IT WAS my first selfie, and I’d never dreamed it could be so satisfying.
As soon as I’d taken a picture of myself, it was winging its way through cyberspace to Edinburgh, to the friend who’s a lifelong Hunter S Thompson devotee. There I was, sitting in the Woody Creek Tavern, the ramshackle bar where the guru of gonzo journalism once launched his campaign to become Aspen’s sheriff on the Freak Power ticket, with a beer in hand, a warm glow of schadenfreude, the sporting extravaganza of basketball’s March Madness on the television and the promise of some stellar skiing to come. Frankly, life could barely get much better.
In recent years, the mention of Aspen has conjured up images of American royalty at play; of past presidents sashaying down the slopes; of sports greats like Martina Navratilova and movie stars like Arnie Schwarzenegger. This former silver mining town became so upscale that it was, so the joke went, easier to buy a Picasso in Aspen than a pint of milk. But it wasn’t always that way. Indeed this was once a remote frontier town which in the Sixties and Seventies became a byword for a laidback, alternative way of life that revolved around the Rockies – embracing eccentricity and eschewing corporatism.
Judging from my recent visit, however, the financial crash of 2008 has pushed the pendulum back towards the old Aspen. Sure, there are still plenty of eye-wateringly expensive art galleries on every street, but the conspicuous and vulgar excess is gone and there are plenty of signs that the easy-living legacy of Thompson and his ilk lives on. As well as fine-dining restaurants we found little independent cafes, like Victoria’s or Peaches, that served interesting and affordable food, down-to-earth bars like Little Annie’s and the Hotel Jerome’s historic J Bar (which serves the famous Aspen Crud, made of melted vanilla ice cream and bourbon, which was served during Prohibition), vintage clothes shops such as Two Old Hippies and Aspen Eclectic, and affordable après-ski at the Ajax Tavern. No-one could ever describe the place as cheap and cheerful, but thanks to the sensibly-priced city centre supermarket we managed to exist fairly cheaply while staying at two self-catering condos, the serene Gant on the edge of town and the popular Aspen Square, a short hop from the main gondola.
But if Aspen has consciously attempted to rediscover its hippy soul – one of the many complimentary ski ambassadors took us on a tour of 25 on-piste “shrines” to his old friend Hunter and much-loved Sixties icons such as Jimmy Hendrix and John Denver – it hasn’t been at the expense of the resort itself. Nothing is old and ramshackle when you hit the slopes, and the scale of the investment in the infrastructure is dizzying. It’s certainly a different proposition from the days when the Tenth Mountain Division trained here, with over a billion dollars being spent to make Snowmass – one of the four mountains that make up the ski area – into one of the best family and beginner areas in America.
Although you’re best-off staying in Aspen if you want to savour the vibrant nightlife and the rows of quaint, Old West red-brick buildings which have made this town so popular, there are several other options. There are four mountains, and although the ski areas are not all connected, the network of free ski buses will shuttle you from one base area to another so frequently that this barely matters. Most of the locals still prefer to ski the distinctly Alpine areas of Aspen Highlands and Ajax, the original mountain which is nearest Aspen itself but has no territory suitable for beginners. The groomers on Highland are among the best in the world for high-speed carving, while the Highland Bowl is home to some of the steepest in-bounds skiing in North America (although you need to hike the final portion to the 12,000ft start, so it’s not for the faint-hearted or unfit). There’s also some fantastic back-country guided skiing for experienced powder monkeys.
There are, however, two other options that are significantly less hard-core. The first is Snowmass, a huge area which has more vertical than any other area in America and which includes terrain parks and half-pipes. It also boasts a popular purpose-built, family-friendly mountain village full of ski-in, ski-out accommodation just eight miles from Aspen. Like the fourth ski area, Buttermilk mountain, Snowmass is perfect for beginners and intermediates, which, along with the fact that it boasts some of the finest skiing in America, is one of the prime reasons why the resort continues to grow in popularity. A renowned (but expensive ski school), excellent on-piste dining and the fact that throughout the resort the slopes are virtually deserted outside of a few peak days means the place has something for everyone.
As ever in the States, the on-mountain experience is augmented by excellent customer service and some really nice extra activities. My son Lochie and I really enjoyed interludes such as a snowshoe tour of the aspen trees and the wildlife sites for golden eagles and owls that surround the Hallam Lake nature preserve. There are also regular cultural and artistic exhibitions which give a fascinating insight into the area, and particularly its Ute Indian heritage.
It’s fair to say that we really took to Aspen. It confounded lots of preconceptions, largely because the skiing is of such high quality that it makes most of the less important aspects of a ski holiday fade into irrelevance. The place certainly wasn’t as blingtastic as I’d expected, nor necessarily as expensive as its reputation would have you believe (though you could spend the GDP of a small African country in an afternoon if that’s what pushes your buttons). There’s also a genuine warmth to most of its inhabitants and a collective folk memory that not so long ago this was a city that almost elected Hunter S Thompson as its sheriff.
• Ski Independence are offering 7 nights at The Gant from £1,479 per person. Price is based on 4 sharing a 2 Bedroom Condo, including United Airlines flights from Edinburgh to Aspen and complimentary Aspen airport transfers
• www.ski-i.com or 0131-243 8097