Snow bunnies flock to her when she’s sheathed in snow but Aspen, the queen of ski resort towns, reveals her true beauty in autumn. It’s when thousands of aspen trees change colour and set entire mountains ablaze with vivid yellow leaves. Against a backdrop of clear blue skies, the golden foliage slowly crawls up the hills then sweeps down the valleys until the whole landscape starts to resemble a Klimt canvas. Even the quiet glass-like lakes join the frenzy, reflecting this mad explosion of colour in all its glory.
Although primarily known for skiing, Aspen enjoys dramatically different seasons. It’s obviously frenetic in winter, when Australians top the list of international visitors drawn to its snowfields. Summer – surprisingly – is even busier; the town’s warm-weather charms are no secret among Americans. Spring sees the snow melt and the mountains turn muddy, leaving autumn, when the scenery is spectacular but crowds are scant. When luxury hotels are up and running but not prohibitively expensive. When restaurants are lively but not impossible to get into. When the gondolas are operating but there are few queues.
Mother Nature is notoriously unpredictable but visiting in mid to late September offers your best chance to catch Aspen’s autumn show. Keep this guide handy while you’re there.
As Australians are no strangers to this part of the world, there are plenty of flat whites and smashed avos on offer – if you know where to look. Local Coffee House excels in fresh, satisfying fare, from chia pudding or black rice porridge for breakfast to pesto chicken on grain bread or kale salad with Dijon for lunch. The drinks menu ticks all the boxes, too, whether you’re after staples like espresso or in the mood for something a little more of-the-moment (adaptogen latte, anyone?).
Best family eatery
A deli, bar and restaurant in one, Meat & Cheese Restaurant and Farm Shop has the kids sorted with dishes including chicken and waffles, cheese quesadillas and ramen for US$10 (about $14) each. For everyone else, the inventive American menu ranges from standout sandwiches with house-smoked pastrami and sauerkraut to indulgent specials such as deep-fried avocado tacos with green chilli salsa verde. The vibe is super-relaxed, with mobile phones and kids contributing to the buzzy soundtrack. If you like it a bit quieter, ask for a table at the back of the restaurant or stock up on cheese and charcuterie at the deli and head out into the sun for a picnic.
Red velvet curtains, leather booths and mood lighting give Steakhouse No.316, a cosy old-world atmosphere. Almost every square inch of the walls is covered with mirrors, paintings and framed vintage photographs yet all eyes are on the food. There’s the filet mignon, simply seasoned with salt and pepper then grilled to perfection, and the equally unmissable bourbon bread pudding that’s studded with pecans, drizzled with an extra-salty caramel sauce and served with a side of vanilla bean ice-cream (it’s huge so sharing is the way to go).
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The story goes that when Nobu Matsuhisa – one of the world’s most famous Japanese chefs – was looking to open a restaurant in Aspen in the late 1990s, he took a fancy to a small heritage- listed house built in the 1880s. Of course, the property couldn’t accommodate the 360-seat Japanese fine-diner Matsuhisa had plans for, nor could it be structurally altered. So architect Larry Bogdanow hatched a brilliant plan: he would transport the entire building to a temporary site, dig beneath the old foundations to construct a subterranean restaurant space that Matsuhisa would be happy with and then return the historic house to its original location. The result? Matsuhisa, where the sushi, sashimi and tempura are as legendary as the underground dining room they’re served in.
Best cultural activity
Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, Aspen Art Museum is itself a work of art. You can spend hours admiring its striking façade made of interlocking timber panels, exploring its grand sunlit staircase and visiting its six galleries featuring a rolling roster of artists such as Colombian painter Oscar Murillo and New York-based Lisa Yuskavage. Have lunch at the museum’s rooftop café, So, where paninis, salads and espresso-walnut brownies are on the menu alongside distracting views of Aspen Mountain.
Best outdoor adventures
There are three mountains in the town’s immediate vicinity: Aspen, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk. Between them are hundreds of kilometres of biking and hiking tracks to explore and Aspen Alpine Guides offers private tours covering everything outdoorsy, from back-country skiing in winter to mountain biking when the snow thaws. The latter is one of the best ways to see Buttermilk, which, with its vibrant woodlands, is particularly scenic in autumn.
If you prefer to take things a little slower, book a naturalist from the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies as your private guide and hit the Hunter Creek trail. Based on your fitness and schedule, the hike can be shortened, lengthened or made steeper. However you tailor it, you’ll wind through rugged wilderness, cross fairytale bridges, step over rocks dotting clear streams and clamber up escarpments for views of the countryside and the town.
Soothe weary muscles at The St. Regis Aspen Resort Remède Spa, where you can choose from a menu of facials, body scrubs and massages. Our pick is the 105-minute Rocky Mountain Ritual, which kicks off with a full-body exfoliation followed by hydration treatments anda relaxing massage.
Best place for a photograph
The Maroon Bells are – depending on who you speak to – the most photographed mountains in Colorado... in America... and possibly the world. While the jury is still out, one thing’s for sure: winter – when the peaks are covered in snow and the nearby lake is frozen – is not the best time to get your shot. Autumn sees the ranges at their most photogenic, cloaked in a kaleidoscope of colour. For the perfect snap, arrive before sunrise, which is around 7am in fall. It can be bitterly cold so rug up and your efforts will be rewarded with golden hues heightened by the glow of the rising sun.
You can easily imagine Scarlett O’Hara swanning around in a lavish hoop skirt at Hotel Jerome (hotel.qantas.com.au/ hoteljerome), which opened in 1889 – just over two decades after the American Civil War ended – and features original cobalt-blue tiled floors, open fireplaces and staircases that would be right at home in an old Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie. Following a major refurbishment in 2012, even the smallest rooms offer almost 50 square metres of real estate, along with cashmere curtains, cowhide and plaid upholstery, Hermès amenities and – the ultimate modern must-have – twin-sink ensuites.
For the last word in luxury, make your way to The Little Nell (hotel.qantas.com.au/ thelittlenell). Sitting at the foot of soaring Aspen Mountain – the go-to for black-run powder hounds come ski season – the hotel is home to 92 exquisitely designed rooms and suites, some with mountain views. Guests have complimentary access to the hotel’s fleet of Audis – perfect for driving through the dazzling landscape – while the onsite Ajax Tavern serves arguably one of the best burgers in America (think two cheese-laden Wagyu patties tucked inside a cloud-soft bun and served with truffle fries). Set aside an entire evening to treat yourself at the hotel’s fine-diner, Element 47, where courses range from rigatoni with lobster to black cod splashed with champagne yuzu and a decadent Valrhona chocolate soufflé.