For a holiday ski vacation, Telluride is about as splendid a setting as you'd want. As in "Good King Wenceslaus," the snow lies deep and crisp and even over the disarmingly picturesque old mining town with its steeply pitched roofs and brightly painted Victorian bric-a-brac. Only the main drag, Colorado Avenue, is paved. To counter that concession to modern times, it's still lined with turn-of-the-century gas lamps. There are no traffic lights.
The crisply etched peaks of the San Juan Mountains ring the tiny town, which is nestled in a box canyon in southwestern Colorado, at least a five-hour drive from Denver. That makes Telluride a destination resort, and keeps it from being overrun by hordes of day skiers. Development has been conservative and thoughtful, preserving the town's original character and flavor in keeping with its National Historic District designation.
The days are brilliant, warm enough to compel you to stay outside all day and even unzip your jacket, but not so warm that the snow gets soggy. The nights are breathtaking, a shock to lowland lungs and any skin exposed to the dark cold air, cold enough to compel you to dart into one of the village's many warm havens, to sidle up to a snapping fire, to mingle with the after-work local crowd or to feed with greedy pleasure at one of the fine restaurants.
Besides which, the skiing knocks your socks off. Even mine, and I'm not that great a skier.
Telluride has a reputation among hardcore skiers as a downhill mecca (although a reassuring 54 percent of the runs are rated for intermediates and 14 percent for beginners). With a vertical drop of 3,512 feet and a variety of challenging terrain, the reputation is deserved.
Moguls on some high slopes are grueling enough to turn even the most voracious bump-jumpers' legs to rubber. I used to work at Outside magazine; years back, when we ran a story on the steepest, deepest ski runs in the country, Telluride's "Spiral Stairs" and "The Plunge" were right up there. (This year, though, a special Winch Cat for grooming the steepest slopes will periodically smooth out the moguls, making some of the expert slopes accessible to upper-intermediate skiers.)
There are also runs high up, with names like "Logpile" and "Bushwhacker," where expert skiers can dodge among the trees as they zoom through steep, largely untracked powder. When we were there, last December, there was a relatively scant 53 inches of snow on the ground, and nothing fresh had fallen for a couple of weeks. My husband, a seriously good skier, was nevertheless able to attain some powder power on the above-mentioned runs. In normal high-volume snow conditions -- Telluride averages 300 inches a year -- things get truly righteous.
"Bushwhacker" marks one edge of the ski area; would-be poachers might be tempted to go out of bounds when they get a glimpse of the chutes below, but those who give in to temptation are in for a nasty and possibly life-threatening surprise: The chutes "cliff out," meaning that they lead inexorably to sudden geological drop-offs and that certain queasy feeling that comes with being suddenly airborne.
There's also a fine groomed grand-slalom-type run called "Lookout" where the hot shots can really fly, and where intermediates like me can enjoy delusions of grandeur.
The north side of the mountain, Telluride Face, is best known for the expert runs. Some fine easier trails can be found there, as well. It's the coldest part of the mountain; especially in the early morning and late afternoon, riding the lifts can be a very chilling experience.
Fortunately, there's a terrific little restaurant/warming hut called the Plunge at the top of Lift 9 where skiers can stoke up on terrific little pizzas and other fresh fare while enjoying the spectacular view that stretches into Utah. There are plenty of picnic tables outdoors, and plenty of warm sunshine to thaw out in.
On the other side of the mountain, nearly two dozen beginning and intermediate trails braid and loop across Gorrono Basin, offering several levels of primo cruising, with a few jump bumps thrown in. This part of the mountain faces south and catches plenty of sun. In the middle of the basin lies a large cafeteria/restaurant/outdoor grill/sundeck that gets convivially crowded at midday. Burgers and fresh veggie chili are served, along with fresh fish and even raw oysters.
Below the basin lies the Meadows area, reassuringly easy terrain for rank beginners. According to SKI magazine, it's the best beginner area in the country.
At the top of the Meadows, at the bottom of Lifts 3 and 4, lies the relatively new Mountain Village development. New this year is the Cactus Cafe and Grill, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner on the mountain.
The Sunshine Peak area opened last season. The Sunshine Express, the world's longest super-quad chairlift, serves two lovely easy intermediate cruising runs exclusively. It's an 11-minute lift; the area faces east, and in the late afternoon gets quite cold. The runs, "Sundance" and "Double Cabin," have vertical drops of 1,750 over 2.2 miles and 2.5 miles respectively.
The longest trail on the mountain, "See Forever," starts at the top of Lift 9 on Telluride Face, right up there at 11,890 feet, with the hardcore runs. This just-widened trail ribbons on and on for nearly three miles to the bottom of Gorrono Basin, offering terrific views and access to other trails along the way. Hang gliders launch near here, and a few times we were delighted to spot them floating nearby like human kites, no strings attached.
Lessons for all levels of skiers are first-rate at Telluride. The instructors appear to enjoy what they're doing, and do it quite well. Half-day, full-day and multi-day lessons are available, and can help skiers like me who want to move off the perpetual-intermediate plateau.
For those already at the top of their form on downhill skis, telemarking lessons offer a new challenge. This cross-country/downhill hybrid relies on broad, graceful S-turns executed in an exaggerated genuflection stance on cable-binding skinny skis -- a far cry from the locked-down, feet-together style of parallel skiing.
Another way for good skiers to stretch themselves is to race, and Telluride has a NASTAR race course just down from the Gorrono restaurant. To race, you have to be a NASTAR member; to become one, here or anywhere, you run the course once to determine your handicap, and pay a small one-time membership fee. Anyone of any age can race; little medals are awarded for top times.
At Telluride, it works like this: A pace-setter runs the slalom course first, followed by the racers, two at a time (at some areas, racers run the course one at a time). They try to beat each other down, and they try to come in under their handicaps to win gold medals.
Telluride is not the ski-and-be-seen scene of Aspen or Vail, where being properly (read tres expensively) dressed before, during and apre's-ski is de rigueur, cheri. (People do check you out from the ankles down, however, and if you're on the season's Hot Skis -- as my husband was -- envious looks and questions ensue.) This is not a major Rich & Famous stomping ground, although Ralph Lauren does own a vast ranch halfway between Telluride and Montrose, 65 miles away, and Susan St. James owns a place in the area.
Telluride is jeans and boots, a fur jacket if you happen to have one, a bandanna and a parka if you don't, no big deal.
The locals do get gussied up in a big way for the Firemen's Ball on New Year's Eve. It's held at the community center in the heart of the village, and attracts more than a thousand revelers. We felt positively underdressed in our jeans and sweaters while around us swirled guys in tuxedos and gals in exquisite vintage gowns. Telluriders are a mellow bunch, though, and nobody snubbed us for not being decked out to the max. They were too busy wassailing to notice, anyway.
Because it's a given that downhill ski resorts are always packed over the holidays, we've always done something else with our end-of-the-year vacation. Here's the beauty part with Telluride, though: Even when every bed in town is spoken for, even when every pillow has a head on it, there's still plenty of room on the slopes.
With 45 trails, 735 acres of skiable terrain, a quad chair, six double chairs, two triple chairs and a rope tow, the mountain's capacity is 11,000 skiers an hour. The maximum pillow capacity is just 3,200. That means that lift lines are virtually nonexistent, even during the holidays.
Getting into the restaurants during the holidays is another matter. We were advised to make dinner reservations days in advance, and often prime times were already booked solid, so we had a lot of very early and very late dinners. Some savvy skiers make dinner reservations before they even get to town, we were told by some weary-looking maitre d's.
Although plenty of places serve hefty burgers, steaks, chili and other standard ski-area fare, several Telluride chefs dish out innovative and elegant cuisine. The atmosphere is competitive, and new restaurants open all the time, vying to please the palates of discriminating skiers.
In fact, Telluride has a long tradition of eating well. In its mining heyday, when prospectors were staking claims in gold, silver, iron, copper, lead, zinc and tellurium, the town bustled with saloons, houses of ill repute and establishments of fine dining, such as the New Sheridan Hotel, whose menu featured fresh seafood and strawberries -- an impressive offering -- in the 1890s.
Is there anything bad to say about Telluride? Not a lot. Because it lies in a deep box canyon, the town doesn't get much sun in midwinter, and it can get absolutely frigid. Also as a result of being in a box canyon, smoke tends to hang in the air, creating unhealthy levels of pollution. Therefore, restrictions on woodburning are quite stiff, and there aren't as many fireplaces around as some visitors would like.
We've saved the worst for last: It's far too late to plan a Christmas-New Year's vacation in Telluride this year. "The larger condos were gone by June," says a central reservations clerk. "The one-bedrooms and hotel rooms have been gone since August. Everything's full for that week -- it's best to call in April to reserve the larger condos for the holidays."
The good news is, it's easy to get reservations in Telluride for the rest of the season, when you won't have to wait to get into the restaurants, when you'll have your pick of accommodations, and when the lifts and ski runs will be even less crowded.
Magda Krance is a free-lance writer living in Chicago.