October 19, 2008

Rockies roll

THE TRIP: START: BOULDER, COLO. | FINISH: DENVER | CAR: LEXUS ES350 PEBBLE BEACH EDITION

THE TRIP: START: BOULDER, COLO. | FINISH: DENVER | CAR: LEXUS ES350 PEBBLE BEACH EDITION

The first clue that I'm not exactly part of the demographic Lexus is targeting with the upscale Pebble Beach Edition of its midsize ES350 sedan is the official name for my test car's smoky exterior color.

Truffle Mica.

(That's not such a bad thing. The world can't be filled with 500-horse hot rods and swoopy British roadsters, right? There just aren't enough tow trucks.)

But all earthy euphemisms for "dark gray" aside, the ES350 does its job exceptionally well. I made a circuit through the mountain passes around Denver without a hint of elevation-related protest from the Lexus' refined 272-horsepower engine. No matter what row you're in, it feels like a really nice waiting room, with air-conditioned seats in front and generous legroom and climate-control vents in the back. The instrument cluster is easy to understand, and you can punch up stations on the satellite radio without pulling over to read the owner's manual or to buy reading glasses.

If that sounds more comfortable and sensible than exciting and dramatic, well, that's the point. The Lexus is an expertly executed acknowledgement that not everybody lives to drive. It does exactly what it's supposed to do -- take four adults to dinner, without embarrassing them at the valet.

The $4,170 Pebble Beach package ratchets up the level of luxury from the already-cushy base ES350 with special paint, 17-inch wheels, nicer leather and wood inside, and tasteful Lone Cypress badges. You also get to choose something from a menu of "lifestyle merchandise": Callaway drivers and personalized golf balls, matching leather luggage or lessons at a Viking culinary school. Strangely enough, you can't pick a round at Pebble Beach. Of course, at $495 per person, a foursome costs almost as much as the Lexus' optional navigation system.

Our ES350 stubbornly refused to be provoked by the S-curves on the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway, north of Denver, plowing us sedately -- and silently -- through the Rocky Mountain foothills, so it was time to find some external stimulation.

Golf in the Denver area is a wicked mix of spectacular mountain scenery and algebraic carnival ride. Shots fly 15 percent longer at 5,200 feet, making club selection an adventure and 600-yard par 5s pretty standard. Fossil Trace Golf Club, just north of Denver, in Golden, fits the description on both counts. Named one of Golf Digest's Best New Affordable Courses in 2003, the ½ Jim Engh design (fossiltrace.com, 303-277-8750) is a paleontology course wrapped in drought-resistant bent grass. The holes snake through the abandoned equipment and sandstone remains of an old clay mine -- and around fossilized dinosaur footprints.

You can feel like a superhero on the 659-yard ninth hole, blasting a 360-yard tee shot down the 50-yard-wide fairway. Or like a goat, when you hit a cocky 3-wood into the single, deep pot bunker 55 yards short of the green. Don't ask how many it took to get out.

For a post-round cocktail, make the 20-mile drive up State Route 93 to Boulder. It's the granola-y home of the University of Colorado -- and Illegal Pete's taco joint. Turn off your cell phone (or they'll make you -- trust me), order a rack of shredded beef tacos and a Fat Tire Amber and sit on the patio overlooking Pearl Street. Watching the fleets of street performers wheedle the tourists in "The People's Republic of Boulder," it'll be easy to forget you're in one of the most conservative states in the country.

The drive west from Denver is astonishing for both the beauty of the mountain scenery and the audacity of the engineering spectacle that is the Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel. Built under the ridge of mountains that make up the Continental Divide, the 1.7-mile, double-barreled tunnel sits at 11,158 feet.

To remind yourself how lucky you are to be living in the 21st century, take the last exit before the eastern mouth of the tunnel, for U.S. 6 and the Loveland Pass. The zig-zagging road was the only way to cross the mountains until 1973, when the tunnel opened. You climb into the cloud layer at 12,000 feet, where snowboarders can catch runs at Arapahoe Basin deep into June.

On the way back, we took I-70 back through Golden. After two stops -- at Lookout Mountain to see Buffalo Bill Cody's grave and Coors headquarters for the brewery tour -- we headed for the airport. At a traffic light, a woman pulled up next to us in the exact same car.

Truffle Mica.

Must be something to it.

Photo: Courtesy Of Fossil Trace