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Discovering Luxury in the Backcountry

Mention an overnight stay in the BC Backcountry in January and many think of hardened mountaineers huddled inside a small lightweight tent in sleeping bags designed for Antarctic expeditions. This kind of scene from a North Face Steep Series advert leaves many a mere mortal weekend skier heading for the après bar comes dusk rather than a chilly night under canvas surrounded by a howling icy wind.

However, this does not have to be the case. There is another option for the aspirational overnight backcountry adventurer that involves a log burning fire, a 3 course dinner, a pool table and a warm cozy queen bed all served up at 4500 feet surrounded by a cauldron of mountain peaks. The solution for those that fear frost bite or being uncomfortable close to their friends is a night at the Journeymen Lodge in the Callaghan Valley.

Journeyman Lodge

The wooden Journeyman Lodge is situated in the Solitude Valley where the tree line meets the alpine all set against the backdrop of the impressive Solitude Glacier. The lodge boosts 8 bedrooms, a well maintained living room (including pool table), kitchen and dinning room. Despite the location, the lodge has all the amenities expected in a city hotel including hot showers, heating, electricity (hours are limited) and a constant supply of freshy made cookies!

 

The development of the lodge is a fascinating story of human vision, strength and perseverance. With no road access, local craftsman (living in tents) built the lodge using materials delivered by helicopter or snowcat between 1996 and 1998.

Getting There

Entry to the lodge is through the Callaghan Valley, which is located about an hour’s drive from North Vancouver on Highway 99. The lodge base facilities can be found in the Ski Callaghan car park (turn left at the junction with Whistler Olympic Park).

Check in is between 9am and 11.30am at the Ski Callaghan base where a luggage transfer is provided. The ski into the lodge is between 12.5 to 13.7km km depending on your desired route– a blue run or a black run (Wild Spirit). The later is shorter but involves the steepest pitch for a Nordic run in North America (average 11%). Just remember though it is all downhill on the way back as you claw back your 580m elevation gain!!

Activities

Once you are up in elevation, there are some gentle green cross country routes that take you around Conflict Lake. The highlights are some up front and personal views of Solitude Glacier. You can also take out the complimentary snowshoes and break your own trail!

For those that like to earn their turns (ski touring), the surrounding powdery alpine offers some fantastic skiing opportunities without the crowds found at the local ski resorts. The lodge contains a guide on suggested lines to ride.

With tired legs, the lodge boast a rustic wood fired sauna a short 5 minute walk from the front porch. The warm ambiance is complimented by the traditional glacial creek drip and /or snow bank body roll with refreshes both body and mind instantly!!

Dining & Entertainment

While weary backcountry campers are tucking into a can of half heated beans, the guests of Journeyman Lodge are served up a delicious tray of appetizers by the wood burning fire at 5.30 in the lounge.  This is followed up by a 3 course dinner served in the candle light dining room!

Post dinner entertainment is by way of good conversation with other guests, a pool table, cards or numerous board games. The lights go out at 10pm literally as the generator goes off to be replaced by lanterns!

Top Tips

  • If you plan to visit on a winter weekend, book well ahead at the lodge is a popular destination. There is currently much more availability midweek.
  • If you are just heading up for 1 night, it’s worth getting a sled transfer in so you can enjoy the pristine alpine cross country skiing and touring.
  • Bring swimwear for the sauna, torches for lights out and your own tipple (no liquor is sold on site).

What makes this lodge unique beyond the luxuries not usually found in the backcountry, is the friendliness of the staff. From Brad the owner, to Darcy who manages the base operations, everyone takes the time to make you feel welcome and answer any questions you have to make your trip as memorable as possible. A truly unique backcountry experience which we intend to make an annual trip!

TOP 5 LONG WEEKEND ESCAPES FROM THE LOWER MAINLAND

The May long weekend getaway is a Canadian Institution, when holiday deprived Canucks load up their vehicles with as much stuff as possible and hit the road.

However, anyone who has lived in the Lower Mainland on Canada’s West Coast for at least one summer knows that the key to an enjoyable extended weekend break is long term planning! If you to wait to the week before, the campsites are full, the ferry reservation spots are gone and the hotel front desk can only provide a sympathetic ear rather than a room. Don’t be caught with your proverbial pants down – click here to find out my favourite 5 long weekend getaways to help you plan ahead!

Losing our Backcountry Virginity at Sundance Lodge, Banff

Having skied various hills in BC and Alberta for the past 5 years, we decided that for the 2015/16 winter season we were going to change up our mountain activities. Inspired by watching mountaineering movies at the Banff Mountain Film Festival, and armed with new packs and an unlimited supply of hand warmers we decided we were ready to explore the Canadian Rockies backcountry!

However, with limited avalanche training or experience of the true Canadian winter wilderness, we knew that our first tentative backcountry steps would need to be taken carefully into terrain where the relative risks were low.  We did our research and found that the Sundance Lodge in Banff National Park would make for a great first trip given the limited avalanche dangers on the route in.

Getting to Sundance Lodge

There are two starting points to get to the Lodge – either from Banff Trail Riders Stables (16km one way) or from Healy Creek car park (10km). We chose Healy Creek as we had hiked the Sundance Canyon Trail along the banks of the River Bow in the Summer – nothing to do with it being shorter!

We chose snowshoes as the main means of transport for our trip; the tortoise of winter travel methods – slow, steady and safe for unknown routes! Other viable options include cross country skiing with tracks set for the classic technique. Given that the route is packed snow thanks to skidoos ferrying supplies to the Lodge daily, another popular approach is using fat bikes that can be hired from Soul in Banff.

We took about 3.5 hours on snowshoes going at a leisurely pace to reach the Lodge, while those on skis / fat bikes beat us to the best fireside seats at the lodge, taking somewhere been 1.5 and 2 hours.

The Route

Starting from Healy Creek Trailhead at the base of the Sunshine Village Access Road, the route starts with a 2.5km flat trek to the junction with Brewster Creek Trail. This initial part of the trail opens up in a couple of sections to provide some great views along the the Bow Valley.

The hard works starts at the junction of Healy Creek and Brewster Creek trails, with a 2km continuous elevation gain of around 175m through the trees. We stopped for a few “rest photos.”

The trail then flattens out, and the winter sunshine starts to hit the route. Anywhere along here is a great time to stop for lunch.

The trail then drops into Brewster Creek, which suffered a lot of damage during the 2013 floods creating a large washout area over which 2 bridges have been built.

With a final 20 minute push, you round the corner to the sight of a warm cozy lodge with smoke bellowing from the chimney against the magnificent backdrop of the Sundance Range.

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Sundance Lodge

Our friendly host Steve, greeted us at the door with the welcoming offer of freshly baked cookies and hot chocolate / ice cold beer.

Room selection was on a first come first serve basis. Luckily for us (last to arrive), the 10 rooms in the lodge were only occupied by 3 other groups so we had a good selection of inviting rooms to choose from.

With feet warmed by the fire, a bottle of red purchased and acquaintances made with other guests, we headed to the dinner table for a culinary treat. A creamy mushroom soup, was followed by braised beef finished off with a Lodge made lemon meringue pie. The food was delicious, which was not a surprise when we learned Steve, a gregarious local character, has spent many years working as an executive chief in Canada and the US, and this was now his retirement gig!

The combination of board games, a good book and conversation with the other guests made for an enjoyable evening around the fire, which heats the whole Lodge.

Although the bedrooms had no heating the super thick down duvets kept us very warm in our comfortable beds, while strategically placed lanterns provided assistance to find the washrooms on the bottom level.

For those feeling brave enough to venture out at sunset, the light offers some gorgeous photos of the forest. Given  that the Lodge is 16km from the nearest town, the stars on a clear night are also a sight to behold. (nighttime photo credit: @travelswithjonny)

Breakfast was served around 9am – the pancakes, bacon, scrambled eggs and the best sausages we have tasted during our 5+ years in Canada, set us up well for the return journey!

Top Tips

  • There is no phone signal at the Lodge (or wifi) – the only communication with the outside world is via CV radio (for emergencies only).
  • Bring spare camera batteries as there is no way to charge them, and you will take lots of photos!
  • The winter hours are short, with the sun disappearing around 5pm during December, so make sure you give yourself enough to get to the Lodge before you are in need of a headlamp!
  • Only carry what you need – food and water for the trek in, a toothbrush and some Lodge clothes! A tasty lunch is provided for the journey out!
  • Remember to turn the lights off to conserve power as the Lodge is powered by solar power!
  • You need a Parks Canada pass for your parked car
  • Bring layers and hand/toe warmers as the journey in during winter can be a bit chilly!

Sundance Lodge was a fantastic location for our first backcountry foray combining a moderately challenging trek with the comforts of a comfy warm bed and tasty home cooked food!

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Time Stands Still at Emerald Lake

If you are needing to get away from it all and escape the endless stream of emails, texts, status updates, tweets and WhatsApp messages then Emerald Lake is the perfect place!

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Just a 20 minute drive off Highway 1 close to Field on the BC /Alberta border, Emerald Lake is hidden from the outside world by a cauldron of huge peaks.

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Summer Day Visit

Emerald Lake is a great spot to visit for the day. You can hire a canoe or head off on one of many signed hiking trails. The most popular is a 5.5km circular hike around the lake which has less than 100m elevation gain.

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Winter Lodge Stay

For those wanting to extend their time at this beautiful location you can always book a night or two at the Emerald Lake Lodge.

The rooms are super cosy and come with your own balcony and real fireplace! The good news is that the wood is delivered to your door so all you have to do is put down your glass of red and throw another log on the fire to keep it going! #ToughLife

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The food served at the lodge is sensational with game meats being a particular strength. Also the buffet breakfast is something that should not be missed!

The Lake freezes in winter which makes for some fun cross country skiing, while the summer hiking trails become excellent snowshoe tracks.

 

With all that activity the Lodge offers an outdoor hot tub and fire pit to aid your recovery!

Emerald Lake is a magical destination any time of year – just make sure you remember your camera as you never know who you might meet!

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72 Hours in Las Vegas

With so much to do in Las Vegas from partying to shopping, shows to fine dining, it can be hard to decide how to spend your time there! Our 3 day schedule which we put together for a mid-week break might give you some ideas of what can be achieved in a few days if you sacrifice a little sleep – and gives you a few tips on things to avoid too.

Day 1 (Tuesday)

Check In at MGM Grand – We stayed at the MGM Grand via a great midweek deal with Allegiant Air. With modern room designs, amazing pools, a great casino and enough restaurant options to last you a month, your only concern will be not getting lost in this giant complex!

Lunch at In and Out Burger – a cult Californian burger chain, this super cheap lunch option comes with secret codes for crispy fries and thousand island sauce. Highly recommend getting a taxi given its location on a major intersection unless you like dodging cars at high speed in the heat!

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Shopping at Fashion Show Mall – Vegas is littered with shopping malls but the biggest of them is the Fashion Show Mall next to Treasure Island. Worth bringing a spare bag to take your purchases home with!

Walking the Strip – You can’t visit Vegas without walking The Strip and admiring the sheer scale of the hotel resorts! Suggest you carry water and be prepared to be offered show tickets every 20 meters! Our favourite push back line was “saw it last night”……

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MGM Pools – you should make time each day to enjoy a few hours by one of the MGM’s many outdoor pools. With only 12 days of rain a year, and an average temperature of 40 degrees in summer, you are almost guaranteed warm sunshine! You are allowed to take in your own drinks (no glass), or the poolside bars offer refreshing cocktails. The main challenge is working out how to keep them cool!

Roller-coaster at New York New York – if you love the thrill of being thrown around at high speed, then a roller-coaster that goes through the New York New York casino is probably a must do. Cost is $14 per person for a 2-3 minute ride.

Gambling at…anywhere – You can gamble whenever you want, and when you do the drinks are generally free! We tried to give ourselves a time and budget limit as the casinos have no clocks and they pump oxygen in to keep you awake! #DontChaseThoseLosses

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Day 2 (Wednesday)

Buffet Lunch at Wicked Spoon (Cosmopolitan) – Vegas is famed for its Champagne Brunches but these tend to be only on the weekend. An alternative midweek choice is the elegantly decorated Wicked Spoon at the Cosmopolitan which serves to 2pm each day everything from eggs benedict, to roast meats, to Asian sides to a very impressive dessert selection. $26 per person including soft drinks makes this a must do! #Stuffed

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MGM Lazy River – the best way to recover from a 4 course buffet brunch is to head to the ¼ mile long lazy river at the MGM Grand. Make sure you hire a tube for $10 (half day) and enjoy a relaxing ride with a cool beverage in hand! Watch out for human dams (guys trying to pick up girls in their tube by blocking the river) and powerful waterfalls which will dent your beer can, and knock the sunglasses right off your head if shoved under one!

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Drinking game in a taxi…or anywhere – so if you forget your ID to pick up your show tickets, you might spend a bit of time in a taxi going back to get it so why not make the most of your time by grabbing a few drinks and playing some drinking games – recommended the Name Game! As visitors from Canada with its super strict drinking rules, the option to enjoy a beverage anywhere, whether in a taxi or walking down the street – is pretty exciting in itself!

Cirque Du Soleil – you can’t go to Vegas and not take in one of the legendary shows, which sell out fast. We booked Mystere at Treasure Island a couple of weeks ahead of time for around $100 person including all the booking fees. Our great centre seats were fantastic value for money and the amazing Cirque Du Soleil acts did not disappoint – although we still can’t work out what the plot was all about.

Senor Frogs Yards – we decided to ensure we did not go thirsty on our nighttime walk along The Strip so used a 2-1 voucher to buy a yard of pina colada each from Senor Frogs, as well as throw a few token shapes on the dance floor. You get to keep the foot long glasses and the hangover!

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Bellagio Fountain – the fountain runs every 15 minutes, but is most spectacular at night. Last show is at midnight so arrive early to get a good spot and the classic “I was here” Vegas snap!

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Day 3 (Thursday)

Gondola at Venetian Hotel – a good way to recover from a sore head is to take a 12 minute ride on the Venetian Gondola. There are 2 options – indoors (signposted) and outdoors (not very well signposted..). $18 per person. Staff are super friendly and will sing on request!

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Lunch at BurGR at Planet Hollywood – Gordon Ramsey has taken the humble burger and turned it into a mouth-watering treat at a reasonable price. The hog burger with its English cheddar and apple butter along with the hand cut truffle parmesan dusted fries were sensational, and left you wanting more!

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Wet Republic at MGM. This “day club” runs from Thursday to Sunday with world class DJs playing to packed pools. Entry is $20 for men and $10 on Thursday. There is a dress code and security check! Don’t forget your ear plugs, this place is loud!

Wolfgang Puck Bar and Grill at MGM – situated on the casino floor Wolfgang Puck Bar and Grill restaurant offered wonderful flavours with the Halibut being the stand out dish.

The Mix at The Hotel – if you want to see a phenomenal Vegas view with a great cocktail in hand, The Mix on the 64th floor of The Hotel at Mandalay Bay is your perfect spot. Leave your fear of heights at home, don’t forget your camera and make a visit to the bathroom for the best washroom view of your life.

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Tiesto at Hakassan nightclub (MGM) – a world renowned DJ playing one of Vegas’ latest and hottest clubs meant we were more than happy to fork out $50 for men and $30 for the girls on tickets. However, with a 1 hour wait for the ticket line and a dance floor which could only be accessed by those paying extortionate prices for table services this place was more about image than dance music. We left after a couple hours after being only able to dance in the packed gangways with no view of the main stage. Overpriced and over-hyped. #Avoid.

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Checking out – always make sure you check your bill, and don’t be tempted to do an express checkout. It took the super unfriendly and unapologetic front desk assistant 3 attempts to get our bill correct. The MGM has great rooms, a superb central location on The Strip and fantastic outdoor pools, but the front desk service on check out was less than ideal.

Top Tips for Vegas
– Get taxis where you can as it takes longer than you think to walk given the maze of lights and walkways. Budget around $10 per taxi
– Plan a bit in advance – the hottest shows and clubs sell out
– Sleep when you get home – there is just too much fun to be had!!

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36 Hours in Montreal

Earlier this month I was lucky enough to be invited on a flying visit to Montreal. Montreal might be in the same country as our hometown of Vancouver, but from a political, linguistic, cultural and culinary perspective, it is very much French, making it the perfect Canadian city escape.

I stayed at the Hotel Le Germain. Perfectly located on Mansfield Street in the heart of Downtown Montreal, it’s ideally located for business meetings and not far from the shopping of Sainte-Catherine Street. A boutique that is trendy without being pretentious, the rooms are superbly designed with chic but understated décor and extremely comfortable beds. The service was exceptional during my stay, and every single one of the staff I met could not have been more helpful.

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The hotel’s restaurant, Laurie Raphaël, is highly acclaimed for its locally inspired menu of appetizer size specialities. The subtle flavours of my halibut, with polenta stuffed zucchini flower were particularly noteworthy, as was the progression of selected Québec cheeses. The flawless service continued with our server at Laurie Raphaël whose knowledge of the regional cheese producers and wine list was highly impressive. A note of caution, however – this isn’t your usual hotel restaurant to enjoy a quick business dinner. You will want to give yourself a couple of hours to really enjoy the experience.

My second dinner in Montreal was equally memorable. On the recommendation of the hotel’s concierge I headed over to Brasserie T, the sister restaurant to a veteran of the Montreal restaurant scene, Toque! You can’t miss the location  – a modernist structure with bright interior design, in the centre of the Quartier des spectacles. Tonight it was buzzing and I was lucky enough to jump a queue of 10 people waiting for tables, having secured myself a spot at the bar. Tonight I kept my menu choice traditional –an excellent steak frites, followed by crème caramel. Brasserie T is known for its quality ingredients, and in simple dishes like this, it really shows.

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Friends who know the city had told me I was particularly lucky that my trip coincided with the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, and they were absolutely right. After dinner, we caught a free concert by Canadian singer Kellylee Evans. I am no jazz expert, so it would do her voice a disservice to describe it as anything other than soulful and beautiful. But the relaxed atmosphere, with couples, families, tourists and locals all dancing and enjoying the music really captured the cultural vibe of the city, and was refreshing coming from Vancouver where, post Stanley cup riots, the fun police are always lurking at city outdoor events ready to pour out any “festive” spirit you may have!

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The next morning I had a few hours to enjoy the city before catching my flight, so I headed to Vieux-Montreal, for me the City’s must-do. Strolling along the riverfront and through cobbled streets and squares, I could easily have been in one of the small French towns of childhood vacations. Top tips for Vieux-Montreal. Le Magasin General is a gorgeous independent gem full of unique accessories, jewellery, décor and gifts. And believe it or not, perhaps my favourite meal of the trip in a French city was in fact Italian! BEVO Bar and Pizzeria is a trendy new take on a firewood pizza restaurant, with a terrace perfect for people watching over lunch. Since moving to Canada I have found a really good thin-crust pizza hard to track down. This one nailed it, with simple flavours, delicious fresh mozzarella and basil and perfectly crisp dough.

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A 36 hour visit was nowhere near long enough to enjoy this amazing city, but it was enough of a taster to ensure I will definitely be back for a longer visit!

Road Trip to Cannon Beach, Oregon

On the coast of Oregon lies a hidden gem, a place so stunning in its geography but so tranquil in its environment that it is a must visit for any true West Coast traveller!

We discovered the oasis that is Cannon Beach when our Vancouver friends invited us to spend New Year’s Eve with them in Oregon. Knowing absolutely nothing about this seaside town a 600 km drive from Vancouver we agreed to get involved in the road trip as we knew there would be a great party at the end of it!

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Getting To Cannon Beach

After an overnight stop off in Seattle to take advantage of the US’s super cheap (relative to Canada) shopping at Seattle Premium Outlets, Alderwood Mall & Bellevue Square, we put the pedal to the metal and headed down the I5 through Washington to the Oregon border where the mighty Columbia river separates the 2 states. We quickly realised the flaw in our plan to stop for lunch in Longview when we discovered that the town might have an attractive sounding name for tourists but was actually more of an industrial wasteland which you would want to escape as quickly as possible…so we did, over a very dubious steep, narrow and old bridge called the Lewis and Clark Bridge.

The final leg of the inbound journey along highways 30 to Astoria and 101 to Cannon Beach was relatively slow given that these highways are only single lane roads and Astoria has about 10 miles of 20mph speed limits!! Why you may reasonably ask? You probably want to give yourself 2 hours to cover the 75 miles from Longview to Cannon Beach.

Our Accommodation

With a mixed group of 14 people and 4 dogs of varying obedience (Helena was greeted by a big lick to the face by one pooch) we stayed in 2 separate houses close to the beach which were surprisingly inexpensive.

The “mothership” house had 4 bedrooms, an all-important 8 man hot tub with a view of the ocean, sufficient entertainment space to hold a New Year’s party, a large flat screen TV for playing MTV and a table long enough for a beer pong tournament – the locals did not like the rookie Brit taking the title! We paid around $400 a night for the whole place.

The “overflow” non-dog dominated house slept 6 (2 bedrooms), was nicely furnished with a gas fire, had 2 bathrooms and an outdoor bbq. It was $130 a night for the house in January and was super quiet. This would be a great place to stay in summer with a family.

Cannon Beach

Cannon Beach is geographically stunning and the ambience relaxing. The town planning has been carefully managed to create a kind of charming chocolate box feel with pretty low rise wooden architecture which is in contrast to some of its seaside neighbour towns.

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The highlight for us was simply a walk along the beach on a sunny day. The views of the 235ft Haystack Rock were simply phenomenal as the water crashed around it creating a hazy, almost mysterious,  effect. The memory card on the camera was quickly filled up (see below). We were told the stack is accessible at low tide in the summer, but you need to be careful at high tide as your boots may get covered by the onrushing waves!

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The Pacific Ocean also offer visitors the chance to try their hand at surfing, although given the size of the 20ft winter waves it was something us novices chose not to chance!

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The town is also recognised as being one of the Northwest’s best art towns, and every June the town hosts a famous sand castle building contest.

Where to Eat

On our first night in Cannon Beach we ate at Lumberyard Bar and Grill. The wooden décor inside is visually impressive. The food was decent without being outstanding. The Northwest Fish Tacos were a tasty choice!

After our long 3 hour walk on the beach we stumbled upon the super friendly and homely Seasons Café where the staff served up some delicious eggs benedict with proper hash browns and unlimited coffee.

The Scenic Drive Home

Nursing the excesses of New Year and facing a 600km drive along the less than friendly Interstate, we decided to take the scenic route home along the coastal highway 101.

This involved crossing the spectacular Astoria – Medgar Bridge which is about 5km long and very windy, but has stunning views of the estuary and surrounding mountains.

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On our route north we also stopped off at Cape Disappointment State Park whose name is definitely ironic!

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After that followed 50km of scenic coastal driving along twisty highway roads where every corner was a photo opportunity. We eventually lost the scenery at Raymond (no need to stop) before heading up to Aberdeen (commercial). We did have one brief stop at a viewpoint just outside Aberdeen but the sound of hunters shooting left us running back to the car!

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Summary

A great road trip to a beautiful and relaxing beach town; Cannon Beach is definitely a great place to enjoy with friends and family all year round.

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