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Aspen Confidential: The Insider's Guide


Aspen combines its skiers paradise with a charming old town core. Copyright: Norm Clasen.Over the years the small mountain town of Aspen, Colorado, has gotten something of an unfair rap for glitz, dazzle, and conspicuous consumption. In some ways, of course, that reputation is deserved. There's no denying that Aspen is awash in big spenders and even bigger show-biz names. Boutiques like Dior and Fendi thrive; private clubs abound; private jets regularly line up at the airport; and the entire police force is outfitted with Saabs.

 

Nonetheless, Aspen at its heart is an uppity cowtown, a 19th-century miner's camp gone bigtime. Its Old West origins have never quite disappeared – they've just been incorporated. This makes for constantly surprising contradictions. For instance, in summer you can whoop it up at a rodeo one night and marvel over the Joffrey Ballet the next. Or, in winter, retire from a day of cutthroat Black Diamonds to an evening of chamber music. And those pricey boutiques? They're housed in lovingly restored and completely authentic stone buildings dating from the 1880s.

And, while it's true that lodging and dining can get expensive, bargains can be had. Numerous inns and lodges fall into the moderate category; spring skiing offers cuts in hotel and lift rates; and there are lots of inexpensive places to eat.

What follows is a brief overview of what you might encounter in Aspen this winter and early spring. To find out more about the activities described here, to learn about other options, and to obtain in-depth information, contact the friendly folks at Aspen Chamber (see When You Go at the end of this article).

Skiing (and Other Snow Sports)

There are many reasons to love skiing in Aspen, but among them are the great beauty of the mountains, the variety and challenge of the runs, and the fact that you can walk from most lodgings to the slopes (some lodgings are on the slopes!). Skiing here incorporates four distinct areas: Snowmass, Ajax, Buttermilk and Highlands. Here's a nutshell rundown of each.

Snowmass: Most accommodations are "ski-in/ski-out" – simply walk out the door, slip into your equipment, and zip off. Snowmass's diversity is popular with families, since everyone from a rank beginner to a world-class expert can find fun and/or challenge on the runs. Best known for: family-friendly, groomed cruising runs. Best-kept secret: the Two Creeks base area with its easy mountain access.

Aspen Mountain (a.k.a. Ajax): No beginning runs here! Instead, top-notch skiers revel in double black-diamond runs like The Dumps or Gent's Ridge. An added plus: the beautiful views of Aspen as you race downhill. Best known for: Steep runs, experienced skiers only. Best-kept secret: Groomed cruising runs for intermediate skiers.

A snowboarder boosts out of the halfpipe at Buttermilk. Copyright: Rob Gracie.Buttermilk: Gentle Buttermilk – with 74% of its trails rated suitable for beginners and intermediates – nurtures the up-and-coming skier. This is also prime snowboarder terrain, with plenty of room set aside for big aerial jumps and other tricky maneuvers. Best known for: Great learning/teaching mountain. Best-kept secret: Powder that stays on the high runs for days after a storm.

Highlands: Some of the steepest skiing in Colorado is here, combined with numerous trails for beginners and intermediates. A snowcat takes you to the top of Highland Bowl.

Best known for: Being the locals' favorite ski place. Best-kept secret: A good place to ski at any skill level.If you're not into skiing, or merely want to take a break, the area offers an impressive range of other snow sports:

  • Daily snowshoe tours (reputedly easy), led by naturalist guides, explore the ecology of Ajax and Snowmass.
  • Tube sliding down snowy Assay Hill. A modest $12 fee allows you unlimited runs.
  • Cross-country skiing on the countless groomed trails, including a 65-kilometer system in the Aspen/Snowmass mountains.
  • Sledding. Snowmass, for instance, has a padded and fenced hillside for sleds and toboggans; it's free with your own sled (and rentals are inexpensive).
  • Dog sled rides through the Snowmass wilderness. A two-person wooden sled is pulled by 12 huskies (some are reputedly graduates of Iditarod).
  • Ninety-minute horse-drawn sleigh rides in the wilderness of Maroon Bells (mountain peaks named for their bell-like shape and purplish color).
  • Ice skating at both indoor and outdoor rinks.
  • Especially for kids: free daily snowcat rides up Snowmass Mountain.

 

Snowshoeing is one of the non-gravity-dependent entertainment options. Copyright: Ken Missbrinner.When You’re Not on the Slopes...

While you're in town, consider taking advantage of Aspen's tremendous diversity by trying an activity that has nothing to do with snow. Here are six suggestions:

1. Spend an evening at Cooking School of Aspen. You may have taken a culinary class elsewhere, but I can guarantee you didn't have an experience like this. From start to finish, it's a top-tier adventure and lots of fun to boot. The plain-talking resident sommelier, Frank Todaro, pours and discusses wines while you watch award-winning local or guest chefs prepare a fabulous meal (which you'll devour with gusto, needless to say). The menu changes every night. Recent offerings included "A Tuscan Feast," "Dinner for Two from Caviar to Soufflé," "New Latin Food and Wines of the World," and "Simply Sushi."

2. Visit Anderson Ranch Arts Center. In summer, people from around the world come here to attend one of the nearly 100 workshops taught by renowned artists in a variety of fields: ceramics, digital imaging, woodworking, painting, sculpture, photography, and much more. With no classes in winter the Ranch is quiet, but the gallery exhibits are always excellent, and the folks who run the place will be happy to give you a tour of the handsome buildings.

3. Visit the Aspen Historical Society. Pick up literature about the town's fascinating history, from the first human settlers 8,000 years ago, through Aspen’s founding as a silver-mine center to the present. In summer, volunteer guides dressed in 19th-century togs offer walking tours. In winter, consider attending a Tuesday-night history lecture. Coming up on Feb. 13, "Ancient People of Colorado," and on March 6, "Skiing the Silver Screen."

4. Tour a ghost town. Ashcroft was an 1883 mining camp that boomed big but busted quick. Strap on your cross-country skis or snowshoes and take a self-guided tour of this National Register Historic Site, visiting the old jail, saloon, hotel, stables, post office, and various miner’s cabins.

5. Treat yourself to a luxury spa treatment. The Aspen Club somehow manages the difficult task of being both down-to-earth and highly luxurious. Packed into its 77,000 square feet is a full-service spa, a health and fitness center, a sports medicine clinic, and the Center for Wellbeing. The range of spa treatments is impressive, including hydrotherapy, oxygen treatments, thermal mineral kür, exfoliating body scrubs, herbal wraps, aromatherapy massage, ayurvedic rituals, all kinds of massage, and much more. Try the Ayurvedic Holistic Facial, a 50-minute essential oil, mini-facial, hand-and-foot massage designed to balance your emotions; you'll be as relaxed as a cooked noodle afterward. Come early, relaxing before your treatment in front of a roaring fire while wrapped in a thick terry robe.6. Get cultural. Attend a performance of the celebrated Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, the only professional ballet company based in and touring out of the Rocky Mountains and New Mexico. Or consider an evening performance of Winter Music at Harris Concert Hall, whose illustrious guests this winter include Joshua Bell, Vladimir Feltsman, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and more. And whatever you do, go see anything that's playing in Wheeler Auditorium, a genuine opera house from the late 1880s.

Ajax Mountain overlooks the historic buildings of downtown Aspen. Copyright: Doug Child.Dining Out

Many of Aspen's restaurants are upscale, but don't let that scare you away. You'll find a large number of fast food, pizza and wrap joints for quick and cheap nourishment, and an assortment of inexpensive but very good places to dine. A few meal deals: Try eating in local bars, where the ambience is terrific and the prices low. The bar at L'Hostaria, a fine Italian eatery, serves inexpensive salads and pasta dishes nightly. Everything on the bar menu at The Mother Lode is below $10.50. For vegetarians, The Steak Pit has an $8 all-you-can eat salad bar. When you want to throw budgetary caution to the wind, however, here are a few good choices:

Little Nell's, the restaurant in the Mobil Five-Star Little Nell Hotel, is nothing short of fabulous. Chef Bryan Moscatello turns out highly imaginative dishes with a presentation that can be astonishing. In winter expect hearty mountain fare: homemade patés and sausages, stews and ragouts, elk and venison. A typical menu entrée: Cervena Venison Chops with Winter Squash Gratin, Cherry braised Onions and Foie Gras Beignets. For dessert, how about the Chocolate Pot de Crème?

Olives, in the posh St. Regis Hotel, is another good bet. Chef-owner Todd English prepares dishes with a Mediterranean soul. Consider dining at the "community" table, where you'll share your meal with interesting strangers who might become friends. By the way, Whiskey Rocks, the hotel's bar-lounge, is one of Aspen's better nightspots.

Cache Cache is justifiably popular. The cuisine, hearty Provençal with a slightly nouvelle twist, is generous and absolutely delicious. The restaurant has an attractive, cozy atmosphere that lends itself to romance. In fine weather, dining on the patio is a pleasure.

Ajax Tavern, at the base of Aspen Mountain, is bustling, charming, and showcases updated takes on classic American cuisine. Serious foodies, take note: Ajax is kin to Napa Valley's renowned dining duo, Mustard's Grill and Tra Vigne.

The Hotel Jerome's Century Room may have genuine and beautiful Victorian surroundings, but there's nothing old-fashioned about its menu. The Room's updated American cuisine is guaranteed to please.

For an unusual treat, consider cross-country skiing or sleigh riding with draft horses to the Pine Creek Cookhouse. It's near Ashcroft – a few miles outside Aspen – with a view of 14,000-foot mountain peaks. The menu is simple but very good (rack of lamb, mountain trout, grilled tofu). If you ski in for dinner, you'll be provided with a miner's helmet to light the downhill path back.

The historic Hotel Jerome on Main Street in downtown Aspen. Copyright: Franz Berko. Sleeping In

The Stonebridge Inn at Snowmass is steps from the slopes. The handsome rooms contain those all-important coffee makers and mini fridges; other amenities include a complimentary continental breakfast and hot tubs. The excellent on-site restaurant serves dishes such as lamb osso buco, elk tenderloin, and ruby red trout. Moderate to expensive.

The affordable and attractive Boomerang Lodge, located in Aspen's West End, has a fascinating history. After a series of wartime adventures, Austrian native Charlie Paterson arrived in the U.S. in the early 1940s at the age of 19. He ended up in Aspen in 1949, bought some land, and built a one-room cabin to live in. Little did he know that he was founding one of the town's most venerable institutions. Recently updated and refurbished, the tastefully decorated rooms offer a breathtaking view of Shadow Mountain. Moderate. The only negative note here: no coffee available until 8 a.m.Of course, when it comes to history, nothing in town can touch The Hotel Jerome. Dating from 1889, the lavish-but-elegant redbrick hotel displays 19th-century living at its best. Rooms are decorated beautifully with, for the most part, genuine period pieces. The hotel sits right at the epicenter of "downtown" Aspen, with its lovely and authentic 19th-century architecture. Expensive.

What can you say to capture the essence of The St. Regis Aspen? Maybe this: the hotel's art collection alone is valued at more than $5 million. On site, aside from the wonderful Olives restaurant: bar, pool, beauty salon, outdoor hot tubs, sauna, steam, health club ... you get the picture. Very expensive.

An impromptu shrine to Jerry Garcia, one of many found on various Aspen-area runs. Copyright: Anton Dijkograaf.When You Go:

Aspen is located 220 miles southwest of Denver in the Roaring Fork Valley of the White River National Forest. It is nearly 8,000 feet above sea level. Because of the high altitude, try to save hard physical activity for the day after your arrival, allowing your body to acclimate.

Aspen is only 30 minutes from Denver via United Express Airlines, which offers 10 flights daily (most major airlines fly into Denver). You might also consider taking the spectacular Amtrak route from Denver to Glenwood Springs, where you’ll catch a taxi or bus to Aspen.

For more information and help, contact the Aspen Chamber Resort Organization: 970-925-1940, 800-262-7736, or go to www.aspenchamber.org.

Places Mentioned in This Article

(unless otherwise noted, all area codes are 970)

Activities:

Cooking School of Aspen: 800-603-6004 or www.aspen.com/cookingschool
Anderson Ranch Arts Center: 923-3181 or www.andersonranch.org (ask them for a catalog of art courses)
Aspen Historical Society: 925-3721 or www.aspenhistory.org
Krabloonik Dog Sled Rides: 923-4342 or www.krabloonik.com
Aspen Club and Spa: 925-8900 or www.aspenclub.com
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Company: 800-905-3315 (box office) or www.aspenballet.com
Winter Music Series: 925-9042 or www.aspenmusicfestival.com

R estaurants:

The Little Nell: 800-525-6200
Cache Cache: 925-3835
Olives: 920-7356
Ajax Tavern: 920-9333 or www.ajaxtavern.com
Century Room: 920-1000
Pine Creek Cookhouse: 925-1044 or www.pinecreekcookhouse.com

Hotels/Lodges:

Stonebridge Inn: 800-922-7242 or www.stonebridgeinn.com
Boomerang Lodge: 800-992-8852
Hotel Jerome: 920-1000
St. Regis Aspen: 888-454-9005

For more lodging choices, contact Aspen Central Reservations (800-262-7736) or Snowmass Resort Association (800-598-2004). Ask about discount or special packages. By the way, last-minute lodging deals are available at The Virtual Hostel, accessed via www.aspensnowmass.com.

If you're not into skiing, or merely want to take a break, the area offers an impressive range of other snow sports:
  • Daily snowshoe tours (reputedly easy), led by naturalist guides, explore the ecology of Ajax and Snowmass.
  • Tube sliding down snowy Assay Hill. A modest $12 fee allows you unlimited runs.
  • Cross-country skiing on the countless groomed trails, including a 65-kilometer system in the Aspen/Snowmass mountains.
  • Sledding. Snowmass, for instance, has a padded and fenced hillside for sleds and toboggans; it's free with your own sled (and rentals are inexpensive).
  • Dog sled rides through the Snowmass wilderness. A two-person wooden sled is pulled by 12 huskies (some are reputedly graduates of Iditarod).
  • Ninety-minute horse-drawn sleigh rides in the wilderness of Maroon Bells (mountain peaks named for their bell-like shape and purplish color).
  • Ice skating at both indoor and outdoor rinks.
  • Especially for kids: free daily snowcat rides up Snowmass Mountain.

Snowshoeing is one of the non-gravity-dependent entertainment options. Copyright: Ken Missbrinner.When You’re Not on the Slopes...

While you're in town, consider taking advantage of Aspen's tremendous diversity by trying an activity that has nothing to do with snow. Here are six suggestions:

1. Spend an evening at Cooking School of Aspen. You may have taken a culinary class elsewhere, but I can guarantee you didn't have an experience like this. From start to finish, it's a top-tier adventure and lots of fun to boot. The plain-talking resident sommelier, Frank Todaro, pours and discusses wines while you watch award-winning local or guest chefs prepare a fabulous meal (which you'll devour with gusto, needless to say). The menu changes every night. Recent offerings included "A Tuscan Feast," "Dinner for Two from Caviar to Soufflé," "New Latin Food and Wines of the World," and "Simply Sushi."

2. Visit Anderson Ranch Arts Center. In summer, people from around the world come here to attend one of the nearly 100 workshops taught by renowned artists in a variety of fields: ceramics, digital imaging, woodworking, painting, sculpture, photography, and much more. With no classes in winter the Ranch is quiet, but the gallery exhibits are always excellent, and the folks who run the place will be happy to give you a tour of the handsome buildings.

3. Visit the Aspen Historical Society. Pick up literature about the town's fascinating history, from the first human settlers 8,000 years ago, through Aspen’s founding as a silver-mine center to the present. In summer, volunteer guides dressed in 19th-century togs offer walking tours. In winter, consider attending a Tuesday-night history lecture. Coming up on Feb. 13, "Ancient People of Colorado," and on March 6, "Skiing the Silver Screen."

4. Tour a ghost town. Ashcroft was an 1883 mining camp that boomed big but busted quick. Strap on your cross-country skis or snowshoes and take a self-guided tour of this National Register Historic Site, visiting the old jail, saloon, hotel, stables, post office, and various miner’s cabins.

5. Treat yourself to a luxury spa treatment. The Aspen Club somehow manages the difficult task of being both down-to-earth and highly luxurious. Packed into its 77,000 square feet is a full-service spa, a health and fitness center, a sports medicine clinic, and the Center for Wellbeing. The range of spa treatments is impressive, including hydrotherapy, oxygen treatments, thermal mineral kür, exfoliating body scrubs, herbal wraps, aromatherapy massage, ayurvedic rituals, all kinds of massage, and much more. Try the Ayurvedic Holistic Facial, a 50-minute essential oil, mini-facial, hand-and-foot massage designed to balance your emotions; you'll be as relaxed as a cooked noodle afterward. Come early, relaxing before your treatment in front of a roaring fire while wrapped in a thick terry robe.6. Get cultural. Attend a performance of the celebrated Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, the only professional ballet company based in and touring out of the Rocky Mountains and New Mexico. Or consider an evening performance of Winter Music at Harris Concert Hall, whose illustrious guests this winter include Joshua Bell, Vladimir Feltsman, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and more. And whatever you do, go see anything that's playing in Wheeler Auditorium, a genuine opera house from the late 1880s.

Ajax Mountain overlooks the historic buildings of downtown Aspen. Copyright: Doug Child.Dining Out

Many of Aspen's restaurants are upscale, but don't let that scare you away. You'll find a large number of fast food, pizza and wrap joints for quick and cheap nourishment, and an assortment of inexpensive but very good places to dine. A few meal deals: Try eating in local bars, where the ambience is terrific and the prices low. The bar at L'Hostaria, a fine Italian eatery, serves inexpensive salads and pasta dishes nightly. Everything on the bar menu at The Mother Lode is below $10.50. For vegetarians, The Steak Pit has an $8 all-you-can eat salad bar. When you want to throw budgetary caution to the wind, however, here are a few good choices:

Little Nell's, the restaurant in the Mobil Five-Star Little Nell Hotel, is nothing short of fabulous. Chef Bryan Moscatello turns out highly imaginative dishes with a presentation that can be astonishing. In winter expect hearty mountain fare: homemade patés and sausages, stews and ragouts, elk and venison. A typical menu entrée: Cervena Venison Chops with Winter Squash Gratin, Cherry braised Onions and Foie Gras Beignets. For dessert, how about the Chocolate Pot de Crème?

Olives, in the posh St. Regis Hotel, is another good bet. Chef-owner Todd English prepares dishes with a Mediterranean soul. Consider dining at the "community" table, where you'll share your meal with interesting strangers who might become friends. By the way, Whiskey Rocks, the hotel's bar-lounge, is one of Aspen's better nightspots.

Cache Cache is justifiably popular. The cuisine, hearty Provençal with a slightly nouvelle twist, is generous and absolutely delicious. The restaurant has an attractive, cozy atmosphere that lends itself to romance. In fine weather, dining on the patio is a pleasure.

Ajax Tavern, at the base of Aspen Mountain, is bustling, charming, and showcases updated takes on classic American cuisine. Serious foodies, take note: Ajax is kin to Napa Valley's renowned dining duo, Mustard's Grill and Tra Vigne.

The Hotel Jerome's Century Room may have genuine and beautiful Victorian surroundings, but there's nothing old-fashioned about its menu. The Room's updated American cuisine is guaranteed to please.

For an unusual treat, consider cross-country skiing or sleigh riding with draft horses to the Pine Creek Cookhouse. It's near Ashcroft – a few miles outside Aspen – with a view of 14,000-foot mountain peaks. The menu is simple but very good (rack of lamb, mountain trout, grilled tofu). If you ski in for dinner, you'll be provided with a miner's helmet to light the downhill path back.

The historic Hotel Jerome on Main Street in downtown Aspen. Copyright: Franz Berko. Sleeping In

The Stonebridge Inn at Snowmass is steps from the slopes. The handsome rooms contain those all-important coffee makers and mini fridges; other amenities include a complimentary continental breakfast and hot tubs. The excellent on-site restaurant serves dishes such as lamb osso buco, elk tenderloin, and ruby red trout. Moderate to expensive.

The affordable and attractive Boomerang Lodge, located in Aspen's West End, has a fascinating history. After a series of wartime adventures, Austrian native Charlie Paterson arrived in the U.S. in the early 1940s at the age of 19. He ended up in Aspen in 1949, bought some land, and built a one-room cabin to live in. Little did he know that he was founding one of the town's most venerable institutions. Recently updated and refurbished, the tastefully decorated rooms offer a breathtaking view of Shadow Mountain. Moderate. The only negative note here: no coffee available until 8 a.m.Of course, when it comes to history, nothing in town can touch The Hotel Jerome. Dating from 1889, the lavish-but-elegant redbrick hotel displays 19th-century living at its best. Rooms are decorated beautifully with, for the most part, genuine period pieces. The hotel sits right at the epicenter of "downtown" Aspen, with its lovely and authentic 19th-century architecture. Expensive.

What can you say to capture the essence of The St. Regis Aspen? Maybe this: the hotel's art collection alone is valued at more than $5 million. On site, aside from the wonderful Olives restaurant: bar, pool, beauty salon, outdoor hot tubs, sauna, steam, health club ... you get the picture. Very expensive.

An impromptu shrine to Jerry Garcia, one of many found on various Aspen-area runs. Copyright: Anton Dijkograaf.When You Go:

Aspen is located 220 miles southwest of Denver in the Roaring Fork Valley of the White River National Forest. It is nearly 8,000 feet above sea level. Because of the high altitude, try to save hard physical activity for the day after your arrival, allowing your body to acclimate.

Aspen is only 30 minutes from Denver via United Express Airlines, which offers 10 flights daily (most major airlines fly into Denver). You might also consider taking the spectacular Amtrak route from Denver to Glenwood Springs, where you’ll catch a taxi or bus to Aspen.

For more information and help, contact the Aspen Chamber Resort Organization: 970-925-1940, 800-262-7736, or go to www.aspenchamber.org.

Places Mentioned in This Article

(unless otherwise noted, all area codes are 970)

Activities:

Cooking School of Aspen: 800-603-6004 or www.aspen.com/cookingschool
Anderson Ranch Arts Center: 923-3181 or www.andersonranch.org (ask them for a catalog of art courses)
Aspen Historical Society: 925-3721 or www.aspenhistory.org
Krabloonik Dog Sled Rides: 923-4342 or www.krabloonik.com
Aspen Club and Spa: 925-8900 or www.aspenclub.com
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Company: 800-905-3315 (box office) or www.aspenballet.com
Winter Music Series: 925-9042 or www.aspenmusicfestival.com

R estaurants:

The Little Nell: 800-525-6200
Cache Cache: 925-3835
Olives: 920-7356
Ajax Tavern: 920-9333 or www.ajaxtavern.com
Century Room: 920-1000
Pine Creek Cookhouse: 925-1044 or www.pinecreekcookhouse.com

Hotels/Lodges:

Stonebridge Inn: 800-922-7242 or www.stonebridgeinn.com
Boomerang Lodge: 800-992-8852
Hotel Jerome: 920-1000
St. Regis Aspen: 888-454-9005

For more lodging choices, contact Aspen Central Reservations (800-262-7736) or Snowmass Resort Association (800-598-2004). Ask about discount or special packages. By the way, last-minute lodging deals are available at The Virtual Hostel, accessed via www.aspensnowmass.com.