BRECKENRIDE, CO — Skiing and beer (après, that is) go together like peanut butter and jelly. That’s why when it comes to planning a winter vacation, you can’t go wrong by heading to Colorado, home of 25 ski resorts and more than 350 breweries.
I take that message to heart, and over the course of eight weeks, I go on a brew-ski tour, if you will. After visiting Steamboat Springs, Telluride and Breckenridge, I see their different personalities emerge. Turns out, you really can’t judge a PB&J by its cover.
I’m taking a ski lesson at Steamboat when my instructor asks if I want to feed birds. It’s an unusual question, but after I’m led to a tree fort — Steamboat’s pencil-like trees create the best tree skiing in Colorado — I understand. No sooner does my instructor place crackers on his hands than gray jays begin landing. I soon take over and get a thrill feeling their feet wrap around my fingers.
I’m not the only one who knows about the gray jays. This is the one resort where skiers aren’t racing down the mountain as soon as they download from the lift. Instead, a large number of them plant themselves off to the side, arm outstretched with food in hand.
Above: The snow is always crisp and clean and the chairlifts are always full in Colorado's fascinating ski region.
Birds aside, Steamboat is famous for its unique snow, appropriately trademarked Champagne Powder, which frosts the trees. Skiing through it is truly a luxury. Even in a foot of powder, I feel like I’m cutting through powdered sugar, “cold smoke” blowing around me. Plain and simple, Steamboat is a darned fun mountain to ski, so much fun that I conquer my first black diamond here.
And yes, I celebrate that day with après ski at the T Bar, a fun dive bar near the base that’s a local favourite. Ironically, I happen to be there when somebody rings the bell. It’s a T Bar tradition that when you ring the bell, you buy the whole bar — the place is packed from wall to wall — a shot.
Off the slopes, I’m treated to even more unique experiences. Like the Saturday morning that I take the free public bus to Storm Peak Brewing where I do yoga for an hour before sipping a pint. Even more interesting, though, is my visit to Strawberry Park Hot Springs. On the bus there, I’m handed my “locker,” a plastic bag where I can stash my stuff, along with a flashlight. I’m visiting as the sun is setting, and the incoming darkness will make seeing difficult.
The springs are more beautiful than I could have imagined, several large connected pools set amidst the snow-flocked trees. Along with the heated springs, there’s a cold pool, too, but I can’t fathom the thought of climbing into it, as I’m freezing just getting into the springs. Once I’m in, though, I succumb to the heat, the sunset lulling me into a deep calm.
Back in the 1800s, Telluride was such a tough-to-reach town that folks used to joke that “to hell you ride” to get there. Of course, modern-day conveniences have changed that, but Telluride’s location in a box canyon makes for some of the most breathtaking scenery. Everywhere you turn, mountains surround you, and their jagged peaks remind me of the Tetons.
The first thing I notice about the snow is the dirt sitting on top. I’m here in February so the brownish patches are surprising. But it’s not for lack of snow. This dirt is being blown in from Moab, Utah, just a few hours from Telluride. Fortunately, though, it doesn’t deter my skiing.
Telluride has an interesting design, namely that it’s not as much about top-to-bottom runs as other resorts. Instead, runs often criss-cross each other more so that you rarely finish on the same run you started, which makes the navigating more fun. And no matter where you are, the views never disappoint, especially when you can peek into town from one side of the slope.
It’s the views from the on-mountain dining venues that impress me most, though. First, there’s Gorrono Ranch, which features a huge snow beach where I sit in the grandeur of Mount Wilson, the peak that’s featured on Coors Brewing’s packaging. I’m there on a Sunday afternoon, a wise choice given that this is the day there are free beer tastings, courtesy of Telluride Brewing Company. I also love eating at Bon Vivant where I enjoy French-inspired cuisine at this outdoor-only restaurant located mid-mountain.
Another unique feature is the connecting gondola that runs between Mountain Village, where most skiers stay, and the actual town of Telluride. From Mountain Village, you can hop a gondola and be in town in 15 minutes, which is worth exploring. Just take your appetite, as Telluride’s food scene is amazing (stop by There for jam cocktails, Siam for Thai and South Oak for its artful dishes). You can also step out halfway for dinner at Allred’s, which I do. I’m not sure what to expect from a mid-mountain restaurant, but this one surpasses my expectations.
I have one more epic Telluride experience, this time on a fat bike. I’m on a guided tour that starts in town and winds through a forest. The snow is dumping as I ride, and the somewhat mushy trails from the sun are getting slippery. My light at the end of this challenging tunnel?
Telluride Brewing Company where the tour ends and where I say a well-deserved “prost.”
Above: When the slopes close, the nightlife begins in Colorado's ski towns, which now feature many great breweries.
Only at one ski resort can you tackle two impressive feats: Riding North America’s highest elevation chairlift and visiting the world’s highest distillery. I do both here in Breckenridge, or Breck as it’s fondly called.
This is the last stop of my grand Colorado tour, and the timing is appropriate. Breckenridge’s high-altitude base of 10,000 feet guarantees that the snow is always flying, even into early spring.
It’s been years since I’ve skied Breck, and what stands out is how big the mountain has become. The mountain consists of five peaks – six through 10 – but the newest is Peak 6, which when opened in 2013 increased Breck’s skiable acres by 23 per cent. The blue runs, which I gravitate to, ski more like blacks here, and while it’s not my favourite peak, I’m glad I came for the views, more thrilling than at other spots on the mountain.
Just like with any mountain, the peaks have their own characteristics. I love, for instance, Peak Seven where I can ski into Seven, a casual upscale restaurant at the base. At Peak Nine, I have lunch at the recently renovated on-mountain Overlook Restaurant while getting intoxicated with the views (get a corner table so you have windows on both sides).
Meanwhile, on Peak 8, I zip to the top via the Imperial Express SuperChair. Once there, I’m awarded the designation of having reached the highest chairlift in North America at 3,913 metres. The only way down, by the way, is via black diamonds so make sure you pack your confidence. I muster a lot of it that day, as I eventually tackle my first double black diamond. Later, I ski to the base of Peak 8 for a spa treatment at One Ski Hill Place before taking a few last runs of the day.
Skiing aside, the walkable town of Breckenridge remains as charming as I remember. Granted, the main street is lined with T-shirt and souvenir shops, but it’s also rimmed with eateries and breweries. There’s Gold Pan Saloon, Breck’s oldest bar; Breckenridge Brewing Company (go for $3 happy hour pints); and delicious eateries like River and Blue River Bistro.
Two other not-to-miss hot spots? Breckenridge Distillery whose flagship spirit is a bourbon that’s racked up numerous accolades. The world’s highest distillery has a cool vibe with wood floors and snowboard benches around its exterior. Then head to Broken Compass, a young brewery that is rocking the area. In this hip tasting room you can snag a seat on an old chairlift.
Bottom line? When it comes to snow, skiing and suds, Colorado delivers on all accounts. So much, in fact, that I’m already making plans for a return trip next winter. Three down, 22 to go.