In the 1940s, the von Trapp family immortalized in The Sound of Music settled in Stowe, Vermont, an East Coast ski village that reminded them of the rolling hills of their Austrian homeland. The Trapp Family Lodge (“A Little of Austria ... A Lot of Vermont”) has been hosting skiers in Stowe since 1950 and still is managed by the von Trapps today.
In 1979, Karlheinz Faessler, an Olympic ski racer from Ofterschwang, a Bavarian village where his family has operated the Sonnenalp Resort since 1918, established a Vail Village satellite of the Sonnenalp just down Bridge Street from an inn owned by Austrian ski legend Pepi Gramshammer, a contemporary three years his senior. Having pioneered a ski lift to the summit of Ofterschwang’s highest peak in 1968, just like Pete Seibert did here in 1962, our valley reminded Karlheinz Faessler of home. Last March, en route to ski Beaver Creek’s sister resort in Austria (“Sight Skiing,” p. 86), I had the opportunity to spend two nights at the Bavarian Sonnenalp. Upon my return from that adventure, on the eve of Vail’s closing day, I settled into a plush chair across from proprietor Johannes Faessler in the King’s Club at the Kleine Sonnenalp (as the Vail hotel is known in Bavaria), and over tall glasses of hefeweizen, we shared stories of Ofterschwang.
“I was born and raised there; it’s a small, really alpine community—a village of maybe 500 people that only had two things happening, dairy farming and a little bit of tourism,” said Faessler, who left Bavaria as a young man to attend the Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality Management at the University of Denver in the early 1980s and has run the hotel ever since, a duty he now shares with his wife, Rosana. “My grandparents, mostly after the second World War, kept expanding the existing building over the decades, then my parents turned it into this really extraordinary resort operation.”
With the exception of the Type A wall plugs, I noted how similar Vail’s Sonnenalp felt to its Bavarian big sister, and Faessler explained that the Ofterschwang Sonnenalp’s architect designed the Vail hotel’s interior, that even the linens and uniforms came from the same suppliers in Germany.
“What is very similar is that both hotels have deeply rooted traditions of being family-owned and operated businesses,” he added, “a model that is hard to maintain in today’s world.”
Yet the businesses already extend into a fifth generation: After earning a hospitality degree from Boston University, Johannes Faessler’s 31-year-old son, Sebastian, now helps manage the Sonnenalp (Sebastian’s wife, Esmarie, is the hotel’s marketing director); his 22-year-old daughter, Francesca, who grew up working at the Sonnenalp, will graduate from his alma mater in 2019; in Europe, his 20-year-old nephew, Jakob, the graduate of a hotel management school in Innsbruck, anticipates returning to the Bavarian Sonnenalp after he completes an apprenticeship at the Bayerischer Hof, a five-star hotel in Munich.
“We didn’t push our kids in that direction; we wanted them to make that decision themselves,” Faessler stressed. “Now that they did, it means we can continue to put our whole life into it and see how it evolves into the next generation. That’s super rewarding. My grandfather, the world he grew up in in Germany, it was a small world at that time. I don’t think he could imagine us being in the US. But my dad, he loves being here, he loves the US.”
At 83, Karlheinz Faessler skis every day when he’s in Vail (and no doubt reminisces with Pepi, who still lives upstairs at Gasthof Gramshammer). As does Johannes Faessler, who skied for two hours the day I visited with him last March—a final powder day—and somehow managed nine runs (as you can too with our insider’s guide to Vail Mountain, “Piste of Paradise,” p. 72).
“It was fantastic,” he gushed. “I am so lucky to live here.”
I asked Johannes Faessler if he ever missed his Bavarian hometown, which he visits once or twice a year, as a guest at the Sonnenalp.
“I do and I don’t miss Ofterschwang,” he sighed. “I love Europe in many ways, but I love Colorado for its wide-open spaces; it feels so incredible and free here. Ofterschwang and Vail have elements I truly like. I really wouldn’t want to give up any of it. I feel lucky I can experience both.”
So do I. And as this magazine’s editor, I’m grateful for the opportunity to share my experience with you.