I began this year’s round-the-world trip with snow and ice in Antarctica and so it seemed only fitting that after a month of soaking up the island sunshine around the world I should end it in similar fashion. It may come as a surprise to many of my readers that with all of my globetrotting in the past few years, I’ve never actually taken a ski trip. In fact, other than a weekend high school church ski trip to the mountains of North Carolina, this Florida girl had not skied since childhood (and I didn’t recall being especially good at it back then).
But it was a summer trip to Keystone, Colorado last year for the annual travel blogger’s conference (TBEX) that opened my eyes to the spectacular Rocky Mountains. As I gaped openly at the natural beauty of a Colorado summer, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like in the height of ski season when the resort towns really hit full tilt.
Truth be told, I’ve always harbored a secret desire to be a ski bunny. You know, one of those girls schussing down the mountain by day and hot-tubbing with a glass of champagne by night. The idea of a ski trip to Aspen Colorado sounded both athletic and glamorous – two of my favorite adjectives. And because a stop in Colorado was a little closer to home than my typical global destinations, I decided to invite two of my best girlfriends to join in the fun. A ski trip seemed like the perfect girls getaway! And who were we to let the fact that none of us were actually skiers get in the way of a good time.
The Power of Four
The Aspen-Snowmass area is actually made up of four mountains: Aspen Mountain, Snowmass, Buttermilk and Aspen Highlands. With four mountains of varying degrees of difficulty, there truly is a mountain for everyone – even true rookies like us. We decided to maximize our Aspen experience by trying out two different areas starting with two nights at the fabulous St. Regis Aspen hotel in heart of nightlife-infused Aspen and our final two in more relaxed, family-friendly Snowmass at the brand new ski-in/ski-out Westin Snowmass.
I’d invited my good friend and regular travel buddy, Shannon, and my longtime best bud, Kristy, who I rarely get to see anymore because she lives in Milwaukee (so she’s no stranger to snow). After a much-needed overnight layover at home following my two-day journey back to the U.S. from Sydney, Shannon and I were headed to the airport Sunday morning for our flight into Vail. Since we’re both Delta frequent fliers and Delta doesn’t fly into Aspen, we’d elected to go into Eagle/Vail and make the 90-minute shuttle ride to the hotel.
Kristy’s flight options from Wisconsin were better directly into Aspen via Denver so the plan was for her to meet us at the St. Regis later that day. Unfortunately, we didn’t count on the snow storm that virtually shut down the Denver airport and completely shut down the Aspen airport (surprising because Shannon and I had no issues at all getting into Eagle/Vail – a larger airport).
We arrived at the elegant St. Regis Aspen around 3:00pm after a remarkably painless shuttle ride from Eagle/Vail. Located at the base of Colorado’s legendary Aspen Mountain, the St. Regis enjoys a prime Aspen address and just emerged from a $40 million redesign last year. It features decadent rooms and suites, one of the world’s top spas – the Remède Spa – and the exclusive Chef’s Club restaurant by FOOD & WINE where a hand-picked group of the magazine’s “Best New Chefs” create inspired culinary delights nightly.
While we waited for our suite to be ready, we settled in by the roaring lobby fireplace with a glass of champagne and I thought, “Now this is how you do Aspen.” We hadn’t been there for five minutes before Shannon adroitly spotted our first celebrity – Christian Slater – strolling through the lobby with his dog, “Fish.” Before long our suite was ready and we were settling into a luxuriously-spacious, two-bedroom loft suite with not one, but two, fireplaces. I was wrong, this is how you do Aspen.
We sipped our champagne and sampled the treats awaiting us in the living room while hoping for good news from Kristy. Unfortunately, as the snow continued to fall, it was beginning to look like she might be stuck in Denver for the night.
Shannon and I made the best of our waiting time by heading back down to the lobby bar to witness the nightly sabering tradition. Each evening, every St. Regis hotel sabers a bottle of champagne and if you haven’t ever seen it done before, it’s quite entertaining. Joined by about a dozen of our fellow guests, we made our way just outside the front door into the snow and cheered as the bartender enthusiastically separated cork from bottle with the slice of a glimmering saber. Completely awesome. And, of course, more champagne for everyone afterward!
Since Kristy definitely wouldn’t be making it anytime soon, Shannon and I made the short walk into Aspen in search of dinner options. We stopped just a few blocks away at the base of Aspen mountain at happy-hour hotspot, Apex, in the Little Nell Hotel. The snow was still falling with reckless abandon and the quaint town of Aspen was blanketed like a diamond-encrusted winter wonderland. It was spectacular.
Meanwhile, back at the Denver airport, the flight options were looking grim for Kristy as the Aspen airport was a total no-go. Luckily, she managed to score a seat on an evening flight into Eagle/Vail that (after making the same shuttle ride we’d done earlier) would finally put her into Aspen around 1:00am.
Though we had the best intentions of settling back into the suite with a bottle of wine to watch the Oscars after dinner, we ended up making friends with two guys from Florida and checking out the Aspen nightlife with them for a few hours, including the exclusively private Caribou Club which was hosting an Oscars party.
We finally made it back to the St. Regis around midnight, Shannon headed to bed and I waited up for Kristy who arrived, as advertised, just after 1:00am…hooray!! Let the girls’ trip officially begin.
Ski Bunnies in Training
The next morning it was time for our first ski lesson. The lovely folks at Aspen Skiing Company had suggested Buttermilk Mountain for our lesson as it was a better mountain for beginners. (And after getting a look at Aspen Mountain the night before I didn’t need convincing.) They had arranged for our lesson with ski pro Julian Gregory. As a past Ski School Manger at both Snowmass and Highlands, as well as a ski Pro trainer, it certainly seemed like Julian would be up to the challenge of dealing with a couple of total rookies.
Kristy was more interested in the spa than the slopes so she elected to forgo participating in the ski lesson and instead acted as the official photographer to document this momentous occasion.
So, in the capable hands of Julian, Shannon and I got geared up and headed out to the mountain. The snow had finally abated late the night before and Aspen was now being treated to what’s known in skiing parlance as a “bluebird” day – a sunny day right after a large snowfall that creates the much-coveted powder conditions on the slopes.
We couldn’t have asked for better weather and I thoroughly enjoyed our lesson. Julian was a terrific teacher and I was feeling more and more confident by the hour. Since we had spa appointments planned back at the St. Regis that afternoon, we ended our lesson just before lunchtime after arranging to meet up with Julian again the following morning for lesson #2.
A Ski Trip’s Better Half…the Spa
Before our appointments at the spa, we headed to the restaurant at the St. Regis for lunch and to sample another St. Regis tradition, the Bloody Mary. Originally created by a bartender at the St. Regis in New York in the 1930’s, the Bloody Mary has become a signature drink at St. Regis hotels and each property puts its own unique twist on the spicy concoction. At the St. Regis Aspen it’s called the “Downhill Snapper” and it was spicy, tomato deliciousness.
After lunch we made a visit to the St. Regis’ exclusive Aspen Outfitting Company to check out some of the non-skiing pursuits available in the area. For more than 40 years, Aspen Outfitting Company has been providing private guided activities in the Aspen area. Options include fly fishing, target shooting, rock climbing, horseback riding and even a Western Colorado wine tour.
Of course, while fly fishing or rock climbing sounded like a delightful way to spend a day in the great outdoors, the girls and I were more focused on indoor pursuits. Like the world renowned Remède Spa at the St. Regis. Now this is where ski trips really start to make sense to me. It doesn’t have to be all about the skiing, there are lots of other ways to spend your days in Aspen and for my money spa time tops the list…especially when the spa in question was recently ranked #2 in the country and #6 in the world by the readers of Travel + Leisure Magazine.
I had scheduled a massage, Kristy a facial and Shannon just planned to use the Remède Spa’s incredible facilities like the steam room, whirlpools, Confluence Waterfall Lounge and the uniquely-luxurious, altitude-fighting oxygen room.
My massage was quite possibly the best I’ve ever had and so relaxing I feared someone might have to carry me out of there. I capped it off with a little quiet time in the oxygen room where I found Kristy already firmly affixed to a plush lounge chair, sipping champagne like it was her job and basking in the glow of her facial while smugly making the unspoken point that skiing is (obviously) overrated. Check mate, Aspen.
Though we probably could have stayed there all day, it was getting close to sabering time again in the bar and since Kristy had missed it the night before we wanted to catch the show again. So we changed out of our robes and reluctantly traded the coziness of the spa for the chill of the outdoor air.
Will Work for Champagne
As we exited the lobby to the official sabering spot, I was more than a little shocked when the hotel invited me to do the honors tonight. What!?? Don’t get me wrong, I certainly know my way around a bottle of champagne, but I’ve never sabered, uh, anything and I was positive this maneuver would require some sort of experience and perhaps even a weapons permit.
While Kristy and Shannon readied their cameras and tried not to burst into uncontrollable laughter at the thought of me attempting to open a bottle of champagne with a piece of weaponry normally reserved for invading armies, the bartender gave me a quick lesson in how to hold the bottle and where to slide the saber along its seam.
This had all the makings of a tragic comedy but shockingly, I counted to three and sharply slid the saber forward neatly slicing off the top of the bottle as the champagne exploded from its wounded neck. No one was more surprised than I was. If you don’t believe me you can watch the video of this momentous event in the photo gallery.
I was later told that it was pretty rare for a guest to be asked to do that at a St. Regis so I was honored that they asked me to give it a try and I’m thrilled by the fact that I didn’t take out anyone’s eye in the process. And I’m totally adding “champagne saberer” to my resume.
Later that night we again joined the Florida guys for dinner and another night of embracing the Aspen nightlife til the wee hours.
Ski Bunnies, Round #2
The next morning the snow was falling steadily again as we boarded the free shuttle bus back to Buttermilk to meet up with Julian for round two on the slopes. Today I was promised a trip to the top of the mountain where the big kids ski (while still on the green trails, of course).
The weather was a stark contrast to the bluebird day before and we had to bundle up against the swirling snow. The trip down from the top of Buttermilk was awesome and I was truly beginning to get into a groove with the skiing thing. I also had my first minor fall which was apparently a good thing since Julian joked that he had planned to push me over before the end of the day (simply out of spite) if I didn’t fall on my own. Part of his job, after all, was teaching me how to get up.
After a couple of hours on the mountain, it was time to head back to the St. Regis to pack up and move on to our next destination, the Westin Snowmass.
The Beauty of Ski-In/Ski-Out
Just nine miles from downtown Aspen, lies the largest of the areas quad peaks, Snowmass Mountain. With a summit elevation of more than 12,000ft and featuring 21 lifts (almost three times the number at the others), Snowmass truly offers the largest variety of skiing options.
Recently emerged from a multi-million dollar renovation, the vast Snowmass Village now features a new shining star on the slopes, the Westin Snowmass. With a perfect mountainside location, the Westin offers the convenience of ski-in/ski-out access with all the plush luxury the Westin name implies.
We arrived around 3:00pm and checked-in to a room with a perfect view of the mountain. I was amazed at just how close to the action we were. Chairlifts, skiers and snowboarders whizzed by just outside our balcony and the hot tubs down below were only steps from the slope. A definite contrast to the tranquility of the St. Regis but it was fun to watch all the activity on the mountain.
Since we were still definite rookies, we didn’t have plans to ski at Snowmass, just figured we’d do a little shopping and enjoy the Village. By the time we settled into our room, it was getting close to dinner time so we headed to the Westin’s lobby bar to enjoy a little après-ski (ski trip Rule #1: you don’t have to ski to après-ski) before taking the gondola down to the base village to scout out dinner options. We ultimately settled on a Mexican restaurant that turned out to be terrific.
After dinner, we decided it was time to get into true ski trip spirit with a visit to the hot tub so we ordered a round of drinks, donned our robes and headed out to the icy pool deck. Despite the single digit temperatures, the hot tub was warm and inviting and we stayed til they kicked us out at closing time.
Last Day of Snow Play
The next morning the snow had again passed under darkness of night and as daylight broke Snowmass was abuzz with the anticipation of another bluebird day. When the lifts started rolling at 9am, we headed back down to the base village on the gondola to check out the popular kids ski school. After watching all the little ones flying by us on the slopes at Buttermilk, Kristy was interested in bringing her 5-year-old out on a future trip. Snowmass and Buttermilk offer a variety of ski schools for kids of all ages (and grown-ups, too!). Snowmass even has a “Cubs on Skis” program for kids as young as 2 ½ years old. It was fun to watch them as they skied with their instructors, bundled up like miniature Michelin-men and wearing their tiny little ski boots. Super cute and, to be honest, an alarming number of them were better than we were. This is why I don’t have children, always showing off.
Once back at the Westin, we took a walk next door to get a look at the other Starwood property, the directly-adjacent Wildwood. The giant living room and well-equipped game room at Wildwood give it kind of a retro-chic vibe that was part 70’s ski lodge, part trendy Aloft hotel (the kid sister of swank W hotels). The hip, youthful lodge feel made it the kind of place teenagers would beg to stay while the adults enjoyed the greater luxuries of the Westin.
We decided to spend our last afternoon shopping and sightseeing in Aspen so we hopped on the convenient (and free) bus that connects all four mountains and makes getting around Aspen/Snowmass a breeze without a car. Our first stop was the gondola to the top of Aspen Mountain for a little après-ski (again, actual skiing not required) with a million-dollar view from the restaurant.
Later we spent several hours popping in and out of Aspen’s high-end stores and first-rate consignment shops and then wandered over to J Bar at the historic Hotel Jerome for dinner before catching the bus back to Snowmass. With our first two nights devoted to nightlife, we were more than happy to spend the last two enjoying the more laid-back, quieter pace of Snowmass Village.
Winter Wonderland Wrap-Up
After four days of skiing, spas and shopping mixed in with a healthy dose of Aspen’s legendary nightlife, we really felt like we’d gotten a taste of what Aspen/Snowmass has to offer. In fact, the more I thought about it, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t planned a ski trip to Colorado sooner. It’s such an easy trip from Atlanta and it’s the perfect way to spend a winter week or weekend.
But there’s more to Aspen/Snowmass than the winter months. So many of the locals I spoke to raved about the beauty of the summer months when ski slopes turn to hiking and biking trails and weekends are loaded with festivals (not one, but two, jazz festivals each summer) and concerts. There’s golf, tennis, white-water rafting and, of course, if après-ski need not be limited to skiers, it also need not be limited to ski season.
The Westin Snowmass even has a new outdoor music venue that will be packed with events this summer. After visiting Keystone in the summer months last year, I can absolutely vouch for the drop-dead gorgeousness of the Rockies in June.
So I definitely think there’s another Colorado ski trip in my future. In fact, I’m already checking out the other Starwood options in the Rockies like the Westin Riverfront in Beaver Creek or the Sheraton Steamboat Resort in Steamboat Springs. Of course Aspen/Snowmass is likely to see me again, too…
After all, the champagne at the St. Regis isn’t going to saber itself.
Tomorrow, my parting thoughts on this whirlwind journey to all 7 continents in just 7 weeks.