Whispery flurries dance in the breeze, catching on strands of hair and settling in clumps on the ground. But this is not the snow Aspen is famous for – it's a blizzard of gossamer cottonwood seeds, white fluff against an azure sky and emerald grass signalling that summer has arrived in the heart of the Rocky Mountains.
Aspen may be best known as an exclusive ski resort, but when the powder melts and delicate wildflowers swathe the black diamond runs, the line-up of private jets at the town's tiny airport is no less impressive. Summer brings a different focus for the town's glitterati clientele, with a non-stop string of arts-related festivals and cultural events adding a cerebral bonus to its more conspicuous delights – sublime mountain scenery, adrenalin sports and a palpable joie de vivre derived from being in one of the most stunning places on the planet.
Aspen is, quite simply, drop-dead gorgeous – an idyllic Western village nestled between soaring peaks, its cobbled, leafy streets lined with quaint wooden buildings, sidewalk cafes, water fountains and window boxes bursting with floral colour. Of course, such perfection comes at a price – real estate is some of the most expensive in America (a 16-bedroom home on 21 hectares, for instance, is currently listed for a cool $60 million), there's a plethora of five-star hotels, spas and fine-dining restaurants, while prices in its fabulous boutiques and home design shops are enough to send a mere mortal bankrupt.
But heck, if I was a gazillionaire, I'd live here too – life is sweet in this mountain paradise. But while a healthy bank balance certainly doesn't go astray, Aspen is blessed with a casual unpretentiousness belying its GDP – everyone walks or cycles around town, children squeal with delight in public playgrounds, there are doggy bowls outside every cafe, and exercise gear and running shoes are the day-wear of choice.
Although ostensibly a small mountain town, Aspen possesses a cosmopolitan spirit belying its size, due largely to the foresight of one man – Walter Paepcke. Back in the 1950s, this industrialist and philanthropist founded the Aspen Institute and Aspen Skiing Company, transforming the town into an international destination and creating the concept of "the Aspen Idea" – a place to nurture mind, body and spirit.
On the back of this awakening came museums, galleries and cultural institutions worthy of much larger cities, including the Anderson Ranch Arts Centre, Theatre Aspen and the Aspen Arts Museum, showcasing national contemporary art and a roster of free talks, lectures, movie nights and guided tours. Financed entirely by private donations, this $45 million gallery was a controversial addition to the downtown landscape when it opened in 2014, its contemporary "woven basket" design by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban accused of being at odds with the mountain landscape. From inside, however, the slopes are on permanent display through the lattice; while the rooftop sculpture garden and cafe boast some of the best views in town.
But why linger indoors when the arts can be equally appreciated in the great outdoors? Summer is festival season in Aspen, with many events held in parklands and open spaces to make the most of blue-sky days and mild nights. Annual offerings include the three-day Food and Wine Classic (named by Adweek as America's Hottest Festival), the Aspen Arts Festival, classical music performances, fringe theatre and comedy. Meanwhile, the legacy of Walter Paepcke's Aspen Institute continues at the Aspen Ideas Festival, a forum for prominent thinkers, policy makers and writers to share ideas and start conversations.
As highbrow and exclusive as these events may sound, they are accessible and affordable, if not free.
For instance, at the annual JAS (Jazz Aspen Snowmass) concert series – now in its 27th year – crowds congregate under the aspens outside the Benedict Music Tent on the edge of town to picnic under the stars as headlining acts – which this summer include Earth Wind and Fire, Jon Batiste and Paa Kow - belt out their hits to a capacity paying audience inside. The picnickers get the benefit of free entertainment and a great community atmosphere; and as the concert reaches its climax, the doors to the canopy are opened for the masses to sneak in and enjoy the remainder of the show.
Free concerts are also held on weekends on the Sundeck atop Aspen Mountain (commonly known as Ajax), with classical music performed by students from the Aspen Music School on Saturdays and toe-tapping bluegrass sessions on Sunday afternoons.
Meanwhile, those in search of a natural high flock to yoga classes, held three mornings a week on the Sundeck at 3,417 metres. With the Elk Range as the stunning backdrop and the pure high altitude air, this is arguably the most inspiring way to salute the sun – and a quintessential Aspen experience at just $5 a session (plus the price of the gondola, $19 return, if you decide that hiking up the mountain is too strenuous).
Once you are on Ajax, of course, there are endless hiking and mountain bike trails, a disc golf course, storytelling for children and free nature walks guided by naturalists from the Aspen Centre for Environmental Studies (ACES).
With four bases in the Roaring Fork valley, ACES – founded by Walter Paepcke's equally community-minded wife Elizabeth in 1968 – is another Aspen treasure, protecting and restoring Aspen's beautiful woodland environment and educating about environmental issues and sustainability. The centre has a full calendar of events, including farm tours, birding programs, environmental lectures and workshops, kids' camps and monthly farm-to-table events. They also offer free daily hikes on popular trails such as the sublime Maroon Bells, Ashcroft Ghost Town and Snowmass' Ice Age dig; while animal lovers will also love the twice-weekly sunset beaver walks at ACES Hallam Lake centre, watching the resident beaver community hard at work building dams and being downright adorable.
The pervading Aspen ethos that the "best things in life are free" is even embraced by the town's most exclusive hotel, The Little Nell. While this Forbes five-star, AAA five-diamond, multi-award-winning ski-in-ski-out hotel attracts celebrities and billionaires like butterflies to lavender, one of its most popular activities is a complimentary tour of the poolside garden with its landscape designer, Arabella Beavers.
British-born, Chelsea Flower Show-obsessed Arabella is an affable, informative host as we meander through raised beds of nasturtiums, dahlias, lupin, columbine and marigolds, artfully yet practically planted to be insect-repellent as well as a blaze of summer colour. The organic garden also supplies the kitchens of the signature Element 47 restaurant with an array of herbs and edible flowers, foraged straight from the garden by chef de cuisine, Patrick Dunn.
"A garden should be visible every part of the day and night," Arabella explains as we admire an all-white display, a showstopper during evening parties around the pool. Another flower bed features predominantly orange hues, a tribute to a beloved restaurant guest who always requested the same table overlooking the garden.
The highlight of Arabella's patio masterpiece, however, is a "living wall", an 8 metre x 2 metre floral mural that features a different design each summer – in 2016, it was the four peaks of Aspen, "painted' with a carpet of lobelias, petunias and ivy. This year a sunscape is represented. It's a truly dazzling sight, and a poignant reminder that the most accomplished artist in this culturally rich and socially enlightened town is none other than Mother Nature herself.
United Airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Los Angeles, with internal flights to Denver, Colorado. See united.com
Aspen is a three-hour scenic drive from Denver, with car rental available through Driveaway Holidays. See driveaway.com.au
The Little Nell offers town side rooms from $US550 a night in summer, while a luxury suite starts at $US1150 a night. See thelittlenell.com
Julie Miller was a guest of Aspen Chamber Resort Association and The Little Nell.
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