Editor’s Note: I interrupt my previous St. Martin musings with observations from Denver, where I am attending the Travel Bloggers Exchange Conference (TBEX). I will return to previous travel musings after this brief, yet exciting interruption.
There’s a low-hanging haze over the Rockies as I head toward Denver from the airport. I wonder if it’s from the forest fires near Fort Collins or just a normal morning haze. Even slightly obscured, this mountain range is pretty amazing.
The rest of the $55 taxi ride on 70 is pretty unremarkable. After passing some construction near the airport the landscape is fairly flat with a string of office buildings, hotels and box stores springing up along the highway. My first impression of Denver is that it is really, really clean. My taxi driver tells me that it is a nice city with fewer people than where I came from in Washington, D.C. He tells me that where I am staying at Hotel Teatro in the LoDo area, short for Lower Downtown, is really nice, too.
I agree. Hotel Teatro is quietly classy. The bell captain has already put my bag away for safe keeping by the time I arrive at the front desk where he announces my arrival. “Ms. Bennefield is here for check-in.” The quick, polite and friendly service has to be one of the reasons that the hotel made it onto Travel + Leisure’s Top 500 Hotels in the World list. I love how the theme of theater and the arts is subtly carried through the décor in black and white photos of Shakespearean and Elizabethan actors. There’s a huge ruffled Elizabethan costume framed on a wall downstairs near he hotels meeting rooms.
And, I am sure that the hotel’s constant top list rankings are the reason why the hotel is full and I can’t check into a room early. But I am happy to walk around and get familiar with Denver and Jim at the front desk pulls out a map to help me get oriented. He tells me that I’m steps away from shops and eateries and he’ll call when a room is available, so I start wandering.
You can wander in downtown Denver, but you can’t get lost. There are signs everywhere pointing you towards the must-see sights: 16th Street Mall, Larimar Square, Writer Square. If there is a main drag in Denver, it’s the 16th Street Mall, a pedestrian friendly strip of shops and restaurants that runs between the city’s sports attractions, Coors Field and the Pepsi Center, and its arts attractions in the Golden Triangle Museum district. It’s pretty well planned, if you ask me. There’s something for everyone within about 20 blocks.
On my stroll down 16th Street Mall, I spy a man playing a yellow piano and one tossing batons in the air. There’s also a heard of buffalo, it’s one of the many art installations on the street. In the center is the golden-steepled D&F Clock Tower, once a part of the Daniels and Fisher department store. With its four 16-foot high clocks, it was the tallest tower west of the Mississippi when it was built in 1910.
I get some pretty good photos of the tower as I stand on the corner of Larimer. I find that I want to come back to Larimer Square at night to see what it looks like with it is strings of holiday lights aglow. I stop in Nest, a cute children’s clothing boutique, because I’m totally into kid’s clothes now that I have a nephew. I see a lot of unique things, including a onesie with a bowtie that I have to have. Posh is one of those high-end trinket boutiques designed to look like a stylish living room where you wish your living room smelled and looked as good with Jonathan Adler and Tocca candles, funky wine glass coasters and eclectic wall art.
Now, I’m hungry and decide to head back up 16th Street Mall to Curtis where I passed Sam’s No. 3, a diner with a big Food Network logo emblazoned on it’s window along with a bunch of other accolades. The self-marketing was effective and I had to see what all the hype was about. I pick a spot at one of two counters where I am given a carafe of water and an eight-page menu of eye-popping food choices covering breakfast, lunch and dinner like the Kitchen Sink Skillet with ham, bacon sausage and gyro and smothered with their proprietary kickin’ green chile sauce. The sauce is what got them on Food Network’s Diner, Drive-In’s and Dives, which featured its green chile burrito.
As I look around to see people eating from plates the size of platters piled to heights that could be considered the Rockies of food, I start to wonder if I might need to arrange for car service from the diner to my hotel three blocks away. While I’ve been staring at other people’s plates and staring at the menu, my waitress has stopped by twice to see if I’ve made a choice. Finally, I ask her what’s the best and most popular. She mentions the gyro and I go with it because this is a Greek-owned establishment and I haven’t had one in years. I just hope it isn’t the size of my head. Luckily, it isn’t. I happily manage the soft warm pita filled with thick juicy slices of lamb. It’s messy and that always makes a sandwich even better in my book.
After I am filled to the gills with gyro, I ask the waitress more about Sam’s No. 3, including why it’s called Sam’s No. 3. She explained that there used to be five diners owned by Sam across the city in the 1920s and No. 3 is one of two still remaining, now owned by his son and grandsons. Over her shoulder is a black and white photo of the original Sam’s No. 3, a narrow shop of counter space and stools with its cooks standing proudly in white paper hats. This is a lunch I could do again--friendly folks and fast service for $10.
It’s a good thing my room is ready because I need a nap. I nestle in on my fluffy duvet and pillows for a power nap before heading back out to explore and joining fellow TBEX attendee, April, the Absolute Travel Addict for dinner. I venture farther down 16th Street Mall and stop in the Tattered Cover Book Store. The wooden floors creak at its entrance and I get a whiff of old books. I like it. I don’t know where to turn. I want to read the inside flap and back cover of every book I come across, but I don’t have that much time. I only make it to the first floor of the two-story new and used bookstore. I spy the cozy carpeted Children’s Book area and get lost in picture books and pop-ups stashed on wooden shelves for a half hour before I see a book that my mom has been wanting to get for my nephew called "Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes." Of course, I have to get it. On the way to the sales counter, I see that Tyra Banks has written a fiction book for teens called "Modelland" based on her life. I gotta get on my book writing project. I suspect there are lots of books that you’ve never seen or heard of here right along with the classics that you’ve always wanted in your library.
A few blocks away is Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which I wanted to visit because it was designed by David Adjaye who is designing the African-American Museum for the Smithsonian in D.C. This was his first museum design, so I wonder if there will be similarities with his latest commission. The building’s dark glass reflects the city around it and the spinning bleeding heart just beyond the entrance is a harbinger of the uniqueness inside. The word hello is scrawled next to a huge sliding door that opens with your approach. I’m happy to learn that I get a $1 off the entrance fee of $10 just for walking to the museum. You get the same discount if you bike. The exhibit space over two floors is very simple. Stark white walls hold the exhibits that may shock, like Bruce Conner’s "Primal Scene of Punk Rock," or provoke deeper thoughts, like "Guarded," which explores America’s heightened fears and security since 9/11. I was confused when I entered this exhibit where a security guard sits at a table with computer screens that flash items deemed “dangerous” by the TSA from guns and tasers to ski poles and snow globes. At first I thought the guard was a museum guard, but he comes with the exhibit.
The best feature of this museum is the rooftop, a funky tribute to the urban rooftop with a pigeon coop, an off kilter gardenscape and a trendy bar scene with the best view of downtown Denver. The bartender-in-residence is Jason Patz, a bearded fellow who looks like he would be the bartender at a speakeasy, which he happens to be. The place is called Williams & Graham. I ask him what cool and refreshing cocktail he’d suggest for me. First he suggests a shaken daiquiri, which sounds intriguing until he mentions the sensei green tea cocktail, a blend of green tea, vodka, simple syrup and lime juice. He chips the ice himself and scoops it into a shaker where he adds the other ingredients, gives it a shake and pours into a short glass with a thin wheel of lime for my consumption. It’s just what I asked for, refreshing. It’s not cloyingly sweet and the vodka sneaks up on you, not with a sucker punch, but a tap on the shoulder that gets your attention.
Jason’s girlfriend is there with some friends and she’s his hype man. She tells everyone how he is one of a few bartenders competing in a daiquiri competition in New Orleans. Now, I wish I’d tried his shaken daiquiri, a version of which he’s entered into the competition. Jason’s friends are sipping on a martini with a big basil leaf for garnish. I want to try that. Guess I’ll have to check out his speakeasy the next time I’m in Denver.
I make my way back down 16th Street Mall to meet April and her friend Casey at ChoLon, an Asian fusion restaurant, for dinner. April has been at this travel blogging thing since 2010, while still holding down a full-time gig. She reached out to me through the TBEX network and I’ve been excited to meet someone who looks like me who is doing what I’m attempting to do and share my passion for travel. I immediately start peppering her with questions about press trips (are they worth it?), sponsorships (should I get them?) and platforms (should I switch to WordPress?). April admits that earning a living at travel is hard, but she believes it can be done. She’s attending TBEX for the first time just like me, seeking insight and inspiration.
She’s bringing Casey along for the ride because he has an awesome local start-up that travelers of all stripes all over may be using one day. It’s ridesharing for folks going to the Denver airport, called Rideorama. Tired of inconveniencing family, friends and neighbors with rides to the airport? Tired of paying outrageous airport parking fees? Tired of waking up at ridiculous times so that you can catch the airport shuttle? If you live in the Denver or Boulder area then Rideorama is for you.
Over a large disc-shaped rice crisp, duck spring rolls, pork belly pot stickers (we ordered these twice) and crispy calamari (that April is allergic to, but Casey taunts her with), I get to know April and Casey who’ve been friends for either 3 or 4 years or 8 or 9 years depending on who you ask. Maybe it just seems like April has known Casey for 8 or 9 years. They are fun and funny and I look forward to spending more time with them during the conference.
Back in my room, I step out onto my narrow stone veranda and watch the sunset behind the clouds and listen to the distant cocktail conversation of rooftop bar guests at the Four Seasons across the street. I decide that I like Denver. I like it a lot.