In my mind, Aspen is permanently etched in white. Snow-capped mountains, white footpaths and pretty Victorian houses with icicles hanging from the front porch. Snowflakes flutter silently from a moody grey sky, dusting rosy-cheeked skiers heading home after a day on the mountain. Today, however, the palette is an intoxicating mix of indigo, yellow and orange. And it's hot.
Locals wear shorts or chic cotton dresses and open-toed sandals, making the most of the warm weather, drinking coffee and wine alfresco, or lunching on the roof of the new Aspen Art Museum. Every man and his dog is talking about their latest hike. Animal droppings, unquestionably from a bear, sit fresh on the driveway of the swish Little Nell, a five-star hotel in a prime position at the base of Aspen Mountain. Having come so far, out of season, a bear sighting tops our bucket list.
At the Anderson Ranch Arts Centre, a historic ranch turned visual arts community, students and teachers craft, sculpt, paint and carve; doors of the restored barns open to the breeze. We meet a 13th generation Japanese potter and a Melbourne sculptor. Locals gather in the sunshine drinking wine at the Snowmass Wine Festival. Just over the rise, 30 balloons take to the skies at dawn for the highest hot air balloon ride in the country. Clearly there's plenty to do in Aspen and neighbouring Snowmass other than ski.
Every local we meet has a story of a bear encounter. It becomes a running joke. Even when we come face to face with a couple of famous locals and celebrity visitors – Lance Armstrong at Matsuhisa, Nobu's restaurant; John Goodman at the Little Nell's Ajax Tavern – we shrug. OK. Now show us the bears.
It's surprising how appealing the swanky villages of Aspen and neighbouring Snowmass are in summer. In winter, the population of 6000, swells to 20,000 and is flush with money – private jets line up at Aspen Airport, women parade the streets in fur coats – and loads of Australians are in town for some of the northern hemisphere's best skiing.
As the snow melts, along come lingering summer days perfect for hiking, fly fishing, cycling, four-wheel-drive tours, and cultural and arts events.
Aspen is quieter and more affordable in the off season; Snowmass even more so. We split our stay between the two. Staying at the Westin Snowmass I sleep with the doors open to the summer night (one ear listening out for bears). It's deadly quiet.
Summer is the time for (free) yoga on the mountains, the Little Nell takes guests on bespoke adventures such as heli fishing in private streams, while ladies lunch on the terrace at the Hotel Jerome, where writer Hunter S. Thompson hung out in the decidedly cool J Bar.
Thompson was also a regular at the Woody Creek Tavern, which we visit one languid afternoon. It's a short drive from Aspen and has little of the feel of the wealthy ski resort town. There are many nods to the gonzo journalist in the newspaper clippings and posters plastering the tavern walls, but it's the agave tequila and fresh-lime margaritas that make it a must-visit.
Mike Monroney, who takes us on a cycling tour of Aspen, says Castle Creek Valley, home to Woody Creek Tavern, is the locals' haven.
"It's the type of place to relax, kick back and have a beer," he says. Ask any local, and they'll tell you that, while they love winter, it's summers they most look forward to.
"Seriously, the lifestyle can't be beat," Monroney says as we cycle millionaires' row in Aspen's charming west end. Aspen also has a billionaires' row on Red Mountain, home to about 50 billionaires.
I can't argue with Mike about Aspen's enviable lifestyle – whether you're a billionaire or a pauper. Its beauty is clear as I hike the picturesque Hudson Creek Trail. The leaves on the Aspen trees are turning gold and I hear the constant trickle of water as I wind my way upward. As much as I want to see a bear, now I'm alone in the woods, I'm rather nervous. This isn't the time to tick it off the bucket list.
I panic as I hear a loud crashing in the bush. I freeze, looking for the nearest tree to climb but, to my enormous relief, a man and his two dogs round the corner.
Another gorgeous hike is the Rim Trail up to the Ying Yang at Snowmass. Another day we take a 4WD tour with the Little Nell, taking in Colorado's most beautiful peaks from the top of Aspen Mountain (3417 metres). On our final morning we enjoy a glorious sunrise from Maroon Bells, one of North America's most photographed mountains. A moose (apparently way more dangerous than a bear) has forced the closure of a walking trail. My thoughts never stray far from bears. I can feel their presence even if I can't see them.
Despite the opulence and comfort of our base at the Little Nell, I have trouble sleeping. Hearing that bears often roam the town's cobbled streets at night, I wake every few hours, stepping on to my balcony in the cool night air searching for them. I scan Aspen's empty streets and listen for the sounds of bears going through rubbish bins, but it's just the wind.
Back home, feeling healthy after a week in Aspen, I turn on my computer to an incredible image of a black mother bear running with two cubs. The photo was taken at the base of the Aspen Gondola the day after we left. It's easier to spot celebrities in Aspen in low season, than it is a goddamn bear.
The Little Nell offers Town Side rooms from $636 a night in low season. See thelittlenell.com. The Westin Snowmass Resort, 20 minutes drive away, offers premium rooms from $242. See westinsnowmass.com.
Qantas operates twice daily services from Sydney and Melbourne to Los Angeles, with daily connections on American Airlines to Aspen. See qantas.com.
FIVE THINGS TO DO IN ASPEN
Lunch alfresco at Pyramid Bistro, upstairs in classic independent book store Explore Booksellers. The bistro has "nutriatarian cuisine" from chef Martin Oswald. See pyramidbistro.com.
Visit the incredible new Aspen Art Museum (free entry) designed by renowned Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, followed by a glass of wine at the rooftop So Cafe. See aspenartmuseum.org.
Enrol in a summer workshop and learn everything from ceramics to photography at the Anderson Ranch Arts Centre. Children and teen workshops run in summer, too. See andersonranch.org.
Sample more than 300 varieties of wine, and regional cuisine at the Snowmass Wine Festival September 18-19, 2015. This year the 40th annual Snowmass Balloon Festival and Snowmass Classics car show will be held the same weekend. See snowmasswinefestival.com.
ON YER BIKE
Hire a WE-Cycle from one of the 14 stations (bike racks) including Paepcke Park and the base of the gondola to explore Aspen's charming west end and historical sites by bike. A 24-hour pass costs $13. See we-cycle.org.
The writer was a guest of Aspen Chamber and Snowmass Tourism.