The mountains are so breathtaking and the air so fresh and clear, you feel like you're in Switzerland. The legal marijuana culture recalls Amsterdam, the brewery scene is straight out of Munich, and the institutionalized progressivism reeks of Denmark and Sweden. Add 300 days of sunshine a year and a kaleidoscopic street culture to go with it . . . where are we?
It's Boulder, Colorado, "the city nestled between the mountains and reality," according to its tourism website. What used to be a pretty college town in the Front Range of the Rockies has bloomed into an exhilarating Eden for yoga mavens, tea and beer drinkers, health-conscious foodies, cyclists, hikers and regular old station-wagon families on their vacations out West.
BRING YOUR HIKING BOOTS
On a recent four-day visit, we engaged in so much exercise, healthy eating and naive gawking (at both natural and man-made jaw-droppers) that I can honestly say I felt younger when I left than when I arrived.
Our first full day, we visited the Colorado Chautauqua, a park with spectacular views of the city, a restaurant and cottages you can rent by the night, right on the edge of town. Founded in 1898 as part of a national movement to spread culture and education (the first location was on Chautauqua Lake in southwestern New York), the Colorado Chautauqua is noted for gorgeous hiking trails of varying length and difficulty.
A helpful ranger at the station beside the entrance helped my 14-year-old daughter, Jane, and me choose a trail and marked our options on a map. Because we only had about an hour, and because my knees aren't great, she suggested the easy Enchanted Mesa Trail. The path took us over mountain streams on stepping-stones, through a meadow of tall grasses and intoxicatingly sweet-smelling pine woods, and emerged atop a plateau overlooking Boulder.
STREET ARTISTS GALORE
That evening we got started on the eating and gawking at the Pearl Street Mall, a lively pedestrian area from 11th to 15th streets. We planned to have dinner at a Mexican restaurant, take in a lecture on Buddhist psychology at the Boulder Bookstore, then maybe a post-enlightenment chai at The Laughing Goat coffeehouse. Along the way, we were distracted by street performers and buskers of every stripe: musicians, fairies, jugglers, fire eaters and a guy who just wanted to tell a joke.
Gawking continued the next day at The Farm, a recreational marijuana dispensary in north Boulder. Even though I'm not a smoker, I felt my trip would be incomplete without a visit to what could be our future in the 48 states that have yet to legalize. With an ambience that crossed a head shop with a doctor's waiting room, the dispensary offered a friendly welcome to a steady stream of clients, including a guy who looked like a construction-crew foreman, a group of young people shopping together, and a few middle-aged women. All were studying a blackboard where an employee was updating a list of varieties like Bubblegum Bubba Kush and Hawaiian Skunk, and each was eventually escorted by a "budtender" into the locked room where the smokables and edibles are sold.
GATEWAY TO THE ROCKIES
After a few days in town, we took the hour drive up to Estes Park, gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. The frankly touristy town has a streetful of candy and ice cream stores -- what the heck, you can work it off in a couple hours in the park -- and is home to the Stanley Hotel, made famous in "The Shining," as well as the Estes Park Resort, where the lakeside deck boasts a 360-degree view of the peaks. Here, I finally got around to trying the local beer. With names like Hipster, Old Chub, and Hazed and Infused, the microbrews give the pot varieties a run for their money.
I sipped my Hipster, put my feet up on the deck rail, gazed at the mountains, and mellowed out. Which clearly is what a Boulder vacation is for.
WHAT TO DO
Colorado Chautauqua Beautiful short hikes, fine food in the dining hall, and 60 sweet cottages with flower beds and handmade quilts. Admission to the park is free; lodging from $84 to $209 a night.
INFO 303-442-3282, chautauqua.com
Pearl Street Mall Boulder's lively hub, with shopping, dining, nightlife and all kinds of street fun. Explore it on your own or check out boulderwalkingtours.com. Between 11th and 15th streets on Pearl Street.
Celestial Seasonings and Boulder Beer Co. both offer fun, free factory tours and tastings.
Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park An easy day trip from Boulder, or there's camping in the park and lodging in the town. Admission from $20 a car.
INFO 970-586-1206, nps.gov/romo
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Boulderado The grande dame of Boulder lodgings, open since 1909, has 160 rooms in the heart of downtown. From $250.
INFO 800-433-4344, boulderado.com
Silver Saddle Motel and The Foot of the Mountain Next door to each other, these motor courts feature Alpine-style cabins. Though they back up to Roosevelt National Forest, they're a short walk or bike ride from town.
Briar Rose B&B Run by a Zen monk, this 10-room B&B is a mecca for organic food and sustainability, with an on-site meditation center, from $165.
INFO 888-786-8440, briarrosebb.com
WHERE TO EAT
Dushanbe TeaHouse Unmissable. A gift from Boulder's sister city in Tajikistan, this exquisite edifice was made entirely by hand, with carved columns and a painted ceiling. Full menu of pan-Asian delicacies.
INFO 303-442-4993, boulderteahouse.com
Tangerine Considered by many to be Boulder's best breakfast place, in what passes for a strip mall.
INFO 303-443-2333, tangerineboulder.com
T/ACO Great taco list, good guacamole and margaritas, right downtown.
INFO 303-443-9468, tacocolorado.com
Larkburger Boulder's version of a fast-food burger joint, complete with vegan, gluten-free and dairy-free options. Check out the garbage -- there isn't any. All recycling and compost. Several locations.
INFO 303-444-1487, larkburger.com