Just Back From Aspen

Where to lodge, ski and learn

The Colorado ski mecca's reputation for glitz and glamour suggests a sprawling city where visitors inhale foie gras and grab Prada bags off the shelves. But in truth, its tiny, mellow downtown and focus on sports are at Aspen's sophisticated center.

STELLAR SLOPES Ajax, formerly known as Aspen Mountain, is accessible directly from downtown and the favorite of the see-and-be-seen crowd. While vistas from the high-speed gondola are breathtaking, weekend skiers beware: Skilled Ajax downhillers have no patience with novices. Highlands Mountain is well worth the ten-minute drive from the downtown hotels (all offer shuttle service). The locals' choice, it rarely has lift lines or tourists. The terrain is great for out-of-bounds skiing, snowboarding, and hiking, but a few wide runs keep beginners happy.

SKI-IN, SKI-OUT DINING Warm up with pan-seared mahimahi at Gwyn's (970-920-6308), a glass-enclosed restaurant at the base of Ruthie's Run on Ajax Mountain. Atop Highlands, the prix-fixe menu at Cloud Nine (970-544-3063) includes a superb Colorado striped bass with white-truffle gnocchi.

BOARDING SCHOOL Skiers at every level benefit from lessons with instructor extraordinaire Kennie Cummings, the most patient man on the mountain; find him at Aspen Skiing Company (866-889-8912; www.aspensnowmass.com). The modern Aspen Club (1450 Crystal Lake Road, Aspen, CO 81611; 970-925-8900; www.aspenclub.com) offers indoor skiing or boarding lessons at its clinic, John Clendenin's Board Doctors. Bring your own instructor, use one of the club's, or just gawk at the Olympians perfecting their moves.

LUXE LODGING For those seeking some post-ski pampering, Aspen has two super-luxe hotels right in town. The Little Nell (675 East Durant Avenue, Aspen, CO 81611; 888-843-6355; www.thelittlenell.com), steps from the gondola at the base of Ajax, is one of only 17 five-star, five-diamond hotels in North America. Watch the social scene from the four-bedroom Paepcke Suite, sometimes called the "Ego Suite" ($3,900 a night). Its private entrance right onto the slopes is very much watched by the hordes dining at Ajax Tavern. Rooms 70 and 72 offer high ceilings and balconies directly facing the slopes; other rooms facing the mountain have quiet, expansive views. A ski concierge calls nightly to ask which of Aspen's four mountains guests will be skiing the next morning; they arrive there to find their skis waiting for them, tuned, waxed, and accompanied by hot chocolate. The Hotel Jerome (330 East Main Street, Aspen, CO 81611; 800-331-7213; www.hoteljerome.com), a Main Street institution just a few minutes' walk from Ajax, successfully preserves its historical feel. A century-old grandfather clock and an antiquated paging system are nice old-fashioned touches in the lobby; framed newspapers from the early 1900s line the hallways. Room 304, a large suite with a marble hot tub and a CD sound system, has its original 1889 doorknobs and hinges. All rooms are large, and some, like room 134, almost feel enormous. Throughout, the antique decor blends smoothly with a modern sensibility. The Library is the Jerome's latest addition, an old-worldish lounge where people go to sip martinis and smoke cigars. $525-$1,025.

FOR MIND AND BODY Adjacent to the Jerome, Carl's Pharmacy (306 East Main Street, Aspen, CO 81612; 970-925-3273) stocks everything from aromatherapy candles to vintage Australian Shirazes—and its cosmetics counter is heaven. This 38-year-old Aspen classic has even added a waterfall and landscaped pond where shoppers may relax while awaiting their prescriptions. Or try a High-Altitude Massage at the Aspen Club, best enjoyed with a cup of Nepalese tea in front of the fire.

Member of Fine Hotels, Resorts & Spas.