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Colorado: The New Frontier

It makes an odd sort of sense that today's Dunton was created by Europeans, who have a pure view of the myth of the West, untainted by proximity. It figures, too, that Kuhlmann and Henkel came to Colorado via Hollywood; after all, reinvention is that town's religion. Henkel, an heir to a German detergent fortune, spent childhood vacations in his family's Tyrolean hunting cabin but ended up producing movies in L.A., where he met Kuhlmann, an aspiring screenwriter, actor, and devout fan of Karl May, Germany's best-selling author of novels set in the American West. After losing his own small inheritance in bad movie investments, Kuhlmann told me one night over dinner, "I had to start from scratch like every other good American." This led to Colorado, where he worked in real estate and dreamed of developing a ghost town. Henkel shared the fantasy—he'd even bought a ranch in Telluride.

Dunton was originally conceived of as a hideaway, a grand bachelor pad amid the high pines. But the costs of renovation and upkeep induced Kuhlmann and Henkel to share it, first as a corporate retreat, then, starting in 2001, with paying guests. The resort has already attracted quite a following: Caroline of Monaco and Daryl Hannah have stayed here; neighbor Ralph Lauren pops in for lunch. But Dunton is so isolated and cosseting (Henkel calls it "a private house grown too large for a private family") that even with the maximum of 30 guests around, you still feel you have it to yourself.

Kuhlmann, the creative force behind Dunton, isn't always there, but his eccentric personality is ever-present in the eclectic décor. He furnished the lobby with fixtures from an old post office, and turned a pony express stop from the nearby town of Parachute into a yoga studio. A barn from Durango became a lavish library with a fireplace, oversized cracked-leather armchairs, and a bearskin rug. Kuhlmann searched five states to find eight period cabins to replace Dunton's ruins, and had them rebuilt with the latest comforts, like smoked-glass showers and heated stone ßoors. There's an 18th-century Rajasthani matrimonial bed in one, a beaded native American coat hanging as art in another.

Meals are served in the saloon, next to a big fireplace and the open kitchen. On Sunday morning, as the snow piled up, one of the guests asked chef Ty Hunt (whose résumé includes stints at a restaurant in Latvia, Cibolo Creek Ranch in west Texas, and the U.S. Embassy in Moscow) if there would be enough to eat. "Does the Donner party ring a bell?" he joked. "We've got enough food for days." Indeed, Dunton's kitchen turned out a wild variety of dishes: salmon with cilantro risotto, seared scallops in a mango-citrus salsa, huge steaks from locally raised cattle, and a half-dozen types of bread. For Thanksgiving dinner, Hunt made sourdough sage stuffing, cranberry and Granny Smith apple sauce laced with ginger, and three turkeys (leftovers were turned into smoked turkey—and—white bean chili soup). The only thing wrong with the food was that there was just too much of it.

In good weather, when the mountain pass is open, some guests take day trips to Telluride, a 40-minute drive, or Mesa Verde, once the center of Anasazi civilization and now a living museum and working archaeological site 90 minutes southwest. Around Dunton itself, you can go heli-skiing (the copter lands in front of the saloon), snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, hiking, and, in warm months, horseback riding in the woods or trout fishing on the Dolores River. Locked in by snow, we found that the resort alone had more than enough entertainment. Steps away from our cabin we found bliss at the bathhouse—with its steam room, hot tub, and exotic massage loft suspended in twisting indoor tree trunks—and at the two outdoor hot springs. There's an alfresco pool next to the bathhouse and a spring hidden inside a tepee guarded by lethal longhorn steer skulls. Swimsuits are optional.

Dunton's service is thoughtful and personal; on the hour-long drive up from the airport in Cortez, one of the managers shared his tip for staving off altitude sickness: drink, drink, drink water. The morning after the blizzard began, a housekeeper delivered hats, gloves, and pants-protecting gaiters to our cabin, since we were unprepared—and thus housebound.

We felt like mining barons, and we couldn't get over having the run of an entire frontier town. But in the end the real luxury was what had been there all along: the views of far-off Mount Sneffels, the tall pines scraping the snow clouds, and the pure geothermal water that ßows into Dunton's faucets. We drank it all in and thirsted for more.

Dunton Hot Springs, 52068 West Fork Rd., Dolores, Colo.; 970/882-4800; www.duntonhotsprings.com; doubles from $400, including meals.

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