Three Perfect Days in Vail with Mixed-Age Kids

He doesn’t travel with us. Only a visit to Vail, Colorado, could entice the college boy to do it. The trick was finding activities to keep him, age 20, and his brothers, 7 and 9, all happy and satisfied. Or at least not whining.

The five of us stayed at the Sonnenalp Hotel, celebrating its 100-year birthday this year. It was like stepping into a Bavarian lodge, only with American-sized rooms. The entry to ours had its own little space to deposit our leaky snow equipment without messing up the rest of the rooms. To the right, it opened into a living room like you’d find at your Aunt Sylvie’s who lives in Switzerland with her French husband. A burgundy couch and an azure loveseat faced a flat-screen TV and Nespresso coffee machine with a glass-covered fireplace to the right. Behind it all, two green headboards framed two green quilts covering two queen-sized beds. The bathroom was its own dominion with luxury lotions and toiletries dispensed in industrial-sized refillable containers, a steam shower and a whirlpool jet tub. Across it, a wood-framed, walk-in closet gave us enough space to unload our belongings. Just beyond the living area, outside our French door balcony, were views of snow-topped mountains, so close we felt we could touch them, with green Douglas firs and Englemann spruce defiantly standing between hills of white snow and piles of brown dirt. Pillows of white clouds languished through in a blue sky. It was still early winter, so the skies hadn’t yet covered the Earth with a frosty shroud. Instead, there were patches of white left over from past storms and a chill that turned our breath into dancing puffs of air.

It was late when we arrived, so we decided to eat dinner at the hotel restaurant, Bully Ranch, which had all the expected tough guy mountain fare, like burgers and beers, but also mindful options like veggie burgers and a superfood salad. Once satisfied, the little boys raced out to the walkway that was a short stroll alongside earth-hued, new condos and storefronts, along a paver-lined street to the heart of Vail Village. We loved our crisp walk but could have hopped on a free bus as Vail boasts the largest network of complimentary public transportation in the United States.

We arrived to the center of the Village to discover a giant outdoor ice rink under twinkling lights. Bundled up, laughing families raced around it on skates. Solaris Ice Rink is surrounded by two stories of shops, restaurants and a contemporary bowling alley towered by a medley of rentable residences. The free rink, open during the winter months from 1–9:30 p.m., offers families an opportunity to enjoy winter and each other off the slopes. Skate rentals are located next door to bōl. Even though neither of the little boys had ever skated before, they both enjoyed racing around, with the rail within arm’s length, until they got comfortable enough to stumble onto the middle of the ice, ankles shifting in their skates like drunken sailors. Kyle, the college kid, laughed as his little brothers, Kaleb and Knox, tried to make snow angels in the hard ice.

Before we called it a night, we walked over to the Bridge House Ski Haus and rented our gear for the duration of our stay. They have a wonderful ski valet partnership with the Sonnenalp where they drop-off and pick-up your skis at the hotel, so you don’t have to schlep anything anywhere. Plus, you get a discount for being a hotel guest.

We woke up to an international breakfast buffet feast at Ludwig’s where some brave souls — or those visiting from colder climates — relaxed with meals on the outdoor patio. We from Los Angeles huddled inside and enjoyed a huge variety of foods representing all parts of Europe.

Post-snowboarding lessons in Vail, Colorado

Post-snowboarding lessons in Vail, Colorado © Rina Nehdar

My husband, Howard, and Kyle decided to have a big boy day to themselves and took their freshly delivered skis and snowboard up to Vail mountain while I hopped on a free bus with the little guys to explore Adventure Ridge above Lionshead Village. The Eagle Bahn gondola took us to the top, where we discovered activities diverse enough to keep any kid happy. It started with a snowball fight. As we ascended the mountain in our glass-covered cube, mesmerized by huge swatches of white-tipped greenery covering jagged rocky plateaus, the sky gifted us with a light flurry of snow. By the time we stepped off our gondola, the ground was covered in a fluffy veil of white. We excitedly gathered as much of the powder as possible, packed it into balls, and proceeded to remind each other just how fun and mischievous winter could be while pelting and screaming as cold, wet snow found its way into the sliver of space between our jacket and our neck. Next, we found the Forest Flyer Mountain Coaster where we sat in a toboggan and flew around a metal track much faster than I expected. I tried to ignore the little voice inside my head that told me I was going to fly off the metal rail, hurling my youngest son down the mountain, if I didn’t slow down.

The kid’s club program at the Sonnenalp offers programs that introduce wildlife around Vail to the children. During the dry months, it’s taught through hiking, but, during our stay, we got to learn about nature while snowshoeing. None of us had tried it before and we were so excited to strap on our snowshoes and clank up the hill. Our guide, Sonnenalp’s guest activities coordinator Kara Hasbrouck-Schmidt stopped in front of an evergreen and asked if we knew what type it was. We city folk shook our heads and she pulled off some pine needles and said we could tell by rolling them between our fingers. “See? The needles roll because they’re square so we know it’s a spruce,” Hasbrouck-Schmidt showed us. We plodded along a little farther and she stopped in front of another tree. When we tried to roll the needles this time, they wouldn’t move. “The fir tree needles are flat, so you can’t roll them. That’s how you can tell the difference.” A little further up, she stopped again and pointed to some animal tracks, asking if we knew how to tell the difference between dog and mountain lion prints. With a crease between our eyes, we again shook our heads. “Mountain lions retract their claws like cats when they walk, while dogs do not,” she said as we stared at the tracks, hoping to see claws.

That night, after dinner, we enjoyed hanging out on the couches at King’s Club around a glowing fireplace and the crooning sounds of a singer strumming a guitar. King’s Club is cozy, like a giant living room divided by arches and partition walls, each section hosting families and couples that lounged on sofas and chairs. We talked, ordered snacks and drinks and enjoyed playing backgammon by the warmth of the fire.

The big boys reported not many open lifts the day before in Vail, so we hopped in the car and drove 20 minutes to Beaver Creek, where we signed up the little boys for snowboarding lessons and we big kids got to enjoy some Colorado powder. We stayed and watched the lessons for awhile and noted the staff seemed attentive and experienced. Then, we threw caution to the wind and skied down the mountain like we were all in our 20s, instead of just one of us.

In the evening, we enrolled the boys in movie and pizza night at the kid’s club and the three of us walked into the village to Yama Sushi. The waitresses were probably ski instructors during the day and the contrast between the black walls and red floor gave it a hip vibe. The fish was fresh and some came in wood boxes and origami-inspired presentations. It was nice getting the chance to talk with our college kid without the distraction of the little boys.

Our last day in Vail, we ventured a half hour to Copper Mountain, where we planned to ski during the first part of the day and in the afternoon conquer Woodward Copper, an indoor/outdoor extreme sports park. The little boys wanted to go to ski school again with its shallow hills and slow lifts. The big boys chose to ride the lift with them and spend their morning cheering them on. Since they were paired off, I took the free bus from the Center Village to the West Village and rode the Union Creek lift up for three of the best skiing experiences I’ve ever had. The trails were wide, uncrowded and combined speed from a high starting altitude with beginner and intermediate level runs.

Rina Nehdar with son in Vail, Colorado

Rina Nehdar with son in Vail, Colorado © Rina Nehdar

Woodward Copper finally gave all three boys the opportunity to shred together. Woodward has six locations between the United States and Mexico and is divided into areas where kids and adults can fly around and grind on skateboards, BMX bikes and snowboards using high-quality ramps, bowls and rails. First-time sessions start with instruction from experienced riders on flinging yourself safely onto trampolines and foam pits. Then the participants get to choose which high-adrenaline sport they’d like to practice. The little boys decided to scooter around the ramps and do little hops into foam pits. Kyle rolled down a 20-foot ramp on a snowboard with wheels and landed into a pit full of foam.

On our last night, Kyle gallantly offered to watch the boys while we shared a romantic night out at White Bison. The food was spectacularly prepared with a rustic, high-end presentation that included tin cups for water and metallic serving platters. We returned to find the little guys passed out after trying to kill each other for hours, Kyle reported.

In the morning, the spa offered a free yoga class in a bright, yellow and cream room. Painted golden suns emblazed the wall, bursting from their centers into powerful rays. The teacher, Marta, led a strong class and while we sat quietly, enjoying our calm, I realized the hotel name, Sonnenalp, translated to sun on the mountain. Given the warm experiences we’d all shared, there couldn’t have been a more appropriate name for our lodgings. And even though the little boys had sometimes driven us crazy, I hoped Kyle would travel with us again.