The dance floor was flashing and the music pumping at Tracks, the most cavernous gay club in Denver. A beautiful stranger reached out and placed something in my hand, as Madonna’s Beautiful Stranger played in the background.
OK, it was actually Sexy and I Know It by LMFAO, but let’s gloss over that.
I examined the sticky substance in my hands as he leaned forward and yelled in my ear: ‘Weed gummies!’
For lack of a better cultural meme, I had a Matrix ‘red pill/blue pill’ moment. I don’t make a habit of accepting drugs from people I don’t know. What’s more, I was in the Coloradan capital in a semi-professional capacity…
But the guy in question had kind eyes and a nice smile. We’d been dancing together for a while. Plus, recreational cannabis use has been legal in Denver, and indeed the state of Colorado, since January 2014. ‘It’s the same as accepting a drink offer’ I told myself. ‘And when in Rome…’ I’m not suggesting this is what everyone should do. But in the moment, it was the right decision for me.
Alice in American Wonderland
I chewed on the pleasant-tasting sweets and danced the night away, like a gay Alice in American Wonderland. Thus, I tried marijuana in a legal context for the first time in my life. And it didn’t feel wrong or illicit – just amusing.
What happened next? Well, I concluded that I’m basically for for the legalization of marijuana. And, through a weekend-long weed-induced haze, I fell in love with Colorado.
The Mile High City
I’ll get off the subject in a minute, but I’ll quickly add: with countless dispensaries dotted around this medium-sized town of 693,060, you needn’t rely on guys in bars pick up your gummies.
Cannabis tourism is big business Denver, amusingly nicknamed Mile High City – originally called as such because of its 1609.3 meter elevation.
In truth, it has a cool, offbeat and cheerful quality that’s apparent whether you’re in an altered state or not.
It’s there in the compelling street art of River North Art District (RiNo), plus the sophisticated global cuisine served around Larimer Square, the city’s oldest and most historic block, decorated with Colorado flags and fairy lights.
It’s also there in the utter randomness of the city’s emblem, a 40-foot-tall Blue Bear who you’ll find peering through the Convention Center.
Stop and stare
Finally, it’s in the smiling faces of the locals, who actually are all high on the 300 days of sunshine Denver enjoys every year.
This was especially apparent in the city’s smattering of LGBTI bars, such as the glossy, box-fresh Triangle Denver, which opened earlier this year and attracts a laid-back, outdoorsy crowd, plus Tracks itself.
Tracks’ manager Morgan Taylor tells us: ‘It’s great to be LGBTI in Denver because of how up-and-coming the city is. It’s exciting to be tapping into big-scale events and entertainment while also enjoying the amenities of Colorado’s majestic nature offerings and close-knit queer community.’
Indeed, in Denver, nearby mountainous beauty always beckons. It’s a quality best captured in Denver’s star attraction, Red Rocks Amphitheater. This otherworldly concert venue is 20 minutes out the city and flanked by two gigantic, diagonally-jutting sandstone rocks. When lit up at night, their reddish-brown color is akin to fire.
The site has played host to everyone from Cher to The Beatles to U2. During my visit, I somewhat involuntarily found myself on an evening with…OneRepublic. Denver’s random like that.
Once I got over someone other than Beyonce performing Halo (well, Ryan Tedder did co-write it) the surreal acoustics and irrepressible majesty of the venue took over. Also, it was kind of fitting, as OneRepublic are Coloradoan. I eventually found myself singing along to Apologize without a hint of irony. I forgot I downloaded it back in 2007!
What to do in Denver
Spread across 24 gorgeous acres and 17 separate gardens, Denver Botanic Gardens flourish with flowers and plants from around the world.
The gardens are inspired by Japan, China, South Africa and the Tropics, and are full of unforgettably bizarre blossoms, curious water features and ornamental surprises. Far prettier than an afternoon spent on Grindr, anyway!
This is one of the most brilliantly-executed museums I’ve visited, celebrating the work the late Clyfford Still. It tells his complete story (but in highly and carefully edited way), bridging the gap from his early harrowing depictions of The Great Depression to his later, inexplicably moving abstract works.
The concept of the gallery puts me in mind of London’s Newport Street Gallery: tiny, but managing to make a huge impact with a limited amount of work on display.
The protruding spike of the Duncan Pavilion was added to Denver Art Museum in 2006, making it the city’s coolest building. Well, after the recently-redeveloped Union Station, and the adorable Molly Brown House Museum, home of the late Titanic survivor. And I guess most the stunning government buildings in the Civic Center neighborhood, where the Museum resides.
Denver’s biggest collection of art is home to 70,000 items. Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Paul Cezanne are all represented.
Where to eat
Mediterranean cuisine using local, seasonal ingredients could be a recipe for disappointment. But at Rioja, Denver’s buzziest restaurant, it’s executed with care and flair. I enjoyed a leisurely dinner al fresco, overlooking Larimer Square and the tasting menu, complete with perfect wine pairings, was full of unusual, intricate dishes served with an assemblage of unorthodox accessories, such as the tender whiskey brined pork chop served with a savoury eclair.
Meanwhile, the soup made from almonds and ramps – a wild, garlicky spring onion – was luxurious, while the tempura nairagi (striped marlin) was an enjoyable but jarring deviation from the theme. As in, I wouldn’t normally follow a fish course with pork.
But our favorite dish was the comforting potato gnocchi with broccoli, pancetta and pear, which was a meal in itself! This was closely followed by the understated house salad, comprised of rocket, dates, gorgonzola and almond vinaigrette, the wide array of freshly-baked breads, and the mercifully tiny brandi snap, orange-scented cannoli.
Where to day trip
I got high in Denver, but I got higher still – literally and spiritually – on a day tour of the Rocky Mountains. The highest point is Mount Elbert, standing 14,440 feet above sea level. But sprawling, hulking vistas greet your eyes everywhere you look. This National Park has more character than most of the men I’ve dated put together, and should be an essential presence on any bucket list.
I explored the Rockies with local tour company ilimo. Sharing a comfortable minibus ride with a handful of friendly adventurers, our expedition took in the quaint mountainside town Estes Park and the Trail Ridge Road. We saw wild horses, chipmunks and elk.
The tour is priced at $115 per person. (£87.46, €98.21), and includes pick up and drop off from the Blue Bear at the Convention Center, plus bottled water, snacks and park admission. Horror buffs, pay attention: the tour also includes a quick photo op at the Stanley Hotel, which inspired Stephen King’s classic novel The Shining.
Where to stay
This gorgeous Art Deco-inspired Kimpton property is still gleaming from a multimillion renovation last year. The plush interiors of the 189 rooms feel bang up to date while also nodding to the glamor of decades past.
Be sure to take advantage of the Kimpton social hour between 5-6pm, and the complimentary coffee station in the lobby in the mornings, plus the ultra cool and authentic Panzano Italian restaurant under the same roof.
The Kimpton is conveniently-located on Champa St, a 15 minute walk from Larimer Square. It’s also only eight blocks from Union Station, where you can easily transfer to and from Denver International Airport.
Norwegian is continuing the expansion of its trailblazing long-haul network with the launch of a new direct route to Denver – the only non-stop service from London Gatwick
· Norwegian operates three weekly flights year round non-stop from London Gatwick to Denver International Airport
· All flights are operated by a fleet of brand new Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft with two cabins – Premium and economy.
· Fares start from £195 one-way and £350 return in LowFare economy and £595 one-way and £1,095 return in Premium including all taxes and charges and subject to availability.
To book visit www.norwegian.com/uk or call 0330 828 0854.
Photos author’s own or Visit Denver