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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.

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.

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

 

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

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

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

Nothing good can come from Beer Jenga.

Nothing good can come from Beer Jenga.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you go:

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

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

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

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

 

London on two wheels

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

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

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

Again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you go:

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

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

It takes a village to raise a beer festival

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay thirsty my friends.

Summer in Whistler begins at the lake

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

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

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

It didn’t work out that way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I still think we probably could have won it!

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

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

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

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

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

Buckle up and ride the Elaho! Eric Beckstead photo

Buckle up and ride the Elaho! Eric Beckstead photo

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

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

Ziplining at Cougar Mountain, just north of Whistler.

Ziplining at Cougar Mountain, just north of Whistler.

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

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

inukshuk-Neville Judd

Sip and cycle in Osoyoos

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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.

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“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

Breaking bad never felt so good

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IMG_8106

It’s not easy admitting your bad habits, but Sean Parrinder wants to know.

Sean is my personal trainer and confidante for the day at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler. He bears a passing resemblance to Justin Timberlake and I like that he doesn’t appear to be judging me.

“My body’s a temple,” I want to say. “A temple subjected to repeated bouts of vandalism at the hands of microbrewers and artisan bakeries.”

Instead I tell Sean: “Every year it’s the same. January rolls around and I follow my wife to the gym with extra pounds and good intentions. Trouble is I just meander from machine to machine, avoiding eye contact and wondering what the levers and pulleys do.”

Sean nods. “And then what do you do?”

“I walk the treadmill until it’s time to go.”

5.0.2

Sean applies his kinesiology degree and love of sport to helping kids and adults achieve fitness goals. At this time of year, his services are in demand as part of the Fairmont’s Breaking Bad Habits Whistler Getaway, a new year’s kickstart for that age-old resolution of getting fit.

Among other treats, the package includes an ‘energizer breakfast’ of strawberry and banana smoothie with dates, bee pollen, honey and orange juice, along with a toasted bagel with cream cheese. And there’s a Detox Body Wrap at the Vida Spa. But now is the hard part.

We’re in the discovery process of Sean asking me about my fitness goals and the habits I aim to break. I tell him that I need process, not procrastination; method, not mediocrity. Sean understands. He tells me to leave cardio till last and begin with tougher compound exercises, designed to work out multiple major muscle groups. We’ll focus on a lower range of repetitions – from five to eight – but increase the weight each time. Finally, we’ll monitor our rest periods and focus on breathing.

I warm up on the rowing machine and try to ignore Matt Damon staring at me from the cover of Men’s Fitness. We move on to the seated leg press – a machine I actually know how to use. You just sit down with your knees to your chest and straighten your legs by pushing away a weighted plate. The most I’ve ever pressed is 140 pounds, yet Sean starts me on eight reps of 180, eventually rising to eight at 200.

5.0.2

During the course of an hour, through lunges, squats, back extensions, and bar curls, Sean pushes me harder than I ever would have ever pushed myself. True, there are times when I want to punch him, but we high-five as I complete my final exercise; three sets of dips – gripping parallel bars, lowering my body so my arms are at 90 degrees before pushing my body up again. I learn which of my muscles are benefitted by each machine and feel better prepared for my next visit to the gym. But my excitement at completing the circuit is tinged with embarrassment. I realize I’ve been a bit of a wuss until now.

Ninety minutes later I’m acutely aware of the muscles I’ve worked. They’re aching, but I couldn’t be in a better place. Vida Spa claims to restore energy and promote well-being via a range of therapies, facials, wraps and exfoliations. The Breaking Bad Habits package includes an hour of the latter. As I’m rubbed down with course sea salt I can’t help thinking of an old soccer coach who used to recommend a meat pie and a pint as the best post-exercise routine.

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After a quick shower I’m back on the massage table for a full-body application of shea butter and a scalp massage. My body has almost forgotten this morning’s workout. I feel like a basted turkey. Blissed out, I’m reluctant to leave the table but I’m instructed to take another quick shower. I return for a classic massage. Face down and somewhere near nirvana, I realize my body almost does feel like a temple!

I cap my afternoon’s decadence in the Fairmont’s Health Club, alternating between the sauna, steam room, hot tub and pools. I ponder how jealous my wife will be when I tell her about the shea butter, the scalp massage …

Sean spots me and recommends that I take a cold shower after each session in the sauna and steam room. “Always finish cool,” he says.

I decide to tell my wife about the cold showers.

  • The Fairmont’s Breaking Bad Habits Whistler Getaway costs $569 per person and is available all year. It includes two nights’ accommodation, a Morning Energizer breakfast, a two-course Lifestyle Cuisine dinner, a 60-minute Detox Body Wrap at Vida Spa, Fairmont fit gear, and the choice of one of the following Fairmont Chateau Whistler Health Club activities: Aquafit, yoga, personal training session, resistance stretching or a one-hour personal running session per adult. Visit www.fairmont.com/whistler/ and click on ‘special packages’ or call 1 800 606 82441 800 606 8244.

Written by nevjudd

March 31, 2014 at 8:45 pm

Men of Steele

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Next time we'll bring snowboards and deckchairs.

Next time we’ll bring snowboards and deckchairs.

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

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

Lower Mainlanders enjoying lunch at Edwards Cabin.

Lower Mainlanders enjoying lunch at Edwards Cabin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beer, curry, mates - just another Saturday night.

Beer, curry, mates – just another Saturday night.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I relish every step of our tracks with a smile.

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