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How We Après in the Age of COVID

Ski destinations are launching appealing amenities that turn the pandemics' new norms into novel forms of fun.

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Brewing beer may be Rich Tucciarone’s day job, but as he prepares for this winter at Mountain Tap, the Steamboat Springs brewpub he opened in 2016, he spends a lot more time with a rivet gun than sacks of hops. “I’ve lost track of how many steel drill bits I’ve burned through,” says Tucciarone, who devoted his autumn to remodeling a trio of gondola cars into outdoor dining rooms. He used bicycle pedal cranks for door handles and crafted tables from local beetle-kill pine. He also fitted the cabins with heaters and Bluetooth speakers that let diners play their own music while they enjoy Tucciarone’s pilsner and wood-fired pizzas. “In these times, we want to be able to have a little pod for a group or family,” explains Tucciarone. Now, he’s got three.

Mountain Tap Brewery is among several ski-town businesses to launch clever new amenities that make lemonade out of the bushels of lemons produced by the pandemic’s gathering restrictions.

Mountain Village at Telluride installed 20 retired gondola cars throughout its base area plazas to give diners cozy nooks where they can enjoy food from surrounding restaurants. Some eateries provide table service, while others require that customers pick up their orders. Called The Cabins at Mountain Village, the pods are offered on a first-come, first-served basis, with town staff on-hand to clean them between parties. And like Tucciarone’s gondolas, Mountain Village’s weatherproof pods are luxed-out with chic lighting, plush black leather banquettes, and heaters.

The makeovers were performed by The Gondola Shop, a Colorado business that maintains resorts’ in-service cabins and refurbishes discards for private homes, restaurants, and even spas that use the cars as saunas. The pandemic has spiked demand for The Gondola Shop’s repurposed rooms. “We’re fully booked through May 2021,” says owner Dominique Bastien, adding that all 52 of her rental gondolas have been claimed for the winter by breweries and restaurants across Colorado, Utah, and California. Travelers are “going to see a lot of gondolas,” Bastien predicts, though not only in their usual airborne locations.

With health officials discouraging crowded indoor experiences that fuel the spread of the coronavirus, ski destinations are inventing attractive alternatives that disperse people outdoors or separate parties into exclusive facilities. “Open-air venues and private areas will be the norm,” says Robert Purdy, General Manager of the Viceroy Snowmass, which expanded its outdoor après options with a new poolside tent. Purdy also expects the private dining rooms in Toro, the hotel’s Latin-inspired restaurant, to be popular.

Related: How Your Favorite Ski Area is Enduring COVID

Such options underscore how adaptations to the pandemic don’t have to be killjoys. Ski travelers can still find plenty of fun off the slopes. And some innovations hold so much appeal that they’re likely to live on after COVID fades away.

Thankfully, outdoor decks and slopeside lounges have long ranked as some of skiers’ favorite hangouts, so it’s really more of a good thing. This season Steamboat expanded its outdoor seating at the mid-mountain Rendezvous Lodge. Buck Hill, near the Twin Cities, constructed a 1,200-square-foot deck to enlarge its Buck ’54 Bar & Grill. Big Bear, in southern California, just completed an expansion to its iconic sun deck, which now spans 26,000 square feet (though it was in the works before the pandemic).

Many more resorts have erected event tents with space heaters to create base-area shelters. And new grab-and-go outdoor eateries are offering quirky alternatives to indoor cafeterias. Sun Valley, Grand Targhee, Jackson Hole, and Snowbird have all positioned food trucks and similarly portable kitchens at various locations across the resorts. Some hotels have launched gourmet bag lunches that skiers can pre-order and eat where they please. The Viceroy Snowmass packages its bacon jam bison burgers and golden corn empanadas in glittering gold bags that capture the nostalgia of eating a sack lunch—only elevated. And at the Westin Riverfront in Avon, the new Riverfront Market (located beside the gondola to Beaver Creek) can tuck its paninis, charcuterie, craft beers, and canned wine into a Thule day pack that skiers can borrow for the day.

Ski-town restaurants have also grown their outdoor facilities. In Mammoth Lakes, diners can sip Honey Baked amber and Black Doubt stout at Distant Brewing’s new outdoor beer garden. Teton Village also gained a garden: Bodega, a gourmet grocery and bottle shop, launched a tented gastropub where guests can sip its famous “sloshies” with grilled brats crafted by Bovine + Swine, a Jackson-area butcher producing exceptional charcuterie.

In Vail, the town government partnered with Village restaurants to erect tents for all-weather outdoor dining. “We saw that over the summer, restaurants did really well by expanding into the public right-of-way,” says Mia Vlaar, economic development director for the Town of Vail. So this winter’s tented seating adapts to varying conditions (walls can be rolled up on sunny spring evenings or battened down against wind). And to give pedestrians a sheltered place to wait for their dinner reservation or nibble on carryout, Vail constructed several heated, clear-plastic “igloos” that serve as warming huts. Like the Cabins at Mountain Village, Vail’s igloos are sanitized after every group by caretakers employed by the town.

Eating wasn’t the only thing that summer visitors preferred to do outside: Ski towns also saw spiking interest in all outdoor activities, and as a result, several destinations have expanded their opportunities for winter recreation. Steamboat Springs is creating a new outdoor ice rink, and the town of Breckenridge built a second sledding hill (called The Runway, because it’s located on Airport Road) to lessen traffic on the existing sledding hill at Carter Park. The town also doubled its fleet of fat bikes, snowshoes, and skis, which can be rented from the Gold Run Nordic Center.

Outdoor experiences are even trending in spa treatments, normally reserved for dimly-lit, fragrance-enhanced rooms. Witness the Nordic Spa, opening at Alyeska Resort in May 2021. Along with the typical massage rooms and locker facilities—which remain indoors—the Nordic Spa includes a sprawling array of outdoor plunge pools, barrel saunas, and relaxation lounges. “I believe that as populations become denser, people are going to increasingly seek refuge in nature,” says Ryan Pomeroy of Pomeroy Lodging (which owns Alyeska Resort). “The pandemic has only made the great outdoors seem even greater.”

And if people can’t be outside? They want to be cocooned. The pandemic’s social distancing guidelines are making private experiences more desirable than ever, and ski destinations are debuting new ways to let visitors step out— in isolation. This month, Aspen’s The Little Nell debuts The Wine Bar, an après spot where a DJ queues tunes from behind a plexiglass partition and private nooks separate parties.

Read More: COVID Closed Tahoe to Visitors, But They Came Anyway

And like the emergent gondola cabins, weatherproof domes and snowshedding yurts are gaining popularity among ski-town hotels and restaurants. Grand Colorado, on Breckenridge’s Peak 8, installed a 10-foot diameter dome on its rooftop patio that lets private parties enjoy sweeping views of the surrounding mountains. The Fairmont Chateau Whistler in B.C. and the Fairmont Banff Springs in Alberta have also introduced outdoor dining domes fitted with mountain-chic décor.

Colorado’s two Aurum restaurants (in Breckenridge and Steamboat) expect to erect outdoor yurts to accommodate private parties. And in Maine, Sunday River’s Grand Summit Hotel built five outdoor domes for The Last Run Room, a new eatery run by Portland’s star chef Harding Lee Smith. Each “igloo” includes a Bluetooth speaker to broadcast diners’ tunes and a space heater to keep Smith’s pork belly buns and dry-aged duck from growing cold.

“It’s pretty cozy in these,” attests Tucciarone, who occupied one of his psychedelic-hued gondola cars before their debut to enjoy a cocktail with his wife. That might’ve been his last opportunity: Customers’ interest in Mountain Tap’s gondola tables has been “through the roof,” says Tucciarone. “We’d been thinking about ways to increase our outdoor seating in the winter,” he explains. “But the pandemic pushed us to think faster.”

Steamboat Springs-based writer Kelly Bastone is excited to sample some of the new après options and amenities in her town and across ski country this season.

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