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.

Cartagena: City of Many Colors

The San Felipe de Barajas fortress seen at night.

The San Felipe de Barajas fortress seen at night.

CARTAGENA, Colombia — It won’t be long before Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast will be 500 years old. It was a Spanish colonial city, founded in 1533, a fact brought to life in surviving architecture.

The city boasts a charming UNESCO-protected Old Town with historic churches and houses, nearly seven miles of city walls and a fortress described as the largest in the Americas.

In addition, because of its location on the Caribbean, Cartagena is a sun ‘n’ fun destination and a cruise port.

A section of Cartagena’s nearly seven miles of city walls. The orange exterior of the Santa Teresa Hotel is visible at center rising above the walls.

A section of Cartagena’s nearly seven miles of city walls. The orange exterior of the Santa Teresa Hotel is visible at center rising above the walls.

The history, in combination with the climate and beaches associated with a resort, makes Cartagena one of Colombia’s most popular destinations for Americans. It also is one of several Colombian cities with a tourist police unit.

I visited Cartagena for the first time in mid-2012 with a small group of travel writers.

We experienced the city in several ways:

A rich pink for the trim offsets the blue of this house at the corner of the Plaza de San Diego in Cartagena’s Old Town.

A rich pink for the trim offsets the blue of this house at the corner of the Plaza de San Diego in Cartagena’s Old Town.

• For starters, the historic Old Town, mostly surrounded by colonial-era walls, is extensive, colorful and very appealing. I made several solo excursions, sometimes in the early morning, walking through picturesque squares to admire balconies, bright paint jobs and soaring church steeples. Side streets are narrow, our hosts said, because the houses provide shade for each other.

I walked on the city walls, whose first sections were constructed in the late 16th century, for stunning views of the Old Town, as well as the city’s harbor and the high-rises of the nearby and recently developed New City. About 30 percent of Cartagena’s 1.2 million people live in the Old Town or the New City, our guide reported.

A religious procession in the streets of Cartagena’s Old Town.

A religious procession in the streets of Cartagena’s Old Town.

During one stroll, I stumbled onto a religious procession, as well.

• We were guided through the city’s largest fortress, San Felipe de Barajas, on the rocky crag overlooking the city and so well fortified it was unconquerable.

It is beautiful when lighted at night, but by day, the gray stone structure is not very pretty. Rather, it is dramatic in size and complexity, with great long slanting walls to a very green lawn below. Our guide advised the fortress covers 15,000 square meters, or about 3.7 acres.

It originated in the 17th century to protect Cartagena from pirates and was enlarged in the 18th. Our visit included climbing to several levels and descending steep steps to look at hideouts for men, food and ammunition deep inside.

• We sailed in Cartagena’s harbor late one afternoon aboard a 64-foot catamaran.

The Inner Harbor with a few of the high-rises that typify some of Cartagena’s modern neighborhoods.

The Inner Harbor with a few of the high-rises that typify some of Cartagena’s modern neighborhoods.

This was a slow and smooth ride, departing from a dock in front of the Old Town walls and heading into the harbor area that serves cruise ships. The sailing provided sightings of a lot of New City’s skyscrapers as we headed away from the Old Town.

One of Cartagena’s horse-drawn carriages taking visitors on a sightseeing ride in the Old Town.

One of Cartagena’s horse-drawn carriages taking visitors on a sightseeing ride in the Old Town.

• Our group also sampled a very popular sightseeing mode — the horse-drawn carriage, which conveyed us up and down the narrow streets of the Old Town in the early evening. It’s another leisurely way to look at the city.

Such tours aren’t available during the heat of the midday, to protect the horses.

• Colombia produces 65% of the world’s gem quality emeralds, according to our host at the Joyería Caribe Emerald Museum and Factory in Cartagena.

We toured this site, a business that designs, manufactures and sells jewelry made with Colombian emeralds. Its plant includes a 4,000-square-foot jewelry exhibition area, plus a small museum with displays illustrating

Gold and red are popular colors for houses in Cartagena’s Old Town. These are on Plaza de los Coches, once the site of the city’s slave market.

Gold and red are popular colors for houses in Cartagena’s Old Town. These are on Plaza de los Coches, once the site of the city’s slave market.

the look of emeralds in the rough and exhibiting pre-Hispanic emerald and gold objects.

We were advised that Cartagena is 900 miles from the emerald mines in the Andes but that Bolivar state, where Cartagena is located, produces seven tons of gold a year.

Cartagena was the place to buy jewelry!

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Dining One’s Way Through Madrid

One of numerous food displays inside the San Miguel Market near the Plaza Mayor in central Madrid.

One of numerous food displays inside the San Miguel Market near the Plaza Mayor in central Madrid.

MADRID — In Spain, the land of tapas, it’s awfully easy to make food a theme for a holiday.

The Royal Palace in the historic center of Madrid, a must-see regardless of special interests.

The Royal Palace in the historic center of Madrid, a must-see regardless of special interests.

During my recent visit to Madrid with a small press group, the sightseeing included traditional elements, like the Prado, the Royal Palace, the Plaza Mayor and other monumental and historic attractions.

However, our itinerary was laced with lesser-known choices that may hold special appeal for foodies, including the following:

• Casa Mira, Carrera de San Jeronimo 30, is a top spot for turrones, a Christmas sweet made with almonds, honey and egg white. It resembles marzipan.

A plaque on the sidewalk in front of Casa Mira tells passersby it has been in business more than 100 years in the same place, using an unchanged decor, making and selling the same products.

 

 

Madrid presents these plaques to all local businesses that satisfy these criteria. Casa Mira originated on its current site in 1855.

Wares offered for sale at La Violeta, a tiny Madrid shop where violets, the flowers, and violet, the color, provide the overriding theme for candies and other merchandise.

Wares offered for sale at La Violeta, a tiny Madrid shop where violets, the flowers, and violet, the color, provide the overriding theme for candies and other merchandise.

• La Violeta, a candy shop on Canalejas Square since 1915, won’t wait long to get its plaque. This tiny shop, where many things are the color of violets, has made candies, including one using violet petals, since its founding.

We admired and photographed the goods, then bought a sample.

• A visit to Lhardy Restaurant, Carrera de San Jeronimo 8, is a trip to

The Lhardy Restaurant, which still shows off the froufrou-y look of its 1839 origins.

The Lhardy Restaurant, which still shows off the froufrou-y look of its 1839 origins.

1839 — or a movie set — a little overdone by modern standards, with wood-paneled walls, red velvet upholstery, gaslights (now wired) and silver sets on sideboards.

That describes the upstairs dining room, said to have hosted a 19th century queen and her lovers.

The ground floor was a tiny space where customers helped themselves to sweets from circular display boxes, as well as coffee, then paid on the way out.

• Our group gleefully sampled churros dipped in thick chocolate, which the Chocolateria San Gines, on a sliver of a street next to the Church of San Gines, has served here since 1894. As it should, the decor provided a sense of its Gilded Age origins.

Madrid’s City Hall, and formerly the headquarters for Spain’s postal service, at Plaza de la Cibeles.

Madrid’s City Hall, and formerly the headquarters for Spain’s postal service, at Plaza de la Cibeles.

There were others in the 100-plus club, including a cape maker (where we were told then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shopped for herself after daughter Chelsea had spotted the business on a tour), a shoemaker and a tavern.

We lingered at Boton near the Plaza Mayor because Guinness crowned it the world’s oldest restaurant. It has had the same decor, same kitchen, same menu since its founding here in 1725, and its specialty is suckling pig.

However, by Old World standards, Boton isn’t terribly old, and the Guinness listing has many challengers.

Also just outside the Plaza Mayor, we visited San Miguel Market, a beautifully refurbished old covered market site. It is a glass-sided Beaux-Art ironworks structure dating from 1916. The food displays were gorgeous and, it seemed, endless. Visitors and locals take meals here, too.

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Marseille Planning: Fix It or Leave It

 

Chateau d’If, made famous by Alexandre Dumas’ 19th century novel, “The Count of Monte Cristo.” The book’s story was fictional but the fortress has been used as a prison.

Chateau d’If, made famous by Alexandre Dumas’ 19th century novel, The Count of Monte Cristo. The book’s story was fictional but the fortress has been used as a prison.

MARSEILLE, France — Our tour guide arrived 40 minutes late for morning sightseeing here in France’s oldest (2,600 years) and second-largest city.

He quickly explained himself: He was badly hung over after having spent the previous evening drinking toasts to the world’s largest cargo ship, which had pulled out of Marseille the previous afternoon.

I am not making this up. [Read more…]

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