Skiing the Rockies with the mink'n' sable crowd : ASPEN

Times Travel Editor

Snow was falling as the taxi stopped at the door of the Hotel Jerome with its lighted trees and the yellow glow of frosted windows. Main Street was icy, but inside, the old Victorian was as snug as an eiderdown on this cold winter night.

Circular settees and sofas faced a crackling fire, and the pendulum of an ancient clock swung beneath fluted chandeliers that shed their light on marble-top tables and an antique piano near the door.

For the moment, 19th-Century America was alive and all was well with the world.

Tomorrow skiers would take to the slopes again, but this chilly night they warmed themselves beside wood-fed fires in hotels and inns and bars throughout this old mining town that heaps its charms on a well-heeled crowd. Few disagree that Aspen is becoming a rich man's resort. Particularly those celebrities and yuppies sporting mink and sable apres-ski duds.

This isn't to say that the skier on a budget can't come in out of the cold. It's just that fewer inns are posting bargain rates.

Several do reflect a warmth that matches the hospitality of early Aspen, when streets were unpaved and all the world moved at a slower pace. Shelter at Marge Riley's Little Red Ski Haus on East Cooper Street is provided for as little as $20 a night, which is the ransom if one shares a bunk with others. Otherwise, privacy for two figures out to $72 per night.

Either way, an unusual friendliness pervades this old Victorian with its bright-red facade. Guests gather for wine-and-cheese parties, and on Thursday the gang kicks in three bucks apiece for a potluck dinner.

Built by a miner, the century-old inn accommodates as many as 50 guests, ages 18 to 80. Riley, whose twin Norma Dolle operates the twin Snow Queen Lodge next door, provides no frills: no hot tubs, no telephones, no TV. Instead, guests gather in a parlor filled with funky old furniture and cockeyed lamp shades to share new friendships.

At Len Olender's Brass Bed Inn near the foot of Aspen Mountain, two can cozy up for as little as $60 a night. A free spirit, Olender floats a pot filled with wine, vodka, cinnamon and raisins on an outdoor Jacuzzi. Guests insist a slug of Olender's potion is like overdosing on Dalmane. But never mind. Olender revives everyone in the morning with his renowned French-Canadian breakfasts.

By searching diligently, one can discover other budget inns, although Aspen without question zeros in on the affluent.

Rates at the town's snazziest hotel, the newly renovated Jerome, range from $150 a night for a room to $500 for the Grand Parlour Suite with its 18-foot ceilings and museum-quality antiques.

Oriental carpets are scattered in a lobby that appears like a scene snatched from 19th-Century Aspen, complete with an immense fireplace.

The old brick pile was known during Aspen's wild and woolly past as the Silver Queen of the Rockies. Built in 1889 by Jerome B. Wheeler, then president of Macy's, it is the grand manse of Main Street.

Its present owners spent $30 million reconstructing the Jerome, adding new rooms and spiffing up the old ones as well as a bar that's been a watering hole for nearly a century--the hangout for celebrities, cowpokes and hotdoggers down from the slopes.

The 94 guest rooms feature Victorian antiques, king-size beds with down comforters, brass light fixtures, custom-made carpets, refrigerators and Italian marble baths with Jacuzzi tubs. I for one could forgo the three telephones in each room--one by the bed, another on a desk and the obligatory third in the bath.

Still, the Jerome is enchanting. It's pleasing. It's simply the most perfectly restored hotel in the Rockies. Colorado's silver barons never had it so good. During the restoration, the owners bought out an entire estate in Missouri, scooping up doorknobs, door frames, banisters and other paraphernalia needed for the Jerome.

Guests take their meals in three restaurants. The Silver Queen with its crystal chandeliers, needlepoint chairs and French cuisine is a five-star pleasure with prices to match. Jacob's Corner does a Sunday brunch, and the charming little Cafe Jerome, which serves up finger sandwiches, pastries, hot chocolate, cappuccino and scones smothered in clotted cream, recalls a Viennese tearoom. On a snowy afternoon, Cafe Jerome draws skiers and lovers--or anyone else with an appetite along with a desire to escape the cold.

A couple of blocks away, an old Victorian built in 1892 by Aspen pioneer Three Fingers Jack Wilkinson is rated at the top of the heap. Never mind that Sardy House once served as a funeral home. Today it draws from an affluent winter crowd capable of spending as much as $395 a night for a suite that features a king-size bed, parlor, whirlpool bath and private balcony.

Of the 15 rooms and five suites, skiers can sign on for as little as $175 a night. Granted, that's still a lot of silver, but in Aspen's spiffier spots these days, $175 is considered reasonable. At Sardy House, skiers loosen up the joints in a heated pool, spa and sauna. Meals are served in a candle-lit dining room and snow glistens on the boughs of a huge spruce outside a picture window. Meanwhile, classical melodies are piped to a parlor crowded with Rocky Mountain antiques, lace curtains, stained glass and a love seat.

Later, guests doll up in terry-cloth robes, pad about the inn on carpets imported from Ireland, and sink into beds with cherrywood frames.

Besides Sardy House, innkeeper Jayne Poss, with her cover-girl good looks, operates the new Hotel Lenado on Aspen Street, another chic shelter for style-conscious skiers.

At Hotel Lenado, feathered duvets grace hickory four-posters and carved applewood beds. Logs blaze in a parlor that adjoins the library with its fetching view of Bass Park, and skiers store boots in heated lockers before resting the frame on down-filled cushions.

Belgian Waffles

A hot tub bubbles on the sun deck, chocolates are delivered at bedtime and oatmeal Belgian waffles rate raves at breakfast, along with a "super scramble" consisting of eggs, scallions, and Cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses.

Says the savvy innkeeper: "Whether you languish in the rooftop Jacuzzi, lounge before the fire, sip wine or snuggle under a down comforter, there's much to make you happy here."

Amen.

Fifty years ago Aspen was another dusty, dying Colorado mining town. Winter winds scattered mine tailings across scarred mountains and whistled through dilapidated, windowless buildings.

A bonanza in silver had been spent by Aspen's miners at gaming tables, bars, brothels and dance halls. By 1892, the magnificent Wheeler Opera House was drawing performers from across the United States, and Hotel Jerome was already welcoming guests. Half a dozen newspapers spread tales of bandits, banks and church crusades, and then it all ended with the silver panic of 1893.

An exodus began.

By the time Andre Roch cut the first ski trail up Aspen Mountain in the 1930s, Aspen was nearly a ghost town. Then the Army's 10th Mountain Division traversed the mountain during World War II.

When Mary Eshbaugh Hayes hit town in 1952, the population was barely 900. Streets remained unpaved, but she had come for the snow and the skiing was glorious, just as it still is. These days Hayes, who surveys the resort's growth as editor of the Aspen Times, confesses that the small-town atmosphere has faded in the powder of countless skiers.

Industrialist-philanthropist Walter Paepcke arrived in Aspen in the '40s to establish a cultural center and to develop a ski resort with Austrian-born Friedl Pfeifer. With success, a trade-off was inevitable.

Aspen is crowded now. Its streets are paved. Stoplights have been installed. Traffic is a nightmare. Prices are soaring. But while Hayes wishes for a little serenity again, she welcomes the culture success has delivered.

Without question, Aspen during summer is the cultural capital of the Rockies. Great minds attend the Institute for Humanistic Studies, and the world-renowned Aspen Music Festival and Ballet/Aspen draw musicians and dancers from around the world.

Hayes admits it is a rich man's resort in winter, a town that caters to partying crowds that escape to Acapulco and Capri and other glamour capitals as spring arrives, runaways struggling to outdistance themselves from the boredom that threatens to overtake their lives.

On the other hand, there are the John Denvers, the Goldie Hawns and the Jill St. Johns who live in Aspen, giving to the community and gaining satisfaction in return. The reward is an inner peace. The soul is fed.

"Aspen's solitude brings me contentment," St. John told an interviewer. Her sentiments are echoed by art patron Lita Heller, Jeanne Jaffee, Christine Aubale-Gerschel and Joan Bracken-Bain.

'Magic' of the Town

Like Hayes of the Aspen Times, Katharine Thalberg came to Aspen to ski and succumbed to the "magic" of the old mining town.

The daughter of the late motion picture director Irving Thalberg and actress Norma Shearer, Katharine Thalberg visited Aspen the first time in the late '50s and settled permanently in 1973. And while admitting "the '50s was a time we are all pretty nostalgic for," Thalberg welcomes the intellectual crowds that provide the summer concerts and lectures.

Thalberg operates a bookstore--Explore Book Sellers--containing more than 25,000 titles in a charming old Victorian she restored on Main Street. And while still mourning the loss of the '50s, Thalberg finds Aspen's growing audience of intellectuals stimulating.

Her husband, Aspen Mayor Bill Stirling, leads a crusade to preserve the town's Victorian character. Zoning laws are tough. So is Aspen's Historic Preservation Commission.

As a result, the Downtown Historic District is a maze of Victorian shops. Benches line a couple of pedestrian malls with Victorian lighting, and aspen trees spread their shade in summertime.

Skiers crowd nearly 100 bars and restaurants in Aspen and neighboring Snowmass, mixing with the likes of Jane Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Quincy Jones, Cheryl Tiegs, Calvin Klein and Barbi Benton.

These and others who arrive in private jets and sport mink-lined ski gear run up big tabs at Charlemagne's and Gordon's, a couple of the town's toniest restaurants.

College students work as dishwashers, busboys, waitresses and maids. And because Aspen is expensive, they bunk down valley in cheap rooms and trailers at Basalt and Carbondale, squeezing out a few precious bucks to ski on their days off.

An acquaintance who skis the world rates Aspen as number one on earth. The slopes are meticulously groomed. Lift lines are controlled. And hotdoggers endangering others risk losing their passes to the ski patrol.

Celebrating its 40th anniversary last year, the Aspen Skiing Co. christened the new $6-million Silver Queen Gondola that whisks skiers to the top of Ajax in under 15 minutes, a trip that previously took 45 minutes on three lifts. This year, in celebration of Buttermilk Mountain's 30th year, the town will sponsor antique ski races and a Silver Queen Ball.

500 Ski Instructors

On Ajax, Buttermilk and Snowmass, 500 ski instructors represent Aspen Ski Co. The longest run figures out to 3.7 miles from the top of Elk Camp to the bottom of Fanny Hill. Others ski Gentleman's Ridge, Bear Paw, Ruthie's Run, Short Snort, Jackpot, Sam's Knob, Big Burn and the Dipsy Doodle.

With its lifts, Snowmass alone accommodates more than 20,000 skiers an hour. And with 90% of the condominiums spread along the slopes, guests ski directly out their front doors. No fuss, no bus, goes the slogan.

Others ride sleighs and carriages. They go snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, hot-air ballooning and dog sledding. Dan MacEachern's teams of huskies deliver guests on half- and full-day romps into the wilds of the Colorado Rockies.

At MacEachern's storied Krabloonik restaurant, they dine on wild mushroom soup, buffalo, caribou, rabbit, pheasant, wild boar, elk and venison.

All this is down valley from the bars and discos. At MacEachern's, nights are as black as an abandoned mine shaft. Dogs howl. The wind cries and the shadows of a fire play against the walls of this wilderness hideaway.

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