A small village with cobblestone streets, a tall white clock tower, mountain lodges, and gasthofs: Vail, Colorado, may sit in the heart of the Rockies, but it was built to evoke a ski town in the Alps. Indeed, city founders drew architectural inspiration from throughout the Alps. Cynics call the style "Shake-and-Bake Bavaria," but over the years, this mix has taken on its own charm.
Though Vail has grown (sprawled, some say) beyond that original concept, it returns to its Alpine roots each fall with Oktoberfest. For two weekends this month, the city's core streets fill with brats, beer drinkers, dancers, and oompah-pah bands. It's one sure time of year when you can freely yodel, slosh beer in stein-clinking toasts, or stroll the streets in lederhosen without drawing a stare. But even if you miss Oktoberfest, the weather is great in early fall, the aspens are turning, and you can still tap into a touch of the Tirol here.
Vail on foot
The city invites walking, since, like many Alps ski towns, its heart is a pedestrian-only village that's well worth exploring. Park in the village lot off North Frontage Road, then stroll west across the covered bridge. To check out the shopping, head up Bridge Street to Gore Creek Drive. One good stop is Gorsuch, but skip the store's swanky resort clothing. Instead, head downstairs to browse the classic German-style housewares, like antique cuckoo clocks, pewter candlesticks, and staghorn-handled knives. If you're looking for some sturdy furnishings to bring back to your own mountain haus, visit Menzel Wood & Iron. Owner Dieter Menzel carries hand-carved decorative woodwork in the Bavarian style, made using antique pine from Alpine farmhouses.
When you're ready for lunch, grab a sidewalk table under an umbrella at Pepi's. It's part of the Hotel Gasthof Gramshammer, a Vail mainstay since 1964 and one of the first hotels in town. If you want a taste of Austria, this is the place, with jägerschnitzel and sauerbraten on the menu. Pepi's Bar is a lively nightspot, and you might bump into the hotel's Austrian-born owners, Pepi and Sheika Gramshammer.
Spend the afternoon wandering on up through the village ― but watch your footing if you find yourself on one of the cobblestone byways. Or emulate the fitness-minded Swiss and take a longer walk: Head back to the covered bridge, where you pick up the Gore Creek Trail. A short walk east brings you to the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, edged with turning aspens, rock gardens, and waterfalls. Take the trail back to East Meadow Drive, passing burbling Gore Creek along the way.
Time your walk along East Meadow right and you can watch and listen to the glockenspiel on the tower of the Village Center D Building. Its 19 bells, cast in Germany, play music daily, and a dirndl-clad figurine strikes the biggest bell hourly.
If you've worked up an appetite, head over to the Sonnenalp Resort ― a spectacular setting in Bavaria inspired the theme of the hotel and its name, which means sun on the mountains--for a luxurious dinner at Ludwig's Restaurant. The decor is Bavarian, but the menu is contemporary American with French influences; don't miss seasonal desserts like the warm macadamia-nut chocolate cake. Then, as the sun sinks behind Vail Mountain, move over to the Sonnenalp's King's Club for after-dinner drinks in front of the roaring fire.
Vail is about 95 miles west of Denver, off I-70. Oktoberfest runs Sep 10-12 and 18-19 (free; outdoors on main streets). For festival or city information, visit www.visitvailvalley.com or call 970/476-1000 or 800/653-4523 (reservations).
Betty Ford Alpine Gardens. Dawn-dusk; free. 530 S. Frontage Rd. (in Ford Park).
Glockenspiel. Chimes every half-hour (9 a.m.-10 p.m.); plays music at 9, noon, and 3 daily. 122 E. Meadow Dr.
Gore Creek Trail. It's 1/4 mile from the covered bridge (Bridge St. at E. Meadow) to the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens.
Gorsuch. 10-6 daily. 263 E. Gore Creek Dr.; 970/476-2294.
Menzel Wood & Iron. 10-8 daily. 201 Gore Creek; 970/471-0101.
Ludwig's Restaurant. $$$$; breakfast daily, dinner Tue-Sat. In Sonnenalp Resort, 20 Vail Rd.; 970/479-5429.
Pepi's. $$$; lunch and dinner daily. 231 E. Gore Creek; 970/476-4671.
Hotel Gasthof Gramshammer. 38 rooms, most with decks. From $105. 231 E. Gore Creek; www.pepis.com or 970/476-5626.
The Sonnenalp Resort of Vail. 88 suites, 2 rooms. From $332. 20 Vail Rd.; www.sonnenalp.com, 800/654-8312, or 970/476-5656.