It hit me on the road from Denver to the sleepy town of Edwards and Cordillera, the elegant resort that was to be our home for the next four days: I forgot the Dramamine. Not only is the drive a steep 2 1/2-hour climb into nosebleed country, but with activities like mountain Jeeping and whitewater rafting on tap, a Midwestern girl was going to need some serious medicating. ‘No worries,’ as I was to hear repeatedly that weekend.
Long considered the most elegant resort in the Vail area, The Lodge & Spa at Cordillera had recently been acquired by the same folks who own the Chase Park Plaza. The 55-room chalet sits in the Cordillera Valley, as pretty a setting as can be found, nestled in the stunning Sawatch range, with 360-degree views of the Rocky Mountains. And it doesn’t hurt any that it has a full-service spa with plush treatments like 80-minute rub-downs al fresco and body wraps with Colorado clay and chai.
After winding through the mountains toward our destination, we were glad to finally turn onto Squaw’s Creek Lane, where the Cordillera gatehouse waved us in. If first impressions are telling, this was going to be a great weekend, I thought, as I saw the sprawling white lodge looming high above the steep road on the left, overlooking a stunning valley below and mountain peaks all around. We pulled up to the entrance and a red-vested valet, George, greeted us cheerily by name. I was delighted to see that our room, one of only 55, all with views included a big, downy bed and a corner fireplace with dancing flames. Temperatures would be in the 30s at night, even though it was only early September. In fact, the first snowfall had already dusted the mountains in mid-August and was in full view for our admiration. The room we’d be calling home for the next four days was big, with native pine trim everywhere and a big desk, armoire, dressing area, patio and money views of the Rockies.
Exhausted and parched from the drive up to 8,500 feet elevation, we dragged ourselves into the dining room for a late dinner. Dehydration is a serious threat at such high altitudes, not to mention altitude sickness, until the body acclimates. “Would you prefer the halibut, the porcini-encrusted filet or the Colorado lamb, Mrs. Weiner?” I was going to like this place. The restaurant, Mirador, had a big fireplace and floor-to-ceiling windows that nestle up to lodgepole pines and overlook the vistas beyond. Not a bad view to have at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Day one was busy: clay pigeon shooting in the a.m., off-road Jeeping in the afternoon, a spa treatment in the evening. Our first stop: Lazy J Ranch. Although I was grateful for the instructor’s patience, a sharpshooter I was not destined to be. No worries, it was still fun learning how to load, carry and shoot a 20-gauge shotgun, even if I felt a lot more like Billy Crystal in City Slickers than Annie Oakley. The Jeep tour was more up my alley: a spectator sport, with me as the spectator. Once I climbed in and realized I would not be able to shut out the nippy mountain air (even though I instinctively kept reaching for the button to roll up the ‘windows’), it was smooth sailing, after a couple of Dramamine.
Never mind that the air temperature was only 50 (that’s one degree away from the 40s!), this was exhilarating. Climbing up to 10,000 feet with Matt, the guide and driver, we navigated ruts, boulders and the endless gulleys created by a rash of recent rains. It was ‘elk bow season,’ he said and time for bear and deer hunting, too. I did not ask just exactly how hunters would know we were up there. In three hours, we went from sun to light hail to blanketing snow and back again. It’s a good thing I was wearing a down jacket, wool socks and cashmere-lined gloves. But the views and endless fields of pine and aspen as we tracked up the Metcalf and down the Juno Creek trails more than made up for the bumps and cold, and even the interesting ‘bathroom’ breaks.
By the time we got back to the lodge and our fireplace, we were really ready for that spa treatment. It’s hard to beat 80 minutes of pampering, and that’s just what my treatment, ‘Cozy Chai Body Mask,’ promised. It was part scrub, part wrap, part massage and all wonderful. First a light, organic exfoliant sloughed away dead and dry skin, then a mud mask of Colorado Indian Spring clay was applied, turning me Incredible Hulk green. But it felt great and promised such therapeutic properties as ‘colloidal minerals and rich soy proteins.’ In this dry climate, skin needs hydration, too. While the mask set, Marty, my masseur, delivered a neck and shoulder massage. Well-versed in everything from carbon footprints to Cape Girardeau (he’d just come from a wedding there!) he knew pretty much everything there was to know about kinks in the neck and shoulders. A relaxing rub-down with cinnamon-sandalwood oil completed the treatment.
The next morning, bright and early, we headed out for a whitewater rafting adventure in Glenwood Canyon, down the Colorado River. First step: gearing up with a helmet, splash top and life jacket. Our guides were Mike from Arizona and Shirley from Evanston, Ill., and our raft buddies were Ralph and Jill from Oklahoma. During the 30-minute bus ride to our drop-off point, Mike went over all the precautionary stuff. “If you fall out of the raft, float on your back or your shins will get mangled by the rocks. Never stand in the river because your foot can get lodged in the rocks. If a raft-mate falls out, lift them back in by the vest. If the vest isn’t tight enough, we’ll be retrieving the vest only if you can breathe, your vest is not tight enough! If the boat tips over, swim to shore…” No worries; I did not back out.
When we entered the river near Grizzly Creek, the mountain shears all around us were magnificent: striated sandstone, limestone and granite. Our six-man raft bobbed and drifted along the scenic river, passing hot springs, beaver dens, jumping fish and cliffs dotted with caves. Above us on one side, a freight train lumbered by, a nostalgic reminder of the days when this area was accessible only by horse, iron or otherwise. On the other side, we drifted past tiny mountain towns like No Name, whose three residents in the 1840s simply couldn’t agree on a name, and Gypsum, a logical name for a place dominated by that grey-white mineral. Our raft trip was a Level Three run, a multi-hour trip that would take us through rapids with names like Tombstone and Man-Eater. Oh well, too late to turn back now. As soon as we hit the first rapid, everyone on the raft got a sample of the icy water, but we hardly noticed our wet feet and fannies; we were too busy trying to stay afloat.
Back at the lodge, it was time for a late lunch at Grouse on the Green, the casual pub near one of Cordillera’s four golf courses, designed alternately by Hale Irwin, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Fazio and Dave Pelz. The authentic Irish pub had been imported from Ireland, complete with a red telephone booth. Dark woods, Guinness-etched windows and ales on tap combine for a jovial atmosphere where you can enjoy things like fish and chips, smoked salmon, and bangers and mash. But the best part, like just about everything at Cordillera, is the view. Perched on wooden bar stools outside, we had a bird’s eye view of New York Mountain, Holy Cross Mountain (a snow-topped ‘fourteener’) and other breathtaking peaks. We lingered well after our lunch was over, basking in the golden sun and mesmerized by the view.
Pretty soon it was time for another treatment, or two. With an unbelievable spa that spans 20,000 square feet, including an indoor lap pool, indoor and outdoor hot tubs, and an outdoor pool and fire pot encircled by snow-capped mountains, Cordillera offers several packages of three treatments in a single day. I can only imagine the karmic coma of that lineup, especially after experiencing a facial and massage back to back. What woman of a certain age can resist an Ultraluxe Age Control Facial? As I lay on the heated bed, the esthetician repeatedly painted my face with various enzyme peels, followed by aromatic mists. I could make out lemon verbena, orange blossom and rosemary, after that it was all a blissful blur, and possibly a little catnap.
Our final day was dedicated to hiking, an activity that is legendary in this area. A 45-minute drive up a pot-holed dirt road to the trailhead for Upper Piney Lake took us past campers, mountain bikers and orange-capped hunters. When we got there, towering before us was the snow-topped Gore Range. Smack dab in the center, rugged Mt. Powell, the highest in the range, majestically stole the show. The trail started at crystalline Piney Lake, twinkling in the morning sun, and stayed below treeline, giving us a constant view of Mt. Powell as we forged ahead. The Piney River snaked against the trail, guiding us toward its source in the snowy peaks. Along the rocky path, over log bridges, aspen trees fluttered at our side, their coin-like leaves starting to turn yellow with the fall frost. The mountains to the right were dense with pine, tall, narrow sentinels of the range that at one time provided the timbers for Native American long houses. With every step, clacking grasshoppers and the occasional chipmunk darted across the path. Three miles into the six-mile trek, I had to turn back for a 3 p.m. spa treatment. Not even Mother Nature was going to get between me and my massage.
The treatment I had been anticipating, Massage with a View, was here at last. Imagine an 80-minute rubdown under the sky, surrounded by mountains. OK, it was a little weird being naked in The Great Outdoors, but when would this opportunity come again? With the afternoon mountain wind whipping all around and the occasional insect finding exposed skin, I made personal history. Cross that one off my list.
The best was yet to come: dinner al fresco on the deck of Mirador. The sun was beginning to set, the moon just starting to rise and mountains were all around as we dined on phyllo-wrapped shrimp in curry sauce, wild mushroom-smothered Kobe burgers and chocolate lava cake. I took a lingering look at the resort I would have to leave tomorrow. Dramamine notwithstanding, life simply does not get any better than this.
• The pancakes at Mirador for breakfast or the French fries, I mean chips, at The Grouse on the Green for lunch.
• ‘Shoulder season,’ when rates are very attractive, as low as $180 a night if you book 10 rooms.
• Nearby Eagle Creek, known for world-class trout fishing.
• Cordillera’s equestrian center, the largest in Vail Valley.
• The native St. Louisans who run Cordillera, including Harry Lunt (Kennedy H.S. ’82), director of sales and marketing.
• Cordillera’s ski-in, ski-out options in Beaver Creek and Vail.
• The Nordic ski trail for cross-country skiing.
• Sitting out on your private patio or balcony with the morning paper.