By Karen Rubin, Examiner.com
“Waltz with the mountain,” Allan Lawrence, my Keystone, Colorado, ski instructor says to me, as he banishes me from the blue-trails to spend an hour on the bunny hill to try to find the rhythm and flow in my skiing that has always eluded me.
The phrase comes to mind, as well, when I think about choreographing our stay. A ski holiday is never easy – there are so many moving parts – and Keystone Mountain Resort offers so much for families, on and off the slopes, that advance planning is key to choreographing your holiday
Keystone is as perfect a destination mountain resort there is – and not just because when we visited this month we had a daily freshening of powder snow and blue-bird skies for which Colorado is duly famous, and the cold dry air make 30 degrees feel like spring.
Few places have the quality of skiing and riding, the depth of family and children’s programs, the range of activities, the high level of service (with a smile!), the superb quality of dining, the variety of accommodations, the value in pricing (not cheap, but value for dollar), logistics of getting around (really important for a ski resort) and the convenience to reach, all bundled together in one of the most beautiful settings imaginable. Resorts excel at one or more, but few excel in all these categories that make for an exceptional visitor experience.
All of this comes home to me on Keystone’s shuttle bus.
Yes, the shuttle bus. It is the evening, and we have just returned from a fabulous day of skiing just in time to get to our massage at the Keystone Lodge & Spa. We call the shuttle bus, and he comes in five minutes so we get to our appointment on time. Then, when we want to return to our lodge in Ski Tip townhomes, the bus is there within minutes again.
That morning, we had a bit of an emergency – to get to the mountain even before the regular shuttle service started in order to get our rentals and get to the KAT Adventure ski tour in time. We called, and though the bus is usually engaged picking up employees, they made a special trip so we could get there on time. Another time, they made a special trip and waited so we could drop something off.
Keystone is really a series of lodging complexes lining the road at the base of its mountain, with a main base at River Run and a secondary base at Mountain House. But you don’t need a car at all. The shuttle bus connects everything like a tidy bow.
Ski holidays are usually a logistical nightmare – getting everybody their rental equipment, getting to lessons and programs, a myriad of activities and reservations on time. Keystone manages to ease this so that after less than a day of getting acclimated (not just to the altitude, but to the layout), you really can settle in to a luxurious vacation.
It’s like the grandest of choreography worthy of a Tony-Award winning Broadway musical or a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film – and it happens because there is so much you can pre-plan and pre-arrange, and because the resort is designed with all of this in mind.
Keystone has a long and storied history going back to the 1970s, and has been a perennial favorite for Front Range Coloradans – largely because it is so convenient to Denver. Since Vail Resorts acquired Keystone, it has added the upscale amenities and service for which Vail Resorts – Beaver Creek, Vail, Breckenridge, Heavenly and the newest addition, Northstar-at-Tahoe – are justifiably renowned. This has made Keystone tops, in my mind, as a long-haul ski destination.
Keystone affords the absolute best of everything imaginable, from the lessons and children’s camps, to the adult programs, to topnotch guided snow cat skiing adventure (KAT) that takes experts to the pristine powder of the back bowls, to the fact that Keystone is the only major Colorado ski resort to offer night skiing (600 of Keystone’s 3000 skiable acres open, the equivalent of an entire Vermont ski resort open for night skiing!).
And when you have had enough of down hilling or if skiing/riding is not your thing, there is still so much to enjoy at the resort such as adventure tubing, the most fun a family could have speeding madly, uncontrollably down a hill (disco lights and music at night!), a 45-minute scenic tour on a snow cat that takes you from the top of Dercum Mountain into Erickson and Bergman Bowls to the same stunning view of the Continental Divide, Gore Range, Ten Mile Range that the expert skiers get to experience; snowmobiling, snow biking; a world-class spa; two outdoor skating rinks (free skating, skate rentals available), a Nordic ski area, moonlight snowshoeing; a horse drawn sleigh or wagon ride dinner (with entertainment); extraordinary and varied dining experiences (three 4-star restaurants!).
But logistics are important to me (I’m the designated trip planner in my family; everyone else takes the smooth flow for granted) – and is why, as a long-haul mountain resort, you get so much more out of your trip.
To begin with, Keystone Resort is one of the closest major resorts to Denver International Airport – reached in about 1 1/2 hours (allow two for traffic) off of I-70- and you go through the Eisenhower Tunnel instead of having to go over one of the mountain passes, which can be hairy in a snowstorm.
Colorado Mountain Express, which operates the shuttle service from DIA (and is now owned by Vail Resorts which also owns Keystone), is marvelously efficient and children’s rates make it a reasonable alternative to renting a car for families. This is something to consider since once you arrive at Keystone, you don’t need a car at all because of the superb free shuttle system (actually, all the buses in Summit County are free, so you can even travel to Arapahoe Basin and Breckenridge, where the Keystone lift ticket is valid). New this year is free Wi-Fi in the vans, though frankly, the 1 1/2 hour ride is so pleasant – you get to see a herd of buffalo, owned by the city of Denver, just outside the city; keep on the lookout for elk and bighorn sheep, and the historic gold mines and old mining towns like Idaho Springs and Georgetown are really interesting.
But the convenience of reaching Keystone means that you can leave New York at 10 am, be at the mountain by 5, pick up your rental equipment (you can pre-order from rentskis.com, also owned by Vail), and enjoy night skiing until 8 pm (Thursday-Saturday, Sundays until 6, but check the calendar) – actually getting a free half-day, since you don’t pay for rentals after 4 pm. Regardless of whether you ski that first night or not, pick up your rental equipment and lift tickets the night before, if possible.
Here’s another huge benefit that eliminates much of the hassle associated with skiing: if you rent at one of the Keystone shops, you can store the equipment overnight at no charge. They are absolutely terrific in taking it quickly and letting you pick it up quickly the next day.
Keystone has a charming village, with lovely shops, a delightful array of restaurants, cafes – several that have live entertainment and are great for apres-ski – and a general store. Stock up the night before on snacks and breakfast things, so you are ready to go in the morning.
Despite its upscale amenities, the atmosphere at Keystone is comfortable, folksy, unpretentious atmosphere – probably because it gets so many regulars, and of Vail’s Colorado mountain resorts, offers the best value.
Keystone is home to three magnificent mountain playgrounds—Dercum Mountain, North Peak, and The Outback. There are more than 3,000 vertical feet and over 3,000 acres of bowls, bumps, glades, steeps and groomers. There’s enough for skiers of every ability. What I love best is that even green trail skiers, and especially blue-trail skiers, have gorgeous, long, cruising runs.
My sons have long ago left me in the proverbial “dust” on the slopes – so while they headed off to a full-day KAT (Keystone Adventure Tour), where a snow cat takes them up to the pristine powder of the back bowls (more on that to follow), I met up with the free Mountain Tour offered by the Ambassadors, absolutely lovely people who take you around the mountain. This is a fabulous thing to do, especially when you are on your own and new to the mountain, and may be a little nervous to try some trails. The Ambassadors take you to where you are comfortable skiing, and give you the confidence you need to try new areas. Thanks to John Koobs and Marci McCleneghan (who has a business as a concierge for destination weddings), I made it to the highest lift-served peak, the Outback at 11,980, and had a really superb tour of Keystone’s blue (intermediate) trails. (Offered twice daily, 10:30 and 1:30 pm).
Keystone also offers a free naturalist tour with a Ranger (Fridays at 11 am).
The next day, while the boys take advantage of a $5 ride on a CAT back up to the back bowls, I polish up my skiing with a private lesson. Private lessons are like taking 3 or 4 group lessons – you really make progress. My goal has always been to get a rhythm and flow to my skiing, to get to that Zen place where you don’t really think about your skiing, you just flow down the mountain. My instructor, Allan Lawrence, basically took me back to the basics – actually spending an hour on the bunny hill helping me undo bad habits and create a foundation for good skiing – and don’t you know, by the end, I accomplished my goal of finding my flow. Alan calls it “waltzing with the mountain.”
Keystone has an outstanding lift system – something that ranks high on my list of what makes a mountain resort. Skiers and non-skiers alike can ride the gondola to the top of Dercum mountain, at 11, 640 feet (named for Keystone’s founder, Max Dercum who died in 2011 at the age of 98) where there is the Adventure Center, snow fort and scenic cat tour.
Dercum Mountain has some of the best green trails (Schoolmarm, Silver Spoon) and easiest blues (Spring Dipper, Frenchman, Paymaster) – names that all are based on the gold mining heritage, as I learn from the Mountain Ambassador. The runs are all long, gorgeous cruisers with breathtaking views of the Gore Range and Lake Dillon below. You don’t have to go all the way down to the bottom – you can cut off to take the Gondola at mid-mountain, or the Montezuma lift, so you have that much more skiing time. And, if you wind up being too tired because you have pushed yourself to ski until the lights come on, or decide to eat dinner or enjoy tubing on the mountain, you can ride down the gondola.
From the top of Dercum, you connect to the Outpost Gondola, one of the best rides in all skiing – as you follow the contours of the two mountain peaks, dipping then rising again, to get to North Peak, and its 11,660 summit. When you ride The Outpost Gondola back after dining (two of Keystone’s fabulous restaurants are there, Alpenglow Stube and Der Fondue Chessel), it is absolutely magical – complete quiet and the black of night punctuated by stars and the lights of Breckenridge off in the distance. If you are coming up for dinner, you check in at the Mountain Service Center, located at the base of the River Run Gondola, at least 40 minutes prior to your reservation time to allow for travel time.
Keystone’s family programs are unsurpassed – there are a variety of full-day camps (skiing for 3-14, snowboarding for 7-14), day care and camps for non-skiers from two months to 6 years; Mom, Dad and Me programs, Women’s programs.
One of the most distinctive experiences is coming upon an entire snow fort, big enough to climb on and over – it brings a smile to your face. It is a centerpiece of Kidtopia, a kids festival that is offered during family holiday periods with special activities, but the snow fort is there like this fantastical playground.
Also exceptionally popular is the A-51 terrain park and learning areas.
Two years ago, Vail Resorts introduced Epic Mix (www.epicmix.com) – a way of integrating technology with the mountain experience through the lift pass. This year, Epic Mix has been further enhanced with Action Photo – a photographer stands down the mountain and gets you skiing or riding down, then you can see the photos later, post to your Twitter or Facebook page at no charge (there is only a charge if you download a high res photo). You also use Epic Mix to keep track of where you have skied and your vertical feet (one ambassador said he had accumulated 500,000 vertical feet in the first 50 days of the season).
Dining at Keystone
One of the most remarkable aspects of Keystone is how fine the dining is, and how special each of the venues are to create a total experience.
Our first evening together, we enjoy Ski Tip Lodge, which is not just an extraordinarily fine dining restaurant (four-star) with the most charming ambiance of a cozy European inn, but is Keystone’s heritage. This former 1800s stagecoach stop was transformed by Keystone’s founder Max Dercum and remains the quaintest of country bed-and-breakfast inns. It is the oldest running ski lodge in United States.
But the dining experience is legendary and as elegant as can be – a fire in the fireplace, candlelight, and pewter napkin holders. There are two settings each evening for the four-course, prix-fixe meal, and the menu changes frequently
Ski Tip is so extraordinary, it has its own sommelier who gives us a tour of the substantial and creative wine list and, like solving an intricate puzzle, helps us pick just the right bottle to satisfy everyone’s dining choices and tastes.
I start with a soup of butternut squash puree, sweetened with molasses; followed by pan seared diver sea scallop served with caramelized Brussel sprouts, parmiagiano reggiano chip pancetta and lobster cream; a smoky garlic salt grilled Colorado lamb chop (raised locally, the sweetest, thickest, most tender lamb you will ever have) served with hedgehog mushrooms, charred onion, whipped potatoes and a garlic sauce.
The fellows order a Rosemary Balsamic glazed Muscovy duck breast, served with caramelized salsify, french brie risotta and pistacchio beurre blanc and shallot marinated grilled swordfish and bacon lardons served with roasted cauliflower and golden baby beet cous cous, tossed machine and mushroom fennel cream – we all share each other’s selections.
Dessert selections are only “revealed” at the end of the meal, when you have moved over to the lounge, where a crackling fire is in the fireplace. Utterly incredible: a cobbler of blueberry, cake and ice cream served piping hot from the oven; a coffee cake; a lemon meringue with all sorts of interesting features. (($69/adult, $40 for children’s three-course meal; reservations are a must, call 800-354-4386.)
The next evening, after having a rollicking time adventure tubing, we hop the Outpost Gondola to enjoy another signature Keystone dining experience, the most fun that a family can have eating on a mountaintop: Der Fondue Chessel.
By day, this is the Outpost Lodge, but by night, you think you have been teleported to Bavaria.
The room is decorated with European flags; a roaring fire in the stone fireplace, you look out to the trees and snow-covered mountains, the wait staff are in traditional Alpine dress.
The best part are the strolling musicians – accordion, tuba, two guitars – who sing and yodel and throw in at least one Chicken Dance each evening. It makes for a marvelously festive and fun evening.
The prix-fixe, four-course dinner (expect to stay two hours) starts with a Traditional Swiss Cheese fondue, a savory blend of Gruyère and Emmentaler Cheeses imported from Switzerland mixed with white wine and kirschwasser. You choose what you would like to swirl in the fondue from a plate of assorted vegetables, bread cubes and crisp apples.
While you wait for the cheese to bubble, you enjoy a classic Caesar salad.
You get to be the cook for the Raclette course. Everyone gets to select two options from meat and seafood selections to grill on tabletop Raclette grills. (A vegetarian option of assorted vegetables, tofu and polenta is available.) Roasted potatoes, assorted dipping sauces, bread and a special plate of Raclette cheese accompany the grilling items.
The regular menu offers chicken breast and natural pork loin as the selections, but you can also substitute or add from a long list – lamb, lobster tail (amazing), beef, shrimp, scallops (at additional cost). The waiter gives us instructions on the best way to prepare.
Everyone becomes a kid again for dessert: a chocolate fondue. You can choose from a Classic Dark Chocolate Fondue, Milk Chocolate Fondue or upgrade to its Signature Flaming Turtle (they add flaming rum) or Oreos and Cream, served with a tray of choices for dipping includes fresh fruit, banana bread, pound cake, marshmallows and wafer cookies.($58 pp; call 800-354-4386 for more information or reservations).
When we leave to take our “chariot” – the Outpost Gondola – we are provided with blankets.
The ultimate dining experience at Keystone is also on top of North Peak: Alpenglow Stube, which boasts being the highest four-star dining experience in North America, at 11,444 feet. (They claim that Alpenglow Stube would have been a five-star, except they don’t provide valet parking – they are the top of a mountain, after all!).
We get to enjoy the famous Sunday brunch, an utterly elegant repast. When you arrive, they offer you warm, fuzzy slippers in exchange for your ski boots.
Alpenglow Stube is famous for its Signature Champagne Sunday Brunch, a feast that begins with a complimentary Mimosa and continues with selections of massive oysters, and green lip mussels (so big you have to cut them and impossibly sweet), shrimp and king crab legs from a raw seafood bar, fresh fruit, charcuterie, smoked seafood, salads and cheeses from around the world.
The Champagne brunch also includes your choice of two soups (the cream of chicken masala with an amazing blend of herbs and spices is scrumptious), continues with a choice of five brunch entrées (I enjoy a spinach and cheese omelet; Eric has the House Cured Canadian Bacon Benedict, prepared with Spinach & Grilled Tomato, Sauce Béarnaise, Red Breakfast Potatoes) and finishes with your choice from a scrumptious dessert buffet.
This gourmet restaurant was named after the optical phenomenon “alpenglow” where a horizontal red glowing band can be seen on the opposite horizon after the sun sets, easiest observed in the mountains. “Stube” is German for “a cozy, comfortable place.”
Executive Chef David Scott is hovering over the buffet and greeting guests with good humor. Chef Scott tells me he was working at the famous Belvedere Room at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills, and was about to accept a position at the Four Seasons Maui, when he got a call from Keystone’s Food & Beverage Director to head up the on-mountain dining. He came for a visit, fell in love with Keystone, and has been here ever since. He also is on the faculty of the Culinary School at Keystone.
The restaurant is open daily for lunch (two-course menu is $23.95; three-course is $28.95).
Dinner is even more spectacular – you can choose from a 4-Course, Signature 6-Course or 7-Course Dégustation Menu.
Alpenglow Stube also hosts special events, like “An Evening with the House of Walker,” a whisky-tasting event.(Reservations are a must; call 800-354-4386 or email [email protected]).
One of the reasons Keystone’s dining experiences are out of this world is that Keystone is actually home to a Culinary Institute, and many of the students staff the restaurants and many graduates have gone on to become chefs, each trying to outdo the others. We are the beneficiaries of their competition.
On Sunday afternoon, I am determined to ski until the lights come on. I stick to some of the easier trails in order to practice my “rhythm and flow,” and “waltzing with the mountain” technique. I decide to take a break for an hour and go back up the mountain when it is really dark, and get a taste of Keystone’s apres-ski.
I stop into Inxpot, a delightful mix of coffeehouse, bar, bookshop, filled with plush sofas and easy chairs and a Library-looking setting (that’s where the name comes from, Ink pot), where on a Sunday afternoon, 3-6 pm, Keith Synnestvedt provides the most enchanting folk music rendition of an eclectic songbook. I love that he explains the inspiration for his own songs; such as a song about Colorado’s cowboys, which he said came to him when he was stopped on the road by two cowboys moving cattle herd, that took 1 1/2 hours for the herd to cross the road, and then, coming upon a VFW with an aging sign, “Dance Saturday Night”
It is dreamy, and as I settle in and look outside, the light flurry of snow has turned into a blizzard. I am feeling so satisfied and comfortable as I enjoy the music. Then, just as magically, as Keith finishes his singing, the snow stops, the night is clear, but I get to the Gondola just moments after it has closed. Drat.
Inxpot is one of the marvelous places to go for a light breakfast, as well; . It’s the place that seems most popular with the locals (the ski instructors all gather there).
Where to Stay
One of the reasons Keystone Resort offers excellent value is that it offers a full spectrum of lodging options, from modest to ultra-luxurious.
River Run, which is walking distance of the Gondola and has the best access to the shops, restaurants at in the village base, has marvelous condominium-style accommodations, including Expedition Station.
Our stay at Ski Tip Townhomes, 3/4-mile up the road from River Run (serviced by the bus shuttle but a delightful 15-minute walk if you aren’t wearing ski boots or hauling skis) was ultra-luxurious – a charming and spacious three-bedroom house gorgeously furnished with personal touches (these are owned units which the owners put into a rental pool when they are not using it), with a full kitchen (granite counters), dining area, living room with fireplace and cozy seating, 2 1/2 bathrooms. This is the closest thing to having the mountain home of your dreams.
Keystone Lodge and Spa is a luxury hotel with indoor and outdoor pools as well as the spa, and its fine-dining restaurant, The Bighorn Steakhouse, which has a marvelous view overlooking Keystone Lake and Keystone’s lighted ski trails.
We discovered that it is easy to get around, so you can take advantage of lower rates at various condo units and hotels. There are so many choices, call the Keystone Reservations agent to discuss what would work best for you.
Keystone is very much a four-season resort, with horseback riding stables, mountain biking (you should see the jumps off the trails!), music and concert festivals among the many activities, and is also extremely popular as a wedding destination and as a meeting and conference venue (there is a major conference center in the resort).
There are so many options – and advance planning and reservations are really a must – you are best to go online, check out the specials and deals (when you book online, you are guaranteed the best rates on lodging and lift tickets). You can call a Reservations agent to discuss your choices.
It’s about logistics, after all.
Call 800-328-1323 for help with lodging & vacation planning or visit www.keystoneresort.com.