The arts bloom on Vail's snowless slopes

Vail, Colo., isn't just a winter-only destination. Summer visitors find lots to do, too.

Big-horn sheep grazed casually next to Interstate 70 along my two-hour ascent up into the Rocky Mountains from Denver.

Turn off at the Vail exit ramp, and immediately you're there: One of the world's great ski resort towns awaits you. A sign as you enter town boasts, "Host of the 1999 World Alpine Ski Championships."

But where's the snow?

Set off on foot through Vail, designed with a European alpine village in mind, cross a covered bridge over Gore Creek, and you meet a statue dedicated to "The Ski Trooper, 1941-46." It commemorates the efforts of the US 10th Mountain Division, whose successors are serving today in Afghanistan.

The trooper, dressed in a white snowsuit and hood, with bronzed face, sunglasses, and skis tossed over his shoulder, looks ready to melt in the August sun.

I glanced up at green Vail Mountain and saw huge swaths of grass carved out of the forest of pines and aspens.

Would viewing this snowless mountainside be torture to a skier?

Since I don't ski, it was all heavenly to me. Five days of mountain air wrung free of humidity (70s in the daytime, 40s at night) supplemented by fine food and glorious scenery, and topped with a dollop of arts and entertainment, was my recipe for a satisfying respite from summer on the sultry East Coast.

Something for everyone

Vail opened in 1962, the dream of Pete Seibert, a World War II veteran of the 10th Mountain Division. Every year it vies for busiest ski area in the country, last season logging 1.65 million skier visits. The resort's strategy: Provide something for every winter visitor, from sightings of the rich and famous to accommodations of all kinds and prices to activities for both families and young singles.

That seems to be the summer strategy as well. Like other ski towns throughout Colorado, Vail is beefing up its snowless tourism with special arts events. Aspen and Durango boast music festivals; Telluride and Crested Butte have film festivals.

Just eight miles from Vail, Beaver Creek, another premier winter ski resort, offered an August "Showtime in the Mountains" this summer. It brought in some of Chicago's best theater troupes, including the Steppenwolf Theatre Company and The Second City improv comedy group.

In Vail, the biggest summer arts event is the International Dance Festival, presented outdoors at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater.

The venue, a short walk along Gore Creek from the village center, surrounds patrons with mountain views in daylight and puts them beneath an ocean of stars at night. Most relax on seats under the amphitheater's roof or lounge on blankets or in sleeping bags on the grassy hillside just beyond.

This year, the festival ran Aug. 2-11. The programs featured ballet artists from around the world, as well as folk, ballroom, and modern dance. During my stay, members of the New York City Ballet, led by principal dancer Damian Woetzel, performed "Shostakovich Suites," and stayed in a modern mode for "Who Cares?" with music by George Gershwin as choreographed by George Balanchine. A "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux" was exquisite.

Members of the Paris Opera Ballet, led by José Martinez and Agnes Letestu, brought classical ballet at its highest level, including selections from "La Bayadère" and "The Black Swan."

On yet another night, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago provided a change of pace, showcasing the explosive energy of modern dance. The troupe won a standing ovation when the dancers each brought an audience member to the stage to partner in some comic ballroom dancing.

Though a dance aficionado might have longed for the satisfaction of a longer complete work somewhere on the programs, the smorgasbord approach to the programming seemed perfect for a vacationing crowd wanting more to be thrilled and amused than challenged.

During the daytime, Vail is a remarkably relaxed and pleasant place to stroll. Much of it is a pedestrian-only zone (but stay awake for the occasional bus – they're free – or a few other vehicles that are authorized to be on the streets).

Distances are marked on signs in walking minutes. Some $1 million is spent each summer on colorful flowers that adorn the streets.

As I strolled the village and its creekside path, mountain magpies chattered. A hummingbird zipped by. In contract to Vail's cold-weather ski crowds, there's plenty of elbow room in summer, maybe 25 to 50 percent of the winter numbers.

The whir of wheels of every kind replaces the swoosh of skis. Touring bikes, mountain bikes, tandems, bikes with child trailers, and even electric scooters zip around.

Near the base of the gondola, the only way to ride up the mountain in the summer, is a four-sided 35- to 40 foot-high climbing obelisk. Children in harnesses were trying to crawl up it, using a variety of hand- and footholds mounted at strategic points. Across a pedestrian path, other kids – also in safety harnesses – were doing flips on trampolines.

Stargazing and other adventures

While Aspen may be No. 1 in celebrity sightings, Vail is no slouch. Cameron Diaz is said to have stayed at the same lodge I did, and Britney Spears has worked out in its impressive health club and spa on the lower level (with its own indoor rock-climbing wall). Gerry and Betty Ford are longtime Vail residents and supporters, and one PR man told me he recently arranged a bird-watching trip for Jimmy Carter. Diana, the Princess of Wales, was a visitor, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a regular.

Truth to tell, most celebrities probably won't be spotted until the white stuff falls. And that seemed far away during my visit as one bright summer day followed the last. So what do people do when the slopes are bare? Quite a bit, actually, including golf (a dozen courses are in the general area) for the mature set and mountain biking for the younger.

Since I'm not a golfer, I abandoned my age group and rented a bike. I took the gondola to Eagle's Nest, rising from the village's 8,150 feet to 10,350 feet. A map of the trails in hand, I whizzed down dirt service roads used to the maintain the ski slopes in winter and then onto "single-track" trails – narrow, sometimes rocky and rutted paths.

I sailed through wooded groves of pine and aspen and then burst into the sunshine, crisscrossing the open grassy ski slopes with views of the village below. My strategy: Go just fast enough to scare me – a little.

Many of the same trails are also used for summer sledding, in which the rider lies down facing forward on a sled that has wheels about the size of those on a lawn mower. On the way up in the gondola, three teens from Winetka, Ill., chattered about "wiping out" on the sleds. Hmmm. I decided to pass.

Beyond the village itself are many more outdoor activities, including river rafting and fly-fishing. At Piney River Ranch, about 12 miles away across the valley from the village, I went horseback riding, hiked a bit, tried a buffalo burger at the al fresco restaurant (not bad), and enjoyed the beautiful views of Mt. Powell.

Piney Ranch visitors can also stay overnight in a Mongolian-style yurt for $25 per night per person, or in a tepee for $20. The lake offers canoeing and paddleboats.

Another great half-day is an outback trip in a Hummer, a civilian version of the all-terrain military vehicle. It takes nine passengers into the back country, crawling over logs and up hills that even other four-wheel-drive vehicles dare not climb.

You will catch views of Castle Rock and a Caribbean-blue mountain lake, and learn about the ecology of the area.

On my last day I decided to hike from Eagle's Nest to the top of the mountain. Despite the drought, wildflowers bloomed in abundance. Hawks twisted silently above. On the three-hour tramp, I met fewer than a dozen other walkers or mountain bikers. I found dazzling views, elbow room, and idyllic summer weather. Below awaited gourmet dining and a vibrant arts festival.

Who needs snow?

• For more information about Vail and its activities, see the town's website, www.vailalways.com; write Vail Valley Chamber and Tourism Bureau, 100 East Meadow Drive, Suite 34, Vail, CO 81657; or telephone 877-750-8245.

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