Rocky Mountain High

The unmistakable mountain magic of Aspen.

Rugged natural beauty meets designer accommodation in a stunning escape that has gained legend status as one of the great winter destinations. But Aspen, a heady mix of mountains, myth and money, charms at any time of the year.

21 October, 2016

Each winter, as snow blankets the Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, the rich and famous flock to Aspen (often in their private jets). They could ski anywhere in the world but instead they choose the low-slung town of less than 7000 people tucked into the Roaring Fork Valley 320 kilometres south-west of Denver. Aspen feels as though it’s in the middle of nowhere – but that feeling is part of its charm. 

The first thing anyone notices about the town is the sheer gorgeousness of its setting, with the neat grid of streets nestled at the base of Aspen Mountain (also known as Ajax). Another three peaks – Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass – complete Aspen’s quartet of skiable mountains. Each comes with its own personality, pleasures and challenges. Beginners and families might prefer to conquer Buttermilk’s gentle slopes before advancing to Snowmass. Those with more advanced skills usually prefer Ajax and Highlands. 

With one ticket connecting all four mountains during the season, it’s possible to ride the chairlifts and gondolas – sweeping across vast valleys and over the heads of skiers and snowboarders twisting along tight runs – to dine at different mountain eateries. One of the most luxurious mid-mountain meals can be savoured at Lynn Britt Cabin – a rustic log cabin on Snowmass that serves elk stroganoff and bison prime-rib sandwiches. The most outrageous dining experience is easily the late lunch sitting at Cloud Nine Bistro on Highlands. As the music cranks, diners forget all about their raclette and start dancing on chairs – ski boots and all – while spraying bottle after bottle of Veuve Clicquot. Recently, musician Seal led a raucous singalong to one of his hits at Cloud Nine. No wonder securing a 2pm reservation here is as tricky as the post-party run down the mountain. 

Legend has it that Thompson almost drowned actor Bill Murray after duct-taping him to a deckchair and throwing him into the hotel pool.

So how did this former silver-mining town end up striking gold as a celebrity playground instead of fading into obscurity? Aspen’s transformation began in the post-World War II years when industrialist Walter Paepcke founded the Aspen Skiing Company along with intellectual think-tank the Aspen Institute. This rare celebration of both the cerebral and the physical proved magnetic, with the town eventually attracting counterculture heroes such as author Hunter S. Thompson.  

Thompson moved to Woody Creek, 12 kilometres from Aspen, in 1967, several years before penning his most famous work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Thompson fans – or the mere curious – can head to Woody Creek Tavern to inspect the memorabilia papering the walls such as a poster commemorating Thompson’s ill-fated 1970 bid for sheriff.  At the bar, there’s every chance a few cowboys will be hanging with their hounds at this very local watering-hole. 

Things are more sophisticated at another Thompson bolthole. The 19th-century Hotel Jerome unveiled a dramatic makeover in 2012 that gave the three-storey property a distinctive Wild West vibe. The elevator is lined with leather belts, rooms feature cashmere curtains and portraits of Native Americans, while chairs are upholstered in cowhide and plaid. Thompson regularly used the hotel’s J-Bar as his office, reading his mail and greeting fans such as actor Jack Nicholson. Legend has it that Thompson almost drowned actor Bill Murray after duct-taping him to a deckchair and throwing him into the hotel pool.

Both hotels have resident Audis that guests can borrow for a few hours during their stay.

For guests staying at The Little Nell (home to a hallowed subterranean cellar lined with more than 22,000 bottles) or its sister hotel The Limelight, it’s easy to reach Woody Creek. Both hotels have resident Audis that guests can borrow for a few hours during their stay. In summer and autumn (when the trees after which Aspen is named turn a glorious gold), guests often drive up to Independence Pass on the Continental Divide to enjoy sweeping views that include Mt Elbert, which, at 4401 metres, is Colorado’s highest peak. Ashcroft Ghost Town, 16 kilometres from Aspen, is another popular outing. 

Those happy to simply ramble around Aspen’s pretty streets will find plenty of distractions. The serene 1.6-hectare John Denver Sanctuary, next to the Roaring Fork River, features the bespectacled folk singer’s best-known song titles – ‘Rocky Mountain High’, ‘Annie’s Song’ and more – etched into granite boulders. The singer lived near Aspen for much of his life.         

Art enthusiasts can step inside the Aspen Art Museum – a striking glass cube encased within open-weave latticework that begged to be climbed from the moment the new building was unveiled in 2014. Scaling the building, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, is officially banned.

Gourmands can also eat their way around town. The Little Nell’s fine-diner, element 47 (a reference to Aspen’s silver-mining history), serves everything from caviar with traditional accoutrements to venison loin with huckleberries. Australian chef Neil Perry is an Aspen regular; when he drops in to Matsuhisa (part of the Nobu empire), he makes an off-menu order for the yellowtail and jalapeno sashimi as a sushi roll with ponzu. The private Caribou Club has membership requirements – but an Aspen concierge can help arrange a one-off visit for dinner and dancing. The latest hot spot is the Rec Room – an outpost of the hip NYC-born dance lounge – that opened last December. Vinyl records line the walls and bottle service is available. 

Any Australians missing the little comforts of home can always drop in to Victoria’s Espresso where the chalkboard proclaims, “We speak flat white”. With an Australian co-owner at the helm, it’s no surprise to find the menu includes sausage rolls, vanilla slices and – of course – Vegemite on toast.

Be it caviar or that other Aussie black gold, Aspen seems to have every base well and truly covered. It’s a party location that just as comfortably caters to a quiet intimate escape. Walter Paepcke’s vision has seen Aspen evolve into one of those rare locations that can be all things to all comers without tying itself in knots trying.