By Paula Conway

Not many people start their winter getaway to northwestern Colorado in a botanical garden, but feeling the stress of holiday madness, I did. In my defense, this wasn’t my idea. I followed directions from my insightful Vail Valley author friend, Jodi Jill, who, when asked, advised me where to decompress.

“Head for Betty Ford’s Alpine Gardens,” she said unequivocally.

Neither the snowboarder nor skier type, yet still yearning to get up-close-and-personal with a winter Vail – Ford Parkwonderland after arming myself with plenty of padding, I pointed my rented Pontiac toward Ford Park.

Fluffy flakes were falling when I arrived at this at this high-altitude garden about 8,000 feet above sea level. Obviously, perennials were not in bloom, but the Rocky Mountains were in all their splendor, especially after I reached the top of Mountain Meditation Garden. There, a wall of Colorado blue spruce wore heavy snow shavings, a vista out of a picture book and just the right place for me to Zen out before nature’s most magnificent view.

Next stop: Inside, for some warmth and the chance to imbibe without having to explain my liquid intake in the middle of the day.

Forgoing the typical big Colorado brewery, I instead chose a micro version. Located about 10 miles west of Vail Village in Edward, Gore Range Brewery is a non-touristy pub with a spirited carte offering a sassy samplerVail – Gore Range Brewery selection. I liked the full-bodied Biker Stout and the suggestively named Great Sex Honey Ale — which, surprisingly, was very mild. Without a doubt, the Gore Range motto — “Microbrews, macro-fun” — is fitting.

Because I also sampled some peanut-crusted mahi-mahi at my brewery of choice, I wasn’t hungry for a big meal, so supper wasn’t anything fancy. Still, my watering hole stop did entail a new gastronomic experience: elk stew. Enjoyed at a popular local night spot called Half Moon Saloon in the West Vail Mall, this homemade concoction was hearty, if not entirely to my liking. Thankfully, I was full enough from the fish consumed earlier.

Vail – Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch spaBack at my hotel room in perhaps the Vail Valley’s best digs, The Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch in Beaver Creek, I opted to finalize the day on a spa note.

And what a note it was, and a sweet one, at that. My treatment of choice was the very vividly dubbed Apple Pie a la Mode, a scrub of just what the name promises, to start the exfoliation process. Also good for hydration, my masseuse’s magical mixture included cinnamon, apple extract, and a slew of natural oils. Afterwards, I felt — and smelled — delicious.

And, thanks to the invigorating dessert without calories, sleep was sound. Still, I arose early the next morning, eager to start my final day by taking part in The Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch Loan-A-Lab program.

Being a bit homesick for my own pooch, a Potcake named Marley, I took the luxury hotel’s resident pup — a gentle golden Labrador retriever called Bachelor — out for a long walk around the Rocky Mountain hotel’s storied grounds. The two of us ended our winter stroll by sitting by the Ritz’s fire pit, enjoying the crisp air together and having the warmth hit my cold back. This was a very bonding time for canine and human — especially so since, good dog that he is, Bachelor sat on my frozen feet.

All too soon, it was nearly time to end my three-day Vail Valley stay. So, at the 11th hour, I finally decided to whole-heartedly give into the snow — but not before being appropriately attired.

Translation: I went shopping, finding a fabulous boutique where outerwear is chic.

Although One Track Mind in Lionshead Mall is known as a serious snowboard shop, winter clothes and Vail – One Track Mindaccessories are what attracted my attention. Of special interest were a pair of trendy Vans boots, warmly adorned with a fluffy sheepskin-style lining (no sheep sheared for these beauties).

Then it was off into the wild blue yonder in the Colorado backcountry, cozying up to the mountainous lower levels via snowmobile. Passive exerciser a plus, the zippy machine took me over the trails and through the woods to Piney River Ranch.

Along the way, we stopped to play in what is known as Fox Farm, so named because the groomed area’s original purpose was to do away with the furry animals for their pelts. Happily, no animals are skinned there anymore, although an original early 1900s homestead cabin is still on site, taking me back to a time when life was certainly simpler than worrying about where to find gas for my snowbound vehicle should I get lost.

The entire ride was memorable experience, one that I found both exhilarating and easy to negotiate. All that was needed was a good ending to the snow-filled afternoon, say a sit by a blazing fire with a cup of hot cider in hand. As if reading my mind, our tour guide provided the very thing following our mighty snowmobile journey that had me traverse some 30 miles of Rocky Mountain terrain.

This mindful respite invoked a nostalgic return to the prior’s night’s Ritz-Carlton apple dessert massage, a soothing pastime I never knew existed until my very first Vail Valley visit was almost over. Now, that’s what I call icing on the Rocky Mountain cake, er, I mean pie. Good, old-fashioned, American apple pie — with a new-fangled, New Age twist.