- The Washington Times - Friday, December 1, 2006

TELLURIDE, Colo. — Telluride is the epitome of the true Rocky Mountain lifestyle. Far less glitzy than Aspen, less touristy than Vail, it is far more than a stranger could expect.

Telluride provides the quintessential ski experience for the traveler seeking outrageous mountain challenges in a town that is as friendly as it is charming. It lies on the floor of a box canyon, surrounded by majestic peaks of the San Juan Mountains towering on three sides.

Telluride actually is two towns, the historic town at the base of the mountain, at 8,700 feet, and Mountain Village, a collection of luxury homes and fine hotels at the ski resort — at 9,800 feet, but a mere gondola ride up the mountain.

The separation is perfect, and understandable: a resort experience perched above a friendly, restaurant-filled town awaiting a visitor’s embrace for an evening of fine dining and bar-hopping after a long day plummeting down perhaps the most extensive and challenging ski runs in Colorado.

We arrive in Montrose, about an hour away, and are whisked into Telluride by a shuttle service that passes through historic Ridgeway, where “True Grit” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” were filmed. In two days before our arrival, 2 feet of snow have fallen, and the entire mountainside is gloriously white.

The snow continues as we reach Telluride and then Mountain Village. It is like a fairyland.

We are staying the first three days at Mountain Lodge Resort, a beautiful ski lodge surrounded by a series of condominium complexes. Empty condos are rented out as hotel rooms, and they are fantastic — large one-bedroom suites with kitchens, fireplaces and plush sofas. There is a terrific bar in the central lodge, but no restaurant — curious, but no hindrance. We sally forth into town.

Mountain Village is built around the base of the ski resort. My lungs gulp for air as I make my way to the gondola that spectacularly functions as the mass-transit system between Mountain Village and the town of Telluride. We go up first, to almost 11,000 feet, and then down a long cable into the town.

It is like a mythic scenario as, out of the blinding snow, the lights of the town emerge.

Telluride, with about 2,000 year-round residents, is not much in terms of size, but it is a picturesque outpost in the middle of nowhere surrounded by gleaming peaks and filled with Victorian homes, a fantastic main street and abundant restaurants in converted century-old houses. Since 1964, the central district of town has been a National Historical Landmark District.

We arrive on a Friday afternoon and, having asked around, head for the West End Tavern, the locale of choice for Friday apres-ski happy hour. It is bursting with people — friendly, unassuming, down-to-earth people. We quickly make friends with a crew of locals who escort us on a pub-crawl tour of Telluride.

Next stop is the Sheridan Hotel bar, where the traveling party has relocated. We carouse for a drink or two before heading on to Buck’s for a nightcap. At that point, we head back to the gondola, which shuts down at midnight (a potential design flaw for the late-night party crowd) for the dreamy ride back up the mountain, disappearing into the clouds and the whirling snow.

Telluride began as a mining town in the 1880s, and with the coming of the railroad in the 1890s, the population grew to more than 5,000. Silver, gold, zinc, lead and copper were extracted by a rowdy multinational bunch of prospectors who filled the saloons and the infamous — and thriving — red-light district.

The wealth generated even attracted Butch Cassidy and his wild bunch, who robbed the San Miguel National Bank in 1889.

Bust followed boom, and after World War I, Telluride went through a long, slow decline. By the 1960s, Telluride was practically a ghost town, with just 600 residents.

Yet the lure of this corner of paradise along the San Miguel River, in the shadow of the towering San Juans, was inextinguishable. In the 1970s, a ski area was carved out of the ridge near Gold Hill.

By the end of the decade, an investment group had begun developing Mountain Village, expanding the ski terrain and turning Telluride into a first-class ski area and year-round resort. The investors realized their dream but also managed to retain the charm and isolation that make Telluride an exotic wonderland of unspoiled delight and delicious mountain skiing.

We rise early Saturday and head for the Telluride Ski Resort headquarters to get skis and boots. Bobby Murphy, head of the ski school, takes me on a tour of the mountain. It is a spectacular day for skiing, as snow continues to fall. We stick mostly to intermediate slopes, which are plentiful.

There are virtually no lift lines at Telluride. The lift system carries 10,000 skiers, but there are never more than 2,000 skiers on the mountain on any given day. We tour the main central runs, the back bowl and then come back across the ridgeline and take a couple of runs down the front side of the mountain, into town, where most of the runs are single and double diamonds — challenging terrain with a glistening fresh layer of powder.

We take a break at Allred’s, a spectacular restaurant perched at 10,500 feet, the midpoint of the gondola, overlooking the town far below. The food is exceptional: squash risotto, wild mushroom soup, and Kobe beef in a grand lodge setting that is even more amazing at dinner, suspended in the sky in the shimmering twilight.

My guide takes us down a few more runs after lunch along the back trails to where we began. At night, we take the gondola into town to dine at Honga’s Lotus Petal, a hot spot and excellent sushi bar. It is packed, and I know why. The sushi is fantastic here, thousands of miles from the ocean. It’s flown in fresh daily, with exotic specials on top of the usual sushi favorites, sea urchin, freshwater eel and sweet shrimp. The executive chef, Shige Shibuya, is well-known to Washingtonians from Sushi-Ko in Georgetown.

Sunday morning, it is still snowing. Another 2 feet have fallen since Friday. We are up with the dawn and on the slopes at 9. I engage in some of the most spectacular skiing I have ever done. Fresh powder covers the mountain, and I head for the diamond slopes.

For the next six hours, I take run after run down the Plunge, Bushwacker and Cats Paw, slicing down hills way above my pay grade. It is exhilarating. The powder is flying; the edge of doom beckons and then pulls back.

I end the day with a series of adventures down Milk Run, all the way from Allred’s into town, a steep, groomed, challenging diamond, with sheer walls sloping down at an impossible, eye-glazing angle. It is child’s play now that I am familiar with this incredible mountain. Fear? What fear?

I have become a diamond skier. The last run of the day drains me as I take it from the top of Milk Run to the bottom of the gondola station in town and join my new ski buddies for an apres-ski beer or two at Chair 8, part of the Camel’s Garden Hotel located, appropriately, at the bottom of Chair 8.

That night, I have a sumptuous multicourse chef’s-surprise extravaganza at 221 South Oak, a restored Victorian gem near the base of the gondola. Chef Eliza Gavin serves an incredible meal of homemade sausages, stuffed quail and elk medallions, all paired with splendid wines from an excellent list.

Trained in Napa at Chez Nous, Miss Gavin has created a garden of earthly delights and culinary joy in a magical town of surprises. Her restaurant is a must for fine dining and serene atmosphere in Telluride.

The next day, we transfer to the Peaks Resort in the heart of Mountain Village. An imposing structure, this is a luxury resort with all the trimmings, including a Golden Door Spa for extra pampering. In this largest hotel in Mountain Village, my room looks down into the valley and to the mountains beyond. It is spacious, sumptuous and not inexpensive.

The snow has stopped, and now I see the crisp blue sky and the spectacular San Juan Mountains. I get in half a day of skiing, but that is fine. Dinner in the Great Room in the hotel includes Colorado lamb chops. We have an amazing chardonnay with my hosts and John Humphries, from Telluride Helitrax, who briefs me on the next day’s adventure. We are going heli-skiing. A day is needed for the snow to settle and the wind to calm. We get it.

Tuesday morning comes, and the conditions are perfect — 5 feet of fresh powder in the backcountry, untracked, waiting for us. We get special powder skis and a safety briefing and then load into the helicopter on the grounds of the Peaks — one four-man team at a time.

The adrenaline is pumping as we take off and fly farther into the middle of nowhere, landing on the edge of a small ridge at about 14,000 feet. Our team gets out, and the helicopter leaves. There is only one way down.

Heli-skiing is the most amazing, spectacular and terrifying thing I have ever done. We traverse along a narrow ridge past an avalanche zone, then plummet down a sheer face on a run that seems to last a mile or more, through waist-deep powder and between trees. I fall several times, but there is no choice but to get up and point my skis downward. At the bottom, the helicopter picks us up and drops us off at the peak, and we make another run.

Then we fly to a second location. It makes the first run seem like child’s play. The helicopter parries between jagged peaks before setting down at the top of a mountain dome where wide-open powder stretches downward as far as the eye can see. It is mind-boggling.

The other three plummet downward, and I am left at the top of a 14,000-foot peak looking into virgin fields of waist-deep powder.

There is only one way down. It is an out-of-body experience as I cut a fresh swath across the steep mountainside, slicing through powder like buttercream frosting, wide arcs leading downward forever to the distant meadow below.

Heli-skiing is not for the timid or the weak at heart. It was many levels above my pay grade and made my diamond-skiing graduation seem like kindergarten. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything in the world and can’t wait for next season to do it again. John Humphries is a saint, initiating me on the backcountry powder and pushing me to accomplish levels of skiing I didn’t dream possible for me. I had no choice. The only way out is down.

At night, I have yet another incredible meal, this time at La Marmotte, another of Telluride’s best restaurants, which is set in a converted 100-year-old icehouse.

A beet-and-goat-cheese salad with walnut oil, grilled sweetbreads and a buffalo fillet accompanied by a stellar wine make for a sublime experience in sophisticated dining. Chef Mark Reggiannini is a former sous-chef for Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and co-owner Mairen Reagan works the room like a pro, with ease and grace. During desert, after a full day of heli-skiing, this fine, cozy restaurant is far from the top of the mountain.

On my last day, it starts to snow again; I seized the one perfect day to heli-ski. My body is beat, but it is my last day, so I begin with treatment at the Golden Door Spa in the Peaks. Then, as another 8 inches fall, I leisurely ski the main slopes, the back bowl and, to convince myself that it was not a fluke, the front-side diamonds, finishing up with several plummets down Milk Run.

As the lifts are getting ready to close, I take the back trails and sail down the last runs to Mountain Village.

Dinner on my final night is, again, excellent, this time at 9546 in the Inn at Lost Creek. A boutique hotel with

32 rooms, the Inn at Lost Creek is sort of the Little Nell of Telluride, upscale, private, impeccable and perfectly situated at the bottom of the main lift.

The meal at 9546 (the elevation) is a revelation: tender elk wrapped in puff pastry, superb lamb medallions, and a fine cabernet. Executive chef Daniel Rosa has taken 9546 to excellence with a distinctive and original approach to cuisine and his use of ingredients. It is the farewell to an unbelievable week.

Telluride is amazing in many ways. In summer, it hosts the Telluride Bluegrass Festival each June, a film festival every Labor Day weekend, and the annual Blues and Brews Music Festival in late September.

Hiking, mountain biking, golf and numerous other summer activities make Telluride as much a destination retreat then as in winter.

Shopping in town is plentiful and varied. The serenity of Telluride is a hallmark of a place completely in step with a willingness to indulge its adventurous, fun persona. The ambience is invigorating, and the people are as genuinely friendly and engaging as you likely will ever find. It is a village on another plane of existence; it is un-Aspen, unpretentious, unaffected and unbelievable.

It is the skiing, though, that will bring us back time and again. Telluride Ski Resort is unsurpassed for what skiers seek: amazing runs in a spectacular setting that challenge the body while nurturing the soul.

I close my eyes, and I’m flying down the Plunge, plummeting down Milk Run. And waiting for winter to return.

Telluride by phone and Web

Telluride Ski Resort, 970/728-6900; resort, 800-778-8581; reservations, go to tellurideskiresorts.com

Telluride Helitrax, 866/435-4754 or 970-728-8377; www.helitrax.net

Peaks Resort, 866-282-4557 or 970/728-6800; www.thepeaksresort.com

Mountain Lodge Resort, 866/368-6867; www.mountainlodgetelluride.com

Allred’s, 970/728-7474; tellurideskiresort.com/TellSki/info/cb.ar.aspx

Honga’s Lotus Petal, 970/728-5134

221 South Oak, 970/728-9507; www.221southoak.com

La Marmotte, 978/728-6232; www.lamarmotte.com

Great Room, www.thepeaksresort.com

9546 Restaurant, 970/728-6293; www.innatlostcreek.com

Inn at Lost Creek, 970/728-5678 or 888/601-5678; www.innatlostcreek.com

New Sheridan Hotel, 970/728-4351 or 800/200-1891; www.newsheridan.com

Camel’s Garden Hotel, 970/728-9300 or 888/772-2635; www.camelsgarden.com

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