Breaking in Breckenridge

Abigail Thomas
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Breckenridge might not be as well known as Vail or Aspen, but it offers some of the best powder in The Rockies
Trendy Vail
"Just as you're never too old to dance on tables or learn a language, you're never too old to ski."
Abigail Thomas

Just as you're never too old to dance on tables or learn a language, you're never too old to ski.

At least this is what my instructor tells me as I hover at the edge of my first-ever mountain in Colorado's Breckenridge ski resort. Children flash past me (without skis and helmets!) and a group of attractive snowboarders look over, confused by the 32-year-old woman about to break into hysterics.

"It's okay," my instructor Gail tells me, resting a gentle hand on my shoulder. "We're going to take this real slow."

Black diamond to beginner

Colorado has a reputation for having some of the best powder in the world — thousands of hectares of the stuff sprinkled like icing sugar from the gods — and as such pulls a large crowd of experienced skiers.

But that doesn't mean it's a no-go zone for beginners such as me.

Breckenridge, a former silver-mining town in The Rockies, may lack the glamour of nearby Vail, the celebrity of Aspen and the unbridled glitz of Beaver Ridge, but it is the perfect spot for those unsteady on their skis.

There are more than 100km of trails at Breckenridge and although many are rated expert, about a third are ideal for the timid beginner. Wide, softly undulating slopes abound (peak nine was my favourite) and there is a great ski school where (thankfully) there is a distinct absence of distractingly good-looking instructors.

Getting started

If you have never skied before, three days of lessons will be enough to get your going. But if you can stretch to a whole week of tuition, you will come home feeling like a seasoned skier. Gail rated me as a level four out of 10 by the end of the week (10 being someone who can carve through black diamond runs like they're baby slopes), which was pretty good, I'd say, considering where we started!

The first day you probably won't get further than managing an elegant hop off the ski lift, but by day two, Gail had me skiing whole stretches of green runs. Some of the more ambitious instructors will try and push you onto a blue run by day two or three, but don't let them! Gail's teaching methods were all about learning the art form of skiing, rather than hurling yourself down the steepest slope ("although I could get you down a black run if you wanted to impress them back home," she told me).

It's all about the après

After six hours on the slopes a day, night time was the perfect release and there's no better place to sink a few cold margaritas than in Breckenridge town.

The town itself is a contrast of cute, gingerbread Victoriana and bright, flashy buildings where US billboard hits bellow out until the early hours. If partying is on your agenda then there is a wide selection of great bars (many of which retain that old-skool Wild West charm with swinging saloon doors and men with cowboy hats and candy-floss beards), but there are also plenty of upscale restaurants offering fine dining and crisp wines.

Most of the town is filled with locals (lots of young men in baggy jeans who shout 'Sick bro!' at regular intervals), and a few tourists (lots of British, a smattering of Mexicans and a handful of fellow Aussies).

Do it till you drop

A good idea is to take the morning off and explore the town's shops as there are a wealth of retailers selling trendy ski pants and jackets that you can't get back home and lots of vintage clothing stores. I can't guarantee you'll pick up a 1960s Balenciaga jacket, but you can get some cute T-shirts and 1950s prom dresses.

If designer clothing is more your thing, the Silverthorne Outlet is only a 25-minute drive away and sells everything from heavily-discounted Ralph Lauren (I got a RL tea dress for $10), Coach (I got some butter-soft Coach leather gloves for $40), Gap (so cheap the average purchase is about seven items), Le Creuset cookware and Samsonite luggage.

Fuel the fire

And if you suffer from a snack attack, there are a plethora of naughty options to undo all your hard slope work on the town's central shopping tributary, Maine Street. Mary's Mountain Cookies sells the most sublime biscuits I have ever tasted (crisp shells with satisfyingly gooey centres exploding) with everything from regular chocolate chip to peanut butter. Or try Daylight Donuts, a popular breakfast stop for locals where the walls are filled with photographs, leaflets, drawings and caps, and your plates are stacked with pancakes the size of a small child's head, perfect hash browns, and runny eggs.

If you do feel like escaping the laid-back crunchy charm of 'Breck' (as locals call it), your ski pass is valid at nearby Keystone, Vail and Beaver Creek resorts (all four are owned by Vail Resorts), and are no further than an hour's drive away.

As Gail said, once we reached the bottom of our first slope and looked around at the soaring pine trees and blankets of snow marked with the bear and moose tracks: "What's not to like about this place?" I couldn't agree more.

Travel details:

There are no commercial flights to Breckenridge, which is a 130km drive from Denver International Airport. Driving can be difficult so take the Colorado Mountain Express (+1 800 334 7433) for around US$73 per person each way.

How do you rate Breck? What are your favourite North American snow haunts and why?

User comments
I was last in Breckenridge about 5 years ago but I remember it like yesterday. It was a dream winter week, snowed every evening with that light, fluttery snow that gently touches your face and tickles your eyelashes. Beautiful, amazing experience. I have been to every resort in Colorado and while some of them are high up on my list, like Aspen, Breck is the whole package - great snow, charming town and wonderful, welcoming towns-folk. I miss it so very much.