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Great Escapes: Aspen

Posted Wednesday, Feb. 06, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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If You Go

Hotel Jerome: Rooms from $895, 970-920-1000; hoteljerome.aubergeresorts.com

The Little Nell: Rooms from $905, 970-920-4600; thelittlenell.com

Viceroy Snowmass: Rooms

from $695, 970-923-8000; www.viceroyhotelsandresorts.com

Westin Snowmass Resort: Rooms from $289, 970-923-8200; www.westinsnowmass.com

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It's a full house at the new Element 47 restaurant at The Little Nell in Aspen on a Friday night in early January. At one table, a flamboyant couple in matching cowboy hats and aviator sunglasses clink glasses of Bordeaux. A regal woman in the lounge loudly extols the qualities of mink over any other fur. Blasé stares meet each new arrival, prompting my companion to offer these directions to the restroom: "Go into the lobby until you feel self-conscious, then take a left."

You say "recession," Aspen says "recovery." The country's most upper-crust ski resort has ridden out recent challenges -- from the fiscal slowdown to warming winters -- on the considerable bank of its reputation. Even last year, during one of the driest winters in recent memory with scant snowfall, skier days were only down 1 percent. Unlike in most other ski areas in the country, the international market contributes significantly to local economic buoyancy; about one-fifth of all Aspen skiers are from Australia, the U.K., Germany and, most notably, Brazil.

A batch of December storms has provided a solid base for this ski season. And the debuts of new properties -- from mountain terrain expansion and quicker ski lifts to new hotels and restaurants -- have gilded the already very attractive lily.

Whether the prevailing winds blow warm or arctic, Aspen, like a fashionista, changes with each season. Its base -- the red-brick, 19th-century mining-era buildings gridded into the bottom of the looming Ajax Mountain -- remains the same, but the dressing, or much of it, changes annually.

And today's changes, of course, are on trend. Whatever the big-city idea, wee Aspen -- population roughly 6,700 -- offers an iteration.

Speakeasy-style bar with craft cocktails, absinthe served fountain-style and punchbowl service? The new Justice Snow's does all that in a fitting corner of the historic Wheeler Opera House.

Single-item, fetish-focused restaurant? The Meatball Shack takes the lowly meatball in many directions, including tartare, and expands it to varieties, including lobster.

Retro-design hangout? The lounge in the funky Wildwood Lodge at Snowmass stocks mismatched lamps, libraries of '70s-vintage paperbacks and classic board games.

A pop-up something-or-other? Indeed, The Oasis, a pop-up champagne bar, serves bubbles and caviar from a different location on Aspen Mountain weekly.

"We're the biggest little small town around," says Aspen native Connie Power, who helped launch the Viceroy Snowmass as sales and marketing director a few winters ago and is now doing the same at this year's headline debut, the Hotel Jerome.

Make that re-debut. The 1889-vintage hotel is the oldest in town, but under new operator Auberge Resorts, known for its tony boutiques including Napa's Auberge du Soleil and Los Cabos' Esperanza, the Jerome was reborn in December as a luxury resort with a significant local following (witness the golden retrievers and chocolate Labs warming the ankles of their cocktail-swilling owners in the Living Room lounge, atmospherically overstuffed with sofas, cocktail tables and vintage collectibles such as an early manual typewriter and a 38-star American flag).

The Jerome is poised to challenge the reign of The Little Nell, which shows no signs of surrender. Late last year, management closed the highly regarded restaurant Montagne, developed a locavore menu, redecorated in contemporary art and reopened it as Element 47, possibly the best restaurant in town. Lush, photogenic dishes span scallop ceviche with pomegranate, a salad of 25 kinds of roast vegetables, and duck with kumquat and ginger -- with eye candy as a staple side.

About half of all visitors to Aspen don't ski, according to estimates, but they apparently do shop (this holiday season Mariah Carey was spotted shopping, Will Farrell was skiing and Paris Hilton was doing both). A new Kate Spade outlet joined the list of luxury retailers such as Gucci and Prada that line the streets, and Chicago-based Casterline/Goodman Gallery opened a Western outpost for its contemporary collection, dealing works by Gerhard Richter, Jim Dine and Roy Lichtenstein.

Skiing, of course, remains Aspen's raison d'etre December to April. The ski company manicures four different ski areas, covering all bases with steep townie Aspen Mountain, rugged and rangy Aspen Highlands, beginner- and X Games-friendly Buttermilk and sprawling, something-for-everyone Snowmass.

The last of the aforementioned has been expanded with 230 skiable acres in an area known as Burnt Mountain; a new midmountain restaurant, Elk Camp, in modern glass and wood with gas fire pits on the patio; and a base area increasingly offering a diverting life apart from Aspen -- located nine miles down valley. The new Westin Snowmass joins the Viceroy, creating a critical mass of accommodations most convenient to the slopes. Now you don't have to go to Aspen for a beer hall (try the new Ranger Station), kegged cocktails (at Eight K, the restaurant in the Viceroy) or a museum (the Ice Age Discovery center tells the tale of 30 mammoth remains recently found under a snow-making pond).

And under the helmets and Gore-Tex, there's even the occasional celebrity: In my gondola one day, former Swiss Olympian Stefan Kaelin chatted away affably before disappearing downslope in a circuit of graceful arcs -- yet another case for Aspen style.

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