Travel News

Magic Mountain

From boom town to ghost town and back again, Telluride is riding high as one of Colorado’s most exciting ski resorts. Pat Nourse discovers this steep and deep alternative Aspen.

"Steep and deep, baaaaby," whoops the young woman in front of me as she skis off. "Steeeep and deeeep!" Wow, I think, four Es. That really is quite steep. And deep. The steep is the concentration of 14,000-foot peaks boxing in the town of Telluride in the almost perfectly square state of Colorado. The deep is the powder. More than 30 inches of it, and that's not per season or per month, but just fresh falls this week. The steepness of its slopes shaped, for many years, the nature of Telluride as a ski resort, marking it out, initially at least, as somewhere for serious or extreme skiers only. Skiing and tourism have given the tiny town its second chance, bringing it back from the brink of non-existence to a flourishing, if somewhat elite, new incarnation. Its appeal is broader today, but that hidden-gem quality remains.
Founded in 1878, Telluride thrived as a mining colony for the better part of a century. Silver was the main prize, along with gold, zinc, copper and lead  (Aspen, the best-known ski resort in Colorado, if not the US, also started life as a silver town, but got bitten by the skiing bug decades sooner). Tellurium, a very rare metalloid element often found with gold and silver deposits, isn't found in the ranges surrounding Telluride, yet it's said to be the inspiration for the name. The second, even less plausible story is that people journeying to Telluride in the bad old days were warned by those who knew it by reputation, "to hell you ride". Theirs must have been a chilly vision of perdition. The snow never really leaves the tops of the tallest mountains that surround the town and, with brief summers and fleeting autumns and springs, it can snow here at any time, which is probably why the valley had no permanent settlements of any kind before the first miners arrived in the mid-19th century. The mines themselves were largely played out by the early 70s, and the township was being considered by the government for ghost-town status.
If these be ghosts, though, they're terribly expensively dressed, with Donna Karan more in evidence than the usual rags and chains favoured by the undead. Beyond the steep and the deep, as a ski resort Telluride has a reputation for being the preserve of trustafarians, plutocrats and Hollywood movie stars. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld turned a few heads in his beacon-orange Prada snowsuit this season past, while sightings of long-time resident Tom Cruise and his new family are hotly traded (word among the instructors is that Seinfeld is not much of a skier, but good-natured, while his wife is a bit of a handful; the reverence for Cruise and Katie Holmes is fascinating). Daryl Hannah and brothers Keith and David Carradine are patrons of the local theatre, actor Laura Linney is something of a fixture, and you can ski right past former vice president Dan Quayle's mansion - the Uncle Sam statue by the front step is something of a giveaway.
Yes, there's gold in these here hills, but today's miners are of a different sort. Realtors are startlingly thick on the ground, and property is so highly valued that construction continues through all but the biggest snowfalls. Stickers announcing the noteworthiness of wine lists in the eyes of the American wine press cluster thickly in restaurant shopfronts. Telluride's costliness and seclusion keep it relatively free of crowds, yet the atmosphere is too open, the number of hellos from strangers on the street too numerous, for it to be termed exclusive in any pejorative sense. Growth is sure, but it's never going to be a mass or budget proposition. For now, certainly, there's plenty of snow to go around. Locals are unused to queues of more than six people ahead of them on the lifts (compare and contrast this with the waits that are part of Perisher lore). You also don't need a car in Telluride because so much of it is genuinely ski-in-ski-out, especially on Mountain Village, and nothing is much further than a 15-minute ride on the (free) gondola or one of the ski lifts.
The first of the lifts was opened in 1972. It was a bumpy time for Telluride. The hippies came in around the same time the mining started to wind down. You're a long way from anywhere here, and you'll hear tales of some pretty loose stuff if you stick around long enough. Even before the free-love era, that isolation made Telluride different. To the casual visitor today, though, this chequered history bleeds through in a libertarian undercurrent and an arts-loving vibe more than anything else. Telluridians are proud to live in the town where Butch Cassidy and his gang pulled their first (and very successful) bank robbery in 1889, and the look and feel of the town still has plenty of the frontier to it. None of the buildings are over three storeys, and the streets are wide and few.
The first skiers to flock here were a pretty hard-core mob. It was mostly expert-only territory until a concerted effort was made to open up more ground. About a quarter of the 690 skiable hectares spread over a 1000-metre vertical drop is suitable for beginners now, despite that hardcore reputation (which used to scare off families). A third is intermediate turf, and the rest double-black diamond-rated and double-black extreme terrain. Across 92 trails serviced by 17 lifts you're looking at plenty of variety, whether your tastes run to a crisply groomed slope just a hop, skip and a lift from the door of your lodgings or the kind of in-bounds, avalanche-controlled, hike-to terrain that sorts the talk from the action. You meet plenty of people who have skied 50-plus days a year here for decades and they're still finding plenty to challenge them. The mountain seems to attract boarders (Cruise) and skiers (Seinfeld) equally. This season's monster snowfalls saw lots of boarders looking to skis, thanks to their boarding-inspired ski design and technology, and better backcountry handling. If you find yourself in chest-deep powder on a snowboard, you have little choice other than to try to get up on your belly and paddle your way out.
If Coloradans seem less chatty than most other Americans, they're still a million miles from taciturn: if you want the conversation, it's easy and free, but if you want to hang tough, then that's just fine too. You'll also catch plenty of Spanish and Australian accents around the place, and maybe the odd Brit or Kiwi. (And lots of dogs. Nice dogs. Tough dogs that don't mind gaining a small mantle of snow while their owners are in The Buck or Honga's.) Everyone is here for the snow. Everyone skis. There's a thriving summer festival season, of course, celebrating everything from film to mushrooms, balloons to blues, and the area fills with hikers, anglers and moneyed idlers, but as far as attractions go in the winter, there's only really one and it's falling before your eyes.
If you're looking for some variety in your snow follies, though, there are ways to break from skiing and boarding. The snowmobiling to be had is excellent, taking in everything from narrow passes through close-knit bent-boughed evergreens to scooting past what remains of the world's first power lines at the world's first hydroelectric generator, built by Nikola Tesla for George Westinghouse in 1891. You'll be making full use of the hand-warmers in the handlebars - a luxury you won't have if you opt instead to go dogsledding. Here's two things you didn't know about the dogsled as a form of transportation: one, it's very, very loud. Unloading the dogs from their pigeonholes on the back of a truck is a seriously deafening proposition. Eight dogs per sled, all yapping and arfing their hellos at the top of their Alaskan husky (aka mushers, mutts bred specifically for sledding) lungs. It also results in an awful lot of yellow snow. As soon as everybody's hitched, tied and loaded and you're off, though, they quit it, and all you can hear is the schuss of the sled whisking across the snow and the panting of the dogs. The panting, that is, and the occasional bout of flatulence. The second thing you didn't know about dogsledding is that you want to make sure you don't book yourself on a sledding tour immediately after the dogs have eaten a meaty lunch. Eight gassy huskies is something you don't want to experience from a close-seated position.
As far as your own meaty lunch is concerned, let me recommend Fat Alley without hesitation. Owned by a Texan barbecue enthusiast, it's a pretty plain sort of place looks-wise, but the house specialties of hickory-smoked brisket and Carolina-style pulled pork sandwiches are the antithesis of the sillier excesses of the tourist restaurants. And make sure you get a side of fried okra while you're at it. The other no-nonsense eatery I really loved was the taco truck just off Main Street. Frequented by construction crews, it does the best Mexican in town (cross the street to another of Telluride's beloved street vendors, The Coffee Cowboy, for your libations) and a badass pork-stuffed Cubano. Nearby La Cocina de Luz trades some of that authenticity for comfort, but is definitely worth checking out, too. If you don't want to see bok choy, ginger-soy vinaigrette, brie, avocado, mango salsa, curry-crusted scallops or truffle oil in your food, make your dining plans with care.
Stepping up a few notches price-wise, Honga's Lotus Petal is still the hottest, hippest table in town, and quite a scene. Nobu meets pan-Asian god-knows-what in a mish-mash of dishes that, to palates pampered by Australia's proximity to Asia, can seem pretty amateurish. The gummy sushi rice is a good reason to opt instead for sashimi; they get quite an interesting range of species. Nobu it may not be, but with pleasant staff and touches such as fresh Oregon wasabi and nice beer on tap, Honga's is perfect, certainly for when you just can't face another steak, bacon and cheese-laden menu.
Make time, too, for La Marmotte and 221 South Oak. The A-frame attic private room of La Marmotte is cosy fun. The food is old-school French, with a couple of forgettable yuppie-pleasers like 'ahi' tuna rolls and beetroot salad with fried wonton skins thrown in. Skip the latter for French onion soup with Gruyère, roast Long Island duck with turnip purée, coq au vin, grilled hanger steak and charcuterie. The rustic plating can lean almost towards slipshod, but it's food that makes sense here. The same goes for the more contemporary fare served at 221 South Oak. Bypass the more far-reaching dishes in favour of the pure comfort afforded by the gumbo and house-made sausages. The luxed-up mac-and-cheese at Chop House at the New Sheridan Hotel, meanwhile, would make Neil Perry proud, while the steak at Italian favourite Rustico will please star-spotters: it's from the Double RL Ranch, the enormous working cattle property just outside town owned by fashion magnate Ralph Lauren (you can't miss it coming from Montrose Airport). A strip loin clocks in at a princely, Polo-worthy $56.
For all that Telluride likes to kid itself about being jus' folks, just about every bar and restaurant stocks plenty of ultra-premium vodka, single malt, top-dollar tequila and small-batch bourbon alongside its Pabst Blue Ribbon and Coors, and there's a nice line in local boutique brews to be had, too. Allred's, the fancy restaurant-bar at the top of the first gondola station on the mountain is the hot spot for après ski among the superannuated set, and its views are killer. We find The Council of Texan Skiers (a dying breed) hooting it up there one afternoon. You don't know a hoot until you've heard a Texan who's had a snootful really laying into it.
For something a little bit cooler, it's got to be the Noir Bar, a basement drinking hole under the Bluepoint Grill back in town, and just the place for a cheeky Lagavulin or Hendrick's in the rich darkness. Some visitors can't take so kindly to the drink, thanks to the effects of the altitude on their physiology. Coming up to 3000m above sea level without time to adjust can result in symptoms ranging from sleeplessness and fatigue to nausea and nosebleeds. (Handsome Anson the photographer and I experienced it as feeling weak and dumb for a few days; some people don't notice it at all.) If you're feeling afflicted, you might want to try the Bubble Lounge, a slightly sleazy venue combining aromatherapy oxygen and cocktails. You hook yourself up to the tanks via tubes through the nose for a dollar a minute on the gas, and have a choice of flavours from decongestants (eucalyptus) and stress-relievers (lavender) to alleged aphrodisiacs such as cherry. Beyond the novelty appeal and the odd impersonation of Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet, it's pretty silly stuff.
The Last Dollar Saloon, known universally among locals as The Buck, is the bar for regular folk, though apparently much of its sleazy charm was lost in the last ownership change. (The previous owners were called Fitzy and Catfish. The current guys aren't. 'Nuff said.) Still, it's a popular late-nighter (the sign on the door says Sorry, We're Open), though O'Bannon's, a basement Irish pub, is widely regarded as the end of the line on that score. The bar at the New Sheridan, though it has a rep for being a hangout for realtors, gets a fairly mixed crowd, and rocks on to the tune of Johnny Cash and Guns N' Roses until late. As you'll be aware if you're staying in the hotel rooms above it. The management offers earplugs in the welcome note, but if you can handle it, a can't-beat-'em-join-'em approach may be best.
Then there's the bacon shot. Following a tip from a ski bum, I found myself feeling supremely silly back at Fat Alley asking the big guy in the stained apron behind the counter if they, you know, do anything like a bacon shot. Staring me down he paused before answering to let me fully appreciate the seeming absurdity of my question, before breaking into a smile. "Sure we do," he said. "It's the Mitch Morgan." What is it, exactly? "It's a shot of whiskey rimmed with bacon grease and topped with a piece of bacon." I'll take two, with Jack, please. You lick the grease, down the shot and then eat the bacon. And hey, it ain't half bad. They even cook the bacon to order. A long way from the stupidest thing I've ever drunk, the smoky cinnamon sweetness of the bourbon really does chime quite well with the crisp bacon. Maybe this freewheeling frontier spirit is catching. Steep and deep, baby, steep and deep.