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Some of the old pistes of Telluride Ski Resort are impossibly steep. (Nathan Bilow/Associated Press)
Some of the old pistes of Telluride Ski Resort are impossibly steep. (Nathan Bilow/Associated Press)

Telluride's subtle charms Add to ...

Colorado's got glitz at Vail, glam at Aspen and cowboy culture at Steamboat. But tucked quietly into the southwest corner of this classic ski state is something more understated and elegant: Telluride.

Ralph Lauren personifies it best. Climbing steadily along Telluride's access road through the sweeping San Juan range, skiers pass the designer's Double RL ranch. It's said the simple 29-kilometre fence that divides ranch from road is fastened with brass bolts that alone cost $3.5-million (U.S.). That's Telluride: wealthy and well-built, but so not obvious.

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The town of Telluride (pronounced TELL-you-ride) is wedged discreetly into a box canyon at an elevation of 2,667 metres. Eight blocks wide and 12 blocks long, the town's Old West feel is the real thing. Butch Cassidy robbed his first bank on Colorado Avenue in 1889. High-grading, bootlegging, even whoring were once mainstays of this mining town, and Telluride still looks the part.

Look up, though, and you'll see something Cassidy's Wild Bunch wouldn't have. Above the candy-coloured Victorian homes, clapboard saloons and homey coffee houses is a waterfall of ski runs that look impossibly steep. They are the old pistes of Telluride Ski Resort and some are impossibly steep. They were cut during Telluride's start - the free-flowing 1970s when Coors, Wayne Wong and skiing in your jeans were all considered hip.

Skiers still ski those runs. And with hot-dogging names such as Bushwacker, Coonskin and Spiral Stairs, their vibe is still pretty retro. But Telluride has a secret side - a satellite village filled with high-tech lifts and modern architecture hidden behind its first set of peaks.

Linked to the town of Telluride by a gondola, Mountain Village is the resort's modern hub. At 2,895 metres, this Euro-styled ski village is a nest of low-rise condos - mostly stone and timber and mostly built to blend into their mountain environment. Add to that luxe hotels, cobbled walks, chic boutiques and high-speed ski lifts zigging and zagging overhead. Butch Cassidy is nowhere in sight.

From here, the skiing is a perfect mix of easy and tough. There's plenty of beginner green-circle and intermediate blue-square fare off the Village lift. Gorrono Ranch restaurant is a fun stop in the midst of it all and Telluride's decent terrain park is tastefully hidden on an eastward slope.

Climb higher, move west and the skiing hardens up. Chairs 6, 12 and 14 have tons of bumps and pistes that are ungroomed on powder days. And at Telluride there are a lot of powder days - 7.8 metres of average snowfall a season, all of it that light and dry Colorado variety. Tree skiing is prime, especially among the glades to the east of Apex (Chair 6). You could spend the day sneaking in and out of the trees without skiing the same line twice.

And that's what I like best about Telluride. As editor of a ski magazine, I have the luck of scoping out ski resorts for my job. Telluride, a spot relatively unknown to many Canadians, is quiet, well-manicured and moderately expensive, but like those trees, it's also home to a stash of hidden gems. Prospect Lift's pistes (chair 12), for example, are positively Whistler-esque - something to which many experienced Canadian skiers can relate. And with the dance at par between the Canadian and U.S. dollars, it's an ideal time to try Telluride.

But an even better reason is Telluride's latest news. In the past, much of Prospect's treacherous terrain was either permanently closed or open exclusively to guided hikes. But that will change in January with the debut of Black Iron Bowl - eight backcountry runs at the resort's western edge finally designated as in-bounds skiing. It's true, hike time is required. Experts need to climb 10 to 30 minutes along the ridge. But the payoff is 305 vertical metres of chutes, glades and an expansive, snow-filled couloir called Mountain Quail.

All this hiking and glading, you'll need sustenance. The ski-in/ski-out restaurants may sit quietly in Mountain Village, but inside their fires are stoked. Again, the atmosphere is elegant and understated. Sip wine at Fairmont's Franz Klammer Lodge or a latte at Skier's Union Café. For a clubby, atmosphere, check out Allred's Restaurant at 3,215 metres. Perched on a rock face at mid-station of the gondola that links Mountain Village to the town of Telluride, Allred's is all sophistication and swank. It's not easy to score a reservation (book up to two weeks in advance), but the experience - akin to dining on fondue in one of those remote huts on Switzerland's slopes - is worth the fuss.

For lodging, a skier has two choices: The Victorian-style inns in the town of Telluride and the condos in Mountain Village. The choice is based on convenience and style. The town gives you nightlife, bars, shopping, intimate digs, and a short walk to the gondola. The Village gives you more spacious lodging, as well as the ability to ski in and ski out. Shopping and nightlife are only a gondola ride away.

Indeed, the only thing that's slightly far in Telluride is the trip to and from. Flying direct from Toronto or Calgary to Denver, then hopping a regional flight into Montrose or Telluride is the best way to do it. Look left and look right. Chances are your jet will snuggle in next to Phil Mickelson's, Stallone's or Tom and Katie's.

Then again, if it does, you might not know it. Telluride's celebrity scene is like the resort: lovely to look at, fun to ski with, but glam-free and so not obvious.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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