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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

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YIR1

It was already late December

When I found the time to write

I was going to do it in November

But ‘going to’ became ‘might’

Too busy staging cat selfies to write ... until now!

Too busy staging cat selfies to write … until now!

Now the pressure’s on

Another deadline, I fear

The hours have all but gone

And 2016 is drawing near

cy and ryan

The graduates

2015 was fast

It didn’t walk, it ran

But one memory that will last

Our boy became a man

boys

A fart joke never gets old.

Ryan finished school

With a vision to refine

And ever since the Fall

He’s been studying design

Ferring's travelling A-Team.

Ferring’s travelling A-Team.

He got to share 18

With guests from far away

Ferring’s travelling A-Team

Nan and Grandad came to stay

Birthday boys. 102 candles between them! You do the math.

Birthday boys. 102 candles between them! You do the math.

He still can’t get a beer

19’s the age to be

But that’s another year

So he bought a fake ID!

Our summer was so hot, we went to ... Las Vegas.

Our summer was so hot, we went to … Las Vegas.

We sweltered in summer heat

And here the forests burned

The grass died beneath our feet

But the rains have since returned

Taking no chances with Emma's first driving lesson.

Taking no chances with Emma’s first driving lesson.

Emma learned to drive

Now she wants a car

But her savings took a dive

When she travelled to afar

Walkies with Nanny.

Walkies with Nanny.

Two weeks in the UK

Emma got spoiled rotten

So much packed into each day

Will not soon be forgotten

Just push a little harder!

Just push a little harder!

London shopping, up the Shard

The Thames and fun upon the river

The set of Harry Potter starred

Butter Beer and no damage to her liver

Up on the roof of the Downtown Grand in a cabana by the infinity pool. Like bosses.

Up on the roof of the Downtown Grand in a cabana by the infinity pool. Like bosses.

We visited the U.S.

Despite our dollar in a slump

We like it in the U.S.

Despite that tosser Trump

Can't even go to my bedroom without Donald Trump showing up ... tosser.

Can’t even go to my bedroom without Donald Trump showing up … tosser.

There’s other stuff we did

But I’m running out of time

It’s best goodbyes are bid

And I post this up online

So be well this joyful season

It’s time for me to go

If for joy you need a reason

Here’s a picture of J. Trudeau.

You're welcome ladies.

You’re welcome ladies.

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.

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.

Written by nevjudd

August 17, 2015 at 11:43 am

Whistler mild and wild

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The Polaris 570 cc RZR has never met an obstacle it didn't like.

The Polaris 570 cc RZR has never met an obstacle it didn’t like.

Close to the highest point of Fairmont Chateau Whistler Golf Course, the Blackcomb River dissects the manicured greenery and drops the air temperature about 15 degrees. The water’s arrived directly from the Horstman Glacier atop Blackcomb peak, which explains the cold and why this is a popular spot during record-breaking heat.

“It’s like instant air conditioning,” says a friend. It also makes the mosquitoes disappear, I think to myself. At the clubhouse, we’d just finished an indulgent meal, which somehow featured bacon in every course, including the caesar aperitif and the Nanaimo bar dessert. The temperature is still in the 20s and haze from the Pemberton forest fire lingers.

If you like your adventure on the mild side, the Golf Clubhouse Dinner and Nature Tour is right up your fairway. Enjoy dinner as the sun sets behind Rainbow Mountain, then board a golf cart for a nature tour of the course. The carts are equipped with GPS, which seems like overkill to me, (how hard can it be to navigate 18 numbered holes?) but given the 400-foot climb in places, I’m happy not to be walking.

The Fairmont's Golf Clubhouse Dinner and Nature Tour covers several food groups, but mostly bacon.

The Fairmont’s Golf Clubhouse Dinner and Nature Tour covers several food groups, especially bacon.

Even for non-golfers like me, there’s much to enjoy about the tour, which traverses creeks and milky-green glacier-fed ponds, ancient Douglas Fir, and granite bluffs. Sadly, the bears aren’t out tonight, but a protective mother grouse is strutting around the 13th hole with her three chicks in tow. The course has erected bat houses close to the 18th green, with more in mind than just encouraging wildlife. A single brown bat eats up to 1,000 mosquitoes in an hour!

If you like your adventure in something more agile than a golf cart, a RZR (that’s “Razor” when you say it out loud) Tour will safely push you a little further beyond your comfort zone. RZRs are four-wheeled, off-road vehicles capable of negotiating the gnarliest of boulder-strewn logging roads and creek beds. The morning after our night at the golf course, we rise early at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler for a RZR Alpine Sunrise Tour by The Adventure Group (TAG). Alongside its ever popular Superfly Ziplines at Cougar Mountain, about 10 minutes’ drive from Whistler, TAG’s RZR tours are an exhilarating way to quickly find yourself in the rarefied air, high up in Whistler’s backcountry.

With a guide driver at the front and ‘spotter’ at the back, we each board a Polaris 570 cc RZR and make final adjustments to dust masks, goggles and helmets. With no rain for weeks, and exposed to the elements but for a roll cage, we’re about to get extremely dusty. And as I turn the ignition key sparking the engine to life, I can’t help thinking a GPS would be better suited to a RZR than a golf cart.

Superfly ziplines 4

For the ultimate in thrill rides, Superfly Ziplines are hard to beat.

It’s a bumpy ride – extremely bumpy in places – but with one foot firmly applied to the gas, the RZR is capable of clearing anything in its path. The bucket seats absorb most of the jolts and on the steep bits, the brakes respond better to a few taps than to sustained pressure.

Our tour takes us through Ancient Cedars and Showh Lakes, hiking areas known for giant trees and good fishing. Lupins and fireweed are everywhere at about 3,500 feet, where we park to admire hazy views of Mount Currie and the Soo River below. It’s a world away from the bustle of Whistler village, and I begin to think of how much fun it would be to ride a snowmobile up here. Back on this tour, there’s more fun to be had at an obstacle course created in a clearing that features a teeter totter, berms, and steep embankment trails for those who hold their nerve.

During the 15-kilometer, two-and-a-half tour, we rarely exceed 25 km/h, such is the heavy going on Cougar Mountain’s rocky roads. But bouncing around on trails all but impassable to any other vehicle is half the fun. For anyone with $11,000 to spend and a quiet air strip, RZRs can accelerate from 0 to 35 mph in four seconds, and clock over 80 mph!

For similar speeds at less money, you might want to check out the Superfly Ziplines.

If you go

Fairmont Chateau Whistler offers numerous summer packages, including golf vacations and the B.C. resident accommodation offer, which saves 15% off best rates. Visit fairmont.com/whistler

The Adventure Group’s Alpine Sunrise Tour at Cougar Mountain costs $219 (2-seater) or $319 (4-seater). TAG also offers a two-hour Wilderness Ride and a three-hour B.C. Tour. For details, call 1 855 824-9955 or visit tagwhistler.com/

Fairmont’s Golf Clubhouse Dinner and Nature Tour includes a three-course dinner and costs $69 per adult ($35 per child) and is available Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. Call 604 938-8000.

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.