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Rocky Mountain Renaissance

High above the small town of Avon, Beaver Creek sits, like Oz, at the end of a serpentine road. The impeccably designed resort village is an architectural wedding cake—tier upon slate-roofed tier of vaguely Swiss-looking granite lodges and shops, clustered around a heated, cobblestoned plaza and a skating rink. Nothing seems haphazard here; even the fat, drifting snowflakes feel as if they were choreographed by some guy behind a curtain.

All this has helped create the perception that Beaver Creek is long on cushiness, short on challenging skiing. But the resort has varied and uncrowded slopes—from monster bumps to pitch-perfect cruisers. So what if you take a heated escalator to get to the chairlift and enjoy free warm chocolate-chip cookies while you stand in line?That doesn't mean you aren't a brilliant skier.

You can even pretend you're in the Alps and ski village to village from Beaver Creek over to Arrowhead and Bachelor Gulch, two recently developed, intimate, and ultra-tasteful enclaves in the next valleys over. But be warned: You will be overwhelmed by the urge to immediately check into the Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch (800/241-3333 or 970/748-6200; www.ritzcarlton.com; doubles from $250), a peak-roofed palace modeled after the grand national-park lodges of the American West. The 237-room luxury hotel has a full spa, a heated outdoor pool, its own chairlift outside the front door, and a menu of services that includes a "ski nanny" who delivers your kids and their equipment to ski lessons.

Those lessons, by the way, are at what is widely recognized as one of the best ski schools in the Rockies. You can book instruction, rentals, and—new this year—airline tickets on-line at Vail Resorts www.snow.com. Save a day to head up to McCoy Park (970/845-5313), the mountaintop snowshoe and cross-country-ski center. Then reward yourself with a six-course dinner at the elegant Beano's Cabin (970/949-9090; dinner for two $185; reservations essential), a mid-mountain log cabin accessible only by sleigh ride. Beaver Creek's lift tickets are also honored at sister resort Vail, 10 miles to the east.
BEAVER CREEK, 888/830-7669 or 970/496-4500; www.beavercreek.com.

On the road to Winter Park, one minute you're blowing by the Wal-Marts of greater Denver, the next you're snaking your way, white-knuckled, up and over narrow, switchback-filled Berthoud Pass. It's only 67 miles from the city, but Winter Park is another world—one where the mountains are immense and the cowboy hats are worn by actual cowboys.

That proximity and down-home authenticity is part of what draws people to Winter Park. But it's the vast skiing and snowboarding terrain that keeps them coming back. Families love the web of groomed green and blue trails that vein the Winter Park side of the resort. Young yahoos with still-decent knees hit the bumps on adjacent mountain Mary Jane; adventurous types looking for a backcountry experience head above the timberline to Vasquez Cirque.

Where Winter Park has lagged behind other Colorado ski areas is in lodging and dining options right at its base. The opening, in 2000, of the Zephyr Mountain Lodge (866/433-3908; www.zmlwp.com; one- to three-bedroom units from $159) was a big step forward, but there's more to come. Resort developer Intrawest recently partnered with the city of Denver (which owns Winter Park) to operate the resort, and announced plans to invest at least $50 million in the mountain over the next 10 years. That means Winter Park will get a renovated base village, like Copper Mountain.

Despite the impending slicking-up of the immediate resort area, the town of Winter Park, a few miles north of the ski lifts, will most likely remain the refreshingly unhip hodgepodge of rental shops and budget motels that it is today. So if you don't want to pay for Intrawest's brand of charm, you won't have to. And if you drive a little farther up U.S. 40, you'll find yourself in lovable, unfashionable Fraser, a ranch town of weathered storefronts and feed shops. Stop in for a cold one with the locals at the Crooked Creek Saloon (401 Zerex St.; 970/726-9250), and then have dinner at the more refined Devil's Thumb Ranch (3530 County Rd. 83; 800/933-4339; http://www.devilsthumbranch.com/dinner for two $70), a top Nordic ski center that serves good food in its original 1937 log homestead. The ranch is just up the road from the area's best B&B, the Wild Horse Inn (1536 County Rd. 83; 970/726-0456; www.wildhorseinn.com; doubles from $170). Guests stay in one of seven bright, whitewashed rooms with log furnishings, down comforters, and private baths.
WINTER PARK RESORT, 800/979-0332 or 970/726-1564; www.winterparkresort.com.


These ski areas refer to themselves collectively as the Colorado Gems, and offer moderately priced lift tickets, affordable lodging, and a laid-back atmosphere—not to mention some of the least crowded trails in the state.

1 Powderhorn Resort
On the side of flattop Grand Mesa, 35 miles outside Grand Junction, Powderhorn's broad slopes and terrain parks are ideal for beginner and intermediate skiers and snowboarders.

2 Sunlight Mountain Resort
Ten miles southwest of Glenwood Springs—site of the world's largest hot-springs pool—Sunlight has 67 trails, including some more than two miles long, and spectacular views of Mount Sopris and the Elk Mountain range.
800/445-7931 OR 970/945-7491; www.sunlightmtn.com


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