Colorado - Boulder & Denver

Rocky Raccoon


If Colorado was a person, she’d be a rock climbing bass guitarist cowboy, and don’t call her square, it is one of the only two rectangular states in the union (Wyoming is the other).

We had scooted through Denver airport on many occasions (panic fueled lay overs) but it was time to properly visit the place I associate with liberalism, outdoorsy types, and Coors beer.

Before diving into Denver we wanted to see what was happening in the mountain towns. Families of mountains decorated the view, tumbleweeds blew across the highway, we felt far from the city yet we were never more than an hour away from Denver.

Tea Time
Our first stop was the Dushanbe tea house in Boulder. Being Irish we take our tea drinking pretty damn seriously. Thankfully this Boulder hippy hangout did too. We were left with a timer to indicate when our blend was brewed. While you wait for ‘tea time’ you can stare at the ornate ceilings that make you feel like you’re in downtown Delhi. To our right a gathering of tattooed new age hippies sat shoeless, toe to toe, on cushions slurping communal tea and blissing out. To our left impeccably groomed ladies-who-lunch perched delicately on fancy chairs as they sipped afternoon tea and compared Hermes handbags.

Chez M&M
The first time I ever heard of Boulder was as a child watching TVs Mork and Mindy. After a few wrong turns we came across the house from the comedy show. It is somebody’s home so I tried to be casual as I gawped at the stunning house with a large porch that sweeps around – a porch you could grow up on, a porch you could dream on. It is in a posh neighbourhood with great schools (not that I looked into it!).

Some quick discreet photos, Nanoo-Nanoo,(before I was thrown off the lot) and on to another memory from my youth – the hotel that inspired Stephen King’s The Shining.

Within minutes from Boulder you are surrounded by green hills. We twisted our way through small towns, interestingly every town, no matter how small, had a marijuana store. Weed is legal in Colorado and my impression is that consumption is on a high (wahwahwah).

As we drove we kept coming across drivers that were creeping along very slowly, perhaps Coloradans are super conservative when it comes to speed or perhaps some like to smoke and drive. We passed one young chap, intensely gripping the steering wheel of his car adorned with weeds stickers, his face ghostly white, sweat dripping down his dreads, the look of a man out of control driving 120mph. We overtook his 15mph and hoped he would eventually make it home.

If you want a natural high, drive towards the Rocky Mountains, the views are majestic, snowcapped peaks crowd the awesome skyline.

Nestled in the mountains is the Stanley Hotel within the spectacular Estes Park. This is where Stephen King stayed when he wrote The Shining, a horror classic about a man who moves his family to a hotel in remote snow drenched Colorado to caretake the premises during a closed winter season. He starts to lose his mind as the hotels dark past and secrets come to life. Everyone of a certain age remembers the Jack Nicholson movie of the book and the terrifying “Heeeere’s Johnny!” scene. Entering the hotel that inspired the book brought more than a gulp to my throat.

Pull up a chair
The hotel itself is quaint and charming, the first thing you’ll see is an original Otis elevator, it works with a key and a lift operator. I am a huge fan of preserving original period touches to properties so I was enchanted with the old timey lift and took many photos before Dom prompted me to get to grip and take some snaps of the view (the breathtaking rockin’ Rocky Mountains).

The snow had started to fall which added to the beauty of the mountains, the hotel, the area, and everything it touched. Before leaving the hotel Dom wanted me to buy a mug from the giftshop with ‘redrum’ emblazoned on the side. If you’ve seen the movie you’ll know what I’m talking about. Although a fan of Stephen King, my answer was a firm ‘No friggin way’. Imagine drinking tea from the mug while looking in the mirror, think about it, nah-uh. (Do I often look in the mirror while drinking tea? Our kitchen table faces a dresser which has mirror panels in it, so yes, I have the dubious pleasure of watching myself drink tea, eat food, talk on the phone and other table sports a person should never witness of oneself. I really don’t need to throw ‘murder’ into the mix!).

The town of Estes Park is picture perfect with dinky shops like “Granny’s Ginghams” that sold aprons, “Knife Shop” that sold, you guessed it, knives and a proper 1950s, untouched by time, movie theatre. Oh and of course, the obligatory pot shop!

On our way out of town I spotted a sign for “Museum Senior Center”, erm, is that a museum of old people?

Stoned dude: “Man, you’re so old you should be in a museum”

Older stoned dude: “We should build that museum!”

In the slightly faster paced Denver we checked into our hotel, the Oxford hotel, it happens to be the oldest hotel in the city. To it’s merit it has kept it’s old touches while remaining classy and boutique, including an old Otis elevator (yipee!) when first installed they were known as ‘vertical railways’ (gotta love the yanks). We were given big clunky door keys instead of modern day fobs that hotels usual force on you much to my frustration. I lack the fob knack, I’m either too slow or too fast with the keycard, and 9 times out of 10 I will get on the plane with the card still in my handbag, curses!

The staff were exceedingly friendly and fill you in on the quirks of the hotel as you try and squeeze the big key into the pocket of your skinny jeans. The only hotel fact I retained was that corridors were made big enough for two ladies with bustles and hoops to pass eachother without a snafu. Damn my skinny jeans, where was my big hoopy dress.

street smart
The hotel resides in LoDo (Lower Downtown – Denverites abbreviation, not mine) which is a great central neighbourhood; within a short walk of the hotel we found lots of interesting shops, and streets with hanging floral baskets adorning the street lamps <shutter click> kodak moment. We discovered ‘Delectable Egg’ for breakfast, it was a great spot, service was quick, the food was tasty and unlike SF you can keep your $50 notes in your purse (who carries around $50 notes? I certainly don’t, not with all those flippin’ hotel key fobs in my bag!).

16th street mall, I was advised to avoid it but it's unavoidable! I had assumed it would be a mall but it's a long section of 16th St that is shop after restaurant, after bar after shop, and so on, so in a way it's like a regular high St. The crazy thing is that it looks pedestrianised but it's not, tourists jump to safety as the free and fast shuttle bus zooms up and down the 'mall'.

At the end of 16th St mall is the State Capitol Building, every state has one and more often than not they look alike, Denver was no exception. However, there happened to be a man in military uniform playing The Last Post on a trumpet as we arrived. Aside from a handful of scattered tourists, there was no one else there, perhaps he was practicing, but it felt like something straight out of a movie when the hero dies and they are giving him a state funeral, gave me goosebumps!

He got carried away
Movie moment over, gooses debumped, I span around to check out the Civic Centre building which is also grand and stately. Juxtapoased between the two traditional buildings, sits the exceedingly cool Denver Museum of Art. Oversized art work surrounds the museum, I was touching it, prodding it, and taking photos before I even realized it was art.

We veered off on side streets and filtered our way back to the hotel to get a feel for the city. It’s known as the Mile high city as it sits a mile above sea level. You see mountains from every street. Truly stunning!

It's a big city with a population of 3 million but it seems kind of empty. I notice that a lot with American cities yet no one ever agrees with me. I think I expect every city to mimic the throbbing madness of New York. I might have to accept there is nowhere like NYC.

Denver is a happy, healthy, chilled out hip city. It's very outdoorsy with its parks, bikes, and kayaks. REI, the famous outdoors store, has semi religious status there. I’m not kidding, the city REI is as big as a cathedral, with lines of daily worshippers flocking through the doors. When you step inside the hallowed building you are greeted by a smiley priestess/REI worker fronting a gigantic rock climbing wall.

I was tempted to ask the athletic looking priestess if she knew where I could buy some fast food, just to see how long it would take her to escort me off the premises (and presumably on to McDonalds).

We only have one bike left!
On a tip from my American cousin (high five Katie) I was keen to explore the bike trails and parks that make Denver, Denver. To my dismay the bike option didn’t pan out so we drove to the parks instead. Driving has it perks, especially when I’m not the one driving, as I get to perv at the neighbourhoods.

Washington Park (the neighbourhood of the same name is right out of my dreams) appears to be Denver’s answer to Boston Common or Central Park. The place was buzzing with people throwing around balls of all shapes and sizes, families gathering for birthday parties, college students flexing muscles and perfecting tans, and rows and rows of volleyball games in full force. We grabbed a bench at the playground and ate our picnic, in between goes on the swing, the rocking horse, and then stuff Roisin wanted to do.
The Botanic gardens in Denver are small but perfect. As I grow older I am drawn more and more to flowers, trees, gardens, nature and the quiet colourful serenity they offer. I'm not sure there is anything in nature more beautiful than a flower. There is one to suit every emotion from ecstasy to profound sadness. Is there a form of therapy where people spend tons of time gardening, there should be, or is that called retirement.

Ya dancin?
At City Park we decided to check out the Museum of Nature and Science. Because ‘Nature’ came before ‘Science’ in the title it tricked my brain into thinking it was going to be a small outfit, probably run by a couple of teachers, we'd trace the outlines of leaves and learn how to properly hug a tree (it's ‘clutch and release’ by the way, nobody likes a hugger mugger). But the “nature” museum was the size of an airplane hanger and was packed to the rafters with kids going nuts experimenting and learning. To add to the excitement a live Mexican band played very loudly while characters from Disney’s Frozen movie danced through the crowd. Oh to be 10 again.

We grabbed dinner that night in Duo in the Highland neighbourhood. It ticked all my preconceived notions; very trendy, hipster, cool. Denver is known for its farm to table restaurants and this was exactly what we got. It was mouth wateringly delicious and the staff were discreetly friendly, my favourite kind (thanks for the excellent tip Katie).

Our hotel was very close to Union Station. It looks like an abandoned station was vamped up and repurposed to be an exclusive hotel, with a trendy bar in the main station plaza surrounded by healthy fast food walk in's and zeitgeist art shops and book stores. Lo and behold it has all this but it is still a working station with tracks out the back and a small Amtrax office inside. Great job Denver, great job. SF please take note and improve your transport. You're a great city, sort it out.

On our last day we went to Red Rocks Park; we had hoped to hike, but a thunderstorm started up. It was the place where U2 shot their video for Sunday Bloody Sunday which we played on repeat all the way there. Thankfully Róisín appears to be a U2 fan and was bopping her shaggy California blonde mop in time to the Irish beat. The thunderstorm clouded our view a little but added to the drama, the scenery was gorgeous.

The rain thwarted our plan to hike so we decided to do something totally different that would have farm-to-table aficionados choking on their pig trotters.

Where the hell am I?
The restaurant Casa Bonita, was once mentioned in the TV show South Park and apparently is a Denver institution. It was at the back of a parking lot -always a great sign! I had no idea what to expect (I never watched South Park). We ran from the hailstones into the Mexican style building sandwiched beside a mall. A teenager chewing gum greeted us with "You here for the roller skating or the kids party"... I stood with innocent confusion, was there a third option? We were scooted into a queue where another teenager asked us for our order, my gut told me to go veggie, I asked if there was a vegetarian option, “Sure”, she said and popped a bubble with her gum, “just leave the chicken on the side”…?!

I spent the whole lunchtime spinning my head like Linda Blair in the Exorcist, trying to work out if Taqueria or Taco-rama best described the place. It was as if London's Rainforest Cafe had moved to Mexico and taken a bunch of acid. There was a waterfall in the centre where a gorilla chased a man into the water (I’m not kidding). Kudos to the man, he did some amazing diving twists and turns as he went. There were tunnels with skulls that lit up and spoke when you touched them. The place had an arcade. Green fairy lights cluttered the ceiling. I didn't know what the hell was going on but the children in attendance were having the time of their lives! Maybe in a few years Róisín can explain to me what it was all about.

I can see why lots of people move to Denver, it’s got a proper city feel but with a good dose of the outdoors. You’re moments away from the mountains, the food scene is awesome with a big emphasis on fresh healthy farm-to-table excellent fare.

And if none of that appeals to you, there is always pot and Casa Bonita :)

Next stop Alaska…

<<PREVIOUS POST                    NEXT POST>>