First came the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad and not long after the birth of the mining town Durango and the landmark Strater Hotel. The prepossessing, four-storey hotel opened in 1887 and while owned by a number of people during its colourful history the structure, made of 376,000 red bricks and hand carved sandstone cornices, stands today.
Tucked in the corner of south-west Colorado, close to where that state meets the borders of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, Durango, population about 18,000, is a Nationally Registered Historic District and a genuinely delightful town to explore by foot. Entering the grand lobby of the hotel that's set on the main street is like walking onto the set of a Western movie. The day I enter a bluegrass band of banjos and fiddles riff on Amazing Grace before the music suddenly stops. The singer clears his throat. "Excuse me, he says, I got a fly down my throat," he says. And the song resumes.
The bustling hotel with central staircase is a wholehearted embrace of another era with hand-painted Bradbury and Bradbury wallpapers, chandeliers from the old Durango Courthouse, the world's largest collection of American Victorian-era walnut furniture, shadowboxes of guns, button-up boots and cards of the old west. The bellhops will gladly show you the hidey-holes where pistols were said to have once been stowed and the original 1888 safe with its 25 centimetre thick cast iron door. The Diamond Belle Saloon has long been a favourite gathering spot where ragtime pianists provide the entertainment. The bar, originally built for a premises in the mining town of Silverton, has a bullet hole from a Colt 44 revolver put there by an enraged customer trying to get the attention of the bartender.
Guestroom at the Strater Hotel, Durango, Colorado. Photo: Scott D W Smith
Each of the 93 rooms is individually decorated; the presidential suite has 24 carat gold wallpaper, room 220 has a corner armoire of walnut and mahogany of tongue and groove construction and ours, room 327, contains a three piece Eastlake furniture set, heavy velvet curtains and is only one of two with exposed brick and cedar wood panelling. Room 222 was a long-standing favourite for Western author Louis L'Amour whose writing was inspired by the strains of the honky tonk piano floating up from the Diamond Belle Saloon. You can still hear the music if you take a moment at the top of the staircase and its dizzying view.
The Diamond Belle Saloon, Strater Hotel.
Slide into a booth at the Office Spiritorium where cocktails containing pecan bourbon and cherry bark bitters are among the ingredients. Dinner at The Mahogany Grille Restaurant includes hearty meals of rainbow trout, elk tenderloin and scallop-stuffed lobster tail.
Outdoor lovers will want a few days here, with multiple hiking and mountain bike trails close by. Also not to be missed is a day on the historic Durango-Silverton narrow gauge steam train. It takes in stunning mountain views on a route inaccessible to cars that includes Baker's Bridge, the sight of the famous jump scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford (durangotrain.com). From the town, Mesa Verde National Park and the Cliff Palace of the Ancestral Puebloans is a 40-minute drive while Pagosa and the world's deepest hot spring is about an hour's drive.
A hotel offering a vibrant step back in time.
699 Main Ave, Durango, Colorado, US. Rooms from $US148 ($200) a night. See strater.com
The storied hotel has a tale in every room.
There are a lot of stairs. But there's thankfully a lift.