Colorado bed and breakfast rounds up adventure

April 26, 1992|By Pat Hanna Kuehl | Pat Hanna Kuehl,Contributing Writer

Japanese architect who has turned his life upside down. A Wyoming cowboy who rounds up bison on a motorbike. An Egyptian chef who excels at bison brochette with green rice. A ranch caretaker who says he has had a first-hand experience with UFOs. An interior designer who once ran a B&B in a Tucson, Ariz., citrus grove.

It isn't the cast you might expect to run a bed and breakfast operation in the moonscape of the San Luis Valley of southwestern Colorado. But then who would think a B&B anywhere would come equipped with a championship golf course, a herd of 2,200 bison and a ski terrain on a desert?

The Great Sand Dunes Country Inn, on the southern border of Great Sand Dunes National Monument, 30 miles northeast of Alamosa, is such a place. The upscale B&B nestles in a clump of giant cottonwoods that looks like an oasis in the 100,000 acres of near desert.

The inn and outlying log cabins accommodate a maximum of 30 guests. Japanese owner Hisayoshi Ota, 36, is a late blooming Westerner. He hated cowboy movies when he was growing up in a strictly traditional, wealthy home in Tokyo, but things began to change when he came to college in the United States.

Mr. Ota was a successful architect with a New York City firm when he had his first look at the Colorado property his father had acquired in a business deal in 1988. It was love at first sight, both with ranch life and bison. He began the transition, still under way, from New York yuppie to San Luis Valley bison

grower-supplier and inn keeper. (Supplying buffalo meat is a growth industry in Colorado.)

Mr. Ota sees the inn as an anti-snob-appeal retreat from the business world. Within four hours of landing at Stapleton International Airport in Denver, you can settle into homey log cabin quarters equipped with the amenities of a first-rate hotel. (One room with a spectacular view is designed for handicapped occupants.)

Windows frame vistas of cottonwoods, aspens, sage and pinyon, and a mountain stream that cuts through the golf greens. The Great Sand Dunes and the Sangre de Cristo mountain range in the distance look like a stage backdrop. Curious deer and elk approach the ranch house at night.

Added incentives -- bison on the hoof grazing in meadows nearby or bison on your plate at the inn's small restaurant and bar. Chef Magdi Mafh, who already knows about preparing bison from burgers to bourguignon, spent the winter of 1991-'92 polishing his culinary skills in Paris.

Or maybe you'd like a round of golf.

challenge comes at the eighth hole -- a long dogleg par 5 over water. His individual trial by fury came just after the course had been seeded in June 1989. "My wife and I looked up from dinner just in time to see a buffalo stampede across my brand new golf course," he groaned. Now the fourth hole is called Bison Run.

Bison play an important role in the inn's existence, from providing the financial basis (the meat is sold to restaurants and gourmet markets) to serving as tourist attraction. Guests sign up for four-wheeler trips to visit the shaggy beasts. Driving into the herd is much like a safari since bison are less than friendly to pedestrians in their midst.

"An unhappy bison moves pretty fast," warns herd manager Ken Klem, who performs roundups on his motorbike. "I've had buffalo chasing me, breathing down my neck, when the bike was doing 40 mph. Most horses can't move that fast, and besides, most horses are afraid of bison. That's why the Indians used to pay a lot more for a good buffalo horse."

Berle Lewis, the ranch caretaker and cabinet maker who made most of the inn's furniture following Mr. Ota's clean-line designs, knows all about horses from his 25 years of raising Arabians and quarter horses on a ranch southwest of the Great Sand Dunes. He was in the headlines in the late '60s when one of his horses was the first of several animals to be mysteriously mutilated by what he and others believed were UFOs.

Mr. Lewis' stories are a major source of evening entertainment when interior designer-turned-manager Betty Van Aman encourages guests to gather in front of the inn's living-room fireplace. He tells the history behind some of the century-old buildings he has restored on the ranch and makes believers out of those who see the photographs of what happened to his horses. The small log cabin where he lives with his wife, Barbara, was once a stop on the stagecoach route from Santa Fe to Denver. The bunkhouse, which now includes three of the B&B rooms, dates back to the 1890s.

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