The spirit of the old American West, romanticized in myriad Westerns, is alive and well in Cheyenne, Wyo. You only have to step off the "stagecoach" (American Eagle jet) to start soaking up cowboy culture.
But for those tourists expecting an unsophisticated, wild and woolly town, there are some surprisingly luxurious accommodations and gourmet cuisine to be found in the area. You just have to know where to look.
Little America Resort and Hotel (800-445-6945) is a fabulous place to stash your saddle if you're traveling with your family. This 80-acre property features a nine-hole golf course (complete with a pro shop) and an Olympic-size outdoor swimming pool. Newly remodeled deluxe king rooms offer imported marble, European furniture, English wool carpeting, cozy goose-down pillows and plush bathrobes. High-speed Internet access also is available. So much for roughing it on the prairie.
If you're in the mood for romance, a more intimate experience can be found at the Nagle Warren Mansion Bed & Breakfast (800-811-2610). Each guest room is individually appointed with antiques. The Mansion houses six guest rooms, and the Carriage House hosts the other six. Every room in the B&B - including the sitting area, the library, the parlor and the dining room - is decorated to re-create the elegance of the Old West, from ornate staircases to period wallpaper.
But, unlike accommodations of the past, modern-day conveniences abound, including central air conditioning, wireless Internet access, a garden hot tub and an exercise center. Bountiful, creative breakfasts are served daily, and afternoon tea is served every Friday and Saturday. If you should get a sudden case of the munchies at midnight, the Butler's Pantry is open for late-night raids on the cookie jar or a cup of tea or coffee.
The Windy Hills B&B (877-946-3944) is about 15 minutes outside Cheyenne, nestled in the Laramie Mountains between Cheyenne and Laramie. It's the perfect place to enjoy breathtaking canyon scenery or to take advantage of abundant recreational opportunities. Windy Hills is a private, secluded oasis, with several suites and guesthouses to choose from. Gas fireplaces and Jacuzzi baths make this retreat feel like a special hideaway.
One of the top tourist attractions in Cheyenne is Cheyenne Frontier Days (800-227-6336), known as "the Daddy of 'em all." Frontier Days is the world's largest outdoor rodeo and Western celebration. Started in 1897, this year's festivities will take place July 22-31 and will feature 10 days of rodeo action - from bull riding and barrel racing to steer wrestling and team roping.
But Frontier Days is more than just the rodeo. It's a dazzling array of family entertainment - a parade, a midway of carnival rides, nightly big-name concerts, a chuckwagon cook-off, a pancake breakfast, tours of the Old West Museum and a Western art show. The Indian Village at Cheyenne Frontier Days is a cultural experience, with Native American exhibit booths and food vendors as well as entertainment. Free crafts for children and Native American storytelling also are offered.
Make hotel reservations early if you plan to come to Cheyenne Frontier Days, as rooms during the event book up fast.
Dining options in Cheyenne range from gourmet to blue-jean casual. One of the most memorable meals I've ever had was at The Capitol Grille, located inside the Plains Hotel (866-275-2467), a recently renovated historic hotel situated downtown, right across the street from the Union Pacific Depot. Chef Gary Trehy prepares Western high-style cuisine using fresh, local ingredients, including Wyoming beef products. Try the Wyoming bison strip steak or the Plains Hotel bison meatloaf.
Breakfast at the funky and ultra-popular Luxury Diner is a treat. Be prepared to wait a while for a table if you come at peak meal times. The waitress will call you "hon" as she serves you the house specialty, Luxury Potatoes, which are home fries cooked with onions, peppers and a dash of paprika. Try to get a table in the part of the diner that once was an operating trolley car. The decor is pure '50s diner, even though the diner has been in this spot since 1926. It's a real hoot, and you can't leave Cheyenne without diving into those potatoes.
If you're looking for a fun steakhouse dining experience, then head to Little Bear Inn, where the portions are hearty and good humor abounds. The menu suggests that you start with the Rocky Mountain Oysters, "a Western tradition, but these oysters don't come from any ocean." Chef specialties include salmon in parchment paper and the Little Bear burger. There's also an extensive "Little Bear" menu for kids under 12. And save some room for Bear Balls for dessert - big scoops of vanilla ice cream rolled in crushed Oreo cookies.
But there's more to life in Cheyenne than relaxing at your hotel or eating. A great place for a family outing is the Terry Bison Ranch, which offers rustic accommodations (an RV park, cabins and a bunkhouse), a restaurant (which serves excellent buffalo burgers) and many family activities. Take your kids on a train tour to see camels, ostriches and a bison herd. Pose for pictures wearing historic Western gear at the Old Time Photo Studio. Or go horseback riding on a trail or fishing at the private lake.
The Bit-O-Wyo Horse Barn Dinner Show is a delightful cowboy experience, combining Western musical entertainment with a fantastic steak cookout meal. Call (307) 638-6924 for reservations, Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Just west of Cheyenne, Vedauwoo is a rocky area (at an altitude of 8,000 feet), filled with dense pine forests and aspen groves. Rock climbing is the chief sport here, and views from the tops of the crags are said to be stunning.
The Railroad Depot Museum has plenty of hands-on exhibits, and the Cheyenne Street Railway Trolley Tour provides background on the area's history.
The college town of Laramie is an easy drive, and the University of Wyoming campus is beautiful. Stop and have a cold one at Altitude Chophouse & Brewery before exploring downtown Laramie's specialty shops and art galleries.
Springfield natives will feel right at home gazing at the Lincoln Monument, just off Exit 239 on Interstate 80, after leaving Laramie. What's a 13½-foot Lincoln head resting on a 35-foot stone base doing in Wyoming? Lincoln's head was sculpted by Robert Russin, a University of Wyoming professor and huge Lincoln fan. Interstate 80 parallels the historic Lincoln Highway (U.S. 30). Stop for a few minutes at the Visitor Center at the adjacent Summit Rest Area to explore the small museum with exhibits of native wildlife.
Then come back to Cheyenne to the upscale ambiance of Suite 1901 Martini Bar for tapas and drinks. The stunning art deco interior will amaze you. But then, Cheyenne is full of surprises.
Story published Friday, March 4, 2011 ( Volume 6, Number 2 )