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Locals Know Best: Telluride, Colorado

By Liza Weisstuch
updated September 29, 2021
Telluride Colorado Valley
Robert Fullerton/Dreamstime
There's no better guide to a city than someone who lives there, so we asked Eliza Gavin, chef, restaurant owner, and Bravo Top Chef, for her take on culture, food, and drink in the town she calls home.

Mention Telluride to anyone and chances are they’ll immediately think of an elite ski town full of second homes and all the things hedge fund dreams are made of. But there’s far more to this picturesque village nestled at 8,800 feet above sea level in the Colorado Rockies. Old Western fanatics will tell you that Butch Cassidy robbed his first bank here. Architecture junkies will tell you it’s chockablock of Victorian homes and it was illuminated by streetlights before Paris. Entertainment historians will tell you that Lillian Gish played shows there. And scholars of American history will tell you that at the turn of the 20th century, there were more millionaires per capita there than Manhattan. By the 1960s, however, due to the slowdown of the local mining industry, the boom started to go bust. Thanks in large part to entrepreneurial developer and hotelier Joseph Zoline, who leveraged the area’s exquisite mountains and built up the local ski industry in the late 1960s, Telluride underwent a renaissance and got its glitzy groove back. But beyond the allure of its ski runs, Telluride is actually just a small town of about 20 by 15 blocks. In the off-season its population is around 3,000 and it draws all sorts of artists, festival followers, nature lovers, and culinary-minded vacationers, giving it an energy that suits travelers of all stripes.

We recently checked in with Eliza Gavin, owner of and chef at 221 South Oak since 2000, to learn a bit about what goes on in town today. She’s the chef owner at 221, a restaurant she’s owned since 2000, but you might recognize her from season 10 of Top Chef, which aired in 2012. As a native of Telluride for 20 years, she's seen the town change and grow. Here's where she recommends you go when you visit. 

TRAILS FOR STROLLING, HIKING, AND SKIING

Telluride is essentially located in a canyon surrounded by southwestern Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, which are as high as 13,000 feet. Waterfalls abound. There’s a tangle of trails across mountains and flatter lands that lure hikers, bikers, and anyone else who loves spending time outdoors. With so many different paths to take, it helps to have someone familiar with the landscape to offer tips. Eliza, who’s done her fair share of exploring, has the low-down on what to expect on different trails. 

Beginners and anyone just wanting a casual stroll would be best off on Bear Creek. It’s not strenuous, Eliza says, and it’s manageable to go off-trail if the urge to wander strikes. Anyone seeking more intensity should try Jud Wiebe, a three-mile loop that’s pretty much a straight shot up and a straight shot down. And for a completely different experience, hop in a car and head to Ouray, about 40 minutes away. Those who travel will be richly rewarded with hot springs and waterslides. 

And, of course, there are the famous ski trails, which offer world-class terrain regardless of your experience or ability, not to mention different options with regards getting to the top of the mountain via lift or hike. In addition to the slopes, though, Eliza raves about Terrain Park, a veritable winter playground of man-made jumps where kids flips and spins. 

Yes, Telluride’s reputation is built largely on adrenaline-fueled afternoons, but plenty of people here snap on skis for a cross-country expedition. It’s so embedded in the local culture, in fact, that there are Nordic tracks in the town park as well as an area known as The Valley Floor, a giant swath of land cut through by a river. Very generous donors paid nearly $50 million to have it condemned so that nothing can ever be built on it. In 2017 it celebrated its ten year anniversary as a public space that locals love for mountain biking, cross-country skiing, and elk-spotting.  

OFF-SEASON DELIGHTS

The one thing to know about Telluride before you go is that when people refer to it, they're generally referring to the adjacent towns of Telluride and Mountain Village. Mountain Village is the ski-hub and Telluride is more of the town. A 14-minute free gondola ride shuttles people back and forth between the two. There are also free buses if heights aren't your thing. 

A visit in the spring or summer is rewarded with all kinds of outdoor spaces above and beyond the hiking trails, like skate parks and bike trails along the river. "There's so much freedom in the summer," Eliza says. "Everyone walks everywhere. It's really safe." 

And then there are the festivals. There's pretty much something every weekend, she says. Among the arts and music happenings, the Bluegrass Festival brings in up to 12,000 music lovers each June. Then there are other events that can't really be classified, like the Nothing Festival, a summer occurrence when everyone bikes through town without clothes. Seriously. 

EAT YOUR HEART OUT

In addition for being known for its elegant and creative seasonal New American dishes, 221 South Oak, Eliza’s restaurant, is popular for the appetizer and wine and pairing classes she offers on a regular and by-request basis. It’s quite an extravaganza: over the three-hour session, she prepares up to 14 dishes and pairs them with eight or 10 wines. Or cocktails. The options are endless. She explains the different varietals and the philosophies behind which wine compliments what food. But don’t expect your familiar dishes. Eliza prefers to use what she calls “weird ingredients,” like kaffir lime leaves and nutritional yeast.

So where does this topnotch chef eat in her off-time? No town where creative people dwell would be complete without tacos. The go-to here is Tacos del Gnar, which Eliza loves for its creative concoctions, like the sloppy joe taco and tater tots with queso. For sushi, it’s Pescato, which, in a quirky turn of events, spotlights Indian food each Wednesday.

Even chefs at the world’s highest end fine dining restaurants knows how to appreciate pub grub. In Telluride, Smuggler’s Brew Pub is the name of the game. The staples at this gastropub (which happen to also be Eliza’s top picks on the menu) are the pulled lamb sliders, crawfish mac’n’cheese, and fried pickles. They brew their own beer, she’s quick to note. She also recommends hitting Last Dollar Saloon (AKA: “the Buck"), a “local, lovely corner spot on Main Street with a cozy retro look," she says, complete with lacquered wood, a pressed tin ceiling, pool tables, and foozball. More importantly, though, it boasts the city’s largest beer selection, offering up to 60 beers. Eliza appreciates all those assets, but most impressive of all is the fact that each night, one of the three owners—Moussa, Jay, Michael—can be found working the bar, giving it a truly neighborhood feel.

Speaking of beer, Telluride Brewing Company is a must for anyone who loves beer. (And chances are, if you’re the type of person who plans a vacation to Colorado, you likely love beer. There are, after all, 348 in the state as of May 2017. That’s roughly six breweries for every 100,000 people) It’s eight miles outside the city, and more than worth the trip, Eliza ensures. But if you don’t take her word for it, consider the many awards they've won over the years at the annual Great American Beer Festival. They don't have formal tours, she notes, but they always welcome visitors. "You just go in and they're like, 'Hi! You wanna look around? You want a tour?' They’re just very friendly and fun." As further evidence of their obsession with fun, they participate in the Telluride Blues and Brews festival each September. 

Right about now it’s worth noting that Colorado was the first state to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012 (with Washington) and its dispensaries have been a tourist attraction since that went into place. When Eliza sees tourists wandering through town staring at their phones, chances are they’re looking for the weed stores. There’s six dispensaries and though Eliza doesn’t partake, she says it’s not hard to find someone in town who can recommend which has a better inventory than the rest.

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Cool Towns for Holiday Shopping

Budget Travel loves celebrating America’s coolest towns as much as we love celebrating the holidays. So when Expedia mined data across social media platforms to see which local shops and holiday markets were getting the most buzz, we were psyched to learn the results. Here, five of the cool communities where you’ll find unique holiday gifts, a vibrant downtown, natural beauty, and an overall great travel experience. FLAGSTAFF, AZ: A SHOPPING PASSPORT WITH PRIZES The Flagstaff Holiday Shopping Passport is an appealing idea for nudging holiday shoppers to discover the bounty that local shops have to offer, rewarding shoppers who hit at least five stores (or spend at least $250) with the chance to win prizes. Flagstaff’s varied local businesses offer enough variety to check everybody off your shopping list, with outdoor and camping gear, books, home decor, candles, honey, personal care products, fine art, flowers, upscale clothing and much more. MYRTLE BEACH, SC: CHRISTMAS CRAFTS BY THE SEA Sure, you think of Myrtle Beach as one of your favorite summer destinations. So do we. But when the holidays roll around, the coastal community's ocean views and famous hospitality make for a beautiful backdrop for shopping and revelry. The Holiday Bazaar on Saturdays at Market Common, an annual Myrtle Beach tradition, offers seasonal craft vendors and fresh food. Plus, holiday events will be happening all over the Myrtle Beach area throughout the holiday season, including Crazy Country Christmas music and comedy shows, Motown Christmas Tribute concerts, and the Nights of a Thousand Candles at Brookgreen Gardens, a gorgeous arboretum and sculpture garden. MISSOULA, MT: EUROPEAN-STYLE FOOD & FUN You might not expect to shop at a traditional European-style Christmas market in the heart of the Montana Rockies, but Missoula’s Little Red Truck Vintage Market European Christmas, at the fairgrounds (with heated barns), is a pleasant cultural juxtapositions. Hand-crafted gifts, antiques, exquisite European-style baked goods (and bratwurst), live music, and a visit from Santa Claus in his sleigh make this one of the West’s unique holiday events. And don’t miss Missoula’s Hip Holiday Market, sponsored by the Lowell School PTA and featuring the work of 50 local artists. BOWLING GREEN, KY: A FRESH MARKETPLACE We love Bowling Green’s SoKY Marketplace, a year-round outdoor farmers market that offers not only fresh, locally grown produce but also handmade holiday crafts, baked goods, meats, cheeses, and an array of other locally sourced products. Downtown Bowling Green also boasts a holiday ice-skating rink and an annual Christmas parade. MUSKOGEE, OK: CHRISTMAS IN A CASTLE Castleton Village, in downtown Muskogee, will enchant visitors with thousands of lights (you can drive or take a hayride or train, or take a pony ride). Inside the Castle Christmas, families will savor the holiday shopping, ornament-decorating, cocoa and snacks, and a visit with Father Christmas.

Inspiration

5 Things Budget Travelers Are Thankful For

When my family sits down to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner, we have a tradition that I actually look forward to even more than the food: We first take a moment to go around the table and share something each of us is particularly thankful for. From the youngest at the table to the eldest, it's a mindful way to take stock of the past year and share our hopes for the future. At Budget Travel, we have a lot to be thankful for, and we hear from our audience regularly about the travel trends and experiences that you most appreciate. We want to share our thoughts with you, our extended family: TRAVEL MAKE US MORE TOLERANT  Despite the latest wave of bad news around the world, more people are traveling than ever before and we are, of course, firm believers in the power of travel to break down the barriers between cultures. Once you’ve walked the streets of a foreign city, tasted the flavors of its food, and listened to the language, songs, and laughter of its people, you return home with something more valuable than any souvenir, something that can’t be taken away: Empathy. TRAVEL MAKES US HAPPIER  Don’t take our word for it. Numerous studies have suggested over the years that spending money on experiences rather than on possessions makes people happier. The anticipation of planning a trip, the experience itself, and your memories (even the memories of travel fails!) all combine to boost your sense of well-being. We take this research very much to heart when recommending not only big annual vacations but also three-day weekends, road trips, and girlfriend getaways that pack the anticipation/experience/memories into a smaller package. SOCIAL MEDIA BRINGS THE WORLD TO YOU  Yes, we know, we know. Your feed is sometimes cluttered with political rants, questionable "news" items, your friends' pets, and unappetizing dinner pics. But at their best, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest deliver the world to us when we’re looking for trip inspiration or up-to-the minute news, and, in turn, allow travel media brands like Budget Travel to deliver the world to you. PHOTOGRAPHY IS MORE ACCESSIBLE THAN EVER  While we understand there’s no substitute for a great camera and a pro photographer (and our photo essays and slideshows certainly prove that), we are extremely thankful that smartphones and tablets have put the means of taking great pics in the hands of so many people. Like the social media platforms where photos get shared, the abundance of fabulous images is making the world a smaller place. FOOD IS WAY BETTER THAN IT USED TO BE  It wasn’t too long ago that traveling meant a strange balancing act between sublime new tastes and bland or flat-out awful food. But restaurants, airports, airlines, food trucks, and a nearly worldwide focus on nutrition and taste (thanks to the pioneering work of food activists such as Alice Waters) have raised the culinary game across the U.S. and Europe and beyond. And while we're on the subject of giving thanks, please remember that it is easier than ever to help those who don’t have enough to eat by donating to Oxfamamerica.org.

Inspiration

"Road Soda" Delivers Tasty Cocktail Recipes for Travelers

It’s happened to the best of us: you end up in a hotel room or on a plane or at a campsite and you’ve spent what seems like an entire day getting there. A cocktail would be really nice at that point, but you don’t want to take out a mortgage on your home to buy the micro-bottles from your minibar and a gin and tonic from a harried flight attendant just won’t do the trick. In this situation, the trick is resourcefulness. In “Road Soda,” Kara Newman, spirits editor for Wine Enthusiast Magazine, talks to bartenders around the country to create a compendium of clever techniques, practical hacks, and surprisingly simple recipes that can ensure a well-made cocktail is never as far away as your destination. 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It’s this kind of attitude adjustment that I hope people are able to take away. BT: In all your conversations with bartenders, was there anything you learned that particularly surprised you? KARA: I was really surprised by Julie Reiner’s [owner of NYC’s legendary Clover Club and Flatiron Lounge] machinations to bring an entire daiquiri on board a plane—fancy ice and all. It came my way through social media, someone posted a photo on Facebook of Julie shaking daiquiris onboard a flight to Hawaii. She told me she brings all the ingredients and, of course, purchases the rum on board. She had a cooler of dense Kold Draft ice—the kind serious bartenders like to use because it doesn’t dilute quickly—and her own shaker. It surprised me that she’d be so willing to go to these lengths to have that kind of experience on board. She was even considerate by wrapping cocktail shaker in a blanket. She was in first class, so she had some elbow room and wasn’t knocking into neighbors if she’s shaking. You have to know your constraints.  BT: Knowing your constraints seems like good advice for anything in life. KARA: I was also amazed by Atlanta bartender Tiffanie Barriere’s suggestion to use a scooped-out half lemon or lime as a jigger. It’s a watertight vessel, nature’s nifty jigger. It never even occurred to me as a possibility, but it works. It’s so crazy. It won’t always be precise ounce or half-ounce, but if you use it every time you’ll get the right proportions. I also liked that another acclaimed New York bartender Pam Wiznitzer gave me her mom’s tip to pack arm-floaties—those things kids use to learn how to swim—to keep bottles safe while you travel. Pack them deflated and blow them up and stick a bottle in it. Insta-packaging! PLANES, TRAINS, BEACHES, AND CAMPSITES: THERE'S A DRINK FOR THAT BT: Your book is organized in chapters. I really enjoyed the one about how to make the most of your hotel mini-bar, but I was struck by the three chapters that each focus on a specific vessel--flasks, bottles and cans, bags. Some of that would never occur to me—like plastic bags??! KARA: I was amazed by how many drinks could be made in bags. That was a shocker. I can’t believe I did an entire chapter on drinks in Ziploc baggies and Capri-Sun pouches. But it’s just really nice to have an alternative to a glass if you’re going to a beach. And as for bottles, that’s great when you don’t have a shaker. Then a lot of bartenders seemed to be into hiking and outdoor sports. Among bartenders who like to climb mountains, I had a lot of conversations about flasks and packing metal or plastic instead of glassware. There are practical reasons for taking drinks in flasks or Bota bag. BT: “Road soda,” you note, is actually a traditional term for an alcoholic drink consumed in a vehicle. (Presumably not by the driver!!) How’d you uncover that history? KARA: I was at a cocktail conference in San Antonio and touring through the Anthony Hotel, a historic, luxurious hotel built in 1909. Outside there was a place where cars pulled up and handed their “roadie,” a drink to take on the road. BT: Wow, times sure have changed. KARA: I was astonished. Who’d do that now?? It sounds so luxurious, in a way. Of course, I am NOT encouraging drivers to drink. Far from it!! BT: I realize it’s hard to pick favorites, but….what's your favorite cocktail from the book? KARA: I’ve been digging the ones in flasks. When I want to take something with me, I’ll take the Pendergast (bourbon, sweet vermouth, Benedictine, Angostura bitters) or the Rebanack (rye, orange curacao, Strega liqueur, Peychaud's bitters). They’re nice easy sippers that are especially good when you want to just show what the whole idea is about. Plus they’re in easy-to-pour in containers, so they're easy to share.  We asked Kara to pick a few drinks from her book and recommend a trip to match. Here are her suggestions. FOR HIKING, CAMPING and MOTEL-HOPPING: Under My Skin (makes 10 drinks) 10 ounces Calvados 10 ounces Bigallet China-China Amer10 ounces Noilly Prat Ambre Vermouth Funnel all ingredients into a 1-liter bota bag or bottle and shake gently to combine. To serve, pour into rocks glasses, each with one large ice cube, using 3 ounces of cocktail per serving.      FOR CONCERT-GOING, OR ANY CROWD-HEAVY OUTING: Rebennack (makes 1 drink) 1.5 ounces rye whiskey .75 ounce orange curacao .25 ounce Strega liqueur 2 dashes Peychaud's bitters  Funnel all the ingredients into a flask and cap tightly.  FOR LAST-MINUTE CARIBBEAN ESCAPE: Jungle Bird on the Wing (makes 1 drink) 2 sugar packets (2 teaspoons)2 teaspoons water 1 mini bottle (50 ml) rum, preferably an aged rum.75 ounce Campari 1.5 ounces pineapple juice3 lime wedges In a small cup, stir the sugar and water together until sugar dissolves to form a simple syrup. Fill a large plastic cup halfway with ice, then add the rum, Campari, pineapple juice, and simple syrup. Squeeze in the juice from 2 of the lime wedges and stir until chilled. Pull the peel off the remaining lime wedge and use as garnish. 

Inspiration

Spend the Holidays in a Castle

Who says there's no place like home for the holidays? Why not give yourself the royal treatment? Rent a room or apartment in one of these surprisingly economical real-life castles, and toast the season as though the whole Christmas feast is in your honor. A 16TH-CENTURY SCOTTISH CASTLE ALL TO YOURSELF Thirlestane Castle: Lauder, Scotland History: Thirlestane was originally a 13th-century fort, but then one of Scotland's richest families, Clan Maitland, set to work rebuilding it as their home in the 1500s. The Duke of Lauderdale died in 1682, but apparently he wasn't very eager to abdicate the castle—his ghost is thought to still roam the corridors. Price: From about $160 per night, celticcastles.com What you get: Privacy in a bucolic setting. You'll be the only overnight guests in the castle, leaving you free to re-enact your favorite Game of Thrones episodes in peace after a few chalices of wine. The Lauderdale Suite is in the castle's south wing and comes equipped with a full kitchen, an original clawfoot bathtub, and parkland views. The "self-catering" option is the cheapest, meaning cooking your own meals, but you can book a personal cook or meal delivery for an extra fee. Take your daily constitutional into the woodlands through the formal rose garden, dine on the secluded picnic tables on the grounds, and enjoy exclusive use of the castle's courtyard. GOURMET FOOD & GOLF IN TUSCANY Castello at Castelfalfi: Tuscany, Italy History: Once owned by the Medici family, this 800-year-old medieval village was abandoned in the 1960s but is now a swank resort. Price: From about $300 per night, toscanaresortcastelfalfi.com What you get: An unforgettable Christmas with beaucoup perks. This Italian vacation is a splurge for sure, but you might find the special extras worth the cash: You'll stay in the (festively decorated) building that was once the village's tobacco factory,and hear live holiday music as you dine on special Christmas and New Year's menus in the castle proper, at the property's gourmet Tuscan bistro helmed by a Michelin-starred chef. Or opt for a four-course holiday menu at the more affordable Il Rosmarino trattoria—one of the courses is roast pork tenderloin with Chianti and radicchio (from about $50, beverage included). Your stay also includes access to the 27-hole golf course. Greens fees are reduced during the low season, or you can practice your swing at the hotel's driving range for less than $15. A FAIRY TALE RESIDENCE IN FRANCE Château Hermitage de Combas: Servian, France History: A medieval fortress turned castle residence, the château sits amid 123-plus acres of vineyards in Southern France. Famous figures like the playwright/actor Molière have called the Languedoc-Roussillon region home. Locals say Molière himself probably performed in this very castle. Price: From about $125 per night, homeaway.com, charming-holidays.fr What you get: A fairy tale come true. You can stay in the round tower just like Rapunzel—but with many more activity options. Enveloped by lavender and rosebushes, the castle has 25 apartments with full kitchens, plus a heated pool, a tennis court, and an on-site restaurant that offers a special Christmas menu and fireside dining. It's also within driving distance of the coast—the weather in December is good enough to rent a classic convertible from the castle to tour the grapevine-lined road. Come Christmastime, each apartment, the main entrance hall, and the stairway are decked out in holiday regalia. A CHRISTMAS FEAST IN THE HEART OF IRELAND Clontarf Castle Hotel: Dublin, Ireland History: Clontarf Castle was built in 1172 and changed hands several times in the 17th century, including from military and political leader Oliver Cromwell to Captain John Blackwell. Nearly 200 years later, due to sinking foundations, the building was demolished and then rebuilt in 1837. Price: From around $250 per night, clontarfcastle.ie What you get: Modern luxuries like 24-hour room service and a flatscreen TV, plus convenient proximity to Dublin sightseeing. The castle is only a 10-minute drive from the city center. Pony up for the slightly pricier Christmas Package, and you can enjoy a Christmas Eve arrival reception with mulled wine, mince pies, and Christmas carols, plus other perks like a champagne Christmas Day breakfast and Christmas Day mass. OPULENCE & MOUNTAIN VIEWS IN UPSTATE NEW YORK The Inn at Erlowest: Lake George, New York History: The castle dream home of American lawyer and politician Edward Morse Shepard, Erlowest was built out of solid granite in 1898 on Millionaire's Row along the Lake George shore. Price: From $195 per night, theinnaterlowest.com What you get: A rich, immersive getaway experience—especially if Titanic-era history fascinates you. The Howe Suite is the most wallet-friendly of the 10 rooms and offers a king-size sleigh bed, gas fireplace, and lake and Adirondack mountain views. A cheese platter, bottle of champagne, and a full breakfast each morning is complimentary. BOOK A GREAT DEAL ON HOLIDAY LODGING RIGHT HERE AT BUDGET TRAVEL To find more holiday lodging, from opulent castle rentals to efficient hotel rooms, book your stay right here at Budget Travel's Book a Hotel page.