Travel Aspen Extremes

Rich or poor, living the Rocky Mountain high life is easy. From luxury hotels and chichi cuisine to ramshackle motels and $2 crepes, Aspen has it all.

I WAS BASKING IN THE SUN ON THE PATIO OF AJAX TAVERN AT THE base of Ajax Mountain, watching what I consider to be the greatest show on earth. As I sipped an overpriced Meridian Chardonnay. a bright glimmer of gold lamé effortlessly crisscrossing down the snow-packed mountain caught my attention. Within seconds, the slim figure schussed to a stop 20 feet from my chair. The woman tossed back a mink-lined hood, unleashing a halo of curly bleached blonde hair, and reached for a Chanel lipstick holder that dangled from her chest. I shook my head and sighed. “Boy. that babe has it all.”

That’s no exaggeration-the babe in question was Ivana, the former Mrs. Donald-and every set of polarized Revo peepers on the patio was secretly watching her every move.

As she turned toward the gondola, a collective gasp escaped from the crowd-Ivana had a six-inch gash right up the back of her skin-light pants. I could have kissed my Gap stretch pants.

Welcome to Aspen. Colorado-the town once for millionaires only is now only open to billionaires. The millionaires have all moved “down valley” to more affordable digs in Basalt. But that shouldn’t stop anyone with $10 to spend on a glass of wine from hanging out in Aspen-there is plenty to do for free and you can mingle with the international jet set at the same time.

That is what makes Aspen unique. Despite its reputation as a glitzy resort, under the gold lamé facade. Aspen is still an old mining town. As late as the ’50s, Aspen was only reachable by dirt roads. Even today, downtown isn’t wall-to-wall five-star hotels-in between the Little Nell. St. Regis, and Hotel Jerome are plenty of ramshackle two-story motels with “refrigerated air” signs. If you can find a parking spot, you might inch in beside a shiny new Porsche or a weathered “67 VW bus.

1 go to Aspen several times a year-not that I’m rich or even slightly well-known, but because I have figured out how to do it cheap. Of course having a friend as a resident solves the expensive housing problem for me, but I’ve discovered plenty of bargains. Few people know that for every $500-a-night luxury hotel room, there’s one down the block for S59. And even fewer know how easy it is to hump ski lips with the elite without paying $65 for a daily lift ticket. If you purchase a six-day package before Dec. 1, the cost drops to $39 a day.

Of course winter is the most expensive time of the year. Many locals cover their yearly mortgage by renting their houses to tourists-rents for December run from $10,000 to $30,000. But I prefer Aspen in the summer-the temperature rarely rises above 85 and the Aspen trees shimmer against the blue sky-the perfect climate to play around outside. Or eat.

Most of the trendsetters spend $45 on a plate of venison at Pinons or walk away with a $200 tab for chichi sushi appetizers at Kenichi, but I usually fuel up at the infamous Popcorn Wagon located across from the Wheeler Opera House. (Once I struck up a conversation with Jill St. John and Robert Wagner while we all waited for the cook to prepare ratatouille crepes at $2 a plate.) And who’s to say you can’t hike to the top of Ajax with a picnic lunch and enjoy the same view of Maroon Bells as those dining at the ultra-private Aspen Mountain Club? Not only do you get the exercise, you also save the $90,000 membership fee.

With all of that leftover cash, you can afford to shop in town. Not in the market for a S1.850 silver bell buckle or $5,000 ostrich-skin boots? Then hit Gracey’s and the Aspen Thrift Shop tor the best “gently worn” clothing deals in the world. Most wealthy Europeans wouldn’t be caught dead wearing the same thing next season, so they dump their gear at resale shops on their way to the airport. We’re talking topof-the-line Bogner, Descente, and Rossignol without a scratch. II you hurry, you might get a real deal on Ivana’s ripped couture.

So it comes as no surprise that a town with great food and shopping attracts loads of people from Dallas. Insurance broker Steve Casey and his wife. Terry, founder of Goodbody’s Fitness Center. have owned a house in Aspen for more than 25 years, and they have plenty of tall tales. Get Steve going over a $2 pint at the Howling Wolf and he’ll tell you about the night that former Vegas showgirl turned ex-wife of Andy Williams. Claudine Longet. burst through the door of Casey’s good buddy Spider Sabieh’s plush Starwood home and shot him. Found guilty of criminal negligence. Longet spent 30 days in a cell redecorated by the city according to her specifications. Steve will also detail the night he was hanging around town when serial killer Ted Bundy decided he’d had enough of the aforementioned jail cell and jumped from the second-story window and skipped town. But one of the Caseys’ favorite yams concerns the night Dallas socialite Billie Owen won the “Miss High Crotch of Aspen” contest in a local bar.

And we thought they didn’t like Texans in Colorado.

I’m sure the contractors completing Tom Hicks* new mansion on Red Mountain don’t care that the ZIP code on his checks starts with 752. Nor do the decorators that imported the bear-skin rugs and custom staircase in the multimillion-dollar house that Dallas investor Sam Wyly and his wife, Cheryl, relocated to, solving their downtown parking problems. Last summer 1 bumped into Cheryl sitting on her Harley in front of Boogies Diner, a hip burger joint with a “eat heavy, dress cool” slogan, S60 T-shirts, and great milkshakes. Cheryl, a dedicated “Rolex Biker,” asked me if I needed a ride home and, not being even a “Swatch Biker.” 1 politely declined. “No, silly.” she laughed. “I mean back to Dallas on our plane.”

Who needs to go back to Dallas? I’ve been to Aspen many times when, if I hadn’t seen the mountains in my peripheral vision, 1 might have thought I was at NorthPark. During the annual Food and Wine Magazine Classic in June, the town is buzzing with Dallas foodies sampling expensive wine and talking real loud. Several summers ago, I was minding my own business, devouring my favorite breakfast of lemon pancakes at The Restaurant at Little Nell, when 1 spied Dallas chef Richard Chamberlain (yes, of Chamberlain’s) coming out of the kitchen in full chef gear. When I asked him what he was doing, he reminded me that he was the opening chef at Little Nell and his family occasionally returns for auld lang syne. Aspen has Chamberlain to thank for the exquisite “American Alpine Cuisine” that contributed to the hotel’s recent “Best Ski Hotel in the World” award presented by Bon Appétit magazine.

The Restaurant at Little Nell is one of the few success stories in a town that boasts more high-end, top-quality eateries per capita in the world. In fact, the lower-end restaurants have higher death rates, and chain restaurants like Carlos and Charlie’s rarely make it through one season.

But there are plenty of places to dine cheap. The Hickory House serves a mean barbecue for lunch, or you can carbo-load with a plate of homemade blueberry pancakes for about $15 less than those at Little Nell. (And the coffee at Hickory House is always hotter.) In the summer, you can laze away a whole afternoon on the patio of Main Street Bakery after devouring a grilled portobello mushroom sandwich. And no trip to Aspen would be complete without making the 20-minute drive to Woody Creek Tavern, hoping to spot journalist Hunter S. Thompson guzzling a pitcher of gonzo margaritas. 1 missed Thompson on my last trip, but found Ringo Starr sitting on the patio with ketchup dripping off his chin-my image of the fab four forever changed.

If money isn’t a problem, plenty of world-class restaurants are willing to serve a fabulous meal for $200 a person. Award-winning chef George Mahaffrey offers his snappy. Asian French-style cuisine (grilled elk loin with figs and sugar peas) at Conundrum. Around the corner. Cache Cache is the ultimate see-and-be-seen dining room, serving relaxed French food.

But beyond the jet-set reputation is the splendor of the mountains and the variety of activities available to enjoy them. Once the snow melts, Aspen becomes a mecca for risk-takers, thrill-seekers, and fierce competitors. If the psycho skiers intimidate you in the winter, be prepared to wince at what some people do for fun in the summer.

Like rollerblading 12 miles up Castle Creek Road to get in shape for America’s Uphill-a race where contestants have to either run on snowshoes or ski up the three-mile trek to the top of Ajax. Or if you prefer to bike, attach your bicycle to the back of a ski lift chair, and once you get off, ride down the steep rocky runs of the mountain. (Don’t forget the Band-Aids and Bactine.) If you really want a great workout, join the group that meets every morning at the base of Ute Trail. All you have to do is grab a log. throw it across your shoulders, and jog up the steep trail. Be warned: Several people have never returned.

You can jump out of the heat and into the Fryingpan River near Basalt. This gold medal stream is one of the prime fishing rivers in the country and is brimming with rainbows, browns, and cutthroat trout. Too serene? Grab a kayak and test your skill on the Roaring-and I mean roaring-Fork River, And hangliding is a great way to see the whole valley if you enjoy dangling from a kite and bumping around in wind currents four miles above the earth.

But the easiest and cheapest way to enjoy Aspen is to fill up a canteen (or grab a bottle of Evian) and set out on a hike. There are plenty of easy trails around Crater Lake. Maroon Bells, the Grottos, and kid-friendly paths through Pearl Pass. Of course, the perfect weekend getaway for ultra-athletes is a 19-mile trek across the continental divide to Crested Butte.

Aspen isn’t just for jocks-in the summer the hills are alive with music, artists, ballet, and theater in the park. The Aspen Music Festival and School presents more than 170 musical events from June 22 through August 20. The world-renowned Anderson Arts Center makes it easy to lake that pottery or woodworking class that you’ve put off for years.

But the best way to get the real feel for Aspen is to bar hop. Don’t be surprised if you spot a “Goldie” or a “Jack” draining a jrink at last call. Before he died in a plane :rash, you couldn’t go into a bar without tearing John Denver laughing loudly from a barstool. His legendary DWI count prompted a local pizza joint to station a cardboard cutout of Denver in his Porsche with a plastic bucket attached for donations to the “Help John Denver Pay His Fines Fund” with “Rocky Mountain High” blaring from the background.

Nobody in Aspen takes life too seriously-which naturally is the reason most people end up living here. Recently some friends and I ended up at the smoky Hotel Jerome bar and struck up a conversation with the 40ish bartender who easily could have graced the cover of GQ. Before long we had his story-a Ph.D. in English literature at Harvard who chucked his chance at tenure to be a ski bum. The couple sitting next to us chimed in-they too gave up high-paying professions to deliver pizza and lay bricks to support their hiking habit. Just then, a group of warm-and-fuzzy ski bunnies and their sugar daddies sauntered up to the bar and, not knowing any of us from Ivana, ordered a friendly nightcap. Aspen style-a round of scotch at $ 150 a shot.

A babe could get used to this Rocky Mountain toyland.

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