-8666. New York-style pizza, subs, salads and fries top the menu at this inexpensive, casual restaurant that is popular with families and locals. Entrees $4-$10.