Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Rocky Mountain Low: Cut-Rate Colorado


Rocky Mountain Low: Cut-Rate Colorado

A Breckenridge chairlift ascends over a snow-making machine.Seth Kugel for The New York TimesA Breckenridge chairlift ascends over a snow-making machine.
For casual skiers of the Northeast, names like Aspen, Vail and Breckenridge carry a near-mystical quality. For me, those towering peaks with vast lift networks and seemingly infinite trails of deep powder were mere fantasies, to be fulfilled in a future life, when I own a private jet and finance super PACs for kicks.
Nevertheless, I decided to find out how much it would cost to fly out from New York for a two-day trip of skiing and ski-related fun in Colorado. When I asked friends for estimates I heard a lot of figures in the $1,500 to $2,000 range — decidedly not frugal.
But when I looked into it, it seemed that the answer — for a single traveler, including door-to-door transportation, two nights’ lodging, ski rental, lift tickets, food and Colorado microbrews — was more like $800 (as long as you don’t go over Christmas). A couple sharing a car and a room could do it for under $700 each.
So I went, spending two days in Breckenridge and Vail in late November, venturing into a place I didn’t belong, hoping to ruin East Coast skiing forever.

It didn’t quite work out that way — Colorado has had a terribly snow-bereft early season — but I still had a great time and spent $821.96 for absolutely everything, except a private bathroom.
For $250, I booked a round-trip flight to Denver on JetBlue, picked up a dirt-cheap car rental ($20 for two days, plus whatever insurance you need) fromFox Rent a Car. I chose the Vail-Breckenridge area over Aspen mainly for logistical reasons — it’s half as far from Denver, which means you save not only on time but on gas, too.
Slicing through the snow at Breckenridge.Seth Kugel for The New York TimesSlicing through the snow at Breckenridge.
The best lodging option in the resort towns was fairly obvious: the Fireside Inn, Breckinridge’s odd combination hostel and bed-and-breakfast run by the English expats Niki and Andy Harris and patrolled by their gentle poodles Gaspode and Angua. Hostel beds cost $31, and my early-season price for a compact but cozy private room was just $75 plus tax, with a pancakes-and-eggs breakfast and excellent and plentiful French press coffee. (Upstairs, rooms with private bathrooms start at $113.) The price edges up as the season goes on, but not by much.
At Andy and Niki’s recommendation, I had booked equipment rental at Carvers Ski and Snowboard Shop, an independent outfit just a few blocks from the Fireside, where you get 20 percent off for booking in advance; in my case, that meant a total of $29 a day for intermediate equipment. Alas, there were few bargains to be had for lift tickets on a two-day trip — I paid $90 a day, and it goes up as the season goes on. But that fee does allow you to ski at most resorts in the area.
The first morning, after eggs and toast, I walked over to Breckenridge for my first day of skiing. All anyone could talk about was the lack of snow. On my first ride up on the chairlift a man with a Polish accent who skis Breckenridge regularly was frustrated. “This season is absolutely terrible,” he said. “Two years ago at this time you were skiing down in powder from the top. Now, it’s East Coast skiing.” Ouch.
Breckenridge did have a few trails open, and the artificial snow cover was as good as that stuff gets. There were also no waits, so after motoring through a dozen or so runs, I ate a $5 sandwich (bought at a small market, not at the slopeside restaurants, where even a slice of pizza was $8.95) and walked back to the Fireside to my car. I had heard the nearby Keystone resort had better snow-making and longer runs open — and it was covered by my pass.
On the 15-mile drive from Breckenridge, I turned on the radio in the car and happened upon a Spanish station playing tropical cumbias. Ah, a nice break from thinking about snow — until the D.J. came on. We should have had a big storm by now, he said, adding “pero lamentablemente, no es así.” (“But lamentably, it is not so.”)
Breckenridge is all about après-ski happy hours, and I had it on good intelligence that the best local go-tos were the South Ridge Seafood Grill and Mi Casa. I went to the first, which is in a building with a pretty pressed-tin ceiling and a bar full of people who seemed to know one another. The happy hour menu was as far from chicken wings and nachos as a bar could be without losing its license. My dinner consisted of five peel-and-eat shrimp ($1.50), a sizable Korean-style beef taco ($3.50), a huge plate of smoked trout dip with pita chips ($3) and two pints of crisp First Cast IPA from the Elevation Beer Company, a Colorado microbrewery ($4 each).
Vail, ready for the holiday season.Seth Kugel for The New York TimesVail, ready for the holiday season.
Before I was even served I found myself chatting with a local couple, Doug Polanski and his girlfriend, Janette Mikity. Once a ski instructor, he is now a real estate agent; she is a property manager — all three common professions in these parts. Doug took me through how Breckenridge had changed in his two or so decades there. It had gotten more expensive and more crowded, he said, but has maintained its more down-to-earth feel compared with the hoity-toity, C.E.O.-level scene at Vail.
Speaking of chief executives, we were soon joined by Bryan Nolt, C.E.O. of theBreckenridge Distillery and a regular at South Ridge happy hours. I mentioned I liked rye, and soon a generous free sample of the distillery’s low-proof rye-heavy bourbon was in my hands. It was just my style, packing a punch without being harsh, and I would have bought it in a snap the next day, when I stopped by the distillery’s Tasting Room in town (137 South Main Street), if it hadn’t cost $39 a bottle — not a bad price, but beyond my budget.
The next morning I was off to Vail, about 45 minutes from Breckenridge through beautiful mountain scenery. But as soon as I got there, I knew that I had made the right decision to stay in Breckenridge. The resort itself reminded me of a fancy mall in an exurb.
I’m sure the skiing is sublime, but its reputation will have to stand in here. With only 2 percent of trails open and not enough powder to coat a doughnut, it was like going to the best espresso bar in the world to find out they’re out of everything but Folgers.
Inside Bart & Yeti’s, in Vail.Seth Kugel for The New York TimesInside Bart & Yeti’s, in Vail.
Vail is not, I should note, devoid of personality. I had a beer at Bart & Yeti’s, which looks worn-in enough to have seen the resort built up around it. I once again was immediately recruited into a barstool conversation, in which bearded locals were regaling visitors from Denmark and Sweden with anti-snowboarder screeds. (In summary: snowboarders run you over and then don’t stop to see if you’re O.K.)
Since skiing Vail was also included in my pass, and since you can avoid the $25 parking fee by parking in outlying areas connected by a free shuttle, it actually cost me no more than another day at Breckenridge would have, minus gas costs.
I even have good reason to believe I found the cheapest lunch in town.
My evidence?
“That’s the cheapest lunch in town,” said the guy in the General Store, as he rang up my microwaved red chili chicken burrito from Tamale Connection in Antonito, Colo., and a bag of Pretzel Crisps for $4.89. I ate it at a little table outside while I read The Vail Daily — its front page headline: “Dry Weather Pattern Continues.”
I was due back at Denver International Airport by 11 p.m. to catch the red-eye, so my last remaining decision was where to have dinner. The answer was in Minturn, barely 10 minutes from Vail, and yet a world apart. It’s an old railroad town, population 1,000, with a handful of hotels (look here if $150 a night is in your range), shops and restaurants. I was thinking of having barbecue at Kirby Cosmo’s, but I noticed a long line — maybe 30 folks — outside a restaurant I hadn’t read about: the Minturn Country Club.
Customers grill their own meat at Minturn Country Club.Seth Kugel for The New York TimesCustomers grill their own meat at Minturn Country Club.
A line of 30 in a town of 1,000 is the equivalent of about 240,000 New Yorkers, so something was up. “It’s customer appreciation night,” one woman told me. “Everything’s really cheap.” Indeed, steaks (or chicken or shrimp or mussels) were just $2.99, and the all-you-can-eat salad bar $2.50. The décor was a pure goofy fun: trophy heads adorned the walls, playing cards were stuck to the ceiling in clumps.
Even better was how you got your food: you order meat from one of two “butcher shops” set up, and cook it yourself on a communal grill, trading tongs, spice shakers and grilling advice with your fellow diners. I achieved a medium-rare sear on my New York strip steak, and it came out perfectly, which I attribute much more to the extraordinarily flavorful dry-aged meat than to my grilling skills. Total tab: $8, plus tax and tip. Two hours later I was dropping off my rental car at the airport.
Was my weekend worth $822? Without fresh snow, it’s hard to argue that it was, but that’s not the resorts’ fault. In an ideal world, the weather would always cooperate with our travels, and I would be recounting life-changing stories of schussing through endless and ethereal powder. But, as a Spanish radio personality once said, lamentably, it is not so.
​IF YOU GO
FLIGHTS From New York, nonstops to Denver are usually available for under $300, and sometimes under $200, when reserved in advance. Flying directly to Eagle County Airport, near Vail, is almost always more expensive than renting a car and driving from Denver.
RENTAL CAR Getting a rock-bottom price on a rental car takes a bit of effort, since prices constantly shift. But it’s low risk: in general you can cancel (or not show up for) reservations without a penalty. Also, find out whether your credit card covers collision damage and whether your own car insurance policy covers collision and/or liability. If you’re good on both counts, you should be able to pull off a very cheap rental. (Mine was $10 a day, including taxes and fees.) If gas prices stay stable, budget about $50 for gas, max.
(Alas, it’s hard to argue for public transportation: the Colorado Mountain Express shuttle, coloradomountainexpress.com, from the Denver airport will in most cases cost even single travelers more, and other bus options are very inconvenient for a short trip.)
LODGING Give the Fireside Inn a call (970-453-6456) at least a month in advance for private rooms, less for dorms. If they’re full, you’ll probably have to leave town — to hotels and motels in nearby Frisco and Silverthorne — to match its prices. If your budget is a bit higher, consider staying near Vail in Minturn, where the Minturn Inn starts at $129 and the Hotel Minturn at $119.
LIFT TICKETS AND EQUIPMENT Though you get a slight break for ordering in advance on snow.com, there’s no avoiding the pain of the two-day lift ticket. (Discounts start at three days.) Reserving equipment at Carvers in Breckenridge gets you 20 percent off (carverskishop.com).
FOOD Bring a bag lunch to the slopes and rely on happy hours for dinner, and $25 a day should even allow you to eat and squeeze in a few beers. Be sure to check free local newspapers and coupon books for two-for-one deals and even customer appreciation nights. (The one I stumbled upon, it turns out, was advertised.)