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Destination: Go West

Where to stay

1. The Venetian Las Vegas, The Strip: This luxury resort re-creates the Italian city of Venice with a wide range of dining options, entertainment, pools and casino gambling, along with indoor and outdoor canals. www.venetian.com

2. Desert Pearl Inn, Springdale, Utah: This motel has been recently remodeled with rooms that feature high-end finishes, exposed wood beams in the second-floor units and kitchenettes. The outdoor pool offers stunning views, and a free tram runs from the street in front directly to the national park. www.desertpearl.com

3. North Rim Lodge: Forever Resorts, a private vendor, handles reservations for the park with accommodations ranging from larger Western Cabins; to midsize Pioneer Cabins, with a queen bed and two bunk beds; to smaller Frontier Cabins and motel rooms, furthest from the main lodge. Reservations can be made 13 months in advance and places go quickly. Note: The North Rim is open only from mid-May to mid-October. grandcanyonforever.com

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Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012, 8:58 p.m.
 

Sheer rock cliffs stood on either side of the narrow canyon with cool, murky water already reaching to my knees when we reached a bend in the Virgin River.

Moving ahead would mean hiking further into the river bed, with water cresting up to my chest, but turning back seemed worse — missing out on whatever uncertain adventure waited around the next turn.

Our entire trip seemed to hinge on these unexpected moments.

We had headed West with the vague idea of wanting to see the Grand Canyon, and yet, we ended up horseback riding like Billy Crystal in “City Slickers,” exploring spiritual vortexes to test the energy supposedly emanating from the ground and challenging ourselves to swim in as many pools as possible at our Las Vegas resort.

Sin City had been an easy choice for our family vacation. With four travelers — my wife and me, plus our children, ages 12 and 9 — we saved about $150 per person on airfare over Phoenix.

Plus, even though neither of us gamble, my wife and I were intrigued by the promise of gaudy, over-the-top luxury.

The first surreal moment occurred as our plane descended over the desert: I looked out the oval window across the aisle to see a replica of the New York City skyline looming in front of an Egyptian-styled pyramid with a search light emanating from its peak.

Andrew Conte is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at andrewconte@tribweb.com or 412-320-7835.

Vegas

Las Vegas copies from the world's finest wonders but manages to end up as a city like no other.

Las Vegas did not disappoint as a family-friendly destination either, although no one could claim that its crowded streets are welcoming for the prudish.

Awkward moments occurred as I walked the sidewalks holding my daughter's hand on one side and fending off hawkers trying to hand me business cards for escort services with the other. Also, note to parents of adolescent boys, Treasure Island Las Vegas has sexed up its nightly pirates show.

At The Venetian Las Vegas hotel, where we stayed, the adults reveled in carefree relaxation with poolside drink service while the children thrilled at exploring at least 10 pools and hot tubs.

One evening, we dined at Otto Enoteca Pizzeria — a restaurant by Joe Bastianich and Mario Batali — in the re-created Piazza San Marco.

Through the desert

After two days of hyper stimulation in Las Vegas, we eagerly headed out into the desert — but only after taking time to pack groceries and fill up the gas tank. While it has become hard to drive out of cellphone range in many places, we expected to find isolation enough to at least create mild anxiety for people more accustomed to the East Coast.

Our ultimate destination for the entire trip remained the Grand Canyon, but we booked a layover at Utah's Zion National Park for the singular reason that it seemed about halfway from Las Vegas. To our surprise, these throwaway days turned out to be the highlight of the entire vacation because of the tactile sensations the park offers, with its jagged cliffs reaching suddenly out of the ground.

Inside the park, visitors start out at the canyon floor rather than gazing down at it from a distance. We spent our morning horseback riding on a guided tour that accommodates people who had never ridden.

Then, after a picnic lunch outside the Zion main lodge, we traveled by tram to the northern end of the park and hiked a paved one-mile path to reach the wide crevice cut by the Virgin River. With air temperatures in the low-80s, we joined the many people who were hiking further into the river gorge with its smooth walls rising up on each side. Ultimately faced with the decision to move on into deeper water, I lifted our backpack off of my shoulders, held it high over my head and waded in up to my chest. Of course, I had little choice anyway if I wanted to keep up with our children, who already had plunged forward. Our daughter had to float in places where she could not reach the bottom.

Alone at times, we discovered crevices large enough to climb inside, and a rocky beach where we stopped to eat an apple and snacks.

Our daughter, working to earn a junior park-ranger badge, collected small bits of trash throughout the day and filled out an activities book about the park. Our day ended with her getting sworn in and receiving a plastic badge modeled after the real thing.

The Grand Canyon

We had come all this way with one goal — to see the Grand Canyon.

The park's North Rim sits on the side of the Grand Canyon called the Arizona strip, separated from the rest of the state. Unlike the busier South Rim, the North Rim discourages day-trippers with its distance from surrounding cities and limited overnight accommodations.

In late winter, I had called to reserve a cabin and secured one of the last ones available for our dates in late July. The park's private-sector vendor starts accepting reservations months ahead of time, and the spots go quickly.

But the North Rim rewards those who are willing to go out of their way.

Immediately, the cliff-side main lodge offers sweeping views of the canyon from an area close to its northeastern extremes. Rocking chairs and benches stretch across the verandas on either side of the main building, inviting visitors to simply take a few moments to quietly soak in the view that stretches for miles.

On our first night, we enjoyed a surprisingly gourmet dinner in the lodge restaurant, which also requires reservations months in advance, and then wandered outside to see the sun setting over the canyon to the west.

The next morning, I rose early — not to watch the sun rise, but to see the sunlight creeping down the canyon walls. I had no trouble staking out an area to myself for quiet meditation. Yet, sadly even here, I had a strong cellphone signal and had to resist the urge to check my phone for emails.

Signs throughout the park warn visitors not to attempt a casual hike to the bottom of the canyon. We headed out to the trailhead and wandered down about three-fourths of a mile, mindful that the walk back up would be more challenging.

Other well-marked trails lead along narrow walkways along the tops of cliffs to spectacular vistas. And, in the afternoon, when our children tired of walking, we enjoyed a car ride to outlying overlooks. Many times we seemed to have the canyon to ourselves.

After the hustle of Las Vegas and the hands-on exploring of Zion, the Grand Canyon surprised us by offering quiet moments for reflection.

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