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This past spring when Angling Report editor Don Causey told me he had been invited to send a writer to a new lodge in Colorado, I didn’t ask for a lot of details about the organization that was developing it (“Eleven Experience”) or about its other lodges in the French Alps and Iceland. All I needed to hear was that the lodge I had a chance to visit was in Crested Butte, Colorado.
Crested Butte is one of my favorite places in the Rockies. It didn’t dampen my enthusiasm a bit when Don pointed out that “Eleven Experience” is positioning itself as a particularly good place for outdoor couples and families to enjoy a variety of activities. The company was very interested in having my wife, Kit, evaluate its offerings for non-angling companions. What’s not to like about an invitation of this sort?
The small town of Crested Butte is nestled in the East River valley of Colorado at an elevation of just less than 9,000 feet and surrounded by the spectacular Elk Mountains. The name “Crested Butte” is derived from the nearby angular monolith of the same name that provides downhill skiing slopes to challenge any level of skier. The original mining town is now a National Historic District that retains the look of its nineteenth-century silver and coal mining roots.
The area is known for mountain biking, kayaking, rafting, rock climbing, backcountry hiking, and wilderness snowcat skiing off lofty Scarp Ridge. Crested Butte has been designated by the state legislature as the “Wildflower Capital of Colorado,” and the summertime displays can be breathtaking. But, most of all, any serious trout hunter will appreciate the challenges of the East, Taylor, and Gunnison Rivers, as they are among Colorado’s finest waters.
Scarp Ridge Lodge, the facility I was invited to visit, is one of several lodges worldwide under the stewardship of an organization called “Eleven Experience” (www.elevenexperience. com). A review of the company’s website before my trip revealed some appealing photographs of the spectacular scenery of the Crested Butte area, as well as of the other Eleven Experience lodges in Iceland and the French Alps. However, the website did not provide much additional information. I later found out why that is so, and I will have more to say on that in a moment. At any rate, in late June, when Kit and I drove four hours north from our home in Taos, we did not know what to expect.
When we arrived in Crested Butte we drove to the address that had been provided, a quiet street south of the cluster of restaurants and shops on the main drag of this small town. There were no signs to indicate that we had arrived at Scarp Ridge Lodge. The exterior retained the look of the building’s original 1880s use as a miners’ saloon with a second-floor meeting and dance hall.
However, upon entering the building, we found ourselves in an interior worthy of a full photo layout in Architectural Digest or Condé Nast Traveler. Gigantic rough-hewn beams and fine woodwork had been incorporated in an elaborate and impressive conversion of the original building into a five-star lodge with seven elegant guest rooms, plus a “dormitory” with cushy bunk beds for younger guests and a spacious dining, bar, and entertainment room featuring the latest in extra-large-screen technology.
Scarp Ridge Lodge turned out to be much more than a pretty face, however, when we were shown our downstairs “lockers” for organizing our outdoor equipment. It was at that point that we were given an itinerary of our schedule for the next day. Kit’s itinerary showed that she would meet with her hiking guide after the morrow’s breakfast, as she had chosen that for her first activity. My itinerary listed a float trip on the Gunnison River. We were advised that we would be joined that evening for dinner by Ross Purnell, editor of Fly Fisherman magazine and Tom Bie, editor of The Drake Magazine, as well as by Moose Hofer, Eleven Experience’s global director of fishing. Also in attendance would be Ian Havlick, fly fishing and wilderness ski guide for Scarp Ridge Lodge.
After we settled our gear, we were given a tour of some additional lodge amenities, including a saltwater lap pool, indoor and outdoor hot tubs, a steam room, a sauna, and a workout room. Second- and third-floor exterior decks provided lovely views of the rugged Butte.
Dinner that evening was indeed memorable, both for the food and conversation. Aside from a recap of the day’s activities by Ross and Tom (floating the Gunnison and rockclimbing in the Taylor River canyon), Moose briefed us on Eleven Experience’s other properties and plans. The properties already in operation are a lodge in Iceland that offers helicopter skiing and Atlantic salmon angling and a chalet in France that also offers helicopter skiing. Projects still under development include an urban lodge in Amsterdam and a lodge in the Bahamas.
The latter is the former Harbour Island Inn off the northeast coast of Eleuthera. Individual cabins and single-family homes are under construction there to provide lodging for flats fishermen and others interested in water-based activities. Eleven Experience has also recently purchased and is renovating a trout fishing lodge in southern Chile. Finally, and most important for this report, Moose told us about the lodge, cabin, and spa that are under construction on the Taylor River only 20 or so miles from Crested Butte. We would tour this project, he said, and I would fish a stretch of private Taylor River water in two days.
The most revealing part of Moose’s briefing was his discussion of the concept behind Eleven Experience and the personality of the founder. Eleven Experience was begun in 2011, he explained, as a side business by Chad Pike, vice chairman of Blackstone Europe, a private equity firm. The 43-year-old Pike has avid personal interests in fly fishing and skiing, and one or both of these activities is a centerpiece of most of his acquisitions. Pike’s global venture into luxury adventure lodges was recently detailed in a Bloomberg article accessible through the following link: http://www.bloomberg.com/ news/2014-06-03/on-these-vacationsluxury- lodges-elevate-great-outdoors. html.
Management of Eleven Experience properties is handled through the company’s main offices located in Crested Butte, just a couple of blocks from the Scarp Ridge Lodge. The driving force behind Eleven Experience is Pike’s desire to combine luxury lodging with outdoor excursions and provide an experience that exceeds a “ten.”
Eleven Experience does not require minimum stays and a customized itinerary is developed for every guest, Moose explained. That’s why the company’s website lacks details— there are no “pre-canned” programs. Prospective guests are expected to make telephone contact, he said, so a personalized itinerary can be developed. A high percentage of current guests are families with diverse interests, and Pike expects that to continue in the future. The Crested Butte operation, for example, is well equipped to handle non-angling companions, as it is affiliated with Irwin Guides, an outdoor guiding service that provides expert guides in a wide variety of disciplines.
On our first full day of activity I floated the Gunnison downstream of the town of Gunnison, taking out where the river flows into the large Blue Mesa Reservoir. This day my guide was Ian, and we were assigned a brand-new drift boat. Our trip was its maiden voyage.
The river was still a bit high and off color from last winter’s extra-large snowpack. Even so, there were lots of bugs and working fish, with several browns brought to the net. Much of the fishing was done from gravel bars and riffles, as well as from the drift boat. The day was capped off by another excellent dinner and by Kit’s glowing recap of her guided hike, highlighted by alpine scenery and the first blush of this season’s wildflowers.
On day two, lodge staff ferried me to meet Moose at the Taylor Reservoir Marina. Moose was set up with an oversized johnboat equipped with the latest in fish detection and GPS motor controls. Our plan was to cruise the “flats” sight fishing for large northern pike holing up in numerous thin-water areas.
Unfortunately, some canyon winds and low water temperatures complicated things, so we moved into one of the small streams that feed the lake and caught some native trout on short lines. However, the highlight of the day for me was an hour or so later in the day on the catch-and-release section of the Taylor River below the dam. It is in this short public section where highly visible large trout selectively feed on tiny organisms (notably the mysis shrimp that are swept downstream from the dam outlet—see my January 2014 report in The Angling Report).
It was in this catch-and-release section that Moose demonstrated a number of Spey-based moves to present flies in tight quarters. Throughout, Moose made it clear that he loves to teach fly fishing techniques. It was easy to see why he heads Eleven Experience’s global guiding operation.
That evening, Kit, an avid road bicyclist, reviewed her solo day riding downhill into the wind. When she turned around, the wind had shifted. She then rode back uphill against the same wind that earlier killed our pikefishing venture. She described her experience as riding “20 miles downhill and 100 miles uphill.”
The next morning, lodge staff ferried me to the Taylor River project where construction crews were working on completing facilities of the new operation scheduled to open in 2015.
Moose and I spent the morning working the edges of the river as numerous kayakers sped by in the main-current whitewater. Meanwhile, Kit was off with her guide for the morning to experience stand-up paddleboard instruction on some quiet bends in the nearby Slate River. At lunchtime, Kit met Moose and me together with lodge staff for a streamside lunch, followed by a tour of the new facilities under construction.
Eleven Experience’s global marketing and sales director, Jenny Jeffery, led us on the tour, explaining that the new Taylor River Lodge facility would be operated in conjunction with the Crested Butte lodge to offer guests the option of splitting time between the two facilities. We were shown the partially completed main lodge, which will consist primarily of activity rooms, bar, and dining facilities.
Guests will have the option of lodging in streamside cabins or in two single-family, three-bedroom homes, she explained. All guests will have access to a spa building with a large deck overlooking the river and an Olympic-size saltwater pool. Outdoor landscaping and a large “casting pond” will complete the main features of this new facility.
After lunch, Moose and I continued moving upstream on the Taylor River, casting to sighted fish and blind casting to likely holding water. As the afternoon wore on, the fishing heated up, with several nice trout landed, including some nice cutthroats and the largest brook trout that Moose had seen caught on the Taylor River.
However, the catch of the day was waiting for us in a large rock-strewn pool and eddy at the top end of the property. It was there that silhouettes of several large subsurface-feeding rainbows were clearly visible. The swirling currents made for some presentation problems, and my initial fly and depth adjustments were ignored. After nearly an hour of casting, with Moose adjusting depth and changing flies, I got a take on a size 20 zebra midge fished seven feet below the strike indicator. After some tense moments, the fish was netted. Moose estimated its weight as between seven and eight pounds.
That evening, Kit and I had a celebratory dinner, again served impeccably by lodge staff. We agreed that the level of service and luxury seamlessly provided to us during our stay was, in fact, an “eleven.” The service provided to Kit as a non-angling guest was outstanding. As for myself, the angling and guiding quality was also of the highest standard. Not surprisingly, all this service and luxury is expensive. Lodge summer activities like those we enjoyed are roughly $1,000 per person per day, including airport shuttle, lodging, breakfast and lunch, mini-bar, concierge services, guides for selected activities, and all outdoor and fishing gear needed for the guests’ selected activities.
The lodge’s winter pricing, which includes wilderness snowcat skiing, is generally in the range of $1,800 per person per day, and booking is already 80 percent filled for the upcoming 2014/15 ski season.
Pricing at other Eleven Experience lodges varies depending on the activities one wants to take part in. Obviously, the cost of a luxury experience at one of these lodges is not within the means of everyone. However, for those who can afford it, I can think of no better destination.—Bill Owen.