CategoriesAdventuresTravel

New Zealand Travel Itinerary – My Ideas

New Zealand travel itinerary
Tongariro – a must for your New Zealand travel itinerary.

If you need some ideas for a New Zealand travel itinerary, I have you covered. Here are some suggestions for 14 full days in New Zealand that can help you put your own adventures together.

First off, visiting New Zealand involves a lengthy flight (unless you’re from Australia). That means spending at least two weeks is the only way to go. These ideas include some highlights from my trip and a few ideas of what I would’ve changed in my New Zealand travel itinerary with my newfound knowledge.

New Zealand travel itinerary
Our caving group, with a backdrop of glow worms.

Day One: Arrive from Los Angeles at 6 a.m. local time. Drop bags off at hotel in Parnell near the downtown area. Grab a few flat whites at Ben’s. Ogle crazy foods at local Asian markets. Take a ferry to Rangitoto Island and hike to the top of the volcano. Return to hotel … check in and shower. Then off to dinner and wandering the streets of Auckland. Hindsight is 20/20 … and mine says I should’ve rented a car after the flat whites and driven the easy two hours to Rotorua, thus affording some time in the fun capitol, or extra time in Wellington. I was planning to feel far more jet-lagged, but the symptons never came.

Day 2: Bus from Auckland to Rotorua. Arrive around 2:30 p.m., check into hotel. Visit Kairua Park, walk around Lake Rotorua. Watch for the sulfury lagoon where the lake turns color. Eerie! Indian dinner at Ambiance. General hanging around the town.

New Zealand travel itinerary
Heading up Franz Josef Glacier.

Day 3: Breakfast, drive out to Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland. It’s an amazing but low-key addition to anyone’s New Zealand travel itinerary. After lunch, off to Agroventures. Zorbing is the highlight. Try the Schweeb, too. We followed this with driving around the countryside at dinner at Fat Dog. An extra day here would’ve been nice. Too much fun stuff to do here! I posted about our time there, with more photos.

Day 4: Drive to Tongariro National Park. Stop whenever we feel like it, especially at the Honey Hive. Continue on to Tongariro through Taupo. If you’re a hiker, get provisions in Taupo. Quick two-hour hike on Taranaki Falls Track. Dinner at Skotel. Arrange bus service for tomorrow’s hike.

Day 5: 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., hike Tongariro Alpine Crossing with a side trip up Mt Ngauruhoe. An epic journey requiring a post of its own … or two (coming soon). Drive to Waitomo, stopping in National Park at Eiven’s for a quick dinner. Then on through Te Kuiti into Waitomo. Fall DEAD ASLEEP!

New Zealand travel itinerary
Me overlooking Queenstown, The Remarkables and Lake Wakatipu.

Day 6:  Start with breakfast at Bosco Cafe. Then onto Rap, Raft & Rock for our Waitomo Glowworm Caves tour. Post about that coming soon. Shower, followed by dinner at The Thirsty Weta. A late snack at Curly’s Bar & Grill. Fall dead asleep … again! Read all about it in my glowworm cave post.

Day 7: On the road by 8 a.m. for the drive to Wellington. You can do it in six hours without speeding, but more stops equal more time! We made an extended stop at Paraparamu Beach. Hang out on Cuba Street, have a great Indonesian dinner at Rasa.

Day 8: A quick visit to Te Papa Museum, followed by grabbing a few Wellington Phoenix shirts (Wellington’s soccer team in the A League). Then, we catch a flight to Nelson. It’s only about 20 minutes. Arrive, check into hotel, wander the streets and have a late lunch at Falafel Gourmet.

Day 9: Bus to Abel Tasman National Park (this will get its own entry soon). Walk for a few hours. Late lunch at The Park Cafe. Brews at The Sprig and Fern. Dinner at Little India. This may sound like blasphemy, but in retrospect I’d skip Abel Tasman and head straight to Franz Josef today to make up for an extra day in Rotorua.

Day 10: Bus to Franz Josef Glacier. Stop at the Sandfly Cafe … ate a possum pie! By the way, New Zealand likes weird food. You might want to make room in your New Zealand travel itinerary for the Hokitika Wild Foods Festival. Various other stops – a very nice drive. Best 8-hour bus ride ever. Arrive, check out the town. Hang out a bit.

Day 11: Franz Josef Glacier tour. Unbelievable! That was pretty much the whole day, except for showers and cooking dinner at the backpackers’ lodge. It’s not physically that strenuous, but the experience of being on a glacier is amazing. This should be part of any outdoor-related New Zealand travel itinerary.

Day 12: Bus to Queenstown. Stop in Wanaka – beautiful town on the lake! Continue to Queenstown through the heart of NZ’s grape and fruit basket. Lots of vineyards and vintners. Scenery turns more dry and stark. Clearly more commerce and mining, despite the isolation. Arrive in Q-town … we ate some fresh green-lipped muscles at the Aggys Shack chased by gelato from Patagonia – try the banana split flavor. It’s not what you’d expect! Then, off to the cinema to see Slumdog Millionaire where it’s still in a theater!

Day 13: Parasailing and street luge, followed by a nice run around town. We followed the lake’s edge for a few miles. Then to Aggys Shack, Fish & Chips for smoked eel and some sort of raw fish concoction. Took a cruise on the TSS Earnslaw. Fun, and beautiful views. Great to see a bird’s-eye of the crew working the boilers. Finally, a a nightcap at Dux De Lux following a nice pad thai at one of the local Thai restaurants.

Day 14: Breakfast at Halo. Go to Queenstown Airport. Say good-by to Q-Town. Catch a flight in Auckland. And this brings my New Zealand travel itinerary to and end.

CategoriesAdventures

Franz Josef Glacier – 7 Essential Tips

Franz Josef Glacier
From nz2

Franz Josef Glacier on New Zealand’s South Island is one of only three places in the world where you can walk from rain forest to a glacier in less than an hour. It’s also one of the world’s fastest-moving glaciers – and the day I spent glacier hiking on its icy bulk takes its place among my best travel memories.I booked a trip with Franz Josef Glacier Guides. The company offers a number of options: Half-day hikes, full-day hikes, ice climbing and even a heli-hike. We picked the full-day, which was $150 NZ per person. We arrived in the small South Island town of Franz Josef a bit after 4 p.m. on a Tuesday and checked into the Chateau Franz (Read about Chateau Franz). We got only the briefest glimpse of the Franz Josef Glacier that day.

Of course, we were up bright and early to check in at 8:15 a.m. the next day. The Franz Josef Glacier Guides building is just a few minutes on foot away from Chateau Franz. It’s a well-kept Continue reading

CategoriesAccommodationsTravel

Rating Hotels in New Zealand

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Bookmark No Crocs Allowed

You’re not supposed to feed him, but he’s hard to resist. Woodlyn Park    From nz2

Booking a hotel on the other side of the planet is a lot easier thanks to the Internet. But really, you still don’t know what you’re going to get until you step inside a room. And Lonely Planet guidebooks can only tell you so much. So I’m rating hotels in New Zealand to give you some real ideas.

These are the hotels I stayed at during my two weeks in New Zealand, so you’re getting the straight stuff. Each selection varies – if you must have a huge plasma screen in your room, some of these won’t make you happy. But at all points of the price spectrum, they were great deals, especially with the U.S. dollar stacking up so strong against the New Zealand dollar. In fact, I will say that you will not find hotels anywhere near this nice for an equivalent price in the U.S., not even in the bleakest depths of the off-seasons.

Parnell City Lodge
– I had originally booked a room at the Parnell Inn. Shortly before our trip, I got an e-mail from the Parnell Inn staff saying they’d overbooked. Rather than leaving us on our own, they arranged a similar room at the nearby Parnell City Lodge. Rather nice of them, really.

From nz3

Our flight from Los Angeles arrived at 6 a.m., which put us at the Parnell City Lodge way before check-in time. But the staff provided us a safe place to stash our bags while we wandered the city. The office may look a bit run-down, but the rest of the hotel is in top shape. It was clean, comfortable and really close to the LINK bus line (look for the bright green bus) that runs in a loop throughout the area, including stops at the Britomart transportation hub and close to the Sky City bus terminal, which we’d need the next day to get to Rotorua.

Parnell is also a really nice neighborhood, with lots of great restaurants and a very nice park area nearby. It’s a 20-minute walk to the water. If you balk at that, just grab the LINK bus for a 5-minute ride to Britomart – that puts you near the water, where you can grab a ferry out to Rangitoto or other surrounding islands for a bit of fun. About $90 NZ per night.

Ann’s Volcanic Rotorua Motel and Serviced Apartments – This is a really friendly and well-kept hotel a bit off Rotorua’s main drag. It’s very quiet, and the staff seems to be composed strictly of Ann and her family. Son Luke check us into a very comfortable and well-equipped room that included a small fridge, a kitchen sink and utensils. He also made a few recommendations on where to go and what to do. The rooms are bright and airy, and you’re not constantly hearing your next door neighbor’s TV. It’s a very short walk to a grocery store and some local pubs. Walkers like me are well within range of the downtown area, the lake and the free and very awesome Kairua Park, a thermal area right in the middle of town.

Cat lovers will enjoy meeting Stripes, Luke’s cat. Bonus! The Budget Studio was $99 NZ per night.

The Skotel                                                                                                   From nz1

Skotel – Staying at the Skotel was not in our plans. We were hoping to be able to rent some camping gear in Whakapapa. D’oh! There’s almost nothing in Whakapapa Village – certainly not an outdoor store. So we were ill-equipped to stay at the huts in Tongariro National Park. We scooted to the Skotel Alpine Resort, which only had a few backpacker rooms left. That means – cue ominous music – shared bathrooms!

Doin’ it Ricky and Lucy style – in seperate twin beds!                               From nz3

But no worries here – those shared bathrooms are modern and immaculate. The rooms themselves? Ours was a cozy job with a homey wood interior and a trio of beds, two in bunk configuration. And odd configuration for a married couple, but what can you do? Bottom line? Warm (a big plus in Tongariro National Park, which turns into a ski area in winter), quiet and comfortable. If you didn’t bring a computer, there’s also reasonably priced Internet access. If you thought to do some grocery shopping in Taupo, there’s a well-equipped kitchen. Or you can opt for the excellent Skotel restaurant – try the pan-fried blue nose if it’s available.

The price? Get this … $49 NZ for two people. Seriously, anyplace at that price in the United States is going to come surrounded by crack houses and infested with cockroaches, not wrapped in the scenery of Middle Earth.

Woodlyn Park – I decided to splurge at Woodlyn Park for about $160 NZ a night. What kind of room does that get you? Well, in this case, a 1950s-vintage British Bristol cargo plane that’s been turned into a two-room hotel block; each room has a bathroom, two beds (at least) and a kitchenette. We were assigned to the cockpit.

Looking into the cargo plane’s nose/bedroom from the living room/kitchen.From nz2

It can get chilly in Waitomo at night, so host Billy Black provided a space heater that keeps things warm. You can hear the crickets chirping all night, and an incredible display of stars that comes with being out in the Wop-Wops (one of my favorite Kiwi-isms). The interior and exterior of the airplane give your stay an unforgettable vibe.

Exterior view of the Bristol freighter.                                                          From nz2

Woodlyn Park has also converted a small ship and a railroad car into hotel rooms, and built their own reproduction of Hobbit houses. Come for the glowworm cave tours, stay for the killer rooms! Woodlyn Park is about a half-mile from a crazy place where you can watch the staff shear an Angora rabbit. If you stumble a little further, you’re at the upbeat and lively Curly’s Bar.

Comfort Inn Wellington – The Comfort Inn Elliott’s Paraparaumu puts you square in the heart of Wellington. You’re steps from the quay, the fun Te Papa Museum and, of course, the Cuba District.

All this fun and frivolity come at a price: noise. If you’re there on the weekend, you’re going to hear a lot of merriment and revelry. City dwellers might not notice – those used to some quiet at night might get irritated. Still, the rooms are in good shape, if a bit dark. And you won’t lack for restaurant options – try the Rasa Malaysian & South Indian Restaurant across the street. There’s also a lot of shopping to do here.

The hotel used to be a backpacker hostel, but it’s in great shape. And it’s really kind of old-school grand, especially the huge wooden staircase. $80 to $120 NZ.

Cedar Grove Motor Lodge – In the U.S., motor lodge is code for a run-down old shack that hit its peak in 1963. Not here. Cedar Grove Motor Lodge can definitely make a case as one of the nicest hotels we visited. A well-equipped kitchenette, a flat-screen TV and a standout bathroom along with a very helpful staff. It was also quiet and modern.

If you’re a runner, lace up your shoes and take a run on the path along the nearby river. If I had someplace like that to train, I’d be twice the runner I am. When you’re done, make the short stroll into town and grab some Indian food or a kebab at Falafel Gourmet. Everything is very close to Woodlyn Park, but Nelson is too small to have the hurly-burly of Wellington.

$150 NZ a night.

Chateau Franz – I was a bit worried rolling into Chateau Franz: Sir Cedrics – BBH. It’s just not in the best shape. The walls are thin, and things are a bit worn down. It’s also a backpackers place, which can equal a lot of noise.

But guess what? The shower is an absolute monster, and the rooms are actually warm and clean. The backpackers here weren’t a wild lot – probably too focused on getting up early for the all-day glacier tours rather than dropping X and raving all night.

There’s also a well-equipped kitchen, which is a terrific way to meet other travelers. There’s a very warm vibe here, and that counts for a lot. If I visit in winter, I may choose a more solidly built place to keep the chill out. But in summer, I’ll come back. One other thing – there’s a clothing-optional spa. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink – say no more!

$60 NZ per night, backpacker room with ensuite bathroom.

An open and airy room at the A-line.                                                           From nz2

A-Line Hotel – As I’m rating hotels, the A-Line Hotel in Queenstownand Cedar Lodge will probably slug it out for the absolute nicest rooms of our visit. Again, we got a nicely equipped kitchenette and a top-notch bathroom, along with a phenomenal view of Lake Wakatipu and the amazing Remarkables Mountain Range that will blow you away, no matter how many times you see it.

Some might find walking up and down the hill into town a bit of work – but those people shouldn’t shy away from it. Harden up, as your Kiwi hosts will say! It’s also very close to the chairlift that leads to street luge, bungee jumping and paragliding. Lots of great restaurants -Halo, Agyss Shack, Patagonia and Dux de Lux, to name a few- are an easy walk away.

You may also get an audience with Oscar, the A-Line’s official cat-at-large. Seriously, how can a place lorded over by a big friendly cat be anything but awesome? (I’m always rating hotels with pets higher than the rest.) About $100 NZ per night.

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A Practical Guide to Hiking Mt. Doom & Tongariro Crossing

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From nz1

Mount Ngauruhoe is a rocky and barren place upon which your feet will find little purchase. The land surrounding it is a blasted hellscape devoid of much flora or any fauna. All that’s alive here is the earth, as proven by the number of vents gushing steam and shooting crystalline sulfur pellets from its fiery depths.

But walk a few miles, and the stench of sulfur will abate. A verdant rain forest will reappear.

As nice at is to see signs of life again, it’s the lava-scoured lunar surface that truly makes the Tongariro Alpine Crossing by far the most incredible single-day hike I’ve ever done. According to most guide books, just hiking the crossing should take 6-8 hours, not including a side-trip up Ngauruhoe, which starred in the Lord of the Rings trilogy as Mt. Doom, the hangout of bad guy Sauron. One look at it, and you’ll understand why it filled the role so well. It adds about three hours to a typical hike along the crossing.

I’m ready for a nice little walk.                                                                      From nz3

A QUICK TIME LINE – Just remember, Tongariro’s weather is highly variable. This was on a sunny and perfect day without much wind.
Hour 1: The hike starts off going between lava flows for Mangatepopo Car Park. You’ll pass dripping springs and a turn-off to one of the huts.

Hour 2: You’ll start up The Devil’s Staircase, which is where things start heating up. The reward once you get to the top is choosing whether to climb Ngaurahoe. Just do it! It adds three worthwhile hours. Turn right toward the hulking cone. Veer to the left, following a bunch of big poles in the ground. On the ascent, head toward the large rock outcroppings. You’ll get the best footing. If you veer right, I’ll hope you like calf-deep volcanic cinders and going one step forward and four back.

Hour 3: Still climbing. you’ll come to a false summit. You’ve gotta go all the way to the top.

Looking into the throat of Ngauruhoe                                                            From nz3

Hour 4: You’re up at the top of Mt. Doom! Snap your photos and head down. Pass the big rocks and follow the path past a vent surrounded by pellets of crystalline sulfur. From there, you can kind of “ski” down the slope. Look for a worn brown track. It’s deep enough that, if you fall, you’ll slide just a little way before the cinders drag you to a halt.

Ngauruhoe looms behind Red Crater’s fractured visage.                                                                                                                        From nz1

Hour Five: March across a flat plain between Ngauruhoe that’s emitting steam from unseen holes. It’s startling and unearthly. At the end of the valley, you’ll find a shorter slog up to Red Crater.

Emerald Lakes                                                                                             From nz1

Hour Six: From Red Crater, you’re onto Emerald Lakes, Central Crater and Blue Lake. There’s actually a small colony of gulls at Blue Lake, the first sign of animal life that I saw that day.

Headed up from the first view of Red Crater toward Emerald Lakes.       From nz1

Hour 7: From Blue Lake, you’ll descend past more steam vents to Ketatahi Hut. Stop there and refill your water, if needed.

Steam rises from vents as vegetation grows. From nz1

Hour 8: On to Ketatahi Car Park. You’ll finally get in under some vegetation. This part of the walk seems to take a long time: You’re at least in the shade finally, but you can’t really see the end. Rest assured, it’s coming! Get to the car park, hop your bus and return to Whakapapa.

We started our trip at the north end at about 7:30 a.m., and we finished just before 4 p.m. As a frame of fitness reference, my latest half-marathon time was 1:57. Sarah’s latest marathon time is 3:59. That should give you an idea of what you might be in for.

Okay, onto the practical stuff!

1. Whakapapa Village is the starting point for most people to launch their hikes. We arrived in the late afternoon from Rotorua, which is two hours away. Our original plan had been to rent a bit of gear like sleeping bags and stock up on supplies. But there’s barely anything to Whakapapa Village: a few hotels, a very small store, a visitors center and the ski lift further up. Stop in Taupo, a much larger town, to stock up on supplies – especially food and hiking snacks.

2. Dress in layers. I wore a pair of REI convertible quick-dry pants, a long-sleeve Nike base layer, a Prana t-shirt and an REI jacket, which I took off while climbing up The Devil’s Staircase. On the feet, I had Smartwool socks and a pair of La Sportiva Trango Trek boots. I love those boots like a lifelong friend. I also had a backpack carrying 120 ounces of water and a bunch of Hamish Carter One Square Meal bars, which is all I could find at the little Whakapapa store.

3. Bring a camera or you’ll kick yourself.

4. Try to get an early start to avoid the worst of the crowds. Even if people aren’t hiking the full crossing, a lot of people are out there. It’s still wonderful, regardless of the crowds.

5. Even if you drive yourself to the park, most locals insist cars are susceptible to break-ins at the trailheads. Most suggest booking a spot with one of the local bus companies from Whakapapa. I wasn’t willing to risk it, and considered about $25 NZ per person a good investment.

6. On the way up, wear gloves! I used gardening gloves, but a pair of Mechanix gloves would’ve been better. Put them on the second you decide to climb Ngauruhoe, and your hands will thank you.

Descending Doom                                                                                        From nz3
Celebrating Stage 1 of an epic day at the crater.                                          From nz3
Another view of the lip … notice Ruapehu on the far side – and the tiny size of the other hikers!                                                                         From nz3
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5 Books to Help Survive Long-Haul Flying

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Bookmark No Crocs Allowed

I’m convinced that I’m one of the few people on the planet who enjoys long-haul flying. It’s nice to settle in and make a plane my home for 15 hours, especially if I’m headed someplace cool. While aloft, nobody can text me. I’m immune from telemarketers. That means I have a great sanctuary to enjoy some reading.

If you’re planning a long-haul flight, let me give you five suggestions for books that can make the flight a lot better.

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal (Christopher Moore)
– This is a masterwork of speculative historical fiction. It’s funny. It’s moving. It’s creative. You’ll follow Biff, the Robin to Jesus’ Batman, through the childhood, missing years and eventual death of the Son of God. The first time I read this book, I laughed so hard that people at coffee shops thought I was going into convulsions.

The Underdog (Joshua Davis) – The author of this great non-fiction piece has mommy issues. He’s spent most of his life trying to please his former beauty queen mother. This leads him on a quest to be the best at something … anything! He takes up backward running, bullfighting, extreme sauna and more as he struggles to be more than a bespectacled data entry clerk.

Bad Monkeys (Matt Ruff) – This is a twisting, turning mash-up of cyber-spy thriller with the very real possibility that the protagonist is simply off her rocker. Jane gets arrested and claims she is part of a super-secret group that aims to rid the world of incorrigible evil. But is she actually that evil? A crazy and unpredictable book.

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (Mary Roach) – Roach is one of my favorite authors for non-fiction ponderings of life’s mysteries. Her latest tackles sex, and how researchers have poked and prodded the world’s oldest deed through human history. Any author willing to shag her husband in an MRI tube for a book deserves my props.

Slam (Nick Hornby) – Hornby is one of the few authors who’s both ubiquitous and genuinely deserving of his success. In Slam, he writes about the perils of teenage relationships and pregnancy without sounding preachy. He also presents a neat plot device involving 16-year-old protagonist Sam and a Tony Hawk poster. Hornby is also a master at writing in the perfect voice of his characters.

Count on these five to get you through a transcontinental flight with your sanity intact.

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Destination: Franz Josef Glacier

UPDATE – See what my Franz Josef Glacier hike was like and get some tips.
From blog photos

Well, score one for my wife. She uncovered a very first-rate adventure someplace I didn’t even notice. During my New Zealand planning, I’d completely ignored Franz Josef Glacier. Big mistake! Fortunately, she was there to bail me out with a great discovery.

So, what’s so cool about it? I mean, glaciers aren’t exactly the speed demons of the geological world. Well, how do blue ice, ice caves, crevasses and stunning views sound to you? Yeah, they sound pretty awesome to me.

I booked us a tour with Franz Josef Glacier Guides. The question was … which one? They have a lot of tours available, everywhere from two hours and up.

“If you’re gonna hike a glacier,” Sarah said, “hike a glacier.”

In other words, don’t do it halfway. Get out on the ice, and stay awhile. Get high up there and see the blue ice caves! Right on, then. I’d bet on this to be one of the high points of the trip.

Stand by for a full review upon my return!

From blog photos

Photos courtesy of Motorhomeforhire.

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The world’s coolest hotel … and one of the coldest!

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coolest hotel
Superman’s bedroom? Nope, it\’s the ICEHOTEL!

About a year ago, I talked to a teenager who stayed in the world’s coolest hotel. He made an awesome visit to Sweden to stay at the ICEHOTEL, up in the very far north part of the country.

He was a very clever guy who works part time as an architectural draftsman, so he was really fascinated about the idea of a hotel carved each year from ice and snow.  A documentary about the ICEHOTEL on The Discovery Channel put it on his wish list.

Also, it was also his first time traveling out of the country. So I have to give him a lot of credit for being bold enough to spend the better part of 24 straight hours in the air. And even better … from the airport, it was something like 30 miles by dogsled to get to the ICEHOTEL!

About the Coolest Hotel in the World

It has some permanent, heated rooms. But the really awesome rooms are cold rooms, which workers build each year using blocks of ice from the nearby River Torne. The rooms stay at temperatures from 28 to 40 degrees F.

Each room, according to my source, had a “serene blue glow” from LEDs in the icy walls; the hotel’s silence added to the serenity. He slept on a bed made from ice covered in reindeer fur. The staff wakes guests up each day with a steaming cup of lingonberry juice, which is supposed to do wonders for keeping you warm.

Beyond the Ice

There are some expeditions you can arrange from the coolest hotel in the world. Jukkasjärvi is pretty cold, though, so you really have to bundle up. I heard about some pretty awesome back-country dogsled trips. The food sounds tasty, too … I really want to try reindeer brisket!

And the cold rooms don’t have their own bathrooms. You have to get bundled up, tromp outside and go into the heated area. Can you imagine having to get up in the middle of the night for that? (Shivers)

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The dirt on … 5 Ski Resorts in North Tahoe

From tahoe

Alright, this is the moment you’ve all been waiting for! After all, I didn’t go to Tahoe to eat smoked trout and guzzle coffee – I went there to ski. And I’m gonna spill the beans about where you should go. Bear in mind that conditions were icy, and mid-day temps were in the mid-forties. Bummer conditions for skiing. Can’t fault the mountains for that – it’s just plain ol’ bad luck.

1. Northstar-at-Tahoe – This is where we spent our first day of skiing. It’s a darn nice hill with a plethora of blue runs. It’s big, with lots of lifts headed to many places. The staff is really friendly, and the trails are pretty well-marked. The views on the southeastern-most trails are beautiful. Problem is, there’s a lot of homogeneity to the blue runs. Not a lots distinguishes them. They are long, so you get a nice, long, groovy glide. Be sure to check out the tubing park about halfway up the mountain. I didn’t, and regretted it. There’s lots of great food everywhere, especially at the condo/shopping area near the outdoor ice rink. Earthly Delights is pretty awesome. Oh, and don’t buy gear at any of the shops there. Rip-off! Oh, and Northstar is packed with sprogs. If short people put a harsh edge on your shred, best to avoid it.

Awesome view from a Northstar run.            From tahoe
At the very top of Northstar after clouds roll in.      From tahoe

2. Homewood Mountain Ski Resort – The most laid-back, genuine and unpretentious ski resort I’ve ever seen! Tons of great blue runs and lots of nasty, mogully black-diamond stuff for you animals out there. I’d love to ski here after a huge storm of fresh powder. The blue runs are all very different from each other, from wide but steep trails to bobsled-style runs. Some of the lips before the trail drops are imposing – but they’re usually worse than they look unless the snow is icy and you’re a big dude who’s also a scaredy-cat. It’s a very convenient setup here – Homewood is right on West Lake Boulevard. You pull into the lot, buy your ticket, pop on your skis or snowboard and go! Services here can be a little sporadic, especially on weekdays. You have to go to the north lodge to get food or water, which can be a pain. They could also do a better job of penning up the smokers to prevent them from stinking up the nice mountain air, though. The staff is friendly, and the views are spectacular. On many runs, the deep blue of Lake Tahoe looks so close that it feels like you’re a blown turn from swimming in it. If the kiddies at Northstar give you the willies, the crowd is lots older here. Also, the value here is sick … a weekday pass was something like $39. Super-cheap, as Alfred E. Neuman would say!

Can you believe that view?                          From tahoe
Early morning at Homewood.           From tahoe

3. Squaw Valley – We didn’t ski here. After two days of alpine and one day of XC, our legs were simply too shot. Just as well. (Gulp) Squaw Valley scares me. I didn’t see a single run from the lodge that I’d feel comfortable skiing. These mountains are craggy and beastly looking, and huge cable cars and gondolas carry people around. Except for at the bunny hill. You’d have to go there and see it in-person to see how scary it is. I was genuinely intimidated. I think Squaw Valley is also kind of silly in charging non-skiers $22 for a gondola ride to the High Camp, where they have a skating rink, tennis courts and other cool stuff. Seriously. Especially on week days. Silly.

4. Boreal – This is a perfect place for the newbies. The runs are short and unassuming, and there are barely any black runs. I’d probably fall asleep on these trails, but it’s perfect for either getting your ski legs for the first runs of the season, or helping a new skier get some confidence. Be sure to get a load of the lodge, especially the arcade. You’ll feel like you fell into a DeLorean aimed straight into the neon and spandex heart of 1985. Livin’ on a prayer, baby! This could be a fun place to snowtube … if they were actually open during their posted hours. Lazy bums.

5. Soda Springs – We went here to look into snow tubing. No dice – it was all torn up, and the staff seemed to have no idea what was going in. They sent us to Boreal, where we were denied again. But as far as the skiing, this seems like it would be a great place for a solid blue skier to get a taste of the black diamonds. This is a pretty unassuming place, with a lot of wide-open spaces for beginners to dial in their greens and move to blue. I would mind trying the black runs here, since none of them seem to long or intimidating – definitely less scare-factor than Squaw Valley or Homewood!

Your heroic guide, Wandering Justin.        From tahoe

Well, there you have it! I’d definitely consider Homewood the value king. But if you’re an awesome skier, Squaw Valley will keep you occupied. It has more ritz and glitz, if you appreciate that sort of thing. Homewood is more Guns ‘n’ Roses, where Squaw Valley is the London Symphony Orchestra.

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Four Places in Tahoe to Go Grubbin’

From tahoe

You can only cram in so much skiing, especially when the slopes are icy. There comes a time each day when you’ll have to troop indoors for a bite. Or sometimes before you board the lift.
I can’t say North Tahoe cuisine titillates the tongue. It’s a lot of Mexican food, steaks and pizza. But there are a few neat little places tucked around, if you know where to look. Let me save you some time driving up and down the winding roads. In no particular order --

FiftyFifty Brewpub – There’s a lot to like about this spot in Truckee. And I’m not just talking about the oak-aged barleywine, which is a rare treat you shouldn’t miss. But you can also get some great entrees. I went for a BLT served with seared ahi tuna. And get this – FiftyFifty offers a side of black beans! Far healthier and tastier than fries or chips, no? I’d like to go back and try a pizza. The service was also excellent.

Tahoe House – Our hostess at the Firelite Lodge pointed this one out to us. We never would’ve found it otherwise, since it’s just off the junction that splits Tahoe City traffic to either Truckee or Homewood. If you head toward Homewood, Tahoe House is just a few hundred feet away. They brew really strong coffee by the cup (no sitting around and getting sour here) and have awesome baked goods. My coffee paired nicely with a smoked ham and gruyere croissant. I also stocked up on some goodies for the plane ride home: a rum ball, a slice of chocolate cappuccino coffee cake and a slab of pecan fudge – each tasted even better than it sounds. I was tempted to also grab some homemade smoked trout, but I would’ve endeared myself to none of the passengers. Load up on the desserts because they’re the best you’ll find around. The décor is also very homey Swiss style.

Jason’s – This became our favorite spot in King’s Beach. You could eat healthy with some decent veggie angel hair, or go for a burger or porterhouse. Jason’s also has a decent salad bar, a friendly vibe and a very good staff. The desserts are pretty good (though not as awesome as Tahoe House), as are the spiked hot cocoa drinks. Parking can be tough – be sure to look around the back of the building for more spaces if the front is crammed.

Gear and Grind Cafe – This is an awesome spot in Tahoe City. They brew seriously strong coffee, and it doesn’t sit around getting stale. You order it, they grind it, they pour hot water over the filter. BOOM! Serious coffee. And they make a great ham & egg croissant, too. If you’re lucky, Sierra the Calm but Friendly Shop Dog will appear to hang out with you. She is most excellent company. They also open early and can set you up with supplies you might need before you hit the slopes or trails. Lots of good reading material on-hand if you’re solo that day. A very friendly staff, in both the cafe and sports portions.

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CategoriesFitness

Why I Hate the P.F. Chang’s Rock & Roll Marathon

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An old shot of the medal collection.

If there’s any one marathon in Phoenix that people know about, it’s the bloated corporate monster that is the P.F. Chang’s Rock & Roll Marathon, which is coming up in a few weeks. So, why do I, the normally laid-back Wandering Justin, shoot flames from my eyes at every mention of it? (And you should see my wife every time someone asks if she’s running the Rock & Roll Marathon … the offending person usually gets in earful from her very similar to what you’re about to read)

Here’s why:

4. The course is incredibly dull and ugly, meandering through some of the most unscenic parts of the Phoenix concrete jungle. There are decent bits, but overall it’s uninspiring as all get-out, running near a freeway for a good distance before turning onto the charmless Van Buren Avenue before heading to the finish in Tempe. Ugh.

3. I love rock & roll. Love it enough that I devote a lot of time to playing the guitar and writing songs. But this event just doesn’t draw good bands. I suspect that’s because it’s way too early for the rocker lifestyle. What can the event organizers do to get better bands? Embrace the fact the rock should be loud and edgy, and that a good band just might make the event a little less family-friendly.

2. There’s a freakin’ huge number of people in this thing. That makes parking a nightmare. Running a full marathon is tough enough. Who wants to add logistical headaches to it? And it also makes you just another face in the crowd.

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There are plenty of running events in the Valley that provide better experiences than the mega-marathons.

1. It overshadows Arizona’s best marathon, the awesome Lost Dutchman Marathon. This is a small, humble event. It just happens to be beautifully organized, along with being routed through incredible scenery near the Superstition Mountains. Residents along the route will often set up impromptu aid stations while genuinely and enthusiastically cheering runners in the full marathon, half-marathon and 10K. And their finishers medals kick serious butt – a real piece of hardware.

I guess it saddens me to see that mere money can overshadow genuine quality, but it happens all the time, doesn’t it? I’m hoping this is a record year for the Dutchman since it’s now nearly a month removed from the Rock & Roll Marathon. The Dutchman had previously been hamstrung by being the weekend after. Still, all the locals who were in the know showed up for the Dutchman instead, and left Chang’s to the elite runner chasing paychecks, the less-experienced runners and those who thrive on hoopla.

So many things in this world seem to be about corporate suits “establishing a brand” and “connecting with core consumers” and “generating maximum visibility.” I much prefer the events that feel like they exist because a group of people who love running/biking/fencing/watermelon throwing/whatever got together and said “Hey, you know what would be cool? Running an event the RIGHT way so that it’s fun and welcoming.” Yeah. There’s just something about that.

This year, we won’t be running the Dutchman. That’s because there is a new marathon the same weekend on the other side of town. This one is the IMS Marathon, and it’s the inaugural running. We thought we’d check it out. And it raises money for the state leukemia and lymphoma society, which is nice. I think it will also be a cool, intimate event. A large part of me will still wish I was lining up for the Dutchman, but I have high hopes for the IMS. And there’s nothing wrong with two low-key events for those of us who don’t like the overly slick, blandly packaged, made-for-the-masses stuff.

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Park City, Utah – 5 Things You’ll Love About It

From ski utah

Holy cow, it’s so easy to beat up on poor Utah. People snicker about Mormons with dozens of children in tow. They giggle about not having any fun … at least when other Mormons are watching. They wet themselves laughing about the unfailingly cheery young men pedaling bikes everywhere from Tucson to Timbuktu.

But really, if you want awesome skiing and a cosmopolitan vibe, you are going to have a hard time beating Park City, which is just 40 minutes from the airport in Salt Lake. You’ll find a wealth of awesome ski resorts, great food, excellent post-ski activities and killer scenery all within about 20 minutes of each other. And you don’t even have to rent a car: You can grab a shuttle from the airport, and Park City has an extensive (and free) public transit system. This city is still riding the high from hosting the 2002 Olympic Winter Games … that Park City won restored a smidgen of my faith in the selection committee, because I believe this city deserved it.

What won’t you find? If you’re a beer snob, you’ll suffer. Utah law caps the alcohol by weight at 3.2 percent. And that, my friends, is the end of the taste. It’s a small price to pay, though, for awesome, convenient skiing.

Here are five things that make Park City rock, in no particular order.

1. The Canyons Ski Resort – Sorry, wanna-be X-Games dudes with funny hair, piercings and MP3 players jacked directly into your brains: No snowboarders allowed! But that’s not all that makes this great: Fast lifts, beautiful trails and lots of places for intermediate stooges like me to enjoy really put it to the top of my list. The views are intense, and it’s pretty much the first in the line of several resorts. You can grab an excellent lunch, but be sure to get in early if you want the rather pricey but highly regarded skiers’ buffet. Some of the runs are extremely long, and even run in short tunnels under roads leading to pricey ski villas. Cool!

2. Utah Olympic Park – I have always loved the winter Olympics, especially the early 80s-vintage voice over talking about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat as a ski jumper crashes out-of-control through a mass of barriers. Here, you can see exactly what a ski jumper sees while looking down one of those jumps – and let me tell you, I practically needed a diaper just looking down that jump. I can’t even fathom volitionally sliding down it. You can also check out the bobsled/luge track and a fun museum at the visitors center. If you time your visit right, you can also check out amateur bobsled action. We struck up a conversation with one such minor-league sledder … I wish I’d been taking notes, because it was a great look into what goes into making it to the Big Time.

From ski utah

3. The Best Use of a Golf Course EVER! – I won’t mince words. I hate golf. Not so much the game itself, but the culture around it, that it takes up gobs of space and that you can actually be a top-level golf pro and smoke cigars while playing! But when it snows, the golf courses near The Canyons become cross country ski havens. This was my first time doing XC skiing … and let me tell you, it was AWESOME. It works you like a dog. I had my jacket off and was shushing along in naught but an Under Armor shirt within a few hundred yards. After putting in near 35 miles of downhill the previous day according to my GPS, putting in 10 XC miles was hard! The good side? I got to eat everything in sight sans guilt!

From ski utah

4. An international vibe – Everywhere I went, I was hearing a Brazilian or Australian accent. It seems Brazil has an exchange program that send young people to Utah to work during the winter (that’ll keep ’em on the straight and narrow – no Samba carnival lewdness here!). Australia, on the other hand, largely exports middle-aged, gin-blossomed dudes eager to mack on young women. Well, I ran into a few young Aussies here, to be fair … not exactly the Stereotypical Australian Blokes I mentioned in my Australia travelogue, but still fun nonetheless. (The acronym SAB, by the way, seems to be gaining traction.) Lots of people from the UK, too. So it’s not the insular, innocent mountain town you may have expected from Utah.

5. Unintentionally Lewd Toy Displays – Well, apparently the crew at the J.W. Allen & Sons toy store is, um, up on the latest way to catch attention for the little sleds they sell. Apparently, you put your bum on the plastic, grab the handle and cruise down the slopes. Well, I just have to wonder if they also sell a model that takes batteries, if you know what I’m sayin’. I’m sure these items were at the head of their best-sellers list! Sometimes, it’s the little things that give flavor to a place … but this casts the area’s conservative nature in a new light, and makes me what happens here when nobody else is watching.

From ski utah

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Viva el Monstruo – Capturing Costa Rican Character

When I landed in Costa Rica back in 2003, I was pretty underprepared. This was my wife’s trip. She planned it and sweated the details. I packed my backpack (and actually remembered my underwear, for once), got on the plane and went along for the ride.

Unfortunately, this means I had little concept of the awesome soccer culture of Costa Rica. We woke up the day after our flight to a soccer mania that, we learned, would literally sweep the nation. We had little idea of this until we boarded a shuttle from San Jose to La Fortuna. As I got on the bus, I noticed that the driver, one of three employees on the bus, was decked out in purple: some sort of purple jersey, purplish jeans and even purple mirrored sunglasses.

As we drove off, I asked the older employee, who seemed to be the boss, what the deal was.

“Is for Saprissa, the football team. We are playing today against Alajuela, our rival. It is very big game,” he explained.

And wouldn’t you know it! Our route would take us straight through the heart of Alajuela, where fans of La Liga Alajuelense were parading up and down the streets in their striped jerseys. Our driver, apparently not one to let a sleeping dog lie, leered at, wagged his tongue at, gesticulated at and honked his horn at roving mobs of Alajuelense supporters. Everywhere we went, La Liga fans were boring holes in our bus with our eyes. And mind you, the match hadn’t even started yet!

The bus crew explained to me that Saprissa is the biggest team – which I took with a grain of salt, because every Leeds United fan in England will still insist that their team is “a massive club.” But Saprissa was apparently ahead on points, but La Liga had had their number for the past few seasons. A victory today would be a famous win for the ages.

We made a stop halfway to La Fortuna at a roadside market. And they sold soccer shirts, so I could get in the mania! They mostly had La Liga and Saprissa. I selected an extra large Saprisa knock-off jersey (really more like a large in U.S. sizes) and stepped up to the register.

“No, no!” the clerk objected, pointing at a La Liga shirt. “You have to support the local team!”

I insisted on the glowing purple Saprissa shirt, which set me back something like $17 … I can’t remember what that was in colones. Anyway, I came out of the store with my new Saprissa shirt, and the bus crew saw it. They start whooping, patting me on the back, shaking my hand and high-fiving until their arms were about to fall off. They also clued me in, saying the club’s nickname is El Monstruo, or The Monster. That Jarvis Drummond is a god. And all sorts of other things I can scarcely remember.

By the time we got to La Fortuna, the match had started. The bus crew wanted to drop everyone off quickly and get to a TV. The clerk at Las Colinas could barely tear himself away to check us in, but he was really friendly and wanted us to get to a TV to watch, too. We headed to a nearby restaurant for a helping of gallo pinto. There, they had a TV. And all of La Fortuna was urging Saprissa on. Televisions everywhere were blaring. The entire town cheered, groaned and gasped in unison.

By the time were left the restaurant, La Fortuna was in rapture: Saprissa battered La Liga 4-1, breaking the cross-town rival’s hold on the derby. The entire town was upbeat.

And here’s the funny thing: About that time, I noticed that my sunglasses were gone. They must’ve slipped off sometime in the bus. Which meant I’d have to grab a cheap pair of sunglasses somewhere … bummer, I really liked those Spys.

But the next day, Sarah and I were having a morning stroll. We heard a bus honking behind us. Behind the wheel was my purple-wearing friend, waving my Spys out the window. We exchanged more handshakes, and they were on their way back to San Jose. Think they would’ve done that had I bought a La Liga shirt?!

As we traveled through Costa Rica, a theme repeated itself: I would meet a resident, and we’d talk a bit. Inevitably, I’d ask if they supported Saprissa. And nearly to the word, they’d say “I am THE BIGGEST Saprissa fan!!!”

I only ran into on La Liga fan: She was employed at the airport by Costa Rica’s version of the TSA. As she was screening me, she noticed a flash of purple jersey under my long-sleeve Lost Dutchman Marathon shirt.

“Tu eres Saprissista?” she growled, raising an eyebrow. That’s when she pulled me out of the line, gave me a wink and proceeded with the full-service search.

Be careful where you wear your Saprissa shirt, kids …

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A Tip of the Hat to the Boeing 747

A preface from Wandering Justin: I originally wrote this for another blog, but it seems relevant here. Enjoy!

Photo courtesy of Boeing
Photo courtesy of Boeing

Every time I go to band practice, I take the 143 freeway past Sky Harbor. I always look to my right and see a British Airways 747 parked at Terminal 4, getting ready to head to London.

And I wish I was getting on that plane. Not so much because it’s going to London, but because … well, I can’t explain it in one sentence. But here are the thoughts that jumble through my head:

-First, there is a certain something special and exciting about a 747. It’s an icon of style, adventure and anticipation. You don’t take a 747 from Charlotte to Pittsburgh. No, That’s what takes you to Hong Kong, to Paris, to Sydney, to Johannesburg. From the first time I rode one on the way to Germany as a 5-year-old boy, it has made me feel something no other airplane can replicate. The 777 is a marvelous piece of technology, and the A380 is built on a mind-boggling scale. But no aircraft save the Concorde cuts the same image on final approach, or puts that flutter in my stomach as I cross from the jetway into its fuselage. Sadly, less than a handful of American-based airlines still fly it.

-Second, it being a British Airways flight, I know that the people aboard will not be treated like cattle. Foreign airlines seem to have figured out how not to nickel-and-dime passengers to death, and understand that a good experience aloft will endear them to American passengers. I’ve only flown Qantas and JetStar recently. But people whose opinions I respect tell me Air New Zealand, British Airways and Air France are on their game. And I’ve heard Emirates and Virgin are dialed in, too.

-Third, I just love flying. The longer the flight, the happier I am. But put me in a seat with a few hundred people on the way to someplace that requires a widebody jet, and all is right with my world. Is it as comfortable as my reading chair? No. Is the food all that good? No. But I can afford to buy a seat and travel 7,000 or more miles and get off that plane in what feels like a different world. If you can’t get fired up about that, I seriously don’t know what the hell is the matter with you.

-Fourth, I love airports. Sure, the TSA seems like it’s deliberately trying to drive me crazy. There are throngs of people, completely bovine in their lack of situational awareness and clueless meandering. But outside, it’s a well-choreographed display of efficient motion. And there’s something electric in the air at a major international airport (as opposed to my local Sky Harbor, which hosts all of one flight from the U.K., and then a bunch from Canada and Mexico and another from Costa Rica. Hell, that’s barely enough to qualify.). All these people from around the world, all these aircraft that have been who-knows-where. It invigorates me, and gets me excited about everything going on in the world at every given moment.

For me, the inconveniences and discomforts become so petty and so worth enduring when I wake up in another city that my grandparents never could’ve imagined visiting in their lifetime.

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Five of the Cayo District’s Best Spots – Belize

A rainbow over the forest
A rainbow over the forest

If I had just one place to go in Belize, I’d head straight for the Cayo District. I’d skip the beaches. I’d turn my nose up at the cayes. I’d blow off the cities.

I’d head inland to the limestone maze of the Cayo District … caves, rivers, ruins, pine dscf3369forests and a laid-back vibe are what you’ll get. Here’s what you shouldn’t miss.

1. I already waxed poetic in an earlier post about the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave tour. This is seriously not to be missed. If you won’t take by word for it, go back and read the earlier post. Now, doesn’t that sound mind-blowing?

A small pyramid overgrown with flora.
A small pyramid overgrown with flora.

2. The town of San Ignacio is a perfect launch pad for the ATM cave trip. There are plenty of restaurants and services, and hotels from bare-bones budget to luxurious. San Ignacio is big enough that you can walk all over the place and get everything from Indonesian food to a pint of the ubiquitous Bilikin stout. It’s also more friendly and genuine – not everyone here is a huckster wanted you to buy souvenirs (I’m looking at you, Caye Ambergris!).

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The Humpiest Hotel Ever?

Ahhhhh! There are some things in this world that are simply dripping in cool factor. No, this is marinated in cool, so much that the awesomeness infuses every morsel.

I’m talking about the 747 that’s been turned into a hotel! I know some people might think “hey, why would I want to spend more time on an airplane?” Well, I just happen to love airplanes and flying, so half the fun is getting there. And I can think of little that’s cooler than smartly reusing something.

My buddies over at SpotCoolStuff.com dug this one up, and what a stellar find it is.

As I mentioned in a response to their blog entry, I live in Arizona. We have two massive airplane graveyards (The AMARC in Tucson and Pinal Air Park) and a third smaller one in Goodyear. Each has its share of civilian heavies, C141s and even B-52s. Can you imagine the possibilities if we stopped cutting them up and started doing something really cool with them? In many cases, they’re only getting cut up enough to be rendered unflyable. Here’s a way better way to do that!

Several people have also turned retired 727s into homes. How cool!

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Going to Flagstaff? Don’t Miss Sunset Crater & Wupatki

A few years ago, Sarah and I were riding in the Taylor House Century bike ride in the 60-mile group. I didn’t know much about the route, but it took us through Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, which has a road that also goes to the Wupatki Ruins.

We’d already had plenty of excitement – I survived someone crashing right in front of me and falling right into my front wheel, but we’ll save that story for another time. Let’s just say I pulled off some sort of move straight out of The Matrix to keep the rubber side down. (Actually, the moment was pretty rife with cinematic parallel, now that I think of it. For instance, the protagonist in Shaolin Soccer would insist that I must’ve studied kung fu all my life. Darth Vader would say that the Force was strong with this one. Commander Data would chalk it up to a rift in the space-time continuum, and Dante from Clerks would tell me I’m not even supposed to be here today.)

About 15 miles after that craziness, Sarah and I were between a bunch of packs of riders. We were pedaling up the road that leads to Sunset Crater, and we still didn’t have a clear view of the crater.

But then we came around a corner and saw a blackened vista of dry lava stretching before us … and it was absolutely amazing. We could barely keep our eyes on the road as we passed the lava field and splatter cones. I was dumbstruck that I’d lived in Arizona since I was six, and had never been here. Don’t be like me: Make this a priority stop.

We loved it so much that we came the next day. We also went further down the road to the Wupatki Ruins, which are awesome. You can check out three different sets of ruins at various points. The largest one has this little blow hole … during some parts of the year, this hole sucks air in; in the summer, it blows cool air out! Perfect for those hot days … Sarah was surprised the ruling class didn’t build their pad right on top of it! In a future post, I’ll give you the lowdown on the Taylor House Century.

This is the crater itself … awesome, eh?                                                                                                                     From crater
Another View             From crater
One of the bigger ruins                              From crater
This is a blow hole!                  From crater
Jagged cooled lava                 From crater
A red splatter cone                       From crater
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5 of the Best Places to Mountain Bike in Phoenix, Ariz.

EDITOR’S NOTE (May 1, 2012): This post is really old. I will publish an update soon. Subscribe (it’s free) in the box to the right so you don’t miss it!

EDITOR’S NOTE PART II (May 11, 2012): UPDATED and cooler than ever.

I just recently ran into an old classmate at an ad hoc high school reunion. He’d moved from the area, and mentioned that he was getting more into mountain biking, but isn’t sure where to ride here. Naturally, I promised him some tips … and then I thought, “hey, maybe some other people besides Mitch would dig some advice!”

So here are 5 places in the metro Phoenix area where you can ride. Each will offer something different. These are in no particular order. I’ve linked each to my buddy at MTBikeAZ.com, who has produced some fine maps and profiles!
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McDowell Mountain Regional Park: There is something for everyone here. The Competitive Loops host all sorts of races. You can choose from the Long Loop (about 9 miles), the Sport Loop and the Technical Loop (both about 3 miles). You can string them together for some uberloops. All require some skill to handle steep drops, breaking bumps, rocks and lots of loose nastiness. Speeds can run high. Leave your iPod at home … rattlesnakes love hanging out trailside, and your earbuds will mask their warning signal. And watch the trail closely – that big rock you’re zooming around just might be a desert tortoise! Also, the park offers a 15-mile loop called The Pemberton, aka Trail B. This is technically easier, a varitable mountain bike super highway. By the way, the MTBikeAZ site’s map of this is outdated. Pick up a fresh one when you come into the park. Some snobby riders will label it boring: Not true. It has all sorts of offshoots to explore – and if you’re not up for a 15-mile loop, it has lots of connections back to the trailhead to cut it short, some of which are so fast that you’ll arrive at the bottom before the sound of your tires on the ground does. The park entry fee is $6, and it’s a screaming deal: The race loops feature a beaut of a new bathroom. Trail B’s launching pad has a groovy restroom AND a vending machine!

Pima and Dynamite: This is great for winter epic rides. You can just go forever and really get away from the red tile roofs. As you head away from the intersection, you’re on a false flat as you roll your way up. The terrain undulates and wiggles beautifully. Lots of hardpacked stuff, but it gets more wild and wooly the further north you go. Bring lots of food, water, sunscreen and tubes! Epic high desert scenery makes it even better. The terrain can be tricky and the speeds can be high. I rode here once with a friend, and we went home bloody, thirsty and late: His wife banned me from their house for one year, saying I brought him home sun-baked, penniless and smelling of cheap perfume. I only participated in two of the three! No bathrooms or facilities of any sort here. A bummer … this is State Trust Land, which means you need a permit. Yes, you really do. It’s pretty cheap, though it requires prior planning.
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Phoenix Mountain Preserve: Trail 100 is the mainstay of this ludicrously awesome urban park. The visionaries who set land aside for this gem deserve medals. There’s a trail at Tatum just south of Doubletree Ranch Road. You can ride this monster clear to 7th Avenue … and don’t forget all the side trails! Bring a GPS for sure so you can log everything you ride. Some terrain can be tricky: Crossing the Dreamy Draw freeway and heading west takes you up a few nasty climbs, and into a hideous, rocky wasteland. That eventually turns into some wild, good-time singletrack. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a snake, a bunny or three or even a ringtail. There are actually water and toilet facilities scattered around, which is nice.
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Papago Park: You experienced riders out there better stop snickering. You were once a newbie, a squid, a beginner. And I’ll bet this is where you cut your teeth. Mountain biking isn’t just about YOUR ride – it’s about what you pass on to create a new generation of riders. And Papago is the place to train your apprentices. And let’s face it: this place is fun. That four-mile loop around the old golf course is fast as hell, with beautiful sweeping turns that’ll help even the stoniest veteran keep them skills up. Parking, bathrooms, vending machines and water fountains are scattered all around. As your skills (or those of your apprentice) improve, head south to some short but steep climbs and a few super-secret drop-offs way south toward the freeway.
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Fantasy Island North Singletrack (FINS): This is a new trail, and I pumped out 900 words or so about it for the awesome Mountain Flyer magazine. It’s a bit controversial, though, as you’ll see from the article. But we won’t worry about that, for now. Let’s focus on this: People who know and love mountain biking built this beast, and did a right bang-up job. They smashed a lot of miles (15 and counting at last check) into a really small footprint. It’s all hardpacked and groomed. These trails are fast, like bowling balls on a greased bobsled track. There are some switchbacked climbs that’ll burn your legs and scald your lungs. Lots of turning, barely any straightaway flying; that’s to keep the speeds reasonable and hone your turning and braking skills. No facilities here, either, so stock up on the water and be willing to pee outside.
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Okay, I know some people’s rides got the shaft. I know there will be weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth. I’ll give some explanations below about why some got left off the list, but here’s the bottom line: If you don’t like my choices, go write in your own blog about your favorite rides!

Onto those that didn’t make it:

South Mountain: The Mormon Loop, the National and the Desert Classic are legendary around here. But you know, they’re just too crowded and eroded to be my favorites.

Hawes Loop: Too much road pedaling to fully access everything.

Estrella Mountain Regional Park: Because it’s the most suck-a-licious, pointless, loose-rocked POS trail I’ve ever turned tires over.

A few quick mountain bike notes about Wandering Justin: Riding since 1992. Ex shop mechanic. Raced in several 12-hour races (including one win in co-ed sport category), several epic singletrack races, one state series. Rides a 2006 Gary Fisher Cake 2 DLX, but likes Santa Cruz and Specialized way better. Has been (falsely) accused many times for gross malfeasance, negligence and nincompoopery leading to riding parties getting lost.

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Descending into the Abode of the Gods – Belize

From my January 2007 trip

And a quick note from Wandering Justin – even after touring the mighty Australian Outback, this day still holds its own as one of my greatest ever days traveling. Do NOT miss this if you go to Belize!

This is one of the best vacation days I’ve ever had. I knew it would be cool, because I enjoy caves in general. It’s hard for me to pass a hole in the ground without strapping a light to my noggin and diving in.

But the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave, known as the ATM Cave, would surpass all my other underground adventures. I’ve been in bigger, more scenic caves before. But I’ve never been in one that contained an underground river and the most incredibly graphic, gruesome vestiges of the Mayan culture. Nor one that made just getting there such an adventure.

The day started at the Maya Walk Tours headquarters in San Ignacio. The place was jammed with people milling around, getting their gear, meeting their guides, etc. It was a scene of total chaos. Finally, they tossed us all in an Isuzu Trooper and some weird Toyota I’d never seen in the states before (though the model is ubiquitous in Belize). We bounced along for close to an hour, first on decent paved roads and then into jungle roads that got more rutted, slimy and muddy as we drove. Meanwhile, there was a steady drizzle falling.

Our driver/guide, another guy named Emile, was telling scatological stories about people freaking out/needing to pee/getting the runs in the cave. One guy, who he claimed was a famous American football player, even filled his shorts up!

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Lonsdale Quay Hotel: Three Things to Know

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A few years ago, I visited Seattle and uncovered a love of the Pacific Northwest that I didn’t know I had. And many people, including my longtime friend Big Frank, insisted that I’d like Vancouver even better.

With that in mind -and despite the fact that the Canucks NHL team had been my

Clouds build behind Sarah.
Clouds build behind Sarah.

Blackhawks’ playoff nemesis in the 80s- Sarah and I booked a trip that would give us a little taste of attractions in Vancouver, Whistler, Victoria and a side of Squamish.

I’ll get to all those at some point, but today’s focus is on the Flight Centre Lonsdale Quay area. This is a bit of a haul from the airport and will probably be a $50 cab ride. You could take buses, but that’s up to you.

Our view from the Lonsdale Quay Hotel.
Our view from the Lonsdale Quay Hotel.

I’m a very big fan of the Lonsdale Quay Hotel. Since it’s across a bay from Vancouver proper, it’s very reasonably priced. Three other things work in its advantage:

1. The SeaBus connects directly from there to downtown Vancouver, with easy access to all the fun that area. It’s also a nexus for bus transport.

2. The first few floors are an awesome marketplace. All the food you need, plus an extremely friendly coffee shop called Bean Around the World.

A trio of Stanley Park racoons.
A trio of Stanley Park racoons.

3. The staff is friendly and eager to help. And determined to be even better – for example, I filled out the customer comment card when we checked out. A few weeks later, the hotel’s GM sent a letter my way mentioning specific comments I had (an idea to stock rooms with more pillows, praise for a particular front desk staff person). I’ve never had that happen before!

Wandering Justin picks wild blackberries
Wandering Justin picks wild blackberries

Now, about that SeaBus – be sure to hop on. You’ll get off near the cruise ship terminals. For there, a sturdy walker can accomplish a lot: Chinatown, the under-construction Olympic Village, the southern portion of Stanley Park, probably a bit of Granville Island.

Get out there and walk, and then hop the SeaBus back to Lonsdale Quay when you’re ready to relax. Also, the bus service is excellent throughout Vancouver. In any case, just picking a direction and walking is a solid strategy. You’ll have a great chance of finding something fun.

A totem pole in Stanley Park
A totem pole in Stanley Park