Jan. 17, 2011 -- There is probably no other town in America whose evokes a greater sense of wealth, power and exclusivity than Aspen, Colo.
But if one takes the time to look past the posh stores -- Fendi, Prada, Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Ralph Lauren to name a few -- and the spectacular mansions perched high in the mountains, a friendly community with an adventurous side emerges.
Whether it's skiing, mountain biking, fly fishing, rock climbing or just shopping and eating, Aspen offers a bounty of options without the crowds of some other Western towns.
Christy Mahon moved here 13 years ago and epitomizes the mix of culture and adventure found here. She works at the Aspen Art Museum (free admission) and can be found sneaking in a hike or a few ski runs on her lunch break. (She recently became the first woman and only sixth person ever to climb and then ski all 54 peaks in Colorado over 14,000 feet.)
Mahon arrived in Aspen after graduating from college 13 years ago. A friend lived in town and Mahon wasn't sure how long she'd stay, but Aspen's lure hooked her.
"I love it here. I'm actually not leaving. I came to that realization a few years ago," she said. "I think we can say I'm here for good."
Yes there is plenty of "ritz" in town, Mahon said.
"You would think it would make you more materialistic, but it doesn't," she said.
Maybe that's because in the winter months she sneaks out at lunch to get in three ski runs at nearby Aspen Mountain. The ski trails run right down to Aspen's main streets. In summer, she takes advantage of the area's extensive trail network to run and bike.
That relaxed mix of nature, healthy living and somewhat over-the-top luxury can be found by even the most casual visitor. John Denver and Hunter S. Thompson have both called Aspen home, and these days Aspen's celebrities including Kevin Costner, Lance Armstrong, Goldie Hawn, Kate Hudson, Mariah Carey, Bill Gates and Antonio Banderas can be seen in and around town.
"You never want to mouth off about how great you are," Mahon said. "Chances are, you are sitting next to somebody who has done something so much more exciting than you."
So now that you have a feel for the town's vibe, it's time to explore.
At nearly 8,000 feet above sea level, Aspen's thin air is going to leave you at least huffing and puffing for a day or two, so it's important to start out your day with a good breakfast.
Peach's Corner Cafe is a great breakfast spot right downtown and is sure to give you plenty of energy to get through your day. For a leisurely meal, check out the Main Street Bakery & Café (201 East Main St.), which offers great food and a tranquil back deck with spectacular mountain views. And remember, heed the sign out front: "No Cell Phones Please."
Skiing in Aspen
In winter, the obvious activity is skiing. Aspen Snowmass offers four mountains in the area, all on the same lift ticket and all offering something a bit different for each type of skier. A great bus system links all of the resort areas and downtown locations for free. Aspen also offers cross-country skiing, backcountry skiing, dog sledding, ice climbing and snowshoeing.
Spring Outdoor Activities: Hiking, Rock Climbing
In spring and summer the list of activities is endless.
Hiking trails range from gentle walks in the woods (remember Aspen is home to the beautiful Aspen tree) to strenuous hikes above 14,000 feet. There are even trails up the ski mountain that leave right from downtown and have the added benefit of an easy ride down in the resort's gondola.
If you want to really get close to the mountains, consider rock climbing.
Aspen's Independence Pass is minutes from downtown and offers rock climbers hundreds of routes, from the classic Edge of Time to the challenging Cryogenics. Dick Jackson, an internationally certified mountain guide and owner of Aspen Expeditions, offers private and group lessons and courses in mountaineering and rock climbing. His company provides all the equipment, and guides can walk even the most novice climber through the ropes.
It is not until you are hanging onto a rock wall with the wind whipping through your hair that you really appreciate how big and powerful the surrounding mountains are. Climbers in the pass will surely experience a shortness of breath but probably won't be able to tell if it is the altitude -- about 10,000 feet above sea level -- or the fear.
It would be an understatement at this point to say that you've worked up an appetite. Back in town, check out Explore Booksellers, which offers veggie-centric food. Consider it the perfect stop for a fresh, sustainable and organic lunch. Craving meat? Then skip the bookstore and head straight to the 520 Grill (520 East Cooper). Chicken, pulled pork and steak quesadillas fill the menu. But the real stars here are the burgers, especially the bacon burger, where the bacon is actually ground into the burger meat.
For those who have had enough outdoor adventure, it's time to roam Aspen's stores. Sure there are big-name designers here, but instead drop into Gorsuch, a family owned and operated store that features high-end goods ranging from upscale skiwear to rustic Italian ceramics.
For something a bit more down-to-earth, pop into Pitkin County Dry Goods, the modern equivalent of a dry goods store with plenty of clothing, leathers, belts and jewelry. Check out The Ute Mountaineer for outdoor adventure clothing and supplies, where a knowledgeable staff can help you find the right gear. For high-end artwork, or just a dab of culture, pop into the Baldwin Gallery.
Finally, don't miss The Thrift Shop (312 East Hyman Ave.), the city's oldest second-hand store with an extensive collection of clothing, furniture and other items donated by Aspen residents. Sales benefiting local non-profit organizations. Remember: what might be used junk to the rich and famous could be a real find for you.
Biking in the Rocky Mountains
Now that you've hit up the stores, remember why you came here: the amazing mountains. Grab a bike and explore.
Lance Armstrong trains in Aspen, and that's no accident. The road conditions are amazing, and most drivers are acutely aware of cyclists on the few occasions when they are forced to share the road.
Some rides, such as the road to the Maroon Bells, are void of vehicles during certain hours and perfect for roadies looking for high-altitude training. (The Maroon Bells are the most photographed peaks in North America and are worth a visit regardless of whether you bike, hike or drive.)
For folks considering a bit more mud, Aspen is a haven for two-wheeled off-road adventure and boasts hundreds of miles of single-track beginning directly from town. Beginners can hit Lincoln Creek Road, a bumpy, rolling dirt road with beautiful river views around every corner. At the end, a spectacular high-alpine valley. For something a bit more challenging, try the Smuggler-Hunter Creek Loop, which goes past the ruins of a few deserted mining cabins.
Bikes can be rented at Hub of Aspen or Ute City Cycles (231 E. Main St.)
For the truly adventurous, the famed 10th Mountain Hut Division manages a system of 29 backcountry huts in Colorado, connected by 350 miles of suggested routes, many of which offer amazing mountain bike treks.
Finally, for history buffs, the Aspen Historical Society offers 90-minute bike tours through town, touching on the area's mining past.
After a full day out about town, there are plenty of great meal options to satiate your hunger.
The pinnacle -- although not the cheapest -- of Aspen's dinner options is Montagna, an elegant restaurant in the opulent Little Nell hotel under the direction of executive chef Ryan Hardy, a 2008 James Beard nominee for Best Chef in the Southwest. Hardy grows produce and raises livestock on his 15-acre Rendezvous Farm and the chicken pate must not be missed.
The bar menu Cache Cache is a favorite among Aspen locals looking for a bit more down-to-earth fare. The main dining room features French bistro-style cuisine and an elegant yet comfortable ambience.
Kenichi is a popular sushi den that is known as a place to see and be seen. A global twist is added to the standard sushi favorites.
After dinner, head to the historic Wheeler Opera House, which features comedy acts, live music and a diverse roster of independent films.
Cap off dinner with a legendary local drink.
For more than a century, the J-Bar at the historic Hotel Jerome has been one of the town's favorite watering holes. Like many bars across America, the J-Bar was converted to a soda fountain during Prohibition. At that time it's now famous "Aspen Crud" -- a vanilla milkshake with a few shots of bourbon mixed in-- was invented. It's not only tasty but historic.
Getting to Aspen
Flying into Aspen's tiny airport is easy but can be costly. But baggage claim and ground transportation are just steps from your jet. Flights can also be found to Eagle County Airport or Denver International Airport.
Finding a place to rest your head is not necessarily going to be cheap. The Little Nell has set the standard for luxury in town for years and has been recently renovated. Aspen is also home to a St. Regis and Park Hyatt. For something a bit different and slightly more affordable, consider Kimpton's Sky Hotel. On Main Street is the historic Hotel Jerome. Over at Snowmass Village, the new Viceroy is adding a bit of hip South Beach style to the ski slopes. Don't expect the hotel manager here to be in a suit -- instead he wears a tight black T-shirt.