Walking into the lobby of the Sonnenalp Hotel in Vail, I felt like I’d left the U.S. behind, except I wasn’t struggling to address the front desk clerk in a foreign language. European antiques fill the cozy, low-ceilinged lobby, which is markedly smaller in scale than most American chain hotels, where grandiose public spaces bustle like airport terminals. This, however, is more like a mountain rifugio built of wood and flagstone.
The European ambiance scratched an itch that’s maddeningly hard to reach, now that COVID-19 has restricted travel. I miss the freedom to travel to other countries—to partake in different coffee rituals, glimpse other fashion trends, and generally abandon all my established routines in a brand-new backdrop with unfamiliar people.
I particularly miss the hotels in Europe’s mountain enclaves, where most accommodations are family-owned and dedicated to the restorative power of fabulous food and extended spa time. Even the smallest inns generally have a couple of hydrotherapy pools. They’re nothing like the swimming pools at your typical Hampton Inn, where chlorine burns your eyes and kids conduct shrieking cannonball contests. Instead, these hotel pools and spas are tranquil places where people of all ages—but especially adults—can soak in restful silence. On my last trip to the Dolomites, I watched women lie in lounge chairs without browsing a smartphone or magazine. They simply relaxed. I craved that.
So I booked a getaway to Vail’s Sonnenalp Hotel, which looks and feels like the mountain inns I’ve visited across Europe. Pushing open the door to my Mill Creek Suite, I stepped into an entry room that was much like the one I enjoyed at the Cristallo in the Italian ski resort town of Cortina d’Ampezzo. I kicked off my snow boots, hung my coat on the hook, and stowed my hat and handbag on the shelves before emerging into a living space made cozy with whitewashed walls and exposed ceiling beams.
The Sonnenalp isn’t the only Colorado spot to have imported trappings from a far-flung culture. There’s also the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse, where more than 40 artists from Tajikistan carved and painted the dining room’s ceiling, columns, and furniture, as well as the exterior’s ceramic tiles. The immersion into Persian art is as attractive as the Mediterranean food and afternoon tea with pastries that diners enjoy here.
Other restaurants, such as the Russian Palace in Aurora, have become hubs for immigrant communities that create de facto cultural centers around food.
Still other destinations offer a more extended getaway. Surrounded by vineyards and lavender gardens, Leroux Creek Inn attempts to re-create Provence on the southeastern side of Grand Mesa. Yes, the inn’s southwest-style adobe walls and saltillo tiles feel more like New Mexico, but owner Yvon Gros hails from France, where he trained as a chef; his wife and co-owner Joanna Reckert developed her line of spa products from the region’s grapes.
And in Aspen, the Mountain Chalet looks like the ski lodges of Switzerland, with carved-wood balconies and folksy, hand-painted signs and wall murals. Like so many European hotels, the Mountain Chalet is family-owned: Ralph Melville opened it in 1954, and the Melvilles continue operations today.
The Sonnenalp is also family-owned and operated. The Faessler family ran a hotel in Bavaria before opening a second location in Vail in the 1960s. Vail’s Sonnenalp is hardly a caricature of the German original. Its Bully Ranch restaurant, for example, serves fancified burgers and other American classics, not bratwurst and potato salad.
But it maintains some of the best features of European accommodations, such as the breakfast buffet. Before COVID-19 put the kibosh on buffet service, Sonnenalp guests could start their mornings with a bogglingly vast spread of artisan cheeses, yogurts, whole-grain breads, cured meats, fresh fruits, and pastries—all served in a glass-walled sunroom at Ludwig’s (a restaurant named for the Faessler hotelier that ran the German Sonnenalp from the 1930s through the 1960s).
During my stay, I grabbed a takeaway breakfast sandwich at DeliZioso, a European-style mercato opposite the Sonnenalp, then spent a leisurely morning at the hotel spa. I enjoyed a brisk breaststroke in the bracingly cool outdoor swimming pool, then warmed up in the hot tub beside Gore Creek and its aspens. I contemplated the winter’s first snow on the ground, and paused contemplation altogether during a hydrafacial treatment that restored my wind-ravaged skin to glossy health.
By checkout time, I felt as if I’d truly escaped—if not to Europe, then to the next best thing.