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Rocky Mountain Renaissance

The Colorado Rockies are home to some of the world's most glamorous ski resorts, iconic places like Aspen and Vail. Perhaps not surprisingly, it's these name-brand destinations that leap to mind when skiers sit down to plan a winter trip. But Colorado has many ski areas, and a number of them have recently undergone major changes. New base villages and hotels, better lift systems, and improved access have made these five resorts worthy alternatives to the state's more celebrated slopes.

ASPEN HIGHLANDS
If you gaze from the top of Aspen Highlands out at the peaks and forests of the Maroon Bells wilderness, it's easy to forget that you're just a few miles from racks of Prada leather pants and trendy sushi restaurants. Highlands feels—and looks—more like wild Alaska than chichi Aspen, and until very recently, skiing here was a bit too much of an adventure for most people. Creaky lifts, a lack of services, and a reputation for being an experts-only hill made it largely the domain of locals. In the past few years, though, the installation of speedier chairlifts and the construction of a small base village has helped transform Highlands into an intimate and relaxed version of its three fast-lane sister resorts, Aspen Mountain, Snowmass, and Buttermilk.

To be sure, Highlands can be a challenging mountain. Terrain like the ultra-steep Highland Bowl, off the 12,400-foot summit—accessible only by foot or Sno-Cat—is serious stuff (any doubts about that will be erased if you happen to share a chairlift with a rescue dog). But there are plenty of groomed, wide-open slopes for not-so-hot shots; in fact, more than half of Highlands' trails are for novice and intermediate skiers.

No matter where you ski, stop for lunch at the mid-mountain Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro (970/544-3063; lunch for two $50; reservations recommended), where wild game, raclette, and strudel are served in a snug cabin overlooking a panorama of 14,000-foot-high peaks. When the lifts close, head for the new base village to celebrate moments of glory with margaritas on the deck at Iguana's Bar & Grill (970/920-9449), or lament your lack of powder skills over a pint in Willow Creek Bistro at the Ritz-Carlton Club (800/306-7836; www.ritzcarltonclub.com; two-bedrooms from $1,155), a fractional-ownership property that has a limited number of luxury two- and three-bedroom units available for rent. There are many more options in Aspen proper—try the renovated Sky Hotel, (800/747-1970 or 970/925-6760; www.theskyhotel.com; doubles from $289) right at the center of Aspen's whirl; there's shuttle bus service to Highlands, two miles away.
ASPEN HIGHLANDS, 800/525-6200 or 970/925-1220; www.aspensnowmass.com.

CRESTED BUTTE MOUNTAIN
This 150-year-old former mining town in Colorado's rugged Elk Mountains has what no team of skilled architects or ingenious designers could ever manufacture—real character. Crested Butte is one of the great ski towns of the West, with renovated Victorian-era general stores, bordellos, and saloons lining the main street and a population of friendly and eccentric skiers, mountain bikers, artists, and romantics.

So why isn't the resort better known?Partly, it's because of the 250-mile distance from Denver, and the perception that it's difficult to get to. While the trip may indeed take a little extra time and effort, the recent addition of direct flights from Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Newark airports, and daily flights from Denver into Gunnison, 28 miles to the south, have made it much easier.

Skiers may also be under the mistaken impression that Crested Butte's imposing lone, white peak is strictly for gonzo, mohawked cliff-jumpers. Granted, the nearly vertical North Face holds some of the steepest and hairiest terrain in North America, and the resort does host the U.S. extreme snowboarding and skiing championships. But Crested Butte is also a family mountain, with miles of mellow trails, several kids' terrain parks, a well-lit tubing hill, and a fine ski school. The resort's contemporary base village, Mount Crested Butte, is three miles north of the old town and has a handful of pleasant and affordable ski-in, ski-out condominiums and hotels, including a 240-room Club Med (800/258-2633 or 970/349-8700; www.clubmed.com; doubles from $770, all-inclusive).

Although you could happily spend your entire vacation at Mount Crested Butte, if you did, you'd be missing out on one of the area's greatest attributes: the remarkable collection of stellar restaurants and atmospheric bars that line Elk Avenue, the town's historic main drag. There's tiny, romantic Soupçon (127A Elk Ave.; 970/349-5448; dinner for two $85), for innovative French cuisine; Timberline (201 Elk Ave.; 970/349-9831; dinner for two $55), for game; the Secret Stash (21 Elk Ave.; 970/349-6245; dinner for two $20), for eclectic pizza; and the Idle Spur (226 Elk Ave.; 970/349-5026; dinner for two $65), for aged Colorado steaks—to name just a few. Late-night musts include the Eldo (215 Elk Ave.; 970/349-6125) and Talk of the Town (230 Elk Ave.; 970/349-6809) for live music, and the century-old Kochevar's Saloon (127 Elk Ave.; 970/349-6745), a pool hall where Butch Cassidy left his gun behind when he bolted to escape a sheriff's posse. That's atmosphere.
CRESTED BUTTE MOUNTAIN, 800/810-7669; www.skicb.com.

COPPER MOUNTAIN RESORT
If you skied Copper sometime in the last few decades, odds are your reaction was something like this: Great mountain, too bad it doesn't have a nice little town at the base. Now, thanks to Intrawest, the Canadian firm that acquired Copper in 1997—and that specializes in the creation of nice little towns at the bottom of ski mountains—the resort finally has what it was missing.

The new Village at Copper, unveiled last winter, is the centerpiece of a massive redesign. With a half-dozen timber-framed lodges, a hip little snowboard shop, a skating rink, and several happening après-ski spots, Copper's base has been transformed into a festive, appealing place, worthy of the fine ski mountain it anchors—and with barely a hint of Disney World artifice.

Copper Mountain's skiing is sublime. Experts head for the high-altitude bowls of Copper Peak and work the flanks of Union Bowl; the less experienced find sanctuary in the tree-lined boulevards of Union Creek. Snowboarders love the mountain, too, for its lack of tedious catwalks and its big terrain parks.

In the evening, Copper's new village revs up. Mix with the Red Bull crowd at Endo's Adrenaline Café (970/968-2882) or with the shaken-not-stirred set at Pravda (970/968-2222), a vodka bar (no relation to the New York City original) where the doormen wear KGB-style trench coats and fur hats and the bartenders have been known to pour drinks directly into patrons' mouths. Visit Jack's Slopeside Bar & Grill (970/968-2318) if the infectious duo Lefty Lucy is performing and don't be surprised to find yourself line dancing on the bar. No worries: your hotel room—try Copper One Lodge (888/263-5302; studios from $149), right next to the American Eagle chairlift—is just a short walk away. That's all part of the master plan.
COPPER MOUNTAIN RESORT, 888/219-2441 or 866/841-2481; www.coppercolorado.com.

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