It's baa-ack. You can't blame other resorts for learning from-and occasionally surpassing-the master. But this year's survey reminds us that Vail unquestionably set, and continues to raise, the standard of the ski vacation. If you bank your precious free time on that improbable confluence of ideal snow, terrain, weather, dining, accommodations and entertainment, there is one smart choice. And it is Vail. The key to its success is variety, on the hill and off. Fourteen high-speed lifts scoot you from the ego-massaging, über-buffed frontside runs such as Born Free, to the bumps on Prima, to the "humongous Back Bowls," where expert skiers make a bee-line on powder days. The Blue Sky Basin expansion, which added 520 acres of intermediate and advanced terrain to this sprawling giant, earned enthusiastic praise for its tree skiing and powder. When the ski day is done, the Bridge Street shuffle starts on the Los Amigos deck and works slowly down the street from there. Vail's restaurants account for all tastes, be it the fresh and innovative Terra Bistro, hearty hofbrau Kaltenberg fare or a slice of Pazzo's pizza. If you want more thrills after the sun sets, head up the gondola to Adventure Ridge, a snow-toy mecca. Some decry the "Disneyland atmosphere" of the "plastic village," but come on-if everyone in your group has a good time every time, what's the problem? About the only downside to Vail, aside from prices that unfurl your money "faster than a toilet paper dispenser," is its popularity. Big weekends can have "all the ambiance of an L.A. traffic jam." Popularity is the price you pay for greatness, but as one reader reminds us, "Even bad days are good here."
WHAT'S NEW 125 acres of intermediate terrain and a new high-speed quad servicing Pete's Bowl in Blue Sky Basin; upgraded snowmaking.
A GOOD DEAL Prices as low as $43 per person per night, Jan. 3-Feb. 8, Vail Landmark Properties. Call (800) 322-8245.
MEDALS GOLD Grooming, Terrain, Challenge, Lifts, Service, Weather, On-Mountain Food, Lodging, Dining, Après-Ski, Off-Hill Activities, Family Programs; SILVER Snow, Accessibility, Scenery.
HIGH/LOW RANK Family Programs (3), Après-Ski (4), Off-Hill Activities (4); Snow (19), Scenery (27), Value (80).
DON'T MISS The Thrill Sled. Head first, in the dark. At Adventure Ridge.
READER REMARKS (+)"Still the best. The only place I would want to go year after year." (-) "Too commercial. You have to work to avoid liftlines."