ASPEN, Colo. (MainStreet) -- Warm and sunny weather isn't exactly what a ski destination wants come December and early January, but in Aspen that's exactly what they got with an unusually late snow season. You wouldn't know that mid-February, though, with recent snowstorms putting a coat of white on Aspen's four ski mountains and a smile on the face of a chauffeur from The Little Nell -- what many consider America's ultimate ski hotel.
The 10-minute drive from Aspen/Pitkin County Airport is arranged in advance for guests of The Little Nell, free of charge and in nothing less than a Cadillac Escalade. Driving through town one sees the benefits of investment before the real estate crash, which brought several hotel properties to Aspen and nearby Snowmass, glossy names such as St. Regis, Grand Hyattd-Season L.A. (H) - Get Report and Viceroy (VICEROY) have joined the marquee of fashionable hotels sought out by visitors, but The Little Nell manages to stay atop the competition even with room prices that are also higher than the others'.
More modest guests of The Little Nell will insist it's the ski-in/ski-out location next to the Silver Queen Gondola at Aspen Mountain that makes it Aspen's "it" hotel. Opened in 1989 and built on land once used as a railway stop, pasture and favored watering hole called Little Nell's, the hotel is a crown jewel for Aspen Skiing, a company privately owned by the Crown family. Aspen Skiing also operates the ski areas at Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass, as well as dining and nightlife properties throughout the area.
Arrival to The Little Nell's porte-cochere brings no less than four valets to your SUV, making for a seamless arrival to a smaller-than-expected lobby with stone floors, crackling fireplace and lounge that's in full swing even at 1 p.m. on a Wednesday. The concierge desk is twice the size of the check-in counter, in part because much of the "hotel business" is paid before arrival and enforced with a strict 30-day cancellation policy. Even before your first step inside you've likely marveled at the staff operating one of the most meticulous and efficient guest experiences in the industry. Weeks before arrival, restaurant reservations are discussed and booked, as well as bar options and nightlife.
There are four guest floors, for a mere 92 guest rooms arranged along angular corridors with muted, dark carpeting. Premium rooms vary between mountain and village views with interiors by Holly Hunt, an arbiter of the interior design world with a line of home furnishings favored by America's moneyed set. "Aspen modern" interiors translate to stylish arrangements of club chairs in front of a glass fireplace recessed behind chocolaty wood paneling with overhead LCD screens. One corner of the room features a built-in double closet fit for multiweek stays, while the other is arranged with a writing desk and two-person sofa. Bathrooms are accented in marble with heated floors and his-and-hers sinks with soaking tubs and separate showers and a selection of full-size First Tracks signature toiletries.
Winter days usually begin at the ski concierge in the hotel, walking distance -- even in ski boots -- from the Silver Queen Gondola. The single-room operation offers everything from boot warming to waxing and hot chocolate, with staff often greeting guests no more than a few steps off the slopes at the end of the day. From there, many make their way to Ajax Tavern, a lunch spot at the base of the mountain that offers a menu of hearty specialties from an incredible dish of truffle fries to a showy platter of iced oysters and crab legs called the Grand Plateau.
Later in the evening revelers descend on the Terrace Bar clad in floor-length minks and custom cowboy hats for a DJ-fueled apres-ski scene that's more typical of Courchevel or St. Mortiz than the more reserved American ski set. One of the hotel's larger entertaining spaces, the bar features arrangements of cushy sofas and sexy alpine decor with walls adorned in Vitali-inspired landscapes. The design choices at The Little Nell could teach the major hotel chains a thing or two.
There are plans to rework the hotel's Montagna fine dining restaurant led by Chef Robert McCormick, revamping its more traditional mountain decor with a new look and name in time for next season. As for other hotel areas that could use improvement: The hotel's pool disappoints those looking for a lavish post-slope dip, especially with a whirlpool that requires guests to walk by the main bar or through the lobby in robes to indulge. And while the basement fitness center is marvelously equipped, it's also open to the waiting area for the spa and seems like it should be in a separate space altogether.
But come February ski season, a weekend at The Little Nell in Aspen is unlike any hotel experience in the U.S., from its morning chauffeur ride to four of the country's best ski mountains to the evening apres-ski scene that's a who's who of American society well worth room prices hovering upward of $750 per night during prime winter weekends.