Sunday, 7 January 2007

Aspen - star quality skiing needn't break the bank

Conversations in the Silver Queen lift cabins are a good way to get the flavour of Aspen. One morning a woman who had taught skiing there recounted how a lady from one of America's wealthier families had booked private lessons with her for two – or was it three - months? The client started in late morning, took a couple of runs, broke for lunch and made maybe one more descent before heading home. Adult private lessons in Aspen - at the time of writing - would have cost from around £270 a day. “I don't even think she really liked skiing, said our fellow traveller.

You might get wind of celebrities. A visitor from Australia reported a sighting of Peter Fonda. It was almost reassuring since although though the Colorado resort is full or part time home to a minor constellation of famous figures, among them Kevin Costner and Jack Nicholson, you are very unlikely to spot them. I came close once, mind, when I joined a powder skiing tour. If I had booked to go 24 hours earlier I would have spent the day hitting the slopes with Martina Navratilova.

A resident told us how he had bought a house there 27 years earlier, for $27,000. “Now I've been offered $2 million for it”. Property is so expensive that locals have one of those question and answer jokes: “What do you call a millionaire in Aspen? Homeless”.

In how many other ski towns would you find a shop specialising in celebrity memorabilia? In its window was a cheque signed by Marilyn Monroe, in a frame which also contained a photo of her, for $7500. Or an antique shop whose owner whose passion is the history of skiing? There you might buy a pair of wooden skis, made of hickory, or perhaps ash, in the 1930s, or a jacket in camouflage white, as worn during the Second World War by the US army's 10th Mountain Division.

There are plenty of other shops in which to stretch the credit card account, ot least at Amen Wardy a cornucopia of sometimes exotic home adornments where I spotted leather table place mats with a bear motif at an appetite dulling $200 each but bought only a few, wonderfully elaborate pop up greetings cards at $7 apiece.






But while there is no sense recommending Aspen to those on tight budgets, a holiday need not be more expensive than in other top US resorts. For one thing there are plenty of bars and restaurants offering reasonable prices. The Red Onion is one. It opened in 1892, when skiing was just a way to get around the Roaring Fork Valley in winter and the town's silver mines were still producing ore worth $9.3 million a year. Its back bar may have been restored but still bears features from that period. Its cooking is a mix of standard American and Mexican and you do not need to spend more than £40 with drinks. Another budget option is Little Annie's, one of those marvels of American service where there appears to be no hope of getting a table and suddenly there is, and little chance, when you do, of catching a waitress's eye but you can - and the food arrives in short order.

Jimmy's, which is invariably packed - don't chance without a reservation - costs a little more. But  the steaks are famous and the crab cakes ($17 as a starter, $36 as a main) are magnificent. 

You do not need to belong to the private jet owning class to afford accommodation (yes, we also rode on a lift with met a couple who did, a retired lawyer and his wife, who flew in from California). There is a wide range. We, however, decided to splash out a bit extra for the convenience and slick luxury of the Sky Hotel. After a hard day on Ajax mountain you can ski to within a few metres of it. All you need to do is cross a quiet road and leave your skis on a rack for night storage. The temptation then might be to nip to your room, slip into swim wear and a leopard or tiger skin patterned robe and ease tired muscles in the outdoor pool or hot tub. Alternatively you might loosen your boots by the water's edge, order a beer or cocktail, and flop on a sofa by a blazing brazier as the sun gives way to evening chill.

The Sky, to use that wearying cliché, is a “hip” hotel.  After dark its bar has become one of Aspen's smart places to be. But with all that come all the elements of a well run hotel. Breakfast is terrific, with heaps of fruit on the buffet and a chef on hand to make omelettes. 

Besides Ajax, served from town by the Silver Queen gondola lift, the ski pass covers Buttermilk, which is generally used by early learners, Aspen Highlands and Snowmass. They're all linked by a super efficient free bus service. Together, they offer a choice to match most major resorts.


Ajax is fairly compact, with a range of options from gentle undemanding trails to tough bumps. Highlands is often the least crowded, perhaps because visitors get the idea that its terrain is more daunting. That it can be, particularly if you drop off the edge of Broadway down double black diamond (expert) runs such as Kessler's and Garmisch, or ride a snowcat and then hike up the rim of Highland Bowl to ski its expanse of steep, treeless snow. But it also has plenty of fine terrain for good intermediates and one of North America's best mountain restaurants, Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro, where you could put paid to serious post lunch skiing with dishes such as elk ragout with crisp “napkin” dumplings, lingonberries and crème fraiche.

Snowmass alone has arguably the world's best slopes for most occasional leisure skiers. Some of its runs are wide as the Mississippi and are generally longer than most in the US. There is expert skiing here, too, but mostly it ranges from intermediate cruising - so delightful you may lose all sense of direction - to relatively easy black runs for the more advanced. Snowmass also has a notable mountain restaurant, Gwyn's, though we gravitated towards the Cafe Suzanne, with its excellent burgers.

The overriding impression left by all four areas is that you get quality for the dollar.
After Snowmass staff had racked our skis on the bus service back to Aspen a senior member boarded to tell passengers: “I hope you've had a great day and come back to ski with us again”. It goes without saying but it was a nice touch – and somehow typical.







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