Ski and be seen

Among Aspen's back-mountain extremists and ladies who lunch, Sue Bennett skis all day and parties all night.

'Can I help you there, ma'am?" I like this inquiry very much and anyone who has ever struggled with a pair of cold and infuriatingly rigid, early-morning ski boots will understand why.

"Thanks," sends preppy-smart Ryan to his knees, where he eases my feet into warm boots. Simultaneously, his colleague is taking my skis, poles, helmet and gloves (also warm) from storage and walking them outdoors and onto the snow. Two clicks of boots into skis and I'm on my way to the Silver Queen Gondola and, from here, to the top of Aspen Mountain.

There's not a lot of pain to skiing Colorado-style, I conclude. Ski butlers, concierges and guides are there to smooth the way. How the legs cope with four mountains of boundless skiing terrain, breathtaking vertical drops and trails with names such as Free Fall, Hang On's and Moment of Truth - well, that's between me and my fitness regime.

What fitness regime, I'm tempted to think, standing at the top of Snowmass (elevation 3813 metres) and contemplating the mountain's longest run of 8.5 kilometres. We'll soon find out.

Aspen Snowmass, to give the ski region its official name, comprises four mountains. Buttermilk is ideal for beginners. Snowmass is the cruisers' favourite, perfect for those who like wide, groomed trails. Aspen Mountain, also known as Ajax, rises out of the town and is the most exclusive in terms of skiing ability. Strictly for the competent skier, there are blue trails for intermediate ability at the top of the mountain and a litany of double blacks, the toughest, coming off ridges on the way down. Highlands, the locals' favourite, has some of the most challenging terrain in North America combined with beginner and intermediate runs and wide-open terrain.

Today is overcast, with leaden skies and low visibility, so ski guide-instructor Cesar Piotto's knowledge is gold. We pound the quiet slopes in his wake and, at one stage, I retreat to the open fire and swig litres of water at the Sundeck restaurant. Aspen is at high altitude - the highest lift is at 3813 metres, compared with Australia's top ski lift at 2037 metres - and it can take time to adjust to the thinner air. Your lungs take in less oxygen, so dizziness is not uncommon.

In the 12 days before helping me to negotiate Ajax, Piotto - Brazilian-born, Melbourne-raised and a New Zealand ski-school manager in our winters - acted as the personal guide for a Sydney family. Aspen's that kind of place.

On one descent we take a peek inside Aspen Mountain Club, a short walk from the top of the gondola. An annual subscription of $US25,000 on top of the joining fee - assuming they admit you - buys access to an exclusive world. The grand rooms have Ralph Lauren-style interiors, plush carpets, open fires, stags' antlers and gold-framed pictures on the walls, squishy sofas, an a la carte restaurant and a boot-warming room. It has reciprocal membership with the Eagle Club in Gstaad, Corviglia Club in St Moritz and Game Creek Club in Vail.

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Aspen is trying to shake off its image as a hang-out for celebrities and the super wealthy. Places like Aspen Mountain Club, however, show it's alive and well. The private jets lined up at the airport are also a bit of a giveaway.

In common with other Colorado resorts, Aspen makes sure skiers want for very little, from tissues at mountain sniffle stops to tables on the snow offering free water, non-alcoholic hot cider and biscuits. At the mountain base, the coffee cart is a popular meeting spot.

But life was never meant to be that easy so, in keeping with many resorts around the world, off-piste or back-mountain skiing has never been more popular.

Piotto takes it to extremes, once spending four days walking and camping in the Arctic to enjoy two hours' skiing. Radio was his only contact. "But a signal would be picked up by an international flight overhead and there are lots of them around there," he says nonchalantly.

At Aspen Highlands, with trails for all standards, the off-piste skier takes the Deep Temerity lift, then a snowcat before beginning a 45-minute uphill trek through deep snow on the ridge line, with skis strapped to the back. At the top, 3774 metres, Highland Bowl lies below, a deep expanse of virgin snow set at 45 degrees. The thrill-seeker's hard tramp is rewarded by a few minutes of powder heaven. But I've reached my limit. No amount of work in a city gym prepares my legs for this. Instead, I watch, as if seeing a film, from the warmth of the ski patrol hut, surrounded by lovable working dogs.

My favourite on-snow restaurant is on Highlands. Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro is warm and cosy, timber-lined with breathtaking views and everyone's idea of a Swiss mountain retreat. There's also an outdoor terrace but, at minus 32 degrees, there are no takers today. "You're going out?" locals say, with disbelief, in town. Well, we've come a long way for this, I reply.

We last about two hours skiing - and Highlands has a lovely combination of tree-lined routes, cruising avenues and heart-stopping descents - then the lure of heat and a piping hot gluhwein is simply too appealing. That, and tucking into fondue and raclette - melting cheese on a heated tray, then eating it with sliced ham or salami. There's also venison ragout.

But the real entertainment at Cloud Nine is pure Aspen. A table of about 23 almost identical, size-8, largely blonde and unquestionably beautiful women - known as the Sharks - is here to party. And how. Fuelled by Veuve Cliquot and schnapps, they dance on the timber benches, then around the tables and - following the lead of a skier from Paddington, Sydney, and his Californian friend - on the tables. As the Sharks ("we're all old friends and the name means we have to come up for air sometimes") represent nine-tenths of the customers, you either get into it or leave.

I get into it. I don't do the splits, in ski boots, on the table, like some but I dance and, revealing I'm Australian, one Shark laments that Kristy Hinze, supermodel and a Shark, has stayed in Aspen that day.

It was, so to speak, all downhill from there. Unlike the Sharks, who line up the ski patrol to take them down the mountain, we leave on skis as the sun begins to disappear behind the treeline, throwing great shadows across the hardening snow.

We continue the day at some of the town's best bars including two at the foot of the mountain: Sky Bar and Ajax Tavern. The town's only ski-in, ski-out hotel is the Little Nell, where a bowl of parmesan-truffle fries is a must after a day's skiing. I also love a glass of wine in the living room off the lobby, with big armchairs and roaring fire. It's a great people-watching spot.

A legendary hostelry, the Little Nell has the plushest suites, some with fireplaces, and furnished in chocolate browns, walnut timber and leather. With the aim of making guests' lives easy, there is a concierge to take you and your skis to the four mountains. Otherwise, there are free shuttles.

And, when skiing's over for another day, there's always shopping.

Australians love Aspen, an elegant town of wide avenues that began life in the late 1880s as a magnet for silver-ore prospectors. Today's drawcards are four outstanding skiing mountains, world-class restaurants, designer shops, fun bars and cool nightclubs.

It's an alluring combination for Australians, who visit in larger numbers in winter than travellers from any other country.

Sue Bennett travelled courtesy of Colorado Ski Country USA and V Australia.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

V Australia has a fare to Los Angeles from Sydney and Melbourne (14hr non-stop) for about $1550 low-season return including tax. United Airlines flies from LA to Aspen with a change of aircraft in Denver (about 5hr including transit time) for about $480 return including tax. Australians must apply for travel authorisation before departure at

https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.

Staying there

If you're going to do glamorous Aspen, go the whole way and stay at the Little Nell. It's in the centre of town but on the snow, with concierges to help you with everything from carrying your skis to the snow to moving them around the mountains. The rooms are luxurious, many with fireplaces and bathrooms with double basins. Rooms from $US423 ($408). 675 East Durant Avenue, Aspen; see thelittlenell.com.

Eating there

You could visit Aspen for its restaurants alone. In peak season, it's advisable to reserve tables. Eating at the bar in many restaurants is much cheaper and usually from a similar menu; no bookings, however.

Matsuhisa is a collaboration between chef Nobu Matsuhisa of Nobu restaurant fame and Nobuko Kang. In a cosy, wood-panelled venue, it serves white bass with truffle, kobe steak and Nobu's celebrated black cod with miso. 303 East Main Street, Aspen; phone +1 970 544 6628.

Woody Creek Tavern is out of town but it's worth seeing the pub made famous by Hunter S. Thompson. The hamburgers are worth the journey, too. 2858 Upper River Road, Woody Creek; phone +1 970 923 4585.

Victoria's Espresso Wine Bar & Gourmet Grazing. When only Vegemite on toast will do, this is the place to go. The breakfast and lunch menu has other familiar offerings. 312 South Mill Street Aspen; phone +1 970 920 3001.

Syzygy is a big-night-out restaurant — sophisticated with exciting and contemporary American-style food. 308 East Hopkins Avenue, Aspen; phone +1 970 925 3700.

Lulu Wilson is also contemporary American but the setting is a brick-lined, gold rush-era mining cabin, albeit with chandeliers. 316 East Hopkins Avenue, Aspen; phone +1 970 925 9267.

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