The mountain resort of Aspen, Colorado, is synonymous with skiing. But its understated luxury, focus on wellness, and amazing outdoor life make it a great destination in summer too, writes Suzanne Harrington
Think Aspen, and think winter playground for the rich and fabulous, where ski instructors get tipped in Cadillacs and 50 of the world’s 1,600 billionaires own property here. A small pretty Colorado town of 6,000 permanent residents, it is the 11th most expensive post code (out of 22,000) in the US. Think private jets and famous faces — a snowy Hollywood whose winter population peaks at 26,000. Where hotels offer gourmet room service for dogs, and a ski jacket can cost three grand.
But what’s Aspen like in summer? What happens when there is no snow? What do people do? Is it fun to visit? Here’s an alternative guide, no ski boots required. And the good news is that off-season, it’s more affordable — relatively speaking, of course.
Outdoors is Aspen’s religion. Its entire character and attitude is formed by the surrounding mountains, forests and rivers. It’s what Aspen is truly about, and unlike exclusive downtown life, is available to everyone, humbling and powerful in its beauty.
In summer, everyone hikes, rafts, runs, cycles, does yoga — there are no fat people here. Athleisure wear is the norm, even for dinner in fancy restaurants, because people are so affluent they don’t care about dressing up. Yoga pants rule. There’s outdoor yoga at the top of Aspen Mountain every morning, run by Shakti Shala (‘Aspen’s Destination Yoga & Lifestyle Studio’ with its own Wellness Concierge, at 535 East Hyman Avenue), for a donation of $5. Taking a gondola up the mountain for your morning sun salutations at 11,212 feet is breathtaking (literally — there are oxygen canisters in my hotel room’s minibar in case of altitude sickness).
Wildlife abounds, like a Disney film with teeth. The nearby Maroon Bells are the most photographed mountains in North America, teeming with North America’s finest beasts. There are golden eagles, tawny owls, chipmunks, coyotes, elks. The bins — even in the centre of town — are bearproof (there is zero crime in Aspen, but people lock their cars and houses because bears can open doors, including fridge doors — they love ice cream). Moose are belligerent, but don’t come into town like the bears (there are signs in the mountains warning that moose “are not easily spooked and do not fear humans” — so if one comes at you, you “run away as fast as possible!”) and if you see a mountain lion, which is rare, it means it’s been stalking you. Wildlife attacks are very unusual, providing you do what is suggested — don’t feed the bears, no matter how cute they look.
Hiking is wildflower heaven. The air is aspen scented (Native Americans used its bark as sunscreen), the rivers and lakes crystal cold, the Rockies insanely beautiful. People of all ages and abilities hike, carrying babies in ergonomic backpacks, the obligatory Labrador by their side. (Aspen is a dog town. They are welcome everywhere.) Aspen Centre for Environmental Studies, (100 Puppy Smith Street) with its super-enthusiastic and informed naturalists, is a great place to start a hike, and visit Snowmass Ice Age Discovery Centre (gosnowmass.com), the place to find out more about Ice Age remains — in 2010, a huge haul of mammoth and mastodon bones, dating back 140,000 years, was discovered. Perfect for palaeontology geeks, kids, and anyone into natural history.
White water rafting is a must-do. The guides at Blazing Adventures (555 East Durant Avenue) will terrify you with their hilariously catastrophic preamble on the way to Roaring Fork River, but once you get in the dinghy, and follow instructions, it’s terrific. Invigorating, refreshing, just the right side of challenging. The scariest rapid is called Slaughterhouse — the guides won’t take you there, unless you are an expert or have a death wish.
Art can be overlooked in sporty ski towns, but not here. Aspen Art Museum, (637 East Hyman Avenue), designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, was recently voted 4th out of 35,000 American museums. It’s free to enter thanks to wealthy benefactors, and hosts a rotation of contemporary works in a beautiful space (the building itself is a work of art, inside and out). It feels more like London or Berlin than a small American mountain town — until you go upstairs to its roof top restaurant, So Café, which opens out over Aspen Mountain.
Around town, there are at least eight fine art galleries — everything is within walking distance — which are open in the evening for post-dinner art acquiring (or in my case, enthusiastic window shopping).
Culture in Aspen extends beyond fine art — the Wheeler Opera House (320 East Hyman Avenue) has a wide programme, and there are festivals throughout summer. June to September sees back-to-back events — the Aspen Festival of Ideas, featuring international speakers in a TED-type forum, plus music festivals, theatre festivals, craft beer festivals, free concerts, gala dinners, food festivals, poetry and spoken word festivals, film, jazz, antiques, ballet, open mic, rodeos, mountain fairs, and the rather wonderful sounding Aspen Historical Society’s Ice Cream Social.
The town also has a splendid independent bookshop — Explorer Booksellers (221 East Main Street) — housed in an old Victorian residence, with room after charming room of books, with an excellent bistro upstairs. You could — I did — spend hours there. It’s bookworm heaven. In nearby Snowmass, Anderson Ranch Arts Centre (5263 Owl Creek Road) offers residential summer courses in dozens of disciplines — sculpture, painting, drawing, ceramics, photography, woodwork, digital fabrication — for adults and kids, and supported by established artists and teachers. It’s not cheap, but you get what you pay for.
Luxury means never having to open a door. Every time you approach one, someone springs into action, so you end up gliding through doorways like a wraith. It’s rather nice, until you get back home and bump your nose on the glass.
Staying at the five-star The Little Nell (675 East Durant Avenue) — a boutique ski-in ski-out hotel of 92 rooms with additional residences (super-luxe apartments serviced by the hotel) — means having drivers and Hummers at your disposal, the best mini bar in hotel history, and a dog menu which offers salmon or chicken with scrambled eggs and brown rice for $19 a go.
The Little Nell is contemporary, elegant, understated, and luxurious. As the only five-star in town, it has hosted the Obamas, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Kate Hudson, Goldie Hawn, Mariah Carey, Britney Spears, and the Trumps — this is where Donald Trump’s marriage to first wife Ivana ended in a public spat on the slopes outside the hotel. The Trumps still visit — the three eldest offspring had a family reunion at The Little Nell soon after their father was elected President. But don’t let that put you off. It is utterly gorgeous, not a gold lift in sight.
In neighbouring Snowmass, the five-star Viceroy (130 Wood Road) has roomy suites overlooking the mountain that are so comfortable you just don’t want to leave, even to lounge by the outdoor swimming pool. Snowmass Village, full of shops and cafes, is a short walk/free gondola ride away. Everything in the Viceroy is spacious, luxurious, abundant, with incredible views.
Tipping is a minefield for Europeans in the US, and a triple minefield in Aspen where everyone is a billionaire. In restaurants, 20% is acceptable, but 25% preferred. For your average tip — drivers, room service etc — $20 is reasonable. They do make concessions for Europeans being tightwads, but it’s better to get it right. If in doubt, ask — that’s what I did. And remember — in Aspen, the bellboys and valets are likely to be Harvard educated and wealthier than you.
Weed is legal here for over 21s, which fits with its liberal politics and progressive attitudes — Aspen is as horrified by their current president as the rest of us — but don’t expect Amsterdam-style head shops. There are six marijuana dispensaries in town — Silverpeak Apothecary (520 East Cooper Avenue) and Native Roots (308 South Hunter Street) are elegant boutiques selling different types of locally-farmed weed, plus topical balms, cosmetics, and edibles. If you are not a Colorado resident, you’ll need your passport to enter. Inside are well informed ‘budtenders’ behind the counter, assisting local aficionados, the out of town curious, and elderly rich people browsing for arthritis relief.
In the interests of journalistic authenticity, I get legally high on a single dose of cannabis-infused gummy bears which is so strong — I haven’t had cannabis in 20 years — that I am still hopelessly stoned the next morning going white water rafting. Nobody notices — they probably all are too. As well as actual weed, which starts at about $25 a gram, you can buy cannabis-infused chocolate, toffee, cookies, almond butter, fruit drinks, and my favourite — a chapstick called Lip Bong. It is the most civilised way to purchase pot I have ever encountered. Hats off, Aspen.
Dining — because you may have the munchies from all the hiking, high altitude and weed — involves everything from juice bars to high-end restaurants. It is impossible not to eat well — plant-based diets are abundantly catered for and, in keeping with the lack of fat people, there are no junk food outlets. The emphasis is on slow food, locally sourced, and organic. The local corner shop sells caviar.
Check out Wild Fig (315 East Hyman Avenue) for dinner — a lively, intimate restaurant with great Mediterranean food; Spring Café for (119 South Spring Street) for fantastic organic breakfasts; and Pyramid Bistro (221 East Main Street) for lunch, featuring healthy delicious ‘Nutritarian’ cuisine. (It’s upstairs from Explorer Booksellers, for any pre-lunch book browsing). For sheer splendour, dine at The Little Nell hotel restaurant, Element 47, whose wine cellar houses 20,000 bottles. Down the road in Snowmass Village, check out the delicious Venga Venga or the Stew Pot.
Shopping is lots of fun here, providing you keep a window pane between yourself and the shop floor. The four main clothes shops are Prada, Dior, Louis Vuitton and Ralph Lauren (“cowboy chic” — think cashmere rather than rhinestone), as well as numerous high-end sports and ski shops where a baseball cap can cost $100. There are four pet shops, including CB Paws, where you can get your hound a $125 dog bowl or a $325 orthopaedic dog bed. Because dogs rule this town.
The history of Aspen is fascinating — home of the Ute Native Americans, it briefly became, Wild West style, a silver-mining town. The Aspen Historical Society offers tours at the Wheeler- Stallard Museum (620 West Bleeker Street) where you can walk through hundreds of years of the surrounding area, before Aspen became synonymous with glitz in the 1980s — the town has a long history of non-conformist free-thinking, hippies, and hedonism.
Woody Creek Tavern (2858 Upper River Road) is a pilgrimage destination for all fans of the late gonzo journalist and legendary hedonist Hunter S Thompson — it was his local. Take a bike ride from Snowmass Village along the Roaring Fork River, all gently downhill through breathtaking scenery, until you reach the defiantly ramshackle Tavern (“No reservations. No credit cards”) which is now a temple to Thompson.
The walls are papered in hundreds of Polaroids, the waitresses are fierce, the guacamole to die for, and the margaritas (Thompson’s favourite) made from blue agave. You may not want to cycle anywhere afterwards. It is probably the best bar in North America — you’ll want a souvenir t-shirt. They’re $25, and worth every cent.
So there you have it – a summer guide to a winter place, which is rich in culture and full of good natured people who say ‘awesome’ a lot. The wealth is understated, the welcome cheery and warm. Aspen residents adore their town, and are protective of its surrounding environment. In the age of Trump, Aspen is a breath of American fresh air — just make sure you pack your trainers, and leave your heels at home. Oh, and your credit card. You’ll definitely need that.
For further information: www.aspenchamber.org and www.gosnowmass.com
PLATINUM TRAVEL www.platinumtravel.ie Phone: 01-8535000 Package includes three nights at the five-star Little Nell in Aspen, and four nights at the five-star Viceroy in Snowmass. Return flights from Dublin to Denver. Eight days fully inclusive intermediate size car hire. Checked bags — 23kg per person. All airport taxes. 24/7 emergency number throughout your stay. €2,495 per person.