Affordable Aspen

by Belinda.Archer

It may be known for its glitzy, showbiz clientele, fancy restaurants, and plush hotels, but the chic ski resort of Aspen in the Rockies can also be done on the cheap. It even has a McDonald’s!

The very name Aspen conjures up images of Hollywood celebrities-at-play, impossibly fancy restaurants and deeply luxurious hotels. We’ve all heard the tales of Heidi Klum and Jack Nicholson skiing there each winter, of the ultra-exclusive Little Nell boutique hotel and Prada-lined shopping streets.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. This Colorado resort, deep in the heart of the Rockies, is a surprisingly affordable destination if you are prepared to hunt around a little, bypass the more pricey bars and hotels, and maybe, gasp, even do a bit of self-catering. Sure, it is a mecca for the rich and beautiful, but it is also very much a working ski resort, with a bulging population of ski bums and penniless snowboarders.
For starters, you don’t have to arrive by your own private jet. You need to fly, clearly, but catch the Gray Line coach from Denver for the transfer. This costs just $100 one way. Or alternatively, a new four-times-a-day discount flight service has just begun this season with Frontier Airlines from Denver to Aspen, costing from as little as $89 one way. 
Staying there doesn’t have to mean the stratospheric prices of the five-star hotels either. You can stay at the cool new Limelight Lodge from just $116 per night including breakfast, après-ski wine and snacks. The rooms have kitchenettes so you can cook for yourself to trim costs even further. Alternatively, check into the Mountain Chalet, ideally located in downtown Aspen, next to the swanky St Regis Aspen Resort. It has a relaxed, family-owned vibe and comfortable rooms starting at just $105. The Annabelle Inn, formerly known as the Christmas Tree Inn, is another good value, downtown, family-owned ski lodge, offering freshly baked cookies each afternoon in front of the lobby fireplace or the courtyard firepit.
Eating out can be surprisingly affordable too. Of course, you can dine at the swish Matsuhisa, Aspen’s very own Nobu, named after the reknowned Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa, or even the Little Nell’s swanky in-house eaterie, Montagna, with all the shiny, beautiful people. But for the more financially-challenged there is Jimmy’s on Main St, which offers a “fierce American cuisine” combo of great steaks and chops. Sit at the bar and only pay around $15 for slightly smaller portions than in the restaurant. Or head to Little Annie’s Eating House, on E Hyman Ave, a lively, rammed, red check tablecloth destination, serving all-American fare from burgers to barbecued ribs in heroic–sized portions. Ask for a doggy bag if you fill up too fast.
Bad Billy’s is also a brand new eaterie, with a cheap-beer-and-burger ethos as well as serving Asian noodle dishes and salads, while, if you’re really pushed, Aspen even has its very own McDonald’s, close to the Ruby Park bus station. This seemed to be doing an encouragingly brisk trade every time I passed it.
Another tip is that the posh restaurants have great discount ‘happy hours’ for food and alcohol for their less well-heeled clientele. Pacifica Seafood & Raw Bar has an excellent value Happy Hour menu with discounted posh appetisers (ceviche, oysters, etc.) and martinis. Mezzaluna also only charges $7 for full-sized pizzas and $3 for wines and imported beers from 3pm to 6.30pm, while La Cantina is a top Mexican restaurant offering food and drink bargains from 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
There are totally affordable mountain restaurants too. Sundeck on Ajax is a competitively-priced self-service lunch spot where you can enjoy Thai dishes at 3,418 metres, no less, priced around $12. But if you’re feeling a bit flash, then book the fixed three-course lunch menu at Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro, the charming mountain cabin on Highlands. Bargain value at just $25.
In short, Aspen doesn’t have to clean you out financially, and you should definitely consider it as a potential ski destination because it is a fabulous resort. It has heaps of skiing on four mountains: Aspen Mountain (otherwise known as Ajax), Aspen Highlands, Snowmass and Buttermilk, which together cater for all levels, plus a good, super-frequent bus service linking them all and wonderfully uncrowded slopes compared to most European resorts. The tree-skiing is to die for too, the trees being the aspens that give the resort its name.
At the same time the historic resort itself has immense charm. It is an old silver-mining town with cute low-rise wooden houses and an array of gorgeous, down-to-earth shops alongside the Guccis and Pradas. So go on, push the boat out just a little, and you too could be mingling with the stars – for a fraction of the price they are paying.