Hotel monaco outside

Enjoy this special Valentine’s Day post by guest author Aimee Heckel.

This year for Valentine’s Day, I decided to do something completely different.

It was my turn to take the wheel and treat my husband to the best night of his life. An indulgent, relaxing date — Spa Travel Gal style.

Now. Before you go and wave away a spa date because your man “isn’t a spa kind of guy,” let me introduce my husband. The only manicure this man has ever received was with grease from his ‘69 VW Bus. I have never witnessed him washing his face, although I have seen him shave a few times in our seven-year relationship. He is a Colorado native, grew up in the mountains, can DIY everything, but had no clue that there was a such thing as a “facial.”

Obviously, it was my wifely duty to enlighten him. I saw his ignorance (or maybe innocence) as a chance to completely blow his mind.

And I did.

Well, technically, I didn’t lift a finger.

But after this weekend, the look in his eyes was as good as a renewed wedding vow. Here is how to plan the perfect, no-fail, best Valentine’s Day excursion ever in the Mile High.

A way to a man’s heart

We all know how to finish this quote. So I decided to begin our big date with a big bang — at the four-star restaurant, Panzano, in downtown Denver. This was a last-minute choice, but after I put this restaurant’s famous (yes, famous, and rightfully so) brussels sprouts in my mouth, I realized it was one of the best decisions I made all day. Maybe longer.

Panzano Italian Restaurant and Lounge, 909 17th St. in Denver, has a long list of awards, including “best Italian restaurant” by Westword and a AAA four-diamond award. Need more proof? Zagat Survey named Panzano one of America’s Top Restaurants.

I was impressed by this Italian restaurant’s extensive offering of gluten-free and allergy-considerate alternatives — even a delicious gluten-free bread starter. Few Italian restaurants go to these lengths to accommodate people with dietary restrictions.

As a lunch destination, the restaurant served up high-end culinary works of art in upbeat, spacious, bright atmosphere. Watch the chefs prepare your meal behind the open kitchens. My husband and I snuggled into a booth with a cup of tea. But as soon as the Cavolini di Bruxelles arrives — that would be the fried Brussels from heaven — it was every (wo)man to his- and herself.

I was shocked that our cheery waiter quickly relinquished a printed copy of the recipe to me (apparently the restaurant gets asked a lot), and even more amused by the combo of ingredients that made this appetizer one of the best things I’ve ever inhaled. These Brussels sprouts are tossed with apple cider reduction, pistachios, rosemary salt and sliced green apples.

To. Die. For.

I could have eaten these until I passed out, but the main course quickly arrived. My husband ordered the special of the day, a bison lasagna that looked so beautiful it seemed wrong to touch it (turned out it tasted even better than it looked). I got the Agnello Arrosto, or rosemary roasted lamb shoulder and potato gnocchi, with an incredible fig glaze, goat cheese and walnuts.

My belly was so happy.

The meal was heavier than a typical lunch, but hey, it was a special occasion — and we knew we needed to garner energy for our grueling day ahead: lounging at the Veda Spa, just across the lobby inside the Hotel Monaco.

Panzano would be an exquisite choice for everything from a fancy V-Day dinner, sure to impress and leave you satisfied, to a satisfying, delicious lunch, paired with a spa treatment.

In fact, I’d like to consider it a part of my spa treatment, because it set the perfect tone.

Veda treatment room

Serenity in the city

We only had to walk a few steps across the Hotel Monaco’s colorful, dramatic lobby to arrive at the highlight of our day: Spa Veda, an Aveda salon.

Spa Veda in downtown Denver is the smallest of four Colorado Aveda spas — and perfect for a romantic date (or even a special treat for yourself). This dim, intimate, boutique spa only offers a few treatment rooms, so when you step through the doors, you truly feel like the world revolves around you. Everyone knows your name. I sipped a cup of soothing hot tea while the snow fell outside the windows, before my husband and I were led into two separate rooms.

Pick the treatment that matches your unique needs at Spa Veda; if you want to experience it right next to your partner, side side-by-side in the dreamy pedicure station, or stretch out next to one another for a tandem couple’s massage.

I wanted to try the Veda Spa’s brand new treatment, the Duel Exfoliation Facial. My husband, a complete newbie to the facial scene, was content to try a basic facial in a separate room. Of course, with Aveda, “basic” is a major understatement; his essential oils were customized and his practitioner fully customized his facial, down to the way she massaged his face.

After his treatment, he was glowing like sunshine on that snowy day. He told me he was amazed by how much more like a massage the experience was, compared with what he expected: a sterile, hospital-like experience. He unwound further in the sauna while I wrapped up my treatment across the hall.

Veda message

America’s never seen something like this before

The Duel Exfoliation Facial is Aveda’s latest and greatest new offering — just brought to the United States a few months ago, and right now it’s only available in a few select Aveda concept salons. Denver is lucky to be leading this movement, which is revolutionizing facial care to give clients safer, less invasive, nontoxic ways to get dramatic results.

No longer are you limited to microdermabrasion and chemical peels if you want to redefine and renew the skin on your face. No more inflamed red cheeks. No more slathering your mug in Vaseline because the top layer has been removed.

The Duel Exfoliation Facial is truly ground-breaking.

It’s a combo of mechanical and chemical exfoliating, and the secret ingredient? Well, it’s not secret at all. It’s plants. All natural. Aveda can break down all of its products into ingredients that you know (and know are good for you), and can even pinpoint the exact location where that ingredient was grown.

This facial has two components.

First, the “mechanical” treatment, whereby the practitioner massages and exfoliates your skin using a product infused with refined bamboo. It was gentle and slow — in no way uncomfortable. My brain unwound while the practitioner softly removed any extra skin.

“This is Aveda’s answer to microdermabrasion,” explains Carrie Perkins, CEO and esthetician of the salon. “You get the same results without the redness.”

This treatment is coupled with a biochemical exfoliation using all natural ingredients, which garners the same results as a 30 percent glycolic peel.

“Why people are drawn to chemical peels and microderms is you get results. You get smooth, baby soft skin,” Perkins says. “Especially in Colorado, our skin is really dry.”

Unfortunately, many people don’t realize you can have the same results, without the harshness.

When I walked out of Veda Spa, my face felt like my 3-year-old daughter’s face. I couldn’t stop touching it.

And best of all: I looked better than before I walked through the doors.

No redness to cover. No patches or bumps or tenderness. Just health, beauty and radiance.

I was ready for the free wine happy hour in the lobby.

hotel monaco room

The sexiest hotel in the city

Hotel Monaco, 1717 Champa, had me at “wine.”

It didn’t hurt that they were serving one of my casual favorites, Cupcake wine.

My husband and I made a toast in the lobby near the crackling fireplace, and watched as other guests played games and munched on appetizers. The atmosphere was bustling and upbeat, a reflection of the friendly service at the hotel.

I loved the decor — a hip, funky twist on Colorado’s Western heritage, complete with a life-sized cow statue in the elevator hall. When we arrived to our junior suite, a goldfish in a bowl awaited us on the coffee table.

Everything in the room was meticulously chosen to create a sexy and sophisticated atmosphere. The oversized headboard stretched toward cathedral ceilings. An “intimacy kit,” with two premium condoms, lubricant, a feather tickler and mints. Even the bathrobe, in animal print, added to the edgy mood. Did I mention Aveda bath amenities, organic treats, a complimentary yoga mat and Yoga Channel in every room and feather down comforters and pillows? My husband called our bed “the cloud.” Once we touched “the cloud,” we could barely pull ourselves off of it.

It’s no wonder Hotel Monaco is considered one of Denver’s sexiest hotels.

Perfect for Valentine’s Day. Check out the Seductive Romance Package, which includes a bottle of J. Vineyards sparkling wine and turndown service with rose petals and local chocolates. Start your next morning with coffee and tea time in the living room. Mention the code “SEDUCE” when you book to get special rates.

As I stood bedside and gazed in awe at the historical buildings of downtown through our expansive windows, I understood why Hotel Monaco Denver was named one of Travel + Leisure’s 500 World’s Best Hotels in 2012. It’s conveniently located within walking distance of Larimer Square the 16th Street Mall and, incidentally, where we booked our fancy Valentine’s Day dinner.

The most romantic restaurant in Denver

For years, I’d been hearing about this place. I never heard a single complaint. In fact, it had a qualifiable cult following. Oh, and the awards. Best best best best.

Best first-date restaurant by Westword. America’s Top Denver Area Restaurants by Zagat Survey. Top first date restaurant by 5280 magazine — multiple times. Best romantic restaurant in Denver. One of Denver’s 10 best restaurants. Best place to impress a date. The list went on.

I had to check it out for myself.

My husband and I arrived at Vesta Dipping Grill, 1822 Blake St., expecting some version of a Melting Pot, because of the “dipping” part.

But instead, we experienced a slice of heaven. A huge slice. Tons of slices. An entire wedding cake. In my belly. So full. Bursting with yummy, joyful satisfaction and astonishment.

It wasn’t just the food — OK, it was the food. The food was mouthwatering and eye-watering; I actually got tears in my eyes when I tasted the thai chili vindaloo sauce that the staff brought out with the cheese and meat platter. Some of those tears may have been from the thai spices — my tastebuds’ drooling kryptonite — but surely a few were out of happiness, too.

Sauces are the specialty here, which is representative of the kind of detail that Vesta puts into every element of its offerings. The general manager and sommelier, Eric Dutton, visited our table, eager to talk about the experimentation through the years that has led to the discovery of unexpectedly ideal combos, such as roasted winter mushrooms, pickled shallots and butternut squash soubise (the house made tagliatelle).

Or to my surprise, one of the most scrumptious salads I’ve ever tasted, the pan roasted beet salad. I would have never ordered this without the staff’s guidance, but now I have mega respect for this underrated red veggie friend. Pair it with candied pine nuts, mouco camembert brulee and sherry vinaigrette and you will never look at beets the same, either.

Vesta’s thoughtful detailing trickles down to the very pace that your food is presented, and this contributes to your experience. When we first sat down, the staff moved quickly. Eric brought us his crown jewel beverage creation, the Vesta Vieux Carre, a barrel-aged cocktail made with Leopold Bros. “Vesta Whiskey,” Tariquet Three-Star Armangac, Carpano Antica Vermouth, Benedictine, Angostura and Peychauds Bitters. My husband, an avid whiskey drinker, said it was the best whiskey drink he’s ever had.

Several small plates arrived fast, which zapped our initial grumbling bellies and allowed us to relax and focus on enjoying our date. Our train of memorable small plates started with my hubby’s fave, the Chinese BBQ pork belly, and wrapped up with the sensational skuna bay salmon tartare with candied apples and shallots.

When the cheese and meat tray arrived, the pace notably slowed, and the romance began to blossom. OK, maybe the wine helped with that, too.

That was the most impressive part of dinner. Eric, the GM, brilliantly paired each course with the precise right alcohol. If he were for food and beverage, this guru would have a perfect record.

My favorite pairing was the Domaine Raspail-Ay Gigondas, a grenache/syrah/mourvedre from South Rhone, France, with the entree. My husband more than enjoyed his madras grilled venison with unique ginger ale oyster mushrooms and a dried cherry butter reduction. Of the three sauces it came with, my husband went nuts over Steuben’s chimuchurri; I picked the red curry. The venison was surprisingly soft and supple. I’m sure the pommes frites were yummy, too, but I didn’t make it to them.

I was focused on my braised Colorado lamb shank, with toasted garlic couscous, crispy grilled asparagus and these little crispy chickpeas that were like finding hidden crunchy treasure in my curried cauliflower cream. I ate every drop of my dried apricot chutney sauce; the sweet apricot beautifully balanced out the lamb.

As my husband and I shared sticky toffee pudding and a chocolate peanut butter cup for dessert, and cheered a final shot of Montenegro Amaro, I realized how much the atmosphere of Vesta Dipping Grill also played in my experience. I looked around and saw couples dressed to the nines, groups of friends wearing jeans and T-shirts, people of all ages, people just getting one drink and a plate of fries for a couple bucks, and business dinners whose tabs surely stretched past $500. And everyone was treated the same.

It’s a challenging task to create a restaurant where such a diverse group of people can all feel welcomed and satisfied. Vesta has mastered the mood that makes it Denver’s best date, with dim lighting, romantic decor, top-notch food and impressively trained staff, but checked it with an upbeat energy that makes it not in the least bit intimidating. It’s laid back, yet knowledgeable. Friendly, yet untouchable. Simultaneously approachable and awe-inspiring.

Sort of like the Rocky Mountains, I guess.

Which is why Vesta epitomises the perfect Denver date.


Courtesy photos of Hotel Monaco and Veda Spa.

Photos of Vesta Dipping Grill by Taryn Kapronica.