By Cecilia Connolly

The romance of the Old West is alive and well. You’ll find it in the Colorado Rockies, where the sky seems endless and each night treats you to an astronomical display of stars; where the mountains are so high, you’d swear they could touch the sky. Although such natural sights may be awe-inspiring, you will also find the trendiest mountain resorts brimming with sophistication, culture and enough diversions that you’ll never want for something to do. So if you are game, the Colorado Rockies make for a stunning, memorable and a truly unique destination.

No other Colorado town offers more attractions and distractions than Aspen. Movie and TV stars hang out here—and why not? Nestled in the White River National Forest some 200 miles from Denver, this more-than-one-hundred-year-old former mining town really knows how to treat people.

Aspen is chichi and every inch sexy. Winter vacations focus on world-class skiing, hot-tubbing, and dog sledding. Even if you’re not an expert powder hound, you can still see Aspen’s slopes up close. Mush with huskies on a sled into the wilderness, where the craggy mountains look close enough to touch. Float in a hot air balloon over the heads of cross-country skiers. Or rev up a snowmobile for a wild ride through the pines.

Need a break from ski trails? Then stroll the downtown pedestrian mall to catch a global shopping experience. Everything from dazzling baubles to leather and western furnishings is displayed in more than 300 retail shops.

Tucked away privately beyond a gated entrance this luxurious but laid-back resort is one of Colorado’s best-kept secrets. Celebs own homes here, and it draws a very international upscale crowd. The village of Beaver Creek is so self-contained that once you arrive, there’s no reason to leave. Being pampered to the hilt seems to be the mantra of all who live and work here.

While about 27 percent of the 146 trails at Beaver Creek are best suited to advanced skiers and 34 percent to beginners the remainder of slopes here are best for intermediates (that’s 39 percent). The mountain management are keen on daily grooming which makes the plethora of blue trails great cruising runs. And in true European style, you can ski village to village, touring the mounta in, visit neighboring communities of Bachelor Gulch and Arrowhead and stop for refreshments along the way. It’s no fallacy that there are no lift lines at Beaver Creek, it’s an unbelievable reality! The only time you will ever see more than a dozen folks waiting for any chair is peak hour in the morning at the base of the main mountain.

The oldest continuously occupied town on Colorado’s Western front, Breckenridge was settled in 1859 by a party of prospectors who discovered gold in the Blue River. As the glittering veins faded away, Breckenridge itself began to edge toward obsolescence. But when the fledgling ski industry started lacing its slopes with lifts in the early 1960s, the town took its first steps back from the brink. By the 1980s, the town hit its stride with the regions’ first high-speed quad chairlift and an emphasis on innovative, kid’s programs. The success of the skiing enterprise caught on in town, where entrepreneurs opened shops in restored Victorian houses, and inspired chefs converted burro barns into gourmet restaurants. Breckenridge’s celebrated Main Street sets it apart from Summit County’s three other ski areas (Keystone, Arapahoe Basin, and Copper Mountain); it retains all the color of its frontier origins. Breckenridge’s beauty is its short runs—perfect for beginners and intermediate skiers. They’re home to a collection of steep-sides bowls above the timberline, well-groomed cruisers, and lots of slopes for first-timers.

The town of Steamboat wears its history on weathered wood and brick buildings. Shuttle buses move skiers between town and the resort area, which together have more than 60 restaurants and bars for après-ski, plus a variety of shopping and entertainment destinations. The most popular place in town after a day on the slopes is the rec center, where skiers warm their aching bones in generously sized pools fed by hot mineral springs. Novices will find a niche at the base of the mountain; while intermediate and advanced can look forward to lots of runs and some of the best tree skiing in the West.

Gone are the days when dusty miners descended from the mountains around Telluride to brawl in the town’s bars, and Butch Cassidy practiced fast getaways on Main Street before robbing his first bank. Today, it’s home base for the country’s hottest ski scene, and the list of the rich and famous snatching up property just may rival Aspen.

All this commotion can be blamed on the challenging ski slopes. Experts rank these mountains the toughest in the U.S., creating an après-ski social atmosphere that defies national statistics. But beginners rave about the resort as well, thanks to Sunshine Peak, a secluded paradise off the beaten track with lengthy runs reached by the longest high-speed quad chair. Ice climbing, cross-country skiing along the San Miguel River, snowmobiling to ghost towns in the San Juan Mountain range, and heli-skiing are just a few of the options available beyond traditional downhill skiing.

Gorgeous views are what Vail is all about. Just twenty minutes from Beaver Creek lies the sporty resort of Vail. It’s a favorite with the snowboarding crowd and has a lively young casual nightlife.

Shopping is the Olympic sport here. Like Aspen, all the major retailers have outposts here, so you can melt down your credit card without flexing a muscle. The pedestrian malls are window-shopper friendly.

In winter, no ski area tops Vail for size, style, and excitement. Though the valley offers the usual gross of activities, you’re cheating yourselves if you don’t explore the ski mountain first, then dip your toes into a hot tub, and enjoy a massage, spa, or indoor tennis. You won’t forget your sunset horseback ride, or a sunrise balloon trip overlooking the sleeping town. And nothing makes a winter night in Vail more special than a sleigh ride beneath a full moon!

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