I travelled on the Rocky Mountaineer from Moab-to Denver in a restored 1950’s era CN rail car. With overnight stays at either end of the journey at Utah’s Lodge at Blue Sky and the Ritz Carlton Denver.
A golden eagle wheels overhead as I lazily relax in my leather tub chair. Rugged ochre high desert hills dotted with sage brush and cottonwood trees draped in flaming fall colours pass to my right. To my left ,the storied Colorado river—my restless companion from Moab, Utah to alpine mountains of Denver Colorado. This is the stuff of boyhood dreams. The rugged wild, wild west.
Thank goodness… its been refined by my Rocky Mountaineer hosts. Classical music tinkles in the background. In hand, a glass of Oregon Willamette Valley Pinot Noir.
My fellow passengers are mostly from flatter lusher parts of the US. Golf widows from New Orleans, tattoo artists on honeymoon, young IT professionals from Florida and a courtly Stetson wearing rancher from Boise Idaho taking his sprightly 94-year-old mother on her bucket list trip. Everyone has a story. Friendships arise spontaneously.
Michael our carriage host is an effervescent fountain of quirky facts, trivia and tales. My favourite of his stories includes a the gunfight with Kid Curry following an abortive train robbery that happened just ahead of where he told it in Parachute Colorado.
Kid Curry is said to be buried in the pioneer cemetery at our overnight stop at Glenwood Springs where notorious Doc Holiday also rests. He apparently died in his bed.
The high desert gives way to fractured red vertiginous rock canyons. We catch glimpses of river otters, coyotes, bighorn sheep, and elk, all surprisingly unbothered by our stately progress through their domains.
I particularly relish the absence the beeps and chirps of modern-day life. There is no internet or cell to rudely interrupt. It’s just us communing with nature’s stunning landscapes. The train peaks at 9000 feet before descending into Denver.
P.S. Take a good camera and several large memory cards—you will need them.
An ode to nature
At The Lodge at Blue Sky, a 35,000 acre private retreat in the Wasatch Mountain Range, I leave the cares of the modern world behind.
My yurt door opens. I half expect John Wayne or perhaps the influential Scottish-American naturalist,John Muir. Instead, its my hosts for the evening, Johnny Bradford my personal chef and right behind him, Brian Fogarty my very own sommelier.
My private dining experience on the highest hilltop at Blue Sky has me gazing up into the dark sky of jostling stars. It takes me back in time to seeing the sky as Muir, who is also known as the Father of the National Parks, saw it more than a century ago. Unlike me, however, he was without the glass of Chablis that Fogarty has perfectly paired with my cosmos adventure.
Blue Sky Lodge is somewhere magically in between the old west and a modern luxury ranch. There are horses everywhere… 80 in fact—in the fields, at the stables, on the walls. Blue Sky is all about being outdoors, but respectfully, it’s in a wildlife sanctuary with its own water treatment plant and a full-time vet for its equine family.
It’s a chilly night so we repair back inside the yurt where chef has stoked the ancient cast iron wood stove on which my three-course dinner is roasting. Dinner reflects chefs Utah roots, steak and duck wrap lifted with greens and fresh produce from their entirely female run Gracie’s farm. His sweet potato gnocchi is voluptuous and balanced by an acidic Rosso Di Montalcino. The steak compliments the bold Obsidian Ridge California Cabernet Sauvignon. And there’s desert! Traditional s’mores deconstructed and served with an achingly lovely Kiona Washington State ice wine. This is a must do experience.
Appropriately the next morning I’m introduced to Spirit at the equestrian centre. During an experience called a “ Natural Horsemanship”. I connect with Spirit using just my body language. Remarkably, Spirit voluntarily does what I ask and follows me around and when mounted responds to the very gentlest of physical prompts. Another must try.
For those with an inner John Wayne—there’s a chance to blast sporting clays with a 12-gauge Beretta shotgun. A stag unconcerned, or perhaps reassured by my limited shooting ability, appears. Nick my coach reminds me this is wildlife preserve. Point taken.
After a detour via the well-stocked bar, it’s on to the dinner at Yuta where I dine handsomely on local fare. The mountain air seems to have worn me out so apres dessert, its back to my sky suite where views of cotton wood tree dotted Alexander Canyon have me musing on the words of Muir “plain, sky and mountains ray beauty which you feel.” So very true.
Buzz gives way to serenity
It’s not just the altitude, the 300 days a year of sun or the vibrant arts and restaurant scenes —there’s clearly energy in the rocky mountain air. Denver is buzzy. Whisked up to my suite at the Ritz Carlton, that’s over 1,000 square feet, I’m bathed in an oasis of luxurious calm. Just what I needed after a few days of travel. Like the lobby the suites done in natural tones set off by deep blue accents—a nod to Denver’s cloudless sky. I could kiss the designer.
I discover a spacious walk-in closet that swallows up my traveler’s detritus. Light switches and lights in logical places and a high-quality analog radio, praise be.
The fine artwork in the lobby reflects the mountains and the carpet design the Colorado river. I don’t know what they do with the guests but despite full occupancy there are no crowds and no trolleys with avalanches of luggage. Just calm.
Something catches my eye. I take a few steps up the lobby staircase and find a spectacular glass sun serpentine chandelier by famed artist Dale Chihuly. Remarkable.
Conveniently located between downtown and the River North Arts District, a visit to the Denver Art Museum and the current Saints, Sinners, Lovers and Fools Exhibition of rarely seen Flemish Artworks is on the plan. (I’m not sure what category they’re quietly think I fall into.) But, the exhibition is well worth it.
While the Art Museum has a well-reviewed restaurant The Ponti, but I opt for a sidewalk table a block south at the busy Levan Deli. I order the recommended chicken flatbread sandwich and a glass of California chardonnay. The place is hopping in midafternoon. The buzz is back.
After a brisk walk I’m ready to relax in the 12th floor club lounge. Another well-provisioned, serene refuge. Then its dinner at Elway’s where the wine list is staggering—13 vintages of Romanée-Conti no less. Less stratospherically priced, I sample a flight of French, Italian and California wines before settling on a 2019 Jen Claude Courtault Chablis. Although Elway’s hews to steak, I order salmon garnished with shrimp, crab with a creamy miso beurre blanc sauce.
It’s perfectly cooked, moist flavourful and lifted by its sauce. A side of roast cauliflower in truffle butter and my Chablis rounds out a perfect healthy meal.
Happily, I wander back to my room for the deepest sleep of my trip. Buzz gives way to serenity.
If you go…
Air Canada flies directly from Toronto to Salt Lake City or Las Vegas where you can connect with the Rocky Mountaineer. Opt for the Silver Leaf package for lounge access and elevated dining and drink services.
Round off your adventure with a few special days at the Lodge at Blue Sky or Ritz Carlton Denver before and after your train journey. After all, wild west explorers deserve a few creature comforts these days.