Haute couture, celebrity sightings and leg burners combine for a unique experience at the alpine-chic Aspen resorts.
By Mark Kristofic. Photgraphy by Paul Morrison
Aspen is like the Whole Foods of ski towns. Those with money love it. And those who have never been there, they knock it without quite understanding this Colorado resort town. And those who are smart about it, they sample the lifestyles of the rich and the famous without breaking the bank. In Aspen, just like Whole Foods, people watching is like a sport, and you’re likely to see a celebrity or two.
Whole Foods serves up a colourful display of imported organic fruit. Aspen offers up orgasmic sensory overload that can be attained through the long cruiser runs on Aspen Mountain, the wide open bowls of Aspen Highlands and the inexhaustible terrain of Snowmass. And the cultural offerings and night life at Aspen can rival Vegas.
Often associated with celebrities in haut couture après ski fashions and the occasional pet dogs being carried in purses, the first impression upon landing at the Aspen-Pitkin airport, a 45-minute flight from Denver, does little to dissuade the stereotype. Rows of private jets – with the accompanying tinted-window Suburbans — line the runway loudly announce that we have in fact landed in the playground of the privileged. After quickly and easily checking through the quaint airport and jumping into a taxi for the short five-kilometer commute into town, it becomes quickly apparent that Aspen is not your typical manufactured ski town.
In a nod to the town’s mining roots, dominating the main street upon arriving is the Hotel Jerome, the village’s 130-year historic landmark luxury hotel offering. The recent renovations were done with painstaking detail to ensure historical accuracy. The classic red-brick structure along with the nearby Wheeler Opera House gives off the ski town vibe that is routed in historical context. More like a Fernie or Banff rather than a manufactured resort specific to skiing, such as Whistler or Vail. The difference to Fernie and Banff is that the base of Aspen Mountain is a stones throw from the town’s main street.
Within 30 seconds of taking an Aspen downtown history lesson, it’s time to hit the slopes. With ski boots already on and buckled up inside the taxi, we quickly board the Silver Queen gondola, which includes an iPhone docking station for a personal music experience on the ride. Then we head to the top of Aspen Mountain where the panoramic 360-degree views are worth the ride alone.
The Mountain of the Locals
Aspen Mountain is a real “skiers” mountain, with the bulk of the terrain being intermediate and advanced. Without sounding overly snobbish, this means that most beginner skiers stay away and the mountain is rarely crowded. With so much of the mountain accessible from the Silver Queen lift, we are able to hit all the skiing that Aspen has to offer — a great mix of groomer and glades.
After a morning of skiing solely off the gondola (read: nonstop laps, never the same run twice, legs about to fall off), lunch at Bonnie’s mid-mountain restaurant is a throwback to the ‘70s. Although located right
on the mountain, Bonnie’s is independently owned and operated (by Bonnie of course) and the menu is a wonderful array of reasonably priced home-cooked dishes that include her famous oatmeal pancakes, soups, pizza, and dumplings. The feeling is more like dropping in at a friends house for lunch as opposed to a mid-mountain cafeteria.
While so much of the mountain is accessible from the gondola, six other chairlifts including one high-speed quad and one high-speed double, allow skiers to explore the many fall lines and glades. For the intermediate skiers who want to explore glades for the first time, there are wide-open glade runs that allow the skiers to get comfortable skiing in the trees before trying out something a little more on the gnarly side.
An Oasis in the Desert
I consider myself a creative guy and the ideas that I generally hate the most are fantastic ideas that I wish I came up with. Little Nell’s Veuve Clicquot Champagne Pop Up Bars is one of those ideas. While in the middle of cranking some killer super-G turns on pristine corduroy carpet on Aspen Mountain (what I think I look like and what I actually look like are very different things), I start to feel a burn in my legs and start thinking that the bottom of the mountain is very far away. A little champagne is exactly what is needed.
Then, like an oasis in a desert are yellow umbrellas and lounge chairs decked with the champagne brand. Tunes pumping, we ski up to the pop bar – appropriately name The Oasis – and in my own version of an F1 pit-stop, I ski up, unclick, soak in some sun while sipping on a champagne flute in a lounge chair, click back in and back to ripping up some turns. High performance, Aspen style.
Truffle Parmesan Fries
There’s no better place to soak in the Colorado sunshine after a day of tearing up the slopes than Ajax Tavern, located at the base of the Silver Queen gondola in Aspen’s famous The Little Nell Hotel. A cold sudsy drink and renowned Truffle Fries is the perfect afternoon topoff to a ski day. Lightly coated in truffle oil with the perfect amount parmesan for flavouring makes me ashamed to be Canadian, where our creative culinary contribution to french fries is poutine.
After taking some time to really explore Aspen, we head over to Snowmass, the second of Aspen’s four-mountain offering. With more skiable terrain than Aspen, Buttermilk and Aspen Highlands combined (plus add in another Aspen Mountain for good measure), Snowmass could swallow all three other mountain options and be a skiing vacation unto itself.
With our 4-Mountain sports performance rental skis conveniently shipped over from Aspen Mountain to Snowmass through their valet system, the short 20-minute drive to Snowmass is light and convenient.
Unlike Aspen Village, Snowmass Village has that manufactured feel that was built around skiing because that is exactly what it is. What the village might lose in authentic character it more than makes up in quality skiing and massive amount of skiable terrain. With loads of steep and deep terrain above the tree line, more often than not you can experience the sensation of skiing out of bounds while actually in-bounds.
WHILE IN THE MIDDLE OF CRANKING SOME KILLER SUPER-G TURNS ON PRISTINE CORDUROY CARPET, I START TO FEEL A BURN IN MY LEGS AND REALIZE THAT THE BOTTOM OF THE MOUNTAIN IS VERY FAR AWAY.
In a unique nod to beginner skiers, Snowmass’ Elk Camp recently underwent a $13 million dollar renovation, moving the beginner ski area from the base of the mountain, where 99 percent of beginner ski areas are located, to a mid-mountain location. This allows beginners to truly feel the mid-mountain experience of riding a gondola, going up the mountain and skiing at an elevation rather than feeling like they are gum on the bottom of the shoe of ski resorts. Whether or not this was the intention of the resort, creating an enjoyable experience for beginners to help ensure they become life long lovers of the sport, was a brilliant move.
For us, Elk Camp’s new restaurant and bar meant scotch sampling in a wonderfully warm contemporary setting of stone columns– set among an underlit black and white glass bar and massive windows that afford commanding views.
Art in Unexpected Places
Going back to my Whole Foods analogy, when thinking about everything archetypal Aspen, one might not think about the thriving art community that resides here. In March 2013, the Aspen Art Museum started construction of a new privately funded 30,000 square foot building that will include 12,500 square feet of gallery space. Slated to open in the summer of 2014, the Aspen Art Museum further compliments the 30-plus independent art and photo galleries located in Aspen.
With a town so passionate about art, its only natural that it is incorporated into how the Aspen Ski Company does business. The love affair started in 2005 when the Aspen Art Museum partnered with the Aspen Skiing Company, with the goal bring contemporary art to audiences in innovative ways and unexpected places. Each year since the collaboration began, contemporary art installations have been part of the on-mountain experience, as well as lift tickets and season passes which display featured artworks of contemporary artists. The efforts have not gone unnoticed with Aspen Skiing Company recently recognized by the National Art Awards for their partnering initiatives with the arts community.
After a trip that was far too short to truly take in everything Aspen has to offer, I reflect on what I expected to find in Aspen versus what I actually experienced. Skiing wise, you could not ask for more from a mountain resort. Trees, groomers, glades, bowls and steeps combined with reliable weather and snow, make for a can’t-miss skiing experience. Combine the luxuries that one would expect from Aspen with the richness of the town’s history and the passion for art and culture and the end result is a ski vacation that provides more than just skiing. And as we taxi out past the private jets again, I leave with a little more insight as to why those jet-owners love it here so much.
What do Jerry Garcia, Michael Jackson, Yankee Stadium, Guiness Beer, Bowling, 9-11 and Dale Earnhardt all have in common? They, along with 60 odd other people, places, things, sports or food have shrines erected in their honour by locals in and around Aspen Snowmass’ four mountain resorts. The shrines are not easily found or seen, for often than either being found by accident or with the help of local knowledge. The Aspen Times described the shrines as a tradition where “locals have been ducking into favorite hideouts on Aspen Mountain and nailing pictures, license plates, beads, silk flowers, wind chimes and other memorabilia to tree trunks in honour of their particular heroes.”