It has been four or five years since I've stood on skis. Like riding a bike, they say. As a skier, I'm not pretty to watch, but adept at maintaining verticality. So for my first morning run at Colorado's Telluride Ski Resort, I'll take it slow and let the old body acclimatize as painlessly as possible.
The staff suggest the See Forever run: an easy blue that descends from about 3,655 metres over a reasonable grade, delivering you back to the main lift about five kilometres and 762 metres later. The trail traces a mountain ridge that looks over a canopy of breathtaking peaks. I push off.
Ten minutes later, I'm enjoying the racy notes of a 2007 Le Rote Vernaccia di San Gimignano and waiting for a plate of charcuterie. I just can't say no to wine, even at 3,600 metres, and the snug little shack Alpino Vino is just too cute to pass by, wood smoke and all. It's 11:45 in the morning. The skiing will have to wait.
The food at Alpino Vino is fantastic, the wine list considerable and the staff knowledgeable and enthusiastic. Pinch me: This is not the typical mega-resort.
Indeed, mega it is not. The hill is massive, some of the best skiing anywhere. But the resort - and I use the term loosely - is not (massive, that is). Here is a hometown vibe replete with lore, colourful locals and cheap-as-hell pints of Pabst, all wrapped in a full-service operation that's as luxury or as street as you want it to be.
Come to think of it, that sentiment pretty much sums up the trip. Having skied several big North American hills - the ones that feel like cookie-cutter theme parks - I expected more of the same from Colorado. This was not the case, in either Telluride or Aspen. We spent three days in each, and I came away with a sincere appreciation for the state's relaxed mountain vibe.
It starts with the kids who work at the rental shop - on a ski exchange from Argentina, with their laid-back Latin-ski-bum tendency to understatement.
"What's fun at night around here? Where can I see some music?" I ask. The kids all live in the historic town of Telluride proper, not on the modern slope-side resort known as Mountain Village. There's a free gondola ride into town that runs till midnight. "The Sheridan is good," one of them tells me. "We play foosball there every night." Indeed they do: The saloon is packed that Tuesday evening (and it's the only place in town with a working fireplace, for the perfect après-ski).
I had perceived Colorado as a winter wonderland of the rich and famous. Expensive, rarefied, Prada-clad. But both Aspen and Telluride are rooted in a Wild West frontier mentality, a holdover from the turn-of-the-century gold- and silver-mining industry. This gives the towns a sense of authenticity that no amount of tourist-oriented development can entirely sublimate. Though, to be fair, Aspen is a lot further down that road.
"Why'd you move here from Aspen?" I asked the gent riding the lift with me, after a little idle chat. He had come here 26 years ago. He said: "Because it wasn't Aspen."
I can see his point. Aspen has been commercialized for sure, with $10-million homes hugging the hills and Gucci- attired ladies who lunch gridlocking the main street in Porsches and Audis. There's a McDonald's smack in the middle of town, around the corner from the hip James Perse boutique. You can get artisan-made gourmet dog food takeout from the restaurant at the Little Nell hotel.
To be fair, the rich need a place to hang, with requisite accoutrements. It's all a bit Sex and the City at the hip Aspen haunt Ute City, where big hair and tight jeans come to nibble mixed green salads, sip impossibly sweet cocktails and take pictures of each other.
But the beauty of Aspen is the canyon-wide span between the have and have-not-as-muches. At Jimmy's, across the street, the music is louder than the laughter, but it's so good - vintage AC/DC, Joe Jackson and the Pretenders - that you barely notice how great the margarita is that the bartender proudly pours. Jimmy cares - that's him holding court at table No. 1 - and when he notices our interest in his meticulous cocktail list, he bounds over to talk. Too bad none of us share his name, or we'd be invited to sign the wall, alongside thousands of other Jimmies.
There seems to be no argument that the skiing at Aspen is superior, if only because of the choice that comes with the four mountains (Aspen, Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass) that can be accessed with a single ticket, and via free shuttles from the town centre. But Telluride conjures emotion, not to mention having a fantastic terrain park and half-pipe. For a taste of something different, a snowmobile trip to the mining ghost town at Alta Lakes is a treat and a history lesson.
Both ski towns are worth returning to, for different reasons I like the glitz of Aspen, and I cut it some slack, given that my literary hero made it his home. Hunter S. Thompson, who lived in nearby Woody Creek and ran for sheriff of Pitkin County in the 1970s, is still a very hot topic. At one of his favourite spots in Hotel Jerome, he would place his entire drink order on arrival, specifying the delivery times and quantities. But he achieved fame as resident drinker at the Woody Creek Tavern, a 20-minute drive away, where Americana kitsch is displayed with museum-like reverence. It's worth the trip, even if the legendary margaritas are watery and warm, and the service doesn't live up to its bitchy reputation. (Never have I been so disappointed at being treated so nicely.)
For shopping, fine dining and indulgence (the St. Regis has the only hotel spa in town), Aspen is the place. But you'll pay for it. Hotels are roughly 30 to 50 per cent more a night than in Telluride, and on-hill food and beverage are a little more too.
Telluride is more playful, and it's easier to find. The town is fun to wander, and there's not a chain store or fast-food joint in sight, because of heritage protection that also limits building height and sprawl. It's got saloons, hippie cafés and the first bank Butch Cassidy ever robbed. There's no traffic; not even a traffic light.
But there's luxe here too. Last year's new hotel addition, the Capella, is a boutique-like chain with a growing list of international properties. The Lumière, also new, is a little more refined, smaller and exclusive. The fine dining at Allred's, located right on the hill with a vertigo-inducing view into town, is excellent, with emphasis on fresh local fare and a wine list with value-priced prizes.
One thing to note for anyone new to altitudes: You'll really feel it. Not just shortness of breath and less endurance, but for some there can be a lingering fatigue, nausea and headaches. You'll need a dose of oxygen. Telluride has a funky little dive called the Bubble Lounge, where you can sit at the bar and get a fix while you enjoy a Pabst and watch the locals play table tennis. In Aspen, the oxygen bar is in the uber-luxe spa at the St. Regis.
I like that. In Colorado, you can pick your poison and your price.
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Pack your bags
Most flights to Aspen or Telluride connect through Chicago or Denver. United Airlines flies into Aspen. Telluride's small airport is served by regional and private carriers. Major carriers fly to Montrose, about a 90-minute drive from Telluride.
Where to stay: Telluride Victorian Inn 401 West Pacific Ave.; 800-611-9893. From $159 in winter. New Sheridan Hotel 231 West Colorado Ave.; 800-200-1891. From $199.
What to do: Telluride
Bubble Lounge and O2 Bar 200 West Colorado Ave.; 970-728-9653; www.telluridebubblelounge.com. Cheap drinks, snacks and oxygen. Sheridan Opera House 110 North Oak St.; 970-728-6363; www.sheridanoperahouse.com. See big stars or local productions in an intimate, historic setting.
Where to Stay: Aspen
The Gant 610 West End St.; (800) 345-1471; www.gantaspen.com. rom $350. St. Regis Aspen 315 East Dean St.; 970-920-3300; www.stregisaspen.com. Hotel Jerome 330 East Main St. (970) 920-1000; www.hoteljerome.com. From $499.
What to do: Aspen Aspen Brewing Co. Local brews from the source. 555 North Mill St.; (970) 920-2739; aspenbrewingcompany.com. Jimmy's An "American" bar with a deep tequila list. 205 South Mill St., (970) 925-6020; www.jimmysaspen.com. Ajax Tavern Slope-side gastro-pub in the Little Nell Hotel. 675 East Durant Ave.; 888-843-6355; www.thelittlenell.com.