This is fifth (and probably last) post about my roadtrip through northern Colorado.
Some places rarely appear in tourism brochures. Some places, you need to know the right people. Not the right people, as in the richest or the hippest or the best connected (although knowing those people is never a bad thing, by any means). No, I’m talking the right people, as in the ones who have similar sensibilities to you. The ones who direct you to the places that they know you’ll enjoy, not the places that have the biggest buzz or marketing budget. The ones who can make the recommendation that can make your vacation.
My recent Colorado roadtrip had one such stop: little Lyons. During my trip, I talked to several people in the state tourism industry, both at TBEX (a travel blogging conference) and in the different places I visited. To a person, all of them were puzzled that I was stopping in this town of 2,000, located square between the better-known Boulder and Estes Park. Why Lyons?
The simple reason was that I had an in-the-know friend, a literary inclined entrepreneur named Larry who I met while backpacking in Europe more than 20 years ago. Although we hadn’t seen each other in over a decade, Facebook had kept us compadres – and while his career had made him an expat in Australia, the Philippines, and Costa Rica (among many countries visited), home base has become the Colorado mountains. When this experienced traveler told me that Bluegrass Night – held Tuesdays at Oskar Blues, a brewery known for the cult-y Dales Pale Ale – was not to be missed, I believed him.
Before heading to Lyons, my friend Blair and I took a two-hour guided horseback ride through Estes Park, courtesy of National Park Gateway Stables. As I mentioned in my post about the Colorado fires, the state has suffered a drought since early spring. This meant an unusual amount dust on the trail (although by no means unbearable), and not much snow on the mountains.
As with hiking, you’re more likely to see wildlife when you ride in the morning or around dusk. While you needn’t to go native with a cowboy hat, you will want something to protect your face and neck against the sun, such as a cheap Tilley-style hat (I bought one at Rocky Mountain National Park for $15). Jeans and closed shoes are also a must.
After our ride, we picked up a growler of Trail Ridge Red at the Estes Park Brewery as a hostess gift, and headed south from Estes Park on Highway 36. The winding road took us through Roosevelt National Forest, a drive with almost as many scenic overlooks as we had just seen in the national park.
We were slated to meet Larry at the Colorado Cherry Company, a family-run business that specializes in unusual fruit ciders, jams, syrups and condiments. It’s cute and quirky, a mix of locals holding meetings and tourists needing a sugar fix (in addition to its fruity flavors, the shop sells ice cream, pie, and coffee).
From there, we headed into Lyons proper. Oskar Blues has two locations in this neck of Colorado, a stand-alone building in Longmont and this bar/cafe, ignobly placed in a strip mall. My disappointment at the outside faded once we stepped inside, however. Folk art by New Orleans artists decorated the place, along with a few well-placed Elvi. While the atmosphere ended up trumping the food (no one does Cajun like Cajuns. I still don’t understand why people try), the beers lived up to their billing. I enjoyed Priscilla Wheat, while Blair went for Nut Brown.
While Lyons’ reputation as a bluegrass capital was new to me, it turns out that those in the know have been coming to Colorado for bluegrass for years. The town has hosted the RockyGrass Festival for 40 years (it’s coming up July 27-29) and Planet Bluegrass Ranch runs other events, including the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival and the Kinfolk Festival. Many of these traditional-music inclined folks have made Lyons their year-round home (which may be why such a small place has three medical marijuana dispensaries, Larry inferred).
The restaurant’s Bluegrass Night has been going on for nearly 10 years. Anyone can join the circle, although the more experienced players tend to take over the main room (satellite pickers practice on the outside balcony). The founders, K.C. Groves and Eric Thorin, keep things going; for a community pick-up show, it’s all rather professional. But that doesn’t take away from the raw enjoyment that evolves when you realize you’re watching first-rate musicians in a space that’s not much bigger than a living room. If you’re ever in this corner of the Rockies, you don’t want to miss it.
The next day, we set out for brunch in Allenspark, another blink-and-you’ll-miss-it mountain town. The drive on Highway 7 took us through some of the best scenery we had seen yet. Needless to say, cell phones don’t work out here; you have to know where you’re going – or follow someone who does.
As soon as we pulled up to the colorful cabin that houses Meadow Mountain Cafe, I knew it was going to be awesome. At a table next to us, an old man in a trucker hat talked loudly about the weather with his friends, then ambled out and jumped into his John Deere Gator. My favorite song, “Tangled Up in Blue,” came over the speakers, just as a big plate of huevos rancheros arrived before me. The place couldn’t have been more ideal. And I never would have found it, without the right guidance from the right kind of person.
But wait. This story isn’t over yet. Because I can almost hear the question forming: What do you do if you’re heading out on vacation to a new destination and DON’T know the right people? What if you’re flying without a guide, and you still want that insider feeling?
1. You can do as I do and hit up your social networks. Pay special attention to friends or friends of friends who live or have lived in a place (I found Taboula in Cairo’s Garden City through a high school friend who had spent years in the city).
2. Follow writers on Twitter who specialize in particular destinations. I’ve found wine bars in Rome, beachside bars in Grenada and countless other great places through my network. Many destinations themselves are also readily available, and the people manning those accounts might be able to help, although they might try to steer you more toward your clients
3. Use travel forums and message boards from publications that you trust, making sure that your BS meter is finely honed.
4. If you’re willing to pay a fee, travel concierges can custom-plan an itinerary based on your interests.
And remember, the point of such selective crowd-sourcing isn’t to listen to the majority opinion. The point is to find the right opinion, the one that suits you and your interests.