The first bite of duck cassoulet was heaven. Creamy beans, rich stock and tender meat in a little crock — so delectable, I had to remember to mind my manners and not just shovel each spoonful into my mouth. This is a nice restaurant, not Grandma’s house, and you are a grown woman, not a toddler.
When our server came by to check on us, I jokingly asked, “What does the chef put in this?”
“I’m not sure,” he answered, “but I can check and find out.”
I figured he’d come back with intel on a surprise ingredient, and I’d be happy. But when he dropped our check a while later — long after I shamelessly asked for more house-made sourdough to sop up every bit of the broth — he also brought a printout of the entire recipe straight from the kitchen.
I was stunned by the generosity, handing over chef secrets as casually as if I’d been a close friend looking for a new hot dish to bring to the church potluck.
This was just the latest in a string of encounters during our short trip to Boulder, Colo., that made my husband, Nick, and I feel at home, like someone had picked up Minnesota and plopped it somewhere Out West with mountains.
That morning, we’d sunk into the squishy wicker chairs, mugs of hot coffee in hand, on the screened porch of our cabin at Colorado Chautauqua, thanking our lucky stars that the east-facing configuration meant enjoying a hit of warm morning sun, just enough to temper the crisp spring breeze. This was no beach vacation, but it was still a step or five above a Minnesota March.
I had been worried about getting socked in by spring snow, but the silver lining of an offseason visit meant hiking routes weren’t a traffic jam and that darling cabin wasn’t as much of a bludgeon to the pocketbook.
Chautauqua carries on
The Colorado Chautauqua, a National Historic Landmark, was created in the late 1800s as part of a nationwide educational movement that lasted until the mid-1930s. Today, the nonprofit Colorado Chautauqua Association still puts on intellectual and cultural programming — one of few such original chautauqua institutions in the country to continue that mission.
Each of the 58 rentable cottages, ranging from studios to three-bedroom units, is unique. Ours was downright charming, with knotty wood paneling and a claw foot bathtub. The backsplash in the kitchen featured tiles with a botanical design the likes of which my grandparents would have used in their northern Minnesota lake cabin years ago. No televisions or phones meant we could minimize distractions and focus on relaxing.
Best of all, the famous Flatirons range of tilted-slab mountains abuts the Chautauqua property, so accessing those great hikes we’d heard about would be a cinch.
On that first day, however, we decided to give ourselves extra time to acclimatize to the elevation and instead walked 20 minutes into town after breakfast at the grand Chautauqua Dining Hall.
We passed through the University of Colorado campus and across Boulder Creek to Pearl Street Mall, a quaint combination of Minneapolis’ Nicollet Mall and our Grand Avenue stomping grounds in St. Paul. That’s where we stumbled on Mountain Sun Brewing.
While waiting for an open table, one of the hosts took notice of my husband’s blue St. Paul Saints cap.
“You guys from St. Paul?” he asked, pointing at the hat.
Few people would recognize the Saints’ logo outside of our capital city, much less halfway across the country, so we were understandably intrigued.
“Yeah, we are, actually. How’d you know?”
He said he was from the Twin Cities and had attended St. John’s University in Collegeville, as he led us to a booth.
Delighted by the connection, we tucked into a round of beers and juicy rib tips at the suggestion of our server.
The server swung back around a while later, sliding into our booth with us — it’s that kind of place — to chat about what we might like for our second round. As we were about to order, he, too, deduced that we were visiting from Minnesota.
Turns out, he grew up in Woodbury before moving west.
“First round is on me,” he said, grinning and crossing our first pair of beers off his notepad with a flourish. “You guys enjoy yourselves.”
Needless to say, we left our new Minnesota expat friend a rather large tip.
At Topo Designs, a local outdoors gear shop, one salesman helped Nick pick out a new belt for the next day’s hike while I chatted with the other about our plans for the afternoon, of which we had few. But by the time we left, he’d handwritten us a list of places to check out.
At Boxcar Coffee Roasters, not only did we get afternoon pick-me-ups, but we also got a lesson in high-altitude brewing. Their Boilermakr contraption looks like something out of high school chemistry class, but the coffee was excellent. We toted a pound of their espresso beans home with us.
And at the Kitchen, well, I’ve already mentioned that cassoulet and the recipe.
It was enough to make a girl want to pack up and move.
Hitting the trail
The next morning, we suited up for a day of hiking in the Flatirons, a rock formation tucked into a mountainside featuring five distinct slabs of sandstone tilted at an angle, numbered one through five from north to south.
Though we consider ourselves seasoned hikers, neither of us has much experience at high altitude, so we were unsure how our bodies would perform. We took it slow and easy, stopping for breaks and water often.
The trailheads near Chautauqua head up near the first and second Flatiron formations beginning with a gradual incline through a grassy meadow at the base of the range.
Eventually we were surrounded by tall pines and enormous boulders — a rock climber’s paradise. At the height of our hike, sheer vertical cliff faces rose like skyscrapers and we traversed a talus field of eroded rock, taking each step carefully. The first to reach the other side, I turned around and looked up to see the intruding profile of one of the Flatirons poking up behind Nick.
Though we didn’t achieve any summits to write home about, we still enjoyed panoramic views of the town of Boulder below and its two reservoirs. To the southeast, we could even make out the hazy silhouette of Denver’s skyline — 20 miles away.
Satisfied with ourselves — and, admittedly, a tad woozy from the elevation — we opted to head back down via the Enchanted Mesa Trail. Enchanted, indeed. The trail eased out of the rocky surroundings into a gentle slope of tall pines where there was no underbrush, but rather, a sea of tiny cairns set out by hikers before us. The sun’s glow came filtering through the canopy and we felt like giants traipsing through a miniature village.
We emerged from the trees and continued back down on the opposite side of the Chautauqua property from where we’d left, making our way back to the cozy confines of our cottage for a well-deserved late afternoon nap.
We cracked a couple of windows to let in the breeze and curled up with a quilt. In only two days, that little cabin had begun to feel like home — no surprise, since the people in Boulder had made us feel at home, too.