Destination Denver

The state of Colorado is an obvious destination for skiing and sports enthusiasts, but you might not know that the foot of the Rockies is an equally impressive haven for arts and culture. Don’t hit the highway out of town the next time you fly in. Instead, take a trip into the city.

March is the snowiest month of the year in Denver, but the sun in the mile-high city melts the white stuff away in no time. It’s midmonth, beautiful outdoors; people are out strolling, joggers clad only in shorts run by, and people are sitting on patios having lunch at the trendy refurbished Union Station.

Denver is a foodie’s paradise, and I wonder how Denverites can all look so fit living in such a fantastic epicurean culture. The key is their active lifestyle. With 300 days of sunshine a year, they get outside to hike, bike, ski, and more. The city also has a great vibe, and Denverites are warm and welcoming.

While Union Station continues to serve as an Amtrack station, it is also home to ten incredible restaurants and bars, including the oyster bar Stoic & Genuine. It’s the fourth restaurant in the city for Bravo’s Top Chef Masters contestant and multi-award-winning chef Jennifer Jasinski. An oyster bar in land-locked, desert-like Denver seems very strange. However, the Denver International Airport is the fifth busiest hub in the United States, making it a modern-day ‘port’ and debunking the myth that you can only get fresh seafood on the coast.

There are breweries and brew pubs galore: 33 in the city and 100 in the greater area. Most do not have kitchens but maintain a symbiotic relationship with food truck vendors, allowing patrons to purchase food curbside and bring it into the pubs. Locals and visitors benefit from apps for almost everything, including finding a food truck, reserving a table at a restaurant, or getting a cab home.

It all started in Larimer Square. Today, the historic strip is home to shopping and great dinning.  PHOTO: STEVE CORNELIUS
It all started in Larimer Square. Today, the historic strip is home to shopping and great dining. PHOTO: STEVE CORNELIUS

Be sure to visit Larimer Square. Saved from demolition by visionary Denverites, the Square harkens back to the city’s first days as a frontier town. Named after General William H. Larimer Jr, the saloons, banks and post office are long gone and in their place are award-winning restaurants and eclectic boutiques.

Along the way, it’s worth a stop at Rockmount Ranch Wear, the inventors of the snap button cowboy shirts. These U.S.-made shirts have a worldwide following that includes celebrities such as Eric Clapton. He’s not alone. Store owner Steve, (whose grandfather founded the store), says there is a host of celebs wearing Rockmount shirts. As his grandfather once said, “The West is not a place, it is a state of mind.”

The Denver Museum of Art (DAM) may hold beautiful works of art, but the building itself is stunning. It is highly recognizable with its ‘crystal’ extension by architect Daniel Libeskind, representing both the peaks and geometric rock crystals found in the Rockies. The museum collections are user friendly and well laid out with a great flow. The American Indian Art Gallery is fascinating as is the permanent collection, which includes works by Frederic Remington, Georgia O’Keeffe and modern artist Nick Cave. It’s so busy here — the locals obviously love the DAM too.

Denver has so many museums and attractions that it is actually impossible to see them all in one visit. For abstract expressionism, a visit to the Clyfford Still Museum is a must. Credited as the father of the American movement, the artist gained notoriety in the 1940s. However, in the 1950s, he removed himself and his work from the public eye. The museum is home to almost all of Still’s body of work from his sixty-year career.

Another uniquely Denver experience is the American Museum of Western Art. The collection includes 4 floors of an historic downtown brownstone. There is almost not enough wall space to hold this enormous collection. Viewed by reservation-only guided tour, the exhibition allows guests to get close to masterpieces by George Catlin, Charles Russell, Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Remington and more. The museum will foster a new love for the talented artists who recorded the early days of the American West.

Denver’s art is not restricted to galleries. It’s hard not to miss Denver’s Public Art Program, including the enormous blue bear staring into the Colorado Convention Centre. There is the equally large big red chair in front of the public library and the dancing couple behind the theatre district. Started in the late 1980s, the program channels one per cent of the budget of any capital improvement project to an accompanying art installation. Like a game of grown-up “I spy”, rent a bike from one of the 84 Denver B-cycle bike-sharing stations, download the Denver Public Art App and start your own hunt.

Denver is summed up best by local business Infinite Monkey. British ex-pat, Ben Parsons, is a winemaker — a winemaker in Colorado with no vineyard and no pretense. With his feet firmly planted in the art of wine making and his heart set on leaving a minimal environmental footprint, Infinite Monkey does not bottle any of its product. Instead, it is available by the glass on site, for take away in refillable jugs or in single serving-sized cans. The wine is really good and why not in a can? It’s easy to pack for any back-country experience and equally easy to crush and bring back for recycling. It’s a product that just captures the passion for both quality and forward-thinking, pervasive in Denver.

Born as a supply-based frontier town that serviced the mining and ranching industries, Denver has morphed from a gold rush town to a haven for culture, food and drink. There is so much to do and so many restaurants to try. I haven’t even touched on six professional sports teams that call Denver home or the incredible Red Rock’s venue just outside of town that was the chosen site for mega band U2’s 1983 Under the Blood Red Sky concert. Starting in 2016, the city’s new light rail link to the airport will be up and running, making it even easier for tourists to visit the city.