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The way--out West...

FACTFILE Continental Airlines offer London or Manchester to Denver flights via Newark, New Jersey. They're ideal for an add-on visit to New York City - see www.continental.com.

For general tourism information visit www.colorado.com/english; www.visitdenver.org; www.visitgrandjunction.com; www.durango.org; www.silvertoncolorado.com; www.

visitmesaverde.com and www.visittelluride.com.

For details of car hire, motor along to www.avis.co.uk and to get on track with the rail journey over the Rockies from Denver to Grand Junction visit www.amtrak.com.

For hotel rates see www.brownpalace.com; www.smithforkranch.com; www.mainstreetsuites.com; www.rochesterhotel.com; www.mountainlodgetelluride.com and www.nationalparkreservations.com TAKING a cowboy or cowgirl-style holiday on a ranch in America's Old West might seem romantic - or foolhardy!

The prospect of horse riding, trekking, or fishing in a Rocky Mountain river, your chest-high waders sealing off the ice-cold water, is hardly a picnic in the park.

It's the real, back-to-nature deal, not your sanitised Disney World experience.

True enough, Disney can be exciting and rewarding. But it's nothing compared to the actual experience of real-life white water rafting, or zip-lining from treetop to treetop in the deep forest.

It might all seem too daunting, but with expert tuition, and a bit of the pioneering spirit that made the Wild West what it is, you can do it.

Let me reassure you. Mrs Sutton got quite into the swing of it, despite her extensive list of every ailment known to Daytime TV. Even my dicky knee held out.

A holiday on what they call a 'Dude Ranch' - so named because they allow dudes, or guests, to stay - is in many ways more akin to the Mild West than the Wild West of cowboy film fame.

If truth be told, that's how I like it. It's truly wonderful to chill out in an open-air hot tub underneath the star-lit sky, rather than get doused by a bucket of cold water in that old-fashioned cowboy way.

Awesome And it's not too bad returning to your well-sprung bed in a private log cabin, rather than bunking down next to your horse in the stable.

Even the American style of horseback riding on a mountain path saunter is relatively easy, compared to the classic British 'up and down in the stirrups' style of riding. I'm now the master of "dancing in the saddle," a sort of rhythmic buttock shuffle that keeps you supple and in time with your horse's movement.

So there you have it: life on the Smith Fork Ranch in western Colorado, with awesome, snowcapped Rocky Mountain peaks rising up from the green valley floor, with its racing stream and tree-lined banks.

It's certainly an idyllic break, away from it all.

Ranch manager Jim Nielsen tells how one captain of industry came with his family and was on his iPad all the time during the first day, paying little attention to his wife and children, or the beautiful surroundings.

By Day Two, he was getting into it; by Day Three, he was really enjoying life. On Day Four, he was asking: "Can I get a job here? I'm serious!" To be honest, the whole of the Colorado experience is just the job.

On a fortnight's vacation, you can fly into Denver's state-of-theart airport, even grabbing a couple of days in New York en route if, like us, you fly with Continental Airlines from Manchester or London via their hub in Newark, just a 30-minute train ride from New York City.

Denver is a great experience, too. The 'Mile High City' - exactly 5,280ft above sea level - has a spectacular location in front of the Rocky Mountains' range of 14,000ft high peaks.

The city has woken up from its end-of-the-world slumber since its old Wild West gold rush days of the late 19th century. Tastefully refurbished historic buildings in 'LoDo' (Lower Downtown) are now home to restaurants, bars, microbreweries and trendy shops.

In Upper Downtown, among the old State Capital building and classic hotels, you'll find ultramodern art galleries and museums, the two zones being linked by the traffic-free 16th Street Mall.

This has a constant loop of free, hop-on, hop-off, low carbon buses, which come along every few minutes. The system works wonderfully, with more than 50,000 people using the free ride each day.

Handily, we stayed at the amazing Brown Palace Hotel, an iconic 19th century town centre building that has an inside glass atrium above the 11th floor, with a pianist playing in the central, open bar space and entrance lobby far below.

A couple of days enjoying the attractions of Denver helps you acclimatise before going into the high Rockies. Then, the way to leisurely enjoy the mountain scenery is to go by train.

It's a slow, unfolding experience, zig-zagging your way up the gradients aboard Amtrak's famous California-bound Zephyr.

It takes about eight hours to cross the Rockies on the once-aday train that leaves Denver at 8am and arrives at Grand Junction in Western Colorado around 4pm, the journey taking in lunch in the train's restaurant carriage.

You get great scenery and often interesting company on board.

We picked up our hire car the next day, starting our week mixing the Old West in the daytime, and the Mild West at our selected accommodation.

For a spectacular introduction, take the nearby 'top of the world' journey through Colorado's National Monument National Park, a 23-mile drive along roadways that say it all - Rim Rock Drive, Ridges Boulevard and Redlands Parkway.

The steep plunging canyons are something else. And this just a taster for the 2,700ft, sudden drop gorge of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River. The dots on the cliff side were climbers. Now that gives perspective.

A few hours south-east saw us on the Smith Fork Ranch, billed as one of America's five special ranch retreats, where wholesome pursuits go alongside cordon bleu cooking. Most agreeable.

Relaxation Then it was on to the Four Corners region, where Colorado meets up with Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.

En route, we went up the tongue-twisting Uncompahgre River to 'hip, hip' Ouray, a charming Victorian town with odourless hot springs. You need the relaxation before the unbarriered, 11,000ft-high Red Mountain Pass over to the mining towns of Silverton and Durango.

There, you can play cowboys and Indians, in a respectful modern way. The railway scenes in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were filmed on the world-famous Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

The three-and-a-half-hour journey up Cascade Canyon is an absolute 'must'. Authentic, coal-fired, steam-powered locos make their way through wilderness, with precipitous views from the rock face ledges. Wonderful.

On the Native American front, there's the brand new Southern Ute tribe's Cultural Centre and Museum.

The impressive building is meant to represent a giant tepee, and inside, oral histories tell the Ute story: the majestic days of hunting and moving on before being marginalised by white settlers.

At least the Utes have had the last laugh, with oil and natural gas found on their reservation.

Talking of power, Durango's old electricity generating plant is now a fascinating, hands-on Discovery Museum, which is a delight for inquisitive children.

One of the undoubted jewels in Colorado's crown, however, is the Mesa Verde National Park, which allows an authentic - and harumscarum - look into the lives of the ancient cliff dwellers of this area.

You climb ladders and staircases to get your close-up insight into the spectacularly-preserved dwellings that hug the cliffs.

Time has stood still as you glimpse the lifestyle of Ancesteral Pueblo people from AD 600 to AD 1300. If the word 'awesome' is overused in America, then this is the exception.

On to Telluride, home to the stars and the turned-on of today. It's exciting getting there over another 10,000ft pass with snow coming down.

We stayed in a luxury cabin in Mountain Village, living up to its billing as an 'elevating experience.' Adjacent are the high-class golf and ski facilities of Telluride Ski Resort, which is a self-contained delight. You get to Telluride over the mountain and down the valley side by free gondola: even the kids go to school on it!

It's a glimpse into how Oprah Winfrey lives, and it's very alluring.

Western Colorado has much more in my book than Aspen and Vail. There's more to this Rocky Mountain state than just skiing.

5 THINGS TO DO 1. Durango to Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad - one of the most exciting and best-preserved railways in the world. 2. Conducted tour of the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver - all the inside track on guests, ghosts and history.

3. Outside whirlpool underneath a starlit sky in the Rockies at Smith Fork Ranch - not your everyday experience. 4. Climb down and see the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings first-hand. It's an adventurous, back-in-time experience. 5. Cook a meal and relax in front of a fire, looking out on the snow-covered mountains in your Mountain Lodge at Telluride.

CAPTION(S):

It boasts some of the most breathtaking scenery on the planet but there's more to Colorado than meets the eye. LINDSAY SUTTON explores the mild, wild west. MILE HIGH AND MIGHTY: The city of Denver. THE TRAIN KEPT A-ROLLIN': The leisurely way to enjoy the Rocky Mountains scenery is aboard Amtrak's famous Zephyr train. JEWEL IN THE CROWN: The Mesa Verde National Park - home to the ancient cliff dwellers of Colorado. STAR ATTRACTION: The high-class Telluride Ski Resort. AT HOME ON THE RANGE: A day's horseback riding along the mountain path and (inset, top) one of the private log cabins at Smith Fork Ranch.
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Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 29, 2012
Words:1608
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