By: Jordan Simon
Aspen. One of the world's most fabled, fabulous resorts, where the rich and famous sow their wild hautes (literally). Where dog collars sparkle more than many an engagement ring and the word mogul applies equally to the legendary steeps and Forbes/Fortune crowd: Hollywood in the Rockies (and sometimes on the rocks). Celebrities here need only be identified by first name: Antonio and Melanie, Kurt and Goldie, Ivana, Jack, Kevin, Mariah . . . And, fittingly, unlike many pre-fab faux Alpine ski developments, Aspen is almost movie-set perfect, a gorgeously restored Victorian mining town nestled in the Elk Mountain Range.
That said, fashionable assumes many meanings in Aspen, which is a wonderful study in contrasts and contradictions, from blueblood to blue-collar and refined to relaxed. The majestic setting has long lured cultural and counter-cultural types seeking to escape conformity and drop out (or drop acid). After all, Hunter S. Thompson, the late bad boy of journalism, was an Aspen fixture, and unabashed hippie Jon Barnes still patrols the streets in his Ultimate Taxi, redolent of dry ice and incense and plastered with 3-D glasses, crystal disco balls, and neon necklaces. This freewheeling town welcomes a diversity of personal expression – it doesn't matter what you wear so long as you wear it with conviction.
Indeed, the historic town and its more (in)famous denizens represents only one facet of the diamond. The resort actually embraces four distinct ski areas in the White River National Forest, all connected by free shuttles: Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass (whose base village is experiencing a renaissance thanks to a partnership between industry leader Intrawest and the Aspen Skiing Company, or SkiCo in local parlance). Of course, many non-skier/boarders come for the scene: there's plenty to do between shopping, dining, spa-hopping, people watching, and less strenuous winter activities from dogsledding to snowmobiling around the nearby glorious twin fourteeners (Colorado speak for peaks over 14,000 feet), the Maroon Bells. The SkiCo even employs a concierge who'll dispense free advice, make restaurant reservations, arrange massages, etc. And even those without trust funds will be pleasantly surprised by the blizzard of bargains and freebies.
With so much to savor in the town of Aspen alone, where should you ski, let alone stay? If you have little more than a long weekend, we'd recommend restricting your activities to Aspen and Aspen Mountain. With five days, you can expand your ski/board horizons to include either Snowmass or Aspen Highlands, perhaps even taking a day to glide, skate or snowshoe along the extensive, scenic Nordic trail network. A week permits sampling of all four areas. We'd also advise taking a half-day (or evening) to go dogsledding and dining at Krabloonik and/or cross-country skiing at the Ashcroft Ski Touring Center (one of the most splendid settings in the Rockies, replete with ghost town and gourmet hut hotspot, Pine Creek Cookhouse).
Aspen sits at the southeastern end of the Roaring Fork Valley; CO82 snakes 50 miles “downvalley” through the newly cool, artsy yet athletic communities of Basalt, El Jebel and Carbondale (all worth a jaunt if you have time) to Glenwood Springs (a fun funky city noted, unsurprisingly, for its bubbling waters) at the junction with I-70.
The four mountains owned by the Aspen Skiing Company (each boasting its own varied terrain and unique ambience) lie within a few miles of each other just off CO82, which becomes Aspen's Main Street. Snowmass sits roughly 10 miles downvalley from Aspen (turnoffs are Brush Creek and Owl Creek Roads); it's always been considered more affordable, down-to-earth and family-oriented – 95% of the lodging is ski-in/ski-out. A couple of miles “upvalley,” Buttermilk (accessed via West Buttermilk Road) is the “learning mountain,” yet also home through 2007 to the spiky Winter X Games. Next, on Maroon Creek Road, is Aspen Highlands, which features some hellacious steeps and glades as well as fabulous views of the Maroon Bells. Lodging is scarcer at the latter two areas, though the Highlands base village has gradually expanded since the SkiCo took over in 1993. Finally, you reach Aspen, dominated by Aspen Mountain (also called Ajax, after an old mine, by locals). Like most mining towns, Aspen is laid out as a simple grid, roughly bisected by the Roaring Fork River; its historic West End and Downtown are walkable (though at nearly 8,000 feet, the air is as thin as the svelte residents; adjust to the altitude by taking it easy the first day or two, drinking plenty of water and limiting alcohol and caffeine intake).
The Aspen Historical Society (aka AHS) puts out a self-walking tour map/brochure for $2; you can pick it up at the local office (620 W. Bleeker St.; 970/925-3721 or 800/925-3721) and the Wheeler Opera House Visitor's Center (320 E. Hyman St.). Guided public walks are scheduled only in summer, but private tours for up to 15 ($250) are available in fine winter weather.
Check with the Aspen Chamber Resort Association and the Town of Snowmass Village, for updates on what's open and when. Aspen Magazine offers the scuttlebutt on the hottest cultural, dining, shopping, and barhopping listings, with wittily picky staff picks. Its website is barebones, but that of the weekly Aspen Times, one of several regional papers (check out the discount coupons), also provides some snarkily fun insider dope. The Aspen Skiing Company also offers comprehensive ski/snowboarding info, events listings, live music calendar, and insider tips, plus advice on sunscreen, high altitude dos and don'ts, and ski techniques.
Downtown Aspen is easily explored on foot; it's best to wander without a planned itinerary, admiring the colorful Victorian buildings and window-shopping. Many of the chicest boutiques and eateries are located in former saloons and gambling parlors known for the quality of their “waitressing.” In fact, the town's toniest address, Durant Avenue, which abuts the base of Aspen Mountain and features modern luxury hotels with legendary après-ski see-and-be-scenes, once formed the red-light district. As some locals crack, “Some things haven't changed in more than a century; they're just better dressed.”
Founded during a silver rush in 1879, Aspen was originally called Ute City after the (displaced) indigenous residents. The most prominent early citizen, Jerome B. Wheeler (a partner in Macy's Department Store), left an enduring architectural legacy in two elegant 1889 buildings bearing his name, both on the National Register of Historic Places. The splendid sandstone brick Wheeler Opera House (320 E. Hyman Ave.; 970/920-5770) remains one of Colorado's finest performance venues, offering film and lecture series, plays, dance recitals, concerts, operas, celebrity standup (Robin Williams to Whoopi Goldberg), and more. Parts of the original interior remain, from gold plush seats with Moroccan leather cushioned arms to rich hardwood wainscoting. Bentley's at the Wheeler is a consummate townie hangout, especially for the handsome bar (a magnet for half-price happy-hour appetizers).
One block north is Aspen's grande dame, the Hotel Jerome (330 E. Main St.; 970/920-1000). Even if you don't stay or dine here, the ornate public spaces merit a peek, awash in five kinds of wallpaper, antler sconces, etched glass, intricately carved oak and walnut antiques, and nearly $100,000 of rose damask curtains. Its J-Bar is one of the town's enduring watering holes (see our nightlife reviews, below).
Just five minutes' stroll north, across the Roaring Fork River, another historic brick building houses the decidedly contemporary Aspen Art Museum (590 N. Mill St.; 970/925-8050; Tues-Sat 10am-6pm, Sun noon-6pm, closed Mon; $5 admission, seniors and students $3, children under 12 free, Fri free). The stimulating year-round programming includes art talks from leading national curators and the artist-in-residence, multi-media performance art, and superbly laid- and thought-out exhibitions by emerging and established artists. Art After Hours, a free wine-and-cheese reception and tour, is held every Thursday (5-7pm) during exhibitions.
Back on the opposite side, to the southwest, is the main location of the non-profit educational Aspen Center for Environmental Studies aka ACES (100 Puppy Smith St.; 970/925-5756; open Mon-Fri 9am-4.30pm during winter, closed Sat-Sun; $3 admission, $2 children 7-17, free under 7), which sits amid the Hallam Lake Nature Preserve. The facility, which specializes in wildlife rehabilitation, contains fascinating displays on the fragile ecosystem and occasional interaction with local wildlife, plus offers several on-mountain programs from mid-December through mid-April; we like the twice-daily naturalist-led snowshoe tours of Aspen Mountain and Snowmass (10am and 1pm; $45 adults, $29 children covers snowshoes, snack, basic instruction and lift if you're not skiing) that provide incredible glimpses into the natural habitat (sightings of bighorn sheep and elk are common). Two very cool winter evening series include Potbelly Perspective lectures (Wed 7.30pm; January–March), which see local zoologists, botanists, and adventure mavens sharing stories and slides, and Naturalist Nights (Thur 7.30pm; January–March) which cover current natural history topics ranging from falconry to global warming. You'll find info about both on the center's website.
Walk south into the West End, Aspen's highest-rent district, filled with opulent Victorian mansions (many owned by celebs like Jack Nicholson). Here, the Aspen Historical Society (620 W. Bleeker St.; 970/925-3721; Tues-Sat 1-5pm, closed Sun-Mon; $6 admission, $5 seniors, $3 children 13-17, under 13 free) has transformed the magnificent 1888 Queen Anne Wheeler/Stallard House into a museum scrupulously documenting Aspen's changing lifestyles, from the indigenous “Blue Sky People” and mining camp days onward. Main exhibits rotate, showcasing everything from Victorian women's fashion accessories to John Denver's environmental activism (yes, “Rocky Mountain High” was written in Aspen).
The AHS admission fee includes entrance to the unique Holden/Marolt Mining & Ranching Museum (40180 Highway 82; 970/544-0820; open daily by appointment). It's located roughly 1/4 mile from the AHS: walk south on 7th Street from Main, turn right onto the pedestrian bridge crossing Castle Creek; it's on the hillside to your left. Located on the site of the 1891 Holden Lixiviation Mill, the museum is crammed with mining and ranching displays, remnants of its short-lived (14 month) stint as one of only 18 plants built worldwide to utilize the experimental Russell Lixiviation process (a combination of crushing, heat and chemical salts) to refine low-grade ore.
Nearby Snowmass is home to the renowned Anderson Ranch Arts Center (5263 Owl Creek Rd., Snowmass Village; 970/923-3181; Mon-Fri 9am-5pm; free). Remarkable hands-on workshops with leading artists and curators are mostly held in summer, but winter visitors can still tour the exhibition galleries, meet artists in ateliers, and hear lectures. The store (ArtWorks) and galleries, housed in beautifully rustic turn-of-the-20th-century sheep-ranch buildings, display works in various media produced by Ranch artists, while the Hansen Print Gallery features highlights of the Anderson Ranch print collection (collaborations between visiting artists and master printers).
DOWNHILL SKIING & SNOWBOARDING
The four ski areas – Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass – are open roughly from Thanksgiving to early-April and boast every kind of terrain, from runs smooth as glass and wide-open, above-treeline bowls to bronco-busting bumps and steep glade chutes. We've covered basics like lift tickets and rentals in our Making it Happen section. All of the mountains are accessible via www.aspensnowmass.com.
Still known to many locals as Ajax (after a long-gone silver mine), Aspen remains one of skidom's ultimate ability tests. The runs here are not for beginners – all of them are black and blue (in more ways than one) and you won't find any beginner greens. Indeed, 65% of the trails are rated advanced or expert – and a single diamond here would likely qualify as double that on other slopes. The narrow mountain is laid out as a series of steep, unforgiving ridges requiring utmost concentration and pinpoint navigation down the fall line, with several knee-knocking stomach-churning thigh-burning mogul runs, steeps, and glades where you slalom through tightly packed aspen stands. Obviously, shredders – who were finally permitted on the slopes April 1, 2001 – are just as stoked.
Aspen Mountain Powder Tours (book as far in advance as possible through SkiCo or at the AMPT desk in the gondola building; $225) accesses 1,500 acres (and up to 10,000 vertiginous vertical feet) of prime untracked stashes, most negotiable by assured intermediates, on the backside of Aspen Mountain via Sno-Cat. Even if you don't hit this powder, exploring the rest of the resort is just as rewarding. The area named Bell Mountain (ridge, face, shoulder and back runs) provides some of the gnarliest bump skiing anywhere, followed by Walsh's Gulch, Hyrup's and Kristi (the latter three funnel into Lud's Lane where steep and deep glades drop from either side). That said, many skiers cling to the ridge tops and knobs circling the summit, or the intermediate trails off and under the Ajax and Ruthie's lifts. Ruthie's Road/Run, Dipsy Doodle, Buckhorn and Copper Bowl (on the other side) are the classic cruisers. International is usually one of the more forgiving black runs for improving skiers wanting to test their mettle. Be sure too, to look for the four “shrines” hidden throughout the woods, paying tribute to John Denver, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Jerry Garcia.
This delightful, less-heralded area offers challenges to equal Aspen Mountain, shorter lift lines, and truly awesome panoramas of the Maroon Bells Wilderness and Pyramid Peak. Old-timers still fondly recall its pre-1993 days as the maverick area, when the ski patrol enacted daily daredevil jumps over startled diners every noon at the deck crowning the Cloud Nine lift. That anything-goes spirit may have diminished, but who could argue with the newer high-speed lifts, the now gourmet mountaintop Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro or the posh Ritz-Carlton Club (and its superlative Willow Creek Bistro)?
Anyway, the thrilling chilling descents on Olympic Bowl and Steeplechase (a precipitous cluster of chutes, glades and mini-bowls acting as a powder magnet) are like bungee-jumping without the cord. Then there's the near-legendary Highland Bowl (whose apex, accessed by hiking, added 717 feet to the 3,635-foot vertical rise), dropping into the steep tight glades of Temerity. A new Deep Temerity triple chair opens this season, climbing 1,700 vertical feet in a dizzying 7.3 minutes – one of the steepest chairs anywhere, a virtual elevator that opens 180 acres of new advanced, expert and extreme terrain previously only available via Sno-Cat and strenuous hiking. G-Zone is a fierce beauty, often developing Volkswagen-sized bumps, slicing right down the bowl's median, while Go-Go Gully is an extreme hair-raising thrill ride with a 48-degree slope angle. Still, roughly half the terrain is rated novice or intermediate, primarily mid-mountain off the Exhibition and Cloud Nine lifts (typified by the lovely wide-open Golden Horn that empties into Thunderbowl). Just beware of turnoffs to the bad-ass glades of Moment of Truth, Sherwood Forest and Golden Horn Woods.
This 1967 European-style development nestled in the Brush Creek Valley is finally emerging from Aspen's shadow as a great destination resort in its own right. Currently being revitalized, thanks to a partnership with Intrawest that will add a second base village and more lifts, among other ambitious projects, Snowmass already offers one of the world's finest intermediate areas (the silky runs off the Big Burn lift are particularly revered) and can claim nearly triple the black and double-diamond terrain of its more famous sibling. One look at the plunging chutes and gullies of the Hanging Valley terrain (now lift-serviced) should settle (or unsettle) the matter. The double-diamond runs off Cirque (such as the 40-degree AMF) are no joyride either. The area's only drawback is its vastness: You can get lost on the five mountains – fortunately all but true novices can pick their way down and you can always stop at the cozy Gwyn's High Alpine for a warming meal.
Last and perhaps unfairly least of the four areas, Buttermilk is often dissed and dismissed as a mere “learning mountain,” with 74% of its terrain designated green or (powder) blue. It's certainly one of the finest places to get your ski/ride legs on long mellow runs like Red's Rover and Upper Larkspur which help set the standard by which beginners' areas measure themselves. Intermediates can go top-to-bottom on the likes of Buckskin and Magic Carpet. But the Tiehack section on the east contains several wonderfully cut advanced runs as well as sweeping views of Maroon Creek Valley, dropping into tree skiing off Tiehack Parkway which then splits off into Racer's Edge, Javelin and Tiehack Trail. And powder sticks around longer because so few serious skiers realize what they're missing, making that “sissy” rep undeserved. As for snowboarding, well, Buttermilk is the first resort to hold the Winter X Games more than two years' running (the contract goes through 2007). The 2-mile-long Playstation 2 Crazy T'rain Park is the world's longest such development, with an X course that ends with two 70-foot jumps for the ultimate in big air – or you can cut out to the 530-foot Superpipe and Jacob's Ladder Rail Park (whose stair sets, c boxes, long boxes with ledges, 30-foot-lip slide box, and new 20-degree Studded Kink flat-down redefine sick leave).
Aspen/Snowmass Nordic Trail System, North America's most extensive groomed Nordic network – 80km+ dubbed the “fifth mountain” and “Aerobic Avenue” by locals – uniquely links Aspen with Snowmass. As it's also free, it's arguably the town's greatest bargain. Terrain and scenery vary: the Snowmass Club and Owl Creek Trails offer particularly inspiring vistas (meandering through meadows and aspen stands past babbling brooks and elk herds) and a fairly vigorous workout. The flat Rio Grande trail, and Aspen and Snowmass golf courses, are ideal for beginners. Most of the system is groomed for both classic and skate skiing and there are several trailheads, all easily accessible via public transportation. Snowshoers will also adore the endless variety and bountiful amenities. The system is bracketed by two sterling centers run by the Ute Mountaineer store: Snowmass Lodge Cross-Country Touring Center (970/925-2145) and Aspen Cross-Country Center (970/925-2849) Both offer equipment ($16.95 for snowshoe gear, $19.95 for classic set-ups and $21.95 for skaters; 12 and under $12), instruction (from $35 group; $59 per hour private) and guided tours ($130-$280).
Aspen's other cross-country system, Ashcroft (11399 Castle Creek Rd.; 970-925-1971; day pass $15 adult; five-day punch pass $50), is also hard to beat for sheer dramatic beauty, superlative snow conditions, and top-notch amenities. Located in a high alpine basin (the Castle Creek Valley between Ajax and Highlands, 12 miles from Aspen), its 40 km of groomed trails weave through the high peaks of the Maroon Bells/Snowmass Wilderness in White River National Forest and Ashcroft Ghost Town, a turn-of-the-20th-century mining community on the National Register of Historical Places. The affable, knowledgeable staff excels in recommending just the right route for your ability and interests. Arguably its jewel is the ski-in/ski-out Pine Creek Cookhouse (11388 Castle Creek; 970/925-1044), a homey log cabin with simply stunning lunchtime views; dinner (arrived at either by ski or horse-drawn sleigh) is equally memorable as longtime executive chef Kurt Boucher gives the freshest seasonal ingredients a Euro-Asian flair (foie gras with sour blueberry chutney, caramelized pistachios, and apples & Muscat gelato; Jack Daniels-marinated caribou with wilted dandelion greens and sweet potato pave) – it's a true Rocky Mountain high.
Adrenaline junkies will love the area's wilder, woollier terrain. The 10th Mountain Division Hut Association (970/925-5775) commemorates the endurance of the US Army's skiing soldiers. During World War II, the group, camouflaged in white parkas, practiced maneuvers in freezing temperatures and blinding blizzards, preparing for European alpine combat on hickory skis at Camp Hale between Aspen, Vail and Leadville. Strong intermediates and experts can literally follow in their tracks (on slightly sturdier equipment) on 350 miles of zigzagging trails. The other major backcountry network is the even more grueling, avalanche-prone Alfred A. Braun Hut System (970/925-6618 or 800/643-8621), whose trailhead leads from the Ashcroft Touring Center into the Maroon Bells/Snowmass Wilderness to Crested Butte. If you're doing it alone, be sure to carry sufficient food, water and clothing and study the terrain beforehand, always checking for prevailing conditions with the U.S. Forest Service. If you're inexperienced in backcountry travel, we strongly recommend hiring a reliable guide, either through Aspen Expeditions (970/925-ROCK), who can turn even powder poodles into pit bulls, or Aspen Alpine Guides (970/925-6618 or 800/643-8621) which customizes multi-day tours (starting at $885/person) along the 10th Mountain and Braun Hut Systems. They also offer several half- and one-day options from $150 per person, including snowshoeing tours (a highlight is the Hunter Creek ghost town).
OTHER (FREE) MOUNTAIN ACTIVITIES
Intermediate skiers and shredders can take the free Mountain Orientation Tour with an ambassador at all four mountains daily at 10.30am. All ages can ride with the snowcat groomers at Snowmass and Aspen Mountain (limited space; call ahead for reservations). Powderhounds can head out with the Mountain Operations teams daily on Aspen Mountain (and Wed and Fri at Snowmass) to carve Free First Tracks (valid lift ticket and reservations required). Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES) provides free, 45-minute Naturalist-Guided Skiing/Riding Tours of Snowmass (970/925-5756; 11am and 1pm daily; 8 years and older; lift ticket, ski/snowboard gear and intermediate ability suggested though the terrain is mostly gentle), meeting at the top of Elk Camp outside the Wapiti Wildlife Center, which offers free hot chocolate and cookies, and an interesting warming break with information on local wildlife). Snowmass Village presents free Storytelling by Campfire selected evenings, with roasted marshmallows, cocoa, and Wild West tales. Free entertainment runs from the Bud Light Big Air Friday eight-week series starting in January showcasing top skiers and boarders doing tricks at Snowmass Mall to the Budweiser Hi-Fi Concert Series held at various outdoor venues through Aspen and Snowmass (past performers have included Big Head Todd and the Monsters, The Prodigals, and Arrested Development).
As a byword for glitz, glamour and glorious skiing, Aspen lodging doesn't come cheap. (Even mobile homes in the Smuggler Trailer Park or six-week luxury “fractional” shares sell for more than $1 million!). You'll find an array of lodging options for nearly every high-end pocketbook, especially those catering to the AmEx Black Card crowd; choose from a historic grande dame, luxurious slopeside ski & spa resorts, charming B&Bs, condos, and even stylish boutique properties. Moderate options do abound (especially in Snowmass or at smaller, older, homey inns), though acceptable central budget accommodations are few and tend to be booked well in advance. To help you choose the right overnight address convenient to most attractions and slopes, we've outlined our central Aspen favorites in each category.
For the ultimate luxury, we recommend three slopeside properties and one Victorian classic. The posh, pampering 92-unit Relais & Châteaux Little Nell Hotel (675 E. Durant Ave.; 970/920-4600) right at the base of Aspen Mountain's gondola, is arguably the best people-watching spot in a town. We absolutely adore the Montagna restaurant, which enjoys the services of Richard Betts, one of the best (master) sommeliers in the biz. The larger but still luxurious St. Regis (315 E. Dean St.; 970-920-3300) recently underwent a major redesign; the sybaritic new Remède Spa (featuring a cool, contemporary igloo-inspired look, waterfalls cascading over lounges and complimentary oxygen treatments) contrasts sleekly and chicly with the other public spaces' grand Ralph Lauren-meets-nostalgic-hunting-lodge decor. The Kimpton Group also transformed a somewhat dowdy property into the gleaming, effortlessly hip, boutique Sky Hotel (709 E. Durant Ave.; 800/882-2582), a marvelous blend of mod furnishings (faux-fur blankets on snow-white beds in the sunflower-yellow rooms), groovy graphics and old ski lodge classics like huge rock fireplaces (think Prada meets Wrangler). Last but not least is the opulent 1889 Hotel Jerome (330 E. Main St.; 970/920-1000) a Victorian extravaganza that manages to be top-notch but not over-the-top.
For moderate options, we love most of the Gems of Aspen, a loose marketing group of classic lodges from B&Bs to chalets. At the higher end, Hotel Lenado (200 S. Aspen St., 970/925-6246) takes its name from an abandoned lumber mill town and fittingly, the striking interior design emphasizes various types and textures of wood, from spruce beams and cherry-wood twig couches in the lobby to four-poster hickory beds in the sumptuous rooms. Just a block from slopes and action, Little Red Ski Haus (118 E. Cooper Ave.; 866/630-6119 or 970/925-3333) also enchants with exquisite turn-of-the-century accommodations, many with whirlpool tubs; fantastic breakfasts (served in the lovingly restored Prospector's Cellar) are included. The more affordable (with some units also close to our budget range), but still quaint Snow Queen Lodge (124 E. Cooper Ave.; 970/925-8455) is next door; this cozy Victorian affair comes with six individually decorated units filled with period touches like quilts and fringe lamps.
Central budget accommodations are harder to find, but the St. Moritz Lodge (334 W. Hyman Ave.; 970/925-3220) offers warm Alpine ambience (from gingerbread trim to stone fireplace and wood-paneled walls), a lively international clientele, and cute commodious lodgings, many with fine Shadow Mountain views (bunk-style small-group dorms with shared bath also available); extras include free continental breakfast and high-speed Internet access. Mountain Chalet (333 E. Durant Ave.; 970/925-7797 or 800/321-7813) is a 50-year old lodge sitting right next to the St. Regis, just 1.5 blocks from the lifts, with several room categories; standard and economy options sport charming garage-sale décor, beamed ceilings and/or wood paneling, quilts, Western artworks, antique snowshoes, or old ski photos (standard rooms are a bit larger and add small fridge).
For many, Aspen remains the definitive foodie resort – after all, one of the Western hemisphere's most hallowed gastronomic events is June's Aspen Food & Wine Magazine Classic. Small wonder Aspen lures talented toques from around the globe, and the upmarket hotels themselves boast amazing restaurants (Olives in the St. Regis, Montagna in the Little Nell, The Hotel Jerome's Century Room, Sage Bistro in Snowmass Club, Willow Creek in the Ritz-Carlton Club Highlands, to name a few). The downside is prices higher than the Rockies (the Aspen Mickey D's repeatedly ranks among the top three most expensive in the world, but perhaps the Big Mac uses caribou). Despite the haute (in every way) reputation, family-friendly meat-and-potatoes and pizza joints abound and such top tables as Gusto, Cache Cache, Matsuhisa, and L'Hostaria offer more affordable bar menus. Here's just a small taste of centrally located (and a couple of way-out-of-this-world) eateries.
On the expensive-but-worth-it end of the scale, Mogador (430 E. Hyman Ave., downstairs; 970/429-1072) is truly a feast for all the senses, with wondrous dishes inspired by western Mediterranean jaunts. The menu groups dishes by category – bounty (first courses); sea; land; composed cheeses; olive oils, and so on – and the results, served in wild posh-pasha-on-peyote digs, are magical: cumin-scented lamb shank with spinach Catalan; suckling pork confit with quince aïoli; and seared diver scallops with jamón serrano, Parmesan and lemon. Sushi is an art form at Matsuhisa (303 E. Main St., downstairs; 970/544-6628), named for the restaurant's founding über-chef, Nobuyuki Matsuhisa (better known to foodies as Nobu). Gorge on gorgeous broiled black cod with miso or Chilean Sea Bass topped with black truffles and black bean sauce, or, put yourself in chef's hands for the omakase menu (selection of what's freshest that day); if the stylishly stark, Starck-ish main room is packed, head for the intimate street-level lounge. Another fine choice is Syzygy (520 E. Hyman Ave.; 970/925-3700), its name derived from the astronomical phenomenon of three or more heavenly bodies in alignment, reflecting personable owner Walt Harris's desire to provide harmony of expressive cuisine, fine service, elegant atmosphere, and superb live jazz. He succeeds thanks to a sterling, unusually helpful waitstaff, romantic decor (featuring waterwalls), rising acts, and the assured, sublimely seasoned creations of chef Martin Oswald, whose dishes, like truffled mushroom ravioli with portobellas, shiitakes, chanterelles and a lemon zest/Riesling sauce, float from French to Asian to Southwestern influences without skipping a beat. Finally, one experience not to miss is a dogsled ride and gourmet lunch at the rustic-elegant Krabloonik Restaurant & Kennels (4250 Divide Rd., Snowmass Village; 970/923-3953/4342), a remote log cabin with some of Colorado's best game on the menu: try carpaccio of smoked moose with lingonberry vinaigrette; elk loin with marsala and sun-dried cherry glaze; or wild boar with morel cream sauce. Owner Dan MacEachen opened the restaurant and kennel in the early ‘70s to preserve and promote the dying art of dog sledding; today, some 300 sled dogs are kenneled just outside and are frequently sought after to race in the prestigious Iditarod. Half-day trips (2 hours) include a gourmet 4-course lunch; the restaurant supports the dogs' upkeep.
Our favorite mid-range choices include: Cache Cache (205 S. Mill St., garden level; 970/925-3835), where a handsome bi-coastal crowd savors the sun-drenched flavors of Provence (olive, basil, sage, tomato, garlic) in an equally sunny setting (cream-saffron walls studded with black-and-white photos of Paris street scenes); Chef Charles Dale's Nouvelle Western downhome Range (304 E. Hopkins Ave., 970/925-2402), which incorporates ultra-fresh, often-organic regional ingredients from artisan purveyors from Colorado to California – we adore dishes like the Colorado Corn Soup garnished with Dungeness crab and the trio of ceviches sampler singing with flavor and color; Blue Maize (308 S. Hunter St.; 970-925-6698) is Aspen at its casual best, with a happy décor (combining delectable shades of blueberry, tomato and, yes, maize; wood beams; exhibition open kitchen, and copper panels), potent margaritas, and inventive Southwestern fare (brie and mango quesadilla, coconut shrimp with watermelon puree); and Il Poggio Ristorante (57 Elbert Lane, Snowmass Village; 970/923-4292), a spirited local trattoria that's worth the trip from (gasp!) Aspen for the heavenly, homemade rosemary flatbreads and foccacie slathered with cambozola and roasted garlic. Pizzas (try the pollo affumicato) and antipasti are meals in themselves and the pastas and entrees are equally worthy: goat cheese-and-sweet potato ravioli in hazelnut cream sauce to duck breast with polenta in honey grappa sauce.
On the budget end of things, look for colorful snowboards and skis propped against the brick house and picket fence to find Main Street Bakery and Café (201 E. Main St.; 970/925-6446), which easily serves the best breakfast in town, complete with blueberry pancakes piled high as moguls and tofu scramble or overstuffed omelets that help propel you down the slopes in record time. And it's probably one of the best places to eavesdrop on local gossip. Families adore Little Annie's Eating House (517 E. Hyman Ave.; 970/925-1098), where everyone can get messy eating terrific barbecued ribs and chicken with their hands. There's a huge selection, with something for all tastes (but do get the smashing mashed potatoes). Locals love the relaxed ambience and reasonable prices. The Popcorn Wagon (305 S. Mill St.; 970/925-2718) is another local institution, this one serving yummy crepes, enormous hot dogs and sausages, and gourmet sandwiches by a fire-pit well into the night. You'll see a parade of locals and tourists grabbing a quick lunch, sopping up alcohol after the bar rounds, or just enjoying the occasional live music.
Few places so adroitly offer genuine wildlife and wild life experiences. Aspen/Snowmass offers something for everyone: billiards to jazz clubs, wine bars to throwback saloons. The après-ski scene is arguably second to none: a beer buys entrée to those habitats where the beautiful and wealthy hang out like exotic, endangered species. If you weren't invited to the latest celebrity parties, worry not. We've got the scoop on where there's always a chance one famous face will splash another with designer cocktails – and where Aspen just plain rocks. Remember, if you over-indulge, the free in-town bus runs until 2am and your bartender can arrange a free cab ride, courtesy of Aspen's enlightened Tipsy Taxi program.
The Greenhouse Bar at the Little Nell (675 E. Durant Ave.; 970/920-4600) remains Aspen's primo "see-and-be-scene.” The bar menu is bar none (fresh raw bar, sushi, fondue), while high-end bottles and high-society luminaries from film and Wall Street are sensuously backlit for maximum exposure. Next door, Ajax Tavern (685 E. Durant Ave.; 970/920-9333), operated by the team behind Napa's TraVigne is the place for awesome Cal-Ital lunch or après-snack accompanied by one of the many wines by the glass (or cool cocktails) as you survey the comings and goings at the Silver Queen gondola from the deck on a sunny day. We love the warm unpretentious waitstaff and ambience inside at dinner, too. The vibe at Sky Hotel's 39 Degrees (709 E. Durant Ave.; 970/925-6760) is more fun than fancy. Décor favors polka dot pillows and abstract animal print rugs, the music sounds like a soundtrack for a Quentin Tarantino movie, bottles are backlit in hallucinogenic colors, and friendly Euro-waitresses wear futuristic pink and black form-fitting jackets. Everything is an update of an old classic, including the surprisingly affordable drinks (“Get a fresh face for the night” with the hot-pink Botox Martini – Stoli Razberi, cranberry juice, Red Bull and a wrinkly reconstituted cherry). Not only does Mezzaluna (624 E. Cooper Ave.; 970/925-5882) have a great deck (and wood-burning brick oven) just a block from the gondola, you can score two beers and a gourmet pizza (try the primavera – julienne zucchini, peppers, carrots and basil pesto) at happy hour daily 3-5:30pm for $11 ($13 for imported brewskis). Your pigskin-covered barstool at J-Bar (Hotel Jerome, 330 E. Main St.; 970/920-1000) probably propped up 19th-century miners and 21st-century world-champion ski racers. Order an “Aspen Crud” and the terrific burger, then ask the bartender to display the drawers, signed by everyone who's manned the amazing hand-carved maple bar since the 1890s.
Eric's Bar (315 E. Hyman Ave.; 970/920-6707) is the spot for over 50 single malt Scotches and under-30 singles, as well as a microbrew/martini menu second to none. You can puff yourself up puffing stogies at its Cigar Bar or rack ‘em up in the Pool Room. Eric's mom, Mary Lynn Casper, runs the terrific Mexican joint upstairs, Su Casa. Jimmy's: An American Bar & Restaurant (205 S. Mill St., upstairs; 970/925-6020) welcomes a hard-drinking hard-partying core for “fierce American food” in a handsome clubby room. The great cheap bar menu (specials like a half pound of Alaskan king crab legs on Thursdays) keeps things hopping well past midnight, as so do the weekly free Latin Dance Party Saturdays – fueled by an amazing list of 76 tequilas and mezcals on tap (corner owner Jimmy Yeager and get him talking about the stuff for a true education).
If you can't get into the private Caribou Club (411 E. Hopkins Ave.; 970/925-2929) Aspenites would say you're not very imaginative. Granted, the table fee might run up to $1,000 (depending on your choice of cocktails or wines from the extensive list), but mingling with Billy Crystal or Diana Ross in the Great Room (a Western fantasia of antler-and-crystal chandeliers, billowing bronze swag, polished hardwood wainscoting, cowboy art in gold frames, Native American throws, bentwood bar stools), savoring equally haute food, and surveying the scene on the disco dance floor is . . . priceless. For those who want to boogie like it's 1999, Lava Lounge (426 E. Hyman St.; 970/925-5282) strobes the smooth faces of the barely legal and would-be-trophy wives on the prowl. Live music? Belly Up (450 S. Galena St.; 970/544-9800) the sister of the über-hip SoCal spot, features a wildly eclectic line-up (electronica Grammy nominees Crystal Method to Chris Isaak) as laser lights sweep the gorgeous crowd. And in Snowmass, the Blue Door (Silvertree Hotel, Fanny Hill; 970/923-8338) offers late night Cajun munchies and a reverse happy hour until 1:30am to accompany live bands, DJs, house music, dance floor, big-screen plasma TVs broadcasting sports, and fun special events.
When not on the slopes, Aspen is an eye-popping display of conspicuous consumption. Indeed, window shopping (like people-watching) is a prime spectator sport – no, make that an Olympic event. Even pets here dress better than most urban professionals (cashmere dog sweater or diamond kitty collar, anyone?). The art scene is almost as varied as the skiing, from traditional Western-style landscapes and photography to edgier multi-media visions (if you have a car and the time, check out the up-and-coming regional artists showcased downvalley, in Basalt and Carbondale).
For the highest-end shopping, hit Galena Street and head north to Hopkins Avenue – they're Aspen's answers to Madison and Fifth avenues. Everyone makes a pilgrimage to the Prada Store (312 S. Galena St., 970/925-7001), where the likes of Kate Hudson, Mariah Carey, and Kevin Costner shop for Bond-flick black ski wear and red-fox-fur sleeping bags. You can actually get by with a gold card at Distractions (465 E. Hopkins Ave.; 970/544-9946), which carries vintage Pucci and Balenciaga; young hipsters like Narciso Rodriguez, Alexander McQueen and Zac Posen; and belts fashioned from saddle parts. Anyone shopping for designer denim and leather anything heads to Pitkin County Dry Goods (520 E. Cooper Ave.; 970/925-1681), though Kemo Sabe (434 E. Cooper Ave.; 970/925-7878) puts the swank swagger in Western duds like Stetsons and Lucchesi boots. Manrico Cashmere (447 E. Cooper Ave.; 970/544-5494) offers to-die-for coats and cardigans (not to mention an upstairs restaurant that redefines Roman decadence – savor foie gras with truffle ice cream on Italian cashmere chairs). But you can really strike gold at such secondhand stores as Susie's Limited Consignments (623 E. Hopkins Ave.; 970/920-2376), which devotes an entire section to cashmere (plus overstocked items in fab faux fur, white down, or mauve suede).
While Santa Fe, Taos, and other cultural towns might disagree, some call the Baldwin Gallery (209 S. Galena St.; 970/920-9797) the best art outpost between SoHo and West Hollywood; Baldwin Modern specializes in Deco and Nouveau furnishings and accessories, while the main gallery hangs contemporary art superstars (think Bleckner, Christo, Fischl, Rosenquist) as well as iconic images from the likes of Mapplethorpe (who receives a retrospective in February 2006). Galerie Maximillian (602 E. Cooper Ave.; 970/925-6100) leans more toward established collectibles; holdings are especially strong in early- to mid 20th-century masters from Matisse to Miró.
When To Go
Christmas week, the highest of high seasons, is the stuff of tabloid dreams. Peak season runs from early February to late March. Numerous special events, from free concerts to exciting World Cup and FIS races to Freeride competitions, are held throughout the season. The biggest deal is arguably Winter X Games10, held at Buttermilk each January. Bud Light Spring Jam (annually in March) rocks Aspen and Snowmass with concerts, giant parties, cultural events, big air competitions and more.
Your best shot for avoiding crowds, as well as getting the best bang for your buck and most reliable snow is in January (other than Winter X Games weekend), though spring skiing in late March-early April on cream-cheese slopes can be delightful. The period between Thanksgiving and Christmas week also offers great deals, though the snow conditions are more capricious.
We're focusing on winter, but don't forget that Aspen is also one of the world's premier four-season destinations. As locals love to say, “We came for the winters, but stayed for the summers.” Aspen flourishes in the spring, summer and fall (when those golden “quakies” – as the locals call the Aspens – ignite the mountains). It's the gateway to Colorado's challenging fourteeners (peaks over 14,000 feet), while the Elk Mountain Range and Independence Pass offer some of the most diverse rock climbing, hiking and biking in North America. Fly-fishing is also superior and there are several nearby golf courses, most notably at the superlative Snowmass Club, though duffers are better off in the Vail Valley. The other rocky mountain high season starts cooking with the legendary Food & Wine Magazine Classic at Aspen in mid-June. Other epicurean escapes include July's Taste of Aspen and Healthy Gourmet Festival. Culture vultures will also find plenty to interest them: the Aspen Music Festival & School, Anderson Ranch Arts Center and Aspen Writers' Foundation workshops with renowned figures, Jazz Aspen Snowmass, and the Aspen Institute, where renowned thinkers gather to brainstorm (giving thought-provoking, often provocative lectures to the public). Unique Kids' Day Camps and Adult Learning Vacations in cooking, adventure, and culture make family getaways both educational and fun. A good one-stop resource for what's on when throughout the year is www.stayaspensnowmass.com.
Christmas week, February–March
November 15–December 20, January, late March–early April
Best bang for your buck:
First 3 weeks of January
Aspen/Pitkin County Airport (aka Sardy Airport) is conveniently located just six miles from Snowmass. You can tell how hopping the weekend is by the number of private jets waiting on the tarmac like supermodels on a shoot; Sentient Jet (888/649-5982) is now the official, exclusive private-jet provider of Aspen/Snowmass and flights can be booked at just less-than-stratospheric prices. Regular folk tend to arrive by United which runs nonstop flights from LA and regular connecting service from 200 other cities via Denver; Northwest flies non-stop from Minneapolis/St. Paul and Memphis; while America West flies in from its Phoenix hub on Mesa Airlines.
You can also arrive by train: Amtrak (800/USA-RAIL) provides service between Chicago and Oakland on the California Zephyr to Glenwood Springs, 40 miles (64km) from Aspen.
Once on the ground, Stay Aspen/Snowmass Central Reservations (888/649-5982) is not only a fine source for hotel/land packages, but can also customize your trip (arranging rental car, lift tickets, equipment rentals, and lessons at significant savings). Its in-house SAS Resort Travel Agency has access to last-seat availability on United at discounted rates and negotiates special fares with other airlines. United Airlines offers its own excellent air/hotel deals, as do such discounters as Orbitz, Expedia, and Travelocity.
Getting Into & Around Aspen
Most Snowmass hotels and several in Aspen offer complimentary shuttle service to and from Sardy airport, but if you're staying at one that doesn't, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority (970/925-8484) is exemplary. Its buses stop on Highway 82, next to the airport's terminal building, at roughly quarter to and after the hour between 6am and 11.30pm; it provides extensive bus service from Snowmass to Aspen ($3 one way) and various points downvalley (limited luggage space is available).
Colorado Mountain Express (970/926-9730 or 800/525-6363) provides daily shuttle service and VIP private limousines to and from Glenwood Springs (Amtrak), Eagle County Airport (67 miles away in the Vail Valley) and Denver International Airport (a 4-hour drive). High Mountain Taxi (970/925-TAXI) also provides frequent ground transportation to/from the Vail Valley, as well as taxi service around the Roaring Fork Valley.
Once at your hotel, free resort shuttle buses run 8am–4.30pm (continuously during peak morning and afternoon hours) between the four ski areas – Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk Mountain and Snowmass. The Snowmass Village Shuttle also provides free regular service around the village. Buses are free within Aspen itself until 2am.
Lift Tickets and Rentals
Lift tickets – good at all four areas – cost $78/day ($71 youth 13-17 and seniors 65-69; $49 children 7-12; free for under 7 and over 69). The longer your stay, the deeper the discount for multi-day passes (for instance, you can save up to $60 on a six-day ticket with a one-week advance purchase). While that may sound expensive, freebies do abound; check the Aspen Skiing Company, an invaluable information-packed resource (800/525-6200; 970/923-0560 locally, for Snowmass events/info/reservations; 970/925-1220 for Aspen's).
Equipment rentals range from $27.50-$41/day for ski gear, $31-$40.25 for snowboard gear (children's gear is $15.50 and $19.75, respectively), but can cost as little as $18/day when purchased with a lesson – reserving ahead saves up to 20%. The SkiCo's Skier Services also arranges free ski/snowboard overnight transfer and storage at any of the four areas via its official rental shops. Group and private lessons are discounted up to 20% for multi-day packages and advance purchase; private lessons start at $365 for a half day (full day $525) for up to four, while full-day group lessons generally start at $82, though small group lessons are available for intermediate to expert skiers/snowboarders for $74/half day ($119/full day). The best bargain for first-time and novice skiers/boarders is the Beginner's Magic package ($227 for three days of lifts, lessons and equipment).