Late-afternoon sunshine slants across the Flatirons edging the town of Boulder, casting long shadows across the downtown pedestrian mall. But no one is in a hurry to leave.
Students linger in the golden light, reading at the bookstore cafe; street performers pick up the tempo of their guitar/bongo combo. The front doors of shops ― hawking outdoor gear and adventure clothing, handcrafted jewelry, organic-cotton kids' overalls, and natural bath products ― remain open to catch the crispness in the early-fall air.
Farther down Pearl Street, the windows of Frasca Food and Wine gleam. The restaurant's narrow side patio is packed with diners swirling wineglasses as they wait for a table.
My husband, Jim, and I have returned to Frasca after a previous best-ever meal here, and we recognize in the proud bearing of the staff a message that says, You're in for a treat tonight. We have no doubt about this as we settle in for fresh tagliatelle, house-cured sausage, seafood risotto, and a huckleberry torte - all of it off-the-scale delicious.
The staff glows with pride, and with something else too: Our waiter just returned from an international alpine-trail competition. The sommelier is a road-bike racer and avid runner. The bartender placed near the top in the Bolder Boulder 10K, the second-largest race of its kind in the country (almost 50,000 competitors).
Like nearly everyone else in town, the employees exude a level of health and musculature that the rest of us might think can only be achieved with Photoshop.
With its fit residents, university-fueled infusion of smarts, dramatic mountain setting, and, now, fine and principled food, Boulder seems to exist on a higher plane. The city's elevation (5,430 feet - one of the main draws for athletes in training) even bests Denver's mile-high stature. But here everything is elevated: beauty, fitness, eco-consciousness, food. It makes for an exceptional place to visit.
WHERE FITNESS MEETS FINE DINING
Local attorney Adam Chase, an editor at Running Times, says a rugged kind of sportiness is in the air in Boulder. "Most kids grow up playing baseball, football, and basketball. Growing up here, after school I'd go rock climbing," he explains. "We went bike racing and skiing. Our heroes were different than most people's heroes."
Long known as a sporty spot, Boulder has more recently become a destination for top-tier dining. It only makes sense that these high-achievers would eventually demand greatness from their meals. Frasca, opened in 2004 by Bobby Stuckey (who also serves as Frasca's sommelier) and chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson - both alums of the French Laundry restaurant in the Napa Valley - has received national acclaim. The foodie buzz has spread around town too, highlighting restaurants such as the Kitchen and Radda, both casual spots with an organic focus plus bars that are popular with locals. And all this fancy dining is offered in a town of only 100,000 people.
After our stellar meal, Jim and I are anxious to get out and be sporty. The next morning, we hike across Chautauqua Meadow, climbing amid white and yellow wildflowers. Soon we've got the spring of pine needles underfoot and a forest overhead. We emerge on a ridgetop, the vertical crags of the Flatirons dramatic and golden. We're huffing and puffing, but as we rest on a rock, hikers and runners and dog walkers of all ages pass us without breaking a sweat.
"I think there are some people who are intimidated by Boulder," says race director Barry Siff, who moved to the area in the mid-1990s and got hooked on adventure racing, which involves multiday, multisport treks. "But there are lots of beginners here too. And this community is so supportive. A lot of people hold these athletes in a sense of awe, but it inspires them to do something more. It's just a really healthy place."
We're inspired to continue onward and upward. Near the top of Flagstaff Mountain, we look out at the orderly lines of early-1900s cottages and brick bungalows in the city below; beyond them are reservoirs and red-rock towers. A progression of mountain peaks marks the way west.
We pause for another moment, but then press on, determined to reach the peak. We're energized by the mountain air - maybe by the pine scent, the fall sunshine, the deep breathing needed at altitude, or just by Boulder's special charge: the high-vibrating energy of this inspiring place.
WHAT TO DO
Boulder Canyon Technical rock climbing west of town; on weekends you can see lots of climbers from the road. INFO: Access spots west of town off State 119/Canyon Blvd.
Boulder Creek Path Paved trail is the town's main sports artery, running past downtown and out to Boulder Canyon. INFO: Access at east end of Central Park (free; 13th at Arapahoe Ave.).
Boulder Rock Club and Colorado Mountain School Rock climbing at the indoor gym ($17, $10 equipment rental) and outdoor classes ($110-$175 for half-day class, plus $15 equipment rental) in Boulder Canyon and other natural venues. INFO: 2829 Mapleton Ave.; 800/836-4008.
Chautauqua Park Pretty trails start from Chautauqua Meadow. Climb 0.6 miles on Chautauqua Trail to Bluebell-Baird Trail for a nice out-and-back route. INFO: Free; pick up a free map at ranger cottage next to the meadow; 900 Baseline Rd.; City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks, 303/441-3440.
Eldorado Canyon State Park Hiking and rock climbing. INFO: $7 per vehicle; southwest end of State 170 in Eldorado Springs, 8 miles southwest of Boulder; 303/494-3943.
Outdoor Divas Women's sports clothing and gear shop; also offers kayaking (through Sep 30) and climbing classes. INFO: 1133 Pearl; 866/449-3482.
WHERE TO EAT
Frasca Food and Wine Superb Italian-style dishes. INFO: $$$; closed Sun; 1738 Pearl St.; 303/442-6966.
The Kitchen Daily-changing menu; Monday-night family-style meals. INFO: $$; 1039 Pearl; 303/544-5973.
Radda Trattoria with casual, traditional Italian. INFO: $$; 1265 Alpine Ave.; 303/441-6100.
WHERE TO STAY
The Bradley Boulder Inn Craftsman-style downtown lodge with good breakfasts. INFO: From $195, including breakfast; 800/858-5811.
The Colorado Chautauqua Rental cottages and modest lodge rooms at the 26-acre original 1898 Chautauqua site; no phones or TVs. INFO: From $119; 303/442-3282.
St. Julien Hotel & Spa Large, luxurious downtown hotel. INFO: From $249; 720/406-9696.