Laura Motta, senior director of content at Lonely Planet, shares a snapshot of a dreamy – and ski-free! – winter trip to Vail, Colorado. Here’s what to see, do and eat in this mountain paradise.
I don’t ski. I don’t particularly like winter or cold weather. I have lived most of my life a mere gasp above sea level. So why Vail? Well, like so many decisions in life and travel…it’s complicated.
For one thing, I was itchy for a solo winter getaway but feeling uninspired by warm-weather destinations. Plus, I envisioned a trip where I could go full-on Hallmark holiday movie – without having to give up my city life for a guy who owns some Christmas-tree farm. And of course there was the figure skating.
A fan of the sport since I was a kid, I remember watching skating exhibitions live from Vail on ESPN in the nineties, when it enjoyed a kind of post–Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding golden age. I wanted to see this show live. I wanted to visit this mysteriously pretty winter wonderland called Vail.
It took me a few years to fulfill my childhood dreams, but I did get to Vail eventually. And given how well the town does things like après-ski and spa treatments, I’m glad I waited. And yes – there was plenty of skating.
Get trusted guidance to the world’s most breathtaking experiences delivered to your inbox weekly with our email newsletter. Vail Village © Laura Motta / Lonely Planet
I started my day in Vail by…
Taking in the view. I stayed in Vail Village, the nerve center of the town, which sprawls in a curving line along a mountain valley. I bundled up and strolled the snow-covered streets, which are easily walkable as long as you have weather-appropriate clothing and footwear. Postcard-perfect scenery is everywhere, so you don’t exactly have to look far to find a view. And though the snow-covered Rockies form the backdrop for the entire village, you’ll be snapping just as many photos of the brick-paved streets themselves.
Restaurants warmed by fireplaces, alpine architecture and bridges over half-frozen creeks are truly the stuff of cable TV holiday fare – yet nature’s special effects easily surpassed the magic of the moves (and that’s before we consider the real, actual snow). There are plenty of inviting, budget-busting little shops, too, even if many sell the kinds of clothes that are only fit for vacation impulse buying and not practical daily wear. Pack wisely.
I didn’t rent a car for any part of my stay, and one isn’t necessary if you plan on sticking to Vail and not hopping between Colorado’s many ski towns. Yet if you’re really feeling lazy as you soak Vail’s atmosphere, simply look out your hotel window. I woke up on December 24 to golf-ball-sized snowflakes drifting past my window. And I didn’t even have to change out of my pajamas.
The Slope Room is a stylish Vail spot for the après-ski ritual © Laura Motta / Lonely Planet
In Vail you must…
Go skiing. Or, if you’re me, don’t.
I will leave the tutorials on planning the perfect adrenaline-pumping ski getaway to my expert colleagues at our sister site The Points Guy; my goal in Vail was simply to unplug and relax. It was also to figure out if I could embrace a cold-weather getaway – something I would not have thought was in my travel vocabulary just a few years ago. None of this involved putting on a pair of skis.
Instead, I sought out cozy fireside spots where I could sit with a book and a latte, enjoyed my hotel’s heated indoor swimming pool and settled into a seat at the bar where I could chat with the bartender and other patrons. Several of these situations even included snacks.
Time these experiences to around 3 or 4pm in the afternoon and they fall into the category of “après-ski” – the loosely organized rituals of eating, drinking, hot-tubbing and socializing after long, strenuous hours on the slopes. Good news: you need not have had to actually hit the slopes to participate. Many restaurants and bars offer happy hour-style menus with small plates and discounted drinks.
My favorite afternoon spot was the Slope Room. Hung with modern crystal chandeliers and with an ornately carved fireplace at one end of the bar, the space feels elegant but not stuffy. You should definitely sit at the bar, as I did, in your fleece-lined boots while enjoying a clarified New York sour (rye whiskey and lemon with a red wine float) and the smoked-trout dip.
Dressing for the weather – and to impress – is essential in Vail
The one item I recommend bringing to Vail is…
Your best ski bunny gear. Dressing for the weather is important here. (It was 6°F during my visit.) But so is dressing to meet the aesthetic of the supremely sporty but well-heeled crowds in town.
Do you have form-clinging fleece? Alpine pattern sweaters? Furry earmuffs? Pack all of it, and leave your heels at home – not just because you’ll be the only person wearing them, but because you’ll slip on the ice on your way to dinner.
Winter wonderland in The Sonnenalp © Laura Motta / Lonely Planet
In Vail, I stayed at…
The Sonnenalp. There are sleeker, more-modern resorts in this very fancy resort town, but that’s not the point. While others deliver cool color palettes and stark contemporary decor, the Sonnenalp is a throwback in the best way possible. Modeled after a German mountain lodge, this family-owned property keeps things cozy with dark-stained wood, grass-green bedding, and – of course – plenty of decorative antlers. What’s more, its location in the heart of Vail Village makes it a perfect place to stay if you’re determined to go carless, as I was.
I spent most of my time here lazing by the fireplace in the stone-and-stucco spa area, and popping in and out of the heated indoor-outdoor pool and the hot tubs. A truly excellent Swedish massage was perfect for wringing out my city-sore muscles.
In the evening, the hotel’s lobby bar, King’s Club, hosts live music and becomes a bit of a scene. Arrive early to get a seat by the fire.
Nachos at the Red Lion © Laura Motta / Lonely Planet
In Vail, the best spot for lunch is…
The Red Lion. Unpretentious, specializing in huge portions and busy at almost all hours of the day, this Vail classic serves up burgers, beers and overflowing plates of chicken fingers. Many patrons walk directly off the slopes and head here, skis slung over their shoulders. It’s just a few steps from the base of the mountain and the Gondola One ski lift.
To give you a sense of the vibes here, consider the bartender’s advice as I faced down an intimidating mountain of pulled-pork nachos: “Cut into it like a cake.”
Like everything else on this winter getaway, it worked.
Taking place in the center of Vail Village, the Vail Skating Festival draws star figure skaters and delighted spectators © Laura Motta / Lonely Planet
In Vail, I soaked up the winter ambiance at…
The Vail Skating Festival. The town has hosted this multi-day event for years, and it attracts major talent. This year’s headliners included 2022 Olympic gold medalist Nathan Chen, 2018 Olympic bronze medalist Mirai Nagasu and national bronze ice-dance medalists Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker. But the real magic of this event is the venues.
The outdoor ice rink in the heart of Vail Village offers no formal or ticketed seating. There are only comfy rink-side loungers that you can commandeer, some of which are situated by gas fireplaces. Settle in here as I did: with a hot salted caramel-apple cider from Yeti’s Grind, a coffee shop located directly behind the rink. If you’re feeling especially inspired, you can rent skates and take to the ice yourself after the Olympians depart.
The festival’s main venue, Dobson Ice Arena is also located in Vail Village, and seats only 2500 people. There are even seats situated directly on the ice, if you want an especially intimate view of the action. The festival is typically held a few days before Christmas, with tickets usually going on sale in August.