Favorite Travel Destinations: Where’s Your ‘Happy Place?’

maroon bellsLong ago, a friend of mine referred to Colorado as my “spiritual homeland.” I frequently jest that I’m spiritually bankrupt except when it comes to the outdoors, and she was referring to my long-held love affair with the Centennial State.

My friend was right. There are parts of Colorado that are my “happy place,” where I immediately feel I can breathe more deeply, shelve my neuroses and just live in the moment. Places like Aspen’s Maroon Bells, Telluride, and Clark, near Steamboat Springs, are my cure for existential angst. I love the mountains and rivers, but when combined with shimmering aspens, wildflower-festooned meadows and crystalline skies and alpine lakes, it’s pure magic.

There are other places in the world that have a similar soporific effect on me: Hanalei, Kauai; almost anywhere in Australia; Krabi, Thailand; Atacama, Chile.

I’ve been in Colorado for work the last two weeks, and have devoted a lot of thought to this topic. Everyone, even if they’ve never left their home state, must have a happy place. Not a hotel or spa, but a region, town, beach, park, or viewpoint that melts stress, clears the mind and restores inner peace.

I asked a few of my Gadling colleagues this question, and their replies were immediate. Check them out following the jump.

Ruby BeachPam Mandel: Ruby Beach, Olympic Peninsula, Washington.

Kyle Ellison: Playa Santispac, Baja, and Kipahulu, Maui.

Grant Martin, Editor: “Happy place number one is a fifth-floor patio in the West Village with my friends, and a few beers. A garden and a quiet spot in a city surrounded by madness. Number two is at the sand dunes at Hoffmaster State Park in Muskegon, Michigan. Hop over the fence in the large camping loop head up the hill and towards the lake and you’ll find the quietest row of sand dunes in West Michigan. It’s a great place to camp out and gaze over lake, and also a good spot to take a date.”

Jeremy Kressman: “There’s a tiny little park buried in the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona – one side of it is flanked by a Roman wall and there are balconies all around. It’s far enough off Las Ramblas that there’s not a lot of tourist foot traffic and the little side alleys off it are lined with little tapas bars and fire escapes thick with little gardens. I’d like to be there right now!”
lake cabin
Meg Nesterov: “Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire. My family has a 100-year-old cabin on the lake with very basic plumbing and a very wonderful view. I’ve spent many childhood summers there and honeymooned there, like my parents did 35 years ago. I travel a lot to find great beach towns, but few match the bliss of bathing in the lake and eating fresh blueberries from the forest.”

Jessica Marati: The banks of the Tiber just outside Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome.

David Farley: “I grew up in the Los Angeles suburbs where the gridded streets were flanked by nearly identical houses and the stripmalls were dominated by the same chain stores that were in the next town (and the next town and the next ..). Few people walked anywhere. The civic planning implicitly left little room to stimulate the imagination.

So when I moved to a medieval hilltown near Rome, I felt like I’d found the place – my happy place, the spot I’d been looking for. Calcata, about the size of half a football field, is a ramshackle of stone houses, a church and a diminutive castle that sits atop 450-foot cliffs. There’s only one way in and out – which is not even big enough to fit an automobile – making the village completely pedestrian free. I would often stroll its crooked cobbled lanes or sit on the bench-lined square thinking that I was literally thousands of miles, but also a dimension or so from my suburban upbringing. I don’t live there anymore but I’ll be going back later this year to participate in a documentary that’s being made about my book (which was set there).”
calcata
Melanie Renzulli: The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Chris Owen: “Predictably, mine would be at sea, on any ship, completely surrounded by water in all directions as far as the eye can see.”

Jessica Festa: Sydney, Australia.

McLean Robbins: Telluride. “Descending into town on the gondola, in the middle of falling snow and pure silence, felt like heaven.”

Alex Robertson Textor: “My happy place is La Taqueria, at 2889 Mission Street in San Francisco.” To which I add, “Hell, yes.”

Where’s your happy place (keep your mind out of the gutter, please)? Let us know!

[Photo credit: Maroon Bells, Laurel Miller; Ruby Beach, Pam Mandel; cabin, Meg Nesterov; Calcata, David Farley]

A brief history of Telluride and its surrounding ghost towns

telluride ghost townsTelluride. The name alone conjures a variety of associations, from the debaucherous (Glenn Frey’s “Smuggler’s Blues”) to the elite (Tom Cruise is the other inevitable mention). But this isolated little town in Southwestern Colorado’s craggy San Juan range has a truly wild past and a lot to offer. It’s not the only mining-town-turned-ski-resort in the Rockies, but I think it’s the most well-preserved, photogenic, and in touch with its history. Apparently I’m not alone, because the town core (all three blocks of it) was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1964.

Located in a remote box canyon (waterfall included) at 8,750 feet, Telluride and its “down valley” population totals just over 2,000 people. I’ve lived in Telluride off-and-on since 2005, and there’s something to be said about a place where dogs outnumber residents, and you can’t leave home without running into people you know. Longtime residents burn out on the small town thing, but I still get a kick out of it after years of city living.

Today the former brothels of “Popcorn Alley” are ski shanties, but they’re still painted eye-catching, Crayola-bright colors, and the old ice house is a much-loved French country restaurant. Early fall is a great time to visit because the weather is usually mild, the aspens are turning, and there’s the acclaimed Telluride Film Fest, brutal Imogene Pass Run (Sept. 10) and Blues & Brews Festival (Sept. 16-18) to look forward to. The summer hordes are gone, but the deathly quiet of the October/early-November off-season hasn’t begun.

According to the Telluride Historical Museum, the town was established in 1878. It was originally called Columbia, and had a reputation as a rough-and-tumble mining town following the opening of the Sheridan Mine in the mid-1870’s. The mine proved to be rich in gold, silver, zinc, lead, copper, and iron, and with the 1890 arrival of the Rio Grande Southern railroad, Telluride grew into a full-fledged boomtown of 5,000. Immigrants–primarily from Scandinavia, Italy, France, Germany, Cornwall, and China–arrived in droves to seek their fortunes. Many succumbed to disease or occupational mishaps; the tombstones in the beautiful Lone Tree Cemetery on the east end of town bear homage to lots of Svens, Lars’, and Giovannis.

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[Photo credit: Flickr user hubs]

telluride ghost townsThe mining resulted in 350 miles of tunnels that run beneath the mountains at the east end of the valley; you can see remnants of mine shafts and flumes throughout the region. If paddling is your thing, you’ll see gold dredges runnning on the San Miguel, San Juan, and Dolores Rivers.

Telluride’s wealth attracted the attention of Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch, who famously robbed the town’s San Miguel National Bank in 1889 (trivia: I used to live in an upstairs apartment in that very building). But in 1893, the silver crash burst the money bubble, and almost overnight Telluride’s population plummeted. By the end of World War II, only 600 people remained.

Telluride is a part of the 223-mile San Juan Scenic Highway, which connects to the historic towns of Durango, Ouray, and Silverton. There’s only one paved road in and out of Telluride, and that’s Hwy. 145. The only other options are two high, extremely rugged mountain passes (which require 4WD and experienced drivers). There are also a handful of ghost towns in the area. Some, like Alta (11,800 feet) make for a great, not too-strenuous hike; you’ll see the trailhead four miles south on Hwy 145. There are a number of buildings still standing, and two miles up the road lie the turquoise Alta Lakes.
telluride ghost towns
If you want to check out the ghost town of Tomboy, it’s five miles up Imogene Pass (13,114 feet). Don’t underestimate just how tough it is if you’re hiking; you’ll gain 2,650 feet in altitude; otherwise it’s an hour’s drive. The trail begins on the north end of Oak Street; hang a right onto Tomboy Road. Unless you’re physically fit and acclimated to the altitude, the best way to see these ghost towns is by 4WD tour with an outfitter like Telluride Outside. Another bit of trivia: every July, the “Lunar Cup” ski race is held on a slope up on Imogene Pass, clothing optional.

How to get there
Telluride is a six-and-a-half-hour drive from Denver, but it also boasts the world’s second highest commercial airport (9,078 feet) with daily non-stop connections from Denver and Phoenix. It’s closed in sketchy weather (if you’re flight phobic, just say “hell, no”), and it’s often easier and usually cheaper to fly into Montrose Regional Airport, 70 miles away. From there, take Telluride Express airport shuttle; you don’t need a car in town. Go to VisitTelluride.com for all trip-planning details. For more information on the region’s numerous ghost towns, click here.

When to go
Telluride is beautiful any time of year, but avoid mid-April through mid-May and October through before Thanksgiving, as those are off-season and most businesses are closed. Spring is also mud season, and that’s no fun. Late spring, summer, and early fall mean gorgeous foliage, and more temperate weather, but be aware it can snow as late as early July. August is monsoon season, so expect brief, daily thunderstorms. July and winter are the most reliably sunny times; that said, Telluride averages 300 days of sunshine a year. If you want to explore either pass, you’ll need to visit in summer.
telluride ghost towns
Telluride tips
The air is thin up there. Drink lots of water, and then drink some more. Go easy on the alcohol, too. Take aspirin if you’re suffering altitude-related symptoms like headache or insomnia, and go easy for a couple of days until you acclimate. Wear broad-spectrum, high SPF sunblock, and reapply often on any exposed skin or under t-shirts. Wear a hat and sunglasses, as well.

[Photo credits: Tomboy, Flickr user Rob Lee; Mahr building, Laurel Miller; winter, Flickr user rtadlock]

Top five bars to get a (great) drink in Telluride, Colorado

telluride barsTo borrow a phrase, Telluride (and I mean this in the best possible way) is a little drinking town with a big ski problem. I’ve lived there off and on since 2005, and recently returned for a visit for the first time in two years.

Telluride–a former mining town–has never had a shortage of places to imbibe, but getting a well-made cocktail for under ten bucks is another story. Fortunately, there are a few old standbys as well as some new blood in town that hit just the right mix of ambiance, quality, and price.

Bonus: With just one exception, they’re all frequented by locals, so you can escape the tourist scene and get a true taste of Telluride. Just don’t wear a spanking new cowboy hat or boots, heels, or a starched button-down. This town is strictly casual, year round.

And a word of warning: You’ll feel the effects of alcohol more at altitude (Telluride is at 8,725 feet). Go easy, drink tons of water, and remember that one drink has the cumulative effect of two at this height. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

1. La Marmotte
Located one block east of the gondola, unassumingly nestled against the base of the mountain, this adorable, cozy, convivial restaurant is a dying breed: the classic French Alpine restaurant. Actually, it’s the historic Ice House, one of the oldest buildings in town, but inside, it’s dark, romantic, and surprisingly lively.

For over 20 years, “The Marmot” has featured well-rendered French country classics such as Coq au Vin and French Onion Soup, along with more contemporary versions. The 3-course, $35 prix fixe is the best deal in town, but if it’s just a drink you’re looking for, you also can’t go wrong. Take a seat on a stool at the tiny front bar, and have the friendly bartender (no ski town attitude here) pour you a glass off the thoughtful wine list, or whip you up a cocktail, such as the house-infused beet martini (trust me).telluride bars2. New Sheridan Bar/New Sheridan Hotel and Chop House Restaurant
A part of the famed New Sheridan hotel, this 1895 saloon is one of the oldest in the West, although the entire property underwent a major remodel a couple of years ago. Opt for cocktails, straight-up spirits, or beer at the dedicated bar (pool tables are in the back), which features its original mahogany paneling and filigree light fixtures. Happy Hour tends to attract visitors and locals (usually an older crowd) alike: it’s hard to pass up the wickedly strong five-dollar cocktail specials.

In the adjacent hotel lobby bar known as The Parlor, locals meet up for a glass or bottle of wine from one of the best lists in town (Wine Spectator has given it their Award of Excellence multiple times). Alternatively, grab a seat at the Chophouse’s beautiful long bar (my pick on where to eat/sit when I’ve got some extra cash), order some starters and a drink, and enjoy the good life side of Telluride.

3. Allred’s
The aforementioned tourist magnet, Allred’s is located at the top of the San Sophia gondola station, at 10,551 feet. Walking into the bar or adjacent dining room, both of which have giant windows, it’s easy to see why visitors (and locals celebrating special occasions or just a particularly gorgeous sunset) shell out the big bucks to dine here. The entire town lietelluride barss spread out below you, and the view includes waterfalls, red cliffs, evergreen forest, and the last snow clinging to the peaks across the valley. Try a glass of sparkling wine, a special house cocktail such as the pear basil swizzle (Grey Goose Pear Vodka, basil, soda water, and lime, $11), or, if you’re visiting in winter, one of the many excellent hot toddies on offer.

4. there…
Not everything in town is historic. This tiny space, tucked away on a side street in the residential “West End,” has been a pizza parlor, a Himalayan restaurant, and a longtime vacant space in the last five years. In December, it became a bar/Asian small bites spot, and reliably draws crowds for the creative cocktails and delicious, four-dollar steamed duck or pork buns (give the rest of the food a miss, ditto the silly and pretentious “jam drinks”). The decor is a schizophrenic mix of gorgeous Old West restoration with a hint of butt-ugly pop art, but super-fly bartender Oshane mixes up a mean house cocktail. He’s so gracious and charming, you won’t be able to resist coming back (the pork buns don’t hurt, either).

5. The Last Dollar Saloon (aka, “The Buck”)
PBR is King in Telluride, but you can also count on a reliably stiff drink at Telluride’s most classic bar, built in 1899: Don’t let your buzz distract you from details like the original stamped tin ceiling. TGIF is one of the best times to go if you want to mingle with locals (don’t expect a sober crowd) or see live music; The Buck is reliably packed weekend nights during the summer. My happy place is the corner table at the front, where the giant plate glass windows provide an aquarium view of Main Street.

5.5 O’Bannon’s Irish Pub (“OB’s”)
I can’t in good conscience write about drinking in Telluride without mentioning one of my favorite bars of all time, anywhere on the planet. Yes, it’s a hellhole, but if you really want to get down and dirty with the locals, no visit to Telluride is complete without a visit (if not a lost weekend) to OB’s. Plus, there’s a pool table and great juke. R.I.P., Harry (Force, the late owner).

[Photo credit: Laurel Miller]

See the New Sheridan Bar (those are actors, FYI) in this recent Coors ad.