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2 days in downtown Denver

Caramie Schnell
Vail, CO Colorado
Special to the Daily/Scott Dressel-Martin
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DENVER ” Costa Rica. Mexico. Florida. Plenty of locals skip town during mud season and head to sunnier, beach-side climes. If your checkbook or vacation allowance at work won’t allow for a weeklong getaway out of state, consider spending a few days in Denver. With the Denver Botanic Gardens, the Denver Zoo, the Downtown Aquarium, Six Flags at Elitch Gardens, Coors Field and the Pepsi Center all within a few miles of downtown, there’s plenty to do. On a recent weekend trip to Denver, my boyfriend and I visited three places we’d never been to in Denver ” the new Ritz-Carlton on Curtis Street, Cook Street School of Fine Cooking and the Denver Botanic Gardens. Here’s the scoop:

After stealing out of town Friday afternoon, we arrived in Denver at our lodging for the weekend ” the Ritz-Carlton ” with about an hour to spare before cooking school. Having opened in January, the 202-room Ritz is a new addition to Denver. I’d always heard that the Ritz was uber-fancy, but I wasn’t sure what to expect because I’d never stayed there before. The first thing I noticed was the level of service. Six people made eye contact and said hello before I even made it to the front desk. The doorman asked my last name, and less than 30 seconds later, the front-desk man greeted me by name with a hotel key extended toward me.

I admit that the attention freaked me out slightly, but they were nice. Just REALLY, REALLY nice.

A piece of advice: If you can afford a club-level room, swing for it ” it’s worth it. The spacious club-level lounge has great city views, comfy couches and flat-screen televisions. There’s also free breakfast, light lunch, appetizers starting at 5 p.m. and free drinks whenever you’re in the mood. I still miss the saccharine-sweet woman at the desk who asked me each morning if I wanted a cappuccino or latte.

Though I’m not sure I’d agree with the statement in a hotel press release: “The Ritz-Carlton Denver offers the Mile High City its first true luxury hotel” (I’ve stayed at the downtown Hyatt and Westin, both very nice hotels, too), our room was indeed luxurious. There was a flat-screen television, plush terry-cloth robes, an in-room Nespresso coffee machine, travel-size Bvlgari shampoo and conditioner and an iPod alarm clock, which the maids switch on to soothing music in the evening when they turn down the beds and leave little chocolates. All in all, I could live in the Ritz and be a very happy, very spoiled woman.

After checking out of the room, it was on to cooking school, conveniently within walking distance of the Ritz.

Culinary date night

Sharp knives and champagne. It’s no wonder the folks at the Cook Street School of Fine Cooking in Denver ask participants in their recreational cooking classes to sign waivers before they start chopping. We joined 12 other couples for culinary date night at the cooking school, which isn’t on Cook Street at all but rather on Market Street near a string of busy bars in Denver’s historic LoDo district.

“We are playing with flames, sharp knives and a case of champagne tonight ” it should be a good time,” chef-instructor Matthew Brown said within the first minute of meetings us.

The school is at once an efficient commercial kitchen (with three separate kitchens, actually) as well as a warm and comfortable teaching space that feels a little like a European bistro. Students help themselves to coffee and snacks before they sit down around the half-octagon maple-block bench to hear about the evening’s menu from witty Chef Brown.

Our date night revolved around finger food, specifically meat on a stick, which is one of my favorite ways to eat. Marshmallows, chicken strips, kabobs ” if it’s pierced by a stick and flanked by some sort of dipping sauce, I’m there. On the agenda for this particular three-hour class: grilled chicken and avocado satay with cilantro chipotle cream sauce, skewered ahi tuna with Mojo sauce, seared beef strips with citrus, mango and poblano salsa and strawberries with chocolate chile mole fondue.

Donning aprons and freshly washed hands, our group alternated among flanking Chef Brown at the outside grill; flipping the chicken and beef skewers, tuna steaks and halved avocados; and helping another assistant chef inside make the mango salsa, chipotle cream sauce and mojo sauce.

Here are a few cooking tricks I learned:

– Halve avocados and grill them until they’re warmed through to caramelize the fruit and impart a nice, smoky flavor.

– Salt and pepper meat before putting olive oil on it.

– Cook with kosher salt and finish with sea salt.

– Toast old spices over low heat to release more flavor.

– Lightly ball up herbs before you gently slice them. Try to cut them without bruising them. If your cutting board is green afterward, you’ve likely bruised them.

To learn more about the school, which offers a professional culinary-arts program as well as evening recreational classes, or to see a list of upcoming date nights, visit http://www.cookstreet.com.

Urban oasis

The next morning, we grabbed breakfast at the hotel before heading for the Denver Botanic Gardens, a 23-acre urban oasis in the middle of City Park. The gardens, which are on what used to be an old cemetery, emphasize native plants as well as plants from around the world, many of which are growing inside the tropical conservatory on the grounds.

We weren’t the only people with spring fever that day. The gardens were full of picnicking families, strolling couples and even a few tour groups. Many people, including ourselves, were also checking out the newest garden exhibit, Urban Nature.

The exhibit explores the contrast and balance of the urban environment and natural world. Large-scale street murals, some as big as 100 feet long and 8 feet tall, dot the landscape. The art was created by several local, national and internationally known street-style painters and mural artists. One of the artists, Lady Pink, is a New York City activist who has transitioned from painting subway trains in the ’70s and ’80s to creating grand-scale murals throughout New York and lecturing at universities across the country. The exhibit will be on display through November. Visit http://www.botanicgardens.org for more information.

People often head to Denver to shop or catch a flight at Denver International Airport, but it’s worth taking a second glance at the Mile High City from a tourist perspective.

Happy travels!

High Life Editor Caramie Schnell can be reached at 970-748-2984 or cschnell@vaildaily.com.


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