The drive from Calgary to Vancouver is a 975-kilometre, 10-hour-plus push that I endure a couple of times a year. To relieve the tedium and replenish the batteries, it’s nice to have a few go-to places along the way for good coffee and a quick, wonderful bite to eat.
One such place that I nearly always stop at is La Baguette, in Revelstoke, B.C. It ticks all my boxes for what constitutes great road-food dining on a long-distance drive.
First is its location. Revelstoke is about a 4.5-hour drive from Calgary, an ideal distance for a break, coffee refill and snack or meal. Second, La Baguette is just a couple of minutes off the Trans-Canada Highway, with on-street parking.
Third is the flexibility. La Baguette is both a bakery and café/restaurant. That allows me to quickly pick up an Americano, a fresh croissant or a hearty turkey-yam wrap from the counter (my only complaint is sometimes the line moves a little slowly). La Baguette has recently expanded, adding a little sit-down restaurant with largely the same menu, if you want a longer break.
None of this would matter if the food wasn’t memorable. As I’ve stated in previous posts, La Baguette is one of my favourite bakeries/cafes in western Canada. The food is exceptional, the prices are reasonable (that turkey-yam wrap is about $7 and satisfies two reasonable appetites) and, most difficultly, the high standards are consistently met.
And despite a relatively short menu, there’s always something interesting and unusual to try. Like the exquisite healthy toast (featuring spelt flour, coconut and dates), poached eggs over crispy potatoes, pulled siracha chicken on a brioche bun or a Montreal-style bagel topped with pork rillette.
Did I mention the new restaurant has a little bar, featuring well-curated craft beers on tap, like the exceptional Twin Sails offerings from Vancouver suburb Port Moody?
That’s the only problem I have with this new sit-down café. It’s creating havoc with my driving schedule.
607 Victoria Road, Revelstoke, B.C.
Daily 6:30 am-7 pm (8 pm in summer)
Fort Nelson is in the middle-of-nowhere northeast British Columbia. Yeah, it’s on the Alaska Highway, and there’s lots of oil and gas activity. But it’s more than 1,000 kilometres from the nearest big city, Edmonton.
So when we pull into the town of 4,000 people after a week-long backpack in nearby Stone Mountain Provincial Park, I’m expecting it to be easy to find a place to eat, even on a Saturday night.
But the pub we go into is crawling with people attending a fundraiser. Strike one! Across the street, the local Boston Pizza is full to the rafters with folks watching the Conor McGregor-Floyd Mayweather “fight”. Strike two!
It’s now pouring with rain, and we’re starving for a pint, or two, and something with lots of carbo calories to wolf down. Almost in desperation, we head across the highway to a hotel, Woodlands Inn & Suites, with odd concrete hallways.
The lounge is quiet—not a promising sign—and the two beers on tap are definitely generic. Finally, the food prices are rather northern expensive.
All that is except for a prime-rib burger and fries for $15, which all five of us order. Sure, the extras, like bacon and cheese, are another $2 or $3 each. Still, there are enough fixings on the basic burger to keep the cost down.
Now, it’s always hard to objectively rate a restaurant when you’re ravenous and just off a big mountain trip. But we all agree these charbroiled burgers are excellent: juicy, flavourful and big. And lots of hot, greasy fries. Yum! Several of us even order a second pint of Kokanee Gold.
Woodlands Inn & Suites
3995 50 Avenue, Fort Nelson, B.C.
Every now and then on my road-food travels, I run across a joint that’s a perfect match of ambience and food quality, a spot that’s just a delight to be in, on all counts. 5 Points Market & Restaurant, just south of downtown Tucson, is that kind of place.
First, the location. 5 Points shares a historic building that was once a rag factory. Inside, it’s all lovely wood and exposed brick, with tables at the front, a little grocery at the back and an open kitchen in between. Right in front of the espresso machine (using local Café Aqui beans) is a mouth-watering display of decadent sweets, highlighted by a three-inch-high fruit pie.
But we’re here for breakfast, showcasing foods that are local, fresh and natural. The menu manages to be both original and brief: only eight items long. How about a breakfast salad, featuring butternut squash, roasted poblanos, over-medium eggs and heirloom greens? Or a bandito blanco, with poached eggs atop a mustard potato pancake and grilled, shaved ham? All perfectly executed and arranged.
So how good is 5 Points? I’d say if you’ve only got one Tucson food stop to choose, I’d make it this one.
The only worrisome thing is, as we are eating, I see a magazine ad listing the 5 Points Building for sale. Just please, don’t touch this gem of a restaurant.
5 Points Market & Restaurant
756 South Stone Avenue, Tucson, Arizona
Daily 7 am-3 pm
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
Best tour: Boneyard bus tour of mothballed war planes, Pima Air & Space Museum, 6000 East Valencia Road
Best dawn hike: Blackett’s Ridge, Sabino Canyon
Best two-ecosystem hike: Agua Caliente Hill, eastern edge of Tucson
Best road cycle: Mount Lemmon
Best city pathways: 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
Food and Drink
Best breakfast (also best restaurant): 5 Points Market, 756 South Stone Avenue
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
Best lengua tacos: Taqueria Pico de Gallo, 2618 6 Avenue
Best Sonoran hot dog: Ruiz, 1140 South 6 Avenue
Best sandwich/deli: Roma Imports, 627 South Vine Avenue
Best craft brewery: Iron John’s Brewing Company, 245 South Plumer Avenue
Best beer selection: Plaza Liquors & Fine Wine (2642 North Campbell Avenue), with honourable mention to Whole Foods (three Tucson locations)
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.