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Aspen, Aglow In Summer Delights

After the snow melts, a wealth of glorious off-season choices beckons, indoors and out

July 11, 1999|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

ASPEN, Colo. — Day 1 was the easiest. On June 24, I caught a taxi from Aspen's airport to my hotel, dumped my luggage, grabbed a jacket, then dropped it again because the night was so mild. Then I rushed down to Main Street, where the 19th century bricks of the Hotel Jerome glowed red in the late daylight, and where one of the most attractive off-seasons in North American tourism bloomed in full glory.

To the north, the famous slopes of Aspen Mountain were bathed in summer green. And all along the street were prosperous, happy people and shiny new cars. It was like falling into a Claritin commercial without the annoying theme music.

Walking westward, I peeked down the side streets at boldly colored Victorians and millionaires' vacation homes, each standing ready, it seemed, for a drop-in at any moment from the Architectural Digest photo staff. I turned right, followed a footpath toward a big white tent and heard the music.

Outside the tent, sprawled on the grass beneath the shimmering aspens, sat a few hundred picnickers and eavesdroppers, listening to a free concert. Inside sat a few thousand paying customers and, clearly audible and visible through the tent slits, violinist Sarah Chang.

The 18-year-old prodigy sat at center stage, a veteran of 12 summers here. Smiling easily, she sailed through two Brahms pieces and led a chamber sextet though Tchaikovsky's "Souvenir de Florence," swaying with intensity and raising a cloud of bow rosin overhead.

After the tumultuous applause, my first day in Aspen ended with a dreamlike walk back to the hotel.

"It was, like, nuts!" I overheard one overwhelmed music student tell a compatriot on the way. Above, a nearly full moon hovered to light our way. Day 2 had a tough act to follow.

This was the opening night of the Aspen Music Festival, which continues through Aug. 22. But it was also a 50th-anniversary party, and a watershed day in the history of America's leisure class. In 1949, a Chicago industrialist named Walter Paepcke (who was chairman of the Container Corp. of America) and his wife, Elizabeth, joined a circle of high-powered friends in a campaign to make Aspen a haven for the humanities, a sort of American Athens.

This was a farfetched idea in a former mining town 220 miles southwest of Denver, wedged between mountains at 8,000 feet above sea level. Commercial ski operations here had begun only two years before (again, with Paepcke's support), and the population was about 2,000. But the Paepckes had influence, personal wealth and some famous friends, and the campaign somehow took flight.

At other ski resorts across North America, operators have only recently awakened to the temptations of year-round revenue streams, and now they furiously assemble summer pops concerts and beckon hikers and mountain bikers to their formerly idle chairlifts. The hikers and bikers come to Aspen too, but it's different. Though the Paepckes are dead and the local activities of the organization they founded, the Aspen Institute, have dwindled to a handful of speeches by luminaries, several other institutions have risen in its place.

Aspen in winter may be mocked for its ultra-hip, wildly expensive, celebrity-heavy character--the average sale price of a single-family home within the city limits last year was $3 million, and 20% of those residences are second homes. Yet Aspen has been growing a thoughtful, artful summer alter ego for five decades. In fact, over the last five years, the number of summer visitors has come to challenge the long-dominant winter number. The summer visitors are well-heeled, too, with an average household income of $131,000, according to a recent study--and weekends in July and August book up quickly. But these visitors, bless them, don't spend the way the skiers do. Aspen remains far more affordable in summer than in winter.

On summer weekday nights, you can get a serviceable room at the Christmas Inn, the Limelite Lodge or the Ullr Lodge, to name three budget lodgings that I walked through, for less than $100 a night. (There is camping in nearby national forests as well, although those spots are snapped up quickly.) If you're willing to spend $120, the options multiply. And if you haggle as I did for a few weeknights on short notice at an upscale place like the Hotel Lenado, you may end up paying $170 nightly for a room that fetches $235 on most summer weekends and $295 in February. (The Lenado has 20 rooms, fancy woodwork, a stylish lobby, free breakfast and cheerful but uneven service that makes me stop just short of a full endorsement.)

For decades now, the leader of the cultural charge in Aspen has been the Aspen Music Festival and School, which includes about 150 musical events each year, from chamber quartets to full-blown operas, one-fourth of them free.

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