ASPEN, AGLOW IN SUMMER DELIGHTS

TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Day 1 was the easiest. On June 24, I caught a taxi from Aspen's airport to my hotel, dumped my luggage, grabbed a jacket, then dropped it again because the night was so mild. Then I rushed down to Main Street, where the 19th century bricks of the Hotel Jerome glowed red in the late daylight, and where one of the most attractive off-seasons in North American tourism bloomed in full glory.

To the north, the famous slopes of Aspen Mountain were bathed in summer green. And all along the street were prosperous, happy people and shiny new cars. It was like falling into a Claritin commercial without the annoying theme music.

Walking westward, I peeked down the side streets at boldly colored Victorians and millionaires' vacation homes, each standing ready, it seemed, for a drop-in at any moment from the Architectural Digest photo staff. I turned right, followed a footpath toward a big white tent and heard the music.

Outside the tent, sprawled on the grass beneath the shimmering aspens, sat a few hundred picnickers and eavesdroppers, listening to a free concert. Inside sat a few thousand paying customers and, clearly audible and visible through the tent slits, violinist Sarah Chang.

The 18-year-old prodigy sat at center stage, a veteran of 12 summers here. Smiling easily, she sailed through two Brahms pieces and led a chamber sextet though Tchaikovsky's "Souvenir de Florence," swaying with intensity and raising a cloud of bow rosin overhead.

After the tumultuous applause, my first day in Aspen ended with a dreamlike walk back to the hotel.

"It was, like, nuts!" I overheard one overwhelmed music student tell a compatriot on the way. Above, a nearly full moon hovered to light our way. Day 2 had a tough act to follow.

This was the opening night of the Aspen Music Festival, which continues through Aug. 22. But it was also a 50th-anniversary party, and a watershed day in the history of America's leisure class. In 1949, a Chicago industrialist named Walter Paepcke (who was chairman of the Container Corp. of America) and his wife, Elizabeth, joined a circle of high-powered friends in a campaign to make Aspen a haven for the humanities, a sort of American Athens.

This was a farfetched idea in a former mining town 220 miles southwest of Denver, wedged between mountains at 8,000 feet above sea level. Commercial ski operations here had begun only two years before (again, with Paepcke's support), and the population was about 2,000. But the Paepckes had influence, personal wealth and some famous friends, and the campaign somehow took flight.

At other ski resorts across North America, operators have only recently awakened to the temptations of year-round revenue streams, and now they furiously assemble summer pops concerts and beckon hikers and mountain bikers to their formerly idle chairlifts. The hikers and bikers come to Aspen too, but it's different. Though the Paepckes are dead and the local activities of the organization they founded, the Aspen Institute, have dwindled to a handful of speeches by luminaries, several other institutions have risen in its place.

Aspen in winter may be mocked for its ultra-hip, wildly expensive, celebrity-heavy character--the average sale price of a single-family home within the city limits last year was $3 million, and 20% of those residences are second homes. Yet Aspen has been growing a thoughtful, artful summer alter ego for five decades. In fact, over the last five years, the number of summer visitors has come to challenge the long-dominant winter number. The summer visitors are well-heeled, too, with an average household income of $131,000, according to a recent study--and weekends in July and August book up quickly. But these visitors, bless them, don't spend the way the skiers do. Aspen remains far more affordable in summer than in winter.

On summer weekday nights, you can get a serviceable room at the Christmas Inn, the Limelite Lodge or the Ullr Lodge, to name three budget lodgings that I walked through, for less than $100 a night. (There is camping in nearby national forests as well, although those spots are snapped up quickly.) If you're willing to spend $120, the options multiply. And if you haggle as I did for a few weeknights on short notice at an upscale place like the Hotel Lenado, you may end up paying $170 nightly for a room that fetches $235 on most summer weekends and $295 in February. (The Lenado has 20 rooms, fancy woodwork, a stylish lobby, free breakfast and cheerful but uneven service that makes me stop just short of a full endorsement.)

For decades now, the leader of the cultural charge in Aspen has been the Aspen Music Festival and School, which includes about 150 musical events each year, from chamber quartets to full-blown operas, one-fourth of them free.

The first festival, devised by Paepcke and company to celebrate the 200th anniversary of writer and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's birth, drew about 2,000 visitors. But Paepcke and other allies managed to lure many heavy hitters among them, including Albert Schweitzer in his only visit to the U.S. In early years, music festival participants included Igor Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud, Aaron Copland and Artur Rubinstein, who gathered in a tent designed by Eero Saarinen.

By last year, the attendance figures were closer to 30,000, and the music school summer enrollment had grown to about 850 young musicians. But the music is one component of a larger package. Arrive on most summer days and you'll find a parade of nature, culture and capitalism in the extreme.

Trails beg to be hiked, especially those around the lakes and 14,000-foot peaks of the Maroon Bells wilderness area just outside town. Bikes beg to be ridden, especially on the Rio Grande trail, which parallels the Roaring Fork River as it rambles through Aspen to Woody Creek, about 12 miles west. Ghost towns beg to be visited, most conveniently Ashcroft and Independence, both of which lie within 20 miles of Aspen. And that distant rushing sound you hear may be the Roaring Fork again, begging to be rafted.

The Silver Queen Gondola, which climbs in 18 minutes to the 11,212-foot-high peak of Aspen Mountain, operates until Sept. 12 this year, charging adults $12 each. At the foot of the hill, about 100 restaurants vie for diners, a staggering number for a town with 6,300 residents. Among high-priced retailers, it's the same story.

On the local calendar, the first signs of the coming culture season include the annual Food & Wine Magazine Classic, a three-day mid-June bacchanalia of wine-tasting and cuisine-sampling that features top chefs and vintners from around the world. It began June 11 this year and was followed a few days later by the 49th annual International Design Conference.

During my visit, events were in full swing at the music festival, the Aspen Writers' Conference and a Hot Air Balloon Festival in Snowmass, and several events were underway at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center (a former farm that offers workshops in painting, photography, woodworking, ceramics and other disciplines).

Still ahead lies the Aspen Dance Festival (July 20 to Aug. 7), the 3-year-old Thelonious Monk Institute Jazz Colony's program (July 26 to Aug. 7) and the Aspen Filmfest (Sept. 22 to 26). Scores of other cultural offerings run, from the Aspen Art Museum to Aspen Theatre in the Park. On the recreational side, there are horses to be rented and dude-ranching to be done at the T Lazy 7 Guest & Horse Ranch and free nature hikes and children's programs at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and the 957-acre Windstar Land Conservancy. The Windstar preserve grew from the philanthropic efforts of perhaps Aspen's most famous resident, singer-songwriter John Denver, who died in 1997.

While all this goes on, the low-profile Aspen Institute runs its private seminars. For about two dozen invitation-only programs on public policy each July and August, the institute invites up to 50 learned guests at a time. Under its executive "great books" programs, shaped over four decades by scholar Mortimer Adler, top corporate officers gather in groups of 20 or so to muse upon classic texts. The executives typically pay $5,800 per person for a week's room, board and tuition. To sustain its public profile, the institute sponsors a free summer lecture series, usually on Tuesday nights, which this year started July 4 and runs until Aug. 24. Speakers include U.S. Senator (and presidential hopeful) John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Clinton biographer David Maraniss.

Choosing from all these possibilities is no easy thing. On Day 2, for instance, I was tempted to sit in on a $25 symposium sponsored by the Aspen Writers' Conference ("Will the Written Word Disappear in the New Millennium?") or perhaps to attend an Aspen Chamber Symphony dress rehearsal for $8. But it was another Claritin-commercial day--too nice to retreat indoors right away. I rented a mountain bike from Aspen Sports (about $20 for four hours) and pedaled off to happily attack the Rio Grande Trail.

Then in the afternoon I retreated from nature to culture and plopped down $15 to hear author Madeleine Blais read from a work in progress and offer tips to two dozen aspiring writers on how to write a family memoir.

Those writing personal history, she counseled, should cast aside their own dignity, shouldn't sentimentalize their childhoods and should look for chances to find larger themes in their particular experiences.

(Which reminds me: I also got a nosebleed that day. It was neither better nor worse than the nosebleeds I had as a child, but served as a reminder that those unaccustomed to the mountain air should consider using a humidifier overnight. Most hotels keep them at the ready.)

Dinner was a happy-hour special (an unremarkable pizza and a Heineken for $7) at Mezzaluna, a prime people-watching spot in the heart of downtown Aspen. Afterward, I took in a free song-and-dance performance by an Alabama teen church group in Paepcke Park, then ambled over to Paepcke Auditorium to round out my night with "Genghis Blues" ($7.50 a ticket), a quirky film about a blind blues man who teaches himself the obscure art of Tuvan throat-singing. (Tuva is near Siberia).

It was a touching and witty documentary, if a bit long. But the question I brought home in my head that night was this: In how many little mountain towns can you wake with an empty schedule, then fill it with mountain biking, memoir writing, a Christian chorus line and a finale of Tuvan throat singing?

The program for days 3 and 4 was just as varied.

Day 3 started just after dawn with the launching of three dozen hot-air balloons at the Snowmass balloon festival (a spectacular sight, and free), then veered back to Aspen's Wheeler Opera House, where I bought a walk-up ticket, slipped into a fourth-row seat in a mostly full house and took in a morning master class in opera singing conucted by director Edward Berkeley.

Berkeley, who delivered his critiques while leaning casually against a column at stage left, was by turns learned, demanding, gentle, perceptive, droll and hilarious. His students, a vastly talented collection of about a dozen young singers, took on scenes from the comic (the duet of Susanna and Count Almaviva in "Le Nozze di Figaro") to the tragic (the Act 2 aria "Che tua Madre," from "Madama Butterfly," tearfully wailed by Tiffany Jackson to roaring audience approval).

The two-hour class cost us onlookers $20 each, and I have to confess: It left me more satisfied and more alert than most of the actual operas I've attended. There's genuine human drama in the way a master class combines familiar music with unscripted interactions of students and instructor, and it doesn't hurt when all this unfolds in a grand old Victorian opera house.

That afternoon came a free lecture at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center by assemblage artist Betye Saar, a good osso buco dinner at Cache Cache and about half an hour of the free writers' conference poetry reading at the Howling Wolf bar. Among the topics addressed in verse: cosmetic surgery, U.S. involvement in Kosovo and the possible divinity of Latrell Sprewell, New York Knickerbocker.

By this time, I had a sense of how to stack up my hours. On Day 4, I caught a $5 bus ride out to the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area and panted along a 1.8-mile hike up to Crater Lake under yet another brilliant blue sky. The afternoon I spent outside the music tent, napping and eavesdropping on Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. Then a big, tasty Mexican dinner at La Cocina for about $15, followed by and a cup of tea upstairs at Explore Booksellers & Bistro on Main Street, the best bookstore in town.

Then it was time to go, even though I felt I'd barely begun to exploit the place.

Aspen of 1999 may not be what Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke had in mind when they brought their high-minded ambitions to town all those years ago. (About 10 years ago, in fact, Elizabeth Paepcke pronounced herself "heartbroken" at the commercial turn that Aspen had taken.) Certainly, the community is woefully short of affordable housing for its work force, and ritzy retailers have crowded out many beloved old businesses. The first words you're likely to hear from a longtime local are, "You should have been here back in . . . " Whenever.

But here's the bottom line: An idle summer day in Aspen is a rare and wonderful thing, as full of possibilities as the meadows in early July are full of dandelions. It is enough to be here now.

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GUIDEBOOK

Summertime in Aspen

Getting there: From LAX, United Airlines has connecting flights to Aspen, changing planes in Denver, and America West has connecting service via Phoenix. Round-trip fares begin at $414.

Where to stay: Aspen Central Reservations, telephone (888) 290-1324, takes bookings for most of the three dozen hotels, lodges and bed-and-breakfast operations in town. Prepare yourself for aggressive advance-deposit and cancellation policies--high-demand ski season tactics have spread to the rest of the calendar year.

If money's no object, the Little Nell Hotel, 675 E. Durant Ave., Aspen, CO 81611, tel. (888) 843-6355 or (970) 920-4600, fax (970) 920-4670, Internet http://www.thelittlenell.com, sits at the foot of Aspen's slopes; 92 spacious rooms, a five-diamond ranking from AAA. Summer rates: $315 to $415, more for suites. Closest rivals: the large, luxurious St. Regis Aspen and the historic Hotel Jerome.

Mid-range: Hotel Lenado, 200 S. Aspen St., tel. (800) 321-3457 or (970) 925-6246, fax (970) 925-3840, Internet http://www.aspen.com/sardylenado; summer rates $215 to $265 (though I negotiated a better deal).

Budget: Limelite Lodge, 228 E. Cooper Ave., tel. (800) 433-0832 or (970) 925-3025, fax (970) 925-5120, Internet http://aspen.com/limelite; 63 rooms/nine apartments, centrally located. July and August rates: $98 to $130. Ullr Lodge, 520 W. Main St., tel. (970) 925-7696, fax (970) 920-4339, Internet: http://www.aspen.com/ullr, has 26 rooms and apartments, pool and Jacuzzi; summer rates, $70 to $80 for rooms, $120 to $185 for apartments. (Note: Property is for sale, so things could change, but it's clean and affordable now.)

Where to eat: Cache Cache offers French food in a lively, see-and-be-seen dining room and courtyard; 205 S. Mill St., local tel. 925-3835. Pacifica Seafood Brasserie serves upscale seafood; 307 S. Mill St., tel. 920-9775, dinner entrees $18 to $36. La Cocina is a New Mexico-style oasis of affordability; 308 E. Hopkins St., tel. 925-9714, entrees $6 to $12 (no credit cards, no reservations). Main Street Bakery & Cafe is a bustling local breakfast scene, dinner Tuesday through Saturday; 201 Main St., tel. 925-6446, priciest main dish, $14.

For more information: Contact the Aspen Chamber Resort Assn., (888) 290-1324 or (800) 262-7736, Internet http://www.aspen.com. But beware the prices listed in the association's Official Aspen Visitors Guide: Some numbers that look like great summertime bargains are actually available only in spring or fall.

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