For many Australians visiting Colorado, Denver is the Big Smoke you pass through – often too quickly and with little ado – when heading into the Rockies to ski or adventure.
But it’s a mistake to relegate the Mile High City to fleeting rest-stop status. Y’all should linger longer; it’s a great place.
We Starfishies almost made the common blunder of whizzing through town on our recent visit to the Centennial State. We were heading to Aspen after a spell in San Francisco, but noted the cost of direct flights from the Bay to the trendy alpine pueblo were rather steep.
But there’s another way and, frankly, it’s better.
Even though Denver is a couple of hundred clicks further east than Aspen, the Frisco flights are about half the price (Denver being a hub), so we opted to while away a few days in the capital before driving into dem dar mountains.
The city was delightful, bustling and bursting with attractions and friendly locals. But equally captivating, and a highlight of our US trip, was the place we chose to stay.
Capitol Hill Mansion is a B & B extraordinaire, sitting in all its glory on leafy Pennsylvania Avenue, Capitol Hill, one of the oldest and most salubrious neighbourhoods in Denver.
The majestic, two storey, 1891 ruby sandstone residence is a standout and an elegant architectural reminder of pioneering days gone by.
Back in the late 1900s the Capitol Hill area was the home of silver barons, mercantile moguls, landowners, timber men and the Grand Poobahs who opened up the high country and put the final seal on winning the West.
Hence there are numerous beautifully preserved homes and mansions gracing the avenues and streets in the old ‘hood.
This one, designed by architectural hotshots of the day, Rieche, Carter & Smith and built by Jeffery and Mary Keating, is one of the last mansions built before the silver crash of 1893.
The home remained in the Keating family until 1923 when it became the Buena Vista Hotel, named for its “beautiful view” of Colorado’s majestic mountains. It has changed hands a number of times since, but is now well and truly back to its former glory.
We drove in from the airport in the late afternoon and the streets were resplendent in half a metre of snow. Flakes drifted down through lamplights and the mansion looked a picture; warm, welcoming light glowing from the windows.
A fire was burning in the ornate lounge hearth and it was nice to come in from the mile-high cold. (San Fran had been unseasonably hot for Feb – clammy white Californians were even bathing at China Beach!)
We settled into the lovely Paintbrush Room on the ground floor. All the sizeable rooms have dreamy themes and are lovingly restored with period furniture, frescos, artworks and ornaments.
Capitol Hill Mansion would not be the treasure it is today without the devotion, imagination and hard work of its amiable owner, Carl S. Schmidt II. Carl bought the historic property in 2001 and went about making his dream B & B happen.
The ebullient Texan raconteur is one of Denver’s true characters and is the caring powerhouse behind the Mansion. He runs it with the help of his daughter Bailey and the dynamic duo make you feel instantly at home, setting a mighty high hospitality bar.
The man from Corpus Christi is also one serious whiz in the kitchen, and does spectacular things with the second ‘B’ in B & B.
While a stay at the CHM may consist of days out sightseeing or doing business downtown, an aperitif in the lounge before a dinner date, or a good book by the fire at night – the high point is indubitably breakfast.
Carl, an accountant by profession, former resort owner, and brilliant chef by vocation, is always up early (around 4am) working on his latest culinary tour de force.
At dawn, while we lazed in comfort in the Paintbrush Room, we could hear him tinkering with pots and pans, sparking an involuntary licking of our chops as we pondered the brekkie feast ahead.
Each morning is a new creation. A master of experimentation and food mixing and matching, he emerges with great flourish from the kitchen door with his newest dish.
There are few stragglers at table of a morn at the Mansion. We heard even flushed and mussed-up honeymooners race to the large communal table remarkably early, scanning Carl’s dining room blackboard for the morning’s speciality.
“How’d you like that?” Carl enquired of our first breakfast.
“Superb!” I replied.
“Want a little more?”
“Perhaps a tad, thank you.”
Not long after he burst from the kitchen with the entire dish repeated! Gentle reader, I am ashamed to say I devoured it with relish, every last morsel!
Appreciation and waistlines expand daily at the mansion, so a bit of exercise exploring the neighbourhood is obligatory.
Capitol Hill has plenty to offer.
On our first night Carl suggested we try out Potager Restaurant and Wine Bar for dinner. Right around the corner on Ogden Street, we enjoyed a fabulous meal surrounded by the local diners at the lively eatery.
The organic New American menu changes monthly and proffers fine seasonal and regional produce.
We also swung by the home of The Unsinkable Molly (Margaret) Brown, which is just a block away. Larger than life, Molly was famous in her day as an outspoken advocate of rights for women and workers, a wealthy society belle, business woman, friend to the rich and famous, and all around dynamo.
However she is most renowned for being a survivor and heroine of the Titanic sinking. (Engagingly played by Kathy Bates in James Cameron’s 1997 movie about the disaster).
Well ahead of her time, Molly’s impressive Capitol Hill home featured all the latest gadgets of the day. She even drove an electric car at about the time the real Tesla was doing his thing with sparks and fuses.
We also popped over to the beautiful gold-domed Capitol Building, a few blocks away, where children were tobogganing.
It’s worth taking an amble up the imposing front steps. The fifteenth step of the Capitol Building is engraved “One Mile Above Sea Level,” yet some nit-picking Colorado State University engineering students in 1969 discovered that this was not quite the right position. No fewer than three steps have been claimed to be 5,280 feet in elevation.
Of course, marijuana is now legal in Colorado so we just had dart into a couple of emporiums purveying pot (We did not inhale, Your Honour!), to check out their weedy wares and paraphernalia. The locals still seemed a tad furtive in these popular green dens, despite a puff being perfectly lawful. Old sins die hard.
We also visited Cheeseman Park, a lovely central green space with pretty walks and views of the city and snow-capped Front Range of the Rockies in the distance to the west. You’ll also find the Botanical Gardens here, but being late February things were a trifle bare and dormant. We hear it’s a bit of an Eden in spring and summer.
Capitol Hill also features some fun atmospheric cafes and bars, which are always full of characters, and we lingered in several such traps during our perambulations around the district.
(The city itself is full of major attractions, but we will touch on a few of these in an upcoming Starfish edition on our US trip.)
After a couple of memorable, relaxing nights in the lap of luxury at CHM, our belts now a few notches longer, we bid Carl and Bailey farewell, drove out to the Front Range and climbed into the majestic mountains, bound for Aspen.
Not even a blizzard on the way tarnished happy chatter about our capital time at Capitol Hill. Two weeks later we stopped in for another night on our return trip! Well, the world’s best breakfast is pretty hard to resist!
A Few Facts About Capitol Hill Mansion
Eight individually decorated, genteel rooms and suites have private bathrooms, antique furniture and city or mountain views. All also feature free Wi-Fi, cable TV and mini fridges with free beverages. Some rooms add private balconies, fireplaces and/or whirlpool tubs.
A gourmet breakfast is included in the rate, and complimentary local wines are offered each evening. There’s also free on-site parking, a living room and business services.
For more information about Capitol Hill Mansion, or to make a booking, go to www.capitolhillmansion.com. Carl and Bailey are always happy to receive your enquiries.
The Starfish would like to thank our charming hosts for an amazing stay.