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Desert delights in Tucson

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Sonoran desert

The pigs attacked shortly after dawn.

The first indication was a dust cloud billowing from the bushes beyond the swimming pool, closely followed by deep, guttural belching.

Javelina pigs are native to the American southwest, extremely shortsighted, and smell like skunk. Perhaps for the last two reasons, they seem to be permanently agitated. Thankfully for us, they were attacking each other in what turned out to be a short-lived domestic dispute.

Short-sighted, smelly and agitated - Javelina pigs.

Short-sighted, smelly and agitated – Javelina pigs.

“If they approach you on a trail, they probably can’t see you,” said our guide, Koi. “Make some noise and they’ll go away.”

Koi works for Southwest Trekking, a professional guide service that offers guests of the J.W. Marriott Starr Pass Hotel free sunrise walks into Tucson Mountain Park. The 6 a.m. start might hurt a little on vacation, but the reward is a fascinating introduction to the unique landscape of the Sonoran Desert.

This is the only place where the saguaro cactus grows wild and many were blooming thanks to nightly thunderstorms during our late-August visit.

“They’re supposed to bloom in May but something’s going on,” said Koi, who showed us another cactus native to the Sonoran Desert, the so-called jumping cholla. The cholla’s stems are easily detached and love nothing more than to reattach to anyone or anything unlucky enough to be close by. The spines are barbed and extremely painful to remove.

Between Tucson and the Mexican border an hour south, the United States’ only population of jaguars roams. I was OK with not seeing one, but we did see several deer, including a buck.

The Marriott Starr Pass: "Too nice," according to Emma Judd.

The Marriott Starr Pass: “Too nice,” according to Emma Judd.

Post-hike, we drank coffee on the Marriott terrace overlooking Tucson, a city I visit for business several times a year. This was the first time I’d been able to bring my family and I had a long list of favourite places to show them: Maybe too long.

The first problem was the Marriott Starr Pass. “It’s too nice,” explained my daughter, Emma, as we floated one more time around the hotel’s lazy river in an inflatable. “Why would I want to leave this?”

“There are wild pigs out there,” my wife, Leah, chimed in. My son, Ryan, conceded that he might be willing to get off his sunbed to play golf at Starr Pass Golf Club: in a few hours.

So it was with some coercion, the Judd family arrived at San Xavier del Bac, a Spanish Catholic mission 16 kilometres south of Tucson. When first glimpsed amid dusty farmland from Highway 19, San Xavier del Bac looks like an oasis. Gleaming white with two towers and a cupola, the church is as old as the United States itself and the quintessential example of Spanish colonial architecture.

San Xavier del Bac, a Spanish Catholic mission 16 kilometres south of Tucson.

San Xavier del Bac, a Spanish Catholic mission 16 kilometres south of Tucson.

Enter through the impressive carved mesquite-wood doors and you’ll find the interior is just as dramatic. Candles flicker beneath an eclectic mix of religious devotion: paintings, carvings, statues and frescoes fill the church, which was built between 1783 and 1797 (replacing an earlier version built in 1700). It has since survived earthquakes, lightning strikes, and leaky walls, and continues to host daily mass.

We lingered in the pews before heading outside to buy sweet Indian fry bread from a vendor in the car park. We walked it off by climbing Grotto Hill, a short walk from the church and the best place to snap panoramic shots.

No one seemed in a rush to get back to the lazy river. We we’re on a roll, so we headed east to the Pima Air and Space Museum. You’d need several days to fully explore the museum’s 80 acres inside and out. And I needed several hours to sort through the 500 photos I took there. Center-stage in the museum’s main hangar is the Lockheed Blackbird, a plane that will evoke childhood memories for anyone who grew up in the 70s playing the card game, Top Trumps. In the aircraft issue of Top Trumps, Blackbird was a virtually unbeatable card. It flew from New York to London in less than two hours, and from Los Angeles to Washington DC in 64 minutes. Nothing could touch it for speed (2,193 mph) and cruising altitude (85,069 feet).

One of the 500 photos I took at the Pima Air and Space Museum.

One of the 500 photos I took at the Pima Air and Space Museum.

Just a few feet from Blackbird is the Bede BD-5 Micro-Jet, which appeared in the 1983 James Bond film, Octopussy. Almost 13 feet long, the BD-5 was apparently sold in kit form but proved to be beyond the abilities of most homebuilders to complete. (Presumably it wasn’t flown much.)

There’s much to keep you indoors at the museum, and not just the air conditioning. Several exhibitions pay tribute to space travel and World War II, but the huge variety of planes outside on the tarmac were worth braving 40-degree heat to see. Besides behemoths like the Boeing B52 collection and oddities like Aero Spacelines’ Super Guppy (which looks like it should be in an aquarium or a cartoon), there are planes displaying from nose to tail the work of acclaimed street artists and mural designers.

I refused to allow the family back to the hotel until we’d visited my favourite place to eat in Tucson, the Guadalajara Grill on Prince Street. Hand-made tortillas, salsa prepared table-side, a roaming mariachi band, and fresh margaritas served in glasses the size of fish bowls – the Guadalajara Grill by itself is worth visiting Tucson for: Especially if you don’t have to go to work the next morning.

Tucson view

Good morning Tucson!

Back at the Marriott the next day, the male half of the family followed in the footsteps of Arnold Palmer and Phil Mickelson at the Starr Pass Golf Club. Golf is a huge lure for Tucson visitors, with the city boasting numerous award-winning courses. Many of them cut their prices on mid-summer afternoons for those willing to bear Arizona’s heat. (Tucson is drier and generally a few degrees cooler than Phoenix, 90 minutes’ drive north.)

Starr Pass is no exception. The club features 27 holes divided into three nines played in three different 18-hole combinations. We played the Roadrunner nine, the club’s shortest circuit, which was just as well, having lost all our original balls by Hole 8. The afternoon thunder clouds seemed to be beckoning us inside and at the first sign of forked lightning, we called it a day.

That evening we ventured downtown to Reilly, which combines pizza and craft beer in a century-old building that used to house a mortuary and funeral home. Any morbid thoughts were soon banished by parm truffle fries, roasted crimini mushroom pizza, and Brussel sprouts in sherry, hot sauce and pecan brittle crumbs. Reilly epitomizes the resurgence of Tucson’s downtown, which features numerous bars and restaurants with inventive menus in historic premises restored to former glory. Perhaps the classiest of them all is the Hotel Congress, built in 1919, and now a thriving music venue, as well as housing a restaurant and bar.

Hotel Congress, built in 1919, and now a thriving music venue, as well as housing a restaurant and bar.

Hotel Congress, built in 1919, and now a thriving music venue, as well as housing a restaurant and bar.

A great way to see downtown and learn some of its history is by bicycle with guide, Jimmy Bultman, who runs Tucson Bike Tours. Dive bars, food trucks, a pinball arcade and downtown’s historic neighbourhoods feature in the sunset tour, which I did in April. I enjoyed it so much I rented a bike and covered much of the same ground by myself the very next day.

Jimmy turns kayak guide elsewhere during Tucson’s summer months, but he’s back now. The city is home to a growing bicycle network, including The Loop – more than 100 miles of trail shared with skaters, joggers and horse riders. In the foothills and mountains beyond the city is an extensive network of mountain bike trails.

And for the ultimate in relaxation, there’s always the lazy river at the Marriott Starr Pass. Just give the pigs a wide berth.

yo ma dawgs

If you go:

  • Marriott Starr Pass offers deals starting at $129 a night. Visit marriott.com/hotels or call +1-520-792-3500.
  • For more on the Pima Air and Space Museum, visit pimaair.org
  • Details of Jimmy Bultman’s bicycle tours are at tucsonbiketours.com
  • Desert hiking and biking tours are available through Southwest Trekking at swtrekking.com
  • visittucson.org is a good resource for anyone planning a visit to the city.
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Written by nevjudd

February 15, 2016 at 10:23 pm

The Missing Link: Connecting the Coast to Squamish

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Yellow sections on this Google Earth map indicate about 10 kilometres of work needed to complete a trail connecting Sechelt with Squamish.

Yellow sections on this Google Earth map indicate about 10 kilometres of work needed to complete a trail connecting Sechelt with Squamish.

The map looks straightforward at first. As the crow flies, little more than 50 kilometres separate Sechelt and Squamish. Then you notice contour lines, crammed together like intense low-pressure systems, numerous splashes of white, indicating icy peaks, and deep blue streaks showing alpine lakes and ocean inlets. In between are green valleys that never seem to quite connect. Old logging roads, new hydroelectric projects, powerlines and pipelines present an extra layer of complexity revealed by Google Earth.

A cursory Internet search turns up more than 100 years of failed attempts to build a road system between the Sunshine Coast and “the mainland”.

So when Geoff Breckner tells me he’s about 10 kilometres away from completing a 75-kilometre trail connector, I’m interested.

If successful, the trail would reveal a side of the Sunshine Coast unfamiliar to most residents, including a series of spectacular waterfalls between Pokosha Pass and Clowhom Valley.

If successful, the trail would reveal a side of the Sunshine Coast unfamiliar to most residents, including a series of spectacular waterfalls between Pokosha Pass and Clowhom Valley. All photos courtesy Geoff Breckner

“With 10 capable guys and permission it could be finished in a week or two,” Breckner tells me by phone from Squamish. “But there are channels to go through, rules to be followed … funding.”

Breckner is recovering from major back surgery. When his doctor advised him to exercise he began hiking into the backcountry near his home in Squamish. The 53-year-old estimates he spent 200 hours during the last two summers working on the Squamish end of the trail.

A self-described “mountainbiking nut,” and “bush rat,” Breckner grew up in Deep Cove when the sport was still a novelty. He opened Pemberton’s first bike store, High Line Cycles, in 1994. A trail connecting Squamish with the Sunshine Coast makes a lot of sense, he says.

“I thought this was a great place for a bike trail. I knew there were logging roads up there and I researched as much as I could, checking out the feasibility of a route to Sechelt.”

Geoff Breckner’s tent at the south side of Pokosha Pass, near Mount Jimmy Jimmy.

Geoff Breckner’s tent at the south side of Pokosha Pass, near Mount Jimmy Jimmy.

Visit Breckner’s Facebook site ‘Squamish to Sechelt Trail’ and you’ll see a Google Earth image of the proposed route. From Upper Squamish and the Ashlu River Road, the route first heads north over existing trail through 4,000-foot Pokosha Pass before heading south, then due west following Clowhom Lake to Salmon Inlet, skirting the Tetrahedron Provincial Park, and on towards Sechelt via the Coast Gravity Bike Park.

About 55 kilometres of double track roads, and 20 kilometres of single track trails make up the route, says Breckner. The 10 kilometres still to be cleared comprise three sections of one kilometer, four kilometres and five kilometres.

“Once complete, it would be a long ride – two days for most people, but I hope to have a hut or shelter so people don’t need a tent and can travel light,” says Breckner. “The main problem would be lack of use, rather than overuse. The more use the better, to keep trail maintained and established.”

Breckner has received numerous offers of help from this side of the divide. Doug Feniak of Tillicum Bay is among those pledging assistance.

A self-described mountainbiking nut, Geoff Breckner rarely goes anywhere without his ride.

A self-described mountainbiking nut, Geoff Breckner rarely goes anywhere without his ride.

Feniak grew up riding with Breckner in Deep Cove. “It was a dream of ours when we were young, to be able to ride from Squamish to the Coast,” says Feniak. “We hiked into the Tetrahedron in August, looking for the best way. It’s super steep into Thornhill Creek but it shouldn’t be too bad after that because it’s old roads covered with Alders.”

Trails are in the Feniak family’s blood. Wife Jessica Huntington and son Linden both build trails, the latter professionally. Daughter, Holly, was 2012 downhill mountainbike Junior World Champion.

Doug says he expects to have a group working on this end of the trail in the fall.

“It would certainly be good for tourism here and I could see the B.C. Bike Race using it,” says Feniak.

Long-time local trailbuilder, Richard Culbert, says a trail to Squamish is “common sense”.

Culbert built the trail to the summit of Mt. Elphinstone, opening it on his 70th birthday. Now at 75, he’s busy clearing a trail up 4,700-foot Polytope Peak, which connects with Rainy River Road and Port Mellon due south. He believes that a trail from Squamish stands a better chance of completion if it veers south to Port Mellon, rather than to Sechelt.

Salmon Inlet from the top of Gray Creek Forest Service Road, looking north across Thornhill towards Clowhom valley. It's about 60km from here to upper Squamish.

Salmon Inlet from the top of Gray Creek Forest Service Road, looking north across Thornhill towards Clowhom valley. It’s about 60km from here to upper Squamish.

“The trail I’m working on is about a kilometer from a logging road, which appears to connect with this route,” says Culbert pointing at a printed version of Breckner’s route. “It also avoids Thornhill Creek [near Salmon Inlet] where the road is covered in alders.”

Warren Hansen concurs. “That gap after Salmon Inlet is some of the most rugged terrain I’ve ever walked in,” says Hansen, forester/area manager for Chartwell Consultants and an avid trailbuilder. “A lot of that area was logged in the 60s and 70s, so we’re talking about logging roads half a century old – many of which have been heavily deactivated and are covered in alder.

“I admire following an idea, but I worry about the sustainability of it,” adds Hansen. “The skeptical side of me thinks that there won’t be enough people using it. It will need to be on a lot of people’s bucket lists to make it sustainable.”

Hansen identifies with Breckner on one level.

“I believe in unfettered access to crown land. You live in the city, you can’t do this and that, but you have spoon-fed amenities. In a rural environment you don’t have those amenities, but you do have unfettered access to crown land. You can hike it, bike it, pick mushrooms in it, build trails. So you use it as you see fit, knowing that one day, it might be logged.”

Perhaps the person most excited about a possible connection is Bjorn Enga. The Granthams Landing-based filmmaker is the founder of Kranked, an online store for electric-assisted mountainbikes. They may upset purists, but bikes capable of climbing mountains in minutes, as opposed to hours, are catching on, says Enga.

“I’ve been riding on the Coast since 2000, and it’s an amazing coastline,” he says. “Suddenly, I’m thinking how much more I can see up there riding an e-bike. Imagine how phenomenal it would be to offer overnight tours with a fully charged battery for the next day.

“The Sea-to-Sky Corridor could become the e-bike capital of the world.”

Enga is helping Breckner with route planning and believes that trail completion is a matter of when, not if.

“Geoff goes way back to the start of mountainbike culture, before the glamour of the parks,” says Enga. “He’s done the hard part and one way or another, the trail will happen.”

In the meantime, some adventurers will continue to blaze their own trails. It seems as though everyone on the Sunshine Coast knows “a guy” who knows a route to Squamish. But their identity can be as elusive as the route.

More falls in the backcountry between Squamish and the Sunshine Coast.

More falls in the backcountry between Squamish and the Sunshine Coast.

Not so, Todd Lawson and friends, whose epic three-day trek from Lake Lovely Water, Squamish, to Sechelt via Clowhom Lake and Salmon Inlet, was featured in a 2014 issue of Mountain Life magazine. The trio packed inflatable stand-up paddleboards for the trip, which featured untold hours of bushwhacking through endless alder roots and Devil’s Club – an experience Lawson described in the story as “torture”. (He also wrote of the route, “It looked good on a laptop.”)

A different hazard awaited Denis Rogers of Sechelt, and fellow Coasters Mark Guignard and Al Jenkins, who hiked to Squamish in 2004 after being dropped by boat at the head of Narrows Inlet.

“It took us five days,” says Rogers, whose group followed a route from the head of Tzoonie Valley to a 4,800-foot pass, and then down to Falk Creek and a logging road leading to the Ashlu River and Squamish beyond.

“The third day was an interesting one,” recalls Rogers. “I fell in a lake and broke my watch, and Mark, the only one of us who didn’t bring bear spray, had an encounter with a black bear. Mark was about 20 yards ahead of us, picking his way through the boulders, when we shouted to him that a bear was taking an interest in him.

“The bear started down towards him, but then turned back. We suggested that perhaps the bear had been deterred by an offensive smell.”

Some hazards you won’t find on any map.

L.A. on two wheels

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Developer Abbot Kinney built the canals of Little Venice in 1905. A few survive today and restoration work in the 90s made Little Venice one of L.A.'s most desireable neighbourhoods.

Developer Abbot Kinney built the canals of Little Venice in 1905. A few of the canals survive today and restoration work in the 90s made Little Venice one of L.A.’s most desirable neighbourhoods.

At the corner of Cynthia Street and North Doheny Drive in Los Angeles stands a bland-looking triplex. With so much architectural extravagance across the road in Beverly Hills, the gated compound at 882 North Doheny is on the West Hollywood side of the street and barely warrants a second look.

Until Erick Martinez tells us to take a second look.

We dismount our bikes and catch our breath. We’ve been following our guide, Erick, mostly uphill from Bikes and Hikes L.A.’s store on Santa Monica Boulevard.

“In 1952, this used to be a five-unit apartment complex with a very famous resident in apartment 3,” says Erick. “Any guesses?”

The Judd family is still catching its collective breath.

“James Dean?” I offer between gasps. “Bette Davis?” guesses my wife, Leah.

“None other than Marilyn Monroe lived here,” says Erick. Turns out she wasn’t the only famous resident because Frank Sinatra lived next door.

Today, the building is on the market for $4.2 million, a modest amount compared to the Carolwood Estate up the road in Holmby Hills. Once owned by Walt Disney, it’s now selling for $92 million.

Bel Air residents don't get angry at intruders, their sculptures do.

Bel Air residents don’t get angry at intruders, their sculptures do.

On a 32-mile (51 kilometres) bicycle tour of Los Angeles, you quickly realize that everything is relative. And everything has a price.

Unsurprisingly for a city synonymous with smog and freeways, L.A. is not known for cycling. One magazine has described it as “a pathologically unfriendly bike city”. My friend Lars, a long-time L.A. resident now living in Canada, offered to rent us a car when he heard of our bike plans. He also wondered whether we were crazy.

But then getting somewhere wasn’t the point. We were on vacation and with just four full days in the city, we were more interested in the journey rather than the destination. Which in L.A. is just as well: several times during our seven-hour ride, we passed gridlocked motorists.

We crossed Sunset Boulevard, stopping briefly to look east at the Whisky a Go Go nightclub, where The Doors, Motley Crüe, and Guns ‘n Roses got their start. A block farther east is the Viper Room, where actor River Phoenix died of drug-induced heart failure in 1993. We cycled west, passing the 31-storey Sierra Towers, where Lindsay Lohan lived for a while after being kicked out of the venerable Chateau Marmont for partying too hard. At least she got out. The Chateau Marmont, built on Sunset Boulevard in 1929, is where actor John Belushi partied even harder and died of a drug overdose in 1982.

You don’t have to scratch L.A.’s surface too hard to find its seedy underbelly, which delivers titillating fodder for Erick’s tour. Even the handsome-looking Greystone Mansion – 55 rooms behind a mock Tudor façade, amid 16 acres of exquisitely manicured gardens – has a scandalous past.

Greystone Mansion - 55 rooms and a murky past.

Greystone Mansion – 55 rooms and a murky past.

Oil tycoon Edward Doheny paid $3 million to have Greystone built for his son Ned in 1928, making it California’s most expensive home at the time. In 1929, four months after he and his family moved in, Ned died in a murder-suicide with his secretary, Hugh Plunket. There are plenty of theories for the tragedy and Erick knows all of them. More memorable for me though was a different tale about a large spotlight mounted on Greystone’s roof. So concerned with security was Ned’s widow Lucy, she had the spotlight mounted as a means to alert Beverly Hills police down the hill in case of intruders. According to Erick, the spotlight later inspired the Bat-Signal used by the Gotham City Police Department.

Today, Greystone is owned by the City of Beverly Hills and is maintained as a park. It’s a glorious place to dismount a bike and wander the grounds, and it’s no surprise to learn that the location appears in dozens of movies, including The Big Lebowski, The Bodyguard, X-Men, and The Social Network.

Erick led us west, stopping briefly to look at homes once owned by Tom Cruise, David Beckham and Lucille Ball, who used to personally answer trick or treaters at the door every Halloween. We cycled past the Bel Air Golf Club, where membership hinges on a tidy $2.1-million fee and approval by the board, and then past UCLA, built in 1919.

Beverly Hills, Bel Air, Brentwood and Westwood all have their share of climbs, but they are quiet, bike-friendly neighbourhoods. And even back on Santa Monica Boulevard, where we headed west to the coast, a dedicated bike lane made for smooth passage.

More hair-raising was cycling the beach path from Santa Monica Pier to Venice Beach (think Stanley Park seawall in summer and directionally challenged pedestrians) where we stopped for a picnic and watched boarders defy gravity in the skateboard park. Inland a few blocks, we lingered at Venice Canals, my favourite part of the tour.

Big hair at the skate park in Venice Beach.

Big hair at the skate park in Venice Beach.

To me, the audacity of attempting to recreating Venice, Italy, almost 10,000 kilometres away in Los Angeles, California, epitomizes the American dream at its eccentric best. Developer Abbot Kinney built the canals in 1905, complete with decorative lights, gondoliers and arched bridges. Promoted at the time as “America’s most unique attraction,” Kinney’s vision of a cultural mecca failed to materialize. Amusement parks and freak shows proved more popular with the locals and the advent of the automobile led to most of the canals being filled in to create roads. The canals are a fraction of their former size, but restoration work in the 1990s has since made the neighbourhood one of L.A.’s most desirable.

We circled Marina del Rey and its seemingly endless flotillas of yachts and speedboats to Ballona Creek. Now entering the seventh hour of our tour and with the December sun setting behind us, we picked up the pace on the Ballona Creek Bike Path. Like the canals of Venice, much of the Ballona Creek corridor succumbed to concrete in the 1930s, with dire results for the area’s wetlands. What’s left of the estuary has been contested by developers and environmentalists for decades. Oblivious to the numerous ongoing court battles over the area, and in spite of being surrounded by dense development, Ballona Creek still supports a wide array of wildlife, including monarch butterflies, and great horned owls.

Twilight on the Ballona Creek Bike Path.

Twilight on the Ballona Creek Bike Path.

On our final leg of the tour, the indefatigable Erick continued to supply us with an impressive array of anecdotes. In Culver City we stopped at the Culver Hotel, whose six storeys made it a “skyscraper” in 1924 when it opened. Legend has it that Charlie Chaplin lost ownership of the place to John Wayne in a game of poker, while in 1939, the hotel was the scene of wild parties thrown by The Wizard of Oz cast, most notably, the Munchkins.

It was dark by the time we returned our bikes to the Bikes and Hikes outlet on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. After nearly seven hours on and off a saddle, I felt tired but elated to have seen and learned so much. I spent weeks in this city during visits as a backpacker in the 1980s. Yet in one day on a bike, I’d discovered more of L.A. than all those trips combined.

  • The L.A. in a day bike tour costs $162 per person, covers 32 miles (51 kilometres), and takes about six hours. Visit bikesandhikesla.com for more details.

palms

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.

IMG_0989

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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20140721_120957

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.

Sip and cycle in Osoyoos

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bikers (2)

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