ASPEN Inside and Out : Inside

Lichtenstein, a former Rocky Mountains bureau chief for the New York Times, is an editor for the World Wide Web search engine Excite

Contrary to what you might have heard, you do not need to stay in a $300-a-night hotel to ski Aspen. Nor must you own a $2-million chalet with sheiks for neighbors. Nor do you have to hire a private ski school escort on the slopes for a zillion yen an hour.

It is true that you might run into Jack Nicholson on a lift line. Or Martina Navratilova. Or David Robinson. Is that so awful?

Aspen does attract celebs the way mountains attract snow. It has been so, ever since the resort, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this season, cranked up its first chairlift in 1947. But the "glitz" label that magazines (whose owners have houses next to sheiks in Aspen) love to slap on the Colorado resort belies the fact that thousands of ordinary ski-happy Joes and Janes can have a great time there without borrowing from their 401(k)s.

I should know. I've been skiing Aspen for 24 years. Before I finally bought a teensy condo with a friend in the low-rent district of Snowmass Village, nine miles away, I stayed in a score of inexpensive condos or motel rooms, usually on package deals. You can do the same this winter, at prices that begin at $430 for seven nights' lodging and six days worth of lift tickets. That's about what you'd pay in Steamboat or Breckenridge, two other popular Colorado resorts. The difference is you've got a choice of four mountains in the Aspen area and you never have to ski the same run twice.

Moreover, there are secret ways to get the most out of an Aspen holiday that we regulars have kept close to our Polarfleece vests. At the risk of generating a lot of extra company this winter, here are a few of them:

* Come when the crowds don't: Almost every year my housemate and I spend a week skiing before the Christmas crowds begin to arrive Dec. 21 or right after they leave, around Jan. 4. The lift tickets are cheaper--$39 per day until Dec. 13, instead of the standard $56 per day--and lodging (for those without a teensy condo) always is. Room rates are as much as 40% lower before Dec. 20 and after March 22, and 30% lower in January. Package prices are about 30% lower than they are in the February-March high season.

Sure, the days are short, but you really don't want to ski your buns off the first few days at THAT altitude anyway. The air in early December and in January is a bit nippier than in March, but it's rarely frostbite cold. And the mountains are refreshingly empty.

Even in February and March there's no need to stand for more than five minutes in a lift line, even on Aspen Mountain. Popularly known as Ajax, this is the most famous of the four ski areas that comprise Aspen. It's the oldest, and the one with the steepest pitch. There are no green (easy) runs on Ajax, which rises directly above the town floor.

A 10-minute bus ride from the center of town alongside Maroon Creek is Aspen Highlands, the least-trafficked area (for more on Aspen Highlands, see the accompanying story). A 10-minute bus ride along the main drag, Highway 82, lies Buttermilk, the gentlest and lowest (the summit is at 9,990 feet) of the four. A 20-minute bus ride lands you at Snowmass, the largest in terms of acreage and the highest (the summit is at 12,310).

The Silver Queen gondola, which speeds you 3,267 feet to the top of the 11,212-foot Ajax in 14 minutes, is crowded from 9:30 to 11 a.m. Start your day earlier or later, or take the slow, scenic route up the hill via chairlift 1-A, a few blocks away. There is occasionally a crowd at the base of Lift 3, a high-speed quad right smack in the middle of Ajax, but if you plan a late lunch you can avoid that too.

At Snowmass, which has four distinct peaks and more than four times Ajax's skiable terrain, traffic jam time is around 10 a.m., when the ski school classes all converge on the bottom of the high-speed quad at the foot of Fanny Hill, Snowmass's schuss central. However, if you start your ski day at Two Creeks, the newest area of Snowmass you'll be so alone you'll wonder if a sudden flu has laid the town low. Or take the slow Burlingame chairlift on Fanny Hill, which will deposit you farther up the mountain.

* Stick to Snowmass: Yep, I'm prejudiced. I love to ski Snowmass and I love staying in this resort-and-nothing-but. It was created as a ski-in, ski-out village in the late 1960s and what it lacks in charm it makes up for in convenience. Most important, you get more for your lodging money. The slopes are lined with condominiums that are larger than their Aspen counterparts and reasonably priced (especially if four people share a two-bedroom, two bath unit.) Nor can Aspen match Snowmass' spacious, first-rate hotels such as the Silvertree and the Snowmass Lodge and Club. (Hotels in Aspen are either deluxe, such as the Little Nell and the Ritz-Carlton, or in the budget category.)

You can practically roll out of bed onto the slopes if you stay at the humongous Silvertree or one of the many condo developments on Fanny Hill. Your kids can get outstanding child care and lessons from a troupe of specially trained children's instructors. Their youth ski program welcomes children as young as 18 months. You get a mall full of terrific shops that are every bit Aspen's equals. You get apres-ski dancing and big-screen TV football at the Timbermill bar. And you get Aspen a short ride away.

* Let the ski hosts show you around: The ski management finally wised up a few years ago to Aspen's reputation as a not-so-friendly hill for newcomers. There are now mountain ambassadors--locals who get free skiing in exchange for being guides to these huge swaths of snow.

Twice a day, on all four mountains, they lead folks on a tour of the various runs and lifts. Hook up with a host on your first morning and you not only will get good tips, you'll make friends with other newcomers and spend your time skiing instead of peering at a map.

* Valet park your skis: Snowmass is huge, Highlands is large, Aspen tough, Buttermilk deceptively expansive. There's just too much territory to explore. In the entire ski belt of North America, only Vail, Colorado's biggest area, located a few hours drive east of Aspen, and Whistler/Blackcomb in British Columbia compare in sheer size. So how do you arrange your week?

First, forget rental cars. There are free buses to all four areas all day long. What's more, there's a valet service at the bottom of each hill. Turn your skis over to a valet, fork over $2 and tell them which area you'll be skiing the next day. The valets transport them there for you, so you don't wear out your shoulders lugging them around.

* Eat like royalty on the mountain: This one takes some getting used to, but bear with me. Bonnie's, La Baita and the Sundeck, the three Ajax cafeterias, along with Gwyn's High Alpine on Snowmass, serve some of the best lunches in the Roaring Fork Valley, as the entire region around Aspen is called. La Baita and Gwyn's have separate waiter service sections as well. Bring your credit card, because these meals can set you back $10 to $30 apiece, especially if you can't resist the half-bottles of wine.

What! Double-digit lunches? I hear the anguished cries. Hey, you're on vacation. Relax. Have your big meal midday, when you've earned those calories. Then, make supper out of sandwiches from Johnny McGuire's deli in Aspen or the Mayfair deli in Snowmass. Top it off with a cookie or ice cream from Paradise Bakery in either town.

* Eat like royalty off the mountain: OK, you're not buying the big-lunch idea. Aspen has several superb restaurants that you could try, including the Ajax Tavern, Pin~ons, The Little Nell, Chanin's, Syzygy, Renaissance and Poppies Bistro. Eat, drink, be merry, pay the piper. You will not eat better in any ski resort in the New World.

However, if you're on a budget, look for early-bird specials. Depending on cash-flow and owner moods, several eateries (particularly Cache Cache, whose Mediterranean cuisine started Aspen's run on olive oil) serve cut-rate meals before 7 p.m. or all evening at their bars rather than in their main dining rooms. Others, like the R Bistro, above Renaissance, are inexpensive branches of high-ticket spots.

* Find the powder: The knock most often heard about Aspen is that there are no really great powder pockets, like those in Vail's back bowls or on Snowbird's Regulator Johnson, where you practically need a snorkel tube to ski the snow after a good night's storm. Tain't true. There's great powder in the Aspen hills, but you need to plan.

The easiest steep 'n' deep to get to is Steeplechase at Highlands, a huge cliff area that begins just after you leave the Loge Peak chair. Get to the base when the lifts open, at 9 a.m., ride all the way uphill and make first tracks through this series of glades and chutes.

Next choice: the Cirque at Snowmass. You can hike--yes, in your ski boots, with your skis on your shoulder. A few hundred yards uphill from the top of the Big Burn chair, you arrive at the AMF run and Headwall, the entrance to this windy basin of snow. It's a lung-burning 15- to 30-minute trudge. But if you'd rather save your breath for the downhill run, there are free Sno-Cat tours that leave every hour and half-hour from the Up 4 Pizza house next to the Burn chair. Sign up early.

Finally, if you've got an extra $225, join a daylong powder tour of Ajax's wild "back side," including a gourmet lunch. It's legitimate out-of-bounds territory and you get there in a comfortably heated "luxury" Sno-Cat.

* Consider cross country: Aspen downhill purists pooh-pooh cross-country skiing. My housemate's complaint: "It takes too much work." However, if you are not an alpine nut, there are lovely trails to cross country without charge, starting from the Snowmass Lodge's cross-country center and extending toward Buttermilk. For those who need to practice their skating or gliding skills, the Aspen golf course and cross-country center is a good bet. It has a rental shop and guides for hire. It costs about $14 a day to rent skis, boots and poles at either site.

For purists, the loveliest cross-country trails are at Ashcroft, the ghost town 11 miles up the Castle Creek Road. (This is the one place you need a car to get to.) There is a small fee for access to the private trail area, which you pay at the rental shop.

* Try snow aerobics: That's what I call snowshoeing. It has gained many adherents in Aspen in the past few years and it's easy to understand why. Snowshoeing takes zero skill or experience--just strap those flappers on and walk like a duck. It's a great workout, as I discovered when I wore a heart-rate monitor one time and watched my pulse speed up to my red zone in no time. It's cheap; snowshoes rent for $6 to $11 a day at either the Mountaineer in Aspen or the various Aspen Sports shops in both Aspen and Snowmass.

Most of all, it's terrific fun. My first time, I started climbing Buttermilk from the base lodge with a friend, just for the exercise. Before long, my breathing sounded as if I were on Everest, not Aspen's most tame hill. But I persevered, and reached the cafeteria at Buttermilk for a major chow-down.

The trip downhill was all giggles, slides and smiles. Whether you're stomping up a mountainside or out in the woods, or on one of the many forest service hiking paths off Highway 82 east of Aspen, snowshoeing puts you in touch with the child in you that simply enjoyed playing in snow.

* Ignore the night life: Aspen's night life is no secret. Except to someone like me, who has reached the age where a good book and a full night's sleep is night life. You want to boogie? You'll find the dance clubs and bars without a problem. But you need not visit them to have a fulfilling vacation. That, in fact, may be Aspen's biggest secret of all.

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GUIDEBOOK

Colorado Comforts

Getting there: United offers connecting service from LAX to Aspen through Denver, restricted advance-purchase fares beginning at $474 round trip. United and Frontier offer nonstop flights LAX to Denver, restricted advance-purchase fares beginning at $158 round-trip. It's a 210-mile drive from Denver to Aspen.

Where to stay: A number of offices arrange advance or last-minute lodging at hotels, inns and condos, and sell packages that include air fare and multi-day lift tickets. Aspen Central Reservations, telephone (800) 262-7736; Snowmass Resort Assn., tel. (800) 598-2005; United Vacations, tel. (800) 328-6877; Aspen Ski Tours, tel. (800) 525-2052; Ski The Rockies, tel. (800) 291-2588.

Where to eat: (All prices are for two without drinks.) Cache Cache, 205 S. Mill St. (downstairs), local tel. 925-3835. Mediterranean and bistro cuisine plus excellent vegetarian dishes. Price: $30-80. Johnny McGuire's Deli, 730 E. Cooper Ave. , tel. 920-9255. Satisfying built-to-order sandwiches for takeout, $5-$8. Mayfair Deli and Pizzeria, 315 Getaway Building, Elbert Lane, tel. 923-5938. Pizza, panini sandwiches and gourmet deli food, $10-$25. R Bistro, 304 E. Hopkins Ave. (upstairs), tel. 925-2403. More casual, lighter version of the upscale Renaissance restaurant; $45-75.

Insider tips: Tune in Channel 16 on TV for local ski conditions. Free postcards at ticket offices at each mountain will be mailed for you by the Aspen ski company. Aspen Sports (408 E. Cooper Ave.) gives 20% discounts on daily ski rentals reserved in advance (local tel. 925-6331). Use-It-Again 465 N. Mill St., has good deals on used gear, clothing and accessories (tel. 925-2483). Gracy's, 202 East Main, has good deals on used men's and women's ski wear and household stuff (tel. 925-5131). Susie's, 623 E. Hopkins, has great second-hand clothes, fancy and casual (tel. 920-2376). Gene Taylor Sports, Building 54, Snowmass Mall, gives 10% discounts on daily ski-rental rate when you rent for three or more days (tel. 923-4336). Christy Sports, 50 Village Square, Snowmass, offers free kids' ski rentals when accompanying adult rents equipment (tel. 923-2717).

Skiing at Aspen: Daily price, $56 per adult; 6-day tickets, $296; 5-day tickets, $255; 7-17 years old, $33 per day; 18-27 years old, $39. Seniors over 70 and kids under 6 ski free.

For more information: Aspen Ski Company, P.O. Box 1248, Aspen, CO 81612; tel. (800) 525-6200 (includes information on Snowmass). Aspen Chamber Resort Assn., 425 Rio Grande Place, Aspen, CO 81612; tel. (970) 925-1940.

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