It is a surreal setting for a big-city girl like me. I am in a forest of aspen trees, their slim bare trunks rising high into the sky. The ground is covered with snow. The sun filters through in streaks. The mountain air is crisp, and it is so quiet you can almost hear the silence. In the distance a sudden dusting of snow comes off a tree like a burst of confetti. And in the middle of it all, I am kneeling down on the forest path, examining footprints made by an elk, a weasel and a snowshoe hare, who have somehow managed to criss-cross the same patch of ground. I am on snowshoes myself—think of them as giant flip-flops strapped on to your own shoes, spreading your weight on a larger surface so you don’t sink into the snow—out on a nature walk in the mountains that surround Aspen, along with Scotty, my guide, who talks about the animals and trees with such intensity and affection that I am spellbound.
Suddenly, there is nothing in the world more important than understanding that the elk congregate nearby in the summer to have their babies, the black bear are hibernating now with a heartbeat of just eight per minute, and my snowshoe design was inspired by the hare, and if we kept the same ratio of body-weight-to-foot-surface as the hare, my snowshoes would be the size of a bus. What’s more, the entire forest of aspen trees is actually one massive living organism as all the roots underneath are shared.
I wonder what it is about Aspen—this tiny town in Colorado, US, with a population of barely 6,000—that brings our family back over and over again. The skiing? Sure, the skiing is fabulous with four mountains in the vicinity—Aspen Mountain, at the base of which the town is laid out, plus Snowmass, Buttermilk, Highlands—a full array of slopes for every skill level. Stunning natural beauty? Yes, it is quite something, equally gorgeous in summer as it is in winter. But here’s the thing—Aspen is more than a beautiful ski resort. It has something extra, this ability to engage, an endless line-up of things to do (whether it is a gentle nature walk on snowshoes or the adrenalin-thumping X Games with professional snow athletes), a full calendar of cultural events spanning music, books, art, film, food, wine, environment, foreign policy, leadership, you name it—so that any time you land up something interesting is on. Plus it has excellent restaurants, great shopping, and an amazing number of art galleries. Despite the steady stream of celebrities, Aspen manages to retain its down-to-earth small-town charm and the people are genuinely warm and friendly.
Most people you meet have been pulled in by their love of skiing, and simply stayed on. Klaus Obermeyer, for example—amazing energy, we watch him speak at a Aspen History 101 show in town—came to Aspen in 1947. He is 93 years old, still skis every day, and also runs the Obermeyer skiwear company. He started as a ski instructor and observed that it was hard staying warm on the slopes, and his first innovation—the goose-down parka stitched from a comforter his mother gave him—came about. He sees the mountains as his laboratory, and has been innovating ever since—high-altitude sun lotion, mirrored sunglasses, double-layered ski boots, nylon wind-shirt, to name a few. “The days you don’t ski, they don’t come back,” he says, and the room responds with instantaneous applause. Clearly, that’s the motto of many others in the audience.
I find it remarkable that many young people work at two jobs to make enough money to stay in an expensive place like Aspen, just so they can ski in this beautiful setting. Our ski instructor Katie—her pin reads “Living the Dream”—works the full day on the slopes, a job she absolutely adores, and then waitresses at a restaurant till midnight. She is full of stories—when she learns we live in Dubai, she tells us she trained a group of Saudi Arabian women, all dressed in designer ski wear, who never repeated an outfit in the two weeks they were with her. Similarly, Scotty, my snowshoeing guide, works all day on the mountains and then as a doorman at a bar till 3am, where apparently Paris Hilton showed up recently.
Does he ever get bored with the same old mountains every day? He thinks for a moment, his eyes light up, and he explains the unique thrill of skiing, how he marvels afresh at the magnificent setting every single day. By the way, Katie has a degree in finance and Scotty graduated in architecture, but the draw of the mountains is irresistible.
The food is a treat, whether at a fancy restaurant or a simple cafeteria. Aspen hosts the famed Food & Wine Classic every summer (a gala with celebrity chefs and wine experts) and now there is a restaurant—Chefs Club by Food & Wine—featuring the works of four Best New Chef award winners. It is fresh seasonal fare with innovative twists—for example, the traditional roasted butternut squash soup served with a jalapeño doughnut, totally yum. The restaurant by the Elk Camp gondola station is new too—it is cafeteria style, a grab-and-go meal before you hit the slopes again, but the food is surprisingly delicious, with an accent on local and organic—hearty soups, wood-fired oven pizzas, a rotisserie station, and a sumptuous salad bar.
Aspen has almost every kind of cuisine on offer, many of them long-standing favourites— Kenichi, serving sushis and Asian dishes; Campo de Fiori, a buzzing Italian trattoria; Matsuhisa, chef Nobu’s outpost in the mountains; and Boogie’s Diner, typical American menu.
Just when you think there can’t be more food options, we hear of the Soupsköl, an annual soup-cooking contest where local restaurants fight it out for the best soup title. It is a big deal that drew a crowd of 3,000 people last year. Unfortunately, it is our last day and we are going to miss the Soupsköl. But hey, that gives us a perfectly good reason to come back.
Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult of the Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury.
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