Travel: Sweating it out in Europe? Try Aspen

Perfect skiing is making Colorado more of a draw than ever. And this year, freak weather in Europe might encourage more of us to give it a try.
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The Independent Travel
WITH temperatures soaring in western Europe this week, the ski season is threatened by an early meltdown. Not so in the USA, where conditions have never been better. Light snowfalls last week, followed by some brilliant sunshine, created some excellent skiing conditions. Heavier snowfalls are forecast as the El Nino rainstorms battering California cross the Rocky Mountains and turn to powder. All of which might be a good reason for skiers to head west.

If Aspen is your goal, another draw might be to spot famous faces on the ski slopes and in the apres ski bars. This chic, century-old silver- mining town in Colorado's White River National Forest still attracts scores of stars, tycoons and wacky characters from across the world.

Last month, the resort became the focus of world media attention following the death of Michael Kennedy. Until that accident, the Kennedy family had been ski-ing every day on this mountain, virtually unnoticed as just more famous faces in the crowd. Aspen is still very much a place to see and to be seen, but it is also a great family destination. With four mountains to choose from, it has pistes to please skiers and snowboarders of all abilities.

This season it is a lot easier to get there. Aspen airport is just 15 minutes from the slopes and this winter there are several scheduled one- stop connections each day from London, eliminating lengthy transfer times. Twice-weekly charters to Denver have also cut the prices of inclusive holidays and there are some good late availability deals to be had.

With Easter falling so late in the season this year, there are some exceptional packages being offered, including cut-price lift passes. Such savings are not to be sniffed at in a resort with the dubious reputation for selling North America's most expensive lift passes.

If your preference is for sleepy, restful snow villages where apres ski revolves around a fireside game of Scrabble, give Aspen a miss. It is one of America's most bustling winter resorts day and night with gourmet restaurants, sophisticated accommodation, lively nightclubs and noisy sports bars.

During the first week of March, some of America's top comedians and comedy actors will converge on Aspen for the US Comedy Arts Festival, when there are numerous live performances in the top hotels and at the Wheeler Opera House. If you like to party, Snowmass celebrates its own Mardi Gras on 24 February with costume parties and street parades. And there is a spring festival in Snowmass from 27 March to 4 April, known as the "Banana Season". For non-skiers there are literally hundreds of shops and boutiques and 30 art galleries to browse around.

With one ski pass (albeit not a cheap one) you can access the four separate and quite different ski areas of Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass, all linked by a frequent free shuttle bus service. The area attracts more than 300 inches of powder snow each year and when conditions get a little thin, as they were earlier this season, there are banks of artificial snow-making guns to keep the main runs in good condition.

Aspen Mountain, served from the heart of town by the Silver Queen Gondola, is strictly for intermediates, experts and posers. The latter group can enjoy showing off their turns on the lower slopes in front of hundreds of immaculately attired armchair skiers sipping cocktails in the busy Ajax Tavern at the base of the mountain. Some two-thirds of the runs on this mountain are in the difficult black diamond category, but there are other routes down, which any competent intermediate skier can handle comfortably.

In complete contrast, Buttermilk is tailor-made for beginners and early intermediates with miles of smoothly groomed, wide and gentle pistes with welcoming names like Baby Doe, Rabbit Run, Magic Carpet and Tom's Thumb. It is also a great place to learn snowboarding with its own specially designed snowboard park and classes for all age groups.

Children's facilities here are unrivalled with a range of teaching programmes for kids from three years upwards. Join the Powder Pandas and you get your own exclusive lift and nursery slope, off-limits to those big guys over six years old. The Snow Puppies group takes in less stressful activities like sledding down the hillside while the Grizzlies group is for more determined five- to six-year-olds who want to make serious progress.

Buttermilk has now introduced a Bears on Boards school to teach children the art of snowboarding and there is a licensed creche for babies from six weeks upwards. Kids can be collected daily from their hotel or apartment by "Max the Moose Express", a bright purple bus complete with qualified children's escorts to whisk them off to ski school.

For adults, the teaching facilities are equally comprehensive, with beginners starting their first lesson in a comfortable, warm classroom, before venturing with their instructors into a gentle and unthreatening mountain environment.

A few miles down the valley lies Snowmass, the largest of the four ski areas. It is a paradise for intermediates, with endless long blue and single black diamond runs through the trees. For an exhilarating confidence booster take Sheer Bliss, which starts at the top of Big Burn at 11,800 feet and cruises back to the village. It really lives up to its name.

After fresh snowfalls, the black runs down to Camp Ground, which are often left ungroomed, are a delightful challenge without ever becoming too threatening. But to really get the pulse racing, try the black double diamond chutes in Hanging Valley Wall, but be warned, this area is not for the faint-hearted skier.

While there are plenty of gentle nursery slopes specifically for beginners in Snowmass, these are mostly close to the village base area, and they are often too crowded for comfort. Not to be outdone by neighbouring Buttermilk, Snowmass operates its own school bus under the name of "Burnie the Bear Express".

Aspen Highlands, although a comparatively small mountain, has perhaps the best balance of easy, intermediate and expert runs. It is a favourite for snowboarders who not only make good use of their own exclusive zone with bumps, half pipes and table tops but the boldest are free to try their skills at shredding the awesome double diamond black runs on Steeple Chase, which start from Loge Peak at 11,600ft.

There is no accommodation at the base of Aspen Highlands or Buttermilk. Families with young children often prefer to stay at Snowmass where there are plenty of spacious and comfortably furnished "ski-in, ski-out" self- catering condominiums, many with log fireplaces and the convenience of being able to step out directly onto the slopes.

There are also a couple of fairly basic three-star hotels in the resort and several good-value restaurants. Snowmass lacks atmosphere after dark and, compared to neighbouring Aspen, it is very much a cultural and entertainment backwater. A fun family outing is to take a snowcat-pulled sleigh ride up the Snowmass slopes to Burlingame Cabin, an original miner's dwelling heated with wood stoves and lit by lanterns. After an oversize Western- style dinner accompanied by a live bluegrass trio, it is time to go sledding home, down the mountain.

Aspen has a wide choice of hotels, inns, bed and breakfast lodgings and self- catering condominiums of varying standards. Those that are not within walking distance of the ski lifts are served by a free skier shuttle bus route. The most prestigious address in Aspen has to be the Little Nell Hotel at the base of the Gondola which boasts that it is the only mountain resort property in North America to have been awarded five stars and five diamonds. It is a member of the Relais & Chateaux group and has a restaurant which has been voted the best in Colorado.

Close by is the newly built and somewhat imposing Sheraton Hotel (until recently the Ritz-Carlton) which has a huge spa and fitness centre as well as an indoor/outdoor swimming pool. By contrast, on East Main Street, the restored Hotel Jerome is full of character, having been built during the height of Colorado's silver-mining boom in 1889.

The centrally located Aspen Square condominium complex is the ultimate in luxury self-catering with its own concierge installed to make recommendations and reservations for guests' dining requirements. The oversized apartments come complete with log fireplaces and fitted kitchens and facilities include a swimming pool, jacuzzi and gym.

Whether you are a keen skier or you simply prefer to pose, with over 150 bars and restaurants and more than 300 shops to choose from, Aspen will undoubtedly make you feel at home.

aspen fact file

Getting There

British Airways (0345 222111) operates daily from London Gatwick (except Wednesdays) via Phoenix, connecting with America West Express. American Airlines (0345 789789) has daily services to Aspen from London Gatwick via Dallas and from London Heathrow via Chicago and Denver. Northwest Airlines (01293 561000) has daily flights from London Gatwick via Minneapolis, and United Airlines (0800 888555) has three two-stop connecting flights each day from London Heathrow.

Accommodation

The Little Nell Hotel (tel: 001 970 920 4600, fax: 001 970 920 4670); Sheraton Aspen (tel: 001 970 920 3300, fax: 001 970 920 7353); Hotel Jerome (tel: 001 970 9201000, fax: 001970 925 2784); Aspen Square (tel: 001 970 925 1000, fax: 001 970 925 1017). Aspen/Snowmass International Reservations (tel: 001 970 920 0762, fax: 001 970 920 0796) can confirm rates and reserve a broad range of hotels and self- catering apartments, as well as sell advance lift tickets and book ski school and children's programmes.

Packages

Ski the American Dream (0181 552 1201) has Aspen from pounds 779 for ten nights - scheduled flights and two people sharing room with breakfast in the three-star Molly Gibson Lodge.

Crystal Holidays

(0181 399 5144) has a seven-night "Superdeal" to Aspen departing on 7 March, with prices from pounds 489, including flights to Denver, road transfers and the deal is based on half-board accommodation.

United Vacations

(0181 313 0999) has seven nights at the Aspen condominiums, including breakfast from pounds 839, and scheduled flights to Aspen. Until 21 March a family of four with children under 12 sharing a room will pay for two adults and get one child's holiday for pounds 249 and the second one free.

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