Head 40 minutes down valley from Aspen – past Goldie (Hawn) and Kurt's (Russell) place – and you'll find a village that's celebrated Potato Day each year since 1910. You won't see movie stars down here, and you won't hear another Australian accent.
But here in the lower Roaring Fork Valley, you'll see how Aspen used to be. The old ranching village, Carbondale, is built on a grid, like Aspen. Neat rows of historic buildings of exposed red-brick sure make it easy to navigate – at night they're lit up by outdoor fire pits and mason-jar light fixtures. This town's what they call "Aspen's bedroom community" – where Aspen's workers come to rent, or buy (there's even a song about moving out called The Downvalley Shuffle).
Just outside Carbondale, locals bathe naked in hot springs by the side of the road. When God-fearing farmers bulldozed the hot pools to stop the nudity, locals pushed the boulders back out. It was free to bathe, see. And people down valley don't have the crazy money that's going round in Aspen.
Like many, I've passed Carbondale from Aspen on the drive back to Denver. But lately, people are stopping (particularly since National Geographic and Outside named it one of America's best towns). Tonight I'll be sleeping somewhere Aspen can't offer: the only inn on earth housed in an operating distillery. I arrive straight off the plane from Australia but Marble Distilling Co and The Distillery Inn co-owner Connie Baker mixes me a drink in the bar out front. "This is a jet-lag killer," she says. It's the Marble Rita: Marble Distilling Co's gingercello and vodka with lime, jalapeno and crystallised ginger plus a honey-dripped rim. Locals gather round me on barstools, quick to chat. This is an eclectic, creative community. Locals used to grow potatoes, but these days Carbondale's one of Colorado's 21 official creative districts.
Spirits are distilled a few metres below where I'll sleep, through a unique natural filtration process using marble from the nearby ghost mining town of Marble, and with water from Crystal River, just down the road. Baker's invented a way to make hers a zero-waste distillery by recapturing 100 per cent of the water (saving 15 million litres of water a year) with all grain stillage going to local ranchers.
There are ranching types sitting round me – they're partial to Marble Distilling Co's Barrel Club, where customers can buy their own barrel of spirits and drink it as it ages. Some of those I drink with have four generations of family members buried outside. When I make it to my room, I stand out on the balcony looking at the only stars I'll see this far down valley.
But that could change. On the first Friday of the month, these days, the town has an art and wine mini-festival that shuts the streets. There's a family block party, an art around town walk and a film festival. Come summer, you'll find some of the best mountain biking in Colorado just out of town and the Carbondale Wild West Rodeo is held each Thursday evening. There's also fly-fishing, kayaking and day spas; in winter cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing are popular. It's barely 30 minutes to Snowmass and another five to Aspen Highlands. But in the evenings when I return from there, I have my very own ski village.
Carbondale's a bit of a culinary hot spot these days. I like that the best restaurants serve up something they dub new American farmhouse cuisine – with plenty of potatoes.
TravelPlan offers Aspen Snowmass ski packages including discounted accommodation, ski tickets and airfares. See travelplanski.com
Sleep in one of five luxury rooms at The Distillery Inn from $400 a night. See marbledistilling.com/the-inn
Craig Tansley travelled courtesy of Travelplan, Colorado Ski Country USA and Aspen Snowmass.