NEVER ANY END TO ASPEN

From extreme sports to avant-garde architecture and world-famous art, Aspen’s cultural profile is so rich it’s practically inexhaustible.

Aspen is like a precious jewellery box. Nestled in the Rocky Mountains, this picturesque Colorado town possesses many riches, not least its world famous ski resort, popular with adventurers keen to tackle its steep slopes. Going downhill happens very quickly in Aspen, but the resort always feels like it’s on its way up. And it’s not only the location’s thin air that will keep your spirits high. Visiting Aspen is like going on a luxury yacht: while you’re there it feels like you’re the only person that matters in the entire universe. Situated 2,400 metres up in the Rockies, Hollywood’s favourite ski resort offers you the height of grandeur as well as outstanding natural beauty.

Nonetheless, when most people think of Aspen, they think of skiing. This isn’t surprising – with four mountains encompassing morethan 21 square kilometres there are slopes for skiers and snowboarders of all abilities. For example, Aspen Mountain and Aspen Highlands are ideal for intermediate and expert skiers. On the other hand beginners, snowboarders and those that like a jump will love Snowmass and Buttermilk, the former of which boasts 1,350 metres of vertical skiing – the longest drop in the US – whereas the latter is known as the home of the ESPN Winter X Games. And if all that wasn’t enough there are dog sled rides, snowshoeing and snowmobile safaris on offer, too.

After a day in the snow it’s time for some après ski back in Aspen, a settlement whose history is traceable through its architecture. The town dates back to the late 1870s – and you can still see evidence of this in many of the listed buildings, which range from hotels to opera houses. Later, in 1946, the Aspen Skiing Company was started by Walter Paepcke, inaugurating the town’s illustrious reputation as a ski resort. In fact, Chicago-born Paepcke had such great cultural aspirations for Aspen that, in 1949, he staged a celebration for the 200th birthday of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe there. In the Seventies, Aspen even gained counterculture notoriety when Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson moved in, and marijuana boutiques like Silverpeak Apothecary – currently situated in the heart of Aspen – are a reminder of that leftfield attitude.

Aspen is home to many architectural highlights – from turn-of-the-century buildings in typical red brick to contemporary gems like the newly erected Aspen Art Museum with its translucent facade.

Today, one of Aspen’s most distinguishing features is its glamour and wealth, with movie stars, musicians and other A-listers flocking there to enjoy its exclusive lifestyle. Some, such as Kurt Russell, Antonio Banderas and Kevin Costner have bought homes in Aspen, while others prefer the services of the town’s five-star hotels and world-class spas. Regular visitors include Cameron Diaz, Bill Murray and Melanie Griffith, while at the St. Regis you can find the likes of Paris Hilton, Uma Thurman and the Kardashians.

A cultural gem

However, Aspen isn’t just a hotspot for the rich and famous; it also has a proud reputation for welcoming some of the most creative minds in the world. One such person was the Austrian-American architect Herbert Bayer. The former Bauhaus teacher was enticed to Aspen in 1946 by commissions from Walter Paepcke to design a headquarters for his policy studies group, the Aspen Institute, as well as to help restore the Wheeler Opera House. Reopened in 1950, this multifunctional opera house has seating capacity for 503 people and, following the installation of digital screens in 2013, is now also a cinema. Since 2010 it has hosted the Aspen Laff Festival, too – the town’s premier comedy event. And between Christmas and New Year’s Day it throws an annual film festival which shows films nominated for Academy Awards that year.

Near the county airport lies another must-see; the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. Founded in 1994 and made up of eleven dancers, the school has two sites – one in Aspen, another in Santa Fe – and a year-round Mexican folk dance outreach programme in both Colorado and New Mexico. In addition to this, their programme also features summer and winter seasons with touring dance companies from around the world. And for their 2015/16 winter season they’ve commissioned a special performance by acclaimed choreographers Fernando Melo, Cayetano Soto and Alejandro Cerrudo, to mark the school’s 20th anniversary. This winter, they’re putting on a special show for children and families in the form of a contemporary interpretation of The Nutcracker, that mixes ballet, flamenco and Chinese sword dancing.

Indeed, Aspen’s institutions are always updating their outlooks. Last year, the Aspen Art Museum moved to new premises from its original home in a converted hydroelectric plant, where it first opened its doors in 1979. Now based in a building designed by award winning Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, the museum could be considered an art object too, with its exterior covered from top to bottom in a sophisticated screen of woodenstrips woven together like a basket. And with Heidi Zuckerman as its CEO and chief curator since 2005, the museum has brought some of the best-known names in contemporary art to Aspen. Ai Weiwei, Sarah Lucas and Lorna Simpson have all exhibited at the gallery, and the winter programme features work by installation artist Liz Larner, sculptor Anna Sew Hoy and multi-media artist Diana Thater.

Take-away treasures

For those less stimulated by culture, Aspen still has a lot to offer, particularly for people who enjoy a spot of retail therapy. Local boutiques such as Maison Ullens and Bloomingbirds easily rival those on found on London’s trendy Brick Lane, whereas the Galena districtis the place to go for big luxury fashion labels such as Prada, Gucci, Dior and Ralph Lauren. Yet there’s still excitement to be had for shoppers on a more modest budget, who can dig for designer treasures at the Aspen Thrift Store – an excellent chance for anyone to take home a souvenir to remember Aspen as the jewellery box that it is.