Go Play: Aspen is a slice of holiday heaven, not too far from home
Special to the Free Press
There’s just something about Aspen that keeps me coming back. I barely remember, but can still recall, a stay at The Little Nell when I was a little girl. They left a mint on my pillow for turndown service, and like magic, I could illuminate the fireplace with the flip of a switch.
More than 20 years later, I still love and appreciate top-tier service and elite amenities, but every time I visit this mountain town, there’s something even more memorable to settle into. It’s the spirit of Aspen that makes it so special, especially when it’s illuminated by the festivities of the holiday season.
All the way through Winterskol, an annual four-day “toast to winter” during the second week of January, Aspen’s holiday season is painted with twinkling lights and (hopefully) snow.
Right before Christmas and through New Year’s Eve, the town hosts its 12 Days of Aspen holiday celebration. The days between Saturday, Dec. 20, and Wednesday, Dec. 31, are filled with tree and menorah lightings, cookies, food and craft events, stories, caroling and more, wrapping up with a fireworks display on Aspen Mountain on New Year’s Eve.
SAVE SOME SILVER
Even though I live in another perfectly lovely snow-globe town, a visit to Aspen still shimmers like no other. It’s pristine, yes, but also can feel elite and expensive. It’s that little place in the middle of the mountains, where silver still shines.
For a more affordable lodging option, The Molly Gibson Lodge, named for a local mine where silver was once extracted, is a unique and dollar-friendly alpine abode on the west end of town, just two blocks from the core.
Every room on the property is a little bit unique, some with fireplaces and others with in-room hot tubs. Families can enjoy the one- or two-bedroom apartments, fully equipped with kitchen amenities and offering ample living space for a comfortable vacation. Wind down with a dip in the heated outdoor pool or one of the three open-air hot tubs or check out the list of free movies to borrow.
One of the highlights of the lodge is the continental breakfast and après ski dining options — home-cooked buffets and refreshing beverages that are included for every guest, served daily in the breakfast room. Molly Gibson’s sister inn, Hotel Aspen, is just across the street and, with a more contemporary feel, offers the same affordability and silver-saving amenities. Both properties offer free parking, and they are pet-friendly, too, so bring the dog along (http://www.mollygibson.com, http://www.hotelaspen.com).
HIT THE TRAILS
An integral slice of a perfect winter retreat to Aspen is hitting the slopes. Aspen Skiing Co., known locally as Skico, owns and operates the four ski areas in and around the town of Aspen — Aspen Mountain, Buttermilk, Aspen Highlands and Snowmass — so you can get out and try them all.
The free skier shuttle service connects all four mountains and runs from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Conveniently, the shuttle stops right in front of the Molly Gibson Lodge (http://www.aspensnowmass.com).
Nordic recreation is very popular in this area, as well. There are 60 miles of free cross-country ski and snowshoe trails connecting Aspen, Snowmass and Basalt. The Aspen Cross Country Center is located at the Aspen Golf Course on State Highway 82 (http://www.aspennordic.com).
Strap on your Yacktrax (or snowshoes, if it’s been snowing for days, or jump on a fat bike if you have one or want to rent one) and head up the Smuggler Mountain Trail for a moderate pitch with great views of Aspen Mountain the whole way. It’s a local hot spot, so park in designated areas to be a mindful and welcomed visitor.
EATS AND ART
Thawing from your Aspen winter adventures would not be complete without a proper après. Whether you’ve been skiing, riding, snowshoeing or even shopping or gallery strolling, check out one of Aspen’s many eateries and watering holes to start the evening with taste.
One of the newest additions to restaurant row (East Hopkins Avenue) is Meat & Cheese, a restaurant and farm shop, featuring the salami and cheeses of the local Avalanche Cheese Co., along with many other Colorado-proud and unique artisan products. Order at the counter of the deluxe deli for lunch, or enjoy a casual, full-service experience in the evening.
The après menu is served between 2:30 and 6 p.m. and offers soups, salads and meat and cheese boards. For dinner, try the Waygu meatball dish, along with the hearty three-grain salad of black rice, faro and bulgar, with roasted winter squash, red peppers, midnight blue cheese, pine nuts and house vinaigrette. All of the items are served family style, making it easy to embrace all of the different tastes. For wine, try a glass of Mandala Rhone blend from Napa (http://www.meatandcheeseaspen.com).
Everyone in town will say you have to make a stop at the historic building that houses Justice Snow’s, known for its creative food and craft cocktails. Cocktail mechanic Joshua-Peter Smith has developed a large menu of creative libations, so stop in and belly up to the bar. It’s also a great spot for Sunday brunch (http://www.justicesnows.com).
One of the newest and most noteworthy things to know about Aspen is that it has a brand-new art museum, and it’s hard to miss. Designed by Shigeru Ban, who was the recipient of the 2014 Pritzker Architecture Prize, the museum has six galleries with rotating exhibits and offers free admission courtesy of Amy and John Phelan, so guests can stop by multiple times throughout their visit to town.
“If a family wants to come to a museum but then has to spend the admission, but they are here to ski and knows they will be spending a lot of money on that, I don’t want people to have to make that choice,” said Jeff Murcko, Aspen Art Museum communications director.
The museum has a great cafe, SO, run by Julia and Allen Domingos. It offers an ingredient-inspired lunch menu that changes weekly and has windows open to the museum’s roof-deck sculpture garden, and the views extend to Aspen Mountain and Independence Pass (http://www.aspenartmuseum.org).
Take your trip from contemporary to classic when you leave the art museum and head to the Hotel Jerome. The Jerome is a historic icon, built in 1889. Its recent renovation in 2012 polished the whole place and opened up a cocktail lounge called the Living Room, located right through the lobby, adorned with seasonal decorations and wrapped by the warmth of a central fireplace.
The 93-room hotel is celebrating its 125th anniversary this winter, and after the renovation two years ago every detail of the hotel, from the cowboy-clad doormen to the cashmere drapery, is exquisite. Modern-day luxuries honor the building’s Western history, with the inclusion of burnished leather bed frames and leather writing tables, timeless photos and custom wall coverings.
After an evening spent at the famous J-Bar saloon, out on the town and in the Living Room, I came back to a turndown service that rivaled the pillow mint I remembered as a young girl. This time, though, it was a pillow of bubbles and bath salts that I drew up in my suite before wrapping up in the soft silk of a plush robe and thick slippers.
I’m all grown up now, but Aspen’s magic still glows in through the street lamps and twinkle lights — I can feel it through the Jerome’s windowpanes and straight into my heart (hoteljerome.aubergeresorts.com).
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