If you follow the locals, America's most famous ski resort need not cost the earth, says Yolanda Carslaw
I can't resist a second-hand shop. Which is why, during a ski trip last February, I found myself poking around at Susie's on the Alley, purveyor of "fine furniture and housewares" in downtown Aspen. There, while my friends were apres-skiing, I landed two 60s Figgjo frypans and a vintage Mexican tablecloth for $30. Content with my haul, I was ready for a beer.
Finding good-value souvenirs was a surprise in America's smartest ski resort, which is repeatedly named the world's dearest by the Where to Ski and Snowboard forum.
Although its avenues are home to Moncler, Gucci and Jet Set, as well as such upscale restaurants as Matsuhisa (part of the Nobu empire) and a six-day lift pass costs US$606 (NZ$837) - there's a discount for early booking - Aspen has a down-to-earth side that is a joy to discover.
When I rejoined my friends, they weren't having cocktails at a sleek, foot-of-slopes bar such as the 39 Degrees Lounge, but pitchers of ale for NZ$18 at the Aspen Brewing Company. En route there, treading the heated pavements, I passed handsome Victorian buildings and bustling, unpretentious addresses such as Little Annie's Eating House (ribs NZ$18) and Carl's Pharmacy (hardware store and toy shop, too).
The bike rack outside the beer place was packed. Inside, my friends were chatting to locals about the town's "real" side. Aspen (population 6000) prospered during the 19th-century silver-mining boom, then, after a lull, thanks to skiing its fortunes revived in the 1930s. Today there are four ski areas, each easily big enough to spend a day or more without switching, and all accessible by a free bus. The town has long been a haunt for celebrities, from John Denver to Elle Macpherson - but as its own star, the big-mountain skier Chris Davenport, said when I met him that week, "Aspen ain't about celebs any more."
My friends were dissecting the day's skiing. The locals' verdict: "Awesome, dude." Our day on Aspen Mountain - known as Ajax - had been awesome indeed, after 15cm of snow, which continued all morning (as in most North American resorts, falling snow barely harms visibility as most runs are below the tree-line).
At the Silver Queen gondola, which departs from the town centre, we'd grabbed a coffee and a tube of sunscreen from one of the free-goodies stations provided by Guest Services. We rode up, overtaking a party hanging back for a red cabin (these have iPod docks). We saw a group gathering for free yoga at the Sundeck restaurant. We could have joined a free mountain tour, covering history and wildlife as well as orientation - but we were impatient to find some powder.
After marvelling at the enthusiastic info-boards at the next lift ("Your lifties are Ran-Dazzle and K-Wow. Messages: May the Force be with you! Don't get too fogged up! Have a nice day!"), we entered a barely tracked glade off Gentleman's Ridge.
Descending joyfully, we relished the bird's-eye views over Aspen's grid-pattern streets.
As we were catching our breath (the top of Ajax is at 3418m; the town at 2422m, much higher than most European resorts), a patroller approached, looking purposeful. Were we on a closed run? Had we stopped in a silly place? Not at all. Stopping among us, Juan, as his badge revealed, leaned in and whispered "Hey, are you guys getting freshies?"
We were, and we did so all day, apart from a lunch stop at the excellent Bonnie's (soup $5; salad bar $7.50; tap water free), which coincided with the "nooner whistle", a siren that once signalled lunchtime for miners. Many skiers return to town to eat. Chris Klug, a champion snowboarder from Aspen, recommends the 520 Grill, recently set up by two young locals. "They do a killer quinoa and kale salad with salmon or tuna, and fabulous soups," he promised.
Ajax's glades are implausibly quiet - although some of the entry gates may put people off. One read: "This trail is opened and closed to preserve a powder-crud experience. No in-the-boot ski pant beyond this point!" - meaning that skiers who tuck their trousers inside their boots (a novice habit) shouldn't proceed. I enjoyed the excessive signage, from "sharp turn" to the puzzling "no bank shots".
As a keen off-pister, I found Ajax's many ungroomed yet avalanche-controlled runs - standard in North America - justify the lift-pass price, because I was able to ski fresh powder safely all day without a mountain guide - a significant extra cost in Europe.
I'd happily have stayed on Ajax all week, but for expert terrain, the best reputation belongs to Highlands, a 10-minute bus ride away, which has the triangular Pyramid Peak and Maroon Bells as a backdrop. Its trump run is Highland Bowl, accessed by a free snowcat ride and a 45-minute hike up a ridge. "Every resort in America would love its own Highland Bowl," a patroller told me proudly as we visited the safety hut (visitors welcome) to borrow a harness contraption to carry our skis on our backs.
From the top, at 3777m, there are numerous routes down, and if you're nervous about going it alone, on Wednesdays there are free tours; Wednesday is also a day of free parking, hot dogs and mini muffins.
The Buttermilk area, opposite, is geared to novices - but it has a decent terrain park and its west side is a hot powder tip on snowy weekends when others swarm to Highlands.
The largest area is Snowmass, 14km from Aspen, which has a ski-in, ski-out village at its foot and the greatest vertical drop in the US - 1,343m (not extraordinary in a European context). Snowmass has its own "nooner" - a run roped off and freshly groomed that opens at midday - and the terrain is extensive and suited to all abilities. However, the place reminded me of the soulless "convenience" villages that I avoid in Europe, and I missed the tremendous character of Aspen itself.
After daily moguls, powder, freebies and good cheer, we sampled various forms of apres-ski apart from beer. We caught a film at the Wheeler Opera House; lingered in the sophisticated Baldwin Gallery and at Aspen Art Museum; browsed Explore Booksellers, with its warren of wood-panelled rooms, and went window-shopping at Kemo Sabe cowboy store.
At supper, we discovered bar menus. At Cache Cache, an Aspen institution that was the first to introduce one, 20 years ago, it's perhaps NZ$140-a head in the dining room, whereas we ate like kings for NZ$42-56. Aspen has more than 100 places to eat and drink, and in dozens - especially the newest openings - the prices are far from astronomical. In all but the swishest places, portions are American-sized.
After a week I felt fit, well-fed and invigorated. We'd skied endless powder runs - and we loved the town and its easy-going inhabitants.
On the last morning, with spending money left over, I had a last mission: a rummage at the Thrift Shop of Aspen (raising money for the needy of Roaring Fork Valley since 1949).
It was shut (maybe they'd gone skiing) - which gives me the perfect excuse to return.
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