Exploring Zion Canyon

Along Pa'rus Trail.

Along Pa’rus Trail.

This is another in a series of articles by Kelly Monaghan and Sally Scanlon about Zion National Park. Other articles include: Exploring Zion National Park, Along Kolob Terrace Road, Traveling Along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, and Exploring Kolob Canyons.

First stop: The lanes where you pay your entrance fee ($25 per passenger vehicle in summer 2014 and $12 for pedestrians) and pick up your glossy full-color park map and very useful newspaper-style guide. Your entrance pass is good for seven days. Older adults get a great break: $10 for a lifetime national park pass if you can prove you are 60 or older. You need only one pass per private vehicle. Most entry and exit lanes moved surprisingly quickly on the three mid-June days we visited.

Next stop: The parking lot if you’re visiting April through October. Use of canyon shuttle buses is mandatory and included in your admission. The parking lot has special sections for RVs and other oversize vehicles. Onsite campers and guests of Zion Lodge can drive to their respective sites by showing the required permit. As noted above, Zion offers free shuttle service between Springdale and the park. Shuttles run from early morning to around sunset.

Exploring Zion Canyon

Zion Canyon, the 229-square-mile park’s biggest draw, boasts 13 trails, ranging from 0.4 to 9.4 miles in length round trip and in difficulty from “easy” to “moderate” to “strenuous.” We chose to skip the “strenuous” trails, among them the hike to Angel’s Landing, one of the park’s most popular (and thus crowded by mid-morning). Instead we explored several “easy,” “easy-moderate,” and “moderate” trails.

By far the easiest is the Pa’rus Trail, a 1.7-mile walk (one way) on a paved path between the Visitor Center and the second stop on the up-canyon shuttle. Walking south toward the Visitor Center, you can stop at the park’s Human History Museum (the shuttle’s first up-canyon stop). It screens a film about the park and its geology as well as some background on the indigenous populations, early explorers, the Mormon settlers who named the area Zion (because it promised them a peaceful life after persecution elsewhere), and the area’s 1909 designation as a national park by President William Taft. The Pa’rus is the only trail in the park that’s open to bicycles and pets; the latter must be on a leash less than 6 feet long.

Virgin River from Pa'rus Trail.

Virgin River from Pa’rus Trail.

Truth to tell, the trail segment from the Museum past the South Campground to the Visitor Center isn’t particularly interesting in itself, but it provides views of both the Virgin River, the area’s life-giving waterway, and the canyon’s stunning sandstone walls. Park rangers say it also offers an especially lovely view of the walls at sunset.

The waterfall at lower Emerald Pool.

The waterfall at lower Emerald Pool.

The trail to the lower Emerald Pool from Zion Lodge (the fifth of eight up-canyon shuttle stops) is an easy walk of well under two miles round trip on a paved path. It provides views of the river, vegetation, cliff walls, waterfalls that vary from wispy to spectacular depending on the season and rainfall, and the eponymous pool, as well as access to the river from several points for those wanting closer views or a chance to wade. The path was crowded in midafternoon, but appealing nonetheless.

Hanging gardens along Riverside Walk.

Hanging gardens along Riverside Walk.

 

Zion Canyon -- Zion National Park

Rock squirrel at Riverside Walk.

The easy and very popular two-mile round trip Riverside Walk begins at the Temple of Sinawava, last stop for the up-canyon shuttle. An early-morning start put us ahead of the crowds. Bird song filled the forest. The river ran below us. Lizards and a rock squirrel scuttled near the path and interpretive signs offered information about the many varieties of plants growing beside the trail.

Best of all, as we turned a corner, we spotted three young mule deer bucks relaxing in the high vegetation beside the trail, the intensely colored canyon wall providing a spectacular backdrop. The trio seemed unbothered by the humans who stopped to photograph them. They were still there, and grazing, when we passed by an hour later on our return.

Riverside Walk -- Zion National Park

Mule deer graze beside Riverside Walk.

Riverside Walk ends at the river. From there, the more intrepid can hike The Narrows, a 9.4-mile, moderate-strenuous “trail” through the Virgin River into the upper reaches of Zion Canyon, where the walls narrow to just 20 feet apart in some places.

Entrance to the Narrows.

Entrance to the Narrows.

Signs warn Narrows’ hikers to equip themselves with a hiking stick, hard-toed shoes, and a fleece or windbreaker (among other things) and to be prepared to swim in places. Returnees we met later said it was a wonderful experience.

The canyon walls at sunset from the Watchman Trail.

The canyon walls at sunset from the Watchman Trail.

We hit the steep, “moderate,” 2.7-mile round trip Watchman Trail an hour or so before sunset. The trail, which starts near the visitor center and the river, climbs rapidly in a series of switchbacks. The 0.9-mile loop at its end, high above the canyon floor, offers views into the far distance. We watched the last rays of sunlight climb the canyon walls to the top of the Watchman formation before heading back down in the dimming light.

Tip: If you plan to linger much past sunset, bring a flashlight to ensure a safe return hike. It’s a long way down if you should fall from the trail.

Another view of the Watchman at sunset.

Another view of the Watchman at sunset.

Continue to explore Zion National Park

Intro to Zion National Park

Exploring Zion Canyon (You Are Here)

Traveling Along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway

Along Kolob Terrace Road

Exploring Kolob Canyons

An Introduction to Zion National Park

The Watchman from Pa'rus Trail

The Watchman from Pa’rus Trail.

Cactus flowers.

Cactus flowers.

By Kelly Monaghan & Sally Scanlon

Tucked into Utah’s southwestern corner, not far from the Arizona and Nevada borders, Zion National Park draws over two million visitors a year, a testament to the spectacular beauty of the park’s Zion and Kolob Canyons, its many hiking trails, and other opportunities for outdoor adventure.

Don’t let those visitor numbers discourage you. Arrive early in the morning or late in the afternoon and you’ll find popular trails fairly quiet, even in summer. You won’t have them to yourself, but there’ll be few enough people on them that you’ll often feel as though you do.

Canyoneering, rock climbing, and multi-day backcountry hiking opportunities also abound—some of them in Zion and Kolob Canyons and others scattered around the park. Visitors looking for less strenuous options can drive three scenic routes through and adjacent to the park—though not up Zion Canyon Scenic Drive itself for seven months of the year. To minimize traffic and carbon emissions, the canyon road is closed to private vehicles and serviced by complimentary shuttle buses April 1 through most of October. The shuttle ride from Zion Canyon Visitor Center at the South Entrance to the end of the drive and back takes about 80 minutes. Buses stop at the park’s museum, Zion Lodge, and trailheads.

View from Kolob Terrace Road.

View from Kolob Canyons Road in the northeast corner of Zion National Park.

Lodging & eating: The park offers accommodations in Zion Canyon (in Zion Lodge and two campgrounds with a total of 309 campsites but no showers or laundry facilities) as well as in six campsites on the upper Kolob Plateau off Kolob Terrace Road. Its only food service is in the lodge. Wilderness camping is allowed but requires a permit and payment of a fee.

Zion Lodge, Zion National Park

Bridge near Zion Lodge connects visitors to trails.

We did not stay in the lodge, but the buzz is that the place is all about location, location, location. Accommodations are somewhat dated and the walls can prove distressingly thin. The restaurant, however, gets high marks.

For those who prefer softer beds, hot showers, and a variety of restaurants, art galleries, and shops within walking distance, Springdale, Utah, located just south of the park’s Zion Canyon entrance, has plenty to offer—plus frequent, free shuttle buses April through October to take you to and from Zion Canyon Visitor Center.

Springdale is also a great place to refuel after a strenuous day of hiking and exploring Zion, and many eateries get rave reviews. We were so taken by Café Oscar (948 Zion Park Blvd, 435-772-3232) on our first visit that we never bothered to sample other fare. Their Southwestern dishes like Chili Verde Tamales and Pork Chili Verde Burritos are addictive and the Murder Burger is, to coin a phrase, to die for. Wash it all down with a hearty pint of Polygamy Porter. Then come back for breakfast and try the Pork Verde Breakfast Burrito. Why mess with success?

Getting there: Las Vegas, 163 miles to the southwest, and Salt Lake City, 307 miles to the north, offer the nearest major airports. We chose Vegas.

Driving east from the Nevada border, we were greeted by mostly gray hills with interesting rock formations. Then, a few miles from the entrance to Zion Canyon, the sandstone hills take on varying shades of red, russet and pink, which blossom into a spectacular array of colors and shapes as you turn north to enter the park.

Zion Canyon wall, Zion National Park

One of Zion Canyon’s colorful walls.

Continue to explore Zion National Park

Intro to Zion National Park (You Are Here)

Exploring Zion Canyon

Traveling Along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway

Along Kolob Terrace Road

Exploring Kolob Canyons

A Restaurant Review: AquaKnox at the Venetian in Las Vegas

Aquaknox Tower Dining Room

Aquaknox Dining Room

What would a Vegas casino be without an opportunity to win a small fortune and immediately spend it on a single meal?

While the Venetian Resort Casino on Las Vegas’ fabled Strip has a number of marquee names in its stable of restaurants (Batali, Bastianich, Lagasse), you would be hard pressed to beat the cuisine at AquaKnox, just a few steps from the casino floor along the Venetian’s Restaurant Row. The chef, Steve Aguglia, is not a star, at least not yet, but he is turning out some astonishingly good meals.

AquaKnox, as the name suggests, is known for its seafood. Starting a meal off with the AquaKnox Plateau

Aquaknox Sauteed John Dory

AquaKnox Sauteed John Dory

($79 for two) is an excellent introduction to their quality standards. It’s hard to believe that in the middle of the searing Nevada desert you could find fresh oysters, mussels, shrimp ceviche, lobster, and king crab like this. A highlight of this indulgence are the Ponzu oyster shooters, sheer heaven.

Aquaknox scallops

AquaKnox scallops

Other seafood we sampled included New Bedford Scallops ($42) on a bed of creamed corn and polenta garnished with crispy chicharron and Wild Alaskan Halibut, ethereally light over a shrimp, corn, and edamame succotash.

Seafood graces the appetizer selection as well with the Ahi Tuna Tartare ($18), flecked with Asian pear and spiced with Korean hot bean paste, a standout. But don’t overlook the Desert Bloom Squash Blossoms ($18), sourced from a local organic farm that apparently creates miracles in the desert sands.

Don’t care for seafood? Fear not. AquaKnox has some of the best beef I have ever tasted. I sampled them all — New York Strip ($49), Ribeye ($59), and the superb, buttery Filet Mignon ($54). Other non-fish dishes, which alas we didn’t have the opportunity to sample, include Tandoori Spiced Free Range Chicken ($30) and a vegetable Ratatouille with a black rice risotto ($26)

You will be pleased to know that portions are not overwhelming, which leaves you no excuse to skip dessert

Aquaknox dessert!

AquaKnox dessert!

($12 to $13). There’s a very nice take on Banana Cream Pie but the star of the show, for my money, is the Butterscotch Bread Pudding, a seemingly humble dessert raised here to sublime heights.

If you really want to pull out all the stops, call ahead to arrange a “Tour of the Menu,” a four- or five-course tasting menu with optional wine pairings. The staff will discuss your dietary dos and don’ts and will put on a smashing show. Expect to pay up to $200 per person with pairings for this very special experience.

Aquaknox Wine Tower

AquaKnox Wine Tower

Wines by the glass range from $10 to $23, and the selection is excellent. Their Tavistock Pinot Noir, available nowhere else, is a personal favorite and pairs beautifully with the steaks. Choose a bottle and the prices quickly become stratospheric.

The wide-open entrance and the hip bar at the front only hint at the quiet elegance to be found in the restaurant’s interior. The seating is plush, the tables widely spaced, and the noise level blissfully muted. For extra calm request one of their discreet semi-circular booths.

The servers are extremely knowledgeable about the menu and you can trust their suggestions for wine pairings with your entrée. The service is friendly and familiar without being overbearing or intrusive.

AquaKnox will be a special occasion sort of place for most of us, but if you are a high roller you could do a lot worse than make it your dining headquarters during your Vegas stay.

AquaKnox, Global Water Cuisine
At the Venetian Resort Casino
(702) 414-3772
http://www.aquaknox.net

Photos courtesy of Tavistock Group.

A Review: Psst! Feelthy Acrobats — Absinthe in Las Vegas

Absinthe at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas

Absinthe at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS, NV – Everyone loves acrobats but not everyone will have a tolerance for the non-stop, filthy, vile, obscene, and often very funny patter that accompanies them in this sui generis offering on the Vegas Strip.

Absinthe is housed in what looks like a temporary storage shed in a courtyard at Caesar’s Palace. The interior looks every bit as ephemeral, with simple folding chairs packed around a stage (and I use the term loosely) that looks to be about the size of the average kitchen table.

In this postage stamp space, Absinthe showcases acrobatic acts from around the world and some of them are doozies. Acts change from time to time, but among recent acts four Russian guys, a speed skating duo from Germany, and two Amazonian aerialists from the Netherlands were especially gasp-worthy.

Check out this video clip:

The spectacle is intensified by your proximity to the action and the fact that these artistes work without nets or safety wires. If they fall, they fall on you.

Adding a bit of spice is a strip teasing chantoozie, the delightfully de-lovely Melody Sweets. But what has made Absinthe a Vegas sensation, I think, is its arch framing device.

The show is ostensibly being produced and emceed by ”The Gazillionaire,” a snaggle-toothed, brilliantined sleazeball played with great relish by Voki Kalfayan, a former Cirque du Soleil clown. His opening line is “If you are offended by words like f**k and s**t, you’re at the wrong f**king show.” Don’t say you weren’t warned.

What follows is a constant stream of vulgarity and sexual innuendo as The Gazillionaire seems to bend over backwards to offend everyone in the audience. And it works. The night I caught the show an older couple (she never cracked a smile) were driven out, an event that The Gazillionaire took as a personal triumph.

Assisting the emcee is one Penny Pibbets (Anais Thomassian) who vies with the host in the vulgarity sweepstakes. At one point, she performs a crazed sock puppet routine that is breathtaking in its obscenity.

The saving grace in all this is that the repartee is often hilarious and most folks in the audience get with the program and thoroughly enjoy themselves. As did I.

By the way, the title is apparently derived from the absinthe-drinking acrobat whose chair balancing act opens the show.

Absinthe at Caesar’s Palace
Flamingo Road and Las Vegas Boulevard
Las Vegas
(800) 745-3000
Tickets run from $99 to $134 plus tax and are available here.

 

A Review: ‘Love,’ Cirque du Soleil’s Beatles Show at the Mirage, Las Vegas

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds from The Beatles LOVE, Cirque du Soleil

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds from The Beatles LOVE, Cirque du Soleil

LAS VEGAS, NV – I entered with high expectations but, alas, I found myself merely in like with Love.

Cirque du Soleil’s high-powered homage to the Fab Four is chock full of Cirque’s trademark glitz and over-the-top surreal creativity but oddly lacking in the circus style acts that make most Cirque shows such crowd pleasers. It’s a lot of Soleil with little Cirque.

What we get instead can best be labeled interpretive dance. Unfortunately, while it is performed with Cirque’s customary excellence, the choreography has an unfortunate tendency to lapse into the overwrought and pretentious.

Here’s a Youtube preview:

The creators have peopled the ingenious and hyperactive set at the Mirage Resort and Casino with the usual array of post-modern oddities, many of whom seem to bear little relation to the Beatles canon. Yes, there is a briefly glimpsed Father McKenzie, but what’s with the little fat guy, or the tall bald guy in the white frock coat, or the muscular dude in the Michelin-Man rubber pants?

Like the intense intellectual artistes one imagines the Cirque creative team to be, they have placed heavy emphasis on the darker and more “poetic” pieces in the Beatles’ songbook. I, for one, would have liked to have seen and heard more of their earlier, bouncier, subtextless songs. The later, more surreal songs gain little from having their bizarre imagery translated into concrete form.

On the other hand, this approach gave the costume designers an opportunity to showcase their considerable skills. I thought at more than one point that they had more fun creating the show than I was having watching it.

The result is a musical mish-mosh that jumps backwards and forwards in time accompanied by a swirling blur of seemingly unrelated characters and imagery. More than once I was reminded of Shakespeare’s line about sound and fury signifying nothing – although to give the artists their due, I am sure a great deal of effort went into imagining every little thing that goes on during the show.

Still, the show has its moments. There is a bewitching dance featuring a lone male dancer and four white-clad women swirling about him on wires. The best numbers were the most circus-like, including an act featuring four furry-booted roller skaters and two half pipes, and a trampoline free for all reminiscent of a similar bit in La Nouba in Orlando.

Fortunately, the show closes on a high note with energetic renditions of Hey, Jude and All You Need Is Love. Which reminds me, did I mention the music? There’s lots of it, projected on a sound system to die for, and it was all written by perhaps the most talented pop group of the twentieth century. If the production fails to captivate you, you can always just close your eyes and let that magnificent music wash over you.

Tip: Those who didn’t damage their hearing during the Beatles’ heyday will be well advised to bring earplugs.

Cirque du Soleil – The Beatles LOVE
The Mirage Hotel & Casino
3400 Las Vegas Boulevard S
Las Vegas
(866) 963-9634
Tickets for the show range from $86.90 to $198. Click here for details.

Craving For Travel Off Broadway: A Review

CravingTravel1

Michele Ragusa plays Joanne, a travel agent among other characters, in “Craving For Travel.” (Photo by Joan Marcus)

There are plenty of laughs for everyone in Craving For Travel, the delightful comedy at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater on New York’s Theater Row, but travel agents will take special delight in the savvy inside jokes that lay bare the hidden aspects of the profession.

Co-writers Greg Edwards and Andy Sandberg (Sandberg also directed) have no apparent background in the travel industry, but they’ve done their homework well. They present us with Joanne and Gary, two high-powered luxury travel agents, formerly married, who are engaged in a bitter struggle to be named Travel Agent of the Year. Both are blessed (or perhaps cursed) with rosters of vastly wealthy clients who are insanely demanding as only the one percent can be.

[Read more…]

Richard III and Twelfth Night on Broadway: A Review

Richard III and Twelfth Night are staged under "original practices."

Richard III and Twelfth Night are staged under “original practices.”

At the Belasco Theatre, New Yorkers are being treated to an all-too-rare opportunity to see Shakespeare’s Richard III and Twelfth Night performed under the “original practices” rubric favored at the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London.

All costumes are authentically Elizabethan, meaning no zippers, no Velcro, no artificial anything. The sets are period as well; in this case mimicking a university dining hall where Shakespeare’s troupe sometimes performed with a minimum of props and scenery. Some seats are on stage recreating the intimacy of The Globe. And, of course, all the female roles are played by men.

If the historical recreation was all there was to these two productions it would probably be worth the price of admission. Fortunately there is much more on offer.

[Read more…]

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Alhambra Touring Tips

A panoramic view of Alhambra

Here’s another of a series of articles from Kelly Monaghan about his travels in Spain. 

If you’re going to Granada, you’re going to the Alhambra, a UNESCO World Heritage site and a monument to the glory that was Nasrid Spain before Christian forces wrested control of the Iberian peninsula back from the invading Moors. (It only took them about 700 years!)

If you’re going to Granada and you’re not going to the Alhambra, have your head examined.

Rather than attempt to reprise the guidebooks, I thought it might be more helpful to provide some tips that most guidebooks gloss over or leave out altogether. [Read more…]

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Restaurante Calle Real – Granada, Spain

This is the fifth in a series of articles by Intrepid Traveler publisher Kelly Monaghan as he travels through Spain after a transatlantic cruise aboard the Disney Magic.

Entrance to Calle Real.

The most convenient hotel to Granada’s Alhambra is the Parador de Granada. That’s because it’s actually in the Alhambra, housed in the restored 15th century Convent de San Francisco.

There’s a price to be paid for such convenience, of course. Room rates start at 336 euros for a standard room and rise to over 600 euros for a suite. But if you cannot afford to stay like the 1 percent, you may well be able to afford to eat with them.

The Calle Real restaurant in the Parador is open to the general public and serves delicious food at surprisingly affordable prices given the quality. We chose the 40 euro, five-course “tasting menu.” Considering that it’s possible to spend close to 40 euros on just a starter and an entrée here, that’s a real bargain. [Read more…]

Frederic Marès Museum, Barcelona

Here is the fourth in a series of articles by Intrepid Traveler publisher Kelly Monaghan as he travels through Spain.

Entrance to the Frederic Marès Museum. (Photos by Kelly Monaghan)

Frederic Marès (1893 – 1991) was a sculptor by profession and his commissions for religious and monumental statuary must have paid off handsomely to judge by the mind-boggling collection of high art and low-brow tchotchkes he amassed during his long life. Biographical information on this largely forgotten artist is hard to come by, but I suspect he came from money; either that, or great art and collectible ephemera used to go for a fraction of what it now commands. But let us not be crass. [Read more…]

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