By the time we cruised into Denver, the drive itself had been a trip. About 25 hours after leaving my garage we pulled into another one. I pressed the button, I took the ticket—time to let the Jeep sleep.
We checked-in to Le Méridien Downtown Denver an hour later than we’d planned, but that didn’t faze the front-end staff at the hotel. We were warmly and enthusiastically greeted by Derek, the hotel’s front office manager, who stood behind layers of COVID provisions. He came around the desk with our keys, while maintaining a six-foot bubble, “we’ve upgraded you to a parlor suite,” Derek told me from the side of the sweeping front desk. He told us about the rooftop restaurant and hotel’s amenities—then pointed us to the elevators that would take us to floor 17.
A tray of charcuterie and a chilled bottle of prosecco were waiting in the main bedroom as we did our wide-eyed, open-mouthed lookabout. After saying “wow” 94 times we set our bags down and stepped into our respective, giant showers. We washed off the prior day’s road trip and put on fresh clothes. Ignoring Derek’s (sound) advice about trying to get into the restaurant before it reaches capacity, we hit the streets before dinner.
Dining domes in all shapes lined the streets of downtown. We did some quick shopping and walked through a winter/Christmas festival, which was pretty much a closed-off street filled with brightly lit domes and half-filled patio dining. There was charming Christmas music and plenty of heat lamps to walk under. That’s when time caught up.
We doubled back to Le Méridien so we could get to the rooftop before curfew. I checked in with the host on the ground level. While waiting for a few dots to connect, I took my date to the lobby bar to wait for our table. We sat at a small low-top and enjoyed people watching while she sipped a $17 old fashioned and I played host to an airline-style (COVID precautions) Diet Coke. Eagle-eyed Derek noticed us in the lobby bar and inquired about our presence. I told him we’d been waiting a short time for our table upstairs. He apologized; he comped my bar tab. And it was hardly a wait—we were whisked away to the private elevators before our drinks were gone.
54thirty is a hip place and it fills up quick. It’s on the rooftop, meaning it’s open air—making it even more desirable in the times of COVID-19. I was lucky enough to have a contact reserve a table and couple of hours to enjoy the unique ambience that 54thirty offers.
Each table in our section at 54thirty had its own gas-fed bonfire as a centerpiece. I dropped off my coat on the way to the restaurant, so I was underdressed for the crisp December air that cut across the rooftop. I was glad to have my own, personal fire.
54thirty has a smart, focused menu; you won’t need to spend a lot of time in the decision phase. We both ordered wagyu burgers and chips. My date ordered the Peppered Paloma, one of the house cocktails, while I predictably ordered a Diet Coke. We each had a bite, noticed we liked the doneness of each other’s more, and we swapped burgers. That move proved to transcend an already unparalleled hamburger accomplishment. We kept it simple: a light brush of fancy mustard and a couple of pickles. The dense sweetness of the brioche bun was the perfect garage for this Bugatti-level burger.
Thanks to coronavirus, the city closes early. We were among the last to be seated and local mandates required less than two hours be spent at a table. We were in and out with plenty of time to spare, without rushing. We dropped a few floors on the elevator and retired to our enormous suite for a night of garbage television.
We woke up to a slow Sunday morning. A grey haze hung in the air as I watched cars inching in and out of tiny pay-lot parking spaces 17 floors below. We still had another destination ahead of us: Vail. We gathered ourselves and found our way back to the Jeep. We pointed ourselves west one more time.
98 miles through twisting mountain passes and sweeping altitude changes. It’s one of my favorite drives and it never fails to impress. We turned and tunneled our way through the Rocky Mountains, stopping once for gas. A pink-haired woman donning moon boots was strictly monitoring the number of patrons inside her mountainside market, as to adhere to state regulations. She politely rushed us out the (exit only) door after ringing our candy and Black and Mild cigarillos.
We pulled into Vail and promptly found a place to keep the Jeep. It was a four-minute walk through a picturesque village to the front doors of the Grand Hyatt Vail.
We settled into a much cozier room than the night prior, there was no parlor suite. The Grand Hyatt had a classic feel to it; it felt like a place where families come year after year for holiday season ski trips. Every door was opened for us, and COVID precautions had been clearly prioritized. Our room was tidy and offered a fourth-floor mountain view that perfectly contrasted the prior room’s view.
The Grand Hyatt had on-property ice skating, shopping, dining, and a heated (outdoor) pool. They have shuttles every 15 minutes, of which we waited five, and hopped an empty shuttle to Vail Village.
In the Village, we found ourselves in an enchanting outdoor experience. The December air played fair and made for a beautiful evening of outdoor shopping in the mountains. Restaurants, small shops, corporate stores, another picturesque skating rink…Vail Village is a special place tucked into the Rockies, mostly reserved for the ultra-wealthy (and the occasional me). I bought some gifts and we grabbed a couple of slices of pizza from Pazzo’s. After another round of touristy shopping, we headed back for the shuttle station. Before I could even wonder if I was lost, the shuttle pulled up and we were pointed back to the hotel.
Ski towns operate with the sun. The sun goes down, the ski hills close, and you’re left with your hotel’s amenities to keep you entertained. We took a short walk, then ordered room service and had a quiet night in the mountains.
We took our time getting ready in the morning; I called for a late checkout. A reverse four-minute walk brought us back to the untouched Jeep. Now it was time to head back east.
For the first leg of our trip home, we followed the route we took to get there. Once we hit North Platte, NE, we veered north and came home through South Dakota. That ride home ended up being one the most interesting parts of the trip. Mind blowing topography, empty highways, and faster speed limits made for a pleasurable ride home. The highways were empty; we traveled 25 miles without seeing another car at one point. When we did finally pass another motorist, they’d wave. I don’t know, maybe the road had gotten to us, but guessing whether or not people were going to wave made us laugh like a kid in a fart factory.
And then, before we knew it, we were back. Sure, we were bummed our trip was over, but we were home, and that’s nice too. We’ve been told that home is the safest place; it’s where we’re supposed to be right now. I had to know what the road looked like right now. I knew I could safely manage the risks involved and navigate my way independently of mass transport. This was a fascinating look at middle America during a pandemic—a drive through an inland vacuum that painted an accurate portrait of the times.