Best of Tucson on a spring road trip

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Descending the lovely Blackett’s Ridge trail, with the sprawl of Tucson behind

Many western Canadians, desperate to escape the ever-lingering vestiges of winter, often take spring road trips to U.S. hot spots like Palm Springs or Scottsdale or Moab. But after recently spending 10 early-April days in Tucson, I’d like to recommend the southern Arizona city as a worthy springtime destination for outdoor activities.

Sure, the temperatures can creep into the 30s Celsius (90s F), though the desert nights cool off remarkably. The trick is starting your hike, bike ride or other outdoor activity as close to sunrise as you can manage, get in a few hours of exercise and then spend the rest of the day more idly in the shade or air-conditioned comfort. Once the sun sets, you can re-emerge in the glorious night-time air for, say, a shirt-sleeve patio drink/dinner or outdoors concert.

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The trick to springtime Tucson hiking is staying out of the mid-day sun

You’ll definitely need a car to get around Tucson, which in that great western tradition of embracing sprawl, spreads in all its low-density glory to the very edges of a broad valley. Sneeze when you’re passing through Tucson’s downtown and you might miss it. (On the other hand, Tucson has long been a pioneer in fighting light pollution so as to preserve the night skies for area observatories.)

All this means is it takes awhile to drive anywhere, especially with traffic lights that leisurely go through their cycles. But the traffic never gets L.A. or Phoenix hellish, though it really shouldn’t given the city proper has a population of just 530,000 (1 million metro).

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Typical Tucson commercial street

On to the activities. I’m not a cyclist, but an amazing number of road bikers either live in Tucson or make dedicated trips to the city. They range from racers here for serious winter training to those seeking more leisurely rides along the tremendous 100-plus-mile Tucson Loop, which winds through the city.

The real test piece is the 26-mile-mile grind up Mount Lemmon, a climb of nearly 6,000 feet. Followed by a blazingly fast descent (average 4.3% grade), which obviously delights roadsters but would scare the road-rash bejesus out of me.

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Three of a bunch of people cycling the steep highway up Mount Lemmon

But we’re here for the hiking, and it’s wonderful in spring. There are hundreds of miles of trails scattered around the five mountain ranges surrounding Tucson, highlighted by the two chunks of Saguaro National Park that bookend the city. The trails go up ridges, follow washes and explore valley flats.

It’s principally Sonoran Desert hiking, featuring a wonderful foursome: the magnificent Saguaro (suh-wahr-owe) cactus, the orange-tipped, whip-like ocotillo and various forms of cholla and prickly pear cactus. Just don’t stumble onto them or accidentally grab their nettlesome thorns, or you’ll be like the dog that challenged the porcupine. Many of these species come into magnificent bloom in early spring, though the saguaro waits till May or June.

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Looking over the I-10 from the steep hike up Picacho Peak

But what about the food, Marathon Mouth? Of course, being this close to the border, there’s a good selection of Mexican cuisine, including the Tucson classic Sonoran hot dog, best served by parking-lot vendors. There’s also some great coffee roasters and a few fabulous microbreweries.

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Tucson’s famed Sonoran hot dog is better than anything you’ll find at a ballpark… and a lot cheaper, too

I’ve selected some favourite eats and drinks in my best-of-Tucson list below, with individual reviews coming in the weeks ahead.

Best museum: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson Mountain Park, 2021 North Kinney Road

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A giant agave (I believe) and saguaro at the fabulous Desert Museum

Best tour: Boneyard bus tour of mothballed war planes, Pima Air & Space Museum, 6000 East Valencia Road

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One of hundreds of mothballed war planes seen on the Boneyard bus tour

Best dawn hike: Blackett’s Ridge, Sabino Canyon

Best two-ecosystem hike: Agua Caliente Hill, eastern edge of Tucson

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Tucson’s Agua Client trail climbs above the cacti into treed grasslands

Best road cycle: Mount Lemmon

Best city pathways: Tucson Loop

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Cycling more than 100 miles of paved pathways on the Tucson Loop

Best through streets masquerading as country roads: Orange Grove and River Road

Best current events publication: Zocalo

Best local grocery: Bashas’

Best sunset view with a beer: overflow parking lot Sabino Canyon Recreation Area

Best farmers’ market: Rillito Park (Sundays)

Best live music venue: La Cocina, 201 North Court Avenue

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Downtown’s La Cocina is the perfect shirt-sleeved nighttime place for a brew and bluegrass

Food and Drink

 Best breakfast (also best restaurant): 5 Points Market, 756 South Stone Avenue

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5 Points Market is my #1 Tucson pick for best breakfast and lunch

Best coffee: Yellow Brick (3220 South Dodge Boulevard) and Presta (2502 North 1 Avenue) a tie, with the latter getting bonus points for cool factor

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Presto Coffee Roasters is cutting-edge cool, with great java to boot

Best lengua tacos: Taqueria Pico de Gallo, 2618 6 Avenue

Best Sonoran hot dog: Ruiz, 1140 South 6 Avenue

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Parking-lot Ruiz serves up great, cheep Sonoran hot dogs

Best sandwich/deli: Roma Imports, 627 South Vine Avenue

Best craft brewery: Iron John’s Brewing Company, 245 South Plumer Avenue

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The tasting room at microbrewer Iron John’s is the place to sample Tucson’s best beer

Best beer selection: Plaza Liquors & Fine Wine (2642 North Campbell Avenue), with honourable mention to Whole Foods (three Tucson locations)

Spring Road Trip to Tucson, Arizona

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Sonoran Desert landscape in Tucson, Arizona

With winter persisting well into April in Calgary, it was definitely time for a spring road trip to the U.S. southwest and its warming sun. The destination this time was all the way south to Tucson, Arizona—a trip involving plentiful hiking, eating and drinking.

But as they say, the journey is often as important as the destination. So before I delve more deeply into Tucson eats and drinks over the coming weeks, here’s a pictorial sampling of road life on the three-day route down and on the way back.

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Road trip breakfast of chilaquiles at MartAnne’s Burrito Palace in Flagstaff, Arizona

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Early April snowstorm in Flagstaff (elevation 7,000 feet), 2 hours north of Phoenix

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Hanging out with the cool coffee crowd at Lux Central in Phoenix

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Two jumpers in the Wave Cave near Apache Junction, east of Phoenix

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Peeking into the kitchen at Porter’s Cafe in Superior, Arizona

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Open-pit mine south of Superior, Arizona

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Outside Oracle Patio Cafe in Oracle, Arizona

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Chalet Village Motel in Oracle, Arizona

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Aquarium fish at the Desert Museum in Tucson

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Sculpture in Metal Arts Village, Tucson

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Homeward bound: Lunch line at colourful Lone Star Taqueria in Salt Lake City

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Tacos Antojitos Naucalpan in tiny Hamer, Idaho: There’s no place like it

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Run by the incomparable Carmen

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Tesla super charging station in whistlestop Lima, Montana on the I-15

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Hills outside one of my favourite U.S. towns, Dillon, Montana

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Hitchin Post, Melrose, Montana

Perfect Pre-Concert Drink-and-Dine Spot in Downtown Calgary

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Lamb burger and lentil soup at Sandstone Lounge in Calgary’s Hyatt Regency Hotel

It’s a familiar conundrum. You’ve got tickets for a downtown concert or play and want to meet for a drink and a bite before the show. But where to go that’s not too expensive, formal, busy, slow or loud?

Well, in downtown Calgary, my go-to place is the Sandstone Lounge in the Hyatt Regency Hotel, a hop and a skip from the cultural hub Arts Common. It ticks all the boxes of what I’m looking for in a pre-show drink-and-dine spot.

First, it’s casual and comfy. Seating is at small tables, by the fireplace, at the vintage long bar (especially if you’re flying solo) or, in summer, on the outdoor patio amongst historic sandstone buildings along Stephen Avenue Mall.

Second, you don’t have to shout to be heard, with quiet jazz on the sound system. Third, the service is always understatedly professional. On a recent visit, the waitress subtly unwrapped just the soupspoon from the napkin-wrapped utensils.

The critical fourth, Sandstone’s food and drink, is consistently good. There’s a whack of cocktails and wine selections, and it passes my craft-beer test with a nice list of local pints, including a fine, not-to-hoppy White Raven IPA from Edson’s Bench Creek Brewing.

The varied lounge menu ranges from house-spiced nuts to charcuterie to haddock bites. I go for a great lamb burger—featuring all-natural meat from Lambtastic Farms in Vulcan, Alberta—topped with balsamic onion relish, cumin gouda and tomato garlic aioli. This time, my side is a piping hot lentil soup, though the rice-flour-coated fries are darn good, too.

For downtown dinner-time Calgary, it’s reasonable value: $25 for burger/soup and a pint. All in all, an efficient yet relaxed prelude to a fantastic concert, featuring Blackie and the Rodeo Kings and special guest icon Ian Tyson.

Sandstone Lounge: Hyatt Regency Hotel
700 Centre Street SE, Calgary
Daily 10:30 am-midnight
403-717-1234

Lots of Soul in This Bonners Ferry, Idaho Restaurant

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Tracy delivers the love, and the food, at Soulshine in Bonners Ferry, Idaho

There isn’t a strong tradition of ethnic food in Bonners Ferry, Idaho. So, Tracy Truesdell and Josh Sherven decided to spice things up when they opened Soulshine (“Love and Food”), a little, vibrantly coloured joint in the town’s compact, historic downtown. Sampling their burritos, bowls and wraps is like taking a vicarious trip around the world through your taste buds.

Consider the chile verde, featuring Josh’s tomatillo salsa verde recipe from his days in Mexico. I get this flavourful, pungent sauce ladled over whole pinto beans (cooked in house), rice and guacamole. Africa is represented with a banana chutney, Thailand with a peanut-sauce medley and the Middle East with a Marrakesh salad. They’re even considering adding a Swedish pulled-pork dish as an occasional special.

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The chile verde has lots of Mexican kick

Tracy and Josh are a lively, friendly couple, happy to share their scratch-made global cuisine or give me a sample of a not-so-international dish—rich, house-made ice cream.

As I leave, I stare up at the sign over the door. “But where’s the love?”

“It’s in the food,” exclaims Tracy. And in the people.

Soulshine
6428 Kootenai Street, Bonners Ferry, Idaho
Weekdays 9 am-3 pm. Closed weekends
208-597-3326

Shocking: A Great Calgary Breakfast With No Lineup

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Here’s the breakfast lineup at Grumans Delicatessen at 9 am on a Saturday. Photo: Helen Corbett

The other day, I heard local restaurant review legend John Gilchrist, on his weekly CBC Radio Eyeopener segment, mention a two-hour lineup for Saturday breakfast at the new OEB location, in the heart of downtown Calgary. Two hours!

Now, I consider OEB the consistently best, most creative breakfast joint in Calgary. Enough so that I’m willing to wait, say, 15 minutes—while sweating in a winter parka—for a table at its original, Edmonton Trail site. Beyond that, I’m outta there.

The problem is most other good Calgary breakfast places also have lineups, unless I arrive when their doors crack open. Which is never earlier than 7 am and on weekends at the ungodly late hour of 8, when far too many folks are up and about.

You’d have thought Calgary’s recession would have whacked these lineups, especially when a lot of these “diners” are still charging  $16 or more for their upscale breakfast offerings. You’d have thought wrong.

Which is why Grumans Delicatessen is my go-to breakfast spot in Calgary. Even though they don’t open till 8 am on weekdays and 9 am on weekends. Even though you have to pay for downtown street parking after 9 every day but Sunday.

Why do I love it? Because every time I show up for breakfast, there’s never more than a handful of occupied tables. Even though the food is always excellent, innovative, plentiful and, by Calgary standards, affordable.

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The house-cured lox Benedict, with potato latkes is just $14. Photo: Helen Corbett

The only reason I can figure for this morning vacancy rate is Grumans is a little out of the way, at the unappealing eastern edge of downtown Calgary. Also, perhaps downtown workers don’t want to stop, that close to the office, for breakfast. Grumans is considerably busier at lunch, when office workers show up for the best smoked-meat sandwiches in the city.

But the breakfast fare is equally good, featuring Jewish deli standards like potato latkes, lox Benedicts and that Montreal hybrid, smoked-meat poutine. The best deal is the breakfast special: two eggs, double-smoked bacon, latkes, toast and good coffee, all for a grand total of $9, if you order before 9 am.

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This early-bird breakfast is $9, including good coffee; maybe the best morning deal in Calgary

With prices and food this good, you should be running down to Grumans. On second thought, maybe not. I don’t want to stand in line.

Grumans Delicatessen
230 11 Avenue SE, Calgary, Alberta
Weekdays 8 am-3:30 pm, weekends 9 am-3:30 pm.

Kickstarting the Day in Ketchum, Idaho

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Bigwood Bread Bakery adds a full menu to its baked goods in Ketchum, Idaho

I’m always a sucker for a good bakery. Especially if it also serves meals featuring fresh-from-the-oven breads and buns.

So I’m happy to discover not one but two Bigwood Bread Bakery locations in the little resort community of Ketchum, Idaho. Besides baking excellent hand-formed, naturally leavened loaves of, say, sourdough or vitagrain, Bigwood also makes breakfast sandwiches, house-made granola and steel-cut oatmeal with gingersnap walnut crumble.

Of course, I have to try something different—a warm croissant cradling a centre of bacon and gooey cheese. Good stuff.

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This gooey, cheesy croissant  hits the spot

Bigwood Bread Bakery
380 East Avenue and 271 Northwood Way, both in Ketchum, Idaho
Daily 8 am-3 pm, with 2:30 pm closing at Northwood location.

A good resort town like Ketchum/Sun Valley also has to keep the active folks well caffeinated. At Java on Fourth, they add a few twists to the usual coffee offerings. Like Bowl of Soul, a mix of coffee, hot chocolate and whipped cream. Or the Keith Richards: Mexican hot chocolate and four shots of espresso. That’ll kickstart your morning.

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Java on Fourth certainly wakes you up with a four-shot espresso

Java on Fourth
191 4 Street West, Ketchum, Idaho
Weekdays 6 am-3 pm, weekends 7 am-3 pm
208-726-2882