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With powder up a whopping 20% from last year and average temperatures in the 40s, skiers this season are flocking to the Rockies and Elks. For today’s Destination of the Week, TPG contributor Melanie Wynne takes us to one of her favorite winter destinations in the US – Aspen, Colorado.
Echoes of Aspen’s former glory as a silver-mining boom town from the 1880’s can still be felt in the grand architecture of many downtown buildings, but modern-day Aspen has proven an even greater success as a winter playground. Though it remains popular with locals in a variety of tax brackets, a steady flow of affluent visitors have helped turn Aspen into one of America’s most glamorous ski towns. A condensed village known for its fine art galleries, top-notch dining and high-end retailers just blocks from soaring mountains mean it’s a favored destination for both moguls and celebrities. In recent years, reflecting the constant influx of snow tourists, new hotels and restaurants are focused on catering to a more casual style and making a lighter footprint on this gorgeous landscape.
Known collectively as “The Power of Four,” Aspen’s major peaks – Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass and Buttermilk – are home to more than 300 ski trails, 42 lifts and a slew of powder-based activities. If you love to ski, snowboard, or just plain frolic in the snow, this Rocky/Elk Mountains enclave is like a Choose Your Own Adventure book come to life.
Though the ski season here starts in mid-November, it continues through the first week in April, so there’s still time to use those holiday shopping points and book a great escape to the snow.
WHAT TO DO
Aspen’s main attraction is Aspen Mountain (nicknamed “Ajax”), which soars 11,211 feet above sea level and towers over downtown. At the base is a bronze sculpture of Freidl Pfeifer, one of the founders of Aspen as a ski resort, and the Silver Queen Gondola takes you way up to the mountain top. These steep slopes are best suited to experienced skiers; intermediate runs like Strawpile and Ruthie’s could be classified as expert on a lesser peak, and while the black-diamond runs aren’t half as adrenaline-inducing as those on the rocky trails of Beaver Creek or Silverton, they’re still some of the most challenging in America.
Now the second-largest mountain resort in Colorado (after Vail), Snowmass is known for its wide, well-groomed trails and just about half of the area’s chairlifts. However, because this mountain is set 11 miles from downtown Aspen, it often has the least traffic. This season, though, Snowmass has introduced a new attraction: the 230-acre Burnt Mountain area, with runs geared largely toward intermediate skiers.
Of Aspen’s four peaks, Aspen Highlands has the largest number of runs, with trails suited to every skill level. The toughest have long been Loge Peak and Highland Peak, but this season has seen the addition of the Lucky Find Glades and Mystery Gully, 20 combined acres of black diamond tree skiing. The far gentler Highland Bowl draws the Highlands’ biggest crowds.
Buttermilk is the most ideal area for families, with a fairly equal ratio of beginner, intermediate and expert trails; there’s a separate bunny trail for never-evers and a 22-foot superpipe for rippers. The most challenging runs here are lauded by Olympic skiers, and have hosted the X Games for the past 12 years; the 2014 competition will be held there this week, from January 23-26.
If you’re keen to try snowboarding for the first time, there are lessons offered at every peak. If you’re already an experienced carver, though, head straight to the half-pipes on Buttermilk.
If you like your snow activities with fewer inclines (and less potential for bruising), Aspen still offers plenty of winter fun. Take to the 60 miles of snow-shoe and cross-country ski trails of the Aspen Nordic Trail System, or join a guided snow-shoeing tour with the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. If you’ve always wanted to try dog-sledding, daily tours (including lunch or dinner) are offered by Krabloonik in Snowmass Village.
For nightlife, catch an emerging or big-name rock act at the Belly Up, or head up to Snowmass’ Elk Camp for an Ullr Night. Friday evenings from late December through March, these parties feature hot chocolate and s’mores around a bonfire, as well as ice skating, tube sledding, fire dancers and more.
WHERE TO EAT (AND DRINK)
A nod to Aspen’s mining history, the name Element 47 refers to silver on the periodic table; this airy, relaxed restaurant at The Little Nell features seasonal American fare and a 700-bottle wall of wine. Nearby at the historic Wheeler Opera House, the hip, cozy Justice Snow’s serves artisanal comfort food and handcrafted cocktails in an updated Victorian interior. For a more theatrical meal, visit the St. Regis Aspen for dinner at Chef’s Club by FOOD & WINE; this unique collaboration with Food & Wine Magazine showcases America’s emerging chefs cooking seasonal menus in an open kitchen.
A more casual option requires a short cab ride: just outside of town, the rustic cabin of Woody Creek Tavern was a former hangout for Hunter S. Thompson, and serves steak and chicken dinners, as well as what may be the strongest margarita in town. Another of Thompson’s haunts was the J-Bar at the Hotel Jerome, now popular for its rich burgers and adult milkshakes.
Up on Aspen Mountain, take a load off between runs at the 10,000-square-foot Sundeck. Down at the bottom, tuck into the raw bar at Ajax Tavern, or try an après ski cocktail and the best sweet potato fries in town out by the pool at the Sky Hotel’s 39 Degrees Lounge.
Snowmass has nine restaurants to choose from, including Restaurant at Elk Camp, set just a few steps from the top of the Elk Camp Gondola. Open only for lunch, this casual, LEED-certified eatery specializes in fresh, organic salads, soups and sandwiches. Up on Buttermilk, fill up on Mongolian BBQ at the Cliffhouse, or have anything from breakfast to an afternoon beer at Bumps.
For an outdoor excursion that leads to a four-course meal, indulge in a Tuesday- or Thursday-night snowcat dinner at Aspen Highlands’ Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro. Snowmobile drivers transport diners to and from the restaurant, allowing for both a breathtaking look at the stars and an extra cocktail.
The Aspen area is served by Aspen Pitkin County Airport (ASE), just 3 miles northwest of downtown Aspen, However, many more flights come into Denver International Airport (DIA), roughly 4.5 hours away.
ASE receives non-stop flights on three different airlines: United Express (from Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles and San Francisco), American Airlines (from Dallas/Fort Worth and Los Angeles) and Delta (from Atlanta and Minneapolis). DIA is served domestically by AirTran, Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, Great Lakes, jetBlue, Southwest, United and US Airways, and internationally by AeroMexico, Air Canada, British Airways and Lufthansa.
Even if you fly into Denver, renting a car isn’t necessary. Colorado Mountain Express offers a few daily van shuttles from Denver, averaging about $120 per adult, each way. In Aspen, there’s a free shuttle system that takes you to all four peaks, as well throughout the towns of Aspen and Snowmass Village. Each of the eight shuttle routes has designated pick-up areas, but for $1 US, these shuttles offer door-to-door service.
Though there aren’t too many points properties in and around town, there are hotels that participate in other programs such as Visa Signature Hotels and Amex FHR.
Hyatt Grand Aspen: Across the street from an ice rink at the base of Aspen Mountain, this Hyatt Grand Residence Property offers condominium-style accommodations with full kitchens, fireplaces and (with the exception of studios ) balconies. Continental breakfast and internet are complimentary, and outdoor hot tubs and fire pits allow you to make the most of winter nights. There is no on-site restaurant, but a wine bar doubles as the breakfast area. Rates start at either $600 a night for a studio or $1,290 for a one-bedroom, and Hyatt Gold Passport redemptions range from 12,000-30,000 points.
St. Regis Aspen: This luxurious 154-room mountain lodge offers signature butler service for guests in its 12 suites, as well as a fully-stocked library for guests who want to curl up around the fire with a good book instead of hitting the slopes. Elegant touches include leather-bound beds designed by Ralph Lauren, marble steam showers, custom hot chocolate service and a ceremonial Champagne sabering, as well as the dynamic Chef’s Club restaurant (see Where to Eat and Drink). There are two hot tubs by the heated pool, and a Reméde Spa with an oxygen lounge. Rates start at $899 a night, 30,000-35,000 Starpoints, or 15,000 Starpoints + $275.
Westin Snowmass Resort: Formerly the Silvertree Resort, this 254-room, Category 5 property reopened in November 2012 with a full-service spa, a wine bar with a modern fireplace, and a ski-in/out restaurant serving three meals daily. Elegant and polished, this 100% smoke-free property is also home to a Westin Kids’ Club, a heated pool, and a state-of-the-art fitness studio. Rates start at $459 a night or 12,000-16,000 Starpoints.
Wildwood Snowmass: Next door to the Westin, the former Wildwood Lodge offers a relaxed, mountain home vibe. The 154 bright, modern rooms at this Category 5 property are named Beginner, Intermediate and Expert, and include lots of storage for ski equipment. There’s also a heated pool, a signature Steven Alan clothing shop and a game room for kids. The on-site gastropub focuses on Colorado microbrews, and other dining options include a snack shack and Asian noodle house. Rates start at $199 a night or 12,000-16,000 Starpoints.
When cardholders use a Visa Signature credit card to book a room through the Visa Signature Hotels program, they are eligible to receive extra perks such as discounted room rates, room upgrades, free breakfast, early check-in and late check-out, dining and spa credits and more. Visa Signature cards include the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Sapphire, Ink Bold, Ink Plus, British Airways Visa, the Hyatt card, the Marriott Rewards Premier and Marriott Rewards cards, the Southwest Plus card, Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines cards, Capital One Venture, Citi Hilton HHonors and Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve, US Bank FlexPerks, Citi AAdvantage Visa Signature, and many more, so chances are you’re carrying at least one of them in your wallet.
Aspen Viceroy Snowmass: The only Visa Signature property in town, this sleek, 152-room, Gold-certified LEED resort is one of the most sustainably-designed properties in Colorado, and makes efficient use of water and power. Just steps from the Elk Mountain Gondola, the resort offers ski-in/out access to Snowmass. Interiors of public spaces, including the on-site cocktail bar, are designed by Kelly Wearstler, and the on-site restaurant, 8K, serves three meals daily. Rates start at $590 a night.
Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts
Update: The offer mentioned below for the Platinum Card from American Express has expired. View the current offer here.
Fine Hotels and Resorts is a hotel program specifically for American Express Platinum and Business Platinum cardholders. By booking through this portal, you receive added perks and benefits thrown in with your stay – sort of like you would with elite status or by booking through a travel agent with great contacts at a hotel.
The three Amex FHR properties in Aspen are the St. Regis (see above), the Hotel Jerome and The Little Nell.
Hotel Jerome: When this landmark hotel was built in 1889, it was the pride of this former silver-mining town. With its tin ceilings, dark woods, brocade furnishings and actual cowboys at the bar, it’s still one of the biggest draws in town. After an extensive renovation in 2012, it now features an airy atrium lobby, updated guest rooms and an Auberge Spa. Rates start at $607.
The Little Nell: Set at the base of the Silver Queen Gondola and offering ski-in/out access to Ajax, this luxury hotel has the best location in downtown Aspen. Featuring stellar service, a ski concierge and their own shuttle service, this 78-room, 14-suite property is geared towards luxurious relaxation. There are two on-site restaurants, Element 47 and Ajax Tavern (see What to Eat and Drink), as well as a large fitness studio, in-room massage services. Pets and children are welcomed with a variety of amenities, including special menus. Rates start at $1,045 a night.
Other Notable Options
Sky Hotel: At this trendy, 84-room and six-suite Kimpton property, you’ll find the best sweet potato fries in town and some of Aspen’s most beautiful people hanging around the poolside 39 Degrees Lounge (see What to Eat and Drink), which faces the base of Aspen Mountain. Airy guest rooms feature whimsical details like sweater-knit headboards and the hotel chain’s signature animal-print robes, and the lobby features enormous white leather chairs and stone-paved walls. Rates start at $574.
The Limelight: This pet-friendly, casual and modern hotel is set across the street from Wagner Park and three blocks from Ajax. For those who want a condo-like experience, two-bedroom suites offer full kitchens and large balconies with mountain views. The hotel offers Tuesday and Thursday “Inside Tracks” programs with ski guides at most area peaks, and Wednesday-night naturalist-guided snowshoe tours from January through March. Also on select Wednesdays, a lecture series features individuals who’ve had an influence on Aspen’s culture, and the lively on-site cocktail bar offers live music on the weekends. Rates start at $530 a night.
The Gant: Set a few blocks from Ajax and the center of downtown Aspen, this 140-condo Destination Hotels & Resorts property offers a quiet respite that’s still within walking distance of the local action. In addition to a heated pool and hot tubs, guests are granted access to the nearby Aspen Club & Spa. WiFi is complimentary, and all kid-friendly condos feature kitchens, fireplaces and either balconies or patios. Rates start at $488 per night.
With snowfall down at several ski resort areas in North America this year, now through early April should be a great time to take advantage of the choice powder in Aspen.