Inside the three grandes dames of Aspen, where hotel rivalry is good news for guests.
Raymond Patrick

Aspen's top three luxury hotels are engaged in the extreme (and extremely amusing) sport of trying to outdo one another. The Little Nell offers the sceniest scene in town, plus ski-in, ski-out convenience. And while the St. Regis likes to think its silk-stocking atmosphere places it above the fray, the Jerome lassos guests with gun-slinging visual overload. It's quite a show. Just watch those ski poles!

"It's all very Miss Kitty," Sally remarked, referring to the voluptuously upholstered saloonkeeper who made Gunsmoke such a campy pleasure. One of my oldest and most difficult friends, Sally was dining with me fireside in the Jerome's Century Room, where we'd settled into shield-back armchairs in dusty-rose velour. We had just been served chestnut-crusted caribou loin prepared by Todd Slossberg, the region's most talked-about chef. But my companion was too busy starring in her own western to notice.

"Too bad I forgot my corset and bustle," she sighed.

Sally was right on message. But while I can't rest until I see her in disfiguring period costume, there really is no need for it at the Jerome. For the picture of Victorian mining-camp splendor is complete, down to the etched cranberry glass, documentary Eastlake-Gothic wallpapers, and copper door latches. Daring to speak of itself in the same breath as the Paris Ritz, the Jerome sashayed into town in 1889, grandiose and busting a button every time someone remarked on its Western Electric paging device, which hangs in the lobby to this day. As rare in that era of bawdy houses and cooking with bear grease were the flush toilets, a big hit with mining tycoons still shivering from the memory of glacial outhouses.

How are luxury and beauty expressed at the Jerome today?Irrespective of size and price, all of the 92 guest rooms feature king beds, separate tubs and showers, and twin vanities. (Sally, traveling with a tape measure, couldn't resist measuring her marble bathroom counter: "Ten feet!!" Apparently, they heard her in Telluride.) A seamstress was brought over from Paris and installed in Suite 100 with scraps left over from a new round of curtains and bedspreads. Weeks later she emerged from behind a mountain of enchanting little throw pillows, trailing her terrier.

Outside, a heated cedar closet keeps towels toasty while you steep in the Jacuzzi. In the Library bar, peaty single-malt scotches are lit from behind with votives, to magical effect. And though much is made of the fact that the Little Nell and the St. Regis hug Aspen Mountain, it's the Jerome's set-back location, a few blocks away, that pays off in superior views.

Having no ski culture, I was dazzled to learn of the existence of dedicated "ski concierges" at the Jerome and its competitors. These wonderful people relieve you of your equipment when you return from the slopes and take care of lift tickets and repairs.

"Imagine someone spending their brain cells looking after your skiing needs," mused Sally. "Is this heaven or what?"

330 E. Main St.; 800/331-7213 or 970/920-1000, fax 970/920-2050; doubles from $550.

Nineteen ninety-two was not a good year for lily-livered Aspen hoteliers. The Ritz-Carlton—now the St. Regis—swept onto the scene that November, upping the ante with its prim "ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen" ethos. And the Little Nell was gathering steam and stealing headlines, having already poached some of the Jerome's top clients, most notably the Middle European ski bunny Ivana Trump.

The Ritz-Carlton had been purpose-built in Colorado red brick, its slightly brooding, institutional architecture evoking nothing so much as an Oxfordshire boarding school. In 1998 Starwood purchased the property, devoting much of its rebranding budget to what can only be described as aesthetic cleansing. Starwood—and, apparently, a lot of visually sensitive guests—felt strongly that the hotel lacked a sense of place, that it wasn't alpine enough. The 257 guest rooms came in sickly mauve or mint green.

"Sounds like you might as well have been in St. Louis," sniffed Sally.

The St. Regis's new look is termed "mountain elegance," and is expressed in ruddy back-to-nature tones, leather club chairs, amphora lamps with whipstitched shades, and black-and-white photographs of Aspen in more naïve times. The burnished tone is set in the Lobby Lounge with oak paneling, a towering granite-and-fieldstone fireplace, and Turkish and Tibetan carpets. Bronze statues of elk and bison are a big feature.

Sally could hardly wait to weigh in. "This isn't necessarily a bad thing," she said, "but I don't think they've totally shed their Ritz-Carlton image. Also, they didn't take the western thing far enough. And what's with the amphorae?"Other changes include an enhanced model of Starwood's famous Heavenly Bed mattress (pillow top, 900 individually pocketed coils). Todd English, whose self-conscious hunkiness has us all struggling to remember that he is also an interesting chef with a baroque position on Mediterranean cooking, is represented by a branch of Olives. Confounding expectations, the hotel is even cool enough for a Rande Gerber bar, Whiskey Rocks.It's a long way from the Ritz-Carlton days, when employees wore ties and recited "Good afternoon, madame—is there anything I can do for you, madame?" until they were blue in the face. The service at the St. Regis still attains a very high standard; it's just less starchy. Sally felt they'd got it exactly right. "While no one slaps you on the back, it's not as if they bow to you either. Plus, they pick up your socks."

315 E. Dean St.; 888/454-9005 or 970/920-3300, fax 970/920-7353; doubles from $625.

As a mother of two, Sally doesn't get much time to herself. Rubbing shoulders with boldface names in the Little Nell's Living Room lobby, where chenille sofas and a porridgy palette spell a certain idea of Good Taste, she begged me to assure her that this was not a dream. Guests admiring the hotel's $6 million worth of fresh cosmetic surgery assumed it was the elevation that made my friend behave light-headedly. In fact, it was the power setting and nibble of freedom. To squeeze the most out of our weekend, Sally got up annoyingly early. Which is how she found herself in a fascinating dispute with a Nell staffer at 6:15 a.m. The story demonstrates not only how well the personnel know their product, but how far they'll go to sell it. "Where can I find a coffee shop, please?" Sally asked. "Madame," the concierge replied, "we have everything here. May I suggest—" Sally cut her off, explaining that the point, for heaven's sake, was also to get some exercise. But the Nell is famous for its lemon "soufflé" pancakes, and the woman was determined to win a new fan. Of course, she didn't know Sally, who can be as recalcitrant as warm egg whites. Before their exchange could devolve into a standoff, the concierge offered directions to the Paradise Bakery.I love this story. For it also illustrates that while the customer is always right, she may not always know best. I ordered the pancakes. Aunt Jemima's will never do again.

The hotel's original designer, Ann Gray, recently completed a major refurbishment of the Nell. New to the 92 guest rooms, all of which have gas fires, is plump upholstery in Scalamandre fabrics, along with 27-inch televisions with cordless headphones. The chicer Montagna restaurant is the work of David Easton, the Anglophilic New York decorator of nearly doyen status. With pitch-perfect relevance, chef Paul Wade woos and warms diners with elk ravioli in chanterelle consommé.

Later, it was my turn to be told what was best for me. Having inquired about snowshoeing, I decided I'd rather go dogsledding. But Katey Buster, who leads the best snowshoe treks in Aspen and works closely with the Nell, is not into rejection. She described how we would march through thigh-high drifts. When she added that conditions were perfect for making snow angels, she had me.

Seventeen steps from where the ski concierge bid us good-bye, the gondola jiggled us to the top of Aspen Mountain. Kicking up fresh powder at 11,000 feet turned out to be my favorite Rocky Mountain moment. You have to love a hotel that has an employee-to-guest ratio of one to one—the highest in Aspen—and that knows you better than you know yourself. After finally tasting those pancakes, even Sally had to agree.

675 E. Durant Ave.; 888/843-6355 or 970/920-4600, fax 970/920-6345; doubles from $565.

Aspen—For Less
Wherever you stay in Aspen, you can save money by booking for the right time. Many hotels drop prices in January, for example—prime ski season. By late March, when slope conditions can still be excellent, some places will lower rates by more than 50 percent. Hikers love spring and fall for the flora—and the gentle bill.

The city's more reasonably priced hotels include:

Aspen Meadows 845 Meadows Rd.; 970/925-4240, fax 970/544-7822; doubles from $175. This modernist gem, minutes from downtown, has mountain views and Aspen's sleekest interiors.

Boomerang Lodge 500 W. Hopkins Ave.; 970/925-3416, fax 970/925-3314; doubles $220. Located in the lovely Victorian West End section of town, this mainstay features terraced gardens and complimentary breakfast.