A Weekend in Denver and Boulder Colorado

Friday

Jeff recently planned a spontaneous birthday trip fro me and decided on the destination based on the cheapest direct flight he could find from our airport.  It also had to meet the criteria of being an interesting place we had not yet visited together.  After a search, Denver turned up, likely because our early November trip was after most of the golden foliage had fallen, but before the skiers start joining the lift lines. Though the flight was a little long (about 4.5 hours west and 4 hours east) for a short weekend (we left Friday evening and returned late Sunday night) Our Colorado weekend was fun and restful at the same time!

So of course a visit to Colorado is going to incite some questions about Colorado's recent legalization of a certain hallucinogenic herb. I plan to post a little about what we learned about how legalization of recreational marijuana is experienced by visitors and how it affects visitors impressions of local life. It was not the purpose of our trip, and we visited the area sober, but we did get to see first hand how legal recreational use is being handled in Colorado.

 

The most interesting thing about our trip is that it was one of the first that didn't involve a folder.  Let me back up!  I love to plan trips; it's nearly as fun as going, and just bit more fun than reporting on the trip.  Usually I spend hours online and in the guide books, looking at maps and reading reviews. I generally have a folder for any trip. Even a quick visit to our children's college towns warrants a manila folder or at least an email folder to organize the itinerary.  An expedition trip or cruise with multiple ports might involve a plastic organizer with multiple color coded pocket pages for each locale. But this time, we had little time and even less knowledge about the destination when we boarded Southwest Air for our Friday evening flight.  Our running joke all weekend, was we were "winging it"!  For us traveling without a folder full of itineraries and advance dining reservations is winging it, but we had read a little about both Denver and Boulder to get an idea about what we hoped to do, and we did make reservations at a hotel. Beyond that it was about as spontaneous as we get! What we learned is that being spontaneous allowed us to be more open to suggestions of locals, most of which turned out to be excellent! But I don't think I'm prepared to ditch my folders yet.  If you have your heart set on a certain experience, good advance planning makes that happen. For instance we didn't know that the Brown Palace Hotel was famous for it's brunch and tea, and when we arrived they were already booked up for months. But on our "wing it" plan, we enjoyed a relaxing room service breakfast in our pajamas on Sunday morning made be the same chef!

One thing we had decided was to stay two nights in the Brown Palace Hotel in Downtown Denver on 17th and Broadway. We had Marriott points hard earned from too many nights in some Fairfield by the interstate on business trips and college tours and spending them on one of the top hostelries and historical destinations in Denver seemed like a good trade off! (The Brown is an Autograph Collection hotel associated with the Marriott brand). The hotel was built in 1892, making it one of the oldest buildings in Denver and although its brick and sandstone exterior does in fact look brown, it is named for the owner who built it, Henry C Brown.  

With it's Victorian period decor a, uniformed doormen and old fashioned afternoon teas and Sunday Brunches, its also the serves as a hub of special event celebrations for locals.  We didn't participate in the teas and champagne brunches, but we delighted in seeing the little birthday party girls, bridal showers with the tiara-ed bride holding court, and even 4 generations of women from the same family enjoying tea with great grandma! One of the more interesting groups we saw met on line and was enjoying tea dressed in the Harajuku style.

These young people enjoyed dressing up in Harajuku "Sweet Lolita" and "Goth Lolita" style (Harajuku a popular street in Tokoyo where people dress up and stroll) The period of their dress also matches the period of the hotel, so this group met for a fun afternoon tea party at the Brown and an evening out in Denver.

These young people enjoyed dressing up in Harajuku "Sweet Lolita" and "Goth Lolita" style (Harajuku a popular street in Tokoyo where people dress up and stroll) The period of their dress also matches the period of the hotel, so this group met for a fun afternoon tea party at the Brown and an evening out in Denver.

With live music, and white glove service, the Brown Palace Teas in the Lobby and Champagne Brunch at Ellyngtons are a big day out for visitors and locals alike!

Champagne Brunch served in the spacious atrium lobby of the Brown Palace Hotel

Champagne Brunch served in the spacious atrium lobby of the Brown Palace Hotel

      Atrium of Brown Palace                              A king room                                      Luxurious marble bath                                  Reception desk 

Because we arrived after 9 PM we decided to grab a quick dinner in the Ship Tavern, at the Brown Palace. this eclectic little place featured western style table clothes, a sports pubby style television over the bar and oddly, clipper ships and nautical touches despite being thousands of miles form an ocean. The Ship Tavern serves appetizers, salads, burgers and a few entrees.  On Friday night a piano man played and indulged guests who were belting out their favorite show tunes, including a 6 year old who wanted to tackle "Let It Go" from Frozen. With the jet lag (Colorado is on Mountain Time) and plans for an early trip out to Boulder in the morning, it was time for us to "Let It Go" and we called it a night!

Day Trip to Boulder

We were up early, applied sun screen and wore warm jackets (with hats and gloves in the pockets) to prepare for a day outdoors in Boulder.  After our included continental breakfast in Ellyngton's in the hotel we hailed an Uber driver who appeared within minutes.  It was about $42 for us to travel by Uber driver to the Pearl St Mall in Boulder from Denver.  It was an absolutely glorious, sunny day in the mid 50's and we noticed the University of Colorado Buffs out in the parking lots drinking from the red solo cups. It was a little jarring to see kids drinking at 9 AM (maybe it was juice?) but then we realized there was an early afternoon game between the NCAA Division I Buffs and Stanford.  Luckily, we arrived before the traffic built up getting into the stadium and we spent the rest of the afternoon on bicycle or foot, this was the best choice because Boulder is a very outdoorsy town and we fit in with the locals.  

The Pearl Street Mall is a pedestrian arcade of shops and restaurants in historical storefronts along Pearl St, where we rented our bicycles.   Canyon Boulevard runs along the Boulder Creek and is paralleled by the Boulder Creek multi use path through the center of town. There were options for rentals; the community bike sharing program,  Boulder B Cycle with red bikes readily available for point to point trips on nearly every corner of the city, or one of the popular bike shops on Pearl St.  We chose Full Cycle Bikes, where "Mr Whiskers" made sure Jeff could get an extra tall bike and we could rent helmets and a bike lock that would allow us to lock up if we left downtown and wanted to leave the bikes on a rack and hike too. 

Our first stop on the way out of town was the Boulder County Farmers Market. I am an enormous fan of visiting local markets.  They make for wonderful interactions with locals, they are a great place to find unique souvenirs and pick up a snack for the road, and there are almost always fantastic subjects to photograph.  Nearly every trip we take includes a visit to a local market or festival, even when we are "winging it"!  This trip we had multiple options for buying healthy snacks for our bike ride.  We scoured the market, saw Lots of fresh healthy choices; colorful vegetables, just picked apples and pears, organic sauces and snacks.  Our choice? BAKLAVA! (Hey, it's got nuts and honey, that's good fuel, right?!) 

Natasha, wearing her favorite patchwork jeans at her gluten free baked goods booth at the Boulder County Farmers Market

Natasha, wearing her favorite patchwork jeans at her gluten free baked goods booth at the Boulder County Farmers Market

After wandering around the market, we made our way further along the Boulder Creek Path, heading out towards the Red Rocks and the Canyon. There are several parks along the way to stop and enjoy. Heading  just west of Boulder, we peddled on the Boulder Creek Path past Settlers Park where you can take a small mile long hike around the red rocks and the Matt's White Water Course (a  put in for white water kayaking ) it was just a trickle this fall, but I'm sure it's rip roaring fun in the spring! Had the weather been warmer, tubing in the creek might have been fun!   However, because the creek is adjacent to the pathway, there are several warnings about staying aware in the event of flash flood warnings! Eventually we ended up in the canyon parallel to the Canyon Boulevard, where the sun barely reached the interior at midday and the temperatures were about 15 degrees cooler.  We rode west about 4-5 flat miles (although we felt the elevation a bit on the few inclines we encountered) and we turned around rode back into town for a late lunch and to poke around the unique shops on Pearl Street. 

Boulder Creek Path heading into Boulder

Boulder Creek Path heading into Boulder

Boulder Creek

Boulder Creek

Canyon Boulevard heading west into the canyon

Canyon Boulevard heading west into the canyon

At noon, the sun barely topped the tree line in the canyon

At noon, the sun barely topped the tree line in the canyon

We stopped to watch the rock climbers scaling, as well as saw several locals using the pretty pedestrian bridge there as a setting for baby photos and senior year portraits. 

We stopped to watch the rock climbers scaling, as well as saw several locals using the pretty pedestrian bridge there as a setting for baby photos and senior year portraits. 

On our way back, we stopped at Settlers Park, where a large contingent of University of Colorado students arrived wielding clippers to do some trail maintenance. We enjoyed our farmers market snacks and locked up the bikes to hike to the Red Rocks. Several exposed paths lead up and around the rocks with varying degrees of difficulty. It's usually pretty easy to see the easier path if one looks to steep or challenging.  Even slight inclines can be difficult to descend because for the slick rock and loose gravel on top. 

Upon reaching the top of the 1/2 mile trail, we were rewarded with a beautiful view of Boulder below.

Boulder stretches out from the Red Rocks

Boulder stretches out from the Red Rocks

We hopped back on our bicycles and rode back into downtown, where we returned them and stopped for lunch at Salt in a historic building at 1074 Pearl St. Like much of the food scene in Boulder; local, sustainable, and very, very tasty!  We sat near a couple from Denver on a day trip, Cliff and Monica Mountain (REALLY! and he told us his dad's name was Rocky Mountain!) who gave us some excellent advice about what to see in downtown Denver when we returned.  Since we were winging it, we were able to take their other advice and we had some wonderful experiences in Denver later because we "were in the know"!

Salt set in the historic Tom's Tavern building.

Salt set in the historic Tom's Tavern building.

My kind of place...we saw no lack of candy stores and ice cream shops!  We also poked into several unique gift shops and second hand stores. 

The clerks at the Village Green explained they are a neighborhood shop providing a service to people in their neighborhood. 

The clerks at the Village Green explained they are a neighborhood shop providing a service to people in their neighborhood. 

So during our walk about we saw a few shops with the green crosses.  These shops sell either medical marijuana or both medical and recreational.   The experience is more like visiting a pharmacy, than a liquor store. After showing identification to ensure customers are at least 21 years of age. The clerks ask customers what their needs are and explains products.  The products are all made to specific standards and come packaged and sealed. The clerks (they call themselves bud masters!)  also share information about the laws in Colorado.  We interviewed clerks and learned that there is no public consumption allowed, no purchases by anyone under 21, no driving under the influence is allowed, and "open container" laws apply to open packages of marijuana in vehicles as they do with alcohol. Lastly, it is illegal to bring regulated legal products bought in Colorado out of state (whether by personal vehicle or air- both of which are covered by other federal and state laws.)  

So that's how it works where it's legal. But the question I had was how does legalization affect tourism for people who are visiting for other purposes?  Well, we were pleasantly surprised to find that post legalization the state has not been pitched into debauchery! The laws I mention (and please research these yourself if you plan to partake...things change all the time and I'm not a lawyer and I don't play one on the internet!) are very well enforced.  We not only didn't encounter anyone smoking marijuana in public, we rarely saw anyone smoking a cigarette in public! We didn't see public intoxication beyond the hard to treat homeless population that we encounter in most American cities we visit.  We didn't notice that tourists were there principally to partake and we didn't notice any kind of "wild" atmosphere (although I'm sure there are plenty of clubs and places to let loose that we didn't visit.

We also interviewed locals we met and our Uber drivers who drove us past several old warehouses that are now re-purposed into grow houses. Denverites generally seemed to think legalization has been a boon to their economy, both in the jobs due to production of marijuana, but also in the attraction of other nimble, new businesses that depend on attracting young people to the area. There is a feeling that if (or when) other places in the country legalize marijuana that Colorado is well suited to be a leader in the industry.  There is concern that this "boom" is driving up housing prices, but generally, people feel the economy is benefited by legalization and they feel not much else has changed about the place where they live and work.  That was our experience as visitors too; outside of sighting an occasional pot leaf tee shirt for sale in a tourist gift shop, marijuana being legal in Colorado had little impact on our experience as tourists.

Back to Denver

This photo sums up Denver for us...surrounded by beautiful mountains, a mix of old and new, with cranes (brightly lit at night) announcing more building coming in this western "boom" town!

This photo sums up Denver for us...surrounded by beautiful mountains, a mix of old and new, with cranes (brightly lit at night) announcing more building coming in this western "boom" town!

After catching another Uber back to Denver and a short rest, we ventured out to the 16th Street Mall; an outdoor shopping arcade that runs all along 16th street and is serviced by a free shuttle, the Free Mall Ride.  A variety of chain and local shops and restaurants line the pedestrian street and even in November people were sitting at sidewalk cafes in the evening.

A variety of shops, restaurants and art line the pedestrian arcade along 16th Street, including the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, with a display of mouthwatering candied apples.

The streets adjacent to the pedestrian 16th St mall are lined with businesses, (which I'm sure are full of employees on weekdays) many of them are the traditional banking industry which built Denver in it's early days. 

The streets adjacent to the pedestrian 16th St mall are lined with businesses, (which I'm sure are full of employees on weekdays) many of them are the traditional banking industry which built Denver in it's early days. 

Further uptown is the Statehouse, with its expansive lawn.

Further uptown is the Statehouse, with its expansive lawn.

During our visit we walked through the Civic Center Park on 13TH street up to the State House, and on Sunday,  saw a motorcycle rally for Veterans Day roll out past the State House.

This area had quite a few people who live on the streets or nearby shelters, temporarily occupying benches in the area. But the only gang that bothered us while we sat on the benches in the sun to enjoy some chocolates we purchased from Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory was this gang of trouble makers pictured below, who were hoping for a handout! 

We were suddenly surrounded by this gang when we opened a bag of almond dusted toffee chocolate!

We were suddenly surrounded by this gang when we opened a bag of almond dusted toffee chocolate!

We spent our Saturday night exploring Lower Downtown (known as the LODO) on the advice of our new friends, the Mountain's. We returned Sunday morning to get photographs in the morning light.

This explains Denver's role as a center of commerce in the early days of the West.

This explains Denver's role as a center of commerce in the early days of the West.

An example of old and "new" Denver...traditional ranch wear outfitter and seed store buildings house green cross wellness centers and internet businesses. 

An example of old and "new" Denver...traditional ranch wear outfitter and seed store buildings house green cross wellness centers and internet businesses. 

At the terminus of 17th Street, is Union Station, while it still serves as a train station, it also houses upscale shops and restaurants. 

Our Saturday evening led us the Oxford Hotel, another original hotel in Denver.  Our "wing it" itinerary had expanded to include a recommendation form the Mountains to check out the Cruise Ship Bar in the Oxford hotel.  Again, our curiosity was peeked by this idea of another bar with a nautical name in a land locked city!  It was a great recommendation. 

Outside the Oxford...unfortunately, this was not my surprise birthday gift, although I share the sentiment on the plate with my own "honey" for a wonderful spontaneous birthday trip!

Outside the Oxford...unfortunately, this was not my surprise birthday gift, although I share the sentiment on the plate with my own "honey" for a wonderful spontaneous birthday trip!

Inside the Oxford's Cruise Room, we found a standing room only, Art Deco style,  uber cool gem.  A mix of local regulars and tourists in for a looky loo, we enjoyed well mixed drinks and the historical knowledge of our mixologist who gave us a thumbnail history of the bar, and also knew exactly what to mix for his regulars before they opened their mouths. This incredible place is a copy of a bar found on the Queen Mary cruise ship (which explains the name!), and is built in the shape of a wine bottle. Our mixologist explained that the narrow "speakeasy entry" at the "neck" of the bottle into the bar was used during the Prohibition era to enter to use the "card" room. (winky, wink) Today the most interesting part of the bar is the art deco design and the  1930's wood relief panels depicting international "toasts" in places all around the world. We were told all of them are original, but one depicting Germany was so racist that had to be removed during WWII. 

After a long day exploring in Boulder and wandering 16th St Mall and in the LODO all evening, we were ready to call it a night.  Had we been younger, we might have explored one of the many night clubs in the LODO until the wee hours.  Instead we got a great night of sleep after a day of fresh mountain air and Sunday morning we enjoyed a romantic breakfast delivered on a cart to our room and cooked by the same chefs preparing the swanky champagne brunch in the Ellyngton Dining room downstairs!

After retracing our steps from the evening before with a camera in hand, we found a sports bar on the 16th Street Mall for late lunch and to catch the tail end of a football game and then we made our way back to the airport for our late afternoon flight back to Boston. 

So will we throw away the planning folders from now on? Probably not!  I still enjoy the planning process, and I still feel strongly that understanding the culture of a place helps shape an itinerary that takes in the best of what a destination offers and to fully experience it.  But "winging it" allowed us to find some things we might not have discovered on our own, and to enjoy a pace that allowed us to enjoy diversions we might not have experienced had we planned out every moment of our trip!