City Slicker: Aspen

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The Independent Culture
Snow has been tumbling down on Colorado's Rocky Mountains since late summer. Several ski resorts are already operative and Aspen, the most famous of them all, opens for business in a few days' time. A truly international destination, it's just as well-known for the influx of celebrities and beautiful people as for its four big ski mountains

A brief history: After the 1879 discovery of silver in a remote Rocky Mountain ravine, barons set about building one of the best-planned mining towns in the country. The boom stopped abruptly 15 years later when the government changed to gold as the standard for currency. It made for a tough start to the 20th century for this mountain-locked community - its first ski lift, built during the Depression, had to be paid for out of poverty relief funds. In 1947, the newly-formed Aspen Skiing Company developed Ajax Mountain and, since the rich, chic and famous first targeted it as a winter playground in the Sixties, Aspen has not looked back.

Famous residents: John Denver has been getting his Rocky Mountain high here for years. Other well-known Aspenites include Don Johnson, Don Henley of the Eagles and... the good doctor - Hunter S Thompson - the finest living journalist, mobile laboratory and rearer of peacocks. Back in the Seventies he very nearly got elected Mayor with a "Freak Power" manifesto that promised to ban cars, tear up the roads and turf them, rename the place Fat City and put stocks on the courthouse lawn to punish "dishonest" dope dealers. He lives just out of town in the Owl Farm compound. His much-mentioned watering-hole, the Woody Creek Tavern, is out of favour these days, losing out to the less-touristed bars in Basalt, 30 miles down the road. If you see HST, pay him no attention

Local gossip: A good starting point is the free Aspen Daily News, the masthead motto of which reads: "If you don't want it printed, don't let it happen." Dr Thompson doesn't always take heed. Stories from outside of town come under the banner "Real World". Indeed.

People-watching: There are better things to do here (skiing and drinking for starters) than try to compile an A-to-Z checklist of celebrities. Beware, there are also lots of wannabes, who act as if they're more famous than the stars. That said, most of the people here are incredibly normal, and you don't have to be a millionaire to join in with the fun.

Budget Aspen: While the jet set are forking out $200 for a reserve Cabernet, there are still places where burger, fries and a beer cost five bucks. Drink prices are average, and generous happy hours can get the night off to a good start. Though the Trumps, Navratilovas and Nicholsons of this world might think nothing of taking a $1,000 suite in the Little Nell or Ritz-Carlton, it's usually possible to get a clean comfy room for around $100 (pounds 65). There are even dorm beds for a third of that price. Plan carefully and Aspen can be no more expensive than other US resorts.

Architecture: Aspen residents fight hard to preserve the Victorian core of their old mining town but can't stop the developers slapping up pseudo-Scandinavian condominium blocks on its fringes. Nevertheless a walk round the brightly-painted miner's cottages and elegant mansions of the West End district is a must. In the town centre, the old west splendour of the Wheeler Opera House and the Hotel Jerome, are both worth a visit.

After snow melt: The mud-season month of May sees many locals jetting off to Hawaii or Mexico for a short break before the start of the summer season. The ultimate thing at that time of year is to mountain bike the 21 miles over the continental divide to the equally wonderful town of Crested Butte, staying there overnight and returning to Aspen on horseback (the trip by car is more than 200 miles). For spectator sport, check out the town's rugby team - the Aspen Gentlemen.

TIM PERRY

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