Colorado: This is What “California Dreaming” Was All About

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Denver PrideFest

(Denver PrideFest photo courtesy of MRNY)

Imagine standing on the corner of San Francisco’s Haight and Ashbury during 1967’s Summer of Love, casually sharing a joint with a time traveler from the present. Now imagine that your happily high visitor from the future tells you that Colorado, not California, will be the first state to legalize cannabis. And that Denver, not San Francisco, will be the first US city to decriminalize psilocybin (aka magic mushrooms). Oh, and also that Colorado, not California, will be the first state in the US to elect an openly gay man as governor.

Such prophecies might have stretched credulity in the late ‘60s when Northern Colorado was bone dry due to Prohibition-era restrictions. But the 21st-century realities of Colorado do recall the utopian optimism of flower-powered California. Colorado legalized cannabis in 2014, and Denver decriminalized psilocybin earlier this year — four months after openly-gay Jared Polis became the 43rd Governor of Colorado in January.

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If you’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of the annual two-day kaleidoscopic fantasia known as Denver PrideFest, you might imagine the fabled pot of gold at the rainbow’s end may be found in Colorado. Each year in June, nearly 400,000 people transform Denver’s Civic Center Park into a resplendent playground with the same freedom-loving vibe of Woodstock and Burning Man — a pansexual panorama of humanity’s rainbow spectrum.

No wonder Denver has become the second largest millennial boomtown in the States. Perhaps it was destined to be: After all, Colorado is the Centennial State, and granted its statehood on the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. How fitting this sort of national anniversary gift ended up a reminder of the republic’s founding principles of equality, freedom and the pursuit of happiness?

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“What I hear most often from people who come here is ‘I feel at home,’” says Jayne Buck, Vice President of Tourism at Visit Denver. “After only a couple of days, they tell me, ‘I feel at home here.’ I think that feeling stems from the Gold Rush; that sense of seeking an adventure, embarking on a new chapter and then finding yourself in the process.”

Inhabited by Native Americans for more than 13,000 years, the territory later known as Colorado boomed during the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush, with an influx of some 100,000 gold miners who created mining camps known as Denver City and Boulder City. In the 1920s, Denver’s Five Points neighborhood became known as the “Harlem of the West” in deference to its multitudes  of jazz bars and clubs, as well as a reminder that one in three cowboys who took part in the cattle drives of the Old West was African-American, and very often a freed slave.

More than a century later, Colorado retains an adventurous spirit with a populace increasingly known for their progressivism and eco-sensibility. Home to 45 state and national parks, nearly a thousand wildlife species and 6,000 miles of rivers, the nation’s eighth largest state has committed to 100% renewable energy over the next 20 years.

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Denver High

The Rocky Mountains, which spans nearly 5,000 miles of the western half of North America, define Colorado and embody Denver’s mile-high sensibility. Nearly omnipresent on the horizon, the mountains are to Denver what the ocean is to Miami: a four-season playground and an easy escape from the urban grind and grid.

As Alyson Calagna, founder of Remix Your World, states, “My life as a DJ and music producer is chaotic. And as soon as I hit Colorado, I am instantly grounded.” Calagna relocated to Colorado from Miami in 2011 because “my soul needed to get into the mountains and get lost in the wilderness — and the stillness.”

“I wanted to see the sky,” says Calagna, who lives in Boulder and keeps a music studio in Denver, “but I still wanted a city with a metropolitan feel.” As the largest city within 600 miles, Denver has been dubbed the LGBTQ oasis of the West. Located 5,280 feet above sea level, the Mile High City averages 300 days of annual sunshine, which means that a marriage proposal on the 13th step of the Colorado State Capitol at precisely 5,280 feet could be quite a sunny proposition.

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Rino Hunting

One of Denver’s most vibrant neighborhoods, RiNo (an acronym for River North) emerged from an industrial hub just north of downtown with a mission to empower artists and encourage their creativity. Denver Graffiti Tour, which was founded by a pair of art-loving locals, offers a two-hour walking tour of RiNo’s celebrated street art scene alongside an insider’s perspective on RiNo’s tagline “Where Art Is Made.”

Denver Union Station

(Denver Union Station courtesy Scott Dressel-Martin)

Easily recognized by its wall-size Shepard Fairey mural, Denver Central Market has become RiNo’s de facto community center, thanks to a curated collection of local vendors — in addition to its buzzing bar with a popular happy hour. Locals who love Izzio Bakery line up for the third-generation baker’s Italian-American delicacies, particularly the beloved Colorado Queen, a caramelized sweet-and-buttery croissant-like pastry that induces cravings from morning to midnight.

At the nearby Il Posto, a squid-ink-infused mezcal cocktail serves as a welcome prelude to the Northern Italian specialties of Milanese chef/owner Andrea Frizzi, whose toothsome pizzas at Vero in Denver Central Market are perfectly-charred in a mosaic-tiled brick oven.

More than 2,000 electric scooters zip around Denver, gliding a million miles in the first six months after their introduction to the city in 2018. RiNo is just as frequently traversed by cyclists, joggers, pedestrians and skateboards. And within the radius of a single mile, the neighborhood serves as home to at least a dozen craft breweries and distilleries. For an elegant perspective on the neighborhood parade, reserve a ringside table in the French-infused lobby boîte known as Death & Co. at The Ramble Hotel.

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Inspired by the literary salons of the Marquise de Rembouillet in 17th-century French society, The Ramble Hotel opened in 2018 in a purpose-built structure that reflects RiNo’s manufacturing history — albeit with the addition of crystal chandeliers, Persian carpets and a secluded speakeasy. As the first outpost of New York’s celebrated Death & Co., the Denver incarnation maintains its dedication to expert mixology with the addition of a full-service lobby restaurant known as DC/AM. Equally alluring is the adjoining Super Mega Bien, a Pan-Latin dim sum dining hall helmed by James Beard-nominated chef Dana Rodriguez. Her ebullience and culinary wizardry steer parties through the night.

Rooms and suites at The Ramble evoke the pleasures of a civilized sanctuary above the fray, complete with French press coffee, illuminated dressing room vanities and a curated Death & Co. bar complete with crystal rocks glasses. A three-tier, cut-glass chandelier above the wall-size windows further enhances the slightly-illicit seductive atmosphere. Guests who book the “I Must Have Flowers, Always & Always” package at The Ramble are fêted with floral-themed cocktails and artworks.

The Ramble Hotel Adam Szafranski

(The Ramble Hotel, photo courtesy Adam Szafranski)

In a neighborhood fueled by cocktails and cannabis, breakfast is equally beloved. This is especially true at the award-winning Call, which bumps the morning meal into Michelin-star territory with a Northern European-influenced menu composed of seasonal Colorado fare. For another take on breakfast bliss, hop a scooter to Denver’s historic Union Station, where Mercantile serves the elevated comfort food of James Beard award-winning chef Alex Seidel in a soaring setting that functions as restaurant, market and bar. Fortunately, Denver B-cyle offers an opportunity to bike off that breakfast with 700 bicycles available for use on 850 miles of urban cycling trails.

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All That Glitters

Notable for its 24-karat gold dome, Colorado’s majestic state capitol serves as an entrance to Denver’s Golden Triangle neighborhood with its various civic and cultural institutions. Named for artist Vance Kirkland, the newly-relocated Kirkland Museum houses one of the nation’s most important design and decorative arts collections with over 30,000 works by more than 1,500 artists and designers.

Equally impressive is the neighboring Clyfford Still Museum dedicated to the work of one of the 20th century’s leading Abstract Expressionist painters. More than 90 percent of Clyfford Still’s total output is housed in a remarkable textured concrete museum that is both a complement to Still’s work and an architectural marvel in its own right. Prior to the museum’s 2011 opening, the bulk of Still’s estate had been unavailable to the public since 1980. Now visitors have access to nearly the entire oeuvre of a painter who ranks alongside Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. The collection is breathtaking.

Similarly, the architectural bravura of Denver Art Museum (DAM) is unmistakable, thanks to the titanium planes and prow of Daniel Libeskind’s Hamilton Building — connected via aerial walkway to Italian modernist Gio Ponti’s 24-sided fortress-like building from 1971. One of DAM’s most anticipated upcoming exhibitions is Claude Monet: The Truth of Nature, which will house the most extensive assortment of Monet paintings exhibited in the States in more than 20 years.

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Inside the Boulder Bubble

For certain people, the city of Boulder is a nearly-mythical locale representing all the riches of life. “I felt this intense vibe during my daily meditation,” explains Calagna about her decision to relocate to Boulder. “My soul was calling, ‘Go to Colorado, to Boulder’ — which, at that point, was a place I only knew about from books on Buddhist communities and its healing history. I knew I had to uplevel my consciousness. So I sold everything and said, ‘Show me my healers.’ And the moment I drove into Boulder, it felt like home. I knew right then.”

Arial View of Downtown Boulder

(Arial View of Downtown Boulder)

To picture Boulder is to imagine the world if the values espoused by the hippies of the ‘60s had been made manifest in the subsequent decades. Compassion for Mother Earth commingles with respect for all — with better gardens for gourmet food included. As some locals like to say, “We’re nestled between the mountains and reality.” In 1967, Boulder voted to become the first American city to tax its citizens for the preservation of open spaces, which now comprise 45,000 acres of unspoiled nature. More than 300 miles of hiking and biking trails serve a richly caffeinated populace, 50,000 of whom participate in the outrageously attired 10K race known as BolderBoulder.

“Boulder is a much higher-vibed community and very highly conscious,” says Calagna, “where a non-binary queer is readily integrated into the larger community. I came from a background where you checked boxes about your identity and Boulder shifted that. All these soul-seekers in Boulder, they are unafraid to question those self-imposed boundaries. Embracing my own sexuality and being able to explore that comes from living here in Boulder.”

Pride celebrations in Boulder kicked off this year with the unveiling of a rainbow-painted intersection at Broadway and Pearl in the heart of downtown. Each year in May, Out Boulder sponsors an annual Garden Party, which is followed in September by Boulder Pride Week and the city’s annual Boulder Pridefest. This year’s annual December Holiday Party will be held at the city’s historic Hotel Boulderado at License No. 1, so named for the receipt of the city’s first liquor license in 1969 — after an astounding 62 years of alcohol prohibition.

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Today, Boulder boasts more breweries per capita than any other American city and guests at St. Julien Hotel & Spa book therapeutic CBD (cannabidiol) treatments at the luxury hotel’s wellness retreat. Situated 5,430 feet above sea level in the Rocky Mountain foothills, St. Julien’s rooms and suites offer views of the Flatirons, the omnipresent sheer red rock formations that have become Boulder’s signature.

A university and research town, Boulder’s architecture is more horizontal than vertical, which better frames the Flatirons and the surrounding Colorado Chautauqua which beckons to local hikers, bikers, runners, and more than one million annual visitors. Open year-round, the National Historic Landmark offers summer concerts in the 1898 auditorium and meals with panoramic vistas from the Chautauqua Dining Hall.

Rocky Mountain National Park

(Rocky Mountain National Park, courtesy Rocky Mountain National Park)

Boulder is almost synonymous with the James Beard award-winning restaurant Frasca Food and Wine. Located just beyond Boulder’s brick-paved Pearl Street pedestrian mall with its streetwise buskers, the sleek and stylish restaurant received James Beard accolades for its exemplary service, which is masterfully displayed throughout a seven-course Friulano tasting menu with wine pairings that showcase the gastronomic bounty of Colorado and its producers. By the time the post-prandial artisanal chocolates are offered in a presentation box, it’s possible to believe that Colorado is perfecting the recipe for a better American future.

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Last modified: October 2, 2019