In the classic 1942 film Casablanca, Ilsa tries to explain to Rick what happened in Paris that fateful day. “Can I tell you a story, Rick?” she asks? “Does it got a wild finish?” he replies with a sneer. It certainly does, and so did my recent trip to Aspen, Colorado, where I spent three blissful nights at the newly-renovated St. Regis Aspen Resort.
A snowstorm on the mid-April day I was to return home gave rise to considerable concern that our puddle-jumper to Denver would be delayed, causing us to miss our connection back to New York. But not to worry, within moments of waking up, the hyper-efficient hotel staff had solved our problems once again: we were swiftly booked in a van that would take us on the four-hour jaunt over the mountains to Denver’s massive, circus-tented airport. It was a nail-biter involving swirling snow, a half-hour traffic standstill, and a lung-taxing sprint to the departure gate, but we made it. Another success to cap off a sublime weekend.
I had arrived in Aspen on Thursday afternoon as a guest of the hotel, and my butler (that’s right, butler) ushered me into one of the nicest hotel suites I’ve ever seen. The St. Regis resort set out to redefine luxury with its recent, $40 million refurbishment, and interior architect Lauren Rottet transformed what was already the jewel of Aspen into a truly world class destination.
The rooms and public spaces are lighter, airier, and more elegant than ever, and the amenities just don’t quit. It was a daunting commission – bringing a hotel into the 21st century while staying connected with a gilded lineage that dates back to 1904 – but the evidence of its success is everywhere, from the chinoiserie cabinets to the open fireplace to the lightning-fast WiFi, which eliminated my normal excuses for not filing stories from the road. In short, there’s no better way to enjoy this striking, silver-flecked, year-round resort town.
On the first evening, our cozy coterie of New York journalists assembled in the lobby and marched two blocks down the road to Jimmy’s, an upscale New American restaurant that draws a mix of black-clad urbanites and well-heeled cowboys, all delighting in specialties like Rocky Mountain trout and oven-roasted pork tenderloin. I washed down my victuals with a couple of Fat Tire Amber Ales (one of my favorites) and listened to Rottet explain her thought process in refurbishing the hotel: rather than being entirely beholden to a Colorado aesthetic, she wanted to give the St. Regis an international flair, with western touches complemented by formal details like bright crystal chandeliers, antiqued nickel surfaces, and a mix of classic and contemporary art.
We continued the conversation – which veered into a discussion of modern educational theory and the complexities of designing an office for Bill Gates – at the resort’s Shadow Mountain Lounge, where I enjoyed the bartender’s take on the Vesper martini. It was a fine welcome to the property.
The next morning found us at breakfast in the restaurant, munching on omelets and slurping smoothies as we discussed the day’s itinerary. When the conversation turned to morning libations, I let slide that I don’t like Bloody Marys – the staple of the genteel Sunday brunch. What can I say? I don’t enjoy tomato juice, the name “Bloody Mary” leaves me feeling a bit uneasy, and drinking vodka during daylight hours seems weird to me.
I soon regretted my candor, as we were ushered into the adjacent ballroom to experience one of the St. Regis brand’s many “rituals”: the bespoke Bloody Mary. As it happens, the U.S. debut of the Bloody Mary happened at the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis New York, so it’s a big deal for the St. Regis brand. Me and my big mouth. Oh well, I don’t like bloodies, but I know plenty of people who do, so I made nice and participated in a contest that pitted girls against boys in creating a spectacular Bloody Mary. We boys won, thanks in part to my basil slapping technique, but mostly because my Y-chromosomed compadres separately blended red and yellow tomatoes, combining then in such a way that left a layered, yin-yang visual affect in the glass. I’m told it tasted good too, but I’ll have take their word on that.
And then we were on to the day’s activity: snowshoeing. We took the amazing Silver Queen gondola to the top of Aspen mountain, which featured sweeping views of the Continental Divide. (One of our group mentioned that locals refer to it as the “ganjala,” since the 18 minutes spent in your private gondola provides a perfect opportunity to get “lifted.”) After a surprisingly good lunch at the Sundeck Restaurant (elevation 11,212 feet) we met up with Dan of Aces Aspen (The Aspen Center for Environmental Studies), who outfitted us with snowshoes and led us on an enlightening tour of the mountain ridge. We learned about the area’s silver mining history, studied some animal poop, and discovered the difference between fir, pine, and spruce trees (it has to do with the flatness and aroma of the needles, and how they’re clustered).
We were joined on the tour by a really cute family – middle aged dad, eight-year-old daughter, and super-fit 80-year-old grandma – and a rather bitter woman who couldn’t stop finding fault with everything Dan took the time to explain. (She was particularly disturbed that he couldn’t diagnose some fungus problem she was having with her trees back home.) So with one exception, we all had a wonderful time and thanked Dan profusely for the (free) tour. (Tipping for good service is customary.)
That afternoon I kipped down for an hour in the big bed and had vivid dreams that I forgot moments after I woke up. It was time for dinner with our hosts in the hotel’s boffo presidential suite, which consisted of an amazing five-course service from executive chef Jason Adams: grilled Anjou pear salad, smoked trout brandade, a watermelon mojito sorbet intermezzo, spiced Colorado lamb saddle, and a “Vosges Trio” of mousse, ice cream and chili chocolate for dessert. Every course was paired with a delicious wine chosen by sommelier LeeAnn Kaufman, who was an interesting character. (“If you don’t like it, I’ll drink it,” she said.)
The wines, primarily from the Ken Forrester vineyards of the Stellenbosch region of South Africa, were all sublime, particularly the FMC 2009 Chenin Blanc. My biggest takeaway from the evening’s wine selection: Every bottle featured a screw cap instead of a cork. I love screw-cap wines. They’re so much easier to open and way better for the wine. So if the St. Regis Aspen is now serving screw-cap wines in its presidential suite, the tyranny of the cork has finally come to an end. Long live the screw cap!
It was still early when dinner ended, so I headed into town for a drink, bumping into another member of our group along the way. On a whim, we headed into Justice Snow’s Restaurant + Bar. I was impressed from the start. We were greeted with a smile and a couple glasses of water while we decided what to order. The well-dressed bartender walked us through their offerings, suggesting to me a crisp draft beer from the Aspen Brewery, which I loved. My colleague said she didn’t know exactly what she wanted, but she liked gin, so he whipped up a little masterpiece on the fly, and told her that if she didn’t like it he’d make something else. She liked it very much. Justice Snow’s is exactly the kind of cocktail bar I enjoy, with a grand selection of spirits and a welcoming attitude with the singular goal of getting you a drink you’ll truly enjoy. It would be a perfect fit in New York, except they’d have to raise their prices. If you’re a cocktail connoisseur and you find yourself in Aspen, don’t miss it. From there, we hit another bar, this one an Irisher named Finbarr’s. It was pleasant and we sipped Guinness until a drunk and inquisitive man who said he wrote about sports for The New York Times made things uncomfortable, so we left. It was midnight.
Saturday was Spa Day, so I headed to Remede Spa for a treatment. Now, I’m the farthest thing from a spa aficionado – I’ve only been once before – but I enjoy getting massages as much as anybody, so I was game. The Remede Spa has a cool concept where they pair treatments with light bites dreamed up by chef Jamie Flatt. We started out with a few deep breaths in the oxygen lounge, which didn’t do much for me, before moving on to the treatment, which did. A full-body salt scrub, which I showered off, was followed by a full-body massage. I was a bit sore from snowshoeing so it did wonders. I felt great. We ended with some custom juices and a round of sparkling wine. Every day should start this way.
I walked through town that afternoon, dropping by the famous Carl’s Pharmacy (which is really an everything store) to buy a book for my five-year-old son called Snowmastodon! Snow Day Adventure, which is loosely based on the recent discovery of a bunch of dinosaur fossils in nearby Snowmass. The air was clean and smelled like snow, and I found the town to be spotless, charming, and eminently walkable.
How Do You Après?
Then it was back to the hotel for another one of the St. Regis rituals (and one I can totally get behind): afternoon tea. Instead of the prim and proper English style of tea service, the St. Regis Aspen version involves a flight of hot chocolate (I love flights of anything) and a selection of snacks, from grilled cheese sandwiches to fresh fruit to delectable moon pies. It’s a fun way to “après,” which is the verb they use to describe après-ski activities. We aprèd and talked about ghosts, haunted houses, and fortune-telling, none of which I believe in (the rest of the group was divided).
But we had one more après event to experience: the sabering ritual. Every afternoon, sommelier LeeAnn Kaufman sabres open a bottle of the hotel’s signature 315 bubbly. I’d never seen sabering live and up-close before, so it was a cool experience. Kaufman brought us out to the hotel’s courtyard, where she first asked for a moment of silence for the victims of the Titanic disaster. It was 100 years ago that day – that very moment – that the unsinkable ship went down, taking the St. Regis hotels founder John Jacob Astor IV with it. It called for a minute of quite contemplation. A light snow was falling. Then Kaufman held the bottle by its base in her left hand and expertly swiped the saber up the seam with her right, sending the cork, and a little ring of glass around it, flying across the courtyard. I was afraid that little bits of glass might end up in my champagne flute, but I was assured that the force of the explosion sends everything outward. I checked my drink anyway. Nothing but bubbles.
Our final dinner was at a posh restaurant called Cache Cache, without a doubt one of the finest restaurants in town. We eschewed the wine and opted for cocktails instead: I had a manhattan, while my colleagues sipped dirty martinis and gimlets. For my entree, I had a steak, like an Aspen cowboy should. Everything, including the service, was flawless. After dinner, we dropped by the historic Red Onion bar (est. 1892) for a round of beers. A group of chirpy young women were downing ski shots – a ritual involving drinking synchronized shots from glasses embedded into a ski. We skipped the ski, but I slept well all the same.
When I pulled my curtains apart the next morning, I was greeted with the beautiful sight of fresh snow. My first though: How lovely! My second: Uh oh. Will the Frontier Airlines prop plane make it out in time to make my connecting flight in Denver? It was unclear, so, thanks to some heroic efforts from the front desk staff, we piled into the van for a trip over the mountains to Denver. I sat next to Walter, the president of Aspen Mountain Rescue, who had a trip’s worth of great stories about skiing and dramatic rescues. “I play hard,” said Walter. Indeed. After our own drama, we made it safely on our flight, and within hours I was in a long, snaking taxi line at LaGuardia.
So, as for Aspen, it’s a truly lovely town, and there’s so much more to do than just skiing. I’d happily return in the summer to go hiking, fishing, rafting, or bar-hopping. And if I could afford it, I’d stay in the St. Regis Aspen in a New York minute. There’s no better way to enjoy the best of Aspen.