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Telluride bulks up, staying tony and towny

 By Kate Siber

Globe Correspondent / November 15, 2009

TELLURIDE, Colo. - About a dozen skiers stood on top of Gold Hill Ridge at Telluride Ski Resort on a brisk December weekday. We stamped our feet and huffed into our mittens while gaping at the expansive scene: a series of 13,000- and 14,000-foot peaks set against a light azure sky. But we weren’t thinking of the view. We had fresh powder on our minds and we were waiting for the ski patrol to signal that untracked Prospect Basin was open.

Finally, the ski patroller gave us the go-ahead and off we went. With little heed for possible collisions, we careened down the hill, making sweeping S turns in the fresh, light snow. We cruised over knolls and by islands of trees until we arrived, breathless, at the bottom. Then, without so much as a word, my friend and I exchanged glances and beelined it to the lift, where we skied directly onto another chair.

Telluride is famous for its dry, fluffy snow and its utter dearth of skiers. Why? First, it’s far from everything. Situated in a picturesque box canyon in southwestern Colorado, it requires a six-hour drive from the nearest big city, Denver, or a flight with an arrhythmia-inducing landing on a slim mesa wedged between mountains. Second, there are no fewer than 18 resorts in Colorado, many more accessible, vying with each other for skiers.

Yet there has never been a better time to check out this Victorian mining hamlet-turned-ski town. In the last few years, the resort, the town of Telluride, and the town of Mountain Village, a gathering of condos, hotels, and shops halfway up the mountain, have taken the equivalent of growth hormones. Hotels and eateries have sprouted, and the resort has opened an astounding amount of terrain.

That started two seasons ago with the debut of Black Iron Bowl, a 1,000-vertical-foot area with hike-to chutes, glades, and open-face skiing, and the expert-only Gold Hill Chutes 6-10. Last season, Revelation Bowl, a sprawling north-facing bowl that holds its powder well into spring, opened along with a lift to access it all. This season, Gold Hill Chutes 2-5 will open.

Last season two hotels reopened after dramatic refurbishments. The New Sheridan Hotel, dating to 1895, spent millions upgrading its 26 rooms and establishing a new Victorian-style cafe and bar called the Parlor. Nearby, the Hotel Columbia added new furniture, kitchenettes, high-definition TVs, and iPod docking stations to its rooms.

Mountain Village has witnessed the most dramatic developments. Last December, Lumiere Telluride opened with over-the-top luxury: Butlers bring complimentary breakfast in bed, and ski valets warm boots and tune skis overnight.

Nearby, Horst Schulze, former Ritz-Carlton president, opened Capella Telluride, in February. Its rooms feature marble bathrooms, minibars stocked with complimentary goodies, and iPod docking stations. Personal assistants can arrange spa treatments or ski tunings on a whim. The hotel has made a considerable effort to jazz up Mountain Village by opening three eateries - a tony bar, an upscale restaurant, and a casual ski-in ski-out cafe - and an ice skating rink.

These new digs amplify the town’s image as a playground for the rich. But behind the quaint facade is a town with many residents who have been here for decades. And many of the town’s institutions haven’t changed.

The Last Dollar Saloon, a beloved dive bar also known as the Buck, still stands downtown, as it has since 1978. Locals still leave unwanted goods and pick up others’ at the community exchange Free Box. And the hippies who first discovered Telluride decades ago still roam town on their ancient Schwinns.

Two years ago, faced with a developer who wanted to build condos on 570 acres of highly visible open meadow at the entrance to town, residents moved to purchase the land for public use. Though fund-raising consultants deemed it impossible, the town raised $25 million.

On one of my first trips to Telluride I realized the area’s unique charm. At the end of the ski day, we shuffled into Allred’s, a swanky bar and restaurant hidden in the Saint Sophia gondola station. Though it was a high-class place, no one looked twice when we shuffled around in ski boots. We sat right next to the floor-to-ceiling windows, sipping Colorado beer and munching mini Kobe beef burgers, bar food for the well heeled.

If You Go Where to stay 

New Sheridan Hotel

231 West Colorado Ave. 800-200-1891 A 26-room Victorian-era hotel with rooftop hot tubs. Doubles from $259. 

Manitou Bed & Breakfast

333 South Fir St. 800-376-9769  A no-frills hotel on the San Miguel River a few blocks from the gondola. Doubles from $99.

Capella Telluride

568 Mountain Village Blvd. 877-247-6688 A lavish but laid-back hotel with 84 rooms and 11 suites, all with views of the mountains. Doubles from $385. 

Where to eat 

La Cocina de Luz

123 East Colorado Ave. 970-728-9355 Homemade tortillas and fresh, local ingredients make this Mexican restaurant a local favorite. Entrees $9.75-$17.25.

Honga’s Lotus Petal

135 East Colorado Ave. 970-728-5134  This pan-Asian restaurant serves inventive dishes from sushi to striped bass. Entrees $15-$33.

Allred’s Restaurant

Saint Sophia Gondola Station 970-728-7474  The contemporary American dishes at Allred’s are a fitting accompaniment to the setting: a gondola station at 10,500 feet. $16-$42.

What to do

Telluride Ski Resort

565 Mountain Village Blvd. 800-778-8581 Offers 120 trails with a wide variety of terrain, an annual average snowfall of 309 inches, and 18 lifts. A one-day lift ticket is $92. Discounts are available by purchasing online in advance or multiple days at one time. 

Telluride Tourism Board

630 West Colorado Ave. 970-728-3041