A palpable sense of energy surrounds Colorado’s capital region. Here where the Great Plains end and the Rocky Mountains begin, an avalanche of momentum seems to tumble down from the Front Range and inspire the people who live and work in its shadow. The mountains are like magnets, inviting you to ski, hike, bike, or enjoy a perfect picnic in a fern-filled glade where a waterfall washes your worries away. If you’re quiet and listen, you might even hear a voice trilling down from the lofty peaks: “It’s more fun up here! Come and play.”
During my recent visit to Denver and Boulder with husband Peter and son Ross, all three of us sense this energy field—not just in the mountains, but in the people as well. Everyone we see exudes health and vitality. Everywhere we turn people are running, hiking, and biking. They look fit, they look young, and they look happy. I wonder what it is about this region that encourages such an epidemic of good health. I only hope we catch the fever while we’re here!
The Boulder campus of the University of Colorado, home to 14,000 students, is one reason everyone looks so young in this Denver suburb. The fall semester has already commenced during our late-August visit, and youth wearing backpacks and Tevas crowd the campus sidewalks and spill into the town. Happily, wherever students dwell, so does great food at reasonable prices. We arrive in Boulder in time for a Market to Table Tour, offered by Megan Bucholz, owner and “founding foodie” of Local Table Tours.
The tour will take us to a few food-centric spots along Pearl Street Mall, an eclectic shopping street where Boulder’s heart beats. Lined with leafy trees, the mall features trendy boutiques and umbrella-topped terraces, perfect for people watching. Buskers perform feats of magic on street corners as families gather ‘round and smile. There’s a happy feeling here that’s intoxicating.
Our first stop is The Kitchen Next Door, a “community restaurant,” according to Sara Brito, whose title is appropriately director of community. “It’s a place to connect with each other over good food and drink,” she explains. “There’s always an iconic community table.” That’s where we sit, in fact, and enjoy a taste of the restaurant’s specialties created with locally sourced ingredients: beet burger sliders, pork sliders with salsa verde, chilled cumin carrots, and spiced chick peas and hummus. My favorite is the crunchy organic kale chips, flash-fried and fabulous. One of a family of like-minded restaurants, The Kitchen Next Door has industrial-chic charm and a relaxed comfortable vibe.
Next we visit the Savory Spice Shop. Rich, earthy smells welcome us into the cozy store, its walls lined with jars of herbs, spices, and signature blends. The proprietor encourages us to taste, and I find myself sampling the Ghost Pepper Salt, a fiery blend with a hint of chocolate, and loving it. Maybe this is the secret to the youthful energy that seems synonymous with Boulder. I buy a jar to take home.
Megan takes us to Boulder’s Farmer’s Market next, a cornucopia of luscious produce, homemade cheeses, and free-range meats. Sadly, we aren’t able to buy any of the tantalizing products since we’re staying in a hotel and dining out. But we make the best of it: tasting this, nibbling that, and sampling our way through the large market.
After the tour, we check into St Julien Hotel & Spa, a classy luxury hotel in Downtown Boulder. I love the view of the Flatiron Mountains from our corner room, and Ross likes the fact that we’re close to Pearl Street Mall. He heads back to the mall while Peter and I borrow the hotel’s courtesy bikes for a ride on a nearby bike path, which winds along Boulder Creek. It’s part of a 300-mile network of designated bikeways in Boulder. The city also has 35,000 acres of open space for recreation and preservation. No wonder folks are healthy here.
OVER THE TOP
That evening the three of us enjoy a fine meal in Jill’s Restaurant, which is located in St Julien. Manager Philippe Antoine, a moustachio’d Frenchman, welcomes us warmly and proceeds to orchestrate an extraordinary dinner for our pleasure, pairing wine perfectly with each course—as you would expect from a French native. Jill’s specializes in tableside-prepared flambé dishes, and Philippe wows us with a light, flavorful shrimp scampi he cooks for us tableside, only the beginning of what would be a multi-sensory dining experience.
Next a trio of salads is prepared tableside and served: a simple caprése salad with heirloom tomatoes, a beet salad with goat cheese and pine nuts, and finally a luscious Caesar salad, its creamy dressing hinting of anchovies and “not for sissies,” according to Philippe. Following our salad course, chefs appear, who commence to prepare three entrées tableside. We nearly swoon as we smell the delicious ingredients and hear the sizzle. Philippe deftly sautés and then debones a Trout Amandine bathed in a decadent butter sauce, which we share. It’s heavenly. Next he prepares Steak Diane tableside, igniting the dish with a splash of cognac. The resulting flames sear the tender, flavorful beef, served with oyster mushrooms swimming in a hearty sauce. All three of us devour this dish. Finally, we share a perfectly bronzed chicken breast served atop spinach and fingerling potatoes. It’s over the top, and so are we!
Dessert? We groan and try to say no. “You must try the peach melba. It’s crazy good,” Philippe says. “I’m gonna buy you a box of Kleenex. You’re gonna cry. It’s so good.” He’s right. A raspberry sauce made tableside combined with fresh peaches and local ice cream thrills our taste buds with creamy goodness. As we waddle out, we meet Chef Herb Baker and congratulate him on this amazing culinary experience.
The next day we take a tour of the Celestial Seasonings factory, a popular attraction in Boulder. If you’re a tea drinker, you’ve probably tasted one or more of Celestial Seasonings’ varieties. Every single tea bag comes directly from this clean, modern plant in Boulder. After we don our hairnets, our guide takes us through the factory reminding us to “enjoy the aromas.” She shows us the three main steps in making the tea—milling, mixing, and packaging. We stop in the Peppermint Room—housed apart from the other herbs and teas due to its intense aroma—and inhale the mind-expanding scent. Next we watch familiar tea boxes roll along an assembly line like a choo-choo train. At the tour’s end, we sample teas to our heart’s content—and linger in the gift shop, where friendly sales people make us feel welcome.
Another Boulder attraction is the National Center for Atmospheric Research, which sits atop a mesa beside the Flatirons. Designed by the famous Chinese architect I. M. Pei in the 60s, the building has a starring role in Woody Allen’s 1973 film Sleeper. Its boxy cavernous shape and natural brick colors echo the surrounding landscape and suggest the ancient cliff dwellings found in Mesa Verde National Park. Inside the center thrums with activity as hundreds of scientists conduct research to better understand the earth’s atmosphere. A self-guided tour includes a film, hands-on activities, and exhibits on clouds, weather patterns, climate change, and more. Behind the center, an educational weather trail offers more interpretive displays, as well as a chance to enjoy the amazing scenery from this lofty perch.
The big city beckons, so we head south from Boulder for a short 30-minute drive to Denver, a city I have long wanted to explore. Known as the Mile-High City, Denver began as a small mining town in the mid-1800s. Now it’s home to high-rise buildings, state government offices, universities, a thriving arts scene, multiple museums, and over 200 parks and green spaces. In fact, a 30-mile paved bike trail follows the path of the Platte River right though the middle of downtown, so Denver’s 600,000+ residents have easy access to outdoor recreation.
We check into Hotel Teatro, a luxury boutique hotel which appropriately enough is found in the theater district just a couple blocks from Denver’s Downtown Mall. The hotel is housed in a beautifully restored Renaissance Revival red brick building with terra cotta accents and caters to both business and leisure travelers. We love its simple elegance and great location.
That evening Peter and I let Ross order a pizza in the room while we indulge in a romantic dinner at Prima Ristorante, one of two Hotel Teatro restaurants created by acclaimed chef Kevin Taylor. Our starter, delicate beef tenderloin carpaccio with white truffles, is served on very thin toast points with capers and a light garlic sauce. Yum. I order lamb chops for my main course, a Colorado specialty, served with mint pea risotto. The lamb is super tender and satisfying. Peter loves his Angus beef tenderloin accompanied by green and white asparagus. Patrick, the manager, and Ben, the server, cater to our every whim, and when we decline dessert, they insist we try the vanilla cheesecake, a light fluffy rendition served with berries. How can we refuse? It’s to die for.
The next day we have a lot planned, which is a good thing after two over-the-top dinners. In fact, there’s tons to do in Denver. The lively Downtown Mall offers shopping, restaurants, entertainment, and a busy street scene. Our visit coincides with A Taste of Colorado, a free, four-day food festival with live music, so downtown hums with activity. We escape into the Denver Art Museum, a world-class collection of art, and enjoy a creative, inspiring exhibit called Open for Design, which displays everyday objects transformed by artists into something that improves their community.
Also downtown is the History Colorado Center, a museum that celebrates the state’s colorful history and the characters who helped settle this rugged land. One exhibit called Colorado Stories takes you into eight communities across the state. You’ll join miners in a Silverton hard rock mine, fly off a virtual ski jump, trade with Kit Carson, and more. This modern museum just opened in the spring of 2012, so expect a state-of-the-art museum experience.
Just south of downtown is the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, three stories of exhibits from anthropology to zoology and everything in between. Ross, Peter, and I did our best to see as much as we could during our visit, but this is a museum that requires multiple visits. We particularly enjoyed Expedition Health, a hands-on journey that allows you to discovery how healthy you are. One activity measured your arm span compared to your height, which should be equal—think DaVinci’s Rennaisance man—if you’re perfect that is. Turns out Peter’s arms are longer than his height while mine are shorter. (This is a fun party activity—all you need is a measuring tape!)
Also on the outskirts of town is the Denver Botanical Garden, a lovely oasis with 45 different gardens featuring 33,000 species of plants. The Japanese Gardens are especially serene, a place to leave your worldly cares behind and seek communion with nature. Of course, water features are prevalent—streams, pools, and ponds—and you’ll see an abundance of healthy colorful koi, Japan’s national fish and a symbol of courage.
Our last morning in Denver we stumble upon a farmer’s market just north of downtown called Highlands Farmers Market. It’s a stunning morning—blue sky, puffy white clouds, and a warm sun—and all around us are happy folks buying and selling healthy food. As we taste yummy goat cheese and chat with the vendors, I finally figure out why people seem younger here in Colorado. They are living life, not watching it pass them by. It’s a lesson I take home as a treasured souvenir.