- The Washington Times - Friday, August 22, 2008

DENVER — All the talk about “Recreate ‘68” and Sen. Barack Obama´s historic presidential run shouldn´t distract conventioneers from checking out the less political enticements the host city has to offer.

Denver, which last hosted the Democratic National Convention in 1908, gets plenty of mileage from its mile-high altitude. Coors Field visitors can see precisely where the city is 5,280 feet above sea level - exactly one mile - by the line of colored seats ringing the stadium.

However, it’s the city’s attitude - friendly and ready to hike at a moment´s notice - that visitors will notice.

Eric Peterson, author of “Ramble Colorado” and co-author of “Frommer´s Denver, Boulder & Colorado Springs,” says the city’s transient population makes it a welcoming destination. Think more Midwest than West Coast.

“A lot of people did come from other places. It’s a melting pot and has an accepting feel,” Mr. Peterson says. “People don’t judge people too quickly.”

A great place to witness the city’s attitude in action is Confluence Park.

“Go and people-watch and get the feel for where Cherry Creek and the South Platte River come together,” Mr. Peterson says. “[The park] is where Denver was founded. It has historical cachet.”

A neighboring meeting place is one of Mr. Peterson´s preferred haunts.

El Chapultepec, which dates back more than 60 years, features checkerboard floors, a hip bar and “the best jazz in the West,” Mr. Peterson says. Plus, it offers diners a fully functional restaurant serving burritos.

Lively music scene

The overall Denver music scene got a boost with the recent breakout success of the rock band the Fray, but Mr. Peterson hails the city’s smaller clubs as equally noteworthy.

“Denver’s music flies under the radar,” he says. The city features rock, country and jazz ensembles, and a string of solid music clubs can be found in the historic Baker District. He suggests checking out Three Kings Tavern, Hi-Dive and Skylark Lounge.

Those eager for a less urban landscape can visit some of Denver’s adjacent neighborhoods, most just a short car trip away.

Tucked-away stretches such as Old South Pearl Street are “loaded with activity,” he says. Other attractive neighborhoods include Capitol Hill and its eclectic blend of independent shops, and Washington Park, home to the city´s sprawling park of the same name. Just make sure to refer to it as “Wash Park.” Denver likes its nicknames.

Dining in Denver

Foodies rarely list Denver among the country’s top-drawer dining spots, but the city´s culinary landscape has shifted over the past decade, says Amanda M. Faison, food editor at 5280 magazine.

“The impression is that we’re famous for steakhouses, and we are,” Miss Faison says, “but there’s so much more to Denver dining.”

Credit the emergence of Coors Field, the modern park for the Colorado Rockies baseball team, for the transformation of the LoDo (Lower Downtown) section of the city. Local residents slowly began demanding finer dining choices.

The city´s steady influx of new residents also sparked the transformation, Miss Faison says. New Denverites want a better, more diverse level of cuisine.

“You also have chefs coming here from other places who want the quality of life here, and they’re bringing their skills and excitement about cuisine,” she says, citing Rioja and Table 6 as best bets. The latter offers a neighborhood bistro atmosphere without the stuffiness that suffocates some restaurants.

Then again, who needs fine dining when you have the legendary Cricket Burger, routinely picked as the best hamburger by locals?

“It´s the perfect example of an icon in Denver,” Miss Faison says of the Cherry Cricket’s signature dish. Another comfort-food destination is Bang! in the Highlands neighborhood, for meatloaf, potatoes and black-eyed peas.

New restaurants are popping up all the time. Take Marco´s Coal Fired Pizza, which opened mere weeks ago near Coors Field and uses coal- and wood-fired ovens imported from Italy.

“The ingredients are so fresh,” Miss Faison says, recommending especially the coal-fired chicken wings teased with lemon, rosemary and garlic.

Red Rocks rocks

First-time Denver visitors are often of one mind after touching down at Denver International Airport.

Angela Berardino, senior communications manager at the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau, says the Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre consistently ranks among the top three Denver attractions visitors clamor to see.

U2 fans may know the open-air amphitheater, which includes two 300-foot monoliths, Ship Rock and Creation Rock. The site hosted the band’s iconic ‘80s concert, which became a popular long-form video.

However, Red Rocks, 15 miles west of Denver, also serves up hiking trails, including the Trading Post loop, a 1.4-mile trek affording up close-up views of rock formations and valleys.

Ms. Berardino says LoDo remains a top Denver destination, but lesser-known sites deserve attention.

One of Capitol Hill district’s best bets is the Kirkland Museum. Colorado painter Vance Kirkland (1904-1981) collected 20th-century design pieces, and parts of the museum feature his old studio space as well as a collection of his paintings. It’s also within walking distance of a more notable destination, the Molly Brown House Museum, home of the “unsinkable” woman of Titanic fame.

Art lovers also can check out the 36 galleries in the Santa Fe Art District, all packed within roughly a five-block radius, or spend an afternoon at the Denver Art Museum.

The bustling Cherry Creek neighborhood offers upscale shopping and dining - including Elway’s, the restaurant named after Denver Broncos football legend John Elway. Should conventioneers want to release some stress in an alcohol-free setting, the Cherry Creek shopping district packs 65 spas into its beautifully compact surrounding.

Take a hike

Denver residents live for hiking, biking and driving into the mountains, so they often congregate at the massive REI store across from Confluence Park.

Patrick Kennedy, an outreach specialist at the REI Denver location, recommends two urban hiking trails within walking distance of the city´s Pepsi Center - the Cherry Creek Trail and the South Platte River Trail. The latter affords bicyclists an easy way to pedal around the city.

Hikers also flock to Matthews/Winter Park to the west of the city and the Boulder Flatirons, a bit farther away. The latter includes a huge redstone monolith that rises at a 45-degree angle, he says.

“It’s very dramatic to see and fun to hike around,” he adds.

The Greater Denver area boasts 20,000 acres of public parks, with more than two-thirds of the acreage found in the mountains west of the city. The grave of cowboy impresario William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, along with a museum devoted to Cody’s career, can be found at a city park atop Lookout Mountain.

The parks include several buildings of historical interest, including Depression-era structures built by workers of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration. All told, the city’s parks attract about 2.5 million visitors a year.

No matter where you choose to go in Denver, be sure to pack extra sunscreen because the sun blazes roughly 300 days a year.

The city’s mile-high status also means thinner air, and first-time visitors might find their lung capacity a bit compromised, Ms. Berardino says. It isn’t as bad as ski towns such as Breckenridge, but it´s good to know ahead of time.

“You’ll notice it when you walk up the stairs,” she says.

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