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Exploring Edmonton

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Keeping cool in Edmonton's hot summer means a trip to the Legislature's fountains for many families.

Keeping cool in Edmonton’s hot summer means a trip to the Legislature’s fountains for some families.

Guest blog by Leah Judd

The guidelines were simple enough: find a destination within a 24 hour train ride that didn’t involve many transfers, somewhere safe, warm and relatively cheap. After eliminating San Francisco (Comfort Inn $350USD/night), and Eugene (three transfers) my friend Signy and I narrowed down the choices to Edmonton.  But did Edmonton have any kind of cool factor, something you could brag about on Facebook? Apparently not, as many friends thought we were being sent to Edmonton as a punishment of some kind.  Even Edmontonians were surprised that Edmonton was our destination, rather than just a layover.

Via Rail offers a spectacular and affordable service through the Rockies into Edmonton. Departing Vancouver early Sunday evening, the view along the Fraser River was so different than the one from a car window. Close to the water, we chugged through suburbs and industrial parks where the tracks lay hidden. Our beds for the night were a couple of upper bunks, with more than enough room to spread out and thick privacy curtains. Our “Sleeper Plus” fare included three meals in the dining car, and each meal was a treat. Booking the last sitting for each meal meant we had extra time to enjoy the food and take in the scenery.  The dome car had seats available most of the day, making it easier to spot the moose and the Big Horn sheep alongside the tracks.  We also had an hour to explore Jasper while other passengers unloaded for their visit to the Rockies. Jasper tourism didn’t seem to take advantage of our layover – short term bike rentals,  a quick taxi tour or a guided walk would have helped make the most of our time in Jasper. Instead we wandered around, admiring the Fifties architecture of the shops and wondering about the history of the town.

Edmonton's High Level Bridge offers a great perspective of the city.

Edmonton’s High Level Bridge offers a great perspective of the city.

After 27 wonderful hours on Via Rail from Vancouver, Edmonton was the perfect summer destination. We stayed in Old Strathcona – south of downtown across the North Saskatchewan River – which certainly amped up the cool factor. Bearded and bespectacled gentlemen serving coffee and selling used books convinced us that we had hit Edmonton’s hipster ‘hood. With an original Army and Navy department store and few chain stores, Whyte Avenue had plenty of shops to browse for locals and tourists escaping the heat.  An hour spent at the Wee Book Inn meant my hand luggage was overweight on the return flight!

Walking across the High Level Bridge gave us a great perspective of the city. The Legislature Building sits beautifully surrounded by 56 acres of manicured trees, lawns and gardens. A free tour of the “Ledge” provided great anecdotes from Alberta’s history, but the origins of the palm trees growing in the main dome of the building remain a mystery! Most impressive was the mirror pool in front of the Legislative Building.  Coming from drought ridden BC it was surprising to see kids swimming in the fountains in front of the Government buildings. Not just one or two families letting their kids cool their feet in the pool, but rather whole groups of summer campers enjoying a dip and spraying water guns to boost the fun factor. Everywhere we went in Edmonton locals were swimming in fountains and making the most of summer in the city.

Serenity now at the Mirror Pond outside the Alberta 'Ledge'.

Serenity now at the Mirror Pond outside the Alberta ‘Ledge’.

Teaching Canadian history was my excuse for dragging Signy to Fort Edmonton. Once located in view of the Legislature Building and downtown Edmonton, many of the buildings were reconstructed further down the South bank of the North Saskatchewan River. Fort Edmonton now houses a replica HBC fur trading fort circa 1846, as well as three community streets from Edmonton’s past: 1885 Street, 1905 Street, and 1920 Street. Costumed performers and staff are found in many of the buildings and happily answer questions and share stories from Edmonton’s history. If taking Via Rail from BC wasn’t enough to quench our thirst for rail travel, a steam train transports visitors around Fort Edmonton. It could’ve felt a little hokey, but the Fort did a great job in providing visual insights of how Europeans settled into Canada’s wilderness.

Inside Fort Edmonton.

Inside Fort Edmonton.

Despite being known as “Festival City” Signy and I managed to hit Edmonton in the one week of summer without a festival. But we found some local musical talent in El Cortez Mexican Kitchen and Tequila Bar, and a John A. Macdonald doppelganger in the Confederation Lounge of the Fairmont Macdonald. Chasing instagram suggestions led us to The Common, a lounge with an attitude. Featuring DJs, locally sourced food and a dance floor, The Common felt like we found Edmonton’s edge, where suits mix with denim.

Travelling with Via Rail allowed us four nights in Edmonton, before The Canadian made its way back from Toronto to Vancouver. Checking in with Via Rail the night before our return trip we found our departure was to be delayed between 12 – 16 hours, a day more than our budget allowed. So after an hour and thirteen minutes in the air and over 1,100km of train track below us, we returned to Vancouver, already missing Edmonton’s joie de vivre.

 

If you go

For all matters tourism, visit Explore Edmonton.

For the latest train details and deals, visit Via Rail.

For a trip back in time, visit Fort Edmonton.

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Written by nevjudd

August 17, 2015 at 11:43 am

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

Delicious cycle

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Emara Angus talks us through our tea and chocolate options at Silk Road, part of The Pedaler's Beans and Bites bike tour.

With caffeine already coursing through our veins, Emara Angus talks us through our tea and chocolate options at Silk Road, part of The Pedaler’s Beans and Bites bike tour in Victoria.

It started as a compromise. With a few hours to see Victoria, the idea of a bike tour came up. According to Stats Canada, Victoria is the cycling capital of Canada. Any beer drinker knows it’s also the craft-brewing capital of Canada. The Pedaler, a new bicycle tour-company in town, offers Hoppy Hour, a three-hour guided tour of Victoria’s best breweries and brew pubs with some tasting thrown in.

“What about the kids?” my wife asks.

Ryan and Emma are teenagers, I point out. This doesn’t seem to answer my wife’s question.

“When my parents stopped at a pub, I got a packet of crisps, my brothers and the car radio for company,” I explain. “Sometimes there was a pub garden to play in.”

Apparently times have changed.

Cafe machiatto at Tre Fantastico, part of Victoria's burgeoning coffee scene.

Cafe machiatto at Tre Fantastico, part of Victoria’s burgeoning coffee scene.

So we end up on The Pedaler’s Beans and Bites tour, a leisurely three-hour ride punctuated by frequent stops for great coffee, indulgent baked goods and a tea-and-chocolate tasting. As compromises go, this one turned out to be great.

We’re staying at The Parkside on Humboldt Street and walk just a few blocks to The Pedaler on Douglas. Within a few minutes of being fitted for bikes and helmets, and meeting our co-riders, we cycle right back to The Parkside. Tre Fantastico is on the ground floor of the hotel and it’s our first stop.

Coffee is very much integral to the ‘Tre’ part of the name – the other drinks being ale and wine. With floor-to-ceiling windows and salvaged wood tabletops, the décor is simple, rustic, but elegant – much like the menu, which features fresh pastas, a charcuterie board and a Red Devil ale sausage for which I’d really like to return.

I’m served a caffe macchiato and I photograph the pretty leaf design in the foam. Sitting across from me is Jazelin Maskos, a coffee aficionado and Pedaler-guide-in-training who will soon be leading the very tour we’re on. I tell her that coffee never seems to be quite hot enough for me. Pretty soon she’s taking me into uncharted coffee territory.

“Ordering an extra hot latte, along with the milk and the sugar, changes the chemical breakdown of the coffee,” she says. That can border on sacrilege if the beans happen to be Ethiopian Tchembe, which apparently has a red wine and blueberry pie aroma, or Guatemalan with its hints of chocolate and raisin.

Cycling through Victoria's Beacon Hill Park on the Beans and Bites Tour.

Cycling through Victoria’s Beacon Hill Park on the Beans and Bites Tour.

A trained barista, Jazelin is part of Victoria’s burgeoning coffee scene. That scene includes ‘barista throwdowns’ in which contestants must prepare espresso, latte/cappuccino art and original drinks in timed performances and be judged on everything from their knowledge and creativity to the taste of their drink.

“Victoria is the best coffee city in Canada,” says Jazelin, without hesitation. For a place with such great beer, that’s fitting, I think to myself. I wolf down some of Tre Fantastico’s excellent banana bread and soon we’re back on the road, cycling through Beacon Hill Park. We briefly ride along Dallas Road and enjoy the ocean breeze before heading inland again to Fernwood. Maybe it’s the cool graffiti or the piercings and tattoos per square foot, but Fernwood feels a bit like East Vancouver’s Commercial Drive, and like Commercial Drive, excellent coffee is here.

The Fernwood Coffee Company is a small roastery and café, serving great locally-sourced food and coffees fine-tuned over numerous samplings. With bikes locked and helmets in hand, we troop into the back of the café with resident barista, Rek Feldman. Surrounded by sacks of beans from Rwanda, Ethiopia, Brazil, Colombia, Nicaragua, Honduras and Costa Rica, Rek serves us some of Fernwood’s Cold Brew. It takes eight hours to brew with ice water through a drip in a glass tower that looks like a science experiment. It tastes unlike any iced coffee I’ve had because it’s not really iced coffee – just cold. As Rek explains, most iced coffee is brewed hot first then left to cool and chilled with ice – diluting the coffee’s flavour and altering its chemical makeup.

Fernwood Coffee's Rek Feldman.

Fernwood Coffee’s Rek Feldman.

Fernwood’s Cold Brew tastes sweet even without sugar. For those who like a little bitterness, Rek adds tonic water, which completely alters the flavour and the aroma. It actually smells like lemon or green tea. We finish our visit with an espresso and now, three coffees into the tour, I feel ready to cycle to Nanaimo. Instead we head back downtown to Silk Road, a tea store on Government Street.

Tea expert Emara Angus has our settings arranged at the tasting bar and because there aren’t enough stimulants already coursing through our veins, there’s chocolate paired with each tea. The sight of chocolate almonds, Ecuadorian dark chocolate and Ginger Elizabeth milk chocolate thrills Ryan and Emma, for whom chocolate is an essential ingredient with any hot beverage.

Emara starts us off with Silk Road’s Angel Water tea, a blend of mint, rose, lavender and elderflower. We let it melt the milk chocolate on our tongues and there’s a chorus of “mmmmms”. That’s followed by Japanese sour cherry tea that smells so creamy and is so good with the dark chocolate from Ecuador. We finish with Vanilla Plantation from Sri Lanka, which apparently makes a great chai tea latte and certainly tastes good with chocolate almonds.

Silk Road’s teas are all organic and have won numerous awards. We cycle away with small store bags of tea swinging from our handlebars, but we don’t have far to pedal. Bon Macaron Patisserie on Broad Street is our final stop, which given the level of indulgence on offer here, is probably just as well.

Bon Macaron Patisserie's David Rousseau with some very versatile pastry. Resistance is futile!

Bon Macaron Patisserie’s David Rousseau with some very versatile pastry. Resistance is futile!

David Rousseau is behind the counter and guiding us through an eclectic mix of flavours available in sweet, bite-size macaroons: curried mango chutney, white chocolate-wasabi, bacon-creamcheese and goat cheese-fig catch our eyes. Prior to this I’d only ever eaten my mum’s coconut macaroons, so I’m somewhat in a state of shock. A tiramisu-salted caramel macaroon helps me recover.

“It’s a very versatile piece of pastry,” says David, who makes about 1,000 macaroons a day and clearly enjoys inventing new flavours. (He was busy making a bacon-maple syrup batch for Father’s Day.)

Thankfully it’s a short ride back to The Pedaler and even shorter walk to The Parkside. We agree that Victoria reminds us of one of our other favourite weekend  getaways – Portland, Oregon: cool people doing innovative things with food and drink in stylish settings.

Must get back for that beer tour though!

If you go:

The Beans and Bites tour leaves daily from The Pedaler on 719 Douglas St. at 9 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. It costs $79 per person. Also on offer is the Hoppy Hour guide to Victoria’s brewing scene ($79; leaves daily at 1:30 p.m.) and Castles, Hoods and Legends, a tour of Victoria’s historic neighbourhoods and landmarks. Visit www.thepedaler.ca or call 778-265-RIDE (7433).

Victoria’s Parkside Hotel and Spa is a short walk from the Royal B.C. Museum. It offers a family package from $179 a night, including family admission to the museum, two-hour rental of the hotel’s private movie theatre, plus a snack basket with pop, popcorn and candy. Call 1-866-941-4175 or visit parksidevictoria.com.

B.C. Ferries offers numerous summer package deals to Vancouver Island, including a Victoria Getaway from $109 per person, based on double occupancy. The package comprises one night at the Chateau Victoria Hotel, round-trip ferry from Vancouver for two adults and a car, plus complimentary parking. For more information on this and other deals, visit bcferries.com/vacations or call 1-888-BC FERRY.

For all other matters-Victoria, visit tourismvictoria.com