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TELLURIDE // will take your breath away

You see little but mountaintops and snowfields as you fly toward Telluride Airport. No cities or towns. Only a few houses and roads.

You can't help but wonder what would happen if your plane went down. Who would find you in all that nothingness? It doesn't help that the door to the pilots' cabin is open and you can see those 14,000-foot peaks ahead.

For a Florida flatlander, it is unnerving. The plane starts to nose down. The snowfields move closer and the peaks are now almost even with your window.

A runway appears from nowhere, like Brigadoon, in the middle of a box canyon. On the hillsides _ there! _ skiers.

Out of the plane, you start to look up, up, up: All around, peaks are turning gold in the late afternoon sunshine. It is quiet on the runway.

It is not easy to get to Telluride, a small town in southwestern Colorado far from most other ski resorts _ and that is its major attraction.

Despite intense paparazzi attention in recent years to visitors and homeowners Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Oprah Winfrey and Christie Brinkley (who was married on the mountain), Telluride is not Vail or Aspen.

It is certainly not Summit County, Colo., the resort-filled area 90 miles from Denver that includes popular mountains Breckenridge and Keystone.

Telluride is a small town that arguably deserves its marketing slogan as "the most beautiful place you'll ever ski." Skiing magazine surveys consistently place Telluride near the top in many categories _ from expert skiing to nightlife and dining _ but it wins often for its scenery.

The town, a 10-block mixture of Victorian architecture and Western mining town revival, is like a step back in time. No traffic lights. No fast-food restaurants or concept bars. People stroll the streets, maybe a trip to the post office, followed by a beer at the Last Dollar _ the Buck, to locals _ which is among the best after-ski people-watching places. Other than skiing, the most popular pastime seems to be owning a dog.

Although Telluride has been "discovered" for a couple of years now, it is still blessedly free of people, especially the kind whose ski clothes are oh-so-cute and expensive. The only lift lines you are likely to see late afternoon are at Lift 3, when people are heading back over the mountain to town.

You aren't likely to spot Ralph Lauren, whose Double RL ranch is outside of town, supposedly surrounded by a million-dollar fence (in case you were wondering what all those $70 shirts were buying). You will see evidence of celebrity money, in the expensive restaurants, furniture stores and huge mountain retreats.

But Telluride offers an alternative to some of the better known, easier-to-visit resorts.

The skiing

Telluride has a well-earned reputation as a mountain for expert skiers. When the resort opened in 1972, most of the skiing faced the town on a mountain with numerous double-diamond (experts-only) runs. Even the intermediate runs facing town are tough, especially the narrow Telluride Trail.

In recent years, the reputation has gotten stronger, as Gold Hill was opened. Skiers hike from Lift 6 up to Gold Hill, at 12,247 feet, for steep terrain, deep powder, trees, open mountainsides and seclusion.

But that isn't for most of us skiing Floridians. If we get to ski once a year, we are happy. More than that, we feel lucky or broke.

Telluride has worked on its beginner skiing, because that's where the sport is growing. And despite its reputation as a double-diamond nirvana, Telluride has excellent, long, beginner slopes. Almost all begin and end in the Mountain Village, a mix of hotels, condos, homes and shops over the expert side of the mountain from Telluride.

Some of these beginner trails are almost 3 miles long, with easy slopes, beautiful vistas and peeks at the multimillion-dollar homes of the monied visitors. The best feature of these runs, however, is that they are nowhere near the expert trails. You will not be cut off by kamikaze skiers or a snowboarder who thinks your wide, snow-plow turns are wrecking his fun.

There are a few challenging sections for beginners near the top of Lift 10, especially on Double Cabin and Bridges. If you want gentler terrain, stay on the shorter runs around Lift 1, below the Peaks hotel. They are wide and beginner-friendly.

For the once-a-year skier, Telluride can be a hard place to move up onto intermediate slopes. Several of these are narrow, such as the Telluride Trail into town, a run that turns icy in the late afternoon shadows. (If you are staying in town and want to ski in, do not do it on the trail unless you are feeling strong; ride down on Lift 7 or take the town's free shuttle bus from Mountain Village.)

Some intermediate slopes are overused, including Misty Maiden. Instead, try the little-used runs around Lift 5. They are challenging, with some wider parts to pull out if you need. This area affords great views of Gold Hill _ from the valley below it.

Take a class

Like all ski resorts, Telluride teaches skiing. A good buy is the "Mini Ski Week," which matches the same students with the same instructor for three classes in three days. It costs $75, a better buy than the usual group rate of $35 for one session.

Instructors seem especially good with children ($156 for three full-day lessons with lunch; there is also a nursery for children 2 months to 3 years, for $49 a day). Telluride also promotes its Women's Week, which mixes women-only skiing instruction with video analysis, exercise clinics and parties ($330 for three days; $400 for five days).

Hungry while skiing? The mountain has several restaurants from top to bottom. The best, by reputation, is Giuseppe's, at the summit. But there is no easy way down, unless you are at least an experienced intermediate skier.

A good place, especially on a sunny afternoon, is outdoors at the Gorrono Ranch, where vegetarian chile or a grilled burger make a fine midday break. Big Billie's, a cafeteria at the bottom, is the best buy. Or you can take a snack in a hip bag or small backpack _ or use the lockers near the Gorrono. It will save you money.

Apres ski

At times, it appears the real reason people ski is that it is an excuse to eat and drink a lot. Telluride is accommodating.

But before you hit the bars, spend a little time at the bottom of Lift 7, in town. Most of the best skiers come off the mountain at the end of the day on the expert slopes called Coonskin and Milk Run. It is fun simply to sit there, a coffee or cocoa in your hands, and watch the experts haul it down the mountain, usually ending with a little airborne move near the bottom.

The town comes alive as skiing ends (too early at 4 p.m. when the lifts close). Happy hour is a town institution, since locals pride themselves on their variety of micro-brewed beer.

Popular spots include the deck at Leimgruber's Bierstube & Restaurant; the San Juan Brewing Co. (in the renovated train depot, with micro-brewed beers on tap and a great, affordable barbecue on its mountainside deck); the Swede-Finn Hall (lots on tap, but try the great Fat Tire beer, then go downstairs and play pool); and the Last Dollar Saloon. At the Buck, get a seat near the window and watch the tourists go by while you act like a local . . . but don't order Telluride beer; it's not even brewed in Colorado.

Dinner ranges from the affordable (buying groceries to make in your condo or getting pizza at Eddie's or the Roma Bar & Cafe) to moderate (the Floradora, San Juan Brewing or Sofio's Mexican Cafe) to the expensive (La Marmotte, Evangeline's, or 221 South Oak). There are many more choices, but several are small and require reservations.

For late-night music and dancing, locals recommend the Fly Me to the Moon Saloon, with a dance floor that moves on springs. A quieter time can be had in Between the Covers, an excellent bookstore with an espresso/coffee bar in the back. It's not Friends, but aren't those people getting on your nerves yet, anyway?

Lodging

It is best to stay in the town of Telluride. Although a shuttle bus regularly makes the 15-minute, 8-mile ride between town and the Mountain Village, there is simply more to do in town. Lodging runs from bed-and-breakfasts (including the San Sophia, known as one of the country's best) to hotels, condos and even homes.

Stay as close to the lifts as possible, unless you like hauling your skis boots, and tired child several blocks or onto the shuttle. The Cimarron Lodge at the base of Lift 7 in town is a fine, mid-priced choice, but spring for a slopeside suite, because the hotel rooms are small and some are dark.

You can ride the lift home to the Cimarron and enjoy a breathless view of the town below and skiers making their last runs. Rooms start at $653 a person for seven nights' lodging and six days' skiing.

Other in-town rooms rent as low as $403 (the Victorian Inn) or as high as $1,091 (the charming Alpine Inn) for a week's lodging and lift tickets.

One good alternative in the Mountain Village is the Peaks. You can spend up to $1,500 per person for seven nights/six days of skiing in the high season (from Christmas to Easter), but you get a first-class hotel with an acclaimed, 42,000-square-foot spa.

The Peaks is offering a good deal called the "Five-Night Winter Escape" for as little as $1,600 per room from Jan. 13 to March 29, including lift tickets and spa access. Book through a travel agent or call the Peaks at (800) 789-2220.

When you're not skiing

There is an assortment of non-skiing activities: snowmobile trips, dogsled rides, dinner in a horse-drawn sled, even hot-air balloon rides and glider trips.

The town shows first-run movies, but one night a week, the Nugget Theatre often shows a documentary on extreme skiing (those pictures you see of people skiing off cliffs, out of helicopters, etc.).

The town has some interesting architecture and history, which can be easily seen in an afternoon. Don't miss the site of Butch Cassidy's bank robbery, near Colorado Avenue and Pine Street, or the New Sheridan Hotel and Opera House, one of the best in the West, before the end of mining and the beginning of the Depression busted the town. The Opera House was recently renovated.

There are also a few choice craft shops (Hell Bent Leather and Silver, Potters Wheel) and clothing stores. But if you are interested in fancy shops or touristy trinkets, consider Telluride is a place to ski, relax, eat and drink.

If you have a car (you won't need one), you can visit the hot springs of Ouray, 47 miles away. Some people stay in Ouray and nearby towns, because they can get half-price Telluride lift tickets. Although the trip between towns is a beautiful ride in nice weather, it is hell in bad weather and closed to all but four-wheel drive vehicles _ with chains _ in heavy snow.

The downside

The same thing that makes Telluride a great place to visit creates problems. It is remote, and the Telluride Airport will close with little notice in heavy snow or fog. That will mean a detour to Montrose, 65 miles away _ maddening after a week of great skiing.

Unless you are coming for at least five days, you are probably better off trying a resort near Denver, where you often can get on the slopes the same day you arrive. Because Telluride's slopes close early each day and there is no night skiing, three- or four-day trips don't make sense for skiers traveling all the way from Florida.

If you are not careful, you can spend a bundle. Try not to eat breakfast out (and never order orange juice, which must be the town's most expensive import). Go easy on lunch on the mountain. Save your money for dinner, and if you have kids, check for children's menus first, because not all restaurants have them.

Lift tickets are pricey at $45 a day. But ski packages offered by hotels and multiday discounts bring that down. Early- and late-season specials can even get you free lift tickets. Snow is still falling in April in Colorado.

The town's altitude is close to 9,000 feet. You can get another 1,000 to 2,000 feet higher on the mountain, and for Floridians that can mean altitude sickness. Go easy on the liquor, and try to avoid lots of physical activity your first afternoon and night here. Drink a lot of water on the mountain; bring it with you in a small bottle in a hip bag.

If you go

GETTING THERE: Telluride got a little harder to visit for Tampa Bay residents this year, when Continental Airlines cut back its service through Denver. It still flies through Houston on Saturdays, into Montrose.

United flies through Denver to Telluride and Montrose. America West goes to those cities through Phoenix.

STAYING THERE: Telluride Central Reservations can book any room, suite or condo in Telluride or the Mountain Village. Ask for its Telluride Winter brochure, which lists lodging and rates. (800) 525-3455.

BEING THERE: Skiing starts Nov. 21, with ski-for-free deals until Dec. 22. The season ends April 14, with the last two weeks ski-free at certain hotels. But be sure to ask which ones, because not all properties participate. Busy times, as with most ski resorts, are Christmas and in February and March.

The 14th annual women's ski weeks _ actually three- or five-day packages _ will be held from December through March. Packages include lodging, spa access and instruction, taught by women instructors. Discounts on lift tickets are also being offered. For information, phone the host hotel, the 180-room Peaks at Telluride, (800) 789-2220.

SKI RENTALS: There are several ski and snowboard rental outfits in town, at the base of lifts and in the Mountain Village. It can cost from $15 to $30 a day, with multiday discounts. Some places will store them overnight, saving you from carrying them to your room.

WEATHER: It can get darn cold for a Floridian, with morning lows in the single digits. But temperatures can rise quickly with the sun, and you could find yourself sweating in too many clothes in 40-degree afternoon sunshine. Layer your clothes as preparation for the change.

About 300 inches of snow can fall, much of it at night. There is little need for snowmaking. Get up early to make fresh tracks on the mountain, but watch late-afternoon skiing, when shadows can suddenly turn the snow icy.

THE MOUNTAIN: There are 10 lifts, including a new combination high-speed, quad-chair/gondola lift for beginners, and 64 trails for downhill skiing and snowboarding. There are also about 18 miles of cross-country trails.

Elevation ranges from 12,247 at the top of Gold Hill to 8,725 at the base. Lift capacity is about 12,000 skiers an hour _ not bad when you consider there are only about 4,000 rooms and 1,400 locals in Telluride.

John A. Cutter, a Times staff writer, has skied Telluride the past two winters.

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