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Trip Report Steamboat CO and Vista Verde Ranch February 2010

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Here I am, writing my annual trip report of skiing Steamboat, followed by a short stay at Vista Verde Ranch in Clark CO. It doesn’t seem that long ago that I took my first trip to Steamboat, and now it’s 3 years later and my 4th trip. I remember the uncertainty of my first trip—would I like Steamboat? Would I enjoy a winter ranch vacation? Judging from the fact that I keep returning to both locations, I would say the answer to both of those questions is a resounding yes! On my first trip in 2007, I was a relatively new skier and had never skied out West before. I studied all the websites and literature from each resort in Colorado, Utah and Montana, before choosing Steamboat. There are so many places I’d still like to ski and I’m sure are fabulous as well, but Steamboat keeps drawing me back with it’s friendly locals, “real town” atmosphere, mountain which offers plenty of terrain as I progress, and the distance from major city airports like Denver, which keeps the crowds down. Also, I still like taking ski lessons and I found an instructor I like to ski with during my first season there, and I’ve been able to ski with him each year since. Additionally, Steamboat is the only destination ski resort in close proximity to Vista Verde Ranch, so that helps seal the deal for me year after year. For me, the Steamboat Springs area has come to feel like a well worn pair of favorite jeans- comfortable, unpretentious and relaxed. Retuning to Steamboat is like returning home.

Day 1
I departed Boston on United Airlines bound for Denver. Despite a bit of a late take-off, we arrived in Denver a little ahead of schedule. I took that opportunity to grab a quick lunch of nachos at Cantina Grill before my connection to Hayden. The flight to Hayden ended up being delayed by about an hour. I take this same flight each year and I recall it is always delayed. We finally arrived in Hayden at about 1:20pm and I quickly made my way to the Alpine Taxi desk to check in for my shuttle. After being given my shuttle number and driver assignment, I made my way to the crowded baggage claim area to await the United luggage. The Hayden airport is a small airport that receives a fairly large number of flights, some of which are larger jets, so the baggage and waiting areas are always hectic and involve much milling around. Three flights including mine had landed recently, so today was no exception to the crowded rule. At last, the United luggage began to come out and luckily, both my bags made it! I then proceeded out to my assigned shuttle number and found that this year, I would be in a Suburban with only 4 other people instead of a minibus. The ride from the airport is approximately 30 minutes, but with stops to let others off, we did not get to my hotel, the Sheraton until about 50 minutes later.

Check in went smoothly and I was assigned room #239 on the second floor facing Gondola Square and a small part of the mountain. This was my fourth year staying at the Sheraton and the room was as expected-- 2 queen beds, balcony and decorated with striped carpeting and dark woods. There is a resort fee which includes 2 small bottles of water per day, in room internet access (mine was not working), shuttle to town, ski storage, local calls, and self parking. The lobby also has free wireless internet access, which is what I had to use, since despite a request that someone come by to take a look at my in room internet, it never got resolved—but I didn’t pursue it beyond making one request since it was merely a convenience issue for me. They also have some computers in the lobby near the restaurant that you may use each day if traveling without a computer and use of these is complimentary. After taking some time to unpack, I walked around and did some housekeeping items such as picking up my lift ticket, skis and dropping off the waiver for my lessons. This year the new One Steamboat Place complex has been completed, so that gave me something new to check out. One Steamboat Place is the new real estate venture at the base of the mountain---it contains condos as well as shops in the lower level.

About 5pm, I took the free Steamboat Transit bus downtown for dinner. Despite the fact that the Sheraton offers a shuttle service, I prefer to take the public bus. For me there is no better way to get the local flavor of an area than to take public transport. Since I had such a small lunch, I decided to try Old West Steakhouse for dinner; I’d never been there before. The décor is a western motif, with western art, spurs and branding irons adorning the walls. I had a wedge salad with the house garlic dijon dressing and the daily special steak which was a top sirloin with a jalapeno demi glace. The steaks are served with your choice of side and I selected french fries which were pleasantly crisp. For dessert I ordered the Mud Pie, which was chocolate ice cream layered with fudge and slivered almonds. Warm biscuits are also served with the meal. I really enjoyed my meal here and would return again.
After dinner I walked around and looked in some of the shops and made my annual pilgrimage to the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory for some goodies to snack on through the week.

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    Day 2
    This was my first ski day of the trip. The weather today was all over the map-- it started out cloudy, turned to milky sunshine, then got sunny before a snow squall blew through and finally the day ended up sunny. I began on some green trails to try out my rental skis, to make sure I was happy with them and that they had somewhat of an edge. After I quickly decided that the skis were fine, I headed up to Thunderhead and then over to the Sunshine Peak/Wally World area and spent the morning there. Overall, considering the lack of snow this year, the mountain was in pretty good shape. There were some rocks, shrubs and grass showing through where there is normally full cover this time of year. Since this was only my second ski day of this season, my legs started to get tired early and I decided to head down to the base for lunch and get out of my boots for a while. I made my way down to the Thunderhead area via Lower High Noon, which was a little grassy in some places. I ended up downloading on the gondola to save my legs for more skiing after lunch.

    After stashing my boots back in my hotel room, I walked over to the Tugboat for lunch. I had the Grown-up Grilled Cheese, which is grilled cheese on wheat bread with bacon and tomato, served with fries. I’ve had this several times here and it was good as usual—and this is from someone who normally does not like wheat bread that much.

    My legs were now rested and I headed up in the gondola and back over to Sunshine Peak to ski Quickdraw, Tomahawk, Flintlock before my legs were once again pretty tired. This time I made my way down to the gondola via Daybreak.

    I decided that it was time to sit in the hot tub. The Sheraton has 4 hot tubs with views of the slopes. Luckily there was one available for me right when I wanted it. After spending time in the hot tub, I walked around the base and looked in some of the shops and checked out the photos taken of me skiing that day by Sharp Shooter Imaging.

    Next it was time to head downtown for dinner at the Rio Grande. I’d never eaten at the Rio Grande before, so I was due to try it. The salsa and chips served with the meal were good-- the chips thin and crisp and the salsa had a nice cilantro flavor. I had a margarita which was pretty strong and chile con queso (delicious--very smooth and creamy). For the main course, I had the steak burrito with the hot green chile sauce and had it baked (if you want it baked so that the cheese on top melts, you have to request it). I really enjoyed this meal--everything was good and the burrito was very flavorful. Since they didn’t have any desserts there that tempted me, I went down the street to Johnny B Good’s for a mocha shake. The shakes are large and are served with the extra in the can.

    Day 3
    I awoke to snow this morning. It started overnight and continued for about half the day. Depending on where you were, there was about 2-4 inches. Today I had a morning half day private lesson. This was my fourth year skiing with my instructor, so we recognized each other right away and headed up the gondola. The farther up the mountain we got, the less visibility we had. For this reason, we decided to stay at the more mid mountain level, so we stuck to the Thunderhead and Four Points lifts to ski trails such as Vagabond, Rainbow, Lower Concentration, Rudi’s. Luckily over the last year, I had improved some of my previous bad habits, so we could focus on some other things.

    For lunch today I ate at the Gondola Pub and had the chicken strips and fries with honey mustard. Then, at around 12:45pm, I was ready to go back up again. Once again, the visibility remained poor, so I stuck to the same areas as this morning----Rudi’s, Vagabond, Rainbow, Moonlight, Blizzard.

    After my daily soak in the hot tub, I went downtown for dinner at Mazzola’s (as suggested by ski instructor). I had a Dark and Stormy to drink and the house flatbread that they serve with an infused olive oil. For an appetizer I had the garlic cheese bread, which is served with marinara sauce for dipping. This was really good, but could have used more garlic. For the main course I had Fettuccine Alfredo which was also very good. It had a different taste than other Alfredo sauces I’ve had and I think it was the white wine they use in it. Dessert was Tiramisu which was very light and fluffy, but not as strongly flavored as I like. The portions are large here, so make sure you arrive hungry.

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    Day 4
    Today was a beautiful sunny day and the day of my full day private lesson. We started out over on Sunshine Peak skiing Flintlock, High Noon and Tomahawk. Next we went down to the Morningside area and then up to Buddy’s Run. We then skied Rainbow before heading up the Thunderhead lift for lunch at Hazie’s. Since it was such a clear day, the view was spectacular. I had the Hazie Burger which has blue cheese and is served with fries.

    After lunch we headed back to Sunshine Peak to ski some easy tree runs located between High Noon and Sunshine Lift Line. Toward the end of the afternoon we skied Storm Peak Face, Buddy’s and Vagabond among others. I’m always surprised by how much improvement I see in my skiing from year to year--I’m still in the early stages of starting to explore black runs and last year Storm Peak Face looked much steeper to me than it did this year. I like the full day lesson better than the half day because you feel like you can accomplish so much more---but I like the price of the half day better!

    At around 4:30pm I joined my instructor, one of his other students and a friend of theirs in the Sheraton Bar. Then the other student and I went to dinner together since we were both traveling alone. We went to Café Diva--yet another restaurant I had not been to yet. We were lucky enough to be able to be seated without a reservation, as someone had canceled. The food was quite good---I had the Beef Tenderloin in a veal demi glace, served with Yukon smashed potatoes and beans with almond slivers. For dessert I had the Divamisu--which was amaretto gelato, served with a chocolate sauce, crushed coffee beans and chocolate dipped cookies.
    After I returned to the hotel, there was just enough time to sit in the hot tub and admire the dark, star filled sky.

    Day 5
    Unfortunately, today was my last ski day. I had another half day private lesson booked. It was another beautiful day, so I extended my half day lesson to a full day. As usual we started off at Sunshine Peak on Flintlock, High Noon and Sunshine Liftline. From there we moved over to Morningside area and skied Hot Cakes. This was a new and challenging trail for me. Up until this trip, I had only skied groomed terrain, but my instructor has started taking me into the un-groomed and trees. We then went back to the Sunshine area and then to Westside.

    We broke for lunch at Ragner’s, both of us getting the burger with sautéed onions and mushrooms with cheddar cheese and served with sweet potato fries. I also had the Key Lime Mousse for dessert.

    After lunch we skied Buddy’s and some trees somewhere near Buddy’s. We went over to the Pony Express Lift and skied part of Longhorn, but conditions were pretty sketchy with rocks and stumps so we left that area and instead went back to Morningside and Sunshine Peak. By now it was 4pm and we returned to the base area and said our see you next years and good byes.

    Now it was time to start the next phase my vacation---a stay at Vista Verde Ranch. Ranch hand Graham picked me up at 4pm and we made the approx 50 min drive to the ranch. This was my fourth winter at the ranch, but they recently finished some major construction projects and I was excited to see how they turned out. They added a beautiful addition of a great room to the main lodge building and an indoor riding arena. Last year I stayed in one of the cabins due to the construction being done on the main lodge, but this year I was back in my usual room in the lodge--Pearl. The lodge rooms have also been remodeled within the last 1 or 2 years. Lodge rooms are named for area lakes and the cabins are named for surrounding mountain peaks. The lodge rooms are very spacious and are more than enough room for one person. Couples and families enjoy the even larger cabin accommodations; even the smaller cabins are very large and all cabins feature a private hot tub.

    Every night at 6pm is Happy Half Hour---where wine and sodas are served from the small bar in the new great room. Dinner is served at 6:30pm from the dining room in the original lodge section. There is usually a set appetizer, choice of 3 entrees and then a set dessert. This night there was a salad with candied walnuts and raspberry vinaigrette, choice of Beef Tenderloin, Cheese Ravioli or a seafood dish. Dessert was a Pumpkin Maple Pot de Crème. I had the salad, the ravioli and instead of the main dessert, I opted for a trio of sorbets-- banana, coconut and prickly pear tequila (there is one set dessert each night but sorbet is always available---or go grab one of the delicious cookies from the cookie jar). Dinner was good-- the ranch always does a very nice job with food presentation and preparation. My only “complaint” about the ranch food-- mainly the dinners-is that they can be quite gourmet and in years past, there has not always been an entrée choice to my liking each night. This year I lucked out and was able to find something each night.

    After dinner tonight there was an evening activity---a night snowshoe. Often times I am the only person who opts to do this activity, but tonight there was another guest who wanted to do it as well. We met guide Cliff up at the Nordic Center at 8:15pm and were outfitted with snow shoes, poles and headlamps before setting out for our destination-- the Homestead cabin. The Homestead cabin is the original structure on the ranch property. Upon arrival at the cabin, the guide started a fire and we had the option to have hot cider or hot chocolate. We stayed at the cabin maybe 20 minutes or so before heading back to the Nordic Center. Many people are always too tired from the day activities to participate in any active evening activity, but I always say—if you don’t come home from vacation more tired than when you left, it wasn’t a very good vacation! You can see that my idea of a good vacation differs from many peoples and that active vacations are right up my alley! This is why a ranch vacation is great . . . you can do as much or a little as you like.

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    Day 6

    Today after a very restful night sleep, I went down to breakfast at 8am. There is always a choice of 2 hot entrees as well as fruit, oatmeal and pastries. I opted for just bacon and ranch potatoes. During breakfast, a staff member will come around to ask what you want to do for your morning activity. This morning I opted to go for a trail ride in the lightly falling snow. I love riding and I ride English at home so I usually choose to ride almost every day at the ranch. Wrangler Jo took a small group of us out. The ride took about one hour and upon our return, I had about 30 min to warm up before my next activity--helping to feed the horses. The majority of the horses are kept in a winter pasture, and wrangler staff drives hay out to them each day on a large hay sled pulled by draft horses. To assist with the feeding, you must cut the strings on the hay bales, collect the strings so they don’t fall off and then push the hay off as they drive along. Guests are welcome to help with this each day if they so choose.

    Lunch today was at the Homestead Cabin and after we finished feeding the horses, myself and the other guests who assisted, rode the hay sled out to the cabin. Lunch was choice of salad, make your own sandwich, chicken green chili or potato leek soup. The dessert was blonde brownies with chocolate chips. During lunch you are asked what you would like to do for the afternoon activity.

    For the afternoon, I chose to do a backcountry ski trip. Depending on how many people want to do each activity, you may have a private trip or go as a small group. I was the only afternoon skier, so I met my guide John, up at the Nordic Center and we drove to an area near Hahn’s Peak called Trilby (sp?) East. This was a fun ski; you ascend steadily through the pines and aspens and then descend down some more open slopes. The guide taught me the basics of telemark turns, so that was fun as well. Upon our return to the ranch, I took some classical cross country skis and did a short track ski around some of the groomed trails on the ranch. The ranch offers many types of skiing--classical, skate and backcountry. I love all the types of skiing offered, but backcountry is my favorite.

    Some of the days I was here this year, the ranch was hosting a 30 person conference---so there were only 7 of us “real” guests and everyone else was attending the conference. That made Happy Half Hour and dinner a little more crowded than is normal for a winter stay at Vista Verde. The conference attendees had their own tables, so the rest of the guests were at 2 separate tables. I didn’t care for the appetizer tonight (scallops) so I opted for a salad instead. The entrée choice was pepper coated bison, lobster risotto, or a chicken dish. I selected the bison---I have had bison before and thought it was okay, but I really prefer beef. Dessert was really good though---a molten chocolate cake served with berries and whipped cream.

    There was no activity planned this evening, so I watched a movie on my computer up in my room. Through the years, that has been my only real “problem” with Vista Verde. Since I travel alone, there is not much to do at night, as activities are not scheduled every night.

    Day 7
    This day started with breakfast as usual. I selected the Buttermilk Waffles served with bacon and ranch potatoes. For my morning activity I chose to do a western riding lesson in the new indoor ring and with the new trainer. I rode the same horse, Yoder, as the day before and had a great time. Terry, the trainer, was a great teacher and it was a really fun time. The indoor ring structure is fairly sizable and the building also contains about 8 stalls and some staff living quarters. I think the addition of the indoor is a really neat option to have at a ranch. It enables horses to be able to be worked year round and allows guests the option to be able to do more extensive riding in the winter, when riding outside allows only mostly walking or trotting.

    After my lesson, I helped feed the horses again and then it was almost time to go in for lunch. Lunch today was a normal lunch served in the dining room. Lunch consists of a buffet line with 2 soups, salad bar with choice of dressing, make your own sandwich. iced tea, water and lemonade are also available. There are also hot entrée choices you may order. Today’s options were Red Bean Chili, Vegetable Tamale, or Crab Cakes. I opted for the Chili and thought it was tasty. Dessert was Apple Cake which was very moist and flavorful.

    After lunch I went on another backcountry ski, this time with guide Jeff. We drove about 5 minutes to the South Fork area and skied over there. We started climbing, and climbing and climbing. It was not steep, but a steady climb. We got to the top of several vista points along the way and enjoyed the views of the surrounding peaks. We skied down through some chutes through some trees and worked on my tele turns. At the end, the guide showed me a quincee that had been built by our head ski guide’s daughter’s school class. A quincee is like a snow shelter. It is dug out of snow that has been piled up---sort of like a cave, but has some different features. We crawled inside and it was pretty spacious. This was a long ski trip and I think we were gone about 3 hours.

    Dinner tonight was a salad with champagne vinaigrette dressing and pistachios, and your choice of salmon, beef short rib or another dish I can’t recall. Dessert was a sort of Apple Strudel served with frozen vanilla custard. I got the salad and then ordered the short rib for the main course. The rib was so good! It was very tender and was served with ginger-coconut whipped potatoes and glazed carrots. The dessert was pretty good---but I’m not generally a big fan of fruity desserts.

    Tonight dinner ended really late-- like 9pm, as the kitchen and servers were so busy trying to serve everyone (the conference people were still there so that added to the numbers). After dinner, there was an activity scheduled---an indoor campfire. Manager Dace and wrangler/trainer Terry performed western songs in front of the fireplace in the new great room.

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    Day 8
    Breakfast today was a choice of blueberry pancakes or a ham and cheese omelet. I chose to just have some bacon and ranch potatoes.
    It was snowing this morning and I opted for a backcountry ski trip. Guides AJ and Will drove myself and two other guests up to the Hahn’s Peak Lake area. Upon arrival, AJ and I split off from the others, as we were traveling at a faster pace and then we met up with the others later on at the lake. It was a nice ski with some fun opportunities for downhills. I had the bright idea that I wanted to hike up a particular slope but it turned out to be a little steep--and south facing so was crusty to boot!, so we ended up traversing down it, but it was a lot of fun! Near where we were skiing are some mountains known as the Knuckles—they appear pretty steep, a bit gnarly and would be a challenge to ski, so I’ve made it a goal to get good enough to ski them. I’ve set a time frame of within 10 years to somehow accomplish it—or alternatively at least build my skills enough so that I would be capable of accomplishing it.

    We got back a little late for lunch, which for me was salad, chicken green chili and chocolate no bake cookie bars.
    After lunch I debated whether to ride again since I love riding or whether to do sledding with some other guests. I finally decided on sledding since in all my years at the ranch, I’d never experienced sledding Vista Verde style. They take you up to the sledding hill on snowmobiles with the sleds in tubs/carts pulled behind. The ranch has a very wide range of sleds to choose from--saucers, tubes, plastic sleds. The sledding hill is relatively long and after your run, the snowmobiles come down to pick you up and bring you back up again. The tubes and larger plastic sleds were the most fun. We tied all four tubes together at one point and went down with four of us all together. It was also fun to use the tubes to lay on and go down head first. Watching the various mishaps occur, such as getting stuck in the powder on the sides of the hill or wrecking halfway down was also amusing. We stayed out about 2 hours.

    Happy Half Hour tonight was a more traditional Vista Verde experience since all the conference attendees had left and some new guests had arrived. Many of us knew each other from prior years, so it was an experience more typical of the ranch--more social and intimate. For dinner tonight I had a salad for an appetizer and selected the pork chop for the main course. The pork was delicious-- thick cut, moist and flavorful. The dessert this evening was chocolate mousse layered with blackberries, strawberries and blueberries, garnished with whipped cream.

    No activity was scheduled for the evening, so I took the opportunity to pack my bags and then watch a movie on my computer before retiring for the evening and preparing for my early ride to the airport the next day.

    Day 9
    Since my flight was at 8:10am ranch hand Javin picked me up at 5:30am for my ride to the airport. On the approximately 1 hour drive to the airport, we saw a fox by the side of the road. I arrived at the airport about 6:35am and the check in line for United was already moderate in length. The U.S. Olympic Mogul Team was also traveling on my flight on their way to Vancouver for the Olympics, so one check in agent was dedicated to checking them in. Once out of the check in area, security had no line. The Olympians boarded the plane first and we had a little send off for them. The flight was delayed slightly due to having to go through the deicing process, but we arrived Denver in plenty of time to catch my flight back to Boston.

    As usual, my trip to Steamboat was wonderful. The skiing was surprisingly good considering the lack of snow so far this season. The areas with a manmade base were obviously in better shape than those that depend on natural snow. They did a great job with their snowmaking efforts this year early in the season to build a solid base. One thing I’ve found through the years from reading message boards (especially ski related boards) and talking with people, is that ski areas/resorts elicit intense feelings of allegiance in people. Everyone has their favorites and will defend them with all the reasons why they think their chosen location is best. I have an uncle who swears by Aspen and won’t go anywhere else and I know someone at work who is a die hard fan of Alta. People are always willing to try to sell you on their favorite. My goal is not to “sell” anyone on Steamboat, since everyone has different criteria of what is important to them, but instead to discuss what I like about Steamboat and what I view it’s strong points to be for me, in hopes that I will help others make a more informed decision of whether Steamboat is the right choice for them as well. For me Steamboat excels at being unpretentious, low key, relaxed and casual. Steamboat is a great place for most typical people to gain confidence and advance to the next level of their skiing- whatever level that may be.

    I will once again highly recommend Vista Verde Ranch. The management and staff truly understand what customer service is all about and they strive to embody it in all that they do. From the time of your initial contact with the ranch making your reservation, to your arrival and your stay, each employee is friendly, outgoing, energetic and dedicated to making your stay the best it can be for you. Whether you want to take advantage of all the activities the ranch has to offer or if you prefer a more relaxed approach to vacation, Vista Verde will make it happen for you. During your stay at the ranch, you will encounter many people—both staff and other guests, and each will contribute to your experience in different ways. This is one of the strong points of a guest ranch experience; because ranches don’t typically book hundreds of people at once like hotels do, you get a chance to have a more individualized experience. Even with the addition of the conference attendees this year, it did not significantly impact the quality of the ranch experience. At a ranch, you are sharing your vacation with other like minded people, so the activities are targeted toward people like you! The lower number of guests during the winter ranch season also ensures that you get a very individualized experience. So, if you are looking for a vacation with lots of snow, rural elegance, good food and wine, great company, choice of staying busy all day or relaxing the day away, then I suggest you give Vista Verde a try. It may just become your second home, like it has mine.

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