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Denver and Boulder with Kids: A Family Vacation Guide

By Lisa Tucker McElroy

Fall in Colorado: We’d heard it was spectacular for family vacations.  Still, the travel reviews weren’t up to the task of describing the crisp air, the fall foliage, and the incredible mountain views when we flew into Denver for a four-day Denver and Boulder fall family vacation.  My two girls were excited to hike and bike, and I couldn’t wait to try out some of the area’s terrific hotels and restaurants.  All in all?  Denver and Boulder made for our best mother/daughter trip in a long, long time.

Where to Stay

In Boulder, you’ll want to check out the comfy and convenient Homewood Suites, right in the middle of all the action.  This all-suites hotel offers complimentary dinner and breakfast and grocery shopping services and apartment-like accommodations with full kitchens and sofa beds.   The kids will co-opt the waffle makers at the breakfast buffet, and you’ll sink into the high-end Hilton brand bedding, the same used at New York’s luxury Waldorf Astoria.

For Denver luxury, try the Family Fun package at the Brown Palace, an independent boutique hotel that has hosted every American President since Teddy Roosevelt.  The package includes a teddy bear turn down service (complete with yours-to-take-home teddies) and a horse and carriage ride around Denver (weather permitting). The beds are out of this world, as is the signature afternoon tea with live music in the lobby (special pricing for kids 6 and under).

And for a hotel that’s an experience in and of itself, don’t miss the Curtis Hotel across from Denver’s Performing Arts Center.  This new, stylish property prides itself on providing fun for all ages!  My kids loved the Wii in the lobby, the concierge’s impromptu game of Twister, and the board game checkout in the lobby (Operation and Clue both made their way to our room for a night). I loved the pop art installations and the retro candy that the hotel sources from all over the country to use instead of mints on the pillows.  Our only problem (not for us, but for the hotel’s other guests)?  The elevator that “talked” to the kids (“Peek a Boo!  I see you.”) 

What to Do

Don’t miss the Denver Zoo, especially on a cooler day – the animals are out in droves, and the landscaping is gorgeous.   We couldn’t decide on our favorites – Abby liked the penguins (who swam and cooed) and the baby kangaroos, while Zoe admired the zebras for what seemed like hours.  For my two year-old nephew, Zac, it was all about the miniature train that circled the property, including a large flock of pink flamingos standing on one leg.  The large cafeteria offered a variety of healthy food choices, and the petting zoo had animals to please our group of kids from 4 weeks to nine years of age.

At the Natural Science Museum and Planetarium, the girls raced through the Prehistoric Journey exhibit – they couldn’t wait to see what came next.  A special dinosaur exhibit and a permanent look at gems and minerals rounded out their favorites.  At the Planetarium, we learned about black holes – a little spooky for more-cautious Zoe at first, but then interesting and exciting as the show sucked her in.  A pleasant surprise?  A cafeteria full of healthy options, kids’ meals, a salad bar, and tons of seating, where lunch was tasty and reasonable.

The Denver Aquarium was a huge hit, in part because of the incredible fresh and saltwater exhibits, and in part because of the snorkeling experience in the 200,000 gallon seawater tank.  Swimming with sea turtles, nurse sharks, and moray eels was the highlight of our day – until we had to get out of the water.  Luckily, dinner at the Aquarium restaurant (which surrounds another floor-to-ceiling fish tank) included mac and cheese, popcorn shrimp, and the “Shark Attack,” a giant hot-of-the-oven brownie with a molten center that easily served six.   After an afternoon of swimming and a huge meal, the kids crashed for 12 hours straight, allowing me to enjoy a glass of wine and a book back at the room.

Where to Eat

  • Glacier Ice Cream – This Boulder mainstay has the best gelato around. Abby devoured the caramel Oreo, while I liked the key lime pie.
  • Sam’s No. 3 – Love old-fashioned diners? This is the place!  It originally opened in the 1920’s and still has that vintage charm. Try one of the amazing milkshakes or Sam’s original chili.
  • The Corner Office – Breakfast at the Curtis Hotel’s happening dining spot was perfect for the kids, with its giant cereal bowls designed for an entire box of Golden Grahams and its multi-layered strawberry cheesecake waffles.
  • Lucile’s – Abby couldn’t get enough of the fresh beignets at this Cajun-themed Boulder family dining spot.  If you order the Farmer’s Eggs, pass them around – a serving is easily enough for three!  And don’t miss the gigantic fluffy biscuits with homemade preserves.  The restaurant also serves Cajun lunches and dinners, accompanied by the restaurant’s own homemade hot sauce.

If You Go:

  • Drink lots of water.  At 5280 (Denver lingo for a mile high), oxygen is in shorter supply than at sea level.  Your kids are likely to feel tired and cranky unless they stay hydrated – a water bottle is a must.
  • Consider renting bikes. Biking and hiking are hugely popular in this area; trails for young and old abound.
  • Dress in layers.  Fall in Colorado is gorgeous, but the weather fluctuates morning to night.  You may need mittens and jackets in the early morning but then shed them for a short-sleeved T midday.
  • Bring the family hound along. In this part of Colorado, dogs are everywhere (often wearing “Peace” T-shirts and bandanas).  Many hotels, such as the Curtis, will allow you to have Rover join you on vacation.
  • Be sure to hit Boulder’s Pearl Street. A pedestrian walkway, Pearl Street is jammed with cute little boutiques, restaurants, and independent bookstores.
  • Look into stay and play packages.  The Curtis Hotel, for example, will join with the Denver Performing Arts Center in Spring 2009 to offer a hotel stay and tickets to the Colorado Ballet’s production of Where the Wild Things Are.

Lisa Tucker McElroy is an attorney, writer, law professor, and mom. Lisa is the author of nine children's books, and she regularly publishes articles and essays about travel, marriage, parenting and family in national magazines such as Parenting, Mary Engelbreit’s Home Companion, FamilyFun, Cooking with Paula Deen, and Golf Vacations. She lives in the Philadelphia area with her husband and two travel-loving daughters.

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