ASPEN, Colo. — “Go to Cloud Nine around 3:30 p.m.,” a friendly local said. “That place really goes off.”
He wasn’t kidding. On a recent March afternoon, music was pumping on Cloud Nine’s deck while partiers in T-shirts danced, hooted and sprayed Veuve Clicquot into the sun.
“One more,” they shouted at the deejay. Last call in the middle of the day? Well, people had to go home — by ski or snowboard.
A ski patrol hut turned restaurant, the Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro sits midmountain at Aspen Highlands, one of the four resorts that make up Aspen Snowmass.
It’s become a must on the party circuit, and boldfaced names have been known to drop by.
But don’t worry, there’s plenty to do in Aspen if you don’t feel like (or can’t afford) guzzling bubbly at 11,000 feet.
A testimony to the Colorado town’s sporty ethos is its hosting of the 2017 alpine skiing World Cup finals this week — the first time in 20 years the event, which ends a grueling monthslong racing season, is held outside Europe.
Young star Mikaela Shiffrin looks poised to be the first American since 2012 to win the overall women’s title.
Quirky and welcoming
Aspen, with a population of 6,800, has a reputation as a playground for the rich and famous — which it is, make no mistake.
But it’s also a funky town with a welcoming spirit (the Aspen Gay Ski Week celebrated its 40th anniversary in January), endearing quirks and seriously good skiing.
Embodying that attitude are the “shrines” that are half-hidden in the trees off ski runs at all four resorts, and include elaborate tributes to famous former locals like singer John Denver and gonzo writer Hunter S. Thompson, as well as more oddball picks like the Blackhawks hockey team and Calvin and Hobbes.
Located in the Roaring Fork Valley, Aspen experienced its first boom in the 1870s with a silver rush. Later would come white gold, when the town turned to snow sports.
Chicago businessman Walter Paepcke founded the Aspen Skiing Company in 1946, but didn’t stop there as he was adamant that a healthy body and healthy mind go together. So he and his wife, Elizabeth, also founded the Aspen Institute (which runs the Aspen Ideas Festival) and the Aspen Music Festival.
Over the years, the Aspen Skiing Company incorporated the nearby ski hills of Aspen Highlands, Snowmass and Buttermilk; a single lift ticket ($159/day for an adult, but advance and multiday purchases offer deep discounts) gives you access to all four resorts, which are linked by free shuttles.
Of the four, Buttermilk is the smallest, a stone’s throw away from Aspen-Pitkin County Airport (which provides easier access to the area than Denver, a four-hour drive away, and fares better in winter weather than many similar mountain airports).
Those Winter X Games you might have heard of, every January? They’re held at Buttermilk, which also offers cool beginner runs.
Snowmass is the largest resort of the quartet and is packed with extra-long, extra-wide intermediate runs, while Highlands is loaded with challenging steeps.
Town and slope
But it’s Aspen that offers the best mix of slope action and town life.
This is the kind of place where you can step off a gondola and walk over to Van Cleef & Arpels, where a ski bum can sit next to a millionaire at the Wheeler Opera House, which opened in 1889 in the center of town and hosts a variety of events (check out its restaurant Justice Snow’s, too).
Dining options run the gamut. Meat lovers will like the sausage board ($17 at dinner) at nearby Meat & Cheese, for instance, and may want to look for local favorites such as elk on menus.
One of the best deals in town may well be the Cooking School of Aspen, which offers five-course “experiential” dinners for $85, and occasional three-course prix-fixe with live music co-sponsored by Jazz Aspen Snowmass (JAS), starting at $105 for the dinner-and-show combo.
JAS concerts can also be found at nearby luxury hotel the Little Nell, starting at $40.
For an on-slope dining experience, Lynn Britt Cabin at Snowmass is a delight — an old-school chalet serving fare several steps above your usual mountain food lodges.
For a more expensive experience, a snowcat will drop you off for dinner at the cabin (a four-course meal starts at $85 for children, $115 for adults).
Where to stay
Admittedly, ski season accommodations can get quite pricey.
At Aspen’s Limelight Hotel, the perks include free lift tickets for stays three nights and over, and complimentary bikes (rates start at $180 in the summer and $400 during ski season).
A more affordable option is the Mountain Chalet Aspen, where an economy twin ranges from $114 (Nov. 23 to Dec. 8, April 2-15) to $244 (Jan. 29-March 18).
In Snowmass, a luxe option is the ski in/ski out Viceroy, which boasts elaborate spa treatments and the de rigueur ski valet (studios start at $225/night in the summer and $395/night this winter).
Do not fear if your budget doesn’t reach those heights — just head over to Basalt, a cute little mountain town 18 miles from Aspen, where you’ll find plenty of Airbnbs.
The best way to avoid the headache of parking on the mountain is to drive over to the Brush Creek Road Intercept Lot on Route 82 and hop on one of the free buses to the resort of your choice.
It’s cheap, it’s convenient — the only thing left is to have fun.