Few things have changed at this celebrity hotspot in Colorado’s White River National Park – until now. The resort is set to increase by a whopping 22 per cent.
Fiona CarruthersTravel editor
Give Aspen even 48 hours, and the preferred ski town of the bold and the beautiful delivers.
Sitting in The Little Nell’s large outdoor spa on the first of my two evenings there in February, I can’t help but overhear a Los Angeles dad’s conundrum, as told to his friend, back in the spa.
How to placate his kids by getting the family’s pandemic-purchase Pomeranian pup Sushi from LA to Europe for the summer vacation (with minimal paperwork), he muses.
After half an hour or so, I too am convinced that airlines and hotels are so unreasonable these days. Sushi should definitely fly in first class. He doesn’t need a dog passport for that.
Aspen’s six-seater Silver Queen Gondola was also a treat, and not just for the views. “Yeah, he knows I’m away for five weeks – I told him that: So he needs to keep collecting the mail. We’re still in Aspen. Tomorrow, we’ll be in Tulum for a few weeks. Then, we’ll fly back to New York, unless we extend,” says a chatty guy on his mobile phone.
His wife looks thoughtfully at their three youngsters, all dressed in Obermeyer ski suits, gently cautioning: “Kids, I need you to be ready on time tomorrow, OK? The plane won’t wait for you.”
Ahhh, Aspen, where the snow is like powdered champagne, everyone has a winner’s smile, and private jets pound the airport runway with the same frequency as the morning school run.
Even those at the tail end of the pecking order in the former silver mining town are upbeat. “I moved here from Memphis,” says the driver of my transfer over from Snowmass, executed in a sleek black Lincoln Navigator with a tube box for guests’ skis.
“If you love the outdoors, Colorado is the place to be,” he advises, adding while there is a shortage of good staff accommodation across every ski resort in this state, the housing in Aspen generally has better views – and the customer tips are definitely bigger.
Some days, it’s as if everywhere you turn, Aspen is reinforcing its stereotype of a winter wonderland where old, new, and celebrity money converge to enjoy the steep, never-too-crowded terrain, dotted with slender Aspen trees. And it’s a stereotype created mainly by the guests, not residents, since the town’s first ski lodge opened here in 1936.
When I arrive at the resort’s ski in/ski out Little Nell, located at the base of Aspen Mountain, the staff are wearing earpieces to facilitate the hotel’s smooth running – a uniform accessory that adds some cool FBI-style intrigue.
A Bernese mountain dog lies sprawled by the roaring fire in the hotel’s cosy lobby lounge; its owners sipping a lunchtime wine with the comfortable air of those who know they are different from you and me.
Attentive staff insist on triaging my puffer jacket to the drying room immediately, even though it’s only slightly damp, as skis and boots are whisked away to the hotel’s famed ski concierge area, which contains heated boot racks to ensure even your toes feel five-star.
I’m then handed a creamy hot chocolate, and encouraged to warm up by the fire.
As I lean down to pat the Bernese, there’s suddenly nowhere else I’d rather be. Aspen can have this effect on you, especially when staying at The Little Nell.
A big part of its charm is that many fundamentals don’t change here – ensuring life’s little luxuries like the pancake stacks served at the mid-mountain, family-owned Bonnie’s (just off the smooth groomer runs of North American and Tourtelotte Park) remain reliably light and fluffy.
But much like everywhere else, the pandemic gave Aspen the breathing space to strike out on new projects, previously much discussed, but not yet actioned by the resort’s owners, the Crown family, via their Aspen Skiing Company.
Plans are now well advanced to create a Little Nell sibling property in New York. The Aspen Skiing Company has secured the Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan as a potential site for its planned 130-room luxury hotel, to be built across 10 floors. If approved by the New York City Council and Planning Commission, it would become the Rockefeller’s first and only hotel – and the second Little Nell branded hotel, the original having opened in Aspen in 1989.
Depending on when construction begins, a Little Nell New York could open by 2026.
Back in Colorado, the renovation of Little Nell’s spa and fitness centre is well under way, managed by Spanish architect Luis Bustamante. It is due to be unveiled by fall.
A swanky new lifestyle and experiential brand, AspenX, has been created, including premium ski and snowboard hire.
But the pièce de résistance? If you like Aspen, you’re in luck because the resort is about to upsize, in time for the 2023-2024 season.
Almost four decades after the last big infrastructure thing here – the opening of Aspen Mountain’s Silver Queen Gondola in December 1985 (enabling skiers to reach the top of the mountain in about 14 minutes versus the 30 minutes it took on the older chairlifts) – the resort’s skiable area will soon expand by 22 per cent, or about 62 hectares, all above 10,000 feet in elevation.
Work has begun on opening up an area known as Pandora’s on the upper eastern flank of Aspen Mountain, including putting in a new high-speed quad chair.
A peek at what’s to come
Truth be told, at present, there’s not much to see. Keen to learn more about the expansion during my stay, I take the Silver Queen to the top of the mountain, pop out, and ski about 200 metres down to the ski patrol hut, to find Tessa Dawson, the ski patrol director for Aspen Mountain.
You get so used to posh Aspen, it’s something of a relief to walk into the patrol hut, with its well-worn furniture, homely cast iron wood burner, and a number of the patrollers’ working dogs asleep on the job, lazing on cosy blanket-strewn couches. Yet more dogs bound around in their red vests as the welcoming committee.
Since she arrived at Aspen (from Crested Butte) a couple of years ago, Dawson has been across the resort’s plan to open up Pandora’s.
“The select tree clearing is well under way,” Dawson says, gesturing towards Pandora’s, on the far side of the Silver Queen. “We’ll be creating around 10 to 15 new named runs, mainly black runs, but also at least one intermediate coming off the [double black run] Walsh’s, which currently forms the mountain’s easternmost boundary.
“The top half of the mountain will be black runs, mellowing out to blue runs towards the bottom.”
The names of the runs are still under discussion, but they will riff off local history and characters.
The area was selected for development due to its high elevation, helping Aspen better counter the effects of global warming.
“Given Pandora’s is kind of north-east facing, it holds more snow,” says Dawson. “Resorts the world over are having issues, and it will get challenging to keep snow on the base of Aspen Mountain. Even this season, Pandora’s has had significantly more snow than the front of the mountain.
“Part of the reason for opening up Pandora’s to ski is to help guard against climate change, whereby these new runs – along with snowmaking to the summit of Aspen Mountain – will ensure premium conditions for longer.”
Naturally, the development has not been without controversy, given it includes a mix of private land, as well as national forest that’s leased by Aspen Skiing Company.
“This has been in discussion for 20 to 30 years,” Dawson says. “It hasn’t happened overnight. And a lot of people have been skiing Pandora’s as back country for decades – many of them, plus some locals, have been more hesitant to develop it. Others see it as only positive.
“You should come back next year and try it out,” Dawson adds with a warm smile.
I nod eagerly: I’d love to ski Pandora’s. But really, when it comes to Aspen, I’m not fussed if nothing changes. Let’s face it, I’d come just for the eavesdropping. And to hear how Sushi went in Europe.
The writer was a guest of the Aspen Skiing Company and The Little Nell.
Need to know
- Getting to Aspen | Many US cities have direct flights into Aspen/Pitkin County Airport; the resort is just under 4 hours’ drive from Denver, or you can travel by rail. The Little Nell is at 675 E Durant Ave, Aspen. Call +1 970-920-4600.
- Rates | Winter prices at The Little Nell start from $US1500 (about $2215) a night plus taxes and other charges.
- Getting to the US | United Airlines will increase flights from Australia (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane) and New Zealand by 40 per cent for the 2023-2024 northern winter.
Introducing your Newsfeed
Follow the topics, people and companies that matter to you.Find out more
Fiona CarruthersTravel editorFiona Carruthers has written and edited travel for the Financial Review for almost a decade. She has held senior roles with ABC Radio National, Deutsche Welle Radio, TIME and The Australian, and was deputy editor of Traveller. Email Fiona at firstname.lastname@example.org
Latest In Travel
Fetching latest articles