The Aspen approach “is like shooting through a mineshaft with little margin for error” one pilot told the LA Times. We window-gazed on an exceptionally clear day, observing the gradual change in colours in the landscape beneath. The landmarks, deserts and canyons we slowly pass below, contrast with the white snow-capped mountains coming into view. Our hostess tells us this is home of the most beautiful scenery in North America, and explains that pilots are trained specifically for this route due to its difficult landing. The plane routinely adjusts with unnerving turns before seamlessly landing on the tarmac. The temperature has dropped dramatically with a cold rocky mountain bite in the air.
Aspen is nestled in the heart of the White River National Forest and surrounded by the peaks of the Elk Mountains. It is a world-famous ski destination with much to the town’s history and offerings. Originally inhabited by the Ute Indians and used as their hunting grounds, its population expanded and was later named ‘Aspen’ due to the abundance of aspen trees in the area.
The town boomed during the 1880s, its first decade of existence during the silver rush. The Panic of 1893 led to a collapse in this market, followed by a half-century known as ‘the quiet years’, during which its population steadily declined. Aspen experienced a cultural renaissance in the 1940s with the arrival of Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke. The Paepcke family’s vision for a community that focused on mind, body and spirit or ‘The Aspen Idea’ led to the founding of the Aspen Skiing Company in 1950, marking the beginning of a new era.
One rarely meets first-time visitors in this unique town. Most are veteran skiers, with many seasons under their belt, familiar with all 76 runs that come with weathering the slopes. The quality of skiing is the main draw as Aspen Mountain in particular is without a single beginner’s run.
However, there is more to this place than just the skiing. “I came for the winter, but stayed for the summer,” says our ski instructor Bill. “Aspen is definitely an annual tradition for large groups of friends and families travelling long distances to spend time together here every season. Regardless of how international tourism has become over the years, there’s always a familiar face and it is easy to feel a part of the local community here.”
Aspen has endless terrain, but the quaint town offers more than just winter sports. It is also home to one of the country’s best contemporary art museums. Ambitious Art Director Heidi Zuckerman of the Aspen Contemporary Art Museum, opened the flashy new Shigeru Ban-designed building in 2014, tripling the size of the exhibition space and relocating it into the centre of town. The building’s design is striking and modern with a beehive-like intricacy – a woven wooden shell encasing the building. Local benefactors also showcase personal collections in their Aspen homes and offer the museum access, allowing the public the rare opportunity to view some of most prominent art in the US.
HOTEL JEROME, AN AUBERGE RESORT
‘The Jerome’ outlasted the quiet years as the only hotel open in the area, surviving a flu epidemic, both World Wars and serving as a place for soldiers to rest. Once a family-run business by former bartender Mansor Elisha and his son Laurence from 1911 until 1945, it was considered the town’s social centre. Laurence became legendary as one of the founding members of the Aspen Ski Club, pouring his energy into making 1930s skiers love the town. Small in size but with a wealth of history, Hotel Jerome is probably one of the most famous places to stay in Aspen, and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.
Opening its doors more than 120 years ago in the once bustling mining town, it remains in the same building, maintaining its old-world charm, though its interior has been updated. Bought by Auberge in 2012, the decor is warm, stately and luxurious with leather, plaid and dark wood in the lobby carefully arranged with an old-fashioned symmetry. A stunning vintage portrait is positioned in the centre of the mantelpiece, adorning a well-tended fire.
Through the glass doors, J Bar is a beautifully polished wooden bar stretching the entire room, surrounded by leather booths, chandeliers and antiques. All that’s missing is a group of miners bellied up to the bar. The burger is the town’s most famous, and ‘the Aspen Crud’ infamous vanilla and soda milkshake spiked with bourbon, invented during Prohibition, is a must. J Bar’s après scene is strong, a bustling melting pot considered a most popular jaunt.
THE LITTLE NELL
Local establishment The Little Nell has had quite a history over the last several hundred years as a summer hunting ground of the Ute Indians, a miners’ retreat, grazing pastures for the Aspen Dairy and a skiers’ watering hole. It finally made history again in 1989 when it became Aspen’s first Five-Star, Five-Diamond hotel, now known for its clientele of celebrities, dignitaries, Fortune 500 magnates and political leaders.
Sitting at the base of the mountain, it is the only ski-in and ski-out hotel on Aspen Mountain. Created by luxury New York firm Champalimaud Design, its interiors blend seamlessly with the six signature suites renovated in 2014 by LA designer Holly Hunt. Each room has a stunning view of Aspen Mountain, heated marble floors in the bathrooms and its own quaint fireplace. The Little Nell is also home to a famous contemporary art collection and features a wine cellar with more than 20,000 bottles, directed by Carlton McCoy, one of the world’s youngest Master Sommeliers.
The sundrenched mountainside patio Ajax Tavern at the base of Aspen Mountain is the watering hole for the Aspen après horde, hailed as the best seat in town and bursting at the seams. Its lunch crowd is known to continue well into the night – there’s no need to take your boots off in this easy yet glamorous establishment. The truffle fries and double cheeseburger are a must as are the cocktails. Sit back for some of the best people-watching on the mountain.