Travel 3 minutes 11 September 2023

What It’s Actually Like to Go Glamping

The Collective retreats don’t offer glamping. During a recent visit to their campsite in Colorado, we learned they offer something far more meaningful.

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In my little apartment in Brooklyn, I have a littler closet overflowing with camping gear: four-season tent, ultralight sleeping pad, headlamps, bug sprays. I didn’t think to bring any of it to Collective Vail. They don’t like the word glamping here. No one in this industry does (including us). For Collective, it’s too reductive a term for the kind of outdoor hospitality they’ve spent six years perfecting. But I’d seen photos of their tents, and I was prepared to come unprepared. I knew to expect more glamour than camping.

I just didn’t know what else to expect.

I unzipped the entrance to my tent and found what can be best described as a Western-inspired canvas condo. I’ve never been able to fully stand up in a tent before, let alone on vintage rugs over hardwood floors. I sat my notebook down on a wooden table between two armchairs and peeked inside my private bathroom, its own tent connected to mine and stocked with premium moisturizers and bath products. I thought of the magic tents in Harry Potter, the ones that open into entire multi-level homes. Here, there’s electricity and charging stations for your devices, a necessity for your impulse to Facetime every person you know to show off the novelty.

The basic accommodations are a bit more down to earth, but even in the best tents, the charm of the outdoors seeps into the experience — as it should. The bite of cold air through the tent after dark; the sound of the canvas rustling against the wind; the occasional interloping insect. Don’t head to Collective Vail unless you have at least nominal interest in camping. You’re not roughing it in the traditional sense, but you are more or less outside, which is presumably the reason you’ve gone with tents over some glass tower in Denver.

I didn’t mind the odd bug here and there. I came to Collective by myself, and welcomed the company. True to the name, Collective’s retreats are most commonly enjoyed as a communal experience. Couples and families come to relax and enjoy this peaceful plateau among the Rockies, sampling an activity or two, stopping in at small towns along the way. I took a more pioneering approach. A man alone, facing bravely into the frontier. Unsure of what I’d encounter — outside of the king-sized bed.

I signed up for as many activities as I could and began my sprint through Collective’s creative, camping-adjacent itinerary that mostly involves eating, drinking, and fire. Each is a delight, but not necessarily designed for a thirtysomething traveling solo.

Did I feel a little self-conscious, waiting for my turn to brand a cutting board with my initials, while a full bottle of champagne sat sweating by my side, happy couples sipping cocktails all around me? Maybe at first, but I soon found myself in a gleeful discussion with my hosts and fellow guests, chronicling all the best hikes just outside the ranch, and all the charming small towns nearby we liked better than Vail.

The general manager here, Mickael, seemed to me a sophisticated kind of woodsman. From France originally, he took a particular interest in the Michelin Guide and which of Colorado’s restaurants would receive the state’s first Michelin stars. As the sagebrush rustled at our ankles and mountains fanned out in the distance, I asked him if they hire staff for their expertise in wilderness living. He told me no, they hire for personality. As I sampled the activities of the retreat, I came to appreciate that quite genuinely.

Maybe it was the casual nature of the place, or the ability to walk off at any moment onto an empty trail, or the horses running at the ranch below, but I felt more comfortable than I would’ve expected as I completed whimsical activities in Collective’s cooperative setting. I felt more connected to nature — and in my more reflective moments, to myself — than an imprecise word like glamping would ever suggest. Later that night, I shoved a fire-heated steel rod into a beer and watched it caramelize (a tradition wonderfully titled beer poking, sourced from old German campers) without a hint of anxiety.

I felt more out of place during the zipline excursion. There were three families with small children… and me. I passed up ATV and horseback rides for this, but I have no regrets. It was the perfect encapsulation of Colorado; a two-hour zipline back and forth across the kind of tremendous natural site that seems to present itself with a boastful nonchalance in every corner of this state.

Collective scours for places like these, the kind where you could never build a brick-and-mortar hotel, or at least never build one so sensitively. Their other locations include the forest home of Collective Hill Country in Texas and the oasis-like Collective Governors Island in New York City. Both have even higher-class accommodations than Vail, a sign of things to come for the ever-expanding brand (keep an eye out for locations in Sonoma, Montana, Vermont, and more).

Collective Governors Island
Collective Governors Island
Collective Governors Island
Collective Governors Island
Collective Hill Country
Collective Hill Country
Collective Hill Country
Collective Hill Country

After zipping, I recharged with some solitude and a book outside my tent — and found myself running grievously late to dinner. Conditioned by strict New York timetables, I came hat in hand for a later slot at the grill. The response to my request was a cheery, unworried, “you can come whenever, we’re camping!”

The retreat was full that night, but each party had their own space to cook their giant portion of locally sourced meat under the striking canvas overhang that makes up the restaurant. Out of nowhere, a spirited windstorm started blowing full glasses of sangria over on their sides, and everyone rushed to the small section indoors for an impromptu dinner together. It was a sweet, collective moment. For this brand, the pun is intended.

Book Collective Vail on MICHELIN Guide →
Book Collective Hill Country on MICHELIN Guide →
Book Collective Governors Island on MICHELIN Guide →

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