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WHY VAIL WORKS : Despite High Prices and a Colorado Boycott, Famed Ski Resort Remains America's Favorite


VAIL, Colo. — So much depends on where you sit. When some travelers look this direction these days, they're likely to see high prices and a tourism industry under the cloud of a national boycott. If they look closely, they may notice that the resort's owner filed bankruptcy papers last June.

Yet settle onto a bench at Bridge Street and Gore Creek Drive in the middle of Vail Village and you see America's best-loved ski resort dashing into its 30th season with hotels full, restaurants abuzz and the usual beautiful suspects on parade. Skis lean by the score outside Pepi's and the Red Lion, some $8.5 million in ski area improvements are newly done, and guests seem as giddy, gaudy and numerous as ever.

Duck into The Daily Grind coffee shop on a biting cold morning and you find a tall man in cowboy hat and hide jacket swaggering in as if he just completed a cattle drive. Then he leans forward and says, "Lemme have a cappuccino and, uh, one of those chocolate croissants."

Or take a window table at the Sweet Basil restaurant. You may spy, as I did, a rich young mother in an ankle-length fur, flinging herself to the ground in sub-zero weather and flapping her arms enough to raise a small cloud of fresh powder. She was showing her child how to create an angel in the snow. The four of them (mother, child, angel and animal pelt), made a picture of well-heeled holiday abandon, bordering on outright decadence.

Then there are the skiers and snowboarders, who scream down from the peaks in rainbow colors, dusting novices with powder, stockpiling tales to be told about the jump undertaken on Riva Ridge, the speeds achieved on Kangaroo Cornice, the calamity down on Giant Steps.

"It's a when-you-wish-upon-a-star kind of place," effused Ski magazine writer Jeannie Patton in a piece last month on Vail's continued popularity.

That's the consensus. Ski magazine's readers in October named Vail their favorite ski resort in North America. The following month--while Colorado's voters were passing a ballot measure that bars local governments from enacting laws to specifically protect homosexual rights--another poll found that Vail was the favorite ski destination of travel agents, as well. Vail drew best-votes from 43% of the 200 members queried by the American Society of Travel Agents, followed by Aspen with 29%, Breckenridge with 24% and Park City, 15%. Last season, Vail sold more than 1.5 million lift tickets.

And this season, even with a "boycott Colorado" campaign rising in response to the state's new law and Denver estimating millions in lost convention revenues, Vail business is on the upswing. Vail Associates, the company that runs Vail and the Beaver Creek resort 12 miles away, reports that December sales were 8%-10% ahead of last year's. Calls to the resorts' lodgings reservation line are running 20% ahead of last year.

And the bankruptcy declaration? Resort officials say it grew from bad cable television investments, and has brought no disruption to ski operations. (As part of a Chapter 11 corporate reorganization, the Apollo Investment Fund has purchased a majority share in Vail Associates' parent company, Gillett Holdings Inc., and forecasts no substantial changes at the resort.) This may be Colorado's winter of discontent, but for Vail and its devotees, it seems to be business, and pleasure, as usual.

I arrived at Vail on a stormy Wednesday in mid-December, shuttled by van from Denver down Interstate 70 past many thousands of expertly flocked pines. At one bend in the road, elk and buffalo stood sentry. On either side of the highway rose the Gore and Sawatch mountain ranges, and on them, deep drifts.

After 2 1/2 hours, we came upon the narrow, neo-Tyrolean freeway-side strip of civilization that is Vail. By Saturday, I had already heard a hat full of theories on the secret of the place's success.

First, there's the mountain, an 11,450-foot-high chunk of earth and rock sporting a stubble of pine, birch and aspen. The vertical rise is 3,250 feet. With nearly 4,000 acres of skiable area, Vail is the largest resort in North America. (Beaver Creek includes another 1,050 skiable acres.) The beginner's and intermediate slopes, which make up 68% of the runs on the mountain's front side, are said to be enough to keep a skier occupied for more than a week without a duplicated route. The expert, the intrepid and the foolhardy, meanwhile, have Vail's 2,600 acres of back bowls to frolic in--a feature that Sports Illustrated says "has moved the place into a class by itself."

I can speak about those bowls with absolutely no authority. This was my first time in skis in 16 years. On my first morning, I ponied up $75 for an all-day lesson (a one-day adult lift ticket runs $42) and set to studying the stem-turns of instructor Mike Dooher with a handful of other awkward intermediates.

Dooher, a retired pilot with 14 years of teaching experience, immediately displayed a deep practical knowledge of the landscape around us.

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