EXPLORING DENVER AND ITS ENVIRONS

My friend Alyson and I both recently had a week off between jobs and decided to go on a last minute getaway. In choosing a locale, we were looking for a relatively cheap destination that was easy to get to from multiple cities (she lives in Boston and I live in NYC). Denver popped up on both of our flight searches and we were lucky enough to find flights that arrived/departed within 20 minutes of one another. I’ve flown into Denver many times for ski trips and work trips, but have rarely spent time exploring Denver and its surrounding areas. As I started to research for the trip, I was so impressed by the number of awesome activities, hotels and dining options I came up with. Denver is definitely an up and coming travel destination and I would recommend it to anyone as an easy long weekend getaway.

ESTES PARK

We flew into Denver on a Sunday morning and headed straight from the airport to Estes Park, a town just outside of Rocky Mountain National Park that is only about an hour and a half drive from Denver. In Estes, the Stanley Hotel stands perched above the town.

 

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The Stanley Hotel

A historic hotel dating back to 1909, the Stanley is also known as one of the most haunted places in America and was also the inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining (they also filmed the movie there). The hotel is only 20 minutes from the National Park entrance so it’s a very convenient place to stay when visiting. We enjoyed several great meals in the hotel’s restaurant, Cascades, which features local American cuisine and ghost-themed cocktails (try the REDRUM).

We also signed up for the one of the nighttime ghost tours offered at the hotel. While a bit kitschy, it was a fun way to spend the evening and we enjoyed hearing the history of the hotel which was part of the tour.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK

It’s such a treat to find a beautiful National Park so close to a large city, so I definitely recommend at least a day trip. Our favorite hike was a 5-mile roundtrip that we took to Cub Lake. It offered varied terrain, beautiful mountain vistas and a lake destination. Plus, we saw herds of elk, and even two males up close in the woods.

IMG_3710Depending on the time of year you visit, the Bear Lake area is also very popular for hiking, and offers access to several trailheads. But, given the high elevation of that area, it was too snowy for our visit in early November.

BOULDER

Boulder is only about 20-30 minutes’ drive from downtown Denver. And if you’re driving to Denver from Estes Park like we did, it’s on the way and makes a great pitstop for lunch. After our long hike to Cub Lake, the delicious meal we had at The Kitchen was delightful (although there is also a location in Denver, if you miss the trip to Boulder). Boulder also has a great pedestrian mall downtown on Pearl Street, and it’s definitely worth walking around and popping into the cute shops and boutiques. For an afternoon pick-me-up after shopping, definitely stop in at Boulder Baked, for one of their “baked to order” cookies.

DENVER

On to Denver! We stayed at The Art Hotel in the Museum District.  The hotel was very comfortable, conveniently located and a museum in itself! The hotel features several temporary and permanent modern art installations for guests to enjoy – everywhere from the lobby to the elevator. Our first full day in Denver, we headed out in the morning to Core Power Yoga near our hotel for a great yoga class. Then we headed out for lunch and local beers at The Source, an artisan food market in the River North (RiNo) District.

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I definitely recommend the tacos at Comida, a former taco truck serving Southern-influenced Mexican street food. My favorite was the Shrimp and Grits taco. That afternoon, we spent some time shopping on the 16th Street Mall (check out Tattered Cover Book Store for an old fashioned brick and mortar bookstore) and at the boutiques in Larimer Square. In the evening, we took a little drink tour before dinner. Our first stop was The Great Divide Brewing Company for a tasting (they offer 3 oz pours for $1 each!) and our second stop was Terminal Bar, located in the historic ticketing office of Union Station.

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Beer Flight at The Great Divide

For dinner, we headed to ChoLon Bistro and were completely blown away. The flavors were sublime and each dish was more innovative than the next.

On Day 2 in Denver, we got in a quick workout at Pure Barre in Cherry Creek and then went out to brunch at Sassafras. The food was delicious (I had cheesy grits with poached eggs and bacon) but my favorite was the make-your-own mimosa flight, which was just too cute!

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Mimosa flight at Sassafras

That afternoon, we spent hours exploring the exhibits in the History Colorado Center which were so well done. The highlighted exhibit featuring Toys from the 50s, 60s, and 70s was particularly fun, although we also enjoyed the more permanent exhibits around the history and environment of Colorado. The exhibits were very engaging and great for kids, but also fun and educational for adults.

For our final evening, we took a shop owner’s recommendation to visit Williams & Graham, a speakeasy posing as a bookshop in The Highlands.

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The cocktails were fantastic, but the atmosphere was just perfect – complete with walking through a fake bookcase to get to the bar. For dinner, we ate at Linger, which is housed in an old mortuary and features globally-inspired plates. The food was delicious and more wallet-friendly than ChoLon Bistro, although the portions were a bit large. The food is meant to be shared, so with only two people it was a little difficult to taste a variety of things without being overwhelmed by food.

All in all, we had a fabulous trip exploring Denver and its environs!

HOTEL REVIEW: COSTANOA LODGE

Costanoa Lodge is nestled just south of San Francisco (just over an hour’s drive) in Pescadero, California – the perfect setting for a weekend getaway off the grid. The drive down from San Fran is beautiful, winding south along the coast on Highway 1.

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View of the California Coast in Pescadero

When you arrive at rustic Costanoa Lodge, you have three different options for lodging: you can bring your own camper and park in one of the RV spots on the vast property; you can opt for a more traditional hotel experience and stay in the lodge building itself or one of several cabins; or you can opt for the full glamping experience with one of Costanoa’s “tent bungalows.” I chose the third option, and it was absolutely lovely. The tented cabin was quaint and clean, complete with a queen-sized bed, wood floor, electricity, and 2 Adirondack chairs out front to soak up the woods view or stargaze. The cabin also comes with towels, a robe, and a shower basket (complete with shampoo and soap) to take to one of the many “comfort stations” located around the property. The comfort stations are also clean and well-lit and even have outdoor shower options to add to the rustic camping experience.

When we arrived at Costanoa, our first stop was the spa, which is small, but offers delightful massages. Next, we headed over to the Pine Tent area in the campground for a glass of wine and to enjoy some live music.

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View of the California Coast in Pescadero

The Pine Tent also serves up some BBQ options for casual dining. (It also serves coffee, tea and breakfast burritos in the morning). For a more fine dining experience, head over to Cascade Bar & Grill, which serves delicious food (although the service was a little off the night we were there).

Costanoa and the surrounding area offers plenty to do: from hikes along the sand dunes (look out for seals) and up in the hills, to horseback riding, and exploring the downtown strip of Pescadero. But one of my favorite things about my stay at Costanoa was the time to relax and unplug. While Costanoa does offer free Wifi throughout the camp, unless you turn it on, you won’t have any cell phone service. The views are beautiful and the stargazing is tremendous. We spent lots of time, sitting outside, drinking wine and enjoying the camping experience. There is definitely something rejuvenating about spending a few days out in nature to put life in perspective.

Sunset in Pescadero
Sunset in Pescadero

FOODIE GETAWAY TO PORTLAND, MAINE

While Portland, Oregon has gotten quite a bit of press lately as a hot destination Portland, Maine is also hitting the map – especially on the foodie circuit. While Maine conjures up images of rugged coastline, blueberry picking and quaint villages, Portland – only a 2 hour drive from Boston – has a bit of a hipster vibe, not unlike the Portland of the West Coast. I recently took a trip up to Portland, Maine in July. And, if making the drive from Boston as I did, I definitely recommend a pitstop in Ogunquit for a stroll along the Marginal Way Cliff Walk and possibly lunch at one of the many seafood restaurants in “Perkins Cove” (the starting point for the Cliff Walk).

Portland has many activities to choose from – paddleboarding or kayaking along the coast, brewery tours, and shopping along the historic cobblestone streets, but the highlight of my trip was the food. My top spots were:

  1. The Portland Hunt & Alpine Club – offering craft cocktails, gourmet popcorn, and Scandinavian small bites

    Cocktails and Popcorn at the Portland Hunt & Alpine Club
    Cocktails and Popcorn at the Portland Hunt & Alpine Club
  2. Union Portland – a new farm to table spot in The Press Hotel
  3. Duckfat – sandwiches, milkshakes and fries. Known for their fabulous poutine – a must!

    Poutine at Duckfat
    Poutine at Duckfat
  4. Central Provisions – small plates and punch bowls for sharing. Definitely worth checking out for brunch as well (opens at 11 am) – and be sure to order the cornbread skillet.
  5. Holy Donuts – Made with real Maine potatoes (!), these donuts come in a multitude of flavors and are nothing short of delicious
  6. Eventide Oyster Co. – a favorite for oyster lovers, but don’t miss their signature lobster roll served warm in a brown butter sauce.

    Lobster roll at Eventide Oyster Co.
    Lobster roll at Eventide Oyster Co.
  7. Slab – a nice spot for groups with outdoor seating, live music and giant slabs of pizza.

ISLAND HOPPING IN HAWAII

Hawaii, the 50th U.S. State, is made up of a collection of 8 main islands: Niihau, Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, Lanai, Maui, Kahoolawe, and Hawaii (“The Big Island”) – from west to east, although Kahoolawe is largely uninhabited and Niihau is restricted to individuals of Hawaiian ancestry. Each island has distinct topography, history and attractions so I definitely recommend visiting more than one on a trip to Hawaii. On this trip, I traveled to: Kauai, Maui, The Big Island and Oahu (in that order). Unfortunately I didn’t have time to visit Lanai, owned by Larry Ellison and known for its beautiful golf resorts, or Molokai, previously home to Hawaii’s leper colony (as described in one of my favorite historical fiction novels, Molokai).

KAUAI

Of the islands I visited, Kauai was the most remote and lush island. I stayed on the Northern shore, at the Westin Princeville Ocean Resort & Villas, near Hanalei Bay (home of Puff the Magic Dragon) and the famous Na Pali coast. The two must-do activities for the north shore of Kauai are: a helicopter tour (the majority of the island is only viewable by air), and a hike along the Na Pali coast. For the helicopter tour I recommend Sunshine Helicopters. A typical tour lasts about 45 minutes and offers you the chance to view Waimea Canyon, Manawaiopuna Falls (seen in the film Jurassic Park), and the Na Pali coast, among other notable canyons, waterfalls, and lush green valleys. The scenery is truly stunning.

“Jurassic Park Falls”

Hiking along the Na Pali coast also offers jaw dropping landscapes. While the full Na Pali coast Kalalau Trail hike is 11 miles (one way) intermediate hikers can hike 2 miles from the trail head at the “End of the Road” to the remote Hanakapiai Beach. The trail is quite rigorous so this portion of the hike still requires several hours and offers stunning views of the famed Na Pali coastline. Returning back to the trailhead, I was covered head to toe in mud and so I took a dip in the pristine waters at Ke’e beach in Ha’ena State Park. This was one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve been to – a true paradise!

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MAUI

I have to admit, I think that Maui was my favorite of the islands I visited. Partially that was due to the fabulous hotel we stayed at – The Hotel Wailea. In years of traveling, I’ve found you can never go wrong with a Relais & Chateaux property, and the Hotel Wailea did not disappoint – from fresh leis and chilled champagne upon arrival to beautifully decorated 2-room suites all with balconies, to the complimentary Mercedes Benz shuttles and tea-lit garden dining at the famous Capische? restaurant, the Hotel Wailea is relaxation perfection.

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One of the top rated activities in Maui is to drive “The Road to Hana” – a several hour drive that twists and turns along the east coast of the island to the town of Hana. However, the journey is the highlight rather than the destination – with lots of little stops to make and explore along the way. The route has become so popular that many destinations can become touristy, especially during peak season. I recommend booking a small private guide to drive you for the day. Not only can you sit back and enjoy the scenery, but your guide will also know all the little off the beaten path spots to stop. I spent the day with Nick from Maui’s Private Guide and had a blast. We went swimming in remote watering holes, exploring in centuries hold lava tubes, and swimming/rock climbing through an underwater cave labyrinth with an underwater flashlight. We also stopped along the way for mouthwatering banana bread (a staple on the route), Coconut Glen’s vegan ice cream (made with coconut milk) and fresh caught fish tacos. The highlight at the end of the tour is to swim at Black Sand beach, so named due to the volcanic origins of the sand. Unfortunately the day I was there, there was high surf so we couldn’t take a dip, but we still got a great view.

Road to Hana Tour
Road to Hana Tour

The other activity I did on Maui, was a snorkeling trip to Molokini Island (a crescent shaped island off the shore of Maui) on the Kai Kanani II. I did the deluxe tour which left at 9 am and included breakfast, lunch, an open bar with unlimited beer and cocktails (including delicious Mai Tais – the signature drink of Hawaii) and several hours of snorkeling, including equipment rental. It was a delightful morning out on the boat, swimming around with the fish at the reef, and even seeing some wild sea turtles swimming around the reefs at “Turtle Town.”

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The Kai Kanani II

For dining on Maui, I strongly recommend Morimoto Maui at the Andaz Hotel as well as the Capische? restaurant at Hotel Wailea. It’s also worth checking out the breakfast at Hotel Wailea – including their signature waffles which change daily.

Waffles at the Hotel Wailea - served with fresh watermelon, yogurt and caramel syrup
Waffles at the Hotel Wailea – served with fresh watermelon, yogurt and caramel syrup

THE BIG ISLAND

On the Big Island, a trip to Volcanoes National Park is a must. Hawaii is an archipelago of volcanic islands and The Big Island is one of the only places to see live volcanic activity on display, especially at Kilauea. Walking through Volcanoes National Park, you can traverse lava flows from previous eruptions and view the smoke emitting from the massive volcanic crater. If you stay past sunset, you can even see the magma glowing bright orange from out of the crater – a truly magnificent contrast against the pitch black sky emblazoned with stars.

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New life emerges among the lava flow from the 1972 eruption at Volcanoes National Park

If coming from the Kona side, as I was, definitely allow a full day for the trip, as you will need to drive to the other side of the island. While many choose to rent a car, I chose again to hire a private guide. Akamai Adventures Tours is a small, family-run business and Tyler, the primary mountain guide is extremely knowledgeable about the ecology, history, geography and culture of the region. I learned a tremendous amount from being on that tour. Plus we got to make a few stops along the way, notably at the beautiful Akaka Falls and to pick up some delicious Malasadas – a Portuguese-style donut covered in granular sugar and stuffed with the filling of your choice, a Hawaiian favorite.

Akaka Falls
Akaka Falls

On the Big Island, I stayed at the Hilton Waikoloa Village – a very large hotel excellent for families. It had so many activities on offer, I spent a whole day enjoying the hotel – from tennis, to swimming with dolphins, to water slides, to paddle boarding in the manmade lagoon. I even rented a sea-facing cabana and in the evening attended the Legends of Hawaii Luau – a traditional Hawaiian luau complete with “pupus” (appetizers), Mai Tais and “Blue Hawaii” cocktails, a huge buffet including a fire-roasted pig, and an amazing show of hula dancers and fire batons. Though a little more on the touristy side, this hotel was just plain FUN and I would definitely recommend it to anyone traveling to the Big Island.

OAHU

My last stop was Honolulu on the island of Oahu, home to Waikiki Beach and Pearl Harbor. I stayed at the historic Halekulani Hotel which still retains its old world luxury, complete with dress code. Highlights of the hotel include the beautiful mosaic swimming pool overlooking Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head, 5-star dining at French restaurant, La Mer, and afternoon tea at Orchid’s (although I love afternoon tea everywhere).

Halekulani Pool
Halekulani Pool

Waikiki Beach and Honolulu are definitely more crowded and touristy than any of the other destinations I visited. Waikiki almost feels like Miami or a version of Rodeo Drive transplanted in Hawaii. Still, its worth a visit for a day or two since most flights to the mainland depart from Honolulu. Not to be missed is Pearl Harbor. Once again you can visit on your own, however I learned so much more from my guide Jessica of Keawe Adventures. There are several options when planning your visit to Pearl Harbor. I definitely recommend a visit to the USS Arizona, which is the primary memorial for the Pearl Harbor attacks (over the sunk USS Arizona ship), and includes a 30 minute informational video. I also chose to visit the USS Missouri (run by a separate non-profit so it requires a separate fee), which while not present at Pearl Harbor during the attacks, was an active battleship in WWII (along with other wars) and is representative of many of the ships that were hit on that December 7th.

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USS Arizona from the Pearl Harbor Memorial

Also worth a visit is Diamond Head State Monument, where visitors can hike 3/4 of the mile to the top of a volcanic crater wall to view the surrounding Waikiki Beach. The trail gets crowded and hot so its recommended to go early.

View of Diamond Head from Waikiki Beach
View of Diamond Head from Waikiki Beach