There is hardly anything more relaxing than sitting back in front of a fireplace, in a comfortable arm chair, feet up on a bench, a good book in hand, a tasty drink on the side, and all of that taking place 3.000m (9.843ft) above sea level in an alpine lodge high up in the Rocky Mountains.
My husband and I escaped the hustle and bustle of the Chicago city life for a week and flew West for a bit of snow, good food, relaxation and plenty of we-time. As a matter of fact, this is our first real vacation after a total of nine months (hard to believe), unless you want to call house hunting, getting packed and relocating between continents a true holiday. We desperately needed sincere time off and felt that heading into the snow would be a nice idea during this time of the year, before eventually Spring would show its early signs of arrival.
We picked Breckenridge as our destination, which is a gorgeous little town in the Rocky Mountains just two hours west of Denver. It is famous for its gold rush history, colorful buildings in a preserved Victorian style and a busy Main Street where shops, bars and restaurants are lined up one next to the other. Breckenridge is however mostly known for being Colorado’s most visited ski resort, besides Aspen (far too expensive for our budget) and Vail (which we might try next year). It is also home to North America’s highest ski lift at 3.914m (12.840ft).
Our arrival was bumpy as I initially struggled with the altitude, feeling like someone was sitting on my chest and giving me a hard time breathing. Simply taking a stroll through town felt to me like climbing Mount Everest. But this got better over time and after two days, my body was fully acclimatized.
The amount of snow we found ourselves in was unbelievable and by far more than I have ever come across in my entire life (as have the locals, as we learned). Just trying to get from one place to the next meant driving through what felt like a huge maze of snow piled up along the roads, leaving just enough room for cars to pass through. But that was nothing compared to the incredibly gorgeous landscape of the Rocky Mountains, with its evergreen trees, amazing peaks and valleys, frozen lakes and wooden mountain homes.
It might sound like I am a big fan of skiing, which I quickly need to clarify I am not. I started taking lessons in my early 30s, but after seriously trying it for five consecutive years and spending a lot of money on group lessons and private instructors in several different ski resorts throughout Europe, I eventually concluded that there must be other ways of enjoying the beauty of the snow.
It is not like I could not figure out how to technically ski. I simply got terrified almost every time I found myself on top of a hill, however steep or not it may have been (usually not steep at all). In my head it was a hill I did not dare to run and as you can imagine, that is no fun and called for alternative alpine activities, which I had yet to figure out.
This reminds me of a book I once read (The Dip, by Seth Godin), which teaches you when to quit something in life and when to follow through. We all encounter periods (Godin calls them dips), where things are seemingly not progressing or improving – in jobs, relationships, education, hobbies, etc. While some dips just require a tiny bit more effort in order to advance and eventually excel, other dips are implying that it is time to end the pain and do something different (like me skiing). The challenge lies in figuring out what kind of dip you are in, so you can take the appropriate measures.
I have a very adrenaline loving husband, who is a passionate snowboarder and as you might guess, the two are hard to combine when it comes to planning a Winter vacation as a couple (or any type of vacation for that matter). This led us to be a bit hesitant in our endeavor at first, not knowing how we could both do what we enjoy and yet spend plenty of time together.
Still back in Chicago I put on my research hat and came up with a few ideas of activities which, so I hoped, would spark both our interests. I presented them to my husband as something neither of us had ever done before and which we might explore together during our vacation and potentially many times again in the future. He was not overly excited, realizing that this comes along with sacrificing quite a few hours on the snowboard. But he was open to giving it a try.
My list contained activities such as snowshoe hiking, cross-country skiing, fat biking and snowmobiling, and we agreed on mornings for him on the snowboard (while I would be sleeping in and enjoying a late and long breakfast, plus maybe a few good books or a ride to town) and afternoons for us. We only managed to try out three of the four activities, but that was plenty for the few days we spent in the area.
I may need to add as a side note that we both enjoy being active and prefer this over days of doing nothing or just taking it as it comes. The latter might be okay for a day, max two, but anything beyond puts the peace in our marriage at a serious risk (been there, done that, got the t-shirt). The more energy we can burn, the better we feel and the happier we are, as individuals and as a loving couple.
If you generally enjoy hiking, you might appreciate putting on your snowshoes in Winter when your regular boots become less useful. It is slightly more strenuous and takes longer than a typical hike, but especially when passing through deep snow passages, it is great fun as you hardly sink in. We rented snowshoes and went on our own, but there are also guided tours available if you are afraid of getting lost. The picture might be misleading in the way that it may seem like I put on my snowshoes wrongly, but that is actually how it is supposed to be (looking a bit like duck feet), preventing you from stumbling across your own feet.
We were taught how to cross-country ski by a seasoned guide named Jimmy, who after spending decades in the corporate world of New York City, quit his job, moved down to Colorado and converted his hobby into a new profession. As opposed to the typically heavy downhill ski equipment, Nordic ski shoes are easy to put on, comfortable to wear, and the skis are thinner and lighter. No helmet necessary, just on the skis, poles in hand and off you go.
We were surprised how much we liked this type of skiing, quietly gliding through the tracks while slowly picking up speed and appreciating the beauty of the silent forest full of fresh white snow, a scenery which you would otherwise not be able to experience. We caught sight of a baby moose, conscious that mama moose cannot be far and adhering to the general advice not to approach that precious creature. In fact, more people are reported to be killed by moose than grizzlies, mostly out of their own stupidity in trying to pet or feed them. Moose or no moose, Nordic skiing is an adventure and has certainly been added to our portfolio of future Winter activities.
The most amazing activity however was jumping on a snowmobile and riding through the forests and up and down the mountains around Breckenridge. There is a bit of preparation required at first, having to put on several layers of clothing including oversized boots and a snow suit in order to stay warm (you better remember to visit the bathroom ahead of putting on the stuff). Our guide gave us a proper introduction to the tour, showed us the technicalities of our snowmobiles and took us for a few practice rides and turns until everyone in our group of six felt comfortable.
I have never ridden a motorbike as a driver, but I imagine that this is how it feels. Being close to nature, with the cold wind blowing into your face, your body leaning in as you turn, slowly picking up speed, while exploring the back country on nicely groomed and empty trails. We went up to 60km per hour (37mph) and had such a blast that the two hours of the tour went by way too fast. It was a comparably expensive but memorable experience, which we will repeat in the future, whenever time and budget allow for it.
Our time in the mountains is unfortunately coming to a close. We are flying back to Chicago today, feeling a little sad about leaving this epic place on earth, but equally happy in knowing that we will be back one day. We enjoyed good food, drinks and company and took a little time to also look ahead at what might be next on our vacation bucket list. There is loads to see in this country and hence the choice is difficult on what to prioritize. We will see what our mood will take us to and you will be the first to know.