Nev Judd: Online and out there

Posts Tagged ‘tourism

Vegas on two feet

with 2 comments

It's hard to miss the 550-foot High Roller in Las Vegas, especially if you're staying at The LINQ Hotel and Casino.

It’s hard to miss the 550-foot High Roller in Las Vegas, especially if you’re staying at The LINQ Hotel.

When I was 19 and backpacking the U.S., Las Vegas was not on the itinerary. It was 1986 and I was still two years’ shy of Nevada’s legal gambling and drinking age. I ended up on The Strip though, staying at the Imperial Palace because at $20 a night, it was cheaper than camping on the beach in San Diego. I ate like a king for under $10 a day, and I walked The Strip from end to end. Midweek during the heat of August, there were few cheaper places to stay.

Almost 30 years later, The Strip is unrecognizable. No one walks The Strip from end to end. Fifteen of the world’s 25 largest hotels by room count are here, linked – barely – by a narrow ribbon of sidewalk that morphs into escalators and overpasses that seem to be designed to deter pedestrians at all costs. If you’re walking, you’re not spending.

Two parts of Las Vegas though, buck this trend: one on The Strip, and the other in downtown Las Vegas, sometimes known as old Las Vegas.

550-feet tall and 520 feet in diameter, the High Roller is the world's biggest observation wheel. What else would you expect in Las Vegas!

550-feet tall and 520 feet in diameter, the High Roller is the world’s biggest observation wheel. What else would you expect in Las Vegas!

On The Strip, The LINQ Promenade is a pedestrian-only marketplace, fronted by stores, bars, restaurants and casinos. Yes, even on the hottest midweek night in August, it’s busy, but unlike The Strip proper, The LINQ offers visitors the chance to stroll without worrying about falling off the curb into traffic, or being accosted by hawkers and celebrity impersonators.

Better yet, the area once home to the Imperial Palace is now anchored by two memorable attractions, plus a hotel that places you in the middle of it all. First, the High Roller – what people my age would call a Ferris wheel – is the world’s biggest observation wheel at 550-feet tall and 520 feet in diameter. Unlike a Ferris wheel, you’re not left dangling in a chair with a bar across your shoulders. The High Roller’s passenger cabins or capsules will be familiar to anyone who has experienced the London Eye in the UK.

To ride a full rotation takes about 30 minutes and, day or night, the view is unsurpassed in Las Vegas. We boarded after dark and were treated to an ever-changing perspective of the city, from the dazzling neon of Caesar’s Palace and The Bellagio to a sight much grander as we ascended to the High Roller’s apex – the outline of distant peaks in the west beyond Red Rock Canyon with Vegas itself looking all the smaller for it.

Walking through the cooling mists on the LINQ promenade.

Walking through the cooling mists on the LINQ promenade.

There’s room for 40 people in a cabin, but avoid sunset hours like we did, and you’ll probably be sharing with half a dozen others. Alternatively, private cabins are available, complete with bar service, for that special occasion!

A few doors down from the entrance to the High Roller is the Brooklyn Bowl, which mixes 10-pin bowling, live music, and comfort-food dining. Travelling with teens meant we had to exit by 8 p.m. when the venue becomes adult only, but until then we relaxed on the leather chesterfields, bowled for an hour and listened to musicians warming up. I drank a Rogue Dead Guy Ale but swore I’d return some day for a Bourbon Street Shake with Nutella and a shot of Bourbon.

The Roots and Elvis Costello opened the Vegas edition of Brooklyn Bowl (other versions are in London and Brooklyn – surprise!) last year. Its 2,400-capacity showroom makes it one of Las Vegas’s more intimate concert settings.

The LINQ Hotel and Casino anchors the pedestrian-only complex, which is about half way down The Strip opposite Caesar’s Palace. Not only is the location great, but the hotel offers welcome convenience, including the option of an automated check-in process that reduces lineups to a fraction of what’s normal in some Vegas hotels. Like many hotels here, there’s a decidedly adult vibe about The LINQ, including its swimming pool, which is off-limits to under-21s. Guests with children can use the pools at neighbouring Harrah’s and Flamingo.

The Brooklyn Bowl. Go for the 10-pin, the food, live music and the Bourbon Street Shake with Nutella and a shot of Bourbon.

The Brooklyn Bowl. Go for the 10-pin, the food, live music and the Bourbon Street Shake with Nutella and a shot of Bourbon.

No such restrictions exist at the Downtown Grand, which features a rooftop pool and is on the doorstep of Fremont Street – Las Vegas’s other pedestrian-only area. Known for years as Glitter Gulch, the Fremont Street Experience occupies five city blocks and is covered by an LED display canopy that blasts music and light extravaganzas every night, while zipliners zoom across the ceiling for $40 a turn. Roaming celebrity impersonators, near-naked showgirls, Chippendales, and several live music stages combine to make Fremont Street feel like a high-octane circus. Every cheesy T-shirt you’ve ever seen is on display here, from Kiss Me, I’m Irish, to One Tequila, Two Tequila, Three Tequila, Floor.

We lasted an hour before fleeing around the corner to the Triple George Grill on Third Street. Ranked one of the city’s best steakhouses, Triple George didn’t disappoint. Private booths, sumptuous dark wood, and brass fittings all conjure up a bygone era of triple-Martini lunches and deals sealed over a dinner of 16-oz ribeye done just right. It might as well have been a million miles away from Fremont Street, or the Hogs and Heifers’ biker saloon next door, for that matter.

Three of the Judds spent their last day in Vegas on the roof of The Grand, flaked out in a cabana by the infinity pool. It may have been the combined effects of the Triple George, plus an all-American breakfast at the Grand’s S&O Restaurant that eventually got me off my lounger and walking again.

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.

I strolled across the street to Stewart Avenue and the Mob Museum. Once inside the former Las Vegas Post Office and Courthouse, I realized that I would need a day to fully explore this museum. The mob and its relationship with Las Vegas, the United States, and law enforcement are put into historical context via three floors of photos, movies, and compelling exhibits. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is macabrely brought to life with the actual blood-stained wall on display, alongside an electric chair, a tommy gun, plus a numerous artefacts relating to the mob’s involvement with gambling, drugs and prostitution. The world’s first slot machines look a lot easier to figure out compared to today’s versions.

Craving caffeine with little time before our departure, I found The Beat Coffeehouse and Records three blocks down Fremont Street. Vinyl for sale in one corner, free magazines and newspapers, and great coffee, The Beat is the perfect antidote for anyone craving life after the party. Like the Mob Museum, I wish I’d found it earlier.

I told the lady behind the counter I was worn out.

“It’s only the tourists who insist on partying 24 hours a day,” she said.

For a moment, I felt like a local.

Fremont Street Experience: 5 city blocks of neon chaos.

Fremont Street Experience: 5 city blocks of neon chaos.

 

If you go:

Between now and Dec. 31, The Downtown Grand will accept Canadian money at par when Canadian visitors stay and play the hotel’s slots. The offer is up to Cdn$500 a day, which is worth about US$375 – equal to $125 in free play. Visit downtowngrand.com or call 1855 DT GRAND for details, plus information about The Triple George and the S&O.

Rooms start from US$46 at The Linq Hotel and Casino. Visit caesars.com/linq for information about the hotel, the High Roller ($27-day/$37-night) and the Brooklyn Bowl ($100 per lane for up to 8 people).

For everything else Las Vegas, visit lasvegas.com

Advertisements

The Missing Link: Connecting the Coast to Squamish

leave a comment »

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.

London on two wheels

leave a comment »

 

20140721_120957

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

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

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

Again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you go:

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

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

Sip and cycle in Osoyoos

with 2 comments

 

bikers (2)

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

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

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

Elena had me at hello.

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

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

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

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

Until I try one.

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

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

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

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

He’s got a point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_6473

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you go:

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

 

Las Vegas: The beaten track and the single track

with 6 comments

 

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

Quebec City by bike

with one comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you go:

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

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

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

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

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

Written by nevjudd

October 2, 2013 at 9:09 pm