BOULDER, Colo. -- To get to our room on the third floor of the historic Hotel Boulderado we took the original 1908 Otis elevator, with its accordion-style, open-weave black metal doors and unnerving tendency to stop just above or below an actual floor landing, necessitating the operator's warning: "Watch your step!" In our room we found antique furnishings, a Tiffany-style lamp, Victorian floral drapes -- and high-speed Internet access.
Boulder is full of such contrasts. First, there's the geography. At the city's edge, gentle foothills collide with the steep, jagged Flatirons, so named because they reminded pioneer women of the flat metal irons they used to press clothes. It's startling to turn a corner and see these pointed crags rising almost straight up.
The downtown is a traditional urban grid of wide boulevards lined with businesses, shops, and restaurants. But in 20 minutes you can be at the 6,850-foot summit of Flagstaff Mountain, looking out at the Continental Divide, all trace of civilization left behind.
The city retains the hippie flair of the 1970s -- which inspired The Denver Post to call it "the little town nestled between the mountains and reality." Yet it hosts some of the country's most prestigious scientific organizations, such as the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, as well as the University of Colorado, one of the West's largest universities and an architectural masterpiece.
We visited in early summer, a prime time to enjoy the area's natural beauty. From our home base at the Hotel Boulderado, we drove to the top of Flagstaff Mountain along Baseline Road, stopping to take a picture of a mule deer by the roadside. At the summit were picnic tables and walking trails, and a wedding was getting underway in a stone amphitheater.
We took another jaunt to Boulder Falls, where North Boulder Creek drops 70 feet into Middle Boulder Creek, again not more than 15 minutes from downtown. Take Highway 119 west (Canyon Boulevard) and look for a sign marking a small parking lot on the left side of the road; then it's an easy five-minute climb to the falls.
Indoor attractions include the Celestial Seasonings tea company, a hippie success story extraordinaire, and the Leanin' Tree Museum of Western Art, a nod to the city's heritage. The two buildings are practically next door in Boulder's northeastern corner.
Celestial Seasonings began in 1969 in Aspen, where 19-year-old Mo Siegel gathered wild herbs in the forests and canyons of the Rocky Mountains and made them into teas. Today, the company is the largest specialty tea manufacturer in the United States.
While waiting to take the free 45-minute factory tour, we sampled hot and iced teas in a lobby decorated with dried flower wreaths and plaques with inspirational verses. We put on hairnets and were escorted to the milling department, where machines were processing hibiscus flowers from China. We ducked into the "mint room," and the vapors from spearmint and peppermint leaves made our eyes water. Despite the company's grass-roots origins, the large production area was thin on humans; machines such as robotic palletizers operate around the clock to package the teas, now sold in 89 varieties and counting.
The Leanin' Tree Museum's location, in an industrial park, is puzzling until you realize that this extensive collection belongs to the founder and chairman of the board of the Leanin' Tree greeting card company and is housed in the same complex.
Native Americans, pioneers, cowboys, fur trappers, horses, and dogs figure prominently here. The other star is the landscape, and the collection includes some impressive wall-sized paintings of West and Southwest scenery. There's room for whimsy, too, such as Jack Roberts's series of paintings on life in Colorado cow camps, and Lloyd Mitchell's cartoon-like canvases poking gentle fun at the Wild West. John Hampton's bronze sculptures exude a remarkable sense of motion, in pieces showing a horse throwing a rider or a cowboy roping a steer, among others.
The shaded, red-brick Pearl Street Mall, in the heart of downtown, is four blocks of galleries, crafts shops, high-end clothing outlets, and restaurants, a perfect spot for browsing, shopping, eating, or people-watching. We particularly enjoyed the Smith-Klein Gallery with its museum-quality paintings, French background music, and stunning blown glass sculpture. Boulder Arts & Crafts is a cooperative gallery featuring Colorado artists.
On the mall, we watched jugglers and balloon artists and listened to a rock group. (You can get your classical music fix in the public restrooms, where Mozart and Vivaldi are played at a mountainous decibel level.) There are lots of good spots for lunch, but be forewarned: Boulderites take fitness seriously. In the restaurants we visited, sandwiches were accompanied by a salad -- there was nary a potato chip or a french fry to be found.
While many of the downtown buildings reflect a Victorian influence, the university looks like an Italian villa. It is the work of architect Charles Z. Klauder, who said the area reminded him of the hill towns of Tuscany. Campus buildings feature narrow, horizontal building blocks of native sandstone ranging in color from buff to red, white limestone trim around windows and doors, terra cotta barrel-vaulted roof tiles, and black wrought-iron railings, lanterns, and balconies.
Pick up a map at the University Memorial Center (1669 Euclid Ave.) for a self-guided tour. The Heritage Center in Old Main, the first building on the University of Colorado campus, honors the university's noted alumni, from Glenn Miller, the legendary swing era bandleader, to M. Scott Carpenter, one of 16 US astronauts who attended the school.
Here, too, we were struck by the comfortable melding of right brain and left, old and new, that seems to characterize Boulder. One moment we were playing "Moonlight Serenade" on a 1947 Wurlitzer jukebox complete with undulating multicolored lights, and the next we were peering at a moon rock suspended in nitrogen brought back by Apollo 15.
Ellen Albanese can be reached at email@example.com.