15 Ways to Get Romantic at a Colorado Eco-Ranch

Nothing's more romantic than a private cabin in the woods at Devil's Thumb Ranch in the Colorado Rockies.

Just 65 miles west of Denver, Devil’s Thumb Ranch sits on 5,000 acres near the Continental Divide in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. The eco-resort offers sustainable, luxury accommodations in its 52-room luxury lodge, 16 ridge-top log cabins and at the budget-friendly Bunk House.

With old-West flair, Devil’s Thumb Ranch employs both cutting-edge technology and old-fashioned conservation to exist lightly on the land. The ranch’s buildings, pool and hot tubs are heated with renewable geothermal energy. Waste water is purified through sand filtration. Some buildings are “recycled” historic structures that have been remodeled for modern use. For instance, the special events center is a reclaimed, 1850s-era barn.

Cozy rooms and cabins feature all-natural interiors.

Wood and stone interiors bring nature indoors at Devil’s Thumb Ranch. Pine from beetle-killed trees becomes gorgeous wall paneling and ceiling beams. The floors are recycled spruce.

The décor has a cowboy theme: The lodge, spa, guest rooms, restaurants and cabins feature antique furnishings (including old saddles and cowboy boots). Artwork and metal work are commissioned from local artisans.

Then there are details such as eco-friendly cleaning products, sustainable restaurants, recycling and water-conservation programs, low energy-use lighting, and recycled asphalt for paving.

High-Altitude Romance

When you’re visiting this outdoorsy resort, green programs may be the last things on your mind. Focus instead on saying “I love you” (during winter) in these ways:

  1. Lounge in your luxurious, mountain-style room or woodsy log cabin. Many have private fireplaces, decks and breath-taking views of the Continental Divide.
  2. Snuggle under all-natural down comforters on your ergonomically correct mattress.
  3. Explore more than 65 miles of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing on groomed and tracked trails at the Devil’s Thumb Ranch Nordic Center.

    Unwind in the Ranch Creek Spa.

  4. Steal some time together in the 10,000-square-foot Ranch Creek Spa with the Bonnie and Clyde couple’s massage. (Spa products are all natural and nourishing to the skin at high altitudes.)
  5. Take a horse-drawn sleigh ride across the 5,000-acre property to dinner.
  6. Enjoy a gourmet dinner at the Ranch House Restaurant and Saloon, in an original log cabin. The food is organic and local; 85 percent of the restaurant’s meat and game comes from Colorado producers.
  7. Book an intimate private dinner in John L’s Wine Cellar (its entryway is a giant wine barrel constructed of recycled cherry wood). Pop a cork and pop the question!
  8. Stargaze from the outdoor hot tub.

    There are miles of cross-country ski tracks to explore at Devil's Thumb Ranch.

  9. Limber up together with yoga class. The studio has incredible mountain views.
  10. Challenge each other to a game of checkers in the Game Room.
  11. Snowshoe under the full moon along any of the groomed paths. Not there during full moon? About 2.5 miles of pathways are lit, including those between cabins and the dining areas and activity centers.
  12. Cuddle in front of the fireplace (built of stone from mountain rock slides) in your room or private cabin. The chimneys are EPA-certified to emit 60 percent less smoke pollution.
  13. Watch a film in the 37-seat movie theater in the Main Lodge.
  14. Race each other down the sledding hill or twirl on the outdoor ice-skating rink.
  15. Get married. Devil’s Thumb is an incredible winter or summer wedding venue. Your wedding party can enjoy a romantic getaway, complete with horseback riding or sleighing, skiing or hiking, and rejuvenating spa treatments.

    Wedding bells ring at Devil's Thumb Ranch—winter or summer.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Photos courtesy Devil’s Thumb Ranch

Bampton, England: Film Location for “Downton Abbey”

St. Mary's church in Bampton, Oxfordshire, is a film location for the Downton Abbey TV show. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The spires of Highclere Castle set the elegant tone of the PBS Masterpiece TV series Downton Abbey (see my post: “My Pilgrimage to the Real Downton Abbey”) but fans of the show want to know more. Anytime one of the show’s characters has business in Downton village, the Oxfordshire town of Bampton gets its turn in the spotlight.

So far, a fair, two weddings, and a funeral are among the big events filmed in Bampton, just 20 miles west of the city of Oxford. When my husband and I discovered that the National Trust cottage we rented for three days was just 15 minutes away, we were ecstatic that we could see another piece of Downton Abbey lore.

A Photogenic Church

We arrived in town just about teatime, parked in the market square, and had tea and scones at the Bampton Coffee House. There we got directions, but as we left, the church bells began tolling exuberantly.

Bampton's church has been the setting of Grantham family weddings. ©Laurel Kallenbach

We simply followed their sound as we wandered down pretty Church Street until we arrived at St. Mary the Virgin, a 12th-century parish church with Romanesque architecture. No doubt about it: this was the church where Lady Edith took Matthew sightseeing during Downton Abbey’s season 1—when she was hoping he would woo her instead of her sister Mary.

The church’s TV-land alter-ego is St. Michael’s and All Angels, and its interior and exterior have appeared on American tellies most famously as the scene of Lavinia’s burial (season 2), Mary and Matthew’s nuptials (season 3), and Edith’s jilting at the altar (also season 3).

On the August afternoon we visited, the church bells were pealing for a real wedding. We watched as the bride and groom had some last photos taken before braving the gauntlet of rice-throwing wedding guests and into a vintage Rolls Royce.

I’m standing at the gate where Lady Mary entered the churchyard for her wedding to Matthew Crawley. ©Ken Aikin

Then Ken and I wandered inside the church as the wedding candles were extinguished and the flower arrangements carried away. The sanctuary has a lovely pipe organ, elegant stone arches, vaulted ceiling, stained glass, and ornate pews. (We also picked up a free, photocopied guide of Downton Abbey locations in Bampton, which helped us with the rest of our impromptu tour.)

Outside, the little churchyard is dotted by lichen-covered tombstones and a few red-berried hawthorns. We speculated that Matthew and Mary would be wed in this church—but we had to wait until January 2013 to confirm that.

Strolling with the Granthams and Crawleys

Churchgate House, the exterior film site for the Downton village home of Isobel Crawley. ©Laurel Kallenbach

All the Downton Abbey scenes filmed in Bampton are confined to the picturesque Church View lane, a row of old buildings, houses, and stone walls. Right beside the church is Churchgate House, which serves as the exterior for the Crawley house where Isobel and Matthew lived in seasons 1 and 2. (The interiors are filmed elsewhere.)

This bench shows up in a number of Downton Abbey episodes. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Just outside the churchyard walls is the church green—with a huge tree and park bench that often shows up in the TV series. This area was the setting for the fair, which was featured in a season 1 episode in which Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, met an old beau.

Next comes the Bampton Library, which for TV’s purposes sheds its literary facade and poses as a medical building. The library is the exterior for Downton Hospital where Dr. Clarkson treats villagers and the wounded soldiers during WWI.

Bampton Library, just down the block from the church, serves as the exterior for Downton Hospital. ©Laurel Kallenbach

So, when Mrs. Hughes walks up to the hospital for her cancer checkup, that’s Bampton’s library you see. If it’s open, visitors can go in; the library sells souvenir postcards there.

Finally we ambled down Church View Road, noticing doorways that become the Downton Post Office and the Dog & Duck pub. It’s fun seeing locations that look vaguely familiar…but not quite. After we returned to the States, we watched reruns of the early episodes and paused the DVD player so we could see spots where modern fire hydrants were covered by bushes or fake postboxes to complete the early-20th-century look.

Bampton's Church View Lane gets used in numerous shots. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Before the Downton Abbey craze hit, Bampton was a sleepy town known for its morris dancers (traditional folk dancers who wear bells on their shins), its May flower-garland festival, and the colony of swifts that nests in the village every summer. Bampton was quiet when we visited, but with the show’s popularity, occasional tour buses now stop there.

Bampton, in Oxfordshire, is a beautiful village. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Bampton, one of England’s oldest towns, has a number of pubs, inns, and B&Bs, so it would be a nice place to spend a few days. (It’s within an easy drive or bus ride from other quaint Oxfordshire Cotswold villages such as Burford, Lechlade-on-Thames, and Minster Lovell, so there’s plenty to do in the area.)

Who knows, if you visit Bampton this spring, you might be there during the next season’s filming!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

For more information, check out Visit Oxfordshire’s website.

King Tut Meets “Downton Abbey” at England’s Highclere Castle

What do King Tut and Downton Abbey have in common? England’s Highclere Castle, the film site for the costume-drama TV series that airs on PBS in the United States.

Highclere Castle is the ancestral home of the Carnarvon family, and during the early 20th century, the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon became fascinated by ancient Egypt when he traveled to its warm, dry climate for health reasons. Soon the Earl began to fund archaeological digs in Egypt—including Howard Carter’s excavations, which eventually resulted in the 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings.

In my last post about my visit to Highclere Castle, I didn’t say much about the Egyptian exhibit, so I thought I’d share some impressions.

First, this exhibit is modest compared to the one not far away at London’s British Museum, where you can see the Rosetta Stone. That said, at Highclere Castle, I felt a more emotional connection to the Egyptian artifacts than ever before—even when the King Tut exhibit came to Denver two years ago and I saw actual artifacts from the pharaoh’s tomb.

I believe there’s a certain intimacy—or maybe it’s history—you sense when you’re in a place with an actual physical connection to something or someone. Knowing I was standing in the same house where Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter pored over maps of the Valley of the Kings—the greatest Egyptology discovery in history—gave me goose-bumps.

The Carnarvons: Avid Amateur Egyptologists

Lady Almina and Lord Carnarvon in England, 1923. Archival photo courtesy Highclere Castle

Highclere’s Egyptian exhibition is very personal for the Carnarvon family. The Fifth Earl’s family—especially his wife, Lady Almina, and their daughter, Evelyn—often accompanied him to Egypt and sometimes helped with excavations.

After reading Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, written by the current Countess Carnarvon about her family’s ancestors, I felt a kinship with Almina. So it was delightful to see exhibited a beautiful calcite jar (dating to the reign of pharaoh Ramses II) that Almina helped dig from the ground.

(Or so the story goes. Wearing a corset and heavy, long skirts during the early 1900s, Almina’s contribution might have amounted to brushing off the last of the sand from the calcite jar after someone else did the painstaking hands-and-knees job of unearthing it. But I rather like the idea of Almina getting her hands dirty to excavate a jar that might have been held by an Egyptian pharaoh/god 3,200 years ago.)

The Ramses II calcite jar that Almina reportedly helped excavate. Photo courtesy Highclere Castl

Another exhibition highlight was a 3,500-year-old painted coffin of a 35-year-old noblewoman named Irtyru, that Carter and Carnarvon excavated from Deir el-Bahri in 1908. The paint on this wooden coffin was so brightly colored that it almost looked fresh. The feet on her coffin showed a lovely pedicure—rendered in gold paint.

The exhibition also displayed recreations of Tutankhamun artifacts, including a convincing reproduction of Tut’s mummy, wrapped in hieroglyphic-covered cloth with jewelry and amulets tucked into the folds. His mummy wears gold sandals, and each of his toes were encased in gold toe covers so that the boy-king could walk in the afterlife. (Tut died at about age 19; he was on the throne for nine years from roughly 1333 BC to 1323 BC.)

What stays with me about seeing these artifacts is their artistry, rendered with exquisite skill. Although we think of the ancient Egyptians as being obsessed with death, I started wondering if they weren’t really more interested with the afterlife. Pharaohs were buried with models of ships that would bear the departed king or queen on their journey across the sky to the afterlife.

These shabti figurines were discovered by archaeologist Howard Carter, who was funded by Lord Carnarvon. Photo courtesy Highclere Castle

Figurines of workers were included in tombs; they accompanied the pharaoh into the afterlife so they could perform the manual labor needed to live for eternity in the luxury to which the royalty had become accustomed. (Remember, the pharaoh was not just a ruler but a god.)

At Highclere Castle, I noticed that these figurines had been creative with sensitive, expressive faces. The artists didn’t fill the tombs with work they cranked out for the masses; they did their best work—even though Tutankhamun died suddenly and unexpectedly, probably of an infection from a fractured leg. Tut had a genetic bone disorder and probably other genetic defects, because Egyptian royalty were famous for marrying close relatives, often siblings. (Tut himself married his half-sister.)

Seeing history through the lens of the Carnarvon family was exciting. Lady Evelyn was the first woman to step into King Tut’s tomb, as she accompanied her father to Egypt in November of 1922 when Howard Carter wired about his find. (Due to illness, Lady Almina was unable to travel for the tomb’s opening.)

The Pharaoh’s Curse

After Carter and Carnarvon opened Tut’s tomb, the event became a media circus with enough drama that it would have rivaled the Lady Mary/Mr. Pamuk sex scandal on Downton Abbey.

At the entrance of King Tut's tomb in 1922 (from left to right): Lady Evelyn Carnarvon; her father, the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon; archaeologist Howard Carter; Carter's assistant.

The discovery of the tomb was followed by many squabbles amongst the English archaeologists, accusations (unproven) that Carter and Carnarvon stole artifacts from the tomb, rumors that Lady Evelyn was enamored with Howard Carter, and bitter fighting between the Egyptian government and Carnarvon and Carter about who owned the tomb’s treasures.

And then there was death of Lord Carnarvon, less than five months after the Tut discovery, which fueled the legend of the Curse of the Pharaoh. In reality, Carnarvon was bitten by a mosquito on his cheek and nicked the bite while shaving. The wound got infected, and Carnarvon became seriously ill from blood poisoning. Weakened, he contracted pneumonia and died in Egypt in April of 1923 at age 57.

Supposedly, the lights went out in Cairo when Carnarvon died. And there’s a story that at the same moment in England, the Earl’s pet terrier howled and dropped dead. Thus the hysteria over Mummy’s curses mounted.

Wonderful Things to See

This all goes to prove that the true stories of people can be more compelling than fiction—and in the case of Highclere Castle, they added layers of color to my visit there.

Highclere Castle in 2012: 90 years after the discovery of King Tut's tomb. © Laurel Kallenbach

Would I have enjoyed a tour of the historic house if I didn’t care about Egyptology or had never seen an episode of Downtown Abbey? I’m sure the beauty of the Saloon, Library and Music Room would have impressed me, but aside from that and the magnificent exterior of the building, would Highclere Castle glow in my memory? Because I had read the Lady Almina book, am an Egyptology buff, and became passionate about the TV show, the halls of Highclere were alive and filled with wonder.

Our glimpse into the treasures of this English estate house brought to mind the famous quotes from Howard Carter and Lord Carnavon when they first opened King Tut’s tomb. As Carter chiseled a hole in the sealed entrance and peered in, Carnarvon asked, “Can you see anything?” Carter replied with the famous words: “Yes, wonderful things.”

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer/editor

Next blog: Bampton, England: the town that plays Downton Village on TV

My Pilgrimage to the Real Downton Abbey

Highclere Castle, framed by the branches of the Cedars of Lebanon, is the film location of the PBS series "Downton Abbey." © Laurel Kallenbach

I admit it: I’m among the millions who are enthralled by the hit PBS television series, Downton Abbey, set in England during the early 20th century. We Downton Abbey fans are fascinated by the escapades of the Granthams and Crawleys, who live in an opulent country manor house.

So, as I was planning vacation in southwest England, it made sense that my husband and I should seek out the real Downton Abbey: Highclere Castle. This beautiful estate—set on 1,000 acres of parkland in Berkshire, about 1.5 hours west of London—is the film location for the “upstairs” scenes of Downton Abbey.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Downton Abbey is a posh costume drama—OK, it’s really a souped-up soap opera—that follows the lives and romances of the aristocrats and servants who live in this lavish estate home.

The cast of the "Downton Abbey" TV series, which airs on PBS.

Meet the Carnarvons

In real life, the Carnarvon family has lived at Highclere Castle since 1679, and the history of the house rivals—and sometimes parallels—the dramatic storyline of the hit show that’s filmed here.

To get the scoop before we traveled, Ken and I read Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbeypenned by the current Countess Carnarvon, Lady Fiona, who is the Eighth Countess Carnarvon. Among the juicy historic tidbits—often more fantastic than the fictional TV show—are:

  • In 1895, Almina Wombwell married the estate-rich but cash-strapped George Herbert (the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon). Almina was the illegitimate child of the über-wealthy Alfred de Rothschild. Her generous dowry funded many improvements at Highclere Castle—and the tales of her shopping sprees are mind-boggling to us 21st-century commoners.
  • During World War I, Almina, the Fifth Countess of Carnarvon, transformed Highclere Castle into a convalescent hospital for wounded soldiers—as did the fictional Lady Grantham and Mrs. Crawley in Downton Abbey.
  • Lord Carnarvon, Almina’s husband, funded Egyptologist Howard Carter and was instrumental in discovering the tomb of King Tut in 1922. Some artifacts that Lord Carnarvon brought home from archaeological digs are on display at Highclere Castle.

Highclere Castle's library. Photo courtesy Highclere Castle

This last fact really piqued my interested, as I’ve had a lifelong passion for ancient Egypt. I’ve known who Lord Carnarvon was since I was eight years old—so imagine my excitement when at Highclere Castle I saw old photos of Lord Carnarvon studying maps of Egypt’s Valley of the Kings in the same library where Downton Abbey’s Lord Grantham gives instructions to Mr. Carson, the butler.

A Tour of Highclere Castle

Since Downton Abbey’s premiere, visitation to Highclere Castle has quadrupled, so I reserved tickets online 90 days before our visit—to assure that it wouldn’t be sold out. (Highclere isn’t open to the public every day because it’s a private home. Tickets gain you entry for 2.5 hours either in the morning or afternoon. There’s a separate admission fee for the Egyptian exhibition.)

The Crawley sisters from "Downton Abbey" Photo courtesy PBS.org

Our first glimpse of Highclere Castle was from the parking area; a bus was disgorging passengers. So we headed first to the loo, as we’d had an hour-long drive, which involved getting lost along the way. What’s a pilgrimage without a long, winding road filled with travail? In our case, we had to brave driving on the left side of the road, and we had to stop for directions twice. One sweet older man at a nearby village told us to cross the bridge, travel up the hill past the estate owned by Andrew Lloyd Weber (the composer of Phantom of the Opera and Cats fame), and straight on until we saw signs.

Once inside the Castle, we ooh-ed and ahh-ed as we passed through the Entrance Hall into the Library with its gold-plated leather-bound books, red carpets, and carved shelves. It’s odd to be in a place you’ve never been that seems so familiar. Such is the magic of film.

There’s no official tour at Highclere, but each room has a docent who answers questions about that room. Several of them work as stewards during Downton Abbey filming. Their job then—as it is while visitors stream through—is to be sure nothing is disturbed or broken while the light and camera crews are at work.

Highclere Castle’s Music Room is lined by beautiful tapestries displaying monkeys, rabbits, peacocks, and owls. This room isn’t used as a Downton Abbey setting, probably because it’s rather small, but it features a desk that belonged to Napolean.

The regal Oak Staircase. Photo courtesy Highclere Castle

The Smoking Room doesn’t appear in the TV show either, but as the place where the men gathered after dinner, it was also the storage spot for a number of Egyptian artifacts. Funerary jars that were once used as umbrella stands are now in museums.

The lovely green-and-yellow Drawing Room, on the other hand, is the location for a number of scenes in Downton Abbey, as Lady Grantham and her daughters often meet there. During season 2 of the show, the wounded WWI soldiers slept on cots in this French-style room, which was decorated by Lady Almina in the early 20th century.

Throughout the house, tables and walls are covered with portraits of the Carnarvons—from the 17th through 21st centuries. The modern snapshots—far less formal than the paintings—are a reminder that this is still a private home.

There’s other evidence of modern use too. There’s a hair drier on the vanity in the Mercia Bedroom (Lady Grantham’s bedchamber on the TV show—much featured in the scenes in which she nearly died from Spanish flu). Occasional guests stay in the very bedrooms that are broadcast around the world.

Highclere's Stanhope Bedroom became Mr. Pamuk's bedroom in "Downton Abbey." Photo courtesy Highclere Castle

The Stanhope Bedroom, decked out in red carpet and draperies, was the perfect setting for the scandalous television scenes involving the infamous Mr. Pamuk, who spent his last night in this bedroom following a lethal tryst with Lady Mary.

For the record, Mary’s bedroom and dressing room are actually a stage set and don’t exist in Highclere Castle. Neither do the kitchen and servants’ rooms. Downton Abbey’s entire downstairs is constructed in period style in the London studio.

The Saloon, Oak Staircase and Dining Room

The highlight of our Highclere Tour was the Oak Staircase leading from the Gallery-level bedrooms to the main part of the house. Ken and I paraded down the ornate-banistered staircase like Matthew Crawley and Lady Mary into a large room called The Saloon, the heart of this grand house—and a room that’s much featured on Downton Abbey. Its stone fireplace, carved cabinets, and arched doorways appear in famous scenes such as the Servants’ Ball and the concert for the soldiers. This spot just took my breath away.

The elegant Saloon is overlooked by the Gallery. Photo courtesy Highclere Castle

It was delightful, also, to visit the Dining Room, where many an elegant meal—usually partaken of by the Dowager Countess, played by Maggie Smith—is filmed. It must be quite an experience for the present-day Carnarvons to sit at the table under the watchful gaze of the portraits of their ancestors.

Just as we left the main part of the house to go to the Egyptian exhibit, one of the guides asked whether we’d seen Countess Carnarvon, who had been walking through the rooms chatting with them just minutes before. Rats! We missed her. She was probably wearing jeans and blended in with the visitors.

Perhaps it’s just as well…I hadn’t practiced curtsying. But I can’t help thinking it would have been fun to say, “Good morning, Your Ladyship.”

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer/editor

P.S. Many thanks to the Carnarvon estate for use of the photos of the interior of Highclere Castle. You can see slideshows of Highclere Castle photos at the castle’s website.

Next blog: King Tut Meets Downton Abbey

Highclere’s Georgian-era house was remodeled in 1849 and became the Victorian castle as it appears today. Architect Charles Barry built the spires in the style of London’s Parliament Building, which he also designed. © Laurel Kallenbach