Fathom founder Pavia Rosati spends a few days in Aspen rediscovering her ski legs and uncovering the town's many charms.
ASPEN, Colorado – If you do something for eight years, then don't do it for two decades, can you still say you do it? I'm talking about skiing, that sport I theoretically love but never make time for. "It's been so long, it's a different sport," my best friend and frequent skier Julie told me. "Better gear, better everything. You'll be starting over." Terrific. In the twenty years I'd spent wintering in Jamaica, I'd regained my ski virginity.
But I immediately accepted when I was invited to Aspen last winter. I've been many times, always for the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen in June, a season that's pretty lousy for snow.
Here was my chance to get back on the slopes. This involved prep work, starting with gear, which I borrowed from my friend (and Fathom ski reporter) Jay. I tried on the pants, jacket, goggles, hat, and accouterments I couldn't identify and took a selfie. I felt invincible.
OUT AND ABOUT IN TOWN
I arrive in Aspen mid-afternoon and check into the Hotel Jerome, a classic that recently underwent an extensive renovation and is now run by Auberge Resorts. The hotel is filled with Old West-themed accents: mining helmets in the lobby bar, leather belts lining the elevator, a "safe" to hide the mini fridge. It's pretty gorgeous.
But I couldn't dally: I have to get outside. Aspen in the winter. So familiar and so different! The green mountains and leafy trees I knew have been replaced by a playground of snow and icy formations.
Aspen is a walkable town at the base of Aspen Mountain, which is the reference point for everything in town. The central grid consists of five big streets bisected by about a dozen side streets. You're never more than a 15-minute walk from anywhere — a good thing, since I plan to see it all before dinner. I start skiing tomorrow, so I have to make use of my time.
My first stop is Peach's Corner Café, where specials are written on a scroll of butcher paper above the counter and local chips and honey are for sale. I settle in for soup and a sandwich that's equal parts hearty and healthy.
Back outside, I'm drawn like a magpie into Jetset, the outpost of the Swiss ski company, by the chic and overpriced ski gear and chandeliers. Purple ski pants? Do I dare? Moncler across East Hyman Avenue is more of the same, with snottier salespeople: gorgeous shop and even more overpriced Euro-style jackets.
For a small town, the shopping really is impressive. Actually, it's even impressive for a big town. I'm not a shopper, but I feel like one here. Pitkin County Dry Goods carries preppy outdoor gear as well as fashiony labels for men and women. The store is as unpretentious as its name implies. Their year-end sale is legendary. Max and Nuages sell high-end designer fashions and accessories for women — Balmain, Isabel Marant, Erdem.
But Aspen is more than just clothes. Think of all the second homes around here that need decorating! Chequers carries a great selection of tasteful housewares. I consider buying a shipping container's worth of plates and armchairs and deer-shaped salt and pepper shakers. Scenic Mesa turns me onto the appeal of buffalo leather handbags (a new one for me). I spend a lot of time (and I mean a lot — thank you, patient gallerist) pouring over the Picasso and Chagall prints in the back room at Galerie Maximillian, an unassuming gallery with a museum-worthy array of classic and contemporary art. My brain continues to get a workout at Explore Booksellers, where the excellent selection, impressive speakers series, and self-proclaimed "nutritarian" Pyramid Bistro upstairs would make any hippie college town proud. I make a mental note to read more, type less.
But first, I'll be skiing more. I stop in to Four Mountain Sports to get my ski equipment for the weekend. I don't know what I need, but they do, and they take care of everything, including arranging for my skis to be waiting for me at Snowmass mountain the next morning. This is genius! Talk about an easy, shlep-free service that everyone can use.
I'm primarily wandering without a purpose and liking the finds, so I keep following my nose. I make my way into Von Freytag Vintage in the Ute City mall and am struck by a tableau: a red eelskin wallet, a grass chicken, a globe, and a choker necklace. (All together now: These are a few of my favorite things.) I don't see anyone, but eventually a beautiful, stylish lady appears. Giselle Leal, shop owner. We start chatting, and it turns out that we're both from New York, both used to live in the East Village, and both had our first jobs at the legendary Mirabella magazine. She's my new best friend in Aspen, and we make a date to meet up at Justice Snow's, her favorite watering hole. (This spring, Giselle moved the shop to East Hyman Ave. and renamed it Magasin Aspen. New space, same style.)
For dinner, I meet my great pal Maureen Poschman at Casa Tua. I feel about this outpost the way I do about its sister in Miami: It's not as Italian as they claim and they charge waaaay too much for what they deliver. But the room and the lounge are so gorgeous that I'll go back anytime. Even if the crowd is full of cheeseballs. (The website auto-plays Michael Bublé. I mean...)
ON THE SLOPES
Time to hit the slopes. But first, a detour into horrific altitude sickness, which is alleviated by a massage and an infusion of oxygen at the excellent spa at Viceroy Resort in Snowmass. Altitude sickness is no joke, I learn the hard and headache-y way, and it's a good idea to be prepared with addresses for oxygen bars around town, like One Love, the head shop in town.
There are four mountains in the Aspen/Snowmass resort: Aspen Mountain, Snowmass, Buttermilk, and Aspen Highlands. They're well connected by a free and frequent shuttle bus. Snowmass is family-friendly (read more about that here), and it's where my fellow snow bunny Mary Anne and I head for our return to the slopes.
Our teacher is Jacqui Forster, a PSIA Level 3 instructor with the Aspen/Snowmass Ski and Snowboard Schools. She's patient and funny. She takes us to Sam's Knob, where the slope is gentle enough to get reacquainted with muscles I haven't used since 1992. Miraculously, the moves come back. Down Wildcat, down Howler, down Dawdler. When the slopes get steeper, Jacqui slows down the pace.
We stop mid-mountain at Elk Camp for lunch, an impressive spread of pizzas, soups, salads, and hot chocolates. The tables are packed, and everyone is happy. It's impossible to feel down at this altitude.
More! Let's keep going. We head off for the afternoon runs, Jacqui's instructions echoing in my head as I'm concentrating on my technique. Right. Faster! It doesn't take long for the adrenaline to surge, and soon I'm whooshing past skiers like a champ. Okay, I'm probably going at snail speed on baby slopes and the skiers I'm passing are 7 or 70 years old, but don't ruin this for me. I'm skiing? Yes, I'm really skiing.
I fall only once, as I approach the ski lift and Jacqui, who is watching my progress. I make a perfect stop, the picture of grace — and immediately wipe out.
"What was that?" she asks.
"Oh, I was rehearsing in my head how I was going to call my skier pal Julie to gloat, And I didn't even fall down once!"
The next day, we do a yoga for skiers class in the lodge at the top of Aspen Mountain. What a way to start the day; what a view from the heights. Aspen is a tougher mountain than Snowmass, and our plan is to head back to Snowmass after an early lunch at Ajax Tavern, the casual restaurant at The Little Nell, the best hotel in town. We could take the gondola back down, but Sally, who works at the Little Nell and is our guide for the day, encourages us to try an intermediate run.
We do. It's definitely harder, and I totally love it. After lunch, Sally and the others head off to Snowmass, while I spend the day alone on Aspen Mountain. Up and down, up and down, daring myself to try the more challenging slopes. It doesn't take long to get the feel of Aspen, to figure out the trails that I like. I almost can't stand how great I feel, even if my face has frozen through my two layers. I stop at the lounge for hot chocolate to thaw out and email my husband in London. "I know we're married, but do you ski?"
I'm a skier again. I hope he is, too.
Aspen has an extensive and varied après-ski scene, one that mixes locals, regular visitors, and newcomers. The town hosts so many annual events, there's always something to do. The tentpoles include Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Aspen Ideas Festival, and others at the Aspen Institute. I'm there the weekend of Soupsköl, an street fair event where dozens of local restaurants serve tastes of their best soup for everyone to judge. A hot soup festival! What's not to love? Its awesomeness is only rivaled by the ice sculpture festival happening at the same time, wherein competitors young and old spend the weekend carving hot tubs, tractors, and Mr. Potato Heads out of ice.
As awesome as that sounds, the highlight of the town events that weekend is the Wintersköl torchlight descent and fireworks down Aspen Mountain. We are having dinner at Element 47, The Little Nell's excellent, fine dining restaurant named for silver, the metal that made Aspen and the 47th element on the periodic table. After appetizers, we're given blankets and hot chocolate and a perch outside to watch as skiers carry torches down the mountain in the dark. It's sweet and beautiful, like something out of a Disney movie. The beauty becomes majestic with the fireworks show, which lasts forever. We go back to the table for four more courses and exceptional wines to match.
Ho-hum. No big deal. Just another Saturday night in Aspen.
Another night, I head to Justice Snow's. Giselle is right: This place is amazing. Charming Michele Kiley ("proprietress," per her business card) has transformed a former bank into a funky, laid-back bar and restaurant. I'm not one for cocktails, but Joshua-Peter Smith ("lead libation liason & cocktail mechanic") sends an assortment of masterful concoctions over to the table, and I find them irresistible. I say a silent prayer of thanks that I don't live in Aspen because if I did, he'd turn me into a drunk. Tomorrow's hangover might rival yesterday's altitude sickness, but I so don't care.
Creperie du Village is an dark, cozy, casual Alpine-y restaurant that serves a variety of crepes and galettes. Hearty ski food. L'Hostaria is a trattoria-style restaurant run by Italians (there's a lot of them in Aspen) who are obsessed with biking. On the advice of a Hamptons pal, I stop into Campo de Fiori to say hi to his friend, the manager, and spend a few animated hours making new friends of my own. At 39 Degrees, the fun bar at Sky Hotel, I meet producers from Al-Jazeera on a family trip. I stop into the always-hopping bar upstairs at Jimmy's because, well, because I do every time I'm in town, and you gotta respect traditions.
WHERE TO STAY
The night doesn't have to end in Aspen, but when it does end, you'll want to rest your head at any of these places.
After Hotel Jerome, I checked into Limelight Hotel, the friendliest lodge in town with a generous pet-friendly program and a commitment to green practices. The fireplace is always roaring; the outdoor hot tub is always steaming. My big, comfy room had views up Aspen Mountain, which got me extra psyched for the slopes.
The Little Nell, the sister hotel to Limelight, has it all and does it best: exceptional service, lovely rooms (a renovation is underway), slopeside location, and entertainment aplenty, from restaurants to music programs. It's Aspen personified: at once friendly and fancy.
St. Regis Aspen Resort is a Gilded Age beauty that rivals Little Nell at the high end. The recently renovated rooms have refined Western touches, like leather attaché cases built into desks for storage. Remède Spa has a stunning and soothing waterfall. Chef's Club by Food & Wine features menus by celebrated chefs from around the country.
The Sky Hotel, the Kimpton hotel across the street from the Little Nell, feels a party, with bright, pop-y décor, a great bar scene at 39 Degrees, and rooms that are cozy and friendly. I've stayed here before during the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen. It's fantastic for location, style, and price, as Kimpton hotels usually are.
I'M COMING BACK
Aspen gets a bad rap as expensive, exclusive, and snooty. And that's unfair because it's not the full picture. The large local population provides a counter-balance to the second (and third) homeowners. For everything that's overpriced, there's something that's reasonable. According to Sally, the locals do frequent the pricer restaurants, and have dinner at the bar to get the same food at better prices. Sally also tells me about the Aspen huts, which she visits with friends in the winter and the summer. (I was so intrigued I asked her to write about the 10th Mountain Division Huts for Fathom.)
In short, Aspen is a town for all seasons, with so much to thrill both body and mind. If you think it's not for you, think again.