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Getaways – Rocky Mountain Hip

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By Carol Pucci

RISMEDIA, August 22, 2008-(MCT)-Dance the night away under the stained-glass windows at a nightclub called Church. Ride the free bus along a 16-block pedestrian zone in the heart of downtown. Feast on steak tacos and buffalo hot dogs.

Here’s some advice for the 50,000-plus politicians, delegates and Barack Obama supporters gathering here for the Democratic National Convention later this month: ditch the cowboy boots. Pack the party clothes. More new West than old, Denver has morphed from sleepy former Gold Rush town in the foothills of the Rockies to urban outpost with an artsy, outdoors vibe.

Bonus points: This is one of a handful of bigger U.S. cities where heavy airline competition is keeping fares low. In the Democratic spirit of going green and keeping the budget deficit in check, I found an airline ticket for $139, a $107 room through Priceline.com at the downtown Hyatt Regency (complete with an Obama sighting in the fitness center), and used public transportation to get around.

From the giant dust pan outside the Denver Art Museum by the same artists who created the typewriter eraser in Seattle’s sculpture park, to miles of bike paths and an old-fashioned ballpark that looks a lot like Safeco Field, there’s much about Denver’s past and present that a visitor from the Pacific Northwest will find familiar.

The great “Pikes Peak or Bust” Gold Rush began in 1858, when some flakes of gold were found in Denver’s Cherry Creek. Pioneers on their way to California set down roots and turned the tent city into a boomtown.

Seattle has Sodo, the spiffed-up warehouse district south of downtown near Safeco Field. Denver has LoDo, or lower downtown, a 26-block historic area home to Coors Field and century-old warehouses turned into hotels, condos, galleries, bars and restaurants.

Fuel up for an urban hike with breakfast at Snooze (www.snoozedenver.com) across from Big Daddy’s Jewelry and Pawnshop on Larimer Street. The round silver booths reminded me of taking a ride in the Mad Hatter’s tea cup, and I’m still dreaming about the cherry cobbler, sweet potato and pineapple upside-down pancakes.

What’s cheap, free or almost:

- Lower Downtown Historic District walking tours. $10, $5 for students and seniors. Special tours during the convention. See www.lodo.org.
- The Tattered Cover Bookstore, 16th Street near Union train station. The best of Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. and Portland’s Powell’s combined in an 1800s building with plush green carpeting, reading lamps and comfy sofas and chairs. Free author readings and a cafe that sells any size tea for $1.75 (www.tatteredcover.com).
- Nightly jazz at El Chapultepec, 1962 Market St. Look for the green neon cactus on the corner. Drop a few dollars in the goldfish bowl atop the piano, and settle into one of a half-dozen wooden booths for an evening with one of the local groups that play nightly. Will Bill Clinton make a repeat appearance? A photo of the ex-pres playing the sax at the Pec hangs near the door. No cover charge. Tacos are 3 for $5.
- Happy hour at Tamayo, Larimer Square, Denver’s oldest block. Chic restaurants and shops have replaced the banks, dry-goods stores and photo studios that used to occupy its Victorian brick and stone buildings. Acapulco native Richard Sandoval’s Tamayo is always packed. Steak tacos are $6, and margaritas are $4 in the rooftop lounge from 5-7 p.m. (www.modernmexican.com)

Denver hired I.M. Pei, the architect designer of the Pyramid at the Louvre in Paris, to design a mile-long promenade that stretches from LoDo to the museum district near the state capitol building. Nearby is the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, where Boston artist Jonathan Borofsky installed a 60-foot-high pair of intertwined figures called the “Dancers.” Borofsky created the “Hammering Man” at the entrance to the Seattle Art Museum.

What’s cheap, free or almost:

- The 16th Street MallRide, free hybrid electric shuttle buses that run every few minutes along the length of 16th. You can get most anywhere downtown within 15 minutes by combining this bus ride with a few blocks of walking.
- The $2 buffalo hot dogs sold by mall vendors.
- A free downtown Wi-Fi hot spot.
- Connections to light rail lines ($1.75 per trip) for getting to other destinations including Performing Arts Center and Pepsi Center, the site of the Democratic convention Aug. 25-28. 

No need to go far to enjoy the outdoors. Denver has the Commons and Confluence Park, a downtown nature area at the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River. Once a meeting spot for mountain men who traded furs here with the Indians, the area is crisscrossed with waterfalls, picnic areas and bike paths leading to the REI Flagship store on the South Platte River. Get here via the Millennium Bridge, a foot bridge at the end of the 16th Street Mall that connects the north end of downtown with riverfront residential areas.

What’s cheap, free or almost:

- Browsing through REI inside the restored red brick 1901 Denver Tramway building. Climb the massive indoor wall in the center of the store, or rent a bike and cycle around the city on a network of paved paths that begin a few feet from the entrance.
- A $3, 30-minute ride along the riverfront on the Platte River Trolley (www.denvertrolley.org). Catch it in front of REI noon to 4 p.m. Friday-Monday through Labor Day and Friday-Sunday from Labor Day through Oct. 31.

A Greek-style amphitheater and the gold-domed state capitol building flank the Golden Triangle museum district and nearby Santa Fe Arts District, a short walk from Civic Center station, the last stop on the southern end of the MallRide.

The talker is architect Daniel Libeskind’s angled titanium addition to the Denver Art Museum (www.denverartmuseum.org). Don’t miss the “Big Sweep,” a 35-foot-tall broom and dust pan wedged near a bridge connecting the new wing to the old. It’s the work of Coosje van Bruggen and Claes Oldenburg, the artists who created the “Typewriter Eraser” at the Olympic Sculpture Park on the Seattle waterfront.

What’s cheap, free or almost:

- Daily tours of the Colorado State Capitol building and the capitol dome, reopened last year after being closed for repairs. Note the stained-glass portraits of historical figures including mountain man Kit Carson and Kansas Gov. James W. Denver, for whom the city was named.
- A walk through the Arts District on Santa Fe (www.artdistrictonsantafe.com). Five blocks of art galleries, shops, cafes and Mexican restaurants in and around Santa Fe Drive between Fifth and 11th avenues. Thousands gather here for the First Friday art walks, but other times it’s quiet, and you’ll likely find artists at work in their studios firing pots or pounding clay. El Taco de Mexico, 714 Santa Fe, a women-run diner in a bright yellow corner building, is known for its hefty portions and low prices.
- Dancing at Church (www.coclubs.com), 1160 Lincoln St., in a former church near the capitol building. After Denver’s Episcopal bishop dissolved St. Mark’s parish over a dispute with the congregation, the 119-year-old church was sold and turned into a nightclub. Candles burn above the amp rack in the vestibule. Blue laser lights bounce off the stained-glass windows. Free ladies’ nights, salsa lessons and $5 covers. What goes on in the privacy of your pew is up to you.

Getting There, Getting Around

Denver’s Regional Transportation District operates the skyRide bus (Route AF, $9) from the airport to the 16th Street Mall and Market Street station. See www.rtd-denver.com/skyRide. Airport shuttles are $20 per person. Taxis cost $50-$60.

Rocky Mountain National Park is 75 miles away. You’ll need a car to get there. Otherwise public transportation works fine. Downtown is flat and walkable. Free buses run along the 16th Street Mall, stopping at each intersection every few minutes. Light rail lines ($1.75 per ride) connect downtown to the Santa Fe arts district and suburban areas. See www.rtd-denver.com.

Lodging

I bid on priceline.com for a four-star downtown hotel and got the Hyatt Regency for $107, including all taxes. The price was $224 on the hotel’s website and $229 on Expedia. 650 15th St., 800-233-1234 or www.denverregency.hyatt.com.

Other choices:

- The Oxford Hotel. A five-story brick Victorian landmark near the train station in LoDo. Doubles $160 to $310. 1600 17th St. 800-228-5838 or www.theoxfordhotel.com.
- Brown Palace Hotel. Classy and historic. Doubles $149 to $700. 321 17th St. 800- 321-2599 or www.brownpalace.com.
- Capitol Hill Mansion, elegant B&B in the residential Capitol Hill neighborhood. Singles or doubles $114-$199 with breakfast. 1207 Pennsylvania St. 800-839-9329 or www.capitolhillmansion.com.

More Info

Contact the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau (www.visitdenver.org) for a free visitors guide. Phone: 800-233-6837.

© 2008, The Seattle Times.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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