Exotic pleasures close to home in Boulder, Colorado
By Bob Berwyn
Traveling doesn’t always require a passport and plane ticket to a far-off land. Just 90 minutes from my home in Frisco, Colorado, you can sip exotic beverages in a teahouse handcrafted by artisans in Tajikistan, browse French fashion magazines, join in a meditation with a renowned Zen master, or watch hermit crab races at a friendly neighborhood tavern.
Like many Summit County residents, Leigh and I often make day trips down to Boulder to visit the farmer’s market or to hike and climb in Eldorado Canyon. But a while back, we decided to extend our stay for a weekend to get the full flavor of the Front Range “People’s Republic.” Although it was a little strange packing an overnight bag for such a short journey, we looked forward to the getaway — without the hassle of taking off our shoes and belts at the airport.
Here’s what we found.
Parking just off tree-lined Arapahoe Avenue at dusk, we check into the Briar Rose Bed and Breakfast, instantly enveloped by the peaceful vibe and the aroma of fresh-baked organic cookies at the eco-friendly inn.
“It doesn’t cost that much more than a hotel, and guests really like the home-style atmosphere,” said host Gary Hardin, showing us around the classic Victorian, located in a low-key residential neighborhood just a few blocks from the busy Pearl Street Mall.
Hardin, who has been running the Boulder Zen Center for the past 10 years, tells us that the Briar Rose is one of the last downtown B&Bs. Skyrocketing property values in Boulder make it tough to run a lodging business. Several other nearby inns have recently been converted into high-end private homes.
In keeping with the environmentally conscious Boulder vibe, the Briar Rose is as green as can be. More often than not, the staff brings supplies to the B&B with bicycles. All the bedding in the guest rooms is made from organic cotton and the tasty breakfast menu is 100 percent organic. The inn also partners with Ecocycle (www.ecocycle.org) toward a zero-waste goal and uses non-toxic, Earth-friendly cleaning products.
If it all sounds somewhat granola-crunchy, not to worry; the décor is warm and elegant throughout, from the white-trimmed, book-lined fireplace in the living room, right down to the sturdy guest room furnishings and modern bathroom fixtures.
After stashing our packs in a cozy guest room, we stroll down Pearl Street, and stop at the Bookend Café, adjunct to the Boulder Bookstore. Sitting down with laptops and frothy cappuccinos, we check out the old brass instruments embedded in the brick walls and scan the pre-election headlines in alternative newspapers scattered across the tables. Leigh samples an oatmeal-chocolate chip cookie as thick as a hockey puck as I wander the stacks, leafing through a German news magazine. Later we head downstairs, letting our imaginations roam free among an amazing array of travel books.
Inspired equally by caffeine and the latest Lonely Planet editions, we take one last look at the Café’s giant ball of twine, then head back out into the cool autumn night and wander along the mall toward the West End Tavern. We missed the monthly hermit crab races. but the popular pub features a rooftop patio, perfect for watching the sunset behind the Rockies. Don’t miss the Tavern’s killer sweet-potato chips and guacamole and the Ahi-BLT.
Wash it all down with a pint or two of local microbrew and head back along the mall to do some gift shopping at Into the Wind. The shop is well known for a huge assortment of kites, but also carries hundreds of other cool toys that are not just for kids. It’s a great place to grab a few stocking stuffers for under $5, including a classic sea monkey kit, clever puzzles, bobble-headed dashboard hula girls, black-light posters and plastic wind-up monkeys that do back flips. My personal favorite — the electronic yodeling pickle.
You may still be in the good old USA, but when you step into one of several Asian import stores along Boulder’s hip strip, close your eyes. Sniff the incense and let the noodling sitar music transport you to India, Bhutan or Nepal. There’s a strong Asian connection in Boulder, based on a widespread interest in Buddhism. And the many climbers who call the Front Range city home have also brought back an awareness of Asian culture from their Himalayan mountaineering treks.
Shops like the Crystal Dragon (1521 Pearl St.) carry everything from incense and tapestries to Ganesh idols and Tibetan prayer flags. Look in the musty corners and you might even find a great deal on handmade paper greeting cards pressed with dried flowers.
When the patchouli buzz wears off, you’ll probably have the munchies again, so head for the Falafel King (1314 Pearl St.) to fill up on veggie treats like pita pockets stuffed with deep-fried humus balls, savory baba ghanouj and fresh tabouleh.
By now, you’ve experienced a taste of three or four different countries all within the confines of a few city blocks. But no visit to Boulder is complete without a stop at the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse, where you can keep your international groove going by sipping exotic almond blossom tea under a ceiling that was hand-carved by artisans in Tajikistan.
An impressive fountain in the center pool features seven hammered copper sculptures symbolizing figures from a 12th Century poem that explores themes of social justice, morality and appreciation of nature — a perfect fit for new-age Boulder tea sippers.
Dushanbe is the capital of Tajikistan, an Iowa-sized republic in Central Asia that gained its independence with the demise of the Soviet Union. Dushanbe is Boulder’s sister city, and the mayor made his first visit in 1987, he promised that his city would present Boulder with a teahouse to celebrate the relationship. In that part of the world, teahouses serve as community centers where friends gather to exchange news and play chess over a cup of tea.
The Boulder Teahouse shines any time of year, but try to visit in May or June when the rose garden explodes into a sea of fragrant blossoms.
Dinner and a show
Our stay in Boulder included a meal at the Black Cat Bistro, a relatively new Boulder eatery riding the crest of the “slow food” wave. Intrigued by a web site blurb for Sunday night “dirt dinners,” we arrive hungry and leave several hours later, completely satisfied and impressed by chef Eric Skokan’s passion for cooking seasonal dishes with local ingredients.
We opt for the chef’s choice sampling menu, beginning with fresh-baked whole wheat bread and a glass of Prosecco, quickly followed by a small platter of melt-in-your-mouth prosciutto and goat cheese. Next in the line-up is a slice of tuna-like hamachi served in sea foam, and duck confit with a pear-ginger sauce, served with a refreshing Riesling from Grand Junction’s Two Rivers winery.
The next seafood plate features a buttery scallop served on hand-picked dandelion greens from Skokan’s garden. Then our server dishes up a platter of duck breast on melted leeks. Leigh and I decide that this is food so good that it makes you giggle — especially the sea foam.
After we work our way through the menu, Skokan joins us for a few minutes to chat about his restaurant.
“I was working my way through school as a cook, but I started to look forward to working more than school,” he says, explaining his path into the world of professional cooking.
“I was betting that Boulder was ready to handle this kind of restaurant, with a balance between fine dining and approachability,” Skokan says. “I want people to identify the food with the people that produce it and build more community and relationships. Every ingredient should have a story,” he says.
Lingering over one of Skokan’s chocolate tarts makes us late for a live show at the Boulder Theater, an intimate downtown music hall that has recently hosted recording sessions of the popular E-Town public radio show, as well as rallies for Barack Obama.
General manager Cheryl Liquori shows us around the historic venue before inviting us back for a show.
The resident ghost, George Paper, has become more active in recent years, Liquori says.
Paper was the manager of the theater in the 1940s. When crews started renovating the theater about 20 years ago, workers saw a shadowy figure in the alcoves of the theater, and lights would turn on and off without any apparent reason.
The theater originally opened in 1936 and thrived during the golden age of cinema, but started declining as movie audiences became more segmented and people started to move toward home entertainment with the advent of cheap video players.
“The movie audience nowadays is so fractured,” Liquori says, explaining how the current owner, Doug Green, has gradually shifted away from an emphasis on movies to becoming more of a live music venue.
Although our Boulder weekend is winding down, we rally one more time to enjoy a final walk in the brisk autumn evening, vowing to return on night when we can place bets on the hermit crabs at the West End Tavern.