Visiting Colorado for the First Time!

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BC (before COVID19, obvi) I was accustomed to traveling up to a few times a month – for work, to visit family, for pleasure. I virtually always had a suitcase half packed and ready-to-go at a moments notice. Then came 2020, which undoubtedly changed the idea of travel for the indefinite future for me. My perceptions around safety and personal responsibility came into much sharper focus, and it wasn’t until I was fully vaccinated this spring that I even entertained the idea of getting on a plane again. On a summer road trip, my partner, best friend and I were chatting about all the places within the country that we’d like to visit, especially during this period of keeping travel a bit closer, and I said, “I’ve never been to Colorado!” There was something about the mountains and nature there that felt like it was calling me, and not even a few days later… I got an email inviting me to visit Vail and Breckinridge, two incredible destinations just a couple of hours west of Denver. I finally packed my bags and headed there last week for an early Autumn escape, and it could not have been more beautiful or calming!

Land Acknowledgment
Colorado has been home to Indigenous peoples and nations, including the Ute, Arapaho, Comanche, Shoshone, and Apache peoples, as well as dozens of other nations who have been stewards of this land for thousands of years. I will be visiting Vail and Breckinridge, which are Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱ (Ute) lands. 

A few topline notes…
COVID and safety are still very much at the top of my mind when it comes to travel. My partner and I took PCR tests before and after our trip, for our own peace of mind, and also found that the state of Colorado has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country. Additionally, most of the activities we enjoyed were outdoors – taking full advantage of the fresh mountain air. All of the places where we dined offered outdoor seating.

Views from Mid Vail Village

Vail
Our first destination was Vail, CO, a stunning ski resort town that I was enchanted by as a summer or fall destination! Don’t get me wrong – I love skiing and fresh powdery snow so much, but real autumn still feels like such a novelty to me – and getting out west at the beginning of leaf peeping season was a huge draw. Even though summer and autumn are considered “off season,” the town was still incredibly lively, filled with visitors, and there was no shortage of things to do.

As soon as we got to Vail, we headed straight to our hotel, The Lodge at Vail, to unpack and decompress a little from the 2-hour drive from Denver. The Lodge at Vail is perfectly situated in Vail Village, and our room was sprawling: we had a large suite that had a full living room with pull-out sofa bed (perfect for families or small groups traveling together), a kitchenette, powder room, and separate king bedroom with an enormous walk-in closet, jacuzzi tub, and double sinks with an oversized vanity. The room was styled like a luxurious, traditional lodge with modern finishes – and the views from the en suite balcony were incredible~

Activities in Vail
For the spa goers, Vail is home to dozens of luxury spas, hot tubs, and saunas that can be enjoyed year-round. Nina and I had a couples massage at the Rock Resorts Spa at the Arrabelle, right in the heart of Vail village. This was the perfect way to kick off our trip, following a flight and our drive from Denver to Vail. Spa treatments also grant access to The Arrabelle’s hot tubs, steam rooms, and saunas, and our treatment was finished off with a refreshing blood orange sorbet.

We visited Vail Stables, where I faced a lifelong fear of horses, and had the opportunity to ride horseback through the mountains and catch incredible views of Vail from above. Vail Stables is also home to mini horses, goats, and sheep – all of which we had the chance to interact with and feed. The animals were kind and very well taken care of — can you think of a better life than getting to live in the mountains and get fed by visitors all day? Horseback riding, ironically, ended up being one of the highlights of the trip for me. I couldn’t believe that I got to experience the views and scenery of Vail and ride through the beautiful leafy trails while on horseback.

There was no shortage of breathtaking scenery to take in. We took a scenic hike through The North rail, starting at North Frontage Road and Buffehr Creek Road trailhead. This was a moderate climb through stunning Aspen trees, with runners and hikers of all levels frequenting the trails (and plenty of dogs, too!) We couldn’t get enough of the scenery so we grabbed a couple of Lift passes (remember, it’s a ski town, after all), and took one of the Gondolas up to Mid-Village in Vail. During the winter, this would be a snowcovered mountain to ski down, but in the fall, it was another incredible place to take in the vistas. The ride in the gondola itself was also beautiful and relaxing, with 360-degree views of the changing scenery. The Betty Ford Alpine Gardens were another must-visit for nature lovers — it’s home to the highest (elevation, that is) Botanical Gardens in the world.

Though we visited off-season, we also decided to grab a couple of lift passes and ride up Gondola One to Mid-Vail village to take in the breathtaking views! The Gondola offers 360-degree views as it ascends up the mountain, and the views from the top could not be beat. The ride is about 10-15 minutes in each direction, and tickets cost around $50 per person for a 12-hour period — it’s admittedly a bit steep, but when else was I going to have this opportunity?!

Dining in Vail
Our first night in Vail truly set the tone for what a romantic and dreamy backdrop Colorado can be for travel. We were hosted by Picnic Vail and The Grazing Fox, two small businesses located in Vail, for a beautiful picnic set next to a running creek by the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens. They created a cozy, thoughtful set up with every single detail considered – from the special bottle of bubbly from a New Mexico winery, to games and a polaroid camera set out for us to entertain ourselves, to plush pillows and blankets to keep us warm, and of course – a charcuterie board set with delicious fruits, cheeses, olives, and gluten-free crackers. It was such a beautiful night and the perfect welcome to Colorado!

The following day, we had lunch at Sweet Basil – located in the heart of Vail Village. Our server was kind and extremely knowledgable about the menu and all the gluten-free (and celiac safe) offerings. We sat on the patio which provided the best people watching while we dined on a smorgasbord of appetizers! We were both feeling indecisive, so selected a handful of appetizers/small plates to share — fully expected small, New York City sized portions — but we definitely were not in NYC and the portions were very generous. We shared a vegan mushroom pate, tuna tartare, crudités, and more.

For dinner, we visited La Tour, a chef-owned and operated French restaurant in the heart of Vail Village, with a large heated patio that looks onto the mountainside. The quality of the food, cocktails, and service were fine-dining level, but with a more casual and unpretentious approach. We felt so relaxed and comfortable as we dined on our entrees and enjoyed people watching the passersby (La Tour neighbors several other eateries, stores, and art galleries – so there’s plenty of activity happening nearby.

The following morning, Sunday, Vail was host to a sprawling farmers market that takes over the entirety of the village. There are local vendors that sell baked goods, tacos, produce, tons of handcrafts and essential oils, and also art gallery booths. The farmers market is open year-round on Sundays and opens at 9AM. We enjoyed some morning snacks and as light lunch as well as coffee from Yeti’s Grind, a local favorite, where I fully indulged in their Honey Lavender Latte (a++ highly recommend).

Our personalized picnic hosted by Picnic Vail and The Grazing Fox

Breckenridge

A short drive from Vail, back towards Denver, Breckenridge is another mountain town full of Victorian architecture and stunning nature and views at every single corner. The town itself is incredibly cute — it reminds me a lot of towns in Upstate New York, with quaint architecture and a small-town feel with infusions of big-city comfort and modern, hip touches. While Breckenridge, too, is known as a ski destination, the energy in the fall was lively, excited, and people were out – even on Monday nights, we saw tons of people walking through the streets, dining outside at restaurants, or hanging out with friends at bar patios.

In Breckenridge, we stayed at Gravity Haus – a boutique hotel with multiple locations throughout Colorado’s mountain towns (Vail, Breckenridge, and Winter Park). Gravity Haus felt like it could be everything to everyone — it’s located in the heart of downtown Breckenridge, perfectly situated for visitors on ski-season and off – with their own on-site gym, spa, cabanas, restaurant (Cabin Juice), bar, and coffee shop, and even a trampoline. The rooms are modern and reminded me a lot of The Ace, and everything inside is sourced from eco-friendly and sustainable brands and shoppable — so if you loved the mini fridge, towels, or linens in your room, you could also take them home with you. One note, for light sleepers, we did find the hotel to be pretty noisy — but ear plugs are provided to help soften some of the sounds. The very walkable location made up for any grievances we might have had about the raucousness!

Activities in Breckenridge
Like Vail, we were in awe of all the nature here, and had to take in some of the hikes and check out all the views. There’s no shortage of scenic points-of-view, and I’m pretty sure that’s true of the entirety of Colorado. Whether we were in the heart of Breckenridge downtown, or took a drive out to a trailhead, everywhere we turned was stunning.

A short drive up French Gulch Road took us to some of the historic mining areas in Breckenridge, where there are multiple trails and hikes worth exploring. You can go in any direction and find beauty at every turn just go during the day — I imagine someone can pretty easily get lost at night!) Some of the destination trails in this area worth visiting are X10U8 (Extenuate), The Minnie Trail, Country Boy Mine, The Reiling Dredge, and The Lincoln Townsite. Isak Heartstone park, which is home to Danish artist Thomas Dambo 15-foot wooden troll sculpture and the accompanying Trollstigen trail. All of these trails are easy and low-key, just wear some comfy shoes and bring a reusable water bottle with you (trashcans are scarce and it’s important to be a responsible visitor and leave no trace!).

Sawmill Reservoir in Breckenridge

We also loved visiting the Sawmill Reservoir, which has an easy 1.3 mile loop around the reservoir. It’s such a peaceful and idyllic place, and there are park benches nestled between trees that look onto the water. A few people were fishing around the perimeter of the reservoir, while others were picnicking or walking around the loop. The reflections of the trees glimmering off of the water are reason enough to visit, in my opinion! Pro-tip: there is a small parking lot off of Snowflake road that is a short walk to the reservoir. Parking can be limited and is not allowed in the neighboring residential area, so plan accordingly! We visited on a weekday and found parking easily.

A really fun activity we did in Breckenridge was a skincare class!! If you follow me on instagram, you know I’m obsessed with skincare – it is truly one of my biggest hobbies and passions. That said, I don’t often find myself partaking in DIY-skincare-making, so this was a real treat. Our class was with Erica, the founder of Ambika Herbals, who is a Hudson Valley, NY-native that has made a home and planted roots in Breckenridge. Located inside the Breckenridge Creative Arts Campus, Ambika Herbals takes an herbalist and Ayurvedic approach towards skincare, and prioritizes sourcing the best ingredients possible. With Erica, we made mud masks — the process was just like baking! We measured out ingredients, “cooked” them together, and placed them inside beautiful recyclable vessels. It was a perfect afternoon treat, especially while taking in the crisp and dry mountain air!

Dining in Breckenridge
Our first meal in Breckenridge was at a small, much-loved eatery, Crepes a la Cart (there are two locations – we headed to the location on South Main Street). As we were walking down main street, we saw a long line leading up to Crepes a la Cart, so I immediately looked it up and found rave-reviews as well as gluten-free sweet and savory crepes!! I don’t mention this here often, but I have celiacs disease – so this was a really exciting discovery. My partner and I shared a couple of savory crepes and finished off with a sweet dessert crepe — they were all delicious and truly hit the spot and was well worth the wait. It also wasn’t the end of the incredible gluten-free offerings, so if this appeals to you, keep reading.

The following day, we woke up early and headed to Lolo Juice, just around the corner from our hotel. Lolo Juice is an eco-friendly juice and smoothie spot that aims to produce less than 1-bag of waste a day. They have an assortment of protein balls, juices, smoothies, and wellness shots. After throwing back a couple of immunity-boosting shots and a protein ball, we headed across the street to BreckFast (Breckenridge is home to a lot of puns, btw) for cold brews and a bit of a heartier breakfast to prep us before an afternoon of hikes.

After spending a few hours hiking and losing track of time, we realized that many lunch spots close on the earlier side, especially on weekdays – but we had a recommendation to go to Pante Pizzeria, which was open and ended up being one of the highlights of our trip! It’s an all plant-based Italian restaurant that focuses, obviously, on pizzas. I don’t say this lightly – I’ve lived in NYC for nearly two decades and my partner was born in Brooklyn, their gluten-free (and vegan!) pizzas were some of the best we’ve ever had. Like – I may have messaged them on Instagram to share that their recipes should be licensed out to some NY-based pizzerias… and I may have debated taking a whole-pie cross country with us, (to be clear: I didn’t do this, but I also might regret not doing this). Long story short: if you find yourself in Breckenridge, definitely go to Pante Pizzeria.

For our final dinner and another highlight of the trip, we visited to Ember, one of the few fine-dining destinations in Breckenridge. Ember is chef owned and operated by Scotty Boshaw, and staffed by some of the friendliest people we encountered during our trip. Currently, Ember’s patio houses a few individual heated Igloo-style booths for social distanced dining. It felt like being inside a snow globe — I can only imagine how magical it feels once snow starts falling! It was cozy and romantic, and felt private while still being able to take in the ambiance of the restaurant. We shared an eclectic assortment of dishes with flavor profiles I had never before experienced. Ember offers both entirely gluten-free and vegan menus in addition to their signature dishes. It was a really memorable experience on every level – ambiance, food, beverages, and service. In chatting with the staff, we also found that Ember has inadvertently become one of the LGBTQ destinations in town – hosting LGBTQ-specific events and overall being a really welcoming and inclusive atmosphere.

Dinner at Ember, Breckenridge

A Pit-Stop in Denver….
Before heading back to NYC, we decided to spend 1 night in Denver! We had heard such amazing things about The Ramble from friends, so decided to stay there for our flying visited. It reminded me so much of my favorite hotels in New York City, and the lobby is also home to Death & Co, a NYC-imported cocktail bar with a speakeasy feel. We had a nightcap and headed up to our cozy, luxurious room. With a few hours in Denver before heading to the airport, we had a yummy breakfast at Just BE Kitchen, a 100% gluten, grain, and refined sugar free cafe. We shared a breakfast burrito (my first ever!) and pancakes – both were delicious! Afterwards, we picked up a couple of scooters and took a scenic ride through Denver along the South Platte River back towards our hotel. After checking out at The Ramble, we drove to Rivers & Roads Coffee, an entirely gluten-free cafe, to pick up food for our cross-country flight. I can’t recommend this place enough! Finally, as we made our way towards the airport, we took a 1-hour self-guided audio driving tour through Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge (audioguide available here). We loved and were thoroughly entertained by the drive. We saw a herd of bison, prairie dogs, preserved wetlands, and the audio tour offered some insightful and very honest history on the Denver area and Indigenous Peoples in the area.

A look a the lobby (left) and our room at The Ramble

Disclosure: My trip was hosted and sponsored by Visit Colorado. All opinions, photos, and content here are my own.

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