I must admit, I landed in Aspen with a plethora of pre-conceptions. As an avid skier, I was itching to hit the slopes -- but also warily ready to navigate some snooty fur coats and boulder-sized diamonds on every snow-lined street. A playground of the super-rich, Aspen is home to some of the most expensive holiday homes in the world (just looking at the real estate ads on the airport wall is enough to make you wince -- prices start at about $12m), and I'd heard it was a very cliquey place. Not so. Within one day of landing, we'd met so many amazing locals, my experience of this awesome, special place ended up being the complete opposite to what I'd expected. In a really, really good way.
My partner and I stayed at the St Regis: a stunning 5* hotel that welcomes you inside with a warm, wood-paneled lobby and a roaring log fire. Glass and ice cubes clink from the cocktail bar in the corner, as guests snuggle in giant leather armchairs. Through a huge floor-to-ceiling window at the back of the lounge, shines that white snowy light -- and through it you can see the steam floating up from an outdoor pool -- and behind that -- the awe inspiring mountains.
We unpacked, and wandered across the road to rent our skis and boots from Four Mountain Sports -- they're efficient, friendly and once they heard we were spending our first day skiing in the neighboring resort SnowMass -- they immediately offered to have our equipment transferred and stored there, free of charge.
With a few hours to kill before dinner, we hit the outdoor hot-tub, which was filling up with a few après-skiiers, and as if on cue, a lady wheeled out a pop-up bar to serve cold beer and hot chocolate, out on the deck. It's pretty breath-taking to be in bustling Los Angeles one minute and -- merely a couple of hours later -- sitting in a bubbling Jacuzzi looking up at snowboarders whizzing by in thick powder. So far every person we'd met -- staff, guest or Aspen resident -- was so good-natured, down-to-earth and helpful, I actually joked to my fiancé that I wanted to move here.
If I thought the afternoon was cool, then dinner was on another level. Chefs Club is a restaurant located inside the St Regis, in collaboration with Food & Wine magazine. The publication cherry-picks chefs to create signature dishes and cocktails on a rotating basis throughout the year. The result is a stage for an eclectic, experimental menu, plus a $2 million custom-built open-plan interior, so diners can watch their meal come to life. Not only did we luck out and manage to sneak inside the kitchen to meet Didier Elena, our chef (his story is brilliant: studying to become a doctor, he happened to sit next to Alain Ducasse in a Monaco barber shop in 1987, and went on to become one of Ducasse's most successful protegee's), but we also chanced upon the Rolls Royce of waiters, Clement. You just know, when you sit down for dinner, what kind of ride your server is able to give you. And this man was graceful, knowledgeable, a total foodie and quite frankly, made our dining experience an even bigger pleasure. Ask for Clement if you go! So what to eat? The Yellow Fin Tuna to start comes with a crisp pastry lavash, filled with pear vanilla puree. It's light and sweet. To follow, I had the Gulf Red Grouper, which was lightly browned and served with a not-too-rich savory crème Anglaise. Delicious. Cocktails? You gotta go bold. The Jimador on Horseback, described as 'Devils on Horseback in liquid form', was just that: a smoky mix of mescal, lime, sherry and Benedictine.
I'm one of those skiiers who likes to be on the first lift up the piste in the morning. So at 9am I headed out on an all-day lesson with Joanne Kates, an instructor who turned out to be an absolute legend. We gossiped like old mates on the chairlifts and tackled some fun off-piste mogul-fields, something I'd wanted to learn how to master properly for years. She drummed bad technique habits out of me, and took the time to map out great routes for my fiancé and I to take for the next couple of days. I couldn't recommend Joanne higher as a teacher (just don't book her next time I want to go -- I call first dibs!).
Even on a sunny day in March, Aspen is still high enough to be very chilly. So I wrapped up properly in Oakley trousers, their new Breast Cancer Awareness pink goggles, plus a jacket and hat by the mother of all mountaineering gear brands, Swedish label Fjallraven. It's definitely not warm enough to skimp on layers. Having said that, stopping for lunch in the sunshine is the moment to undress a bit, and bake on the deck of Elk Camp, the equivalent of a baby Wholefoods, 12,000 feet up a mountain. Yummy local fare is whipped up by the chef -- 90 percent of the meat served is from nearby farms (try the Elk dogs bbq'd outside, or the angus beef chilli which I scoffed a bowl of). An enormous salad bar with home-made dressings is on offer for healthier appetites, whilst a wood-fire pizza bar and dessert counter (warm peach cobbler anyone?) are the naughtier temptations. Here we met and chatted to a bunch of families and couples, mostly regular annual visitors, who said Elk Camp was the best place bar none to eat lunch on the mountain.
Now, after a couple of days' worth of full-on exercise, our muscles were aching like crazy. So we took ourselves off to The Aspen Club & Spa for a couples' massage, which was excellent. A gym, tennis club and spa rolled into one, the atmosphere here is very mellow: it's full of locals rather than tourists. An hour of delicious pummeling later, we sat by the waiting-room fire in our robes sipping tea (bliss), before being given a ride back to the hotel by one of the receptionists, who (I think) realized we weren't really fit to walk anywhere in our wobbly, tranquil state. A little nap later and it was time for one more epic dinner, before our flight home the next day.
Element 47 is a small, modern restaurant in the famous Little Nell hotel, serving a fascinating menu. For those who want to indulge, this is the place for you. There's a decadent list of caviar, truffles and vintage Champagne, followed by a list of luxurious appetizers: wagyu steak tartare, pheasant terrine, foie gras and oysters. Personally, I can't handle too much rich fare, so I opted for a fresh winter vegetable salad followed by sea bass on a bed of black rice, red curry and coconut. It was one of the tastiest yet light meals I've had in a long while, and considering how early we kept getting up in the morning, it was the perfect choice.
I could go on for another 1000 words about our trip: suffice to say I'm now an Aspen addict, and cannot wait to plan our next visit. Laid-back, welcoming, fun and tasty... whether you ski or not, this town is magical.
The Best Places in Aspen for...
Hot chocolate: Victoria's, it's rich and spiced with cinnamon.
First-time Skiiers: Snowmass. 20 minutes away on a free bus, it's a lot less steep than Aspen, and perfect for beginners.
Snowboarders: Naked Lady. An easy, fun Blue run, also in Snowmass.
A Burger: Ajax Tavern. Right next to the Silver Queen gondola base, this is a busy, chic sportsbar-meets-gastropub with, in my opinion, the best double cheeseburger and skinny truffle fries in Aspen.
Slope-side Refuel: The top of Big Burn. Most days there are mountain staff handing out hot cider and mini Clif Bars to skiiers.
Light dinner: Justice Snow. Try their melt-in-the-mouth flatbread, the toppings change each week.
Dessert: The Popcorn Wagon on the corner of Mill and Hyman. Skip his popcorn and try his S'Mores flavored crepe. The melted marshmallow inside a pancake is out of control. Ski it off tomorrow!
A night-cap: L'Hostria. An Italian restaurant constantly packed with locals. Sit up at the bar and knock back some Grappa with the hilarious barman, Scotty.
Dancing: Belly Up. There's a different live band every night.