The High Country Goes Down-Market

Colorado ski resorts slash prices to lure travelers

Keri Standifer of Southlake, Tex., had planned to save money by driving instead of flying to the Keystone Ski Resort for the Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. She was willing to book cheaper lodging outside Keystone, too. But the Standifer family is flying to Colorado, and they'll stay at Aspen Ridge, in the heart of Keystone. Its $2,500 package for Standifer, her husband, and their three children includes airfare, five nights of lodging, and four days of skiing. "We get to do everything--fly, stay in the resort, and stay for a long time," says Standifer, who estimates she's paying $1,500 less than the rates last year.

She's not the only one discovering bargains in the Colorado high country. A slowing economy and fear of flying in the wake of September 11 caused preseason bookings to fall 10% to 20% from last year's level. In mid-October, they were off about 23% at Vail. Things have picked up somewhat because "people live stressful lives, and they need a vacation," says Martin White, a Vail senior vice-president. Still, he adds, "everybody wants a deal."

You'll find those deals even for Christmas, a magical time in snow country. Skiing Santas hand out cookies and hot chocolate or cider, and on special evenings, skiers carrying lighted torches snake down the mountainsides into town. There are carolers and tree-lightings, along with New Year's Eve fireworks and street dances.

At Vail, you can stay at Evergreen Lodge Dec. 21-26 for $263 per night, 10% less than the 2000 rate. Keystone holiday rates start at $103 per night and include free activities such as yoga classes and wine tastings. Aspen has a 20% discount on condominiums Dec. 22-29. A one-bedroom junior suite (with a living room) at Aspen Meadows is $195 per night, down from last year's $365. Telluride is offering six nights of lodging and five days of skiing during Christmas week starting at $777 per person--$1,050 in a luxury condo. You'll do better, of course, if you can ski during off-peak weeks and book a package deal.

OFF THE SLOPES. Vail, developed in 1962 as an Austrian village in the Rockies, is still one of the West's most popular ski destinations. Last year, it opened the 645-acre Blue Sky Basin, with a "braided trail system" featuring islands of trees on groomed runs. This year, it offers 30% more groomed slopes--a concession, perhaps, to aging skiers who no longer want to ski powder. A trendy place to dine is The Larkspur, serving American and French country food. Dinner for two runs $100 without drinks. Bully Ranch serves Vail's signature drink, the Mudslide--Kahlua, Bailey's Irish Cream, vodka, and ice, blended like a milk shake.

That's an upscale version of the Aspen Crud, a liquor-laced milk shake. It was a favorite of members of the World War II 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army, who trained nearby and helped turn Aspen into a ski resort after the war. You can still order the Crud at the Hotel Jerome bar.

Although Aspen attracts celebrities such as actors Kevin Costner and Jack Nicholson, it has deals for those on more modest budgets. The Get Into Aspen special, which includes roundtrip airfare from Chicago, five nights' lodging, and a four-day lift ticket for Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk, runs $785 to $853 per person, double occupancy. From Feb. 1-14, a package with four nights' lodging and three days' skiing starts at $411. New deals are posted on Aspen's Web site about the 25th of each month.

While Aspen hasn't added major ski terrain this year, several boutiques and restaurants have opened in the old silver-mining town. Try Mogador for Mediterranean food--dinner runs about $80 for two, without drinks--and NXT for nightlife. Nonskiing activities include dog sledding, paragliding, and taking in the health spas.

Veteran skiers say Telluride, a former gold-mining town in the San Juan Mountains, is like Aspen a generation ago. Many like Telluride's laid-back atmosphere. Shopping is sparse compared with Vail and Aspen, but the nightlife swings here. Stop in at Fly Me to the Moon Saloon, with live music ranging from funk to fusion to rock and jazz, or the perennial favorite, the bar in the 1895 New Sheridan Hotel.

Telluride offers January packages that include airfare, four nights' lodging, and three days' skiing--$589 from Dallas, $689 from Chicago, $774 from Newark. The grand opening of the Prospect Bowl, with 733 acres of new ski terrain, is Jan. 10-13. There will be entertainment, street dancing, aprés-ski parties, and fireworks. A Prospect Bowl package that includes three nights' lodging and two days' skiing starts at $180 per person. Like most ski areas, Telluride offers more than skiing. You can take snowmobile excursions into the back country. Nighttime sleigh rides with dinner are $75 per adult.

BRING THE KIDS. Steamboat has always been a family area, and now the resort lets kids ski and stay for free when a parent books a minimum four nights' lodging, three-day lift ticket, and roundtrip airfare on American, Continental, or Northwest. The White Sale Snowsaver package, good from Jan. 5 to Feb. 13, includes four nights in a motel plus a three-day lift ticket, and begins at $310. Toys in the Attic, a restaurant with video games, is popular with families. You can find more sophisticated dining at Café Diva, at the base of the mountain, or take a chairlift and then a moonlit snowshoe tour to sup at Ragnar's, a Norwegian restaurant at an elevation of 9,325 feet.

Another family area, Keystone is a planned community on Colorado's Snake River. It offers marshmallow roasts, storytelling evenings around the fire, and lectures on constellations. With Keystone's Family Adventure package, a family of four gets three nights in a two-bedroom condominium, lift tickets, a free lesson for each person, and some extras for $1,000.

The deals are so good that some skiers are getting them without knowing it. Karen Linton, a Lake Forest (Ill.) dental hygienist who's making her 23rd trip to Vail, booked a $480-per-night loft at the Marriott's Mountain Resort in Vail for President's Day weekend. When Linton heard about all the ski bargains, she looked into them but kept her original reservation. "It's not a bad price after all," she says. It turned out she had gotten a good deal without having to ask for one.

By Sandra Dallas

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