Any star who knows how to fasten his bindings knows that Aspen—glistening hip-deep with powder and glittering knee-deep with celebs—is the in place to ski and be seen. So here, on a late Saturday afternoon in midwinter, Sylvester Stallone, who started skiing only this season, can be found returning from the slopes to his hotel, the luxurious Little Nell (suites up to $1,800 a night, plus a nifty ski-in, ski-out back lobby). Stallone is mulling options for the evening's fun—he and girlfriend Jennifer Flavin expect to get together with Hollywood megaproducer Jon (Batman) Peters—before ascending the mountains again, this time to look over some real estate, "I started out low in life," he jokes, "so now I want to be elevated."

So do others of the rich and famous, who begin to arrive just before Christmas and stay through April, making the Colorado resort town the spot to go downhill in style. Stallone tries to explain its appeal. "Aspen," he says, chomping ruminatively on a cigar, "brings together lunacy, athletics, culture and business." One could say the same, of course, of Rome under Caligula. There must be something more afoot, or a-ski, in this onetime mining town high in the Rockies. It was here, in 1986, that Gary Hart met a svelte Waterloo named Donna Rice; where Claudine Longet in 1976 fatally shot her pro skier-lover, Spider Sabich; where in December 1989 Ivana—skiing, backward, expertly down the slopes—first confronted the Donald about Marla.

But maybe that's not the sort of lunacy Sly has in mind. Let's show him some other aspects of Aspen.

Nir-Vanna. First, there's the snow, blanketing 3,686 acres on four mountains. And then there's that Our Town kind of snugness. "We've been a town for 110 years," says Terry Butler, 47, who owns the Ultimate Results personal training gym. "We've been a town first and a resort second. We're fierce about keeping our town lovely and attracting the right people." Some of the right people, including publishing mogul Rupert Murdoch and alphabet wizard Vanna White, work out at Butler's club. Vanna even chose Butler to be maid of honor at her New Year's Eve wedding to L.A. restaurateur George Santopietro.

Where Santopietro proposed to Vanna was definitely the right place: the Caribou Club, Aspen's most exclusive hangout. On a recent weekend Don Johnson—who bought Butler's 13-acre estate for $1 million in 1988—could be spotted at the Caribou with wife Melanie Griffith, race car driver Danny Sullivan and Sullivan's girlfriend, Julie Nini.

Okay, so it's Thornton Wilder by way of Aaron Spelling.

Rocky Mountain high-yai-yai! Any money burning holes in the pockets of your black skiwear, Mr. Stallone? Then let's hit those Aspen boutiques! It's $280,000 for a Tiffany window—ideal as a decorative touch in a mountain home—at the Rachael Collection; $3,500 for a silver belt at the Squash Blossom; $75,000 and up for Russian sable coats at the town's five fur stores. Even cabs have been boutiqued. At $25 per quarter hour, the Ultimate Taxi is—as driver Jon Barnes. 33, bills it—"the only recording-studio, theater, nightclub, planetarium, toy-store taxicab in the world."" The regular-size cab features synthesizers, an electronic sax, a fog machine and a revolving disco mirror ball. Passenger Paul Simon once joined Barnes in a joint rendition of "Slip Slidin' Away."

Aspen may be a boutique heaven, but it's a convenience-store hell. "We lack some of the essentials," says Butler, "what you'd find in a five-and-dime." Underwear, thread, fabric and other fundamentals are available 30 miles "down valley" in Basalt, Carbondale or Glenwood Springs.

In the hall of the mountain king. Exclusive property—that you can get in Aspen. The average price of a home here is slightly more than $1.1 million. (One real estate agent currently lists movie producer Ted and Susie Field's 20-plus-room home for $25 million.) Michael Douglas recently won county approval to market 500-acre lots ($2 million to $5 million-plus) for a development outside town called Wildcat Ranch. But whatever palaces arise on Wildcat, they'll be hovels next to the new home of Saudi Arabia's Ambassador to the U.S., Prince Bandar bin Sultan. His 55,000-square-foot Xanadu features 15 bedrooms and 26 bathrooms.

Where everybody knows your name is Hunter. Aspen, unlike the Prince's place, can begin to feel cramped in winter, as an influx of skiers, celebs and tourists swell the permanent population of 6,000 to 20,000. Sixty percent of Aspen residences are their owners' home-away-from-homes. None of this makes George Stranahan happy. "Absentee ownership is the curse of Aspen," says Stranahan, 59, owner of the Woody Creek Tavern, Aspen's answer to Cheers. Stranahan's 10-year-old watering hole, he says, "is what Aspen used to be"—hipper. more free-spirited. Which may explain why high-living gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson is a regular. Real regular. Hunter—a resident since the late 1960s—celebrated at Woody Creek last year after being cleared of charges that he had sexually assaulted a former actress. "Hunter is a good friend." says Stranahan. "Probably my most difficult friend, but a friend."

If you want to know how to be considered a friend, Mr. Stallone, you might follow the example of such locally esteemed celebrities as Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell (they have been generous in raising funds for the Aspen Community School), John Denver (devoted to ecological projects) and 19-year resident Jill St. John and her new husband, Robert Wagner (their causes include the Aspen Music Festival, held every summer). On the other hand, avoid the example set by Don Johnson and Jon Peters—celebs who, says Aspen Times columnist Mary Eshbaugh Hayes, "seem to like taking part in the local scene at the tavern, but don't mix with the locals." Stranahan says pointedly of Johnson. "I like Melanie."

Aspen ye shall receive. "Aspen." sums up Stallone, "is the land of milk and plenty." Plenty, yes. Milk you may have to get down valley.

Tom Gliatto, Vickie Bane in Aspen

  • Contributors:
  • Vickie Bane.