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Rocky Mountain Highs: Denver


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Perhaps it's just a reflection of my own native bias, but I find the United States to be one of the most interesting countries to travel in. There's a stark difference between the United States and Europe. In the US most of the regional differences are best appreciated in large cities while in Europe it's the small towns that exemplify the regional character. There are very few countries that can boast the kind of difference in culture seen between Miami and San Francisco, New Orleans and New York City. However, it can be difficult to find distinguishing characteristics between small towns in Arizona or South Carolina, on opposite ends of the country. For that reason, my favorite way to travel in the US is to fly to a major city and build a road trip around it that hopefully encompasses other large cities. That's an easier task on the coasts and the upper Midwest, but out in the large western states major cities are few and far between. That's why most of the remaining major cities I haven't seen in the US are out west: Denver, Phoenix, and Santa Fe to be exact. Of all of these, Denver seemed like the most glaring omission so when I felt the time was right to take my family on their first real winter vacation I focused on ski resorts in Colorado. It was quite easy to choose from the countless ski towns because I was determined not to expose us to any risk of altitude sickness. Coming from Miami at an elevation of zero, the adjustment couldn't be any worse. Almost all the Colorado slopes have base elevations well over 7000 feet with some rising as high as 13000 feet. The only town that was even close to 7000 feet was Steamboat Springs so that made our choice pretty easy.

It's possibly, but unlikely, to feel ill from altitude even at 7000 feet so I gave us three days in Denver to acclimate at 5000 feet before pressing onward into the Rocky Mountains. As it turned out, three days was more than enough time for us to check out everything that we could do in Denver in the middle of winter. We took an evening flight from Miami and were at the rental car counter by ten o'clock, benefiting from the two hour time change. I had taken a substantial risk by renting a front-wheel drive car instead of spending three times as much for an SUV. What settled me on the car was the rental company's refusal to guarantee that even the SUV would be four-wheel drive. I have no idea what percentage of their SUV's were two-wheel drive, but I wasn't about to pay triple and end up with essentially the same wheels. I did make sure to check that our ride's wheels had the mud-snow rating. American airport car rental agencies are usually super-efficient but there was a hiccup this time as our agent suddenly determined that the car our children and luggage had been packed into had not actually been released. In return for transferring all our kids and bags into another car in the frigid winter air we were given a free tank of gas. By the time we arrived at our Airbnb in the Jefferson Park neighborhood west of Downtown it was way too late for anything except pizza delivery.

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One unusual wrinkle about this trip is that we were joined by a small family that Mei Ling is friendly with in Miami, consisting of a four year old boy, his aunt, and her mother. In the morning we met up and began our downtown exploration at Denver Union Station. Denver's original railway station underwent a very successful restoration and redevelopment in the first half of this decade and now evokes memories of the great train stations of the early 20th century. A warm and welcoming waiting area is surrounded by coffee shops, lunch restaurants, and bookstores. The building is still a major transportation hub with a commuter rail station and an underground bus terminal.
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One thing I noticed right away was the very upbeat atmosphere among everyone at Union Station, both employees and patrons. One patron at the bookstore where we were browsing suddenly turned to me and made a joke about the cover of a book. That doesn't happen in most cities. Was it a Denver thing? We ate at Snooze, a popular Denver breakfast chain, which was pleasant but not remarkable. The staff there was likewise cheerful and laid back, despite the hectic atmosphere. I wondered if everyone's positivity was somehow related to the wide availability of legal cannabis. Were they just stoned 24/7? People seemed to be eating as if they were. Walking around afterwards we discovered Mercantile Dining & Provision, a beautiful restaurant with an open kitchen attached to a gourmet market. I regretted not having explored the whole building before breakfast, but at least our meal had been very satisfying.
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Next door to Union Station we spotted a very cute Chinese cafe called Zoe Ma Ma and went in to check it out. They had just opened and were getting dumplings and pancakes ready for lunch. It was a very authentic place owned and staffed by Taiwanese immigrants and they were pretty happy to meet Mei Ling and the kids.
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Our next stop was the Colorado Convention Center to see a modern landmark, the Big Blue Bear. I love these kinds of whimsical installations that help to give cities a memorable and unique profile, and I knew the kids would get a kick out of the statue. The enormous sculpture was even more imposing than I had expected, and worth every penny of the half million dollars the city paid for it.
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The bear is just two blocks from downtown's main thoroughfare, the 16th Street Mall. Although the Mall appears pedestrianized, pedestrians would be wise to keep a watchful eye on the large shuttle buses that careen up and down the street with alarming speed and regularity. Despite the stately and ornate buildings that lined the Mall, most of the ground level businesses were convenience stores and low end eating establishments and we didn't find much reason to hesitate as we walked southward.
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At the end of the Mall we encountered Civic Center Park, which was dominated by the imposing Colorado State Capitol Building. The grayish-white granite exterior was impressively pristine in the bright winter sun and the golden dome gleamed cheerfully.
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In the plaza at center of the park there were so many people in small groups that at first we thought we'd stumbled on a farmer's market in the dead of winter. It turned out to be something less salutary, a large encampment of homeless people many of whom had carts piled high with their belongings. At the north end of the park we passed through the Voorhies Memorial, a neoclassical monument with a pleasing semicircular design and a fountain in front. Our tour of the neighborhood had ended almost as quickly as it had begun. I was somewhat nonplussed at how small and bland the downtown area had been compared to other American cities of similar size such as Boston or Minneapolis. Thus far Denver seemed more on a level with smaller cities like Buffalo or Orlando, not that there was necessarily anything wrong with that.
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Once we'd finished with Downtown, it wasn't easy to choose another destination to visit. I hadn't found any particularly interesting neighborhoods in my research, and certainly no ethnic neighborhoods. There wasn't much in the way of eclectic stores or markets like we'd found in other cities either. Eventually we decided to visit the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, which seemed to be the best choice for young kids among Denver's museums. We spent more than an hour wandering among the wildlife dioramas on the second floor before realizing that there was a much more interesting area called Discovery Zone on the ground level. We gave the kids another hour here because they enjoyed the interactive displays much more than the static exhibits upstairs. As we left the sun was setting over the large expanse of City Park.
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Denver was a little light on activities in the winter months but one area where the city seemed to be very competitive was food halls. There were several sizable ones in the central city and some other good ones in the suburbs. For our first dinner in Denver we chose The Source, a former iron foundry in a neighborhood called Five Points adjacent to Downtown. It wasn't a typical food hall in that several of the spaces were occupied by retail boutiques. The few restaurants were mostly of the sit-down variety and there was very little in the way of common area to combine purchases from different vendors. The division of the development into two disconnected spaces made each section seem somewhat threadbare and inert. We had drinks in the small central bar called Isabel while we perused the appealing menu of a restaurant called Acorn, which fortunately was just opening and permitted us a large table on the condition that we be out in less than two hours. No problem there. The food was prepared in that contemporary, farm-to-table American bistro style that's often attempted but rarely well-executed. In this case it was done very, very well and we were very pleased with our first real restaurant in Denver. I noted ruefully that we would probably have to try ten new restaurants in Miami to expect to find one meal that good. Afterwards we went to the adjoining market hall which is attached to a boutique hotel. Here we found a barbecue restaurant and some cool eclectic art. On the roof of the hotel was a stylish bar with great views over Downtown.
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During the night something pretty awesome happened. It snowed. To a lot of people reading this that might seem fairly mundane, but none of my kids have ever seen snow falling or freshly fallen snow. The closest they've come has been old patches of spring snow in Andorra and Norway that were dotted with sheep dung. When they woke up and saw what was going on out the window they were incredulous. It had been fifteen years for me since my last snowfall and I have to admit it looked pretty sweet. There were several inches on the ground and the snow was still coming down. It was light, powdery stuff that melted quickly when it touched our skin. For the kids the snow was pure excitement but I had other things to worry about. I'd decided not to pay threefold the price to rent an SUV after the rental company refused to guarantee me a four-wheel drive, so we had a regular front-wheel drive full size car. At least we had the mud-snow rated tires, but I felt a little guilty about having chosen the cheaper and somewhat riskier option. The car was perched atop a very steep driveway that had been easy to negotiate before, but now I had to reverse it down into the street. I carefully made sure that there weren't any cars coming our way before I backed it down, and fortunately the car didn't slip. The roads hadn't been plowed but the snow on the asphalt had already largely been churned to slush by morning traffic. It was still unnerving driving in snow again after so long. Funnily enough, I'd driven through much worse countless times in Boston during my residency with a light front-wheel drive Nissan sports car which didn't even have snow tires. I rarely thought about it being dangerous even though I'd had to dig myself out of the middle of the street more than once. Having a wife and three little kids in the car changes one's perspective on these things rather dramatically.

Asian-Mexican fusion Onefold proved to be an excellent choice for Sunday brunch. All eight of us were delighted with the delicious and creative food and returned to the outdoors warmed and satiated. We browsed a gourmet food store called Marczyk Fine Foods for a while and then drove around Belcaro, which seemed to be the wealthiest residential neighborhood within the city limits. It was nice, but didn't have the same wow factor as the high end neighborhoods in other cities.
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It was barely noon and I was completely out of ideas for what to do in Denver. All I had left was my list of food halls. We decided to drive half an hour south to the small town of Castle Rock which had a small food hall called Ecclesia Market. As we exited the highway we passed the distinctive butte that gave the town its name. The enormous caprock at the summit evoked the ruined castles we've seen atop similar hills in Italy and Spain, but the town itself was classic Americana. Inside the market were a specialty foods store and a couple of small restaurants that didn't really tempt us. There was a also a fish market which didn't have much fish but incongruously sold fresh coconuts which were quite delicious. The very friendly guys working there entertained the kids with a fake spider in a box.
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Down the street from Ecclesia was a large crafts market and variety store where we browsed for about an hour and bought some toys for the kids. Our first stop back in Denver was the closest thing we could find to an ethnic neighborhood, a mixed Mexican and Vietnamese section of Federal Boulevard in the southwestern part of the city. We stocked up on noodles at Vietnamese supermarket and then chose a Vietnamese-Cajun crawfish restaurant called The Crawling Crab for lunch. Vietnamese-Cajun? Yes, it's a thing. Apparently it was started by Vietnamese who had been displaced to Houston by Hurricane Katrina in 2009 and spread back to New Orleans and then all over the country. We even have one in Miami and it's the best crawfish I know of here. It turns out a couple of big bags of messy, spicy crawfish and a couple of dozen freshly-shucked oysters were all that we needed.
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We drove back downtown with the idea that we could spend a couple of hours giving the kids their first experience with bowling at Lucky Strike Denver, but when we arrived we learned there was a four hour waiting list. Instead we bought tickets for the huge video game arcade which suited the kids just fine, although watching them flail on the complex racing games made me wince. On the way to dinner we passed by an outdoor carousel and Larimer Square, both of which were beautifully lighted.
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Our choice for the evening food hall was Denver Milk Market, also downtown and not far from Union Station. This was a fairly large food hall that was pleasantly energetic and crowded, but the food choices were fairly banal. It felt like someone had created a list of the most popular fast foods across all the food halls in the United States and then put them all in one place. As it turned out, one restaurateur was behind all sixteen vendors so perhaps this was exactly the concept he was looking for. The one exception was a cheese shop where we put together a platter of whatever cheeses and salumi took our fancy. Cleo also loved the carpet of pennies in front of the counter. On the way out we stopped for a brief chat with a blue Lego man who was sitting morosely on a bench.
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On our last morning in Denver we dressed the kids up in the color-coded fleece underwear I'd carefully selected before the trip. It had been surprisingly temperate in Denver but I knew it would be a lot colder once we got into the mountains. I decided to take a shot at a brunch reservation at Root Down, one of the most celebrated restaurants in Denver, and surprisingly got a table for the eight of us. We arrived a little early, ten minutes before the restaurant opened, which meant we could fulfill another of the kids' dreams. Their first snowball fight! There was a small park right across the street from the playground that had several inches of pristine day-old snow. The kids never really got the hang of packing snowballs. They were in too much of a hurry, and most of their attempts disintegrated as soon as the snow left their hands. I took it pretty easy on them, but I still made sure they each got to experience the unique sensation of getting nailed by a snowball.
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Root Down had solid American food, although the menu was small and not very adventurous. It was definitely no competition to the brunch we had at Onefold the previous day. The kids were entertained by the display of colorful rotary dial telephones, whose purpose they had trouble identifying. Close to Root Down, we stopped at another small food hall called Avanti Food & Beverage although we didn't have any inclination to keep eating. It looked decent although there weren't many customers on a Sunday morning.
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We were an hour ahead of schedule for snow tubing in the mountains so we made one last stop at an amazing used bookstore called West Side Books. The place reminded me of the bookstores I used to frequent as a college student in Boston. It's too bad that our hometown of Miami doesn't seem to have any worth visiting. The kids all got a kick out of it and we found several books to keep them away from their iPads for a while as we drove into the Rockies.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 01:38 Archived in USA Tagged travel denver blog tony friedman

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