By Nicola Bridges
Denver's Lower Downtown district — LoDo to locals — has undergone a transformation in recent years as a hip and happening neighborhood attracting locals and visitors alike to sample its trendy restaurants, bars, cafes and cool stores. Stretching from Larimer Square and its elegant Victorian buildings to Union Station and the Dairy Block (both indoor "micro districts"), LoDo is a vibrant district full of craft breweries and wine bars, farm-to-table organic restaurants, bison burger joints, modern Mexican and an array of American and ethnic cuisine. This all makes these three areas popular meet-up hubs to hang with friends, listen to outdoor concerts, and catch the art scene that includes extensive and vibrant graffiti murals in nearby RhiNo, Denver's River North district.
For out-of-towners like me looking for unique places to stay, three hotels in LoDo stand out for their stylish decor, artwork, modern take on amenities, and what it means to be embedded both literally and figuratively in the local scene.
After landing at Denver International Airport, I take the light-rail airport train to LoDo's Union Station, where Amtrack's California Zephyr runs daily from Chicago through the Rockies to San Francisco. Steps away from the platform is the original Union Station Terminal, built in 1881 to accommodate the gold rush influx to Colorado.
Today the revitalized station pairs original wooden benches within its cavernous internal three-story-high waiting area and provides long modern tables with digital-device hookups. Enormous crystal chandeliers hang down at eye level with the exposed upper-level corridors, where the doors to many of The Crawford Hotel's rooms look out. I book into a Pullman guest room, designed with art deco decor to the width, length and layout of actual old-time Pullman sleeper cars. It's so authentic that the added touch of a long landscape picture on the wall makes me feel as though I'm looking out of a train window. I'm half expecting to hear a whistle blow and the room to start moving!
The Crawford's floors hug the inside of Union Station, where I show my keycard for a complimentary craft brew at the old ticket window of the Terminal Bar. I have the best quinoa salad (with crunchy lentil granola and crisp polenta croutons) at Mercantile, a dining and provisions store down a connecting tunnel from the terminal's community area. Then I head back through the now-bustling trendy crowd gathering for bites and brews to popular Milkbox Ice Creamery for my free keycard scoop, Carrot Cake flavor, swearing to return for "The 1881," a butterscotch and bourbon boozy shake, before I head to my Pullman room and start dreaming about a Rocky Mountain train trip.
Over at LoDo's Dairy Block — a historic building once housing the Windsor Dairy that's now full of quaint stores, eateries and bars — a giant hanging-hand sculpture, weighing 500 pounds and curiously titled "The Quantifiable and the Ineffable" by Colorado Springs artist Andrew Ramiro Tirado, greets me in The Maven Hotel's workspace lobby. Up in my sparse-but-tasteful modern room, after swinging for a little in a hanging chair outside the elevator, I write for a while at the back of the headboard that doubles as a high-top work counter.
But the art at the Maven draws me back to the lobby communal space (also home to Kachina Mexican restaurant's Airstream bar), where I'm absorbed by a display of book sculptor Valerie Savarie's intricately hand-carved old books with layers that pop the characters off their inner pages to tell a modern art tale. Then I wander out into the Dairy Block's back alleyway, featuring (per The Maven staff) the most popular Instagram spot in Denver: a mirrored ceiling of neon lights lit with the word "Happy" reflected back onto its surface. I play with interactive wall-art whirligigs that light up and hand-crank out organ tunes.
Not far away, four minutes from Larimer Square, I find the Kimpton Monaco, another of LoDo's lux-boutique hotels, and I can't help but immediately gaze up at the living-room-style lobby's ornate high ceiling, wanting to lounge on its conceptual-contemporary furnishings. Mineral colors and metallic decor juxtaposed with leather is a design theme throughout the hotel. After a life-size cow statue greets me at the elevators, the raised ceiling and my bed's huge leather headboard make me feel like a diminutive Dr. Seuss character as I lie for a while mesmerized by the blue floral walls that, at first, seem a mismatch with the harsh gray gridlines of the carpet before taking on an intentional modern-art museum feel.
Hungry again from Denver's humidity, I head downstairs to Panzo, the Monaco's award-winning restaurant, for its popular tasting menu of sophisticated Northern Italian cuisine. Then I'm beckoned to Larimer Square to browse the chic shops and check out Cry Baby Ranch, a western-wear and boot store tempting me to add to a new pair of cowboy boots to my collection. I am in Colorado, after all.
WHEN YOU GO
Kimpton Monaco Denver: www.monaco-denver.com
The Crawford Hotel: www.thecrawfordhotel.com
The Maven: www.themavenhotel.com.
Nicola Bridges is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
A giant hanging hand points guests to the check-in desk in The Maven hotel's shared lobby workspace at the Dairy Block in Denver, Colorado. Photo courtesy of Nicola Bridges.