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Sip, stroll and soak up the vibe

Time slows down in Manitou Springs, Colo., as visitors sample the local waters and dive into the cultural and dining scene.

November 13, 2005|Shermakaye Bass | Special to The Times

Manitou Springs, Colo. — YOU cross an invisible border between ultraconservative Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs, its funky, smaller sibling, as Colorado Avenue segues into Manitou Avenue. Quirky midcentury modern auto courts coax you along, and you begin to notice shops with names such as Whispering Winds, Valhalla and Poppyseed. And you wonder when you hopped over the rainbow.

Nathan Tate, a friend and a transplant from Austin, Texas, my hometown, had told me that this hamlet below Pikes Peak had a special allure. The region's Native Americans certainly believed so. For centuries, the Utes, Arapaho and Cheyenne converged in this box canyon, a neutral ground for warring tribes, to sample the healing springs and meditate among the majestic rock formations.

White settlers felt it too, naming the town Manitou, an Indian word meaning "deity or spirit," and calling the rock outcroppings above town "Garden of the Gods."

When my husband, Andy, and I visited family recently in Colorado Springs, Nathan invited us to his rambling blue Victorian. We figured we'd spend a couple of days here but wound up staying longer.

Nathan's house nests in the hillside beneath the Pikes Peak Cog Railway and just above Twin Spring fountain, one of several in town. A visit to the spring became our morning ritual. Though the cool, sweet water is said to have more lithium than the other springs, each has varying amounts of minerals; their contents are detailed on metal plaques.

The attention to nature and health manifests itself in less obvious ways too. Instead of fast-food chains, we found a pleasing array of cuisines and consumables: Moroccan food at Tajine Alami, South American mate at the Mate Factor, Continental fare at the Blue Vervain and at the European Cafe, corndogs at Patsy's Candy and fondue at Mona Lisa.

Most of these are settled along Manitou Avenue, the main drag, and its offshoot, Canon Avenue. Tooling around these streets my first day, I lost track of time in such places as Thymekeeper, an "herbal apothecary," and the neighboring Mountain Man shop, where you can get black powder for your muzzle loader rifle.

Across the intersection is a museum-quality arcade, circa 1930s. It drew me back several times to play penny pinball and to "wager" on an old-timey tin-horse race. Wheeler Spring (behind the arcade) is part of the draw for kids: The peculiar blend of minerals in its waters can give sippers or sniffers a brief, giddy buzz. I took a sip and felt a pleasant little rush.

I got a different kind of rush at the Craftwood Inn, a 1912-estate-cum-restaurant. The rambling structure merges English Tudor and American Craftsman architecture, and its interior wood paneling suggests European clubbiness. Patios and dining rooms offer Pikes Peak views.

But the menu is the star. We sampled crab-artichoke bisque (outstanding), pheasant in filo pastry (heavenly) and a trio of tenderloins (bison, wild boar and caribou, each perfectly cooked and subtly seasoned).

The next day at the family-run Dutch Kitchen, circa 1949, I devoured a scrumptious corned-beef-and-cabbage sandwich and dived into a blueberry-cheese crumble. And, though I'm not a big dessert fan, I'm sure I could have eaten a second piece.

I then headed toward the 55-room Cliff House hotel -- a turreted beauty, begun in 1873. There I roamed the downstairs halls and lobbies, which form a sort of informal museum crammed with historic photos. Guests relaxed on the hotel's veranda. Some nested in wicker furnishings with books; some readied for a hike on the nearly five-mile Intemann Trail just above Iron Spring on the western edge of town; or psyched themselves up for the Barr Trail, a grueling 12 1/2 miles one way, with an elevation gain of 7,258 feet.

I chose a gallery walk instead. I checked out Filthy Wilma's, which has a so-so selection of contemporary sculpture, ceramics, paintings, glassware, then stopped by Phototroph, a high-end photo gallery featuring national artists and then Ruxton Trading Post, a cool antiques and Western-arts emporium.

I also cruised the Commonwheel Artists Co-op, which highlights the work of dozens of artists.

Later, we took the Cog Railway up Pikes Peak, luxuriating in the crisp, cold air and the 14,110-foot view. The railway is designed to ascend a 25% grade, and the journey, through aspens and cedars and snow, takes 90 minutes each way, with a 20-minute stop on top.

Our return to town coincided with "tea time" at the Ancient Mariner, a darkish cafe-bar strung with giant fishing nets and other maritime effects. The place is pow-wow central for many of Manitou's characters.

We met Nathan for a couple of Mass Transit ales, a Colorado brew, and noted that, though it's a locals' joint, outsiders and travelers found it easy to strike up conversations.

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