Modern-day ski towns spend millions to glamorize their villages, fabricating mini-Disneyland-style escapes that nestle sweetly into mountain valleys. They're visually appealing; they have all the amenities, like five-star restaurants and world-class spas; and they attract vacationers that crave glitz with their glistening snow. Which is all well and good—unless you want a foundation that's a bit more down-to-earth.
Breckenridge has always been the place to find a hint of sincerity in Colorado—after all, it's an authentic mining town at its core. Low on glam, low on pretense, you might even say that Breck is the anti-ski town. My very first trip there years ago found me meandering down Main Street and walking through the swinging doors of the Gold Pan Saloon. This watering hole has delivered sobriety's cure since 1879, making it one of the oldest bars west of the Mississippi, and the accumulated smells of 130 sloppy years hit my nostrils just as the bartender nodded in my direction.
"What have you got on tap?" I asked, no longer sure I could even stomach a beer. "Beer," she snorted, turning to refill the glass of a shaggy-haired barfly. And thus the Gold Pan delivered my first lesson in Breck's true character: It may offer first-class slopes and a charming exterior, but it's unpretentious—occasionally even a little bit seedy—on the inside.
If you've spent any time at all in Breckenridge, you really can't help but notice the town's strict avoidance of swank. Casual, family-style restaurants represent the majority of its dining options, and chains aren't verboten. (The Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. occupies one prominent corner downtown.) Shallow-pocketed shoppers like me find the shops to be fairly accessible—Prada hasn't opened its doors here yet. And even at the upper end of the lodging spectrum, you'll haul your own luggage to your room: Breck's casual character dispenses with bellhops.
I had Breckenridge figured, or so I thought—until my latest trip revealed a more polished side to this ski town that I'd never noticed before. Tucked here and there, almost hidden within Breck's modest fabric, I discovered places that aren't exactly fancy—and certainly not posh—but are undeniably sophisticated.
My husband, Ben, and I didn't set out to find the chic side of Breckenridge. But when we checked into the BlueSky Breckenridge (which does have bellhops, by the way), we found ourselves in more stylin' digs than anything we'd previously found in Breck. Located at the base of the Snowflake lift, this condo mecca blends Western decor with Frank Lloyd Wright-style modernism. The lobby's soaring ceiling makes the wide-open space feel reminiscent of a barn—albeit a sleek one, with slick ebony paneling, fringed white curtains, and enormous leather rugs. Inside our two-bedroom unit, the furnishings avoided cowboy clichés and opted instead for a clean, contemporary look. The ambience was comfortable, yet attractive enough to make our stay feel just a little bit indulgent. Walking through the lobby, we felt like we were away on a real vacation as opposed to a typical ski weekend.
Downtown, we browsed the Main Street restaurants to see which might tempt us to a table. Spaghetti houses, Chinese restaurants, and Irish pubs all bustled with hordes of happy diners—but then, turning off the main drag, we spied an unassuming door. We turned the knob, climbed the stairs to the second-floor restaurant, and stepped inside Relish, where we ended our search.
A lively buzz emanated from the open kitchen extending along one side of the dining room, and a small, convivial group of drinkers crowded around the tiny bar. Most were locals who'd arrived alone but easily joined the chatter over plates of truffle-topped potato chips. The dinner menu offered herbed rabbit, lamb meatloaf, roasted chicken, and crispy trout; dishes featured foods produced within Colorado. We snuggled down into a cozy table and ordered: I chose the curry-scented tuna, Ben tried the grilled venison, and we both left feeling wholly impressed—not only with our creative meals, but also with the way Relish managed to be both sassy and casual at the same time. With its crisp, white linens and imaginative, seasonal menu, Relish delivers a San Francisco-style sophistication yet still feels sensible enough that you can wear your sloppy snow boots.
The next day, after a few hours on the slopes, we wandered downtown to check out Main Street before its shops closed. I aimed for Valleygirl, a new boutique I'd noticed the night before. Its windows showed off casual but stylish outfits that landed somewhere between fleece jackets and furs. Trendy dresses, too-cute tops, and pants a bit spicier than typical mountain-town khakis filled the racks, and the store's sleek, uncluttered layout led me to expect price tags of $300 and up. But to my surprise, Valleygirl's looks weren't outlandishly expensive. I loaded up my fitting room with $40 blouses and $80 dresses—fun finds priced well enough to let this penny-pinching writer make a purchase or two.
I then walked over to Sacred Tree, a new holistic health-care center that makes alternative therapies seem fashionable rather than intimidating. The staff offers acupuncture, naturopathy, and even indigenous ceremonies, but I signed up for the Ashiatsu bodywalking massage with Allyson Morrison, a waif with delicate, petal-shaped feet that proved improbably good at kneading ski-weary muscles. I'd never had someone walk on my back before, and I confess I still don't know what it feels like, since I couldn't discern any difference between Morrison's hands and feet—so skilled was she at making seamless transitions. So I simply gazed down at the sculpted rug beneath me and relaxed in the funky yet inviting reds and browns of her treatment room. The Sacred Tree notwithstanding, Breck still isn't what I'd call a spa town, but now it's possible to enjoy a totally transformative massage, minus the gilt packaging.
After I peeled myself off of Morrison's massage table and showered for dinner, Ben and I sat down at Modis, an eatery that lured us inside with its striking, two-story windows. We claimed the last two stools at the long, sleek bar and, surprised to find intriguing pours on the wine list, ordered glasses of Spanish Albarino. The decor was streamlined, urban even, but not at all snooty: A drywaller with fresh plaster on his Carhartts sipped a martini from the corner of the bar. We'd intended to have just a cocktail, but the inviting vibe convinced us to stay for dinner too. As he often does, Ben chose the pork, served here with pierogi and Brussels sprouts; I opted for the roasted duck and smoked grits. Both pleased the palate and warmed us from the inside out.
At first I was surprised to discover places like Relish, Modis, and Sacred Tree in Breckenridge, and I felt slightly sad to see these pockets of sophistication emerging in a town that was once so gloss-resistant. After all, Breck's rough edges are precisely what give it its character. But the next morning, I shuffled into Clint's Bakery—a Main Street coffeeshop that's earned locals' passionate allegiance—and watched droopy-drawered freeriders line up for bagel egg sandwiches; I overheard the barista declare that she planned to skin up the mountain later that day, and I knew Breckenridge's come-as-you-are character would persist despite its slick new joints. Refinement is far from the mainstream experience here, and instead remains somewhat underground—which is refreshing, given the coolness saturation I often find in Colorado's other ski towns. Breckenridge is still gritty—only now, it hides a satin underbelly.