Not every bank robber would add the complication of a box canyon to a first heist, but Butch Cassidy was always top of his league. So, too, is Telluride, then a gold mining town, now a resort that combines some of Colorado's more dramatic peaks with the edginess of the Wild West. In a state where such household names as Vail and Breckenridge have fine skiing on mountains that look like hills, that's excellent news.
It's the box canyon that does it, along with the San Juan mountains. Back in June 1889, Butch Cassidy, an illicit £24,580 stuffed into his saddlebags, out-rode a posse down the one-way street and galloped on to ever greater crimes. Meanwhile, Telluride grew into a traditional mining town with family homes on one side of a Main Street as broad as a football pitch, and brothels on the other. Now, it's hard to tell which was which as all the Victorian buildings have been neatly restored into picture-postcard houses for the 2,220 residents.
In winter, that number is multiplied many times over as skiers and boarders flood into this chic two-centre resort. As so often in America, the choice of where to stay is complicated. Do you opt for the downtown area, a National Historic District with pool-table pubs and live music clubs, or the ski-in, ski-out convenience of the Mountain Village?
Before the two were linked by a four-kilometre gondola a decade ago, it was a no-brainer: the town always won out over the embryonic village development. Now, with commuting made easy by free transport that runs from 7am till midnight, things are not so cut and dried: on my most recent visit, I decided to give the Mountain Village a chance.
Landing in North America's highest commercial airport is a stomach-churner worthy of James Bond. The pilot hurled the plane up the rock face, flipping over the ridge and, when all looked lost, landed with impeccable precision on a sloping runway at nearly 3,000 metres above sea level. Maybe that's why I was disoriented when I checked into the new Lumiere boutique hotel, a building from the nooks and crannies school of architecture. With no obvious constriction on space or finance, seven storeys for 30 bedrooms seems eerily tall and thin.
Dolefully, I wandered the labyrinth of concrete walkways and random lifts in search of a cocktail, expertly shaken, in the convivial bar, but somehow I always turned left when right would have worked better. An intelligence test failed? Hey, I did manage to locate a "personal stay attendant" to ask for directions before the prized $10 sushi special ran out at 9pm. Back in my room – with its sombre brown furniture, faux log fire and 900 television channels – I looked at the glittering lights of the bars in the town far below and wondered if I'd made the right choice.
In the morning, I descended – or possibly ascended – to the locker room to collect my skis. Gone. But surely not stolen from such an exclusive habitat? More directions were required to point me to the nearest slope where I spotted them, all laid out, neatly parallel, under the watchful eye of Chad, badge-branded as a native of Springfield, Illinois. Gratefully, I stepped into them and 30 seconds later I was rising up the mountain in the Village Express. Ski-out doesn't come more convenient than that.
On a bitter March morning, my mission was simple: to reach Revelation Bowl, a new black diamond area opened for the 2009 season, before everyone else did. It had snowed a bit in the night and the sun was bright, so conditions would be optimum. Two lifts, Polar Queen and Gold Hill, two blue warm-up runs, Boomerang and Woozley's Way, and I was there, skiing Liberty Bell with fresh snow cresting over my boots.
Could that lone expert boarder ripping it up below me be Tom Cruise? The grapevine told me he regularly parked his SUV underground near the Lumiere, but goggles and a hat, essential for everyone at this temperature, guarantee anonymity, even to the most celebrated. No matter, I dared to dream as I followed the guy down to ride the new lift. I didn't catch him so I couldn't check him out in a shared chair. Then again, he may have planned it that way.
For the next hour, I placed sets of fresh tracks in the bleakly exposed bowl, the absence of trees adding a new dimension to a generally forested resort. The Revelation lift also opens up Gold Hill Chute 1, the most accessible of 10 gnarly double-diamond descents. Chutes 6 to 10, a short hike along the boundary ridge, were incorporated into the official ski area last season; this season, with the help of some Second World War howitzers brought in to blast the snow, Chutes 2-5 are online, substantially increasing Telluride's extreme terrain above the treeline.
As all 10 chutes were shut due to high winds, I had the perfect excuse to head down the aptly named blue cruiser, See Forever. Looking at the sensational views on both sides is not recommended on a rollercoaster run that invites, even demands, high- octane schusses. Better point 'em straight down and re-group for the next phase over a coffee in Guiseppe's, at the top of Plunge, another aptly named Telluride classic.
From the installation of the first lift in 1972, the awesome pitches above the town dictated its future status as an experts' resort. Revelation Bowl is a useful addition, not least because the lift cuts the hike to the "must do" Palmyra Peak, but the runs are not as long or as challenging as the hardy originals; Plunge, Spiral Stairs, and Kant-Mak-M. In the dawn of grooming, they were too steep to smooth which meant that bumps the size of caravans developed through the season. Nowadays, a half-and-half policy leaves moguls on one side and slick downhill racer slopes on the other. A perfect compromise, though both require technique and commitment way beyond the scope of the average intermediate skier.
Here lies the flaw in the Telluride game plan: it's great for the good, but the limited network of blue pistes in the centre section isn't challenging enough to keep progressive intermediates happy for a week and there's nowhere else to go. Ironically, never-evers have a much better deal, with a nursery slope next to the Mountain Village and an extensive area of super-green trails off the Sunshine Express. As runs like Galloping Goose and Teddy's Way are too flat for anyone beyond a progressive beginner, they're encouragingly free of faster traffic, too.
Telluride has always been lucky in its history. When gold turned to dust and it became a ghost town in the 1960s, its isolation appealed to hippie trustafarians looking for a quiet spot to hang out and smoke dope. They'd skied as kids, but they were also into music and the arts. As a result of their cultural privilege, Telluride developed as a genuine two-season resort, with a summer schedule of prestigious music and film festivals to equal its winter programme.
Inevitably, Hollywood wasn't far behind, spearheaded by Cruise who celebrated his ill-fated marriage to Nicole Kidman in the Ice House Hotel in 1990. Twenty years later, he and his third wife, Katie Holmes, spend quality time on their property on the outskirts of the Mountain Village. Their neighbours include Oprah Winfrey, Oliver Stone, Daryl Hannah and Bob Dylan.
In France and Italy, good restaurants attract discerning clients. In America, the reverse is true: it takes a pool of "discerning" clients to attract even one good restaurant. That's "discerning" as in having travelled abroad and developed a taste for decent food. As the young pretender to Rocky Mountain sophistication, Telluride competes fiercely with Aspen to provide the likes of elk short loin, sashimi ceviche and lobster with saffron capellini.
Writing such things on a menu is no guarantee of success in preparing them, but three of the restaurants that I tried delivered honourably.
The first was the New Sheridan, the iconic hotel that has dominated Main Street since Butch Cassidy's day. Its Chop House has emerged in a more contemporary guise from a major makeover, but the meals remain true to big-meat country and it is the best spot to see and be seen.
In the olden days, folk in these parts used to tenderise their steak by putting it between saddle and sweating horse as they rode along. A makeshift preparation, but at least the juices stayed in the meat. The Sheridan's chef might resent the analogy, but the same is true of his New York strip and, indeed, his double lamb chop. As a nod to the New in his American cuisine, there are touches of oriental exotica, but basically this is from the "what you see is what you always got" school of cooking.
The Cosmopolitan, in the Columbia Hotel, takes its foreign aspirations more seriously, with many of the dishes promising an Asian or European connection. The presentation is immaculate and the wine list memorable. Both restaurants are a 13-minute gondola ride and a short walk from the Mountain Village, but Allred's, an integral part of the St Sophia mid station, is much closer to home.
The food is ambitious. How often do you find American perceived health hazards – foie gras and steak tartare for example – on a resort menu? Or such seafood and fish options as oysters, scallops and bass so far from their source. There's also homesteader staples – a 28oz Porterhouse, Colorado lamb shank, and pork chop with sweet potato hash. And it's all delicious, either around the fire at lunch or at night in the dining room with spectacular downtown views. As I took the five-minute gondola hop back to the Lumiere, I dared to believe the Mountain Village had come of age at last.
How to get there
Minty Clinch travelled to Telluride with Ski Independence (0845 310 3030; ski-i.com), which offers seven nights' B&B at Lumiere from £1,291, based on two sharing, if booked before 1 December, including return flights with British Airways from Heathrow to Denver and onwards with Grand Lake Aviation from Denver to Telluride or Montrose.
Telluride Resort (tellurideskiresort.com).