Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Powder paradise

Colorado gem a heavenly ski resort

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Winter Park Resort

THERE'S a familiar saying among alpine ski enthusiasts: no friends on a powder day.

When it's been dumping glorious, fluffy snowflakes for hours on end and the lines at the lifts are growing longer by the minute, it's easy to adopt an every-skier-for-themselves attitude.

Such was the experience during a visit to Colorado's Winter Park Resort last season. The closest ski resort to Denver, a little more than an hour's drive away, was in prime condition for powder hounds.

After spending our first run continually waiting for the third member of our group to catch up, my Colorado acquaintance and I decided to let our jovial British ski companion fend for himself.

Following a couple of sweet runs close to the base of the village, Holly Johnson suggested we venture over to an area she had skied many times during her college days and still returns to every year.

The resort boasts 145 trails spread over four adjacent areas: Winter Park, Mary Jane, Vasquez Cirque and Vasquez Ridge. While there is a whole bunch of terrain available for all levels of skiers and riders to explore, I was eager to check out Mary Jane's bumps. Mary Jane is renowned for its steep and deep runs covered in Volkswagen-size moguls, and the area definitely lived up to its billing.

The conditions were great for Holly, an excellent skier who back in the day spent time living the dream as a ski bum at Steamboat, another great Colorado getaway. But they were ideal for me, a raised-in-Manitoba skier who is lucky to get 10 days a year on the slopes. Moguls aren't my forté, but when they're covered in a couple of feet of fresh flakes it's a blast blasting down a challenging bump run, even if the style is somewhat lacking.

We only had the morning to ski, but made the most of if by bashing through the snow down runs with names like Outhouse, Runaway, Cannonball and Railbender, finally calling it a day when the thighs were screaming for some relief.

We happened to be at Winter Park during the Mary Jane Birthday Weekend. Winter Park's most legendary mountain, named in honour of a late-1800s lady of the evening, turned 33, so the resort and the adjoining small town (pop. 720) of the same name were hopping. The Winter Park-Fraser Valley Chamber of Commerce hosts the annual weekend birthday celebration at the end of January. Events include a fireworks display, parade, snowshoe trek, Chef's Cup Dinner and Dance, Mary Jane Look-a-Like Contest, and live music.

The bars, restaurants and some of the slopes were crowded, but the lift lines weren't too bad. The resort's 26 lifts can carry an incredible 40,000 skiers/riders per hour. The arsenal includes two high-speed six-packs, one of which takes you to 12,060 feet at the top of Parsenn Bowl and is the highest six-pack in North America.

Many of the resort's runs carry names that harken back to the Wild West days when people travelled via stagecoach or steam-engine locomotive. A neat way to get to the resort is with the Winter Park Ski Train, which departs from Union Station in lower downtown Denver and pulls up right at the resort. The two-hour trip passes through 28 tunnels before reaching the final mountain underpass, the 10-kilometre-long Moffat Tunnel, the highest railroad tunnel in the U.S. and sixth longest in the world.

Winter Park (the town) was first settled in 1923 to serve as a construction camp during construction of the Moffat Tunnel. The City of Denver purchased the abandoned camp in 1939 for development into a winter recreation area for city dwellers. The ski resort opened in January 1940 with just one rope tow.

Along with some of the best bump runs in North America, Winter Park is also home to the non-profit National Sports Center for the Disabled, the largest program of its kind in the world.

Owned by mega-resort developer Intrawest, which counts Steamboat, Mont Tremblant and Whistler Blackcomb among its many holdings, Winter Park has undergone a recent expansion. An investment of US$100 million has resulted in a completely new village at Winter Park. In addition, the resort's terrain has been transformed over the past five years thanks to a $40-million investment in four new chairlifts, terrain expansion and upgrades to dining options.

There is a vast assortment of accommodations, with over 150 different lodging properties to choose from. We stayed at the Zephyr Mountain Lodge, a luxurious condo-style hotel conveniently located just steps from a chairlift.

While our media group's brief stay at Winter Park Resort amounted to two nights and about two days worth of skiing spread over three days, I was left with the impression that there was much more terrain worth exploring in this Colorado Rockies gem.

Devil's Thumb Ranch

FOR a different Rocky Mountain-high experience, we spent a couple of relaxing days at the Fanch ranch.

Devil's Thumb Ranch -- owned by Colorado billionaires Bob and Suzanne Fanch -- is a little slice of heaven nestled at the foot of the Continental Divide, about a 15-minute drive west of Winter Park.

About a decade ago, the Fanches purchased some 5,000 acres of land in a sparsely populated area known as Tabernash. In doing so, they saved the pristine property from possibly being sold to a group of golf course/residential subdivision developers.

Bob Fanch grew up near the Adirondack Mountains of New York and dreamed of building a lodge with the grand scale he remembered not only in the Adirondacks but also in national parks across the country.

With that in mind, the Fanches have spent the past several years developing one of the region's leading cross-country ski centres into an award-winning, eco-friendly luxury ranch resort, spa and corporate retreat.

Devil's Thumb is now a year-round destination resort that's perfect for anyone looking to escape the hustle and bustle of today's hectic world.

The ranch remained open for guests during a seven-year renovation that culminated last year with the opening of a 75,000-sq.-ft. lodge with 52 rooms. Guests can also choose to stay in one of the 16 cabins on the property.

The rooms are spacious and tastefully decorated, and feature what might be the most comfortable beds this traveller has ever slept on. Rooms are not equipped with big-screen or any other type of televisions; that's not what this place is about. This is a retreat from the real world and all its distractions.

Cross-country skiing is still one of the mainstays of the resort, with more than 100 kilometres of groomed trails for guests to enjoy. Some of the trails even take you through wooded areas, a rare treat given that the mountain pine beetle has consumed about 90 per cent of the pines in Grand County.

The U.S. Forest Service estimates that more than 1.5-million acres of lodgepole pine in Colorado are infested with the ravenous beetle.

Other winter recreation activities offered at the ranch include snowshoeing, skijoring, sleigh rides, skating, and swimming in the indoor/outdoor pool. In the summer, guests can partake in fly fishing, hiking, horseback riding and hay rides at the Cabin Creek Stables, bike tours, and nature and bird walks.

For those who enjoy getting pampered, the Ranch Creek Spa offers a wide range of services including massages, soaks, scrubs, facials and foot treatments.

There's even a store offering sales and rentals of clothing and gear.

The ranch's main lodge is designed and built in the architectural style known as "parkitecture" and pays tribute to the grand national park lodges built in the early part of the 20th century across the U.S. It features a spectacular, three-storey fireplace located in Heck's Tavern, the place for casual dining in the main lodge.

Dining at the ranch is sustainably focused and local whenever possible, including 85 per cent of the restaurants' meat and game coming from Colorado producers. From contemporary American fare at Heck's Tavern to the more refined "from the earth and sea" and ever-changing menu at the Ranch House Restaurant & Saloon, diners have a bounty to choose from after a day of recreating.

For the ultimate, private fine-dining experience for six to 16 people, John L's Wine Cellar and Uncorking Room is a truly unique experience. The reception area/tasting room is modelled after the interior of a wine cask and the interior's cherry wood came from the farm Bob Fanch's father owns in the Adirondack Mountains.

The Fanches' mission to use sustainable materials and eco-friendly practices in developing the resort was recognized in 2004 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which honoured Devil Thumb's Ranch for measures such as using geothermal energy to heat the buildings, and building an eco-friendly waste-water treatment system. The Fanches also reclaimed a 150-year-old barn that was moved to Colorado from Indiana and transformed into a 26,000-sq.-ft. multi-use centre. The ranch has also been recognized as one of the top eco-friendly resorts in the world by Travel & Leisure magazine and the International Conservancy.

We had the pleasure of meeting Bob Fanch during our brief, enjoyable stay at the ranch. The cable maverick is quite possibly the most unassuming billionaire you'll ever meet -- not that we get to meet a whole lot of billionaires. In fact, I thought he was the ranch's hired hand after saying hello to the casually dressed man during a chance afternoon meeting in the games room of the ranch. Imagine my surprise when the same fellow, seated next to me at that evening's dinner, turned out to be the owner.

Fanch, who moved to Colorado in 1971 to pursue a master's degree in finance at the University of Denver, is no stranger to innovation. At a time when Denver was the cable capital of the world, he went to work for ATC, a cable company that eventually became Time Warner. He would go on to found his own cable-consulting firm, and in 1985 created Fanch Communications, which grew to 1,300 employees and operated in 13 states. He sold the cable enterprise to Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen in 1999. Fanch sold two other telcom companies he founded in the late '90s, Fibernet and Conversent, in 2006 to free up time to develop the ranch as well as other interests.

Bob handles the building and environmental aspects of the ranch, while Suzanne uses her marketing background to oversee the ranch's branding and was also heavily involved in the ranch's construction and interior design

How did the resort come to be known as Devil's Thumb Ranch?

The reason dates back to when the buffalo roamed free and smoke signals were the best method of long-distance communication. Native Americans, according to local lore, named a uniquely shaped rock outcropping to serve as a perpetual reminder of peace and harmony on the Continental Divide towering above the ranch. As the legend goes, after warring Ute and Arapahoe tribes settled their differences in the Ranch Creek Valley, they buried the devil but left his thumb exposed to remind them of the evils of war.

rob.knodel@freepress.mb.ca

Rob Knodel is a Free Press copy editor who missed his calling as a ski bum.

IF YOU GO

Devil's Thumb Ranch: Call 1-800-933-4339 or visit www.devilsthumbranch.com

Winter Park Resort: Call 1-970-726-5587 or visit www.skiwinterpark.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 27, 2010 E1

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