On a natural Colorado high
THERE must be something about the air in Colorado. On a visit last autumn, nearly everyone we met had gone to Colorado for one reason or another, fallen in love with the state and decided not to leave.
The exception was our coach driver, who proudly declared that he "was born and grew up in Denver, a Denver Broncos fan all the way", referring to the football team.
It's not hard to see why people have chosen to uproot themselves to live in one of the four states that make up the heart of the American Southwest. New Mexico, Utah and Arizona are the other three.
The eighth-biggest state in the United States, it is known for its varied geography, from arid plains and deserts to granite rock formations and lush forests.
It is also home to Independence Pass, which - at 3,687m above sea level - is the highest paved pass in North America. The Rocky Mountains run down the middle of the state and, to top it off, Colorado promises 300 days of sunshine annually.
For international travellers, Denver, the state capital, is often the entry and exit point to the state. At one mile or 1,609m above sea level, it is one of the highest major US cities, hence its Mile High City nickname. A night or two is sufficient to get a feel of Denver - you'll want to save yourself for the more fun stuff outside the capital.
The city is compact and the best way around is on foot, although there is a bicycle-sharing system. Pay US$8 (S$10) for a 24-hour membership, and you can pick up and drop off bicycles across town.
Or if you are at the 16th Street Mall, the mile-long pedestrian promenade lined with cafes and shops, there is a free shuttle bus that takes shoppers up and down the street.
Denver runs a fairly known public art programme, where 1 per cent of public funds used for building construction must be set aside for public art.
Don't miss the quirky works, like the 12m-tall sculpture of a blue bear peering into the Colorado Convention Center, which has become a city icon.
Walk past the drainage holes along Curtis Street, and you may hear the sound of a train or a toilet flushing. Don't worry, it is only part of a sound installation.
If you visit the Denver Art Museum, which has an extensive collection of Native American art, make a stop at the bathrooms. US artist Jim Green makes the sinks sing, through hidden speakers.
The Napa Valley of beer
Beer brewing is big in Colorado: In 2010, it was ranked first in the nation in gross beer production, earning itself a nickname as the Napa Valley of beer. A night out could start with craft-beer sampling at the Denver Beer Company, which started as a home brewery in 2011, but is now the place to go for a pint.
Denver has always been known for its steakhouses, which serve not only beef, but also bison. And the culinary scene is more than that.
Denver's best-known chef has got to be Jennifer Jasinski, who won the Best Chef Southwest medal at the James Beard Foundation Awards, known as the Oscars of the American food industry.
Her Rioja restaurant is Mediterranean-inspired, and the pan-roasted Petaluma chicken with jalepeno-corn bread pudding and crispy chicken-skin chips is a crowd favourite.
Colorado's biggest attraction has to be Aspen. It is hard to imagine that the town got its reputation as a ski destination only from the 1940s, when Aspen Mountain was developed into a ski resort.
The former silver-mining town, so named because of the abundance of aspen trees in the area, boomed during the 1880s, but fell into decline when the silver market collapsed.
Ski season in Aspen runs from late November to April, with four mountains to choose from. Locals and experts head to Aspen Mountain for its steep glades and bump-runs, big-mountain enthusiasts gravitate towards Aspen Highlands because of the challenging terrain, beginners tend to start off at Buttermilk and families love Snowmass.
But even if you don't ski or snowboard, it is worth a gondola ride up Aspen Mountain to soak in the sights, and stay warm with a cup of hot chocolate.
Outside of ski season, outdoor activities include going on road and mountain biking trails, fly fishing and horseback riding.
The town also prides itself on its vibrant arts and culture scene, so much so that locals say Aspen brings the arts and culture of the big city to visitors, sans the honking horns.
Key events include the Aspen Ideas Festival, a gathering of some of the brightest and most innovative minds in the world, Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Jazz Aspen Snowmass and the annual Aspen Santa Fe Ballet.
The town is friendly for all seasons, but you may want to skip the low season from mid-October to mid-November. Shops and restaurants are known to be open one day, and suddenly close the next, till ski season begins.
While the town of Aspen is world-renowned, the neighbouring town of Breckenridge has plenty of charm, too. Gold miners used to flock there but, today, the town has been taken over by outdoor lovers. Skiers can take their pick from four peaks which vary in difficulty. Non-skiers may delight in going dog-sledding or riding snowmobiles through the forests.
A local saying goes: "We came for the winter and stayed for the summer." Non-wintry activities include whitewater rafting, hot-air balloon rides and biking. You can do similar stuff at Aspen, but we hear that it is much cheaper to do so in Breckenridge.
Mountains aside, Colorado is home to some amazing rock formations, one of which is Red Rocks Amphitheatre. This 9,000-seat arena was carved out of massive red sandstone rocks, creating the only naturally occurring, acoustically perfect amphitheatre in the world.
Red Rocks has played host to The Beatles, who played there during their first US concert in 1964, and other big names such as Sting and U2.
On non-concert days, Red Rocks is a hot spot for fitness fanatics who burn calories running up and down the 69 rows of benches, at 1,950m above sea level.
Another attraction for the geologically inclined is the Gardens of the Gods Park, which has been voted the No. 3 park in the world by TripAdvisor users.
The 535ha park has 91m-tall, towering sandstone rock formations. Hiking can be done in the park, as well as rock-climbing. For those less inclined to walk, there are guided jeep and Segway tours.
If you are a fan of the Olympics, check out the US Olympic Training Centre. Daily tours are available, giving you a peek at where 200 athletes from the fields of swimming, gymnastics and fencing, among others, train. The souvenir shop doesn't allow you to buy a gold medal but, hey, you can buy some cool Team USA merchandise.
So if you tire of going to the West and East coasts of the US, perhaps it is time to consider heading inland. Just remember to pack your trainers and plenty of outdoor gear.
For booking or more information, contact Chan Brothers Travel on 6212-9684, New Shan Travel on 6546-7333 or Scenic Travel on 6226-3611. These agencies are offering a discount of $500 per couple for the first 10 passengers from now till June.
The writer was a guest of United Airlines. United flies daily to Narita, and connects daily non-stop to Denver.