The Colorado ski season opened last week. Sheriden Rhodes got an early taste of champagne powder at two of its resorts.
Peering out the window in the early morning light, it's as if Christmas has arrived early. Before me stand towering white-capped peaks, visible through snow falling like icing sugar through a sieve. It's not yet 7.30am and a steady stream of skiers and snowboarders are sipping steaming lattes and buying lift passes, eager to hit Steamboat Springs' powder and groomed corduroy.
I hurriedly pull on my ski boots and race to meet Swedish ski instructor Frederik, who moved to Steamboat, the fifth largest ski resort in the US, a decade ago and has never looked back. Even though it's a while since I've been on piste, Frederik soon has me skiing down black runs, and through the snow-covered spruce and aspen trees. At one point he leads me underneath a tree laden with snow, where the branches hang so low it's like entering a magical tree cave.
On another run he points out a snoozing porcupine high up in a tree. "It's all about the snow," he calls over his shoulder as we ski down to Daybreak for a hot chocolate. I nod. I now understand why New Zealanders fly half way across the world to experience Colorado's ski fields.
It seems most Kiwis have heard of Aspen and Vail, but Colorado's lesser-known ski resorts of Steamboat, the official home to Champagne powder (light, dry snow) and Crested Butte, with its challenging skiing and uncrowded slopes, are fast gaining a name for themselves. Here you'll find guitar-picking cowboys, sprawling ranches, southwest hospitality and old mining towns with storefronts that recall the era of prospectors and mules.
Popular with families, Steamboat boasts the renowned Kids' Ski Vacation Centre, where ski bunnies as young as two can hit the slopes and littlies as young as six months old can be cared for in the Kiddie Corral. Children wear jackets with built-in handles so instructors and parents can easily pull them up if they fall, and nifty GPS-tracking systems - so they'll never get lost and can proudly show you where they skied that day.
You don't need to ski to enjoy Colorado's magical winter wonderland. There are horseback rides in the snow, ice bars, enchanting sleigh rides, snowcat driving and the wonderful Strawberry Park Hot Springs. At this beautiful natural mineral spring, a 10-minute drive from Steamboat, bathers get changed in a teepee and slip into the soothing 40C mineral water or indulge in watsu therapy in a steaming private hot pool.
Another must-do at Steamboat is dining at the renowned Cafe Diva where chef Kate Rench serves up a modern take on peanut butter and bacon sandwiches (think braised pork belly, peanut sauce and Sriracha chilli sauce on raisin-nut toast).
For those who have not yet discovered their ski legs, or who want a break from the slopes, The Home Ranch in the Elk River Valley, a 20-minute drive, is one of the last alpine ranching valleys in the American West.
This "dude" ranch offers an appealing combination of "haute mountain cuisine" by executive chef Clyde Nelson and down-home western hospitality. So good is the food that it's fortunate there are outdoor pursuits such as snowshoeing and cross-country skiing on 30km of groomed trails to burn off the excess.
On a blue-sky winter day, the snow sparkling, we traverse the peaceful back country trails before gathering round a blazing fire with a local ale to listen to live country and western music and enjoy another superb meal.
Crested Butte (affectionately known as "Crusty Butt"), a five-hour drive southwest of Steamboat, is another fantastic Colorado ski resort known for its challenging skiing and small-town charm with stylish bars, restaurants and boutiques in a historical downtown district. Its low profile outside the US means there's rarely a queue at the chairlifts.
One of my days is spent strolling Elk Ave, devoid of traffic lights and chain stores, watching locals clear the sidewalk of snow, and moseying around the cute Townie Books bookshop. As I sit nursing my coffee in the winter sun at Camp 4 Coffee, I toy with the idea of selling up and moving here, and that's before I've even hit the slopes.
We ski with Erica Reiter, a former Olympic snowboarder whose family operates Crested Butte Mountain Resort. After an exhilarating day on the resort's largely empty runs, we enjoy a sleigh ride to Uley's Cabin, a restaurant at the base of the Twister lift named after a local bootlegger. It's famous for apres-ski tipples at its outdoor Ice Bar.
Later, as we make our way home under a blanket of stars, I point out a lone snow groomer at work high up the mountain and Erica says it's where she trains for the Grand Traverse, a 65km back-country ski race between Crested Butte and Aspen, which sets off around midnight in late March.
Coloradans, some of the friendliest, most hospitable people I've met are truly a different breed. Oh, and did I mention how good the snow is?
* Crested Butte Mountain Resort has 121 runs over 471ha.
* Stay at the ski-in ski-out Elevation Hotel & Spa, which has a firepit just steps from the ski lifts, see here.
* Try a Maharaja martini with fresh lime and cardamom at the new downtown Montanya Distillers.
* Dine at steakhouse Maxwells.
* Take a sleigh ride to dinner at Uley's Cabin.
* A good one-stop shop for New Zealanders considering skiing in Colorado is Colorado Ski Country USA.
* Air New Zealand flies daily to Los Angeles from Auckland, and connects to Denver with United Airlines.
* Qantas also flies to Los Angeles and connects to Denver (via Sydney) with American Airlines.
* Ski or snowboard 165 named trails over 1200ha.
* Stay at the Steamboat Sheraton Resort, a ski-in, ski-out location right at the bottom of the gondola.
* The best "Kiwi standard" coffee can be found at Amante's or downtown at Steaming Beans.
* The Home Ranch at Clark offers an all-inclusive luxury ranch experience in the lodge or cabins.