With 5,000 acres of terrain spread across four mountains, Aspen is a ski resort on an American scale. Super-efficiency, charming architecture and great places to eat and stay make it a winner
There is no doubt in my mind that Aspen is the best ski resort in the United States. Each of the four separate mountains it comprises has its own distinct character, and the atmospheric town itself has been beautifully restored from its 19th-century silver-mining boom days. Between them, Aspen’s four ski areas offer more than 5,000 acres of terrain – as much as any other ski resort in the US – and the variety is tremendous.
Locals love Aspen Mountain (aka Ajax), served by a gondola from near the centre of town; this has a great mixture of short, steep black runs down from a series of ridges, and long cruising blues along the valleys. The other three mountains are served by efficient free buses; cookies and hot drinks are often handed out if you have to wait. Buttermilk is great for beginners and early intermediate cruising. It also has an awesome two-mile-long terrain park where the Winter X-Games has been held each year since 2002. Aspen Highlands has fabulous terrain for all standards – but I especially love Highland Bowl with its steep, ungroomed "ski-anywhere" terrain accessed through gates; after a fresh snowfall, the powder skiing here rivals any heliskiing operation.
The fourth mountain is Snowmass, which has its own purpose-built ski-in, ski-out village and is great for families. The slopes at Snowmass are the most extensive of all four mountains – almost five miles wide and with the biggest vertical drop in the US. Here, you will find everything from ideal beginner slopes, through lots of delightfully quiet blue cruising runs to some seriously steep terrain. Strong intermediates should not miss Long Shot, a glorious, ungroomed, top-to-bottom three-mile run through the forest between widely-spaced trees – very unusual terrain for a blue run. Nor should experts miss the Hanging Valley area of beautiful scenery and steep wooded slopes.
The town itself is a delight. In 1892, Aspen was a booming silver-mining town with a population of 12,000, served by six newspapers and an opera house. Then the silver price plummeted and, by the 1930s, the population had shrunk to just 700 or so and the handsome Victorian-era buildings had fallen into disrepair. The development of skiing changed all that, and now the lovely old buildings and sidewalks have been beautifully restored to form the core of the most fashionable ski town in the Rockies, with a huge variety of bars, restaurants, shops and art galleries. Don’t be put off by its glamorous image and its famous, super-rich visitors and residents; they want to remain anonymous and be left alone to enjoy their vacations. While it's true that you can spend a fortune on an Aspen holiday, you certainly don’t have to.
Where to stay
My favourite hotel is the small, central, very comfortable and intimate Hotel Lenado b&b. All 19 bedrooms are individually designed with extensive use of natural wood, the lounge area has comfortable sofas and a floor-to-ceiling fireplace, and there is a rooftop hot tub with great views of Aspen Mountain. An excellent breakfast, après-ski snacks and hot cider are included in the room rate.
There is no shortage of swanky, bigger hotels to stay in. The Little Nell is one of the most stylish, in an ideal position right at the foot of Aspen Mountain by the gondola. It was completely refurbished for the 2009/10 season and has a spa, an outdoor pool and a hot tub; it also has some of the most popular après-ski bars in Aspen. For more of a sense of history, go for the wonderfully restored Hotel Jerome, built in 1889 and set a few blocks back from the gondola. An outdoor pool, hot tubs and a popular saloon-style bar are among the facilities.
For luxurious, beautifully-furnished and well-equipped condos, stay at The Gant, quietly tucked away in the woods but only a short walk or free shuttle-bus ride from the centre of town. Again, outdoor pools, hot tubs and saunas are among the perks.
Where to eat
On the mountain, don’t miss the Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro on Aspen Highlands. It is the nearest thing in the States to a cosy Alpine hut, with excellent food prepared by an Austrian chef. It is also open for dinner on Thursday evenings (reservationrequired: +1 970 923 8715). On Snowmass, Gwyn’s High Alpine (+1 970 923 3311, www.hi-alpine.com) is the best option for good table-service food. At the top of Aspen Mountain, the Sundeck (information +1 970 925 1220), set in a splendid building with huge windows, high ceilings and an open fire, is about as good as a self-service place in a US resort gets; it has a table-service section, too.
In town, there’s a good blend of upmarket places and cheaper options – and an easy way to economise in many of the smarter places is to eat at the bar, where prices are lower. These include Piñons (+1 970 920 2021, www.pinons.net), going for more than 20 years and still popular for its modern American cooking; Elevation (+1 970 544 5166, www.elevationaspen.com), which also serves modern American and has a late-night snack menu from 10pm; and Cache Cache (+1 970 925 3835, www.cachecache.com), which includes classic French dishes on its menu. More affordable are Hickory House (+1 970 925 2313, www.hickoryhouseribs.com) for ribs and BBQs and, a short drive out of town, the atmospheric old Woody Creek Tavern (+1 970 923 485, www.woodycreektavern.com) for typical basic American food.