A new ride at downtown Denver’s Elitch Gardens Amusement Park sends exhilarated, terrified customers climbing, diving and corkscrewing at 60 mph.
Called “Mind Eraser,” it’s the perfect metaphor for Denver, a city that has survived more ups and downs than locals can remember.
From gold in the 1860s and silver in the 1880s to World War II military contracts and oil and gas in the 1970s, each economic boom has been followed by a painful, sobering bust.
A decade ago, depressed oil prices left a wake of unemployment, bankruptcies and abandoned office towers.
Since then, though, Denver’s trajectory has been up - way up. And with the arrival later this week of leaders from the economically powerful “G-7+” - Japan, Germany, Britain, Canada, Italy, France and the U.S. (plus Russia) - Denver can hardly wait to show off its new vitality.
“If you haven’t seen Denver in the past two years,” civic leaders boast, “you haven’t seen Denver.”
The evidence is on their side, from the nostalgic new brick-and-girder Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies, to the $4.2 billion Denver International Airport, the current benchmark in convenient air travel.
Spokane International Airport sends three flights a day directly to Denver. But, like 42 percent of the other 88,000 passengers who arrive at Denver International daily, many Inland Northwesterners are just traveling through en route to other destinations, and don’t bother making the 30-minute journey into the city.
Too bad for them, because they’re missing a treat. Here’s a sample:
For starters, there’s the inspired Denver Public Library, site of next weekend’s economic summit.
If a public library is not your idea of a tourist stop, this 2-year-old masterpiece may change your mind.
Architect Michael Graves broke the building’s 540,000-square-foot mass into playful smaller elements - cylinders, cubes and a pyramidal roof - then clad each in its own distinctive color of stone.
Inside, the fun continues with wall murals, a two-story timber-framed derrick, and a kid-friendly children’s section nothing short of magical - bookshelves arranged in a maze; an arts-and-crafts room; and an octagonal story-telling pavilion with pint-size furniture.
Right next door is the Denver Art Museum, home to one of the finest native art and artifact collections anywhere. There’s also a wonderfully diverse assortment of Asian art, western paintings and sculptures, and contemporary works.
Admission is $4.50 for adults, $2.50 for seniors and students, and everyone gets in free on Saturdays.
Within easy walking distance is the Colorado Capitol, a suitably grandiose building from whose gilded, domed tower visitors can gaze beyond the city skyline toward 14,255-foot Mount Evans 39 miles west.
Interested in a don’t-believe-everything-you-read photo op? On the west side of the building is a step engraved with the words “ONE MILE ABOVE SEA LEVEL.” And three steps above it is another mile-high marker. Seems in 1969, some Colorado State University engineering students figured out that the original estimate was about 2 feet too low, prompting the addition of the brass survey plug.
Across town, the builders of Coors Field were less subtle. There, Denver’s mile-high status is celebrated by a ribbon of purple seats - Row 20 - that wraps around the entire stadium.
Open just two years, Coors Field - home of the National League Colorado Rockies - is the largest ball park in professional baseball, with 50,000 seats. Yet it somehow manages to feel intimate, thanks to an architectural style that borrows heavily from the surrounding warehouse district.
Take the $5 tour, and you’ll discover how much America’s pastime has evolved (from baseball-trivia-packed computers in each team’s locker room to a resident microbrewery).
Home games always sell out, but 1,200 tickets for the center field “Rockpile” go on sale two-and-a-half hours before each game, and cost only $4 a piece, $1 for children and seniors (over 55).
Just outside the stadium is LoDo - Lower Downtown - a 26-square-block neighborhood of once-derelict buildings now infused with energy, imagination and moolah.
Besides the landmark Union Station rail depot, LoDo rocks with more than 30 restaurants. For lunch, try The Market, 1445 Larimer, where you can choose from among 40 salads and twice as many desserts; for dinner, hit McCormick’s Fish House and Bar, 1659 Wazee.
There’s also an elegant old hotel (The Oxford), a first-rate bookstore (The Tattered Cover), 40 art galleries and 15 microbreweries.
LoDo’s fledgling revival got a boost in the late 1980s when geologist John Hickenlooper - a victim of the Denver’s oil bust - used his severance pay to help launch Colorado’s first brewpub, Wynkoop Brewing Co., in the vacant J.S. Brown Mercantile building.
“Now there are six brewpubs between here and Coors Field, two blocks away,” says Hickenlooper. But only Wynkoop can claim to be the world’s largest.
Just down the street is another LoDo detour worth taking - if you can get in, that is. SingSing, tucked beneath the Chop Shop restaurant, features irreverent dueling piano bars and a standing-room-only crowd of raucous 20- and 30-somethings screaming the lyrics to everything from John Denver classics to Sesame Street tunes.
A more laid-back crowd can be found at nearby El Chapultepec, a popular hole in the wall that for decades has hosted some of the country’s best jazz musicians.
Brought the kids? No problem. Head for the Denver Zoo, which stays open every day of the year.
The zoo’s centerpiece is its new (there’s that word again) “Primate Panorama,” seven acres of humane, natural-looking habitat whose residents range from 6-ounce pygmy marmosets to 600-pound gorillas.
Other animals - the zoo has over 3,300 - include elephants, leopards, king cobras, tropical fish and 144 endangered species.
Admission is $6, $3 for children (4 to 12) and seniors (62 and older).
Another sure hit with kids, as well as adults, is the Denver Museum of Natural History, home to some of the best dinosaur exhibits this side of Jurassic Park.
Beyond the 12-foot-tall T-rex greeter in the lobby lies “Prehistoric Journey,” a dramatic audio-visual history of the past 3.5 billion years. Not only do visitors learn how scientists reconstruct the past; they also can peek through glass walls into the museum’s working fossil lab, and even talk with scientists about their work.
The Museum of Natural History also has gem and mineral collections, ecological exhibits and an IMAX theater. Admission is $6 for adults, $4 for seniors (over 60) and children (3 to 12), and includes access to Gates Planetarium.
Something’s always showing at Denver’s Performing Arts Complex, site of seven theaters - from the 156-seat Source to the 2,830-seat Temple Hoyne Buell Theatre - plus the Boettcher Concert Hall, home to the Colorado Symphony Orchestra.
For information, call (800) 641-1222 or visit the art complex’s web site at www.artstozoo.org/denvercenter.
Predictably, Denver’s 22,000 hotel rooms come in every size, shape and price range.
But for the experience of a lifetime, take a tip from President Clinton and the rest of the United States’ G-7 delegation (not to mention the Beatles) and book a room at Denver’s venerable Brown Palace Hotel.
You know you’ve arrived - figuratively and literally - when you stroll into the 104-year-old hotel’s cathedralsize atrium lobby, with its white onyx pillars, cast-iron balconies and stained-glass skylight.
Guests can make reservations at one of the hotel’s three restaurants, then listen to the melodies of Porter and Gershwin wafting up from the lobby piano as they soak in their tub before dinner. Ain’t life grand?
Rooms start at $195 and go all the way up to $800 for a suite. Or stay in the adjacent Comfort Inn tower (connect by a sky bridge) and enjoy the privileges of the Brown Palace for $85 to $300 a night. (Ask about special weekend rates.)
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 5 Photos (3 Color)
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: If you go Denver is surprisingly tourist-friendly, from the clean, efficient, tent-covered Denver International Airport, to the way attractions are clustered. For instance, the Denver Art Museum, the Colorado History Museum, Colorado Capitol and the U.S. Mint all worth a visit are within easy walking distance. Traversing the urban core is a breeze, too, thanks to free, frequent bus service. A good way to plan a visit to Denver is to start with a call to the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau at (800) 393-8559. The bureau will provide a free vacation planning guide, and can book hotel reservations and get tickets for museums and sporting events. The bureau’s web site is www.denver.org. Other phone numbers and web sites of interest include: Colorado Rockies baseball tickets - if available - can be purchased by phone at (800) 388-ROCK. Obstructed seats and unsold handicapped-accessible seats go on sale at 9 a.m. (MDT) on game days. Tours of Coors Field, offered year-round, cost $5 for adults, $3 for children (under 13) and seniors (over 54). The tour takes 75 minutes. Other professional teams include the NFL Denver Broncos at (303) 649-9000; the NBA Denver Nuggets, (303) 893-6700; the NHL Colorado Avalanche, (303) 893-6700; and the Colorado Xplosion women’s professional basketball team, (303) 832-2225. Reservations at the Brown Palace Hotel can be made at (800) 321-2599. The hotel’s web site is www.brownpalace.com. For reservations at the adjacent Comfort Inn, call (800) 228-5150. Rooms at the historic Oxford Hotel in Lower Downtown range from $139 to $299 for the Presidential Suite. The hotel is connected to McCormick’s Fish House and Bar, the funky, art deco Cruise Room cocktail lounge and a full-service spa and salon. Hotel reservations can be made at (800) 228-5838. Denver’s most celebrated bed-and-breakfast is Castle Marne, a resurrected three-story Victorian stone mansion near downtown. A popular site for weddings and reunions, Castle Marne’s nine rooms run $85 to $200 per couple, including breakfast. Gourmet, six-course dinners are an additional $46.50 per person. For information or reservations, call (800) 92-MARNE or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.