Thursday 25 May 2017

Aspen: Peak of perfection

In Aspen, Colorado, it isn't only the altitude that takes your breath away, says Anna Murphy, who indulged herself in powder heaven

The powder-perfect peaks of Aspen
The powder-perfect peaks of Aspen
One of the quiet ski runs

Anna Murphy

Skiing in the US had always seemed beside the point. I love the States, but I don't love how long it takes to get there.

And I don't like American towns. Cities, yes. Wilderness, yes. But those medium-sized American towns, the kind that visitors go to in places such as New England and Napa Valley and in ski areas, always seem to me like something out of a rather dull theme park, a slightly synthetic version of their European equivalent.

But a friend kept telling me I was wrong, that, whatever my reservations, the skiing was so much better than in Europe that I had to give it a go. So I relented and, in considerable style, booked myself into Aspen, Colorado, the summit of American ski chic.

Well, I was right about the first thing: it is a long way. But wrong, I concede, about practically everything else. The skiing in Aspen is take-your-breath-away good. It is spread across three different ski areas, so there is a vast array of choice for skiers of all abilities.

The snow -- the much-vaunted Champagne powder -- was perfect, light and dry, though the locals claimed it wasn't up to the usual standards.

And the sheer picturesque nature of the skiing area -- in which, despite being at altitudes of up to 12,000ft, you remain below the tree line -- was sublime.

But most remarkable was the quiet. The slopes were almost deserted. In the course of a week, we skied only one run that could be described as busy, which meant the great liberation that comes with only having to worry about your own skiing -- admittedly enough of a concern in my case -- rather than the skiing of those around you.

"Where is everyone?" we kept asking locals in joyous disbelief.

"It is always like this in Aspen," they replied, looking more than a little smug.

I had been worried about the food, too. I am the kind of girl who gets excited about tartiflette, less so about burgers. Up on the mountain the food was excellent, the cafeteria options at least as good as in Europe, the smarter choices not plentiful, but very, very good.

Off the mountain, the eating options were remarkable. This is, of course, where rich Americans come to burn off -- then take on -- calories, so extremely good restaurants are two-a-dime, and there are around a dozen different cuisines to choose from.

But I was most surprised by the resort itself, which had far more charm and historic feel than many of its European counterparts. A former silver mining town dating back to the late 19th century, Aspen has streets lined with pretty, red-brick, flat-fronted buildings with wrought-iron verandas.

It feels like a real place, though there is also the distortion that comes with wealth -- designer boutiques, designer facelifts and lots and lots of fur. Even so, there are enough 'normal' people to counterbalance the fur-clad, face-frozen 'FrankenBarbies' (a new coinage I picked up during my stay).

As the resort is good at catering to the rich, it makes it pretty superlative for us lesser mortals, too. On the mountain, for example, there are pit stops with water fountains where you can also pick up free sun cream and cereal bars; even in the most humble cafeteria loos, the floors are clean and there are baskets where you can put those myriad ski bits and pieces, which means no more post-prandial scrabbling in the slush for a glove.

Increasingly you find yourself thinking, "Why can't they do this in Europe?" Why is it that, however chic the European resort, you still have to contend with some discomforts that wouldn't be out of place at your average music festival?

And what is more, everyone is so incredibly nice and friendly and jolly in Aspen. If you were to drop that glove, you can bet your bottom dollar someone would pick it up for you before you could do it for yourself, and that somebody would be just as likely to be a billionaire CEO as a ski instructor.

The 'have-a-nice-day'-ness of the US is never more welcome than when skiing, I found, when lift-hands shout out hello, and nothing is too much trouble for anyone.

And when people do queue, on the very rare occasions when there are actually enough people to form what could be classed as a queue, it made me realise how many of my European sojourns had been slightly tarnished by the at best churlishness, at worst downright grumpiness, of my host nation.

So, to my surprise, I am the one now telling everyone who will listen that skiing in America is definitely the answer. Yes, it is a long way -- and next time I go I will make a stopover in New York to acclimatise to the seven-hour time difference -- but it really is well worth the wait to get there.

NEED TO KNOW

GETTING THERE

Aer Lingus (0818 365 000; aerlingus. com) flies to Denver via New York, connecting with jetBlue Airways. United Airlines (001 800 864 8331; united.com) has regular daily flights from Denver to Aspen Pitkin airport (three miles from Aspen). Expect to pay about €150 return.

Gray Line (grayline.com) provides shared transfers from Denver to Aspen (a four-hour journey) from €123 return, departing regularly from the airport and dropping off at hotels in Aspen

RESORT COSTS

A five-day ski pass, providing access to all four Aspen/Snowmass mountains, costs €189 per adult and €153 per child (children up to the age of seven ski free). Full-day group adult lessons with the Aspen/Snowmass Ski & Snowboard School cost €95 per adult. First-time skiers and snowboarders can purchase a discounted beginner lower lift and rental package for their first day of private lessons, from €43 per adult and €31 per child.

Four Mountain Sports rents ski equipment from £27 (€31) per day, including free overnight ski and snowboard storage and transfers between the mountains. A 15pc reduction applies to rentals of four days and more.

For further information see aspensnowmass.com or call 001 970 925 1220.

FIVE GREAT THINGS TO DO

Make the most of Aspen’s freebies, like the friendly on-mountain Ambassadors who provide free tours on all four mountains twice daily. New this season are guided tours of the challenging Aspen Highlands Bowl.

Visit the Aspen Brewing Company (557 North Mill Street; 001 970 920 2739, aspenbrewingcompany.com) for a tour of the high-altitude brewery and enjoy a sampler tray of its microbrews and seasonal beers.

Sign up for a free First Tracks session on Snowmass and Aspen Mountain to bag fresh powder or cruise on Aspen’s famous corduroy groomers with an instructor before the lifts open to the public.

Give your ski legs a break and take a dogsled ride through the pristine wilderness around Snowmass before enjoying a three-course lunch or dinner at the excellent Krabloonik Restaurant (001 970 923 4342; krabloonik.com). Prices from €208 per adult.

Take advantage of Aspen’s bar menus, which feature selected dishes from the restaurant menus served in an informal bar setting at a fraction of the price. Favourites include L’Hostaria (001 970 925 9022), Ajax Tavern (001 970 920 6334) and Jimmy’s (001 970 920 2021).

THE BEST HOTELS

Aspen Meadows Resort € Large, Bauhaus-style hotel set in 40 acres of meadows in the historic west end of Aspen (001 970 925 4240; dolce-aspen-hotel.com; doubles from €97, room only).

Limelight Lodge €€ Located in the heart of Aspen, Limelight Lodge offers guests large rooms with kitchenettes and a complimentary ski/ride guide service offered in partnership with Ski & Snowboard Schools of Aspen/ Snowmass (001 970 925 3025; limelightlodge.com; doubles from €197, including breakfast).

The Little Nell €€€ Five-star hotel at the base of the slopes in Aspen, with the excellent Montagna restaurant and lively après-ski bar. The new Little Nell Residences are luxurious, ski-in/skiout serviced rooms and apartments (970 920 4600; thelittlenell.com; doubles from €400 at The Little Nell; from €300 at the Residences).

THE BEST RESTAURANTS

Red Onion €

A classic Aspen bar and all-day restaurant, popular with locals (001 970 925 9955).

Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro €€

Cosy restaurant on Aspen Highlands owned by Austrian chef Andreas Fischbacher; superb raclette and local specialities. Lunch daily and snowcat dinners on Thursday nights (001 970 923 8715).

Elevation €€€

Sophisticated restaurant and bar serving modern American and international cuisine. The eclectic menu features homemade pasta, locally caught fish and Pad Thai. A latenight menu is served in the bar until 11.30pm (001 970 544 5166).

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