Time doesn't stand still in Vail, but you'll wish it would

Skiers by their very speed-seeking nature are restless. We ski to conquer, then move on to the next conquest. It's not that we're attentively deficient -- I can look at snow-flocked pines all day -- it's about exploring the limits of land and limb. Add in the brevity of ski season, and it's enough to make a mogul-runner manic.

Therein lies the rub of a ski week. A week of skiing, good. One ski area? Limiting.

When my extended family decided to spend a week reuniting between downhill runs, we faced not only the specter of looping the same old paths but juggling the competing agendas among six adult skiers of varying abilities, three kids -- two snowboarders, one skier -- and two nonskiing grandparents. We needed not just terrain but off-slope entertainment, good transportation options (we only had one rental car among us) and enough diversions to spell us from togetherness. Vail came up as our best shot in the West at satisfying all the criteria.

Vail always struck me as a corporate ski area, an easy exit from I-70 more concerned with parking garages than charm. The town doesn't have the history of Telluride, the glamour of Aspen or the cool of Park City. But it has size on its side: 5,289 skiable acres, seven bowls and three terrain parks.

Its claim to size extends beyond the mountain, too. Popularly if not legally speaking, Vail stretches from the town proper west through the valley some 35 miles to the Vail/Eagle County Airport, stringing together more modest communities like Eagle and Edwards, as well as the ritzy Beaver Creek resort area. Though Vail Resorts, which owns both Vail and Beaver Creek ski resorts, markets each separately, we considered them jointly (lift tickets are interchangeable), adding Beaver's 1,815 acres to the total crowd-appealing picture.

In recent years, Vail and to a lesser extent Beaver Creek have been the beneficiaries of significant investment. A portion of the $1 billion spent recently in Vail went toward construction of the 2-year-old boutique hotel Arrabelle at Vail Square, giving its Lionshead base area a boost with commodious rooms, a popular tavern, a bistro and a spa. In December, the 121-room Four Seasons Resort Vail will open with chalet-style sloped roofs and wood balconies overlooking the ski area, plus sushi in the fireside lounge and a 13-treatment-room spa.

Down the road 10 miles in Avon, the 210-room Westin Riverfront Resort & Spa opened in 2008 with not just a pool, spa and trendy restaurant, but a gondola that lifts skiers directly to the base of Beaver Creek. Closer yet, the 45-room Osprey at Beaver Creek opened last year just 20 feet from a high-speed quad chairlift. It has Wii games in the living-room-style lobby, lobster nachos on the bar menu and a heated outdoor pool.

Why should you care about hotel openings? Because in the life of ski areas, hotels are not just places to rest your head, but social centers, filled with bars, restaurants and spas open to the paying public. Which, last year, included myself and 10 relatives.

Seeking accommodations for 11, however, we turned not to hotels -- too expensive for the gang -- but to the rental homes that dot the sides of ski slopes across the Rockies. I'd seen them from chairlifts, envied their ski in-ski out access, considered raiding their slopeside hot tubs and generally itched to try out ski-town life.

The five-bedroom we rented via (Vacation Rental By Owner, rates go from roughly $100 per bedroom per night) in the Arrowhead area, the westernmost of the Beaver Creek ski resort, came complete with its own moose head over the mantel, plus a spacious kitchen, dining table big enough for the clan and an envy-invoking hot tub just below the lift.

Among the surprises of residing on a ski run is the secret after-hours life of said run. The lifts themselves close in Beaver Creek at 4 p.m., and most of the skiers were down by 4:45 p.m., at which point the mountain became a play hill as local kids (including ours) hauled out sleds, snowshoers took off on uphill climbs and dogs came out to fetch. After dinner, we would return to make snowmen and ogle the starry sky. Only the occasional ski patrol snowmobile or mountain groomer interrupted the nightly carnival -- technically, the runs are off-limits after hours -- but the residents of Cresta Road proved to be nightly scofflaws.

By day, of course, skiing occupied the group, which split up by ability -- experts going one way, intermediates another, and kids to group lessons. The Arrowhead runs were perfectly convenient for warm-ups among the impatient while they waited for late risers to caffeinate. But by the end of Day 1 we were off and skiing neighboring Bachelor Gulch, reached via a series of lift-linked runs, and ultimately Beaver Creek proper. Anyone who didn't want to ski there -- namely, the elders -- could take one of the free, continually running shuttle buses and meet us for lunch, après-ski drinks, shopping, ice-skating sessions or a much-needed massage at the lavish Allegria Spa in the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek.

Ski villages are not commonly confused with culture centers, but Beaver Creek Resort challenges convention with the Vilar Performing Arts Center, a 530-seat venue with programming that ranges from classical concerts to Broadway musical tours and stand-up comics. Most acts are one-night stands, ensuring a range of options for visitors, including, the week we visited, a Chinese circus, a performance of A Christmas Carol and a solo violinist.

Though a sleigh ride to a mountain restaurant for dinner at Beaver Creek was among nightlife highlights in the valley, Vail is certainly more social. We booked a special evening out at Restaurant Kelly Liken, already a regional rave before the eponymous owner competed on Bravo TV's Top Chef this season. She does serious food -- think elk carpaccio and Colorado bass -- but in a relaxed atmosphere where homemade lollipops arrived after dessert.

For more downscale fun, we piled into the late show at the Red Lion, where guitarist Phil Long packs the house with his virtual jukebox repertoire of pop covers ranging from Neil Young to the Foo Fighters.

Vail required a little more commuting, but it also offered several unique snow play alternatives. Skipping the morning Alpine runs, my sister and I signed up to snowshoe with personal coach and trainer Ellen Miller. Miller is the first North American woman to summit Mount Everest from both the north and south sides, and the first one to show us how exhilarating snowshoeing can be. Two mornings each week she leads her Mountain Divas class from the Vail Athletic Club, featuring a 90-minute path-breaking hike along Vail Trail, a steep mountainside route through forests of aspen and along a pine-banked stream.

"Some people want a snowshoe tour, and some people just want to hear about Everest," she said with a laugh, leading the aerobic parade.

Vail Trail heads east in the direction of the Vail Nordic Center, where we spent another afternoon on skinny skis in the company of the local high school cross-country ski squad that left us choking on their powder on the steep Designator Loop. But there were ample flats to keep nonracers on their feet in the scenic creek-side setting.

In addition to its natural assets, the course offered a virtual tour of local mansions, many featuring sculptures on their snowy front lawns. Shopping in Vail underlined the wealth in the area, with very expensive Alpine wear with European flare among the selections at boutiques such as Gorsuch Ltd. and Axel's.

We soon realized it would be impossible to explore the entire mountain in a few days, but gave it a good go, grabbing the earliest lifts at 8:30 a.m. and making first tracks on the back bowls in the morning, then switching to the more popular front side after lunch once the late arrivals had reached the rear.

In eight days at Vail and Beaver Creek I learned that, wanderlust notwithstanding, there are times when skiers may want to stay put and loop a run over and over again. The first, on Day 5, was a 19-inch powder day that set those of us unaccustomed to thigh-high snow giddy with the challenge of surfing fluff. The second, Day 8, was the sight of fresh snow falling heavily as the airplane taxied for takeoff.