Looking for a quick getaway to a European mountain village? You can experience that without ever leaving the state. Just head to Vail. Stroll along the cobblestone streets of Vail Village, cross timbered bridges, view Bavarian-styled buildings and dine on Raclette and fondue for a taste of old-world ambiance reminiscent of the alpine villages of Germany, Austria, Italy and Switzerland.
Vail was designed to resemble an Alpine village, says Jen Mason, executive director of the Colorado Snow Sports Museum and Hall of Fame in Vail. Many Colorado ski towns grew out of former mining towns and still reflect that Old West style, but Vail was purpose-built as a ski town with European influences.
Upon returning home from Europe after World War II, Mason explains, Pete Siebert and fellow 10th Mountain Division soldiers sought mountain locations where they could build ski areas and towns reminiscent of those they found so beautiful in the Alps.
The world-renowned ski resort wasn’t even a blip on the map in 1957 when Siebert climbed to the top of what is now Vail Mountain (11,570 feet). He looked over the expansive back side into the wilderness and knew his search was over. You can imagine his enthusiasm as that vantage point revealed what are now known as the seven “legendary back bowls of Vail.”
“You can’t talk about Colorado skiing without talking about the 10th Mountain Division,” Mason says. Like Aspen, Arapahoe Basin and Keystone, Vail is the result of a passion for skiing that developed during their founders’ Army training in Colorado and wartime service in the Alps. At Vail, in particular, “People can see how this all (Vail Village) ties to Bavaria and how our roots came about,” Mason says.
Ski instructors lured from Europe were among the first residents of Vail when it opened in 1962. Renowned Austrian ski racer Pepi Gramshammer and his wife, Sheika, who descended from a family of Austrian innkeepers, built one of the first alpine-inspired lodges and restaurants in 1964. They named it Gasthof Gramshammer, which translates from Austrian to “a house for guests.”
The exteriors of the Gasthof and other village buildings reveal intricate, carved wood features, wall paintings, detailed stone and plaster work, and other special touches of alpine culture like the flower-filled window boxes that brighten the village in spring and summer.
Nearby, the Faessler family has been fine-tuning the guest experience at their Sonnenalp Hotel (sonnenalp.com) since opening its doors in 1979.
Proprietor Johannes Faessler came to Colorado as a teenager with his parents from Ofterschwang, Germany, where the extended family has been operating a hotel in the Bavarian Alps since the early 1900s. They heard Colorado ski country was ripe for hotels like theirs and decided to make a go of it.
“We wanted to create a carbon copy of what we have done successfully in Bavaria and bring it here,” Faessler explains. Since they didn’t know how to source goods in America they brought everything with them — linens, curtains, uniforms, furniture, table settings, even the pictures on the walls. “We packed it up into big sea containers and shipped everything over from Germany, then unpacked and rolled it out. It all fit perfectly.”
Over the years the Sonnenalp has enhanced its offerings to guests and developed what Faessler describes as “alpine culture meets Colorado style.” Faessler loves winter and the snow it brings to the slopes. “I’m a big fan of ski racing, it’s an extraordinary event,” says the avid skier. The hotel has hosted German ski teams during World Cup events and always extends an invitation to dinner. The FIS Alpine World Ski Championships have been held in Vail or Beaver Creek three times, in 1989, 1999 and 2015. This December Beaver Creek will host three World Cup events in men’s Super G and downhill.
What began as a dream to create an alpine village in Colorado has evolved into something a lot bigger — a world-class mountain resort. But visitors can still experience the European vibe of Vail Village from old-world charm to modern alpine ambiance. Here’s a few places in Vail Village to get you started.
Lodging in Vail
Dining in Vail
AlpenRose: Specializing in small details that enhance a diner’s experience, there is ambiance aplenty here. You’ll feel content eating a pretzel and beer but there’s so much more to try. This gem keeps the “old Vail” charm alive while serving authentic family Austrian-Bavarian recipes.
Pepi’s: Choose the outdoor deck at Pepi’s for aprés ski (try to snag a seat in the heated patio section). Choose from a variety of Austrian beers or specialty drinks and pair it with bison bratwurst. https://pepis.com/pepis-restaurant-and-bar/
Swiss Chalet: Treat yourself to authentic Swiss cheese fondues and raclette. For fans of the real thing, specialty cheeses are imported from Switzerland. Great pairings from the Wine Spectator award-winning wine list are all but guaranteed.
Fun in Vail
Colorado Snowsports Museum and Hall of Fame: Entrance is complimentary to this fascinating look at Colorado snowsports. Discover the story of the 10th Mountain Division Soldiers here. You’ll see authentic uniforms, exhibits of skis and other memorabilia from the beginning of Vail to modern day.
Opening day at Vail is set for Nov. 11 (The earliest opening day ever!)
Vail Celebrates its 60th
Vail will celebrate its 60th year on Dec. 15, and a big bash is planned. Festivities and special events will be plentiful as Vail Mountain takes a modern twist on the Vintage Vail of 1962. Watch for details of Vail’s 60th activities. online.