Watch out for Butch Cassidy and the snowdance kids

Stephen Roe takes to the Colorado ski slopes in the steps of the notorious bank robber and imagines the tinkling of pianos and snapping of garters of the old bordellos
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The Independent Travel
A CENTURY ago it was yellow, gold and rich silver deposits which brought fortune hunters in their thousands to the raunchy little mining town of Telluride, tucked away in a remote box canyon in the heart of Colorado's San Juan mountain range.

It was here that the legendary Butch Cassidy pulled off the first of his many successful bank robberies when he got clean away with $24,000 from the San Miguel Valley Bank in 1889 by tethering fresh horses along his escape route. The bank's original door still stands on main street.

Now the locals describe the main attraction as white gold ... acres of the finest powder snow, which arrives in abundance like clockwork each season to create one of the most picturesque and fashionable winter resorts in North America. The nearest traffic light is 67 miles away and freeways are unheard of.

My guide was a man called Bunsie Bunworth, a local actor and amateur historian who, as we strolled along Popcorn Alley, embroidered wonderful stories of the inordinate greed and desire which was at the heart of this little town for so long. The alley itself was the centre of numerous bordellos and dubious soda parlours populated by ladies of doubtful repute, which were active until as recently as 1959 when the last of the mines finally shut down.

The Victorian period architecture has been so well restored, it is now officially designated a national historic landmark district. I could almost hear the tinkling pianos and snapping garters of the dancing girls as Bunsie described the colourful ghosts which, he claimed, made regular appearances and occasionally got caught on camera by unsuspecting visitors.

No one seems quite sure where the name Telluride came from. Conventionalists say it was named after tellurium, a gold-bearing ore, while locals insist it means "to hell you ride" emphasising the infamous reputation of this 1880s mining town.

Surrounded by frozen waterfalls and 13,000 foot peaks, Telluride is, without question, one of the most colourful and as yet unspoiled resorts in the whole of North America. To avoid the seven-hour drive from Denver, I opted to take a commuter flight into the resort's regional airport. At 9,080 feet above sea level, it is the highest commercial airport in the USA and the runway is perched on the edge of a gorge. "It is a bit like landing on an aircraft carrier," explained my pilot after we had successfully set down.

Not surprisingly, the airport is frequently closed in the winter months when the weather sets in, and the more reliable alternative is at Montrose, about 90 minutes' drive away. Travelling from the UK involves at least one, and sometimes two, flight connections but once immersed in this resort, few will doubt that it was worth the effort.

Telluride attracts an average of 300 inches of fine powder snow every year and its 64 trails pamper beginners, intermediates and expert thrill- seekers in almost equal proportions. Novices no longer have to hang around overcrowded nursery slopes at the foot of the mountain. They are whisked in 11 minutes from the old town in a new $16m (pounds 10m) high-speed gondola to the state-of-art mountain village at 9,500 feet, from where they can access a wealth of well-groomed "double green" runs and cruise between million-dollar designer homesteads.

Children are particularly well catered for, and those up to six years old ski free-of- charge. Crystal Holidays, which this winter has package holidays to Telluride for the first time, has arranged for its clients up to 12 years old to ski free; and adults get two ski passes for the price of one during most of the season and totally free passes at other times.

The intermediate skiing is excellent and plentiful with runs such as See Forever winding from the top of the mountain for over three miles with a vertical drop of some 2,400 feet.

With magnificent views directly above the old town, Telluride has some of the most dramatic double-diamond black runs in Colorado with highly appropriate names such as Mine Shaft, Jaws and Plunge. Some of the moguls looked more like an upside- down egg carton turned vertical. I was treading a fine line between exhilaration and intimidation. I decided to leave Holy Cow! for another day.

For the occasionally chicken-hearted - that's myself - intermediate escape routes are available at strategic points in this often heart-stopping section of the mountain. With names like Bail Out and Easy Out, they are hard to miss.

Split grooming is another useful feature on some slopes. This enables skiers of differing abilities to ski together on the same run without being either bored or overstretched. This involves leaving moguls and tougher snow conditions on one side of the trail while flattening out the other side to allow the less experienced to cruise comfortably.

The top of lift number nine - which serves most of the expert terrain - took me to an altitude of 11,920 feet, and on a clear day I could see the La Salle mountains in Utah, 120 miles away.

Snowboarders are welcomed here but to encourage them away from the groomed pistes, Telluride has its own ride park with bumps, berms, S-tums, half pipes and even a 20-foot table top. At the end of the season, the resort hosts the "Nike Surf the Rockies Snowboard Derby".

In common with many North American ski resorts, eating in the Telluride mountain restaurants is a rather bland and disappointing experience, with the menus limited to the usual round of burgers, hot dogs and salads washed down with a cup of watery coffee.

But for those willing to pay the price there is a five-star alternative in the restaurants and bars of The Peaks Resort and Spa Hotel, located at 9,500 feet in the heart of the mountain village. On a fine day ask for a table on the outdoor deck of the Sundance restaurant. The views are sensational.

Chefs at The Peaks also pride themselves in the art of creating innovative health food dishes to satisfy demand from guests patronising the hotel's impressive 42,000 foot spa and fitness centre.

The range of treatments available to health freaks is quite bizarre. I decided I would pass on the early morning "Waking up to Oneness" experience, which involved drumming, chanting and a circle dance to simulate the elements of earth, wind, fire and water.

My curiosity got the better of me, however, when it came to the "Alpine Strawberry Rejuvenator" which involved a wild strawberry scrub, followed by a hydrating botanical oil massage and concluded when I was wrapped in a warm, wildflower-infused sheet for a period of relaxation. Who needed to ski, anyway?

Back in the real world, down in the old town things start to hot up as soon as the ski lifts shut down. There is a choice of lively pubs and bars and some of the restaurants offer some unusually creative dishes including alligator, ostrich and kangaroo at the 100-year old New Sheridan, while more conventional gourmet cuisine is served at the Cosmopolitan Restaurant in the newly-restored Hotel Columbia. In addition to the hotels, there are some great value and spacious self-catering apartments including Riverside and Lulu City Condominiums, all of which are well located, because the town is so compact.

And if you hate making your own breakfast, stop by the Steaming Bean cafe, a popular hang out for caffeine addicts and a great place to meet the wacky locals.

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Getting There

Telluride's airport served by United Express (0800 888555) from Denver, and Montrose airport from London by British Airways (0345 222111), and America West Express via Phoenix.

Where to Stay

Telluride Resort Accommodations (001 970 728 6621, fax 001 970 728 6160) has over 500 properties to rent from B&B at $45 a night to apartments, hotels and private homes.

The Hotel Columbia (001 970 728 0660, fax 001 970 728 9249) has rooms from $150 a night.

Packages

Crystal Holidays (0181 399 5144) has seven nights at the Ice House Hotel from pounds 589, or seven nights at The Peaks from pounds 699, including flights. Other tour operators include Ski the American Dream and Ski Independence.

Information

Complimentary brochures from the Telluride Ski and Golf Company (001 970 728 6900, fax 001 970 728 6364).

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