Like moths to a flame, the mega-wealthy flock to Aspen in the winter, where stunning scenery and world-renowned ski runs combine with luxurious accommodation and facilities.
But when winter ends, and the corporate jets rise like giant geese from the small airport, there is another Aspen … and it’s heaven on earth for nature lovers, hikers, runners, cyclists, history buffs, and art enthusiasts.
The fact that my vocabulary was reduced to just one word was the first sign Aspen had me in its thrall.
“Wow”, I said. “Wow. Wow. Wow,” I repeated, to the delight of tour guide Leigh Maloney – an Aussie with deep Aspen connections stretching back more than two decades (check out Aspen Signature Tours on Facebook).
When we arrive, at the start of autumn, it is unseasonably hot, with temperatures in the low 20s during the day but pleasantly crisp at night. It is cool enough to signal to the local black bear population that hibernation is looming, and that it is time to start laying down 20,000 calories a day to prepare.
That prompts the occasional bear to amble into town looking for snacks, including one who popped into the first floor of our accommodation, Hearthstone House, to have a poke around the kitchen the week before we arrived.
Wildlife is such an integral part of life in Aspen the local authorities regularly publish helpful advice on what to do in a sticky situation.
I tried to memorise it – for bears, avoid eye contact, walk away slowly, and fight back if attacked (yeah, right); for thankfully-rare mountain lions, act like a predator – maintain eye contact, don’t run, don’t bend over, and wave your raised arms; for aggressive moose … run as fast as you can and hide behind a large object like a boulder, car or tree.
We arrived in Aspen after three nights in Denver, the state capital – a great way to ease your way into high elevations and avoid altitude sickness, which can be fatal.
The Capitol Building where three full-time staff polish the brass, is a lush and stunning home for lawmakers and the luckiest bureaucrats. Take advantage of the free tours on weekdays, perhaps before joining a free guided walking tour of the city which leaves from the building’s western steps.
Denver is renowned for its public art and the tour is great way to see some of it, and get your bearings.
We stayed at the Capitol Hill Mansion bed and breakfast a rose-coloured sandstone pile so admired it is included in a local history tour.
This is not the place to discover you have left your cholesterol meds at home. The breakfasts (waffles and flapjacks with all the trimmings, souffles stuffed with cheesy, eggy goodness) whipped up by cowboy owner Carl S Schmidt II and served in the prettiest courtyard, are legendary.
Just a block away is the fascinating home of another local legend – the woman known as the Unsinkable Molly Brown, courtesy of her Titanic survival. You have to join a tour to get inside, but it’s well worth the $US13 admission
So on to Aspen, via Independence Pass, which hits an elevation of 3,687 metres and provides breathtaking views. The road is closed in winter – yet another reason to visit Aspen in the warmer months.
We have nine nights in Aspen, and it is just as well. It’s a small, well laid-out little town (regular population around 6,500, quadrupling in winter) and there is much to see, mostly in walking distance.
We drink in the serenity of the John Denver Sanctuary; ride the Silver Queen Gondola to the top of Aspen Mountain for the most breathtaking views; enjoy the local historical society’s tour of the famed Hotel Jerome, which dates back to 1889 and the start of local silver mining, and its pub tour.
We learn the story behind the Jerome’s Aspen Crud, a thick milkshake spiked with bourbon, developed during Prohibition to fool the authorities. It’s absolutely delicious but a word of warning – it’s not a before dinner drink, or even an after dinner drink. It’s dinner in itself.
Aspen is not a cheap place to visit – mainly thanks to our dollar. And the locals generally have more than one job … the cook serving your breakfast may have been the same bloke mixing your drink in the bar the previous night.
He might be a bit tired from working two (or sometimes three) jobs, but rarely does a tourist town have such a vocal and genuine local cheer squad – there is not a hint of resentment about the numbers of tourists and part-time property owners.
Most of the locals have come from elsewhere, often intending to stay for a season or two, only to find it just too hard to leave.
It’s not hard to see why.