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Whistler from the saddle

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It's not Roman Holiday, but Green Lake, Whistler is a good substitute for anyone on a scooter.

It’s not Roman Holiday, but Green Lake, Whistler, is a good substitute for anyone on a scooter.

When brothers Adam and David Vavrik travelled from their native Czech Republic to Whistler on work visas they quickly noticed something about the mountain resort. Most adventure here requires some kind of physical effort. Five years after the Olympics, Whistler still feels like an Olympic village whatever the season. Aside from the hours between midnight and 4 a.m., people here ooze health. A culture based on outdoor pursuits will do that to visitors and residents.

But suppose your shredding days are behind you, yet you still crave a little speed? Or, like me, you can no longer keep up with your teenagers on the hill, but still want some excitement off-piste. Despite being in their 20s and heavily into snowboards and skateboarding, the Vavrik brothers asked themselves the same question.

The answer was Spitfire Scooters, a fleet of 2014 Yamaha BWs and 2013 Honda Giornos, available to rent from the Vavriks’ base at the Summit Lodge Boutique Hotel on Main Street.

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49cc Honda Giornos are sleek, elegant, and run on about $6 of gas a day.

 

In the interests of full disclosure, I’d come for the second annual Whistler Village Beer Festival – four days of brewmaster dinners, cask showdowns, free tastings, obscenely large hangover-themed breakfasts, (thank-you Dubh Linn Gate) and a glorious Saturday afternoon festival in Whistler Olympic Plaza. Getting around to more than 150 beers from 50 breweries had seemed so exciting. But that was on Thursday. By Sunday morning I’d fallen out of love with beer, if only for a day.

The Summit Lodge offers Norco City Glide bikes for guests to borrow free. But with late-summer temperatures still in the high 20s, we were looking for wind in our hair, not sweat. So for the first time in our 40-something lives, my wife Leah and I rented scooters. Leah’s always had this thing about Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, particularly the scene where she rides a Vespa with Gregory Peck through Rome. So like Audrey, she wore a dress and sunglasses. Unlike Gregory, I wore shorts and T-shirt.

With two hours to spare and David Vavrik as our guide, Whistler beyond the village awaited us. After a brief orientation, we test-drove the 49cc Honda Giornos up and down Main Street. Storage under the seats allowed plenty of room for our backpacks, and we wouldn’t be stopping for gas any time soon. You could drive this model all day for about $6, according to David.

Nothing good can come from Beer Jenga.

Nothing good can come from Beer Jenga.

They’re elegant, too, with sleek curves and a cherry-red paintjob. The helmets by contrast, are decidedly un-Audrey Hepburn, but mandatory: Pity – but probably for the best. Soon we were buzzing along Blackcomb Way and up the ever-so winding Glacier Drive, past the tube park and onto the Whistler Sliding Centre. The place was deserted and we spent about 10 minutes walking the track and reminiscing about the 2010 Olympics and Jon Montgomery’s skeleton gold. Skeleton experience programs offer the public a chance to go headfirst, 100 km/h, David informed us. Not today, I thought. Riding a scooter at 50 km/h was more our style.

Riding the Sea-to-Sky Highway to our next stop, Green Lake lookout, allowed us to open up the throttle and push close to the bike’s top speed of 60 km/h. We stopped to admire the view and right on cue, a float plane took off from across the lake and into the cloudless blue sky.

I was glad to be off the highway and onto Alta Lake Road where traffic was scarcer. We passed Rainbow Park on Alta Lake and then on past Nita Lake and Alpha Lake, stopping when we felt the urge to take photos. The advantage of a scooter became more obvious with every kilometer clocked. For an afternoon or day of sightseeing beyond the village, this ride offers great freedom to see so much more of Whistler and its parks and lakes.

The oysters disappeared moments after this photo at Bearfoot Bistro, Whistler.

The oysters disappeared moments after this photo at Bearfoot Bistro, Whistler.

The highway with its fast-moving traffic and sketchy hard shoulder can be a little nerve-racking when you’re on a scooter. On the ride back from Alpha Lake through Whistler Creekside I realized my mid-life crisis – when it inevitably hits – will not feature a Harley Davidson. But I’d rent a scooter again in a heartbeat.

Back in the village, energized by equal parts adrenaline and fresh air, we made like Audrey and Greg and went for cocktails on the patio at the Bearfoot Bistro. A half dozen oysters led to a dozen more, accompanied by Pimm’s Royale for Audrey and a Whistler Grapefruit Ale for Greg.

Turned out Greg wasn’t through with beer after all.

If you go:

Starting May 1, Spitfire rents scooters for $25 an hour; or $120 for 24 hours. Guided tours are $120 (single), $100 (two or three riders), or $80 for four or more riders. Visit spitfirerentals.ca or call 604 938-3686.

Besides being a great, centrally located place to stay, Summit Lodge offers some handy, complimentary extras, such as snowshoes in the winter; bikes in the summer. There’s hot chocolate happy hour, plus smores and roast chestnuts by the pool. The free beer tasting in the lobby during the beer festival was most welcome, too! Visit summitlodge.com or call 1 888-913-8811.

The Bearfoot Bistro can justifiably claim to offer more than just a meal. Learn the fine art of Champagne sabering in the Bearfoot’s wine cellar surrounded by more than 20,000 bottles; brave minus 32 Celsius in a $1,400 Canada Goose, Arctic-ready parka and taste vodkas in the restaurant’s Belvedere Ice Room; or enjoy the Bearfoot’s $68 five-course menu. Details at bearfootbistro.com

This year’s Whistler Village Beer Festival will be from Sept. 17 to 20. Bookmark wvbf.ca for updates.

 

London on two wheels

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London Bicycle Tour Company guide, Tarik de Vries, in his element at Trafalgar Square.

My first job after leaving school was a stone’s throw from St. Paul’s Cathedral. Every day, I’d herd on to British Rail with a million other commuters for the 10-mile trip to Cannon Street. Not once did it ever occur to me to ride a bike.

A lot’s changed in London since 1985. British Rail’s been replaced with private train operators and fares as confusing as they are expensive. Buses don’t accept cash: Oyster cards and credit/debit cards only. Motorists pay a daily congestion charge (about $20) for the privilege of driving in the capital. And, as I write this, London’s Tube train drivers are on strike.

Again.

No wonder cycling is so popular now, and not just with Londoners; tourists, too.

Berners Tavern, at the London Edition hotel, is the sort of place Agatha Christie might have set a mystery. Nikolas Koenig photo

Berners Tavern, at the London Edition hotel, is the sort of place Agatha Christie might have set a mystery. Nikolas Koenig photo

Almost 30 years after that first job, I returned to my old London haunts this summer as a visitor with my family. We stayed a night at the London Edition in Fitzrovia, an artsy neighbourhood of galleries and upmarket stores. Virginia Woolf, George Bernard Shaw and Arthur Rimbaud used to call this area home back when it had a decidedly more Bohemian edge. Accommodation was probably more affordable then, too.

The Edition is pricey, but memorable. Oak floors, wood-paneled walls, and silk area rugs make the guest rooms feel like a sophisticated hunting lodge. The hotel’s restaurant, Berners Tavern, reeks of opulence with a high ornate ceiling, decadent chandeliers, low lighting and almost every square inch of wall space covered by framed art. The staff are young and beautiful. It’s the kind of place Agatha Christie might have set a mystery.

Walking the quiet backstreets of Marylebone, Fitzrovia and Soho we first noticed just how popular cycling had become in the capital. Along with numerous people riding high-saddled, three-gear road bikes with baskets on the front and panniers on the back, we saw lots of ‘Boris Bikes’ – London’s ubiquitous hire bicycles nicknamed after Mayor Boris Johnson. Similar to North America’s Bixi Bikes, London’s hire-scheme sponsored by Barclay’s Bank supplies 10,000 bikes from 720 stations around the city. The sturdy, three-gear bicycles feature puncture-resistant tires and LED lights, and can be rented by credit/debit card for 30-minute rides.

A fleet of 'Boris Bikes'. In London, there's usually one just around the corner.

A fleet of ‘Boris Bikes’. In London, there’s usually one just around the corner.

With two days to see London, we booked two bicycle tours: the first, a Central Tour with the London Bicycle Tour Company; the second, an East End Tour with Cycle Tours of London. The Central Tour is a good place to start because it covers just about every London landmark on a tourist’s must-see list. The Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Trafalgar Square and St. Paul’s Cathedral are among the highlights of the Central Tour, timed perfectly by our guide Tarik de Vries so we could see the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace.

While we watched soldiers in scarlet tunics and bearskin hats march down The Mall, Tarik regaled us with tales of over-zealous tourists bugging members of the Queen’s Guard. Soldiers standing all but motionless on guard are used to people posing for photos next to them. When that becomes a nuisance either because of physical contact or shouting, soldiers first stamp their feet, then issue a warning.

“When they raise their rifle, that’s considered a final warning,” said Tarik. “Next you’re detained.”

My favourite stop brought us to Westminster School, the only part of the tour I hadn’t visited before. Plenty of parks offer an escape from London’s crowds but the school, which stands in the shadow of Westminster Abbey, feels like a village. The streets are cobbled and on three sides of the green stand the school buildings, some of which date back to the 11th Century. Set back on the fourth side is Westminster Abbey, the traditional site for coronations and burials of Britain’s monarchy.

The peace and tranquility here – so remarkable in the centre of a city home to seven million people – contrasted dramatically with our ride to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Our approach from Smithfield Market (London’s central meat market with some absolutely gruesome history!) past the Old Bailey was busy enough before turning onto Ludgate Hill where traffic was so congested we cooled our heels on the equally congested sidewalk for a while. Congestion charge or not, motorists and pedestrians all appeared to have slowed down to admire Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece.

Shop, browse or chat - whatever floats your goat - at Spitalfields Market.

Shop, browse or chat – whatever floats your goat – at Spitalfields Market.

While Tarik covered London’s essentials, Mathew Tregaron’s East End Tour was a decidedly more offbeat excursion from a tourist’s perspective, making it all the more interesting. Tower Hamlets, so long synonymous with poverty and overcrowding, featured prominently in the tour, which also covered Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, Southwark Cathedral and – a personal highlight – a ride across Tower Bridge.

Shortly after Tower Bridge we were at another old haunt, St. Katharine Docks. My dad, a marine engineer, used to bring the family here for boat shows and tall ships festivals. That was in the 1970s, shortly after St. Katharine’s warehouses were demolished and the area was commercially redeveloped. The stylish flats, yachting marina and pubs and restaurants are all still here. So, too, is the Tower Thistle Hotel, a corpulent, concrete monstrosity that epitomizes the worst of 1970s London architecture. But that’s just me.

In contrast to St. Katharine Docks, a failed attempt at gentrification is just a short ride away at Tobacco Dock. More than 200 years old, this abandoned brick and timber warehouse was turned into a shopping centre in 1990. Surrounding development failed to take off and dreams of creating an East End version of Covent Garden failed to materialize. The place has been abandoned for more than a decade. Yet until recently, piped music could be heard inside Tobacco Dock. A security guard still patrols the empty premises and, according to Mathew, spotless public toilets used to make this a timely stop on cycling tours.

Mathew Tregaron (right) of Cycle Tours of London stops for a breather at deserted Tobacco Dock.

Mathew Tregaron (right) of Cycle Tours of London stops for a breather at deserted Tobacco Dock.

Infinitely more compelling is Cable Street and a mural depicting one pivotal day in London’s political history. For centuries, Tower Hamlets, with its close proximity to the city and the Thames, attracted waves of foreign immigration looking for employment. In 1936, looking for scapegoats for the country’s perceived ills, the British Union of Fascists targeted the community for a march. Despite the protection of some 6,000 police officers, the BUF’s supporters, known as Blackshirts, more than met their match. United under the rallying cry, “They shall not pass,” as estimated 300,000 residents prevented the BUF’s entry to London’s East End, but not without considerable bloodshed.

The Battle of Cable Street mural, begun in 1976 and restored in 2011, vividly depicts the violent confrontation of that Oct. 4 day. We propped up our bikes and lingered to admire the colourful tribute to this community’s resilience.

Following French Huguenots in the 17th century, Irish in the 19th century and Ashkenazi Jews into the 20th century, Bangladeshis form the main group of immigrants living here today. On nearby Brick Lane, clubs, pubs, markets, and some of the best curry restaurants in the UK compete for space. On weekends it’s packed. On a quiet Tuesday afternoon we cycled down the middle of Brick Lane just wishing we could stop for a chicken tikka masala.

A pivotal day in London's political history is vividly depicted in the Battle of Cable Street mural.

A pivotal day in London’s political history is vividly depicted in the Battle of Cable Street mural.

Before we returned to Mathew’s bike store on Shoe Lane, we stopped at Postman’s Park, once a popular spot for General Post Office workers. In 1900 it became home to the Watts Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice. Thirteen years earlier, an ardent socialist named George Frederick Watts had first proposed a park commemorating otherwise ordinary people who’d given their lives attempting to save others. Fire, drowning and train accidents dominate the brief but brave stories documented on glazed Doulton tablets.

Like so many of the stops on Mathew’s tour, Postman’s Park felt like a refuge from London’s bustle. It was only as we left I realized that first job of mine was just a few streets away. I might have found it sooner with a bike.

If you go:

  • The London Edition recently launched a family package, featuring a loft or loft suite plus complimentary connecting room, with “big kid/little kid” treats, including a movie night and a London-inspired in-room tent. Rates start at $920 a night. For details of this and other packages visit edition-hotels.marriott.com/London
  • Cycle Tours of London’s East End Tour takes about three and a half hours and costs about $35. Details of this and other tours at biketoursoflondon.com
  • The London Bicycle Tour Company’s Central Tour takes three hours and costs about $43. For details of this and other tours, visit londonbicycle.com
  • For more information about cycling in London, check out visitlondon.com
Street art pervades Brick Lane and adjoining streets like Hanbury Street, where the giant crane by Belgian artist ROA is hard to miss. Community uproar dissuaded Tower Hamlets council from covering it with a banner before the 2012 Olympics.

Street art pervades Brick Lane and adjoining streets like Hanbury Street, where the giant crane by Belgian artist ROA is hard to miss. Community uproar dissuaded Tower Hamlets council from covering it with a banner before the 2012 Olympics.

It takes a village to raise a beer festival

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According to Benjamin Franklin, beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. Benjamin may have been on to something.

According to Benjamin Franklin, beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. Benjamin may have been on to something.

 

A cultural experience, not a chug fest, is how Liam Peyton describes this weekend’s second annual Whistler Village Beer Festival (Sept. 11-14). That’s not to say the four-day celebration is solely for purists: Far from it.

“There’s something for everyone,” says Peyton, who organizes the festival, which features more than 150 beers from 50 breweries in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. Along with Saturday’s main tasting showcase from 1 till 5 p.m. at Whistler Olympic Plaza, there are a broad range of events to immerse guests into beer culture, including beer dinners, seminars, parties and cask showdowns.

The latter particularly appeals to the expat Brit, who hopes his responsibilities hosting more than 4,000 visitors still allow him to attend a showdown or two.

Saturday’s main tasting showcase, from 1 till 5 p.m. at Whistler Olympic Plaza, features more than 150 beers from 50 breweries.

Saturday’s tasting showcase at Whistler Olympic Plaza features more than 150 beers from 50 breweries.

“The cask showdowns feature one-offs, rare brews created for the event,” says Peyton. “You meet the brewmasters, sample the ales and vote on what you like.” The festival hosts three showdowns – Best of the Island, Best of the Mainland, and Best in West (U.S. West Coast breweries).

Cask showdowns are among several new additions to the festival, which is significantly bigger than the 2013 edition.

“Last year we had six events between four venues. This year there are 31 events spread over 11 venues,” says Peyton. He credits several reasons for the growth. “Last year we went from scratch to a sold-out festival in 10 weeks. Some people were skeptical to begin with but then participating venues saw their revenues jump 40 per cent and the 31-degree weather didn’t hurt either.”

Just one of the many interesting T-shirts I'll be wearing at this weekend's Whistler Village Beer Festival.

Just one of the many interesting T-shirts I’ll be wearing at the Whistler Village Beer Festival.

Now familiar with navigating B.C.’s quirky liquor laws and with 12 months to organize this year’s festival, Peyton says he’s confident he’s ahead of the curve. “It’s a little unnerving at times, but we’re far ahead in organization and in ticket sales now compared to where we were this time last year.”

At 27, the transplanted Birmingham native comes by his love of both Whistler and beer honestly, having worked as doorman, barman and manager of The Longhorn Pub before joining Gibbons Hospitality Group in 2009.

The company represents many of Whistler’s best-known pubs and created the annual beer festival to drive more business to the area, as well as forge new partnerships. Top placing breweries in Saturday afternoon’s Best in Fest voting, for instance, win one-year draught contracts to supply local venues. Local hotels are participating, including the Westin Hotel, (westinwhistler.com) which is hosting beer seminars and the Summit Lodge and Spa, (summitlodge.com) which presents nightly beer tastings. The festival also offers a food voucher program, allowing festival-goers to get $5 off meals in local restaurants.

As for Peyton’s favourite brews, IPAs are a good start. After a birthday pilgrimage in April-May to brewing hot spots in Washington, Oregon and northern California, he returned a dedicated fan of Deschutes, Lagunitas and Pyramid breweries.

“For my 27th birthday we stopped at Deschutes Brewery in Portland,” recalls Peyton. “They made me a Black Butte Porter ice cream float as a birthday cake!”

You’ll find all three breweries at the second annual Whistler Village Beer Festival, Sept. 11-14.

  • For festival tickets and a full schedule of events, visit wvbf.ca
Stay thirsty my friends.

Stay thirsty my friends.

Summer in Whistler begins at the lake

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The River of Golden Dreams is an idyllic waterway for a quiet paddle ... unless you find yourself in the middle of GoFest. riverofgoldendreams.com photo

The River of Golden Dreams is an idyllic waterway for a quiet paddle … unless you find yourself in the middle of Whistler’s annual Go Fest and the Great Snow-Earth-Water Race. riverofgoldendreams.com photo

A quiet meander down the River of Golden Dreams, I’d promised my wife. After 36 hours of skiing, cycling, trail running, stand-up paddle boarding, dancing, eating and drinking, this would be a relaxing canoe cruise in the sunshine, a chance to mellow ourselves from weekend warriors to weekend wanderers.

It didn’t work out that way.

We’d come for Whistler’s Great Outdoors Festival, aka GO Fest. Held on the Victoria Day long weekend, GO Fest was the chance to cram an entire Whistler summer of activities into four days. A packed schedule had offered everything from fly-fishing to disc golf, river rafting to yoga, and much in between that involved wearing a silly costume.

By Sunday, my legs were aching from Saturday-night’s AlpenGlow Fun Run, a six-kilometre jog around Lost Lake, while wearing glow sticks. Or they might have ached from skiing Blackcomb’s Seventh Heaven all day; or from jumping up and down to The Sheepdogs during Friday night’s concert in the village.

The River of Golden Dreams connects Alta Lake and Green Lake. In some places the river is little wider than a canoe.

The River of Golden Dreams connects Alta Lake and Green Lake. riverofgoldendreams.com photo

Cycling Whistler’s Valley Trail on Sunday morning, we stopped at Lakeside Park where we met Eric White of Backroads Whistler. When he told us about paddling the River of Golden Dreams, the timing seemed perfect: No pressure to perform; tranquility now. Backroads Whistler even picks you up at the end of the two- to three-hour paddle.

“People were coming here for the lakes long before the skiing,” Eric pointed out. “I think you’ll really enjoy it.”

To get our sea legs we warmed up with a stand-up paddle boarding session. Stand-up paddle boarding, or SUP, has taken off in recent years and it’s easy to see why. Not unlike snowshoeing, SUP offers a short learning curve and gets you closer to the elements. It can be as relaxing or as strenuous as you want. Eric gave us a quick tutorial on the dock and we were off.

Pasty Englishman attempts balance feat on stand-up paddle board!

Pasty Englishman attempts balance feat on stand-up paddle board!

The Kahuna boards designed by Whistler local, Steve Legge, were exceptionally stable, despite my initial fears of falling. (The lake ice broke just a month before!) It only took a couple of lengths between Lakeside’s docks for it to begin to feel like a core workout.

Now acclimatized to the occasional gusts picking up on Alta Lake, we paddled to shore for a new vessel.

Backroads offers kayaks and double kayaks but we opted for a two-person canoe. The canoe requires smooth communication between paddlers to navigate the notoriously tight corners of the River of Golden Dreams.

It’s also known as “The Divorce Boat,” according to Eric.

“We’ve only been married 23 years, what could possibly go wrong?” I asked my wife.

The River of Golden Dreams connects Alta Lake with Green Lake about three kilometres north. Because of its stubborn refusal to follow a straight line, the river’s full length is closer to five kilometres. In places, the river is barely wider than a canoe and portaging is sometimes necessary, depending on water levels, which can fluctuate rapidly depending on rain and snow melt.

After a quick paddling tutorial, we donned our lifejackets and set sail. Within 15 minutes we’d crossed Alta Lake and were nearing the mouth of the river. That’s when I noticed people waving at us from a bridge. Seconds later we heard a siren – the kind that’s normally accompanied by a loud voice shouting “release the hounds”.

“Why are those people waving at us?” asked my wife from the bow.

The answer appeared over our left shoulders: canoeists, two to a boat and wearing helmets and numbered pinnies, launching from a nearby beach and paddling straight for us. Unsure whether the people on the bridge were waving us in or away, we opted to paddle for the river, full steam ahead.

At the bridge we made two discoveries. The first was that we’d need to portage a few yards because we’d arrived at a weir. The second was that we’d unwittingly joined a pivotal leg in GO Fest’s Great Snow-Earth-Water Race – a grueling six-stage competition involving skiing, biking, running and canoeing.

“We’re expecting two dozen canoes through here,” a young man with a radio told us. “You might want to sit out and let them through.”

It occurred to me that on a narrow, winding river with few passing lanes and a head start, we could actually try and win the race. Then my wife reminded me that this was supposed to be a cruise. She also said something about ethics.

So for 20 minutes we perched at a picnic table and watched contestants portage their canoes around the weir and back into the river, cheered on by locals. When everyone had passed us, we re-launched and quickly learned to adapt to the river’s ever-changing moods: turn too tightly and fast eddies would pull us into the reeds; lose concentration and we’d find ourselves turning sideways to the current.

But the lush wetlands and snowy peaks beyond the banks made up for the occasional brushes with low branches. Better yet, during the course of our 90-minute paddle we became minor celebrities to those who had turned out to cheer on the racers. Everyone loves plucky losers and despite not wearing race pinnies, we were assumed by many to be the last-place finishers in the canoe stage of the Great Snow-Earth-Water Race.

I still think we probably could have won it!

The River of Golden of Golden Dreams (Backroads Whistler – riverofgoldendreams.com or 604 932-3111) is just one of a multitude of adventures awaiting visitors to Whistler this summer. Here are five more.

Several runs atop Blackcomb and the Horstman Glacier are open for skiing and boarding until late July.

Several runs atop Blackcomb and the Horstman Glacier are open for skiing and boarding until late July.

Hit the Valley Trail: For a better perspective on Whistler’s surroundings get out of the village and onto the Whistler Valley Trail. More than 40 kilometres of paved trail and boardwalks connect Whistler’s lakes, parks and neighbourhoods. The trail is suitable for bikes, rollerbladers, joggers, walkers and well-behaved pets. Whistler.com offers more information on making the most of the Valley Trail, including a blog on the trail’s “six perfect spots”.

Shred the Park: Valley Trail offers a benign cycling experience and cross-country cyclists will find more than 500 kilometres miles of single track around Whistler. The Whistler Bike Park though condenses the best of Whistler’s downhill for all levels of mountain biker. Ride the lift up and take your pick of alpine view trails, banked cruisers through the forest, tight, winding single track and – for the experts – steep rock faces. Whistler Bike Park offers numerous ticket deals, including some with rentals, and accommodation packages. More information is at whistlerblackcomb.com.

Buckle up and ride the Elaho! Eric Beckstead photo

Buckle up and ride the Elaho! Eric Beckstead photo

Ride the river(s): If paddling the River of Golden Dreams is too tame for you, consider whitewater rafting either of the Green, Lower Cheakamus, Elaho or Squamish rivers. A range of half-day and full-day tours are available from Whistler, (whistler.com/rafting) or from the Sunwolf Centre in Brackendale near Squamish (sunwolf.net/rafting).

Fly by the seat of your pants! The most exciting thing I’ve ever done in Whistler is ziplining at Cougar Mountain, just north of Whistler. Superfly Ziplines (superflyziplines.com) runs Canada’s longest, fastest, highest ziplines where speeds of more than 100 km/h are made possible by runs well over a kilometer long, 200 metres off the ground. Strap into a paragliding-style harness, attach to half an inch of galvanized steel with a trolley rig and prepare to fly! Ziptrek Ecotours (ziptrek.com) combines similar thrills above Fitzsimmons Creek with a strong environmental ethos.

Ziplining at Cougar Mountain, just north of Whistler.

Ziplining at Cougar Mountain, just north of Whistler.

Ski in a T-shirt: For all the great winter skiing at Whistler, the novelty of descending Horstman Glacier while wearing a T-shirt in July is hard to beat. Until late July, two or three runs, plus the terrain park remain open atop Blackcomb where lunch on the deck of the Horstman Hut is a must.

* For details of summer accommodation packages, visit fourseasonswhistler.com

inukshuk-Neville Judd

Sip and cycle in Osoyoos

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Silver Sage Pearle is a port-style wine made from blackcurrant and blackberry. The tasting notes tell me it’s good with cheese cake, vanilla ice cream, or mixed with vodka, or with champagne.

There are a couple of other things it’s good with, according to Silver Sage sales manager, Elena Dudlettes. “It’s good with a Cuban cigar,” she says. “Or just with a Cuban. Carlos, Ramon, Enrique … take your pick!” she adds with a wink.

“Your team loses in the last minute and you need a drink,” she says, introducing the next wine for us to taste. “There’s nothing wrong with a glass of this with bacon and eggs for breakfast,” she says of the Silver Sage Gewürztraminer. “Hey, you don’t do bad things, you have nothing to talk about,” she says about … I can’t recall what that was about.

Elena had me at hello.

Dark blue and ripening fast, these grapes soon became Merlot at Hester Creek, the first winery on a tour of the Golden Mile Bench near Osoyoos.

Dark blue and ripening fast, these grapes soon became Merlot at Hester Creek, the first winery on a tour of the Golden Mile Bench near Osoyoos.

Silver Sage is the last of seven wineries on a Sip and Cycle Tour through Okanagan wine country last October. Several hours earlier, five of us had set off with Richard Cooper, owner of Heatstroke Cycle and Sport. Cooper was born and raised in Osoyoos and operates Heatstroke from the Watermark Beach Resort on Osoyoos Lake.

I’d been expecting pedal bikes. After over-indulging in goat cheese lamb meatballs, pan-seared scallops and flank steak in the Watermark’s tapas bar the night before, I’d been hoping for pedal bikes. If I was to visit seven wineries, I reasoned that I’d have to earn every sip. The sight of bright orange Pedego electric bikes leaves me mildly disappointed.

Until I try one.

In seconds, I speed up Hester Creek’s driveway just by easing back on the throttle, mounted on the handlebars. I coast back to the bottom and do it again for fun.

Hester Creek, the first stop on the Golden Mile Bench – three verdant terraces and a series of alluvial fans on the slopes of Mount Kobau between Osoyoos and Oliver.

Hester Creek, the first stop on the Golden Mile Bench – three verdant terraces and a series of alluvial fans on the slopes of Mount Kobau between Osoyoos and Oliver.

“I told you it was like riding a bike,” says Cooper, who’s used to guests falling in love with his bikes. “There’s no way we could keep to our schedule on ordinary bikes. And let’s be honest, who wants to pedal uphill on a wine-tasting tour?”

He’s got a point.

Hester Creek is our first stop on the Golden Mile Bench – three verdant terraces and a series of alluvial fans on the slopes of Mount Kobau between Osoyoos and Oliver. As well as an opportunity to taste a multitude of great wines, the Sip and Cycle Tour is a lesson in geography, chemistry and history, key ingredients in the area’s wine production.

Luke Whittall greets us Hester Creek and first pours a taste of the Character White, which includes a blend of the Okanagan’s only Trebbiano. The award-winning Trebbiano is made from some of the oldest vines on Hester’s Mediterranean-style estate, but sadly, it has “Elvised,” says Whittall. “Left the building, sold out,” he adds by way of explanation. Like the Okanagan Valley itself, the Golden Mile terroir and its blend of gravel, silt, clay and sand, was formed as glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago, says Whittall.

Just above the valley floor, the Golden Mile is better protected from severe frost. In fact, knowing that a single degree Celsius can make a huge difference to wine quality, vineyards use wind machines to blow away cold air.

Only on a wine-tasting tour can you really appreciate what a 48-volt, 10-amp electric engine can do. The Pedego is one sweet ride!

Only on a wine-tasting tour can you really appreciate what a 48-volt, 10-amp electric engine can do. The Pedego is one sweet ride!

“We’re left with amazing soil composition around different creeks,” says Whittall, who gives us a 101 class in how local geology can affect grapes and the wines they produce. Whittall has worked in most aspects of the wine industry, from crushing grapes under foot (“the Stairmaster from hell!”) to the VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance), the regulatory body guaranteeing quality and authenticity of origins for Canadian wines.

We try Hester’s Reserve Merlot, Late Harvest Pinot Blanc (similar to an ice wine, but not) and my favourite, The Judge – a hugely fruity red that smells of pepper and caramel, and makes me want to order a steak immediately.

Next-door to Hester Creek at Gehringer Brothers, Bob Park gives us several of the vineyard’s 22 wines to taste and a pocket history of the region. “Walter and Gordon Gehringer bought the property in 1981 when there were only four estate wineries in B.C.,” says Park. “They were taking a bit of a gamble. Back then, the few wineries were protected from foreign competition and made cheap wine for local markets.

IMG_6473

“NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement signed in 1991] changed that. Knowing they couldn’t compete with California wine producers, the government paid B.C. wine producers to rip up their inferior hybrid vines and replace them with premium European grapes and promote a shift to higher value wines.”

Today there are more than 200 wineries in B.C. and 60 varieties. “Last summer, wine was the number one best seller, according to the Liquor Distribution Board,” points out Park. “It used to trail behind beer and spirits.”

I thank Park for the history lesson and buy a bottle of Gehringer’s Auxerrois. We’re back on the bikes and waving at passing motorists who look bewildered at how easily we speed along the Okanagan Highway. Just down the highway at Inniskillin, Audrey Silbernagel leads us directly to the main event – Inniskillin’s Tempranillo Icewine. The sweetness seems to last forever and at under 10 percent alcohol, I’m not about to leave anything at the bottom of the glass. It might be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever tasted. On impulse, I tell Silbernagel I’d like a bottle and hesitate only for a moment when I discover it’s a $100. (My budget blown, I passed on the $35 Riedel icewine glass.)

Bruce Fuller, the larger-than-life owner of Rustico Farm and Cellars.

Bruce Fuller, the larger-than-life owner of Rustico Farm and Cellars.

Tastes of Mamma Mia Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Moscato, Syrah, Quattro and Maximus follow at Cassini Cellars, poured by owner Adrian Cassini himself. “How involved are you in the daily business?” one of our group asks Cassini.

“Today is Sunday and I’m here,” says Cassini with a tired smile. “So are my wife and daughter.” Cassini used to run fitness clubs in Vancouver. “Then I had a mid-life crisis and decided to build a vineyard,” he says.

Someone else obviously putting his heart soul into the business is Bruce Fuller, the larger-than-life owner of Rustico Farm and Cellars. Fuller’s in cowboy gear when he greets us and he stays in cowboy character as he tells jokes almost as quickly as he pours Rustico wines into whiskey tumblers. Fuller’s tribute to the Okanagan’s mining and ranching history is behind names like Bonanza Zinfandel, Mother Lode Merlot and Isabella’s Poke, a Pinot Gris with a saucy story.

At Black Hills Estate Winery, a dedicated 'wine evangelist' pours a bottle of 2011 Nota Bene, a Bordeaux-style red wine.

At Black Hills Estate Winery, a dedicated ‘wine evangelist’ pours a bottle of 2011 Nota Bene, a Bordeaux-style red wine.

We turn off the Okanagan Highway and throttle up to the Black Hills Estate Winery. With its manicured lawns, swimming pool, cabana and sleek tasting room, Black Hills is the antithesis of Rustico. A ‘Wine Evangelist’ already has a table set with numerous glasses ready for tasting. Lunch is served and we taste our way through several vintages, including a Carmenere, unique in that Black Hills is the only winery in Canada producing this varietal on its own. I forget the budget I’d broken three wineries ago and buy a bottle of Black Hills Chardonnay. At Silver Sage Winery, I’m powerless to resist the smooth-talking Elena and buy a bottle of Sage Grand Reserve because Elena says it complements turkey and Thanksgiving is only a week away. (For the record, Elena was right.)

Coasting along Black Sage Road, with seven wineries behind us and pedaling just for show, I truly appreciate what a 48-volt, 10-amp electric engine can do. At $2,400, the Pedego is a sweet ride. Looking back, I’m just relieved I didn’t try and buy the bike as well.

If you go:

The Sip and Cycle Tour plus one-night’s stay at The Watermark Beach Resort is $169. Call 1 855 270-76991 855 270-7699 or visit watermarkcycling.ca and heatstrokecycle.com for more details.

 

Las Vegas: The beaten track and the single track

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red rock

For a city synonymous with late nights, Late Night Trailhead just outside of Las Vegas is decidedly different. There are no buildings besides an outhouse, no meandering pedestrians or neon, and certainly no noise. Instead you’ll find about 200,000 acres of desert known as Red Rock Canyon, home to tarantulas, rattlesnakes, burros, bunnies and wild vegetation that can either harm or cure you.

More than 80 miles of trails lure another desert creature, namely the mountain biker – about 2,000 of them locally, according to Brandon Brizzolara. Brizzolara is a guide and mountain bike specialist for Escape Adventures and Las Vegas Cyclery. He grew up in Vegas and fondly remembers when even The Strip had its own biking scene.

“From Tropicana to Fremont we’d have BMX sessions on The Strip like it was a skate park in the 90s,” he says. “Vegas is a pretty active community, it’s just The Strip that’s a little out of shape.”

In his element, Brandon Brizzolara, guide and mountain bike specialist for Escape Adventures and Las Vegas Cyclery.

Brandon Brizzolara, guide and mountain bike specialist for Escape Adventures and Las Vegas Cyclery.

We’re here for The Strip and the desert – the beaten track and the single track: Neville and Leah and their teenagers, Ryan and Emma, all of us with contrasting wishes and expectations for our three-night stay in Las Vegas.

Shopping had been my kids’ idea. For hours we’d lost ourselves in high-octane consumerism at Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino, a consumers’ paradise with 170 stores, 15 restaurants and several entertainment venues. Britney Spears has her own store here where Britney merchandise exhorts shoppers to “Work it, Bitch”.

It’s a legitimate vice in Sin City, but shopping – and Britney Spears – make me uncomfortable so I stood with a crowd and watched a guy get his belly tattooed at Club Tattoo. Leah got a manicure at Original Diva and had nails “to die for” long after returning home. Ryan and Emma blew their entire budget.

On all of our wish-lists was a Vegas show. Britney had taken March off so we chose Cirque du Soleil’s Zarkana, a celebration of circus traditions set in an abandoned theatre (but in reality at the Aria Resort and Casino). The show blends anarchic humour with the precision and grace of aerialists, acrobats, jugglers, high-wire and trapeze artists. The clowns made Ryan uncomfortable but he’s only 16; otherwise we left well entertained.

At 550 feet tall, the High Roller is the crown jewel in Caesars Entertainment Corporation’s LINQ development, a pedestrian-friendly retail, dining and entertainment neighbourhood on The Strip. The High Roller opened March 31. Denise Truscello photo

At 550 feet tall, the High Roller is the crown jewel in Caesars Entertainment Corporation’s LINQ development, a pedestrian-friendly neighbourhood on The Strip. The High Roller opened March 31. Denise Truscello photo

The spa treatment was Leah’s idea, but I was happy to tag along. For the Vegas rookie it can be tricky finding places on foot and ESPA at the Vdara Hotel was no exception. We could see it set back off The Strip, but The Strip has a way of keeping pedestrians on The Strip. We eventually got there by walking through another hotel, The Cosmopolitan. Any stress I might have felt at being late for a spa treatment soon melted away under the sensuous heat of volcanic stones, body brushing, exfoliation and a scalp massage. Beats shopping any day of the week!

Great food was on everyone’s list and the following three restaurants more than delivered. The Yard House enjoys an enviable location just a few feet from the High Roller, the world’s biggest observation wheel. At 550 feet tall, the High Roller is the crown jewel in Caesars Entertainment Corporation’s LINQ development, a pedestrian-friendly (hallelujah!) retail, dining and entertainment neighbourhood on The Strip. The High Roller opened March 31, two weeks after our visit, but we were content to admire it illuminated in green for St. Patrick’s Day from the deck of the Yard House. The beer list alone would entice me back to the Yard House, but the St. Louis-style ribs and truffle fries had me at hello.

Chayo chef, Ernesto Zendejas.

Chayo chef, Ernesto Zendejas.

Just a short stroll through the LINQ brings you to Chayo Mexican Kitchen and Tequila Bar, a two-storey fiesta in the making, anchored by a mechanical bull. Mexico City-born chef, Ernesto Zendejas, draws upon classical training in France to present an exquisite mix of flavours: Lobster tacos, bass ceviche, cilantro cream soup, shrimp fajitas – it’s tough to pick a favourite, but none of us were lining up to ride the bull afterwards. (Portions are decidedly North American – not French!)

Plates are meant to be shared at Crush, one of many dining options at the MGM Grand, but our family came close to making a scene over the sea scallop benny, comprising sunny-side quail egg, chorizo and chipotle hollandaise. Some meals are too good to be shared. The shrimp risotto and lamb sirloin with bacon brussels sprouts also didn’t last long.

Between the shopping, the show, the spa and the dining, we savoured afternoon pool time. In downtown Las Vegas, we mingled with celebrity lookalikes and body-painted models at the Fremont Street Experience, five city blocks of high-tech wizardry featuring a 550,000-watt sound system and a music and light show broadcast from an LED canopy 90 feet above the ground.

Sea scallop benny at Crush, MGM Grand. Don't even think about sharing.

Sea scallop benny at Crush, MGM Grand. Don’t even think about sharing.

And we ventured a little off downtown’s beaten track. Further down Fremont Street, past El Cortez, the city’s first casino, we found The Beat Coffeehouse and Records, the hippest little joint for breakfast and heaven to a 16-year-old who’s just discovered vinyl.

Nowhere though seems quite so off the beaten track as the Mojave Desert and the single track of Red Rock Canyon. The mountain biking had been my idea. Only 17 miles west of Las Vegas Boulevard, Red Rock’s Mustang Trails might have been on another planet, such is the contrast with The Strip.

For two hours we mostly coast on easy trails, stopping occasionally for impromptu descriptions of the vegetation. Brizzolara says he hasn’t taken a pill in more than 10 years, and why would he with nature’s pharmacy on his doorstep? There are seemingly cures for all ailments in the numerous sage bushes and plants like Mormon’s Tea, a species of Ephedra, which is traditionally used to treat asthma, hay fever and the common cold.

Ryan Judd in his element at Red Rock Canyon.

Ryan Judd in his element at Red Rock Canyon.

If inducement to remain on the bike were needed, there are no shortage of plants that could make for a painful landing: cacti, whose barbs expand after piercing skin, and the Joshua Tree, whose bayonet-shaped leaves feature serrated edges – handy for cutting barbecue wieners, according to Brizzolara. We stay on our bikes. My daughter, Emma, who’s never mountain biked, struggles gamely and mostly ignores her dad telling her to relax.

It’s the same advice she gave me at the Britney Spears store.

If you go:

  • Las Vegas Cyclery (lasvegascyclery.com) and Escape Adventures (escapeadventures.com) offer year-round tours (half day and full day) for mountain bikers and road cyclists, as well as hiking tours. If mountain biking, you’ll ride full suspension Santa Cruz 29ers and tours start at $129. Call 1 800-596-29531 800-596-2953.
  • We divided our accommodation between the Downtown Grand Las Vegas (downtowngrand.com) and the MGM Grand (mgmgrand.com). Formerly the Lady Luck, the Grand recently reopened after a $100-million renovation. It’s steps away from the Fremont Street Experience and features PICNIC, a wonderful rooftop pool. The MGM Grand more than holds its own on the pool front with four to choose from and a lazy river. It also offers Stay Well rooms, which comprise more than a dozen health and wellness features, including aromatherapy, wake-up light therapy and Vitamin C-infused shower water.
  • For more on ESPA at Vdara, visit Vdara Hotel and Spa.
  • For more on Las Vegas, visit vegas.com

Men of Steele

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Next time we'll bring snowboards and deckchairs.

Next time we’ll bring snowboards and deckchairs.

My friend Tom and I had been planning a trip to the Tetrahedron for about 10 years. This weekend we finally did it. In hindsight, hiking to Mount Steele cabin would have been easier when I was 36, not 46.

At the base of 5,114-foot Mount Steele, the cabin is one of four two-storey cabins in Tetrahedron Provincial Park, each built to accommodate 16 people – first come, first serve. The others are at Bachelor Lake, above Edwards Lake, and between McNair and Chapman Lakes. The cabins are connected via a 25-kilometre trail network and are maintained by the Tetrahedron Outdoor Club.

Lower Mainlanders enjoying lunch at Edwards Cabin.

Lower Mainlanders enjoying lunch at Edwards Cabin.

We set off on snowshoes from the trailhead up Grey Creek Forest Service Road. In true Sunshine Coast fashion, the Tetrahedron is not signposted from the road, despite being a Class A provincial park. That might explain why there are only three other cars in the parking lot on a sunny January weekend.

Six thousand hectares of mountains, lakes, streams, wetlands and forest, the Tet, as it’s fondly known, has long been cherished by the backcountry enthusiasts who can actually find it. We finally meet some of those enthusiasts about two hours into our hike at Edwards Lake. They’re a group of 12 skiers and snowshoers from the Lower Mainland who are planning to stay at Edwards Cabin. We stop for lunch with them there before pushing on at 1 p.m.

So far we’ve been hiking for about two hours. There’s been no new snow for a week, temperatures are above freezing and the sun’s out. The sign at Edwards Cabin says it’s just three more kilometres to Mount Steele Cabin. It doesn’t mention the elevation gain of 1,300 feet, but that much is obvious from the contour lines on Tom’s map, which look like an intense low pressure system; that and our occasional glimpses of Mount Steele – white, jagged and way up there beneath the bright blue sky.

Downtime at Edwards Lake. We opted not to test the ice.

Downtime at Edwards Lake. We opted not to test the ice.

The climb begins almost immediately, as does the sweat, pouring off me and soaking me from head to toe. The steeper it gets the happier Tom becomes. He shouts encouragement and I try to ignore the chafing of 20-year-old longjohns and the borrowed 40-pound rucksack on my back. Following tree markers, we zig-zag our way through amabilis fir, mountain and western hemlock, yellow cedar and white pine while Tom yells to me about his merino wool base layers. “Not a drop of sweat,” he shouts. “This material wicks all the sweat away!”

I don’t say anything. I’ve stopped talking to Tom.

After an hour of this I’m resting every 10 steps. I’m eating snow to try and and conserve my water. We appear to have cleared the forested section but that brings its own problems. We can’t see any more tree markers. So Tom checks his map and his compass and we decide to climb one of Steele’s lower open slopes, figuring the cabin will surely become visible as we ascend. But with no more markers in sight, we get cold feet – actually, mine are soaking wet. (Tom’s aren’t. He has merino wool socks … or something.)

So we descend, covering the same distance in 10 minutes that took us 30 minutes to climb. It’s 3:30 p.m. and for the first time all day, I have one eye on the time. The sweat is freezing on my back and it will be dark in 90 minutes. After some searching though, Tom spots a marker and we’re off again, climbing in a different direction toward a ridge that he swears will take us to the cabin. From the ridge we’re treated to views of the Tantalus Range and the markers continue to guide our way.

Mount Steele cabin, as seen from the top of Mount Steele.

Mount Steele cabin, as seen from the top of Mount Steele.

Just before 4, I hear Tom from up ahead. “I can see the cabin!”

Thank God he’s not lying, I think as I catch up a few minutes later.

There it is, its red roof standing out against so much white. We savour the last few steps. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a location quite so beautiful. We have the place to ourselves. According to the guest book, we’re only the second visitors this year. An hour later at the metal kitchen table, we’re eating curry and naam bread cooked on the wood stove, washed down with a couple of beers. The cabin is well equipped, with mattresses in the attic, firewood in the basement, a kitchen counter with utensils and a couple of sinks. We melt snow for water and turn the stove down to a slow burn. Pretty soon the entire cabin is toasty warm.

It would seem impossible to put a price on such an amazing place, but the Tetrahedron Outdoor Club came up with $10 a night, which seems more than reasonable. More than a quarter of a century ago, the club used to be known as the Tetrahedron Ski Club. Back in 1987, the club mobilized more than 200 volunteers, 45 businesses, schools, community groups and several levels of government to build the Tetrahedron’s cabins and trail network.

Beer, curry, mates - just another Saturday night.

Beer, curry, mates – just another Saturday night.

The cabins were built at Sechelt airport before being disassembled and flown by helicopter to be reassembled on site. Forestry company, Canfor, and the Sunshine Coast Regional District donated timber, Sechelt Creek Contracting provided logging service, Airspan donated some air time, Gibsons Building Supplies provided crane trucks and the Outdoor Recreation Council pitched in with chainsaws. For one of the few times in Sunshine Coast history, one great idea united governments, businesses, and local volunteers – in the midst of a recession, no less.

For all the day’s exertions, I can’t sleep. After midnight I set up my tripod outside and try and capture Mount Steele by moonlight with varying results. Fog covers Georgia Strait but I can see lights twinkling on Vancouver Island. There’s no bite to the breeze blowing and I feel like the last person on Earth. I may be delusional. I go back to bed.

The moon over Mount Steele. Sometimes not sleeping isn't so bad.

The moon over Mount Steele. Sometimes not sleeping isn’t so bad.

In the morning under clear skies we hike to the top of Mount Steele. It’s difficult to reconcile this rugged terrain and such epic landscapes with the place I call home. For me, the Sunshine Coast typically conjures images of rainforest and beaches, not jagged peaks and frozen lakes. But then visiting this place would surely alter anyone’s perceptions.

Tom vows to bring his snowboard next time. I’m thinking a deck chair. We pack up, sweep up, and head out for the descent to civilization. Yesterday, it took us six hours to get here. Today we’re back at the car in just over two hours.

I relish every step of our tracks with a smile.

  • For more information about the Tetrahedron Outdoor Club, visit www.tetoutdoor.ca
  • Four-wheel drive and chains are essential for visiting the Tetrahedron. For more information about the park, visit www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks
  • There can be a significant avalanche risk on Mount Steele. Before heading out, check with www.avalanche.ca/cac/bulletins/latest
  • For more on the history of the Tetrahedron Outdoor Club, visit my earlier blog post here.
  • If your fitness is kind of sketchy and you’re inexperienced in the backcountry, consider taking Tom with you. I couldn’t have done it without him.

Urine Review

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It's fair to say that the coffee kicked in early on the Pemberton slow food cycle this summer.

It’s fair to say that the coffee kicked in early on the Pemberton slow food cycle this summer.

Twas a month before Christmas

When Leah turned and said

“Here are the cards for your poem

Now I’m off to bed”

So I searched for a highlight

Picking just one is a toughie

Like hugging Rob Ford

Or trusting Mike Duffy

 

Good kids, all of them.

Good kids, all of them.

Our year was terrific

With adventures galore

Life by the Pacific

Is exciting for sure

 

Ryan turned 16

And started to drive

Each night we thank God

We’re all still alive

Emma hit 14

An important milestone

Becoming the last teen on Earth

To own an iPhone

In the summer we cycled

In Canada Back East

The sights were amazing

The heat was a beast

 

Ryan and Jordan ... on a budget.

Ryan and Jordan … on a budget.

We visited the Marshalls

In Hunstville so scenic

And confirmed that they’re still

Irritatingly photogenic

 

Sickeningly photogenic. Again.

Sickeningly photogenic. Again.

Through Quebec City we pedalled

Up hills steep and cobbled

The sweat was intense

My groin somewhat troubled

 

Toronto was flatter

Cycling old railway track

It’s a cosmopolitan city

Except for the mayor, who smokes crack

Good kids ... all of them.

Good kids … all of them.

Ziplining above Whistler

In fear and in dread

Is how Leah and I marked

22 years wed

You wouldn't believe how hard it is to photograph this on self-timer.

You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to photograph this on self-timer.

We had visitors, too

Cousin Steve and his clan

We all hit the beach

And worked on our tan

Turns out there's another Leah!

Turns out there’s another Leah!

Brother Keith arrived next

So nice he could stay

I leant him my coat

Cos it rained every day

 

We went to Osoyoos

And drank lots of wine

The rain turned to snow

But we got home on time

Queasy riders.

Queasy riders.

Nan and Grandad came to visit

For three weeks this Fall

With cards we slipped pressies

In Grandad’s holdall

HE'S GOT A KNIFE!

HE’S GOT A KNIFE!

And now we look forward

To a promising New Year

England in Rio

And Three Lions to cheer

God bless Wayne.

God bless Wayne.

I wish you the best

For a year full of light

God Bless Wayne Rooney

And to all a good night

Toronto on two wheels

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The Beaches neighbourhood in eastern Toronto is a rarity in that homes and not a freeway still line the lakeshore.

The Beaches neighbourhood in eastern Toronto is a rarity: homes, not a freeway, still line the lakeshore.

I can remember the moment Toronto began to win me over. It was at BMO Field, an hour after arriving in the city, in the waning minutes of Toronto FC’s MLS game versus the Columbus Crew.

Losing 1-0, many Toronto fans upped and left when a storm swept in from Lake Ontario. Soaked to the skin, my son and I took advantage of space behind the Columbus goal just as Toronto equalized.

We’d barely finished high-fiving the locals when Toronto scored the winner in injury time, sparking more sodden pandemonium. We saw ourselves on TV highlights that night. Just as well we hadn’t worn our Whitecaps jerseys!

Like many west coasters, I harbored some instinctive disdain for Canada’s biggest city. I’d heard about its swagger, its summer humidity, and, of course, the Maple Leafs. Yet riding the bus full of fans back to the Fairmont Royal York, past the CN Tower and Rogers Centre (aka SkyDome), I was warming to Toronto.

No cyclists were hurt while taking this photo.

No cyclists were hurt while taking this photo.

Some of that big-city swagger must surely have originated in the Fairmont Royal York, once the biggest hotel in the British Empire and still oozing opulence from every one of its 1,600 rooms. The hotel of choice for royalty and rock stars is down to earth enough to grow its own herbs, vegetables and flowers on a rooftop terrace, as well as maintain three beehives.

The hotel will also store your bikes for you, a bonus in a city that’s expanding its bike lane network. With only two days in Toronto, we rented bikes at Segway Ontario, a short tram ride away in the Distillery District. The endless roadworks and construction across downtown made us glad of the two-wheeled escape.

Once home to the Gooderham and Worts Distillery (said to be the world’s largest distillery by the mid-19th century) the Distillery District today is a well preserved pedestrian village. Upmarket stores, bars and restaurants have taken up residence in the red-brick Victorian buildings and Vancouverites might see some similarities with parts of Yaletown and Gastown. The Mill Street Brew Pub is a great spot for local beers and great food – especially when you’re finished bike riding for the day.

The Lower Don Trail, where graffiti is prolific as wildflowers.

The Lower Don Trail, where graffiti is prolific as wildflowers.

We left the Distillery District’s cobblestones behind and headed for Toronto’s Waterfront Trail. The trail is part of a series of bike and pedestrian paths that connect 31 communities along Lake Ontario’s shores. About 450 kilometers of the trail is signposted and the few kilometers we biked transported us to beaches seemingly a million miles removed from downtown Toronto.

Known as The Beaches, this eastern Toronto neighbourhood is a rarity in that homes and not a freeway still line the lakeshore. The feeling of community is palpable at the beach where seniors and toddlers were dancing to a live Cuban salsa band and dozens of beach volleyball games were in progress. Just a week before, Toronto had sweltered in the upper 30s. Now in the mid-20s it seemed that every dog-walker, kite-flyer, roller-blader and cyclist in the city had descended on The Beaches and its boardwalk. Like proper tourists, we dismounted, bought ice creams and watched the world go by.

Toronto’s weather gods weren’t quite so kind the following day. Under leaden skies and with drizzle in the air, we headed inland on the Lower Don Trail. Whereas much of the cycling in Toronto is on routes shared with cars, the Lower Don Trail is blissfully free of vehicle traffic. More than that, it’s a slice of downtown Toronto far removed from the city’s more popular tourist attractions.

The Lower Don River is only about eight kilometers long but it flows through one of the most densely populated communities in Canada. So it’s odd to cycle by rusting and abandoned footbridges, beneath concrete express ramps, and yet still spot a heron presiding over a river bank that resembles a healthy wetland. In places the graffiti is as dense as the wildflowers and the proliferation of the latter is due in part to the efforts of volunteer groups.

The Fairmont Royal York, once the biggest hotel in the British Empire and still oozing opulence from every one of its 1,600 rooms. The lobby's nice, too.

The Fairmont Royal York, once the biggest hotel in the British Empire and still oozing opulence from every one of its 1,600 rooms. The lobby’s nice, too.

We dried off from the rain at the Evergreen Brick Works, known for almost a century as the Don Valley Brick Works. Evergreen is a national charity and one of the groups involved in reviving the Lower Don. It runs the brick works as a community environmental centre, nurturing the disused quarry as a park, naturalizing ponds and restoring the brick works’ old buildings. On any given day you’ll find a farmers’ market, cooking workshops and family pizza nights at the site which once supplied the bricks for most of Toronto’s major landmarks.

From Evergreen Brick Works we cycled through Beltline Trail and the racy-sounding Milkman’s Run (Couldn’t help thinking of Benny Hill) before zig-zagging our way through quiet residential streets to Sherbourne Street. Sherbourne was the first of Toronto’s separated bike lanes and from Bloor Street to King Street, biking is a breeze.

Even after we’d returned our rental bikes we noticed signs of cycling’s growing popularity in Toronto. After ascending the CN Tower on our last night we walked across historic Roundhouse Park to Steam Whistle Brewing. There outside the brewery on Bremner Boulevard, not far from a BIXI bike-sharing stand, was an urban bike repair station complete with pump and tethered bike tools: free for anyone wanting a tune-up!

nevjudd.com

On a clear day you can see Saskatchewan.

On a clear day you can see Saskatchewan.

If you go:

Segway Ontario in Toronto’s Distillery District rents a wide variety of bicycles for $35 a day, as well as offering walking and Segway tours. Visit segwayofontario.com

Toronto grew up around the historic Fairmont Royal York, which features several bars and restaurants and offers numerous accommodation packages. They will also store your bikes. Visit fairmont.com/royal-york-toronto

Evergreen Brick Works is a hive of activity, combining history, education, and environmental activism. It also serves great food! Visit ebw.evergreen.ca

For all other travel matters Toronto, visit seetorontonow.com

Written by nevjudd

October 2, 2013 at 10:34 pm

Quebec City by bike

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Taking a break in Quebec City at Place Royale, site of Samuel de Champlain’s first permanent settlement in New France.

Resting in Quebec City at Place Royale, site of Samuel de Champlain’s first permanent settlement in New France.

The older my children get, the more discerning they become about holiday activities. My teenagers Ryan and Emma are not big on cycling, history or museums. And like most people they don’t like rain much either.

So there we were with our bikes in the rain, standing outside The Museum of Civilization in old Quebec City.

“Well at least it’s dry in the museum,” I reasoned.

“Can’t we just find somewhere to eat?” asked Ryan.

It wasn’t the first time Quebec had witnessed a clash of wills – what military historians might call an impasse. After a three-month siege in 1759, it took General Wolfe and the British about 15 minutes to beat Montcalm and the French in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.

Keep your head up riding through crowds of shoppers in the narrow, cobblestoned lanes of Quartier Petit Champlain. Once a fur-trading portside village, it’s now full of boutiques, bistros and frescoes.

Keep your head up riding through crowds of shoppers in the narrow, cobblestoned lanes of Quartier Petit Champlain. Once a fur-trading portside village, it’s now full of boutiques, bistros and frescoes.

It took the Judds about the same time to finish arguing, lock their bikes and enter the museum. Then something remarkable happened. “Game Story, the exhibition you play,” read the sign in the lobby. Yes, besides first-rate exhibitions about Quebec history and a showcase of Paris between 1889 and 1914, The Museum of Civilization was hosting a video game exhibition, featuring 450 artifacts and 88 video games to play. Everything from World of Warcraft to Pong was available.

We were still in the museum long after the rain had stopped and the sun had returned. It was just the first of several surprising events during our two-night stay in Quebec City. That night we cycled our bikes to the Port of Quebec Agora, an amphitheatre hosting Cirque du Soleil’s Les Chemin Invisibles. Quebec City might just be the only place where Cirque du Soleil is free! Had they been charging, our floor tickets would have cost a fortune because most of the show unfolded just a few yards from where we stood.

The Harbour of Lost Souls is the fifth chapter of Les Chemin Invisibles. The employees of an old customs officer decide to put on a show for his birthday in the hopes of helping him to find purpose in his life. The show is spectacular in its conception with performers suspended from cranes just a few feet above the audience and on moving stages that spring up in the crowd.

Just across from the National Assembly is the Fountaine de Tourny, built for the city’s 400th birthday. It's a popular spot for wedding photos and knackered cyclists.

Just across from the National Assembly is the Fountaine de Tourny, built for the city’s 400th birthday. It’s a popular spot for wedding photos and knackered cyclists.

Cirque du Soleil is a tough act to follow, but the Image Mill is timed to follow it and succeeds if only for its epic setting. A legacy of Quebec City’s 400th birthday in 2008, the Image Mill is a sound and image show projected onto massive grain silos in Quebec’s harbour. We joined the hordes lining the harbour to watch this summer’s show, a tribute to Scottish-born, Canadian filmmaker, Norman McLaren. A pioneer in synchronizing animation with music, McLaren, who died in 1987, would surely have approved of his work being presented on the biggest ‘big screen’ ever conceived.

Back at the Hotel Royal William in Quebec City’s trendy New St. Roch neighbourhood, we locked up our bikes and I ventured out for a nightcap on Boulevard Charest Est. The Mo Resto Bar had one more surprise in store for me; beer pumps at the table! The beer is metered of course (it’s not heaven) at 35 cents an ounce. But for my wife, I might still be there pouring modest amounts of Belle Gueule Blonde or Red ale.

Thanks to the success of Day 1, we sold the kids on a guided bike tour the following day.

At first glance, Quebec City doesn’t appear built for bicycles. Narrow lanes, cobblestones and hills usually look good in postcards, not from a saddle. But first impressions can be deceiving. A few bumps and the occasional grind are a small price to pay for a two-wheeled tour of North America’s only walled city and UNESCO World Heritage site. For visitors with more time, there are several hundred kilometres of bike trails to ride beyond the fortress walls.

Our guide, Marc Lupien of Cyclo Services, has been riding the same Nishiki road bike for 35 years (“I changed the brake cable once or twice – and the seat!”) and has seen the growth of bike culture here.

Chateau Frontenac, said to be the most photographed hotel in the world and surely the inspiration for Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.

Chateau Frontenac, the most photographed hotel in the world and surely the inspiration for Hogwarts.

“It’s not uncommon to see people buying $10,000 bikes in Quebec City,” said Marc. “It’s a relatively short season, but cycling is growing faster than golf here.”

While bike lanes line the edge of the St. Lawrence River and part of the escarpment above, cycling through Vieux Quebec itself takes some improvisation. In summer the streets are busy with pedestrians preoccupied with their centuries-old surroundings. Fortunately, it’s legal to ride the sidewalk and we were soon slaloming on either side of the kerb.

Marc’s tour skirted Laval University, formerly the Seminaire de Quebec and the oldest centre of education in Canada; the Citadelle atop Cap Diamant, adjoining the Plains of Abraham; Quebec’s National Assembly and Chateau Frontenac, said to be the most photographed hotel in the world. (I’d swear it was the inspiration for Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.)

Just across from the National Assembly we stopped at the Fountaine de Tourny, built for the city’s 400th birthday and a popular spot for wedding photos. It was hard not to notice the monolithic Hilton and Delta hotels, whose desperately unimaginative architecture is in dramatic contrast to most buildings in Vieux Quebec.

We lingered in Place Royale, site of Samuel de Champlain’s first permanent settlement in New France. Grey stones mark the footings of where Champlain’s home once stood, right outside Notre Dame des Victories, the oldest stone church in North America, dating back to 1687. There are similar grey stone markers all over Old Quebec, said Marc, signalling other historic sites that would be impossible to excavate now.

Near the Citadelle atop Cap Diamant, adjoining the Plains of Abraham.

Near the Citadelle atop Cap Diamant, adjoining the Plains of Abraham.

We rode the waterfront and part of the old port of Quebec before an adventurous ride through crowds of shoppers in the narrow, cobblestoned lanes of Quartier Petit Champlain. Once a fur-trading portside village, it’s now full of boutiques, bistros and frescoes. A funicular railway connects the area to Dufferin Terrace, a beautifully landscaped boardwalk with the best view of the St. Lawrence River. It seemed like a fitting place to stop for an ice cream and consider the view Champlain enjoyed in 1608.

People had told me that Quebec would remind me of an old European city. Aside from medieval Bruges in Belgium, I don’t know of another place as beautiful as Quebec City. Even Ryan and Emma liked it!

If you go:

In the heart of old Quebec City since 1995, Cyclo Services offers bike rentals and a variety of guided bike tours. Visit http://www.cycloservices.net or call 1 877 692-4050.

The Hotel Royal William is in the heart of New St. Roch, a neighbourhood full of great bars, coffee shops, restaurants and independent stores. It’s a few minutes bike ride from the old city and the train station. Packages start at $99 per person. Visit http://www.hotelroyalwilliam.com/en/

Free shows by Cirque du Soleil and the Image Mill are known collectively as Rendezvous sous les Etoiles and run Tuesday to Saturday, concluding with a Sunday performance Sept. 1.

For more on Quebec’s Museum of Civilization, visit www.mcq.org/en/mcq

For all other travel information about Quebec City, visit www.quebecregion.com/en

Written by nevjudd

October 2, 2013 at 9:09 pm