You know that scene in Peter Pan when Wendy is begging Peter to tell her about his home, then he flutters his elfin toes and breaks into song? Well… if Vail, Colorado had a theme song, Peter’s melody of kazoos and flutes would be it. When you’re looking for a magical land, free of remorse and overflowing with Grand Marnier, Vail is the epitome of an adult playground. Just as Peter sings:
You’ll have a treasure if you stay there,
More precious far than gold.
For once you have found your way there,
You can never, never grow old.
Rather than composing my usual five day synopsis of one of the world’s top travel destinations, I’ll be writing my account of Vail Valley as an experienced “lost child” in the pixie-dust covered village. Yes, I in fact succumbed to the alluring call of majestic mermaids, in the form of goggle wearing ski bums and fancy-pants bartenders, back in 2011. I lived for one year on Gore Creek in the small neighborhood of Matterhorn where, on ambitious days, I could ride my bike up a three mile trail to work in one of Vail’s most popular fine dining restaurants, Sweet Basil. Of course, some days I rode into work, wheezing and moaning about the treacherous hill of defeat that was my bike path, breaking my jaw in an attempt to suck in this “glorious” mountain air that everyone neglects to mention is lacking in one key element known as oxygen. But most days, I sang the praises of the valley and quickly came to appreciate its ability to turn adults into laughing children, and keep locals trapped willingly in a bubble of youth and contentment.
The first time I entered the village, I felt like I was meandering through the stone paths and chiaroscuresque imagination of Norman Rockwell.
Not only is Vail a glittering world of enthusiastic “lost boys” toting skiis over their shoulders or powder covered snowboards in their mittens, but all who wish to enter the time-warp of this nonfictional Never Never Land must stand on two fingers and pray for a thumb-sized fairy to get them there. Weather permitting, the valley is simply a two hour drive from the Denver airport. But if father frost is feeling particularly bitter, you’ll either board a Colorado Mountain Express van full of neon-onesie-wearing gapers, or you’ll call on any friends with 4-wheel drive and snow chains, baiting them with promises of top-shelf whisky and those delicious Delta Airlines Biscoff cookies.
Luckily, my dear friend Dan gave up his evening to pick me up in Denver, despite the fact that I offered him no tasty biscuits, nor any booze. He promptly shuttled me to the cozy home of my long lost Vail sister, fellow Georgia girl, Allie.
While Vail has copious amounts of 5-star hotels, that offer convenient strolls to the village and require you to mortgage your first unborn child for a night in the luxury suite, staying with locals is always the best deal. With gorgeous views looking down on the valley and balconies that come free with hugs and conversation.
As much as I wanted to spend my short visit tracing back the steps of my familiar life as a Vail resident, I did actually squeeze in an absolutely BEAUTIFUL morning on the slopes. I’ll admit, I was quite pleased with myself for managing to fit all of my ski gear into that dandy red back pack, which I’ve discovered possesses the whimsical qualities of Mary Poppins’ famous carpet bag.
I also had to force my obnoxious, plastic ankle-anchors known as ski-boots into a tiny satchel so that I could smuggle them on as my “personal” item. I crushed elbows in the security line, smashed the foreheads of small children and took down a rope divider in Starbucks. I then found myself stammering through half-formed excuses as I tried to explain to my lovely flight attendant why these boots belonged in the “personal” category rather than in the checked bin. Scratching the nervous hives on my neck, I claimed that I needed my snacks to stay cool in the insulated toes. So after that much effort trying to get these damned boots to the Rockies, I had to ski at least one day.
So I shrugged off the whispering fairies of laziness and hangovers resting on my left shoulder, and begrudgingly parked my teal hiney on a ski lift.
For a moment, I was terrified I may have forgotten the motions and reverted back to flail-style skiing and tomahawk tumbles, but to my pleasant surprise I picked up exactly where I left off: mediocre. We made our way down to a hut where old friends were grilling wieners and cracking beers between leisure jumps off cliffs and gliding down bowls.
Keep in mind folks, these people live here. This is not vacation. This is a lunch shift they happened to not be scheduled for. This is a Wednesday afternoon. This is Never Never Land, a life that is seemingly unreal. And I, possibly against my better judgement, managed to escape before it turned my soul into cotton candy and my hair into tinsel. I soaked in the overwhelming moment of nostalgia and continued up the mountain.
I would like to note, that the gondola is the greatest invention of all ski resorts. When I first started skiing in Vail, I was terrified of the ski lift. I mean, butt-clenching, cat-clawing, screaming-like-James-Brown, terrified. Possibly because I have a Final Destination complex, (like everyone else who grew up wasting their allowance watching those terrible movies) where I visualize my sudden and tragic death in a brief flash of red. But who knows, could be a classic fear of heights.
Anywho, the gondola is a ski lift in the genius form of a box. I love it. It gets me to the top of the mountain without soiled bloomers.
I am finally over my fear of heights and I’m perfectly capable of riding the open lifts now. But only if I have friends next to me who I know are strong enough to hold me by the pony tail, should a mighty gust of death force me from my seat.
Luckily, I had my two favorite Lombardo’s with me. Brian and Lauren are definitely the only Lombardo’s I know; but should others enter my life, these two are the tops.
After sipping champagne and PBR’s on the mountain, we found our way down and had Friendsgiving with some of the greatest people I know. The beauty of living in Vail was that most of the friends I made are culinary artists and unbelievable hosts. We’re occasionally salty servers, but passionate entertainers, with great taste in wine and even better taste in food.
I built most of these incredible friendships polishing wine glasses and griping about sidework in the waitstations of one lovely establishment. I attribute 90 percent of my wine knowledge and 100 percent of charcuterie exploration to this gem of a restaurant: Sweet Basil.
I was hired as a lunch server and eventually found myself crumbing tables and thumbing the wine list as a dinner server. This restaurant taught me how to eat. If I had not suffered through those miserable menu meetings, I never would have ordered Tartare La Bouef in Paris, or appreciated the White Truffle Cinghiale Gnocchi in Tuscany. And as much as Chef Paul pretended to loathe my presence in his kitchen, posing endless inquiries as to why my homemade sausage was still not right; I know he at least appreciated my passion for cured, cased meats.
So on my final day in Vail, I sat at table 23 and stuffed my face with culinary artistry.
If you’re a fan of deviled eggs, these fellas will make you curse the existence of relish. And that’s coming from a girl who puts relish on a corndog. These eggs have been laced with the sinful aroma and subtle taste of those coveted Italian black truffles. Topped with mustard seeds, which have been pickled 24 hours. Just long enough to soften the exterior, sweeten the center, and add a tangy crunch to the soft, smooth bite of egg. Perfection.
The crab fritters, though deceptively similar to a hushpuppy in appearance, possessed the most beautifully golden shell that enveloped and crackled around a warm, blue crab center. It felt as if I were biting into the charred shell of a savory creme brulee. The black garlic, which gets its color and unique sweetness through fermentation, lent a sweetness to the hot fritters which made the entire dish simply brow-furrowing, delicious.
I finished every morsel, sipped down a bloody Mary with a dill-salt rim and headed to the airport. My shins were bruised and my oxygen-deprived lungs felt slightly worn, but I was sure my short return to Never Never Land had shaved a few years of stress-induced aging from my soul. I bought a caramel apple from the village candy shop on my way out, waved farewell to my adolescent shadow and returned to reality, with all intentions of returning as soon as possible.
And should you find yourself in need of directions, it’s the “Second star to the right and straight on ’til morning.”