Glitz, fun and extravagant are a few of the many words describing world-famous Aspen, Colo. It’s also one of the most beautiful places on earth, which is why visitors from all over the world continue to make it one of the Southwest’s most popular destinations. Founded as a mining camp in 1880 during Colorado’s silver boom, the town was named for the multitude of aspen trees at its location along the Roaring Fork River, a tributary of the Colorado. By 1893, Aspen was a prosperous town of 12,000 citizens boasting banks, a hospital, two theaters, an opera house and electric lights. Then a decline in mining saw the town’s population fall to just 700 residents, according to the 1930 census. But Aspen’s fortune was to change forever at the end of World War II, when Friedl Pfeifer, a member of the 10th Mountain Division who had trained in the area, hooked up with industrialist Walter Paepcke and his wife, Elizabeth. The three, realizing that there was potential gold in them thar hills, founded the Aspen Skiing Corporation in 1946, and the city quickly became a popular destination ski resort.

Today, the town, 220 miles southwest of Denver, is renowned not only for its fabulous skiing, but also as a cultural hub that is home to the Aspen Music Festival and School, the FilmFest, the Aspen/Santa Fe Ballet and the Food and Wine Classic.

But it was Aspen’s superb skiing that first attracted (and still beckons) skiers from around the globe. Five new lifts have been added in recent years, and more than 200 acres of in-bound backcountry terrain have been opened. Skiers and shredders can choose from a great variety of runs, pipes and parks ranging from easy to expert. One lift ticket (this year’s prices range from $80 to $160 for two days when purchased in conjunction with lodging) allows access to Aspen, Buttermilk, Snowmass and Aspen Highlands mountains. For $1,800, frequent visitors can avail themselves of the Premier Pass, which allows unlimited skiing and/or riding on any of the four mountains during the winter season, access to summer lifts and equipment and apparel discounts. Winter visitors who don’t ski have plenty of options as well. Public skating sessions and lessons are available at the Lewis Ice Arena. Drop-in sessions for adult hockey and the little-known sport of curling are open to the public. For folks who prefer more temperate pursuits, the Aspen Recreation Center offers yoga, Pilates, spinning and access to a weight room and fitness machines. When the outdoor weather turns warm, Aspenites trade their skis for lug-soled boots and take advantage of the spectacular scenery. The Maroon Bells peaks, towering at 14,000 feet over a glacial valley that harbors Maroon Lake, are a favorite hiking destination. Set in the midst of protected National Forest acres, the valley teems with wildflowers and fauna. The road to Maroon Bells is open to all nonmotorized transport (bikers, hikers, horseback riders) at no charge, but automobile access is limited, and a $10 fee is levied; the charge is waived for vehicles with a National Parks Golden Eagle pass .

There are a host of other ways to pass the time during the summer months. Golfers may find themselves spending more time gazing at the magnificent vistas surrounding the fairways than concentrating on an important putt. The Aspen Golf and Tennis Club is a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary, recognized for its commitment to environmental planning and wildlife and habitat management. Its beautiful 18-hole course has complete clubhouse facilities, a driving range and putting greens. Regulars pop over to Shlomo’s on the Green for eats and drinks after finishing the 18th hole. Tennis is also a summer favorite — six clay and two hard courts are available for public use. The Iselin courts are available on a first come, first served basis and are free to the public. For those who prefer more exotic pursuits, hot air balloons soar across the Roaring Fork Valley on rides of 60- to 90-minute duration. Backcountry Jeep tours traverse the less-traveled sides of the mountains, which offer striking views of the valleys, flats and passes. Mountain bikers can power up any number of backcountry or single-track trails; rock climbing and paragliding are available throughout the valley for adventurous souls.

Perhaps the greatest of Aspen’s pastimes poses a threat only to one’s credit line — shopping. The city’s 12-block commercial district is lined with tony boutiques offering everything from authentic Western wear to haute couture. Christian Dior, Brioni, Ralph Lauren Polo and Fendi stand alongside Loro Piana, with its sumptuous wools and cashmeres, upscale accessories and gifts. D & E Woman bills itself as a one-of-a-kind concept store carrying”B” by Burton, Orange, Diesel and Volcom. Boogie’s Retail carries over 50 brands of jeans and boasts the largest shoe department in Aspen. All that shopping can work up an appetite, especially at 7,800 feet. The aforementioned Boogie’s serves up burgers, fries, shakes and malts in an informal, diner-style atmosphere. Serious gourmets frequent Pinons, Mezzaluna, Sage and the Century Room inside the historic Hotel Jerome. Join the locals for a friendly drink at The Bar at the Little Nell Hotel, Syzygy or the J Bar. The Library in the Hotel Jerome offers up premium drinks, fine wines and cigars until 1 a.m. With a handful of shopping bags and a full tummy, it’s time to turn in for the night. Accommodations range from the economical to the luxurious. At the high end is the 5-diamond (AAA) and 5-star (Mobil Travel Guide) Little Nell, just 10 steps away from the Silver Queen Gondola on Aspen Mountain. Rooms have Belgian wool carpeting, marble bathrooms, oversized beds with cushy down comforters and bar and refrigerator units. There’s twice-daily maid service, a complimentary town and airport shuttle, ski concierge, fitness room, room service and laundry valet, restaurant and bar. All this luxury will run about $300 for a standard room in the off-season to $3,300 for a suite during the holidays (price per night).

Travelers without trust funds can check into the Mountain Chalet Aspen, where a basic room with two single beds and a private bath runs from $60 to $200, depending on the season.

When making reservations, be aware of Aspen’s myriad cultural events, during which many hotels are booked a year or more in advance. The Aspen Summer Music Festival brings the most promising young musicians in the world to study with renowned guest artists. Since 1949, music lovers have flocked to the festival to enjoy impromptu and organized concerts featuring tomorrow’s musical luminaries. Next year, the Festival will run June 19 through Aug. 17. At the other end of the spectrum, Jazz Aspen/Snowmass attracts jazz greats, who perform under a tent in Rio Grande Park in June and then again over Labor Day weekend. Cinephiles gather for various Aspen FilmFest events, including an Academy shorts screening in late December and the main festival, held in September. Dedicated foodies are already planning to attend the Aspen Food and Wine Classic, scheduled for next June 13–15, a Bacchanalian weekend of wine tasting, food sampling and cooking demonstrations by top chefs.

A little less sophisticated, but family friendly, is the Magical Family Fun Fest held every July at nearby Snowmass. The event offers continuous magic and puppet shows, street entertainers, juggling workshops, musicians, mimes and stage shows. Best of all, nearly all the activities are free — that alone makes it one of the town’s best attractions. In spite of all its glitz and patina, there’s a lot to love about Aspen. There’s no charge to wander the streets, admiring the charming Victorian architecture and entertaining the possibility of bumping into Goldie and Kurt. Breathing the crisp alpine air and gazing at the mountains, valleys and lakes are also free. That’s the beauty of Aspen — it can be savored by the privileged few as well as regular folks. And that’s why, in spite of its flashy reputation and stratospheric prices, people from all walks of life keep coming back.

Author: Lois H. Feinstein