At the Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro, an exclusive apres ski pit stop in the Aspen Highlands, the champagne isn't for drinking – it's for spraying in the air. Orange-labelled bottles of Veuve Cliquot are in demand every afternoon at 3pm, when the house music gets turned up to max volume, patrons haul themselves onto tables in their ski boots and corks are popped in a hedonistic, podium-ready shower of golden bubbles. A more sublimely ridiculous scene would be hard to imagine, and at US$125 a pop, epically extravagant. This is how they roll in Aspen, the most star-spangled ski resort in the US.
But it's not all champagne and posturing in the pretty mountain town, which was first settled in the 1880s silver rush before gaining notoriety a century later as a playground for the rich and famous. Down the hill from Cloud Nine, you can still find unpretentious venues where locals prop up the bar after a hard day on the slopes. Mikey Wexler, an old-timer at the reassuringly-divey Red Onion bar, recalls the days when ski gangs ruled the mountain – the Dogs, the Umbros, the Buckaroos – but they've mostly been replaced by influencers in head-to-toe Chanel snow outfits. Aspen was also the final resting place of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who despite not being able to ski was a fixture in the town (specifically at the Hotel Jerome's J-Bar) until his death in 2005.
Aspen is actually four different mountains all accessible on one lift ticket – Ajax, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass and the family-friendly Buttermilk – and connected by a free bus. Each mountain has knockout views and varied, challenging terrain from moguls to groomers, and are filled with surprises, such as quirky "shrines" dotted through the trees. Stumble upon The Grateful Dead shrine, for example, and you'll find a enclave of fan-sourced photos, flowers and ephemera hidden in the ferns.
At times the place feels like a snow-bound Noosa or Byron Bay – beset by well heeled tourists – and at others it's more like a block of Manhattan has been dropped here in the mountains. On Hyman Avenue, the free Aspen Art Museum looms over the street, a strikingly abstract building full of brain-bending contemporary pieces that wouldn't be out of place in a major city. Aspen is among the most expensive places to buy real estate in the US, with international boutiques from Rimowa to James Perse, Prada to Louis Vuitton, lining the grid. You might spot longtime residents Jack Nicholson or Kevin Costner, who both have impressive pads here, or any number of celebrity visitors.
Naturally there are some plush hotels, including the imposing, redbrick St Regis, which has a Richard Mille watch boutique in the lobby for high rolling shoppers. Last year the hotel hosted the EMP Winter House, a sleek spinoff of New York's Eleven Madison Park restaurant reimagined in cosy teepees in the hotel courtyard. The most coveted address in Aspen is The Little Nell, a slope-side haven welcoming in-the-know guests since the late '80s. The Nell specialises in "family luxury", upscale but cosy, with some guests checking in for the whole season. Visit its restaurant, Element 47, and ask to check out the storied wine cellar deep in the basement. There are 22,000 bottles down here, including a bottle of 1985 Romanée-Conti for US$48,000. "If you are a billionaire, it's totally worth it," says the sommelier, who has clearly met a few billionaires in his line of work.
Despite the glitz, the main focus in Aspen really is the stunning natural landscape, which is at its most adrenaline-charged in the winter months from mid November to late April. If you're staying at the Nell, you can stroll from your bedroom to a "ski concierge" into pre-warmed boots and hop directly onto the Silver Queen gondola for a 15 minute slingshot up to the top of the Ajax peak. The gondola is a great leveller, and you'll be bundled in for the ride alongside hedge-funders and ski bums all trading snippets of info about the pulse of the mountain. Where can we find the best snow today? The holy grail at Aspen is "first tracks", and the Nell can secure you a spot on the first gondolas of the morning so you can carve up the purest fresh powder.
You will never be more ravenous than after a morning on the slopes, and pit stops such The Sun Deck offer warming Americana fare at altitude, from steaming noodle soups to burgers and Budweisers. After the infamous Cloud Nine, Aspen's most iconic place to refuel is Bonnie's. Local folklore (and a 1990 People magazine article) declare this was the scene of a legendary catfight between Ivanka Trump and her then-husband Donald's then-mistress Marla Maples. Like many things in Aspen, the place is more low-key than you might expect, with formica tables and frilly curtains, the foggy windows framing blindingly white peaks spiked with pine trees. But if you feel like climbing on the table and spraying a bottle of Veuve in the air, no one will bat an eyelid.
Getting there: Fly to Aspen via LA through Travelplan Ski, see travelplan.com.au or phone 1300 754 754. The writer travelled as a guest of Travelplan Ski, Colorado Ski Country USA and Aspen Snowmass.