Why Aspen Is Still The One

Celebrating its 75th year as a renowned snowy playground – well, what are you waiting for?

By Richard Clune 06/01/2022

Aspen. Let that simple, bisyllabic utterance sit a while and sew together transportive images of snowy, Coloradoan mountain life.

Say it over … ‘Aspen.’

Like Maldives or Paris and, ah, Madonna  – Aspen is proudly mononymous, the world’s only global ski town to truly burn such a candle.

Aspen. Those who’ve never been will become lost to cerebral celebrity snapshots – known names wrestling fur, garish print or excessively padded Moncler jackets that could easily drive the central narrative of a Seinfeld episode.

Those who’ve been simply smile approvingly and nod knowingly.

Aspen. It’s Colorado’s famed playground. The Centennial State’s most expensive outdoor jolly. It’s also a town of art and ingenuity, fervent community and acute pride. See, Aspen is so much more than its name conjures. And it’s this that has us regularly returning.

We choose to hit town in either early December or February. January, you see, has become dominated by ‘strine’. The locals love it – these regular interlopers from a sandy, far away land – to the extent of hosting Australia Day functions replete with lamington bake-offs and the like. That’s not our jam – because what’s worse than swapping, ‘oh, you live in Paddington too’ small talk on a gondola to the top?
No, we prefer our lift life to involve a local and a slice of chat that will further deliver insights into this twinkling valley of charm (or a local conversation that provides awareness of contemporary America and Colorado’s geographical location via a conversation heralding the many positives of Trump’s former presidency).

Aspen is in fact a loose term used to cover what is an expansive playground covering four key areas – Aspen Mountain (the peak that looms over Aspen town and which is best known as Ajax), Buttermilk, Highlands and Snowmass. It translates to 241km of trails and more than 1335 hectares of incredible terrain in which to strap-in and find some fun.

Our last adventure began in Snowmass – bunking down for a first time in the village at the recently opened Limelight Hotel. It meant an easy one-minute wander to the slopes and accommodation that runs to neat and modern if a little ski-country conformist. Outside sits an ice rink while indoors the property boasts a climbing wall. It’s all very family friendly, which extends to the soft stuff – a set of runs that caters to all comers and one we find incredibly enjoyable given an ability to link through some magical blues and blacks that push the legs given the expansive nature of Aspen’s largest mountain.

In the midst of a $600 million redevelopment that will ultimately bolster accommodation offerings and ameliorate village facilities, Snowmass also offers a new, exclusive Mountain Club – think secluded lounge areas and bar facilities, lockers, heated boot rooms, fitness centre, hot tubs, personalised concierge service and a side of celebrity, such as Gwyneth Paltrow. Member numbers are strictly capped and require, like golf, an initial buy-in with further annual dues.

Of the dining at Snowmass we point to the mountain and the elevated and warming charms of Sam’s – think housemade pastas and a decent wine list – and the historic appeal of Lynn Britt Cabin for some hearty Rocky Mountain chilli, shared boards, pates and more. So too make a morning ritual of The Crepe Shack – orders delivered by a Parisian-raised chef.

Skipping between the resorts is a simple process with most decent accommodation providing private shuttles, though there is also a free and frequent public bus network. So too are skis and boards easily placed in overnight storage or transferred between mountains so as you don’t have to cart things off slope and back each day (note – this service is included when hiring gear from Four Mountain Sports).

And so to Aspen proper – a stunning town held under muted lighting and dustings of gentle snow as if cut from a saccharine, if charming, Christmas movie. Rising tall above all is the ascendant Ajax – a tightly held and steep mountain where blue runs would prove themselves black elsewhere and double black diamonds dominate most short cut throughs. Ski here through trees and knee deep in powder, across wide groomers and all with the town twinkling below. Most runs funnel directly back to the main base and the start of the Silver Queen Gondola – home to some of the best people watching at the sprawling Ajax Tavern (be on deck on bluebird days) and a worthy refueling post that delivers via truffle fries, wagyu burgers and their kind.

It’s here too that you’ll discover Aspen’s finest accommodation – The Little Nell. A five-star offering of rightful renown, ‘The Nell’ is Aspen’s only ski-in-ski-out option – the place to stay and where James Packer maintains a residence and the Obamas, among many others, choose to rest when in Aspen.

A central and recently refurbished main lounge is immediately warming and sets the tone for rooms that are equally spacious, light and appealing. Nothing here is overdone – there’s a welcome simplicity to what’s presented; textures kept across neutral tones, a flourish of colour via artwork and coziness furthered by gas fireplaces (so too the warming appeal of complimentary mini-bar snacks and non-alcoholic drinks).

Of all rooms aim for the Walter Paepcke suite – the Nell’s largest and Aspen’s most acclaimed. Named for the visionary industrialist who planned for post-war Aspen to be a community of like-minded individuals engaging activities to improve the mind, body and spirit (read: The Aspen Idea), the one-bedroom suite (which can be expanded to include two additional bedrooms) covers 2,500 square feet, offers a private balcony with sweeping views of Aspen Mountain and its various happenings, central living room with work station, six seat dining table and more.

The Little Nell does attentive, discreet and personalised service like few other global properties. It’s an ask and you shall receive set-up – first tracks (skiing prior to the daily lifts lurch into being)? Of course that can be arranged, sir. Exclusive snowcat tour seeking powder with a former Olympian as guide? Sure, what time would you like that. Nothing at The Nell is a bother and it’s a level of service that again shines a spotlight on the general letdown of similar luxury outposts across ANZ.

Element 47 is the Nell’s fine diner and one of Aspen’s most celebrated restaurants. Ingredients are these days largely local and exquisitely curated across wagyu cuts, duck, seafood and more. As for the list – well, it is a thing of wonder with more than 26,000 wines held in the cavernous cellar, a $2.8 million treasure hunt that holds a $67,000 Burgundy and sticky dating to 1875.

Take dinner down here – it can be arranged – or indulge the one-hour tour.

The Nell also offers heated outdoor pool with hot tub and a small spa (they can arrange ‘oxygen rental’ should the altitude become too much – it won’t) and the world’s best bootroom – staff willing to strap you into your heated boots each morning while discussing mountain conditions, necessary daily news headlines across politics and pop culture while also delivering a decent espresso to kick start things the right way.

All of Aspen is walkable from The Little Nell and various town meanders are a must. The expected labels are all here – Louis  Vuitton, Gucci, Dior, Dolce & Gabbana, Valentino, Moncler, more. Our last visit saw Paltrow’s Goop owning a small retail space and the ability to purchase one of her memorable candles; we were also drawn to the retro sartorial stylings of Aviator Nation while Kemo Sabe supplies necessary Coloradan cowboy attire – it’s a vibe.

Eating in Aspen – compared to, well, the majority of small town America – is a welcome pleasure. All the food groups – Japanese, Italian, French – are covered and generally done very well, even by snobbish Australian standards.

Ellina elevates hearty plates with a cellar of 1300 wines while 7908 is a cool downstairs outpost for both drinking, dining (aim for the $200 nachos) and late-night dancing. Running a bar tab across town should always involve Hooch, Bad Harriett, Eric’s (for games of pool and actual locals) as well as Betula. As for the exclusive Caribou Club, know ‘casual’ memberships can materialise for those visiting from out of town.

Elsewhere, Silverpeak is a marijuana dispensary lifted from Mad Men (seriously mod luxe; take your passport) and the Aspen Art Museum, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Shigeru Ban, is an hour well spent (perhaps two if following a trip to Silverpeak?)

Aspen – more than its name suggests.

aspensnowmass.com; thelittlenell.com; limelighthotels.com/snowmass

 

This piece is from our new Car Of The Year Issue – on sale now. Get your copy or subscribe here, or stay up to speed with the Robb Report weekly newsletter.

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