Despite a recent attempt by eco-warriors to torch the place, the rich are still flocking to Vail, says Stephen Wood
THERE IS a scene in one of the early episodes of the US soap opera Vail where Gayle (played by Ann-Margret) sweeps into the Cucina Rusticana restaurant at the Colorado ski resort's grandest hotel, The Lodge, on the arm of her latest conquest, Nelson (George Hamilton IV).

As Alberto, the maitre d', leads them into the perfect re-creation of a rustic Tuscan inn - all stone and distressed-wood finishes - she is dismayed to see her favourite table by the fireplace occupied by a scruffy group of skiers tucking into New York Strip Steak Involtini with prosciutto and asiago-and-artichoke mashed potatoes. "Who are they?" she hisses to Alberto. He shrugs, and replies: "British journalists".

Okay, there was no such scene. And there is no such series - though goodness knows why not. Perhaps it is too late now, what with The Simpsons and South Park, but if any television production company wanted to recapture the classic glamour of Dynasty and Dallas, Vail would be the place to do it. The state of Colorado, like Wyoming and Oregon, has become fashionable in the US, thanks to the sort of new-age outdoor lifestyle which makes California and Florida seem tawdry.

In October, the resort briefly became a battleground for the heart of America when eco-terrorists, angry at plans to extend the resort into virgin forests, set fire to chair-lifts and a restaurant.

But two months later, the skiing in Vail feels as opulent as ever. Because what glitters here is real gold. An American lawyer sitting next to me on the flight back to London said that the Vail property market is the most profitable in the US - and since he is a part-owner of both a small ski resort in New England and London's Chelsea Harbour Club, I figured he knew what he was talking about.

No wonder Sotheby's estate agency has a branch in Vail: there is enough money sloshing around the place to support even a Christmas shop selling merely decorations, Santa Claus figurines and the like (although, perhaps unsurprisingly, it was having a sale in February). No wonder The Lodge at Vail can afford to lay on a four-night break called the "Pampered Extreme" package, including a day's heli-skiing - which cost $17,000 (pounds 10,600) for four people last season. And no wonder I felt as out of place as a Tuscan hill farmer in The Lodge's Cucina Rusticana restaurant.

There is gold, too, in the hills. In 1997, Vail Resorts, the owner of Vail and nearby Beaver Creek, added to its portfolio Keystone and Breckenridge, two other Colorado resorts about 35 miles to the east, both formerly owned by a pet-food company.

This corporate wedding was not without its difficulties, both up in Washington (the US Department of Justice used its anti-trust powers to require Vail Resorts to sell off a fifth local resort, Arapahoe Basin) and down on the ground (Pepsi was the "Official Soft Drink of Vail and Beaver Creek", while Coca-Cola held the title for Breckenridge and Keystone). But, when consummated, it gave Vail Resort, whose shares are now traded on the New York Stock Exchange, the three most popular ski resorts in North America - Vail, Breckenridge and Keystone, in that order - and the financial muscle to announce a $74m investment in facilities for the 1997-98 season.

Of course, the corporate high-flying only added to the glamour of Vail (remember Dallas and Dynasty?). On a ski-lift at Breckenridge, a much better place to ski, I got talking to a man from North Carolina. He and his son were having a few days there, then going on to Vail. "Well, you've got to go to Vail, haven't you?" he said. It wasn't a question.

What so appeals to British skiers about the US is the service and the level of organisation. Both border on the awesome at Vail. True, staying at the Vail Athletic Club Hotel & Spa does make the world seem, generally, a better place (I added lying in its steaming outdoor Jacuzzi with snow falling on my face to the list of my top 10 sensual pleasures); but the altitude discomfort I suffered shuttling between the 2,500m resort and the 3,430m peak balanced that out. All the staff, from ski-rental stores to restaurants, were charming and efficient, and the order imposed on the lift queues - which would have driven most Alpine-resort skiers to piste rage - seemed merely to inculcate a sort of benevolent docility.

But if it was all sweetness and light at the bottom of Vail's lifts, there were problems at the top. Friends had enthused about the skiing, but it didn't live up to my expectations. While most of the pistes run off a ridge down to the resort, the fabled "back bowls" are beyond the ridge; they make up a huge skiing area, six miles across, with all the descents, bar two, marked on the piste map as blacks. But, as is so often the case in the US, the black runs didn't seem worthy of the rating, the steep pitches too wide to pose a real challenge.

Fresh powder would probably have made all the difference: in February, the snow cover was fine, but it was old stuff. (El Nino got the blame for 1998-99. However, Vail Resorts promises that its area "typically receives 40 per cent more snow than average in the season following a strong El Nino".)

Still, I was disappointed by the back bowls, and while the mainly pisted front face of the resort was exhilarating, it offered little challenge except on the Zot and Powerline Glade black runs off the Patrol Headquarters Peak. It was mainly fast, sweeping skiing, not difficult enough to provide a whole week's entertainment.

One virtue of the common ownership of the four Vail Resorts is a linked ski-pass: although you have got to go to Vail, you can move on after a couple of days. Beaver Creek, about five miles west, feels even more opulent than Vail, albeit in a less showy way: it is like a purpose-built, skiing country club, with former President Gerald Ford among its resident members (there is a good view of his spread from one of the lifts up towards McCoy Park).

Beaver Creek's skiing is even easier than Vail's, but it has a pleasantly languid rhythm, with lots of glade runs and pistes that roll through the forests before opening up to give views worth stopping for. It is the least popular of the resorts, which shows in the lift queues (non-existent) and on the under-populated pistes.

I found better skiing to the east, at Breckenridge and Keystone. Although the landscape is still surprisingly soft in profile - these are more like very high hills than Rocky Mountains, with none of the pulse-quickening ledges and gulleys of Alpine ski areas - there are some steep slopes in the eastern resorts.

The attractions of Breckenridge's old-mining-town ambience are overrated (it feels hardly more historical than Covent Garden on a Saturday afternoon), but the outer reaches of its ski area do hark back to tough, pioneering days. The T-bar up Peak 8 (no comfy four-seater chairs here) drops you off at 3,702m on a huge snow-field way above the tree-line. From there it is a long horizontal trek to a series of difficult, unpisted descents, the last being the aptly named Vertigo run. A wide gulley filled with powder, this was what I had hoped to find in Vail's back bowls: great skiing, just beyond my capabilities, with deep, soft snow to fall into.

Keystone has nothing quite so thrilling; but it has other virtues. Its lift system switchbacks away from the resort base, crossing two peaks on its way to a third. Unlike in the other three resorts, you get the feeling of disappearing into the mountains - especially with the huge views of snowy wastes from the third peak, Outback.

Heavily forested, Keystone's ski area is very rich, with steep black runs, some blues that sweep through the trees and, best of all, difficult mogul fields which disappear into the forest.

And up on North Peak, the resort can (and does) boast the highest gourmet restaurant in US ski resorts: absurdly luxurious and quiet - you swap your ski boots in the lobby for soft slippers in which to pad across the carpets - the Alpenglow Stube served the best ski-area lunch I have ever eaten, and charged only $30 for it.

Last season, Monarch laid on a twice-weekly charter to Denver, which led to over-capacity and deep price-cutting. The reaction has been dramatic this season. Monarch has cancelled its charters and some tour operators, most notably First Choice, have dropped Colorado from their brochures.

British Airway's new daily scheduled service means that skiers can still fly direct to Denver, but at a price. Adding in the surcharge for the BA flight, some ski holidays to Vail around the turn of the year have brochure prices more than 25 per cent above last year's. And this season, late-booking discounts should be rare.



Getting there

Major operators offering skiing in Vail include Crystal (tel: 0181-399 5144), which offers a wide range of packages, with prices starting at pounds 799. Among the specialists, Ski Independence (tel: 0990 550555) offers a week at The Lodge for the same period, at pounds 1,999. At the Vail Athletic Club (tel: 001 970 476 0700), accommodation for two at the New Year starts from $415 per night, with a minimum stay of 10 nights. Vail and Beaver Creek lift passes, valid in all four Vail Resorts, cost $57 per day for a week (adults), $37 (children); Keystone and Breckenridge passes, with limited access to Vail and Beaver Creek, start from $41 per day (adults), $19 (children). Transfer time from Denver airport is about two-and-a-half hours. The skiing World Championships take place at Vail and Beaver Creek, 1-14 February, 1999.