Within five minutes I spot my first movie star. A few minutes later, there is an ageing rock god from a ’70s supergroup canoodling with a leggy blonde in the après-ski confines of the prestigious The Little Nell hotel. They’re sitting opposite one of the world’s biggest sporting stars and his entourage.
W-R-O-N-G. Take all your preconceptions of Aspen, toss them into a big, green, garbage bag and start again. In more than a decade visiting Aspen, I’ve only ever seen Dermott Brereton (on location for Getaway) and that hardly counts. You’re more likely to run into movie stars in Byron Bay or Bondi than Aspen (unless you’re here for the holiday between Christmas and New Year’s Day). The thing is, there is so much more to Aspen than its celebrity hangout reputation. Celebrities are around, but you won’t necessarily spot them. In Aspen, even megastars seem to slip into the background, overshadowed by the spectacular mountains and integrated into the chilled-out, small-town atmosphere.
Aspen undoubtedly has style – nowhere does luxury skiing quite like it – but it somehow also manages to feel as comfortable as an old pair of ski boots (unlike many luxury skiing hot spots in Europe). Sure, you’ll find Christian Dior, Chanel and Prada stores, but they sit right next door to second-hand shops and old-fashioned cowboy bars serving cold American beer and $2.50 tacos. And while Aspen might look like a movie set, with its silver mining-era street facade, especially at night when the trees are lit up like Christmas and jazz bands play beside open fires in the main street, it somehow also manages to feel cosily, comfortably intimate.
Taking a break from the slopes to wander the streets of Aspen
It’s the perfect destination for luxury skiers because nothing in Aspen requires much effort. Once you hit town, forget about a car. Some of the ski world’s most-heralded hotels are within walking distance of the main ski slope, while Colorado’s best regional restaurants are all on the same block, the undeniable highlight being one of America’s finest Japanese restaurants, Matsuhisa – chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa’s offering to the ski world.
You won’t have to carry your own skis, either. At the end of the day, leave them with the ski concierge at the bottom of each mountain and they’ll be waiting for you the next morning. Most hotels also have their own ski concierge who’ll take care of all on-mountain needs, even warming your boots overnight and delivering them in the morning.
Quite aside from its luxury skiing accoutrements – restaurants, hotels, stylish lounge bars, even pop-up champagne bars on the mountain – when it comes to skiing credibility, few destinations match Aspen. Built along the Roaring Fork Valley in central Colorado, Aspen actually comprises four ski resorts – accessible on the one lift ticket. Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass and family-friendly Buttermilk Mountain are all located within a short (free) shuttle bus ride of each other. Most luxury hotels also offer a chauffeured service to each mountain.
What this means is that every type of skier is catered for. Buttermilk Mountain is the best beginner mountain in the US (and if you’re into tricks it has one of the best park and half-pipe set-ups in the world). Snowmass has the most vertical descent metres in the US and is the country’s second-largest ski resort – but remember, it’s only one of four resorts at Aspen ? while Aspen’s backcountry terrain offers some of the most challenging skiing on Earth (especially the famed Highland Bowl at Aspen Highlands).
This part of Colorado is renowned for its blue-sky skiing – there are more than 300 days of sunshine on average every year – yet it receives an average of 7.62 metres of snow each season (with more than nine metres at Aspen Sunshine). While Australians head to Japan in ever-increasing numbers every season, the deep snow there comes at the expense of sunshine. Not so in Colorado where snow regularly falls at night or in isolated snowstorms.
It’s Aspen’s history that sets it aside from purpose-built, homogenous ski resorts around the world. I’m staying in a hotel that epitomises the town’s colourful past. Built in 1889, the Hotel Jerome is just a five-minute walk from the gondola that accesses Aspen Mountain. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, the Jerome’s décor and furnishings reflect its origin in the wild days of mining. In the hotel’s J-Bar, the most iconic drink is the Aspen Crud, a spiked concoction invented for desperate drinkers in the days of Prohibition. Actors Gary Cooper and John Wayne were regular guests, and writer Hunter S Thompson used the J-Bar as his de facto office (his memorial service was held in the ballroom upstairs).
However, you probably wouldn’t even have noticed them – they’d be just another bunch of celebrities who had slipped into the background of Colorado’s most chilled-out ski town.
Blue skies and fresh powder