Celebrity slopes in Aspen

Aspen has an aura about it. Even as you turn out of Denver's new international airport and down Interstate 70, at the wheel of the Jeep you need to hire to negotiate the icy roads, you feel you are heading for a different, more exclusive world. As others turn off the highway towards, say, Crested Butte or Copper Mountain, you feel a warm glow of superiority as you go on to what must surely be a better place. This feeling of affluence is replaced by one of total inadequacy as you pass Aspen's airport. There are very few vehicles in the car-park. The runway, on the other hand, is cluttered with tiny planes. If you really want to cut a dash, forget about the four-wheel drive; you need your own wings.

The slopes at Aspen are littered with celebrities. Not that you can possibly tell who's who under all the hats and goggles. But you know they are there because every morning the Aspen Times tells you they are. Many of them apparently have no idea how to ski. Last month, the country singer Lyle Lovett joined in a race, at the end of which he admitted he'd never been on skis before but had found it pretty similar to motocross. So if you want to blend in, don't worry that your inability to do a perfect parallel turn will let you down. There is only one thing to remember: the dress code is fur - round your head, round your neck, or trimming your ski jacket. Political correctness has yet to impose man-made alternatives on the Aspen dress code.

There are plenty of places to buy an appropriate outfit if you need one. Aspen flourished in the late 19th century as a supplier for the gold and silver mines which were set up during Colorado's mining boom. Most of the centre of town has survived, although the Victorian homesteads on the surrounding hillsides have been destroyed to make room for the vast new mansions owned by the rich and famous. But the old buildings in the town centre now contain shops selling ski gear, antiques, and very expensive clothes.

There is one supermarket. Nothing else here gives the impression that it has anything to do with normal life. Anyone who comes to Aspen is here to ski and be seen. The people who work in the town can't afford to live here - they commute from the surrounding countryside.

Lyle Lovett and his ilk apart, plenty of people come here for some serious skiing. The resort consists of four mountains. The facilities are run by one company, so the same lift pass can be used everywhere, and all the slopes are linked by a continuous free bus service from Aspen's main square. So a family or group with widely differing skiing abilities can all share accommodation in the centre of Aspen and be within easy reach of a mountain whose slopes match their talents.

The downtown ski area is Aspen Mountain, renowned for its expert slopes, and completely unsuitable for beginners. One of its pistes, Ruthie's Run, is used for World Cup downhill racing. This is the place to come for Aspen's most challenging skiing, although some regulars feel it has been overrun by people who are simply out to make an impression. They prefer instead to go to Aspen Highlands, which is quieter but almost as demanding. Beginners and intermediates will find more gentle slopes at Buttermilk or Snowmass. The real challenge here is not the skiing, but avoiding the snowboarders who make up about half the people on these mountains, practising the fastest-growing winter sport in America and the latest Winter Olympic discipline. Both Buttermilk and Snowmass can be reached by the Aspen bus service although there are hotels at the base of both mountains, providing ski-in/ski-out facilities for anyone who is less bothered about having the attractions of Aspen just around the corner.

The standard of teaching is good, in keeping with the American expectation of value for money. Since the amount you will have to pay is high, you can expect improvement in technique. And since you are likely to be videoed as you do it, you will be able to see this for yourself.

Hot-buttered rum is the trendy apres-ski drink. The place for this high- calorie, high-octane concoction is the terrace of the Ajax Tavern at the foot of Aspen Mountain, from where you can watch the last of the day's skiers making their way more or less stylishly down the home straight. To evade the biting cold, and to join an altogether smarter set, take tea around the log fire at Little Nell's or the Ritz-Carlton. You will need ski clothes - tight-fitting, fur-trimmed, but probably not the outfit you have actually been skiing in. You also need a fistful of dollars.

Those of us who booked before the pound plummeted to an 18-month low against the dollar have to shop around when choosing a place to eat or drink. While the trendiest restaurants, such as Pinon's, are booked nights in advance, others often have special offers, particularly mid-week. So look out for half-price Chinese meals after 9pm at Eastern Winds, two main courses for the price of one at the Smuggler Land Office, and, best value of all, a steak the size of a small state for $8 (pounds 5.50) at Mezzo. If you think you can manage a starter too, order the chicken wings - the nearest most Brits will get to flying in Aspen this winter.

Cathy Packe paid pounds 310 (including tax) for a London-Denver return through Flightbookers (0171-757 2000). She rented a Jeep locally through Avis (pounds 300 for two weeks) and paid pounds 400 for a fortnight's bed and breakfast at the Snowflake Inn (001 970 925 3221).

Aspen Convention and Visitors' Bureau: 001 970 925 2773.

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