Another year, another trip to the Rocky Mountains is in the books! As I mentioned last week, the boys and I just returned from a fantastic week out west!
In case you’re a newer reader, Ben and I have been coming to Colorado almost every year for the past seven years (recaps at the bottom of this post if you’re looking for some vacation ideas!) My younger brother lives there so we enjoy spending time with him on his own turf, plus we just love everything Colorado has to offer. Good food, the great outdoors, and…fountains. I’ll get to that in a bit.
The past two times we’ve come to Denver, Lincoln and I have flown while Ben drives out a day early then picks us up from the airport. When I tell people this, they look at me like we’re crazy, but Ben’s idea of Heaven is road tripping, flights are incredibly quick and inexpensive, and then we don’t have to rent a car while we’re in town. Boom – everybody wins!
Eventually we’ll start taking the road trip as a family, but when I can cheaply fly with our 2 year old for an hour and a half, vs strapping him into a carseat for 10+ hours, AND we get picked up curbside at the airport with coffee and juice, we’re definitely taking advantage.
(Psst: mix of iPhone and DSLR camera photos ahead!)
We arrived in Denver last Saturday then immediately headed to Vail. It never ceases to amaze me that we can leave Iowa at 8am CT and be mountain-side by 12pm MT. Modern travel is an amazing thing!
Vail was an hour and half drive or so from Denver (maybe a little longer with gas station stops and traffic,) and we were so excited to get there as we’d never been. Usually we use Denver as home base for our entire vacation, taking day trips to Evergreen, Breckenridge, Fort Collins, Estes Park, Boulder, etc, but I was speaking on a panel for a client of mine on Monday, who was hosting a conference in Vail, so we spent the first half of the week there.
The verdict? TOTAL. BLISS. I would come back to Vail every single year for the rest of my life!
We stayed at the Vail Marriott Mountain Resort, which was located in the perfect spot within the ski town. Vail has two main villages, Lionshead and Vail Village, both accessible by foot or free bus, and our hotel was a 2 minute walk to Lionshead Village. It had a great pool, bike rentals, bar (which Ben highly recommends,) poolside s’mores every night, free breakfast buffet for kids 5 and under – we loved everything about it.
Right behind the hotel was a nice walking path leading down to a bike trail running next to Gore Creek, which flows through Vail. The path, like most of the town, was very peaceful and secluded. Perfect for a twilight walk on our first night there.
No matter what time of day we passed by, Gore Creek was constantly peppered with fly fisherman, and the sounds of the water whooshing over the rocks was music to our ears. I would love to come back someday and rent a condo or house right on the water. So, so peaceful.
And cold!!! No idea what feeds Gore Creek, but it felt glacial!
The two villages, Lionshead and Vail, were unbelivably beautiful – from the abundance of summery flowers to the architecture, sculptures, and water features. We had no idea what to expect, yet somehow our expectations were blown out of the water.
The architecture made me think I was in Switzerland or a little village in France. Quaint, quaint, quaint. I’m sure these streets are packed in the wintertime, which made us appreciate the atmosphere even more in the off-season.
One thing I definitely was not prepared for was how kid-friendly Vail is. I lost count of how many little playgrounds and splash pads there were throughout both villages. Lincoln was in HEAVEN!!
Fountains are currently his #1 obsession, so we’d end most nights with a soak in one of the villages’ many offerings then wrap him up in a blanket when the sun set behind the mountains and carry him home. He had so much fun.
The FLOWERS in Vail were what took my breath away!
Bright, beautiful flowers everywhere…
I can’t decide what I’d like better – the flower displays throughout the villages in the summer, or the twinkly lights and fire pits sprinkled throughout the town burning in the winter. Guess we’ll have to come back some time to compare.
Ok, let’s talk food. There actually weren’t a ton of gluten-free-friendly restaurants in Vail – as many as I was expecting anyway, so that’s kind of on me – but there were two stand outs for sure. One was The Tavern on the Square, located just beyond the gondolas at Lionshead Village. While they didn’t have any GF entrees, there was plenty to pick from in terms of salads, appetizers, and small plates. Everything we had was just delicious and I had zero problems with getting sick
We ate at The Tavern twice and both times I ordered their enormous Cobb Salad with Honey Balsamic Dressing. Super fresh, filling, and they replaced the standard hard boiled egg with a fried egg. So smart and unique.
Ben and I adore poutine, and The Tavern has two gluten-free options, so we tried them both, of course! The goat cheese, crispy mushroom, and oxtail jus version was mouthwatering, and the short rib poutine with morel gravy and fontina cheese was EVERYTHING. We cannot wait to recreate this dish at home!
The Tavern’s kid’s menu didn’t have any dairy-free options for Lincoln, but it was no problem – they grilled him some chicken and paired it with fresh fruit, which was a hit. “Mom, take a picture of my fruit in the air!” Mmkay!
The other restaurant we really liked was Bol in Vail Village. We were starving one afternoon for lunch, and truth be told this was the closest GF-friendly restaurant we could find, which is why they won our business, but they totally ” bowled” us over with their food…lame pun intended. They have a bowling alley inside the restaurant, you see. Uh, nevermind.
Anyway, once I told our waiter I needed to eat gluten-free he suggested their GF flatbread, telling us that nobody can believe it isn’t the real thing. HE WAS SO RIGHT!!! I actually had a minor panic attack after I ate the first piece because it was perfectly chewy and doughy like a real pizza. I think I asked at least three times if he was sure it was the GF pizza, because it was that good. Highly recommend.
Bol is also conveniently located in front of a big lawn area with games and soccer balls to play with (I believe it’s an ice skating rink in the wintertime.) Lincoln and I tossed some bags around while Ben finished his Moscow Mule spiked with whiskey (fun, right?!) which he raved about. Two thumbs up for Bol!
Like I said, we were in Vail for work, so one night while I had a dinner commitment Ben and Lincoln went on a man hike. They just wandered around the village until they found a trail and off they went! Lincoln loves the outdoors and would hike for hours, I think!
More like, I KNOW. Ben had to bribe him with candy from a village candy shop to come down off the mountain and eat dinner, bahahahaha.
On our last full day in Vail, we bought gondola passes at Lionshead (there’s another gondola in Vail Village though we heard there’s not much to do at the top – correct me if I’m wrong!) then trekked up the mountain. They slow the ride down in the off-season so we really got to enjoy the views.
What a sight!
Cameras (well, at least my iPhone!) never give you the full picture of just how magnificent a mountain top view is. I could have stayed up there forever.
Alas, there was stuff to do on top of the mountain!
Most of the activities were for kids 5 and up – giant slides, rope courses, trampolines, etc – so we hiked around and just enjoyed being in nature. (Where’s Waldo?!)
There were lots of little trails to poke around on – some informational, too. Glad we didn’t run into any mountain lions!
We spent a couple hours up top before heading down to the bottom, and then onto Denver the next day. I can’t remember the last time I was actually sad to move onto another part of a vacation. We completely fell in love with Vail in just three days. Full of fun, incredibly family-friendly, and so, so beautiful. We will definitely return.
One person who wasn’t sad to move on for long was Lincoln – Denver’s Union Station fountains were calling his name! We first found this gem of a stop last year and honest to goodness, he has not stopped talking about it since. For an entire year. We walked down from our hotel after arriving and it was like a moth to a flame. Like he never even left. Loved it!
We’ve been meaning to eat at Rootdown for the past three years, since I got Celiac Disease, actually, because the restaurant group that owns it is extremely wonderful about food allergies and intolerances. Their menu is focused on organic and locally-sourced food, and honestly I’ve never had a harder time deciding on my order at a restaurant – I wanted evvvvvverything! (BTW, we ate at their sister restaurant, Linger, back in 2012 and the food was also insane!!)
The weather was gorgeous the entire time we were out in Colorado, so we chose a seat on the cool, covered patio and after our waitress welcomed us to the restaurant, she asked if there were any food allergies or intolerances she needed to let the chef know about. Ben almost had to pick my jaw up off the floor. Dining out can be the cause of major anxiety for people with food allergies (like Lincoln, whose allergic to dairy,) intolerances, or in my case, an autoimmune disease, so to have the restaurant address our biggest fear about eating out before we even opened our menus was the BEST feeling.
We cheers’d to that with a well-made Old Fashioned for him, and a ridiculous Coconut Ginger Fizz (x2) for her. This drink tasted like toasted coconut spiked with lime seltzer, with just a hint of ginger. I’d kill for the recipe!
Like I said, I’ve never had a harder time deciding on what to order off a menu, but finally Ben and I decided on a couple of plates to share, starting with a Burrata & Heirloom Tomato with pine nut and black current relish. It was basically a seared, whole tomato topped with silky burrata cheese, nestled in the most delicious dressing. Heaven. The grilled fresh peaches on the side were a nice, sweet touch.
We also split the Sweet Corn Risotto with mushrooms, heirloom tomato salsa, corn pudding (!!!!!) and kale pesto. INSANITY!!! The corn pudding, which the fried kale is perched on in the photo below, was so sweet. The perfect contrast to the creamy, cheesy risotto. Two diver scallops rounded out the dish.
The scallops were so good that I ordered them for my entree. Seasoned heavily with salt then seared on top – they were the best tasting and prepared scallops I’ve ever had. The lemon-habanero tarter sauce and fried capers were outstanding, but the sweet plantain hash with pickled red onions was unbelievable. I could have eaten this dish 100 more times.
Alas, I felt I could not fit ANYTHING more into this 28-week-pregnant body of mine – there was no more room! Then Ben had to go and do the damn thing, and ordered the gluten-free chocolate bomb with vanilla cream and orange caramel. Omg omg omg. Somehow I found a little extra room for a few immaculate bites.
Though I literally did not have enough room to eat my entire dark chocolate and smoked sea salt truffle. I ate half (and the entire thing is the size of my thumb, mind you,) then had to ask the waitress to pack it up for me. Mortifying!
Not only did the adults eat incredibly well, but Lincoln loved his pint-sized steak off the kid’s menu, then inhaled his vegan chocolate ice cream! Have I mentioned how much I LOVE THIS PLACE? My kid gets to choose something other than cheese quesadillas, mac and cheese, and cheese pizza, AND he gets to eat dairy-free chocolate ice cream? Total home run.
Rootdown has created customers for life. Ben and I always say the mark of a truly great restaurant is being served dishes that come out in a way you never expected, both visually and taste-wise, and Rootdown certainly delivered. Be sure to head there the next time you are in Denver!
On our last day of vacation, we walked off a fraction of our giant meal with a hike at Red Rocks. Ben and I went in 2010 (!) but wanted Lincoln to see it, and to get in one last hike. There are a couple trails around Red Rocks, but we chose the “Geological Overlook Trail”. Baha!
Kind of a funny name, but a great, 1 hour hike nevertheless. It was just the right length and skill level. Lincoln stumbled a few times (nothing serious,) and was covered from head to toe in red dust by the time we walked out, but he was ready to keep going at the end so we considered it a success. The views alone were worth it!!
We ended with a snack inside the Red Rocks Amphitheater. Such an unbelievable sight, and just 25-30 minutes outside of Denver – what a great venue to have so close to the city. My brother, his fiance, and friends come all the time.
Ben gets vertigo from heights (another reason why he drives instead of flies whenever he can!) so he tried to keep his lunch down up top while Lincoln and I enjoyed the views on the seats below.
Awww, Colorado, you just get me!
After a nap, shower, and outfit change, we met my brother and his fiance Kelly (who is an INCREDIBLE pastry chef, by the way, specializing in hand-painted macarons (which are GF and melt in your mouth,) and custom wedding cakes – call her if you are getting married in the Denver area!!!!) at Ophelia’s for our last dinner in Denver.
Ohpelia’s is another establishment owned by the Rootdown/Linger restaurant group so we knew we had cool dining experience full of gluten-free and vegan options ahead of us. The inside of Ophelia’s is really funky and hip, and there’s a cool stage sunk into the center of the dining area where bands play. Happy hour would happen often here if we lived in Denver – their cocktail list is to die for!
I wouldn’t say the inside is extremely family-friendly (I didn’t know when making the reservation, but the building has been used for everything from a brothel, to an adult bookstore since it opened in 1889, so beware of some rated-R decor (nothing X) that reflects the space’s history) so we were seated in the back patio, which was just fine with us. The evening was hot but the shaded patio felt great. Plus we had some really cool views of downtown.
Reunited and it felt so good! We had met my brother for a drink the first night we got into Denver, but it was our first time seeing Kelly since we’d arrived (they both had work during the day.) We loved catching up on all things wedding planning, life, and Naked & Afraid XL, naturally.
We were chatting all throughout dinner, so I didn’t document the entire thing, but standouts included their GF mushroom flatbread, manila clams and smoked mussels, and shishito poppers and cheese curds which we split for appetizers.
I had another case of “everything looks good!!!” menu-wise, but finally decided on their Kale and Brussels Sprout Cobb Salad for dinner. Again, I had an idea of what this dish was going to come out looking and tasting like, but it was totally different in a really great way. So, so delicious – I already bought all the ingredients to remake it at home!
After dinner we went back to my brother’s house to hang out for a bit and meet his new puppy, then it was back to Iowa the next morning. This trip was one of our very best to Colorado and, while I was ready to come home and sleep in my own bed, I could have stayed for another entire week – we never run out of things to do there. I absolutely loved staying in Vail for part of the week, then wrapping it up with family, and a little bit of familiarity. We cannot wait to return next fall when my brother gets married!
Until then, beautiful Colorado!
Previous Colorado Vacation Recaps
- From Take Off to Tap Room
- To Boulder and Beyond
- Boulder-Dodging, Altitude-Climbing, Waterfall-Spotting Hike