United States of America

Mountain High Magic

Mountain High Magic

In the middle of a pandemic, Colorado strikes the perfect balance between human connection, adventure and natural isolation that we’re all so desperately craving.

There's an evil-looking horse that stares you down as you flee Denver Airport right after you land. It’s the sort of statue that immediately makes you rethink your decision to visit Colorado at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

My friends all gave me strange looks when I told them I was travelling.

“You mean, like, out of the house?” they said to me. My mother actually stopped talking to me when I told her, and after just a few days away, I could sense she was sitting next to the phone in a semi-manic trance waiting for my call.

All the signs – including the horrific sculpture of an iron horse from hell – were telling me that coming to the mountains of Colorado was a bad idea.

Although I did enjoy this horrified drama from my loved ones, the illusion of danger quickly melts away once you’re in the Mile High City.

Denver is a bright, clean place with a pleasant mix of history and modernism. My city hotel is in the Cherry Creek neighbourhood, which by all accounts is corporate but not sterile, with cheerful beer halls and an upmarket shopping district. My first stop is downtown, where I’m greeted by the majestic Union Station in the heart of the city, a landmark which once stood as the launching pad for brave settlers heading west.

In a move that couldn’t be more contrasting, I hop in an ‘eTuk’, which is Denver’s new answer to clean tourism and COVID-19-friendly transportation. These open-air electric tuk-tuks zip around the city offering a far superior view then any tour bus. What’s more, your guide knows all the sweet spots and local lore to get your mind salivating about diving deeper into this unclaimed jewel of the west.

Small and zippy, these little pregnant rollerskates zip through traffic like it doesn't exist, and I find myself seeing the best that Denver has to offer at almost light-speed. I visit the Brown Palace, which is a regal old dame of a hotel that has a functional artesian well you can actually drink from. I get lost in City Park with its 1.2 square kilometres of greenspace, and I’m introduced to the hip RiNo (River North Art) district of the city, which is covered in street art and rife with hip eateries that I wish I had more time to see.

But there’s not enough time in the world because Colorado is big. Damn huge. And because I’ve been stuck in the house in lockdown for six months straight and I’m now free to travel, I naturally make my way toward the cool mountain air around Aspen, to see what the rich and famous claim is America’s answer to St. Moritz.

Aspen is the personification of affluence in America. But it’s also a place laden with art, culture and fine food. On the way to my hotel, I pass the famous Anderson Ranch Arts Center, where some of the best and brightest artists from around the state come to nurture their passions. Then I cruise downtown, gazing up at the famous Little Nell Residences where you can ski from your bedroom onto the slopes.

But it’s in the Bauhaus-inspired Aspen Meadows Resort that I find myself not so much staying in a resort but more sleeping in a philosophy. If you can imagine that the best hotels in the world think of every detail as something to inspire an emotion or an experience – then dial that up to max volume – you start to understand the sublime feelings you succumb to while staying here.

While on the surface the Meadows can seem to be a bit out of place in this town, its celebration of farm-to-table dining and world-class shopping definitely still fits the mould of a town that strives for excellence at every corner.

Excellence is what I found that night at Bosq: a funky eatery with mad-scientist-slash chef Barclay Dodge at the helm, who turns out exquisite dishes that inject intense global flavours into these remote mountain peaks. “This is a special corn that I got from a farmer in a small town in Mexico,” he tells the table. “It doesn’t exist anywhere in the United States, and because there was a frost coming, we had to harvest it.

So this is the first and last time we will ever eat this dish here.” Needless to say, I chewed it very slowly.

As delightful as Aspen is, the call of Colorado had me hitting the road early the next morning to reach Telluride. Both Telluride and Aspen attract big names and big money, but the truth is that the two towns couldn’t be more different.

Telluride resembles an old mining village inside a deep gorge, with houses lined up symmetrically as though on a Monopoly board, all surrounded by impossibly tall mountains. The people (and personalities) that call Telluride home are as tall as these mountains. Enter ‘Telluride Tom’, who is the unofficial mayor of this snow-capped canyon hamlet.

Telluride Tom has a mess of white hair and a voice that is both velvet and Gatling gun at the same time. Like an old frontier cowboy, he doesn’t walk but rather slides through town, usually with a drink in hand or on the way to get one.

Tom would be my spirit guide while I’m in Telluride and on our first meeting he hands me a Chair Warmer, which is basically a shot of locally-made peppermint schnapps. “This will make the day settle in better,” he tells me.

Now that I’m inoculated against the cool mountain air, together we meet with Pete Wagner who crafts legendary custom skis in a handsome shop in Mountain Village. Mountain Village is the other town here, and the special hack that gives Telluride its unique character. It’s in this town – rather than Telluride – that you’ll find all the burger joints, chain restaurants, familiar resorts, and family fun that isn’t permitted in the picture-perfect postcard town in the valley below.

“You know how we keep out the big chains?” Tom asks me with his crooked smile. “We have a law [in Telluride] that doesn’t permit large signage. Corporations can’t handle it. Imagine a Starbucks without a sign? You can’t, neither can they.”

The gondola gently lowers us to Telluride in just eight minutes.

Once below, I find a vibrant city, full of little bars, hip local restaurants, and locals that truly love their town. The energy in Telluride is electric. Immediately I want to get lost in the summertime fray, but Tom insists that we must go do the Via Ferrata first.

“Trust me, you’ll earn your drink, and you’ll feel better,” he says.

Living in Manhattan I’m used to heights. That being said, I found myself soon appealing to a God I didn’t believe in as I precariously dangled off the sheer face of a cliff about 300 metres off the ground, with nothing below me below me but a thin metal rung that someone put there half a century ago.

“Um, are you sure this is rated for Italians? We’re dense people,” I ask our guide of my perilous footing.

I’m assured it is impossible to fall while strapped into the dubiously thin safety cable. The Via Ferrata is a hiking trail that runs horizontally across a rock wall. These were originally invented in the Dolomites of Italy to quickly move troops through the mountains, but some genius thought it was a hoot to put one here in Colorado for tourists.

I’ve jumped from planes, zip-lined in the Philippines, and even risked a tattoo in a Shanghai bar, but nothing ever made me feel like this. The combination of terror, adrenaline and views were unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed before.

About an hour later, back on terra firma, I’m in a bar called the Fat Alley with Tom.

“Here, put this in ya,” Tom says as he slides over a greasy shot glass filled with bourbon and topped with a piece of bacon. “It’s called a Mitch Morgan and it’ll straighten you out.”

I’m told that the trick to drinking a Mitch Morgan is that you really have to concentrate to pick up the grease-lined glass (which does calm your nerves) just as much as the fat from the bacon blocks your arteries to slow down your heart rate.

Doctor Tom was right again – one gulp and my faith in life was restored. Now elated to be alive, I finally start to understand the magic of this tiny mountain town. “You see,” Tom said sliding deep into his chair. “People go to Aspen to be seen, they come to Telluride to hang out.”

It was then I realized that the evil hell horse at the airport isn’t there as a warning for incoming visitors – it’s there to warn you that you’re leaving paradise. 

Get there

Denver’s international airport is the largest in North America. Pre-pandemic, flights departed from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane
on United Airlines. From AU$2,200 return.

Stay there

Moxy at Cherry Creek, Denver.
From AU$192 per night.

Aspen Meadows Resort. From AU$385 per night.

Madeline Hotel, Telluride. From AU$770 per night.

Tour There

Denver’s eTuks have multiple custom tours every day of the week. From AU$95.

Words Roberto Serrini

Photos Roberto Serrini

Tags: Aspen, colorado, denver, telluride, usa

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