I discovered Tucson and a cool new area of Florida. I had the dreamiest boat ride of my life in Kauai. I even met the son of one of the fabled Marx Brothers at a golf course surrounded by a trailer park in suburban Palm Springs.
It was quite the year for travel to the U.S. for this cowboy, with trips to Florida, Hawaii, California, Vegas, Arizona, New York and more. Here are some highlights for my 2016 U.S.A. Jimmy Awards.
BEST CITY DISCOVERY: I had never spent any time in downtown Tucson until November. I fell in love with this southern Arizona city’s artsy spirit, food and craft beer offerings and had a fabulous bike ride with Tucson Bike Tours. Three thumbs up!
BEST RESTAURANT: Beauty and the Essex, located at the Cosmpolitan Hotel on the Strip in Vegas. Sensational tuna poke tacos, scallops and so much more.
COOLEST GOLF EXPERIENCE: Riding one of the golf boards at Princeville Resort on Kauai. It’s kind of a cross between a surf board and a Segway, and it’s a half ton of fun. A stunning golf course, too.
BEST DRINK: The barrel-aged Manhattan at Hacienda Del Sol in Tucson. They also have great horseback rides and a fantastic restaurant. Try the scallops or the lamb, roasted over a pecan fire.
COOLEST BAR VIEW: Not only does the fifth floor lobby bar at the W Hotel Downtown New York in lower Manhattan have great views, their happy hour is a welcome bargain for NYC.
NEWEST FLORIDA DISCOVERY: I had somehow never made it to the Gulfport neighborhood of St. Petersburg until a trip early in the year. It’s a lively, fun and funky part of a great state.
MOST IMPRESSIVE HOTEL ROOM: I somehow landed the presidential suite at the St. Regis Princeville in Kauai. It was roughly the size of Delaware (okay, Prince Edward Island for you Canadian readers) and was a 10.2 on an opulence scale of 1-10. And with an insanely beautiful view of Hanalei Bay, to boot.
NEW SAN FRANCISCO VISTA POINT: I’d never heard of Corona Heights until a visit in November, when my son and daughter-in-law and my daughter and I found this hill located between Haight Ashbury and The Castro district. There’s a former quarry on top of the hill, so you’ll find cool, exposed rocks to clamber on for a great Instagram photo.
MOST AWESOME DESSERT: A cake that’s designed to look like a flower pot at Jardin, a gorgeous spot inside the Wynn Encore in Las Vegas. The exterior shell looks like plastic but it’s edible. As are the real flowers on top.
SURPRISE BAR EXPERIENCE: I was in Palm Springs with my Dad and we wanted to hit an old-time piano bar. A retail worker suggested we pop in to AJ’s on the Green, located inside the Date Palm Country Club. “It’s kind of inside a trailer park,” he said. I was immediately intrigued. Then I did some research and found out the piano player was Bill Marx, son of Harpo Marx of the Marx Brothers. He’s a lovely piano player and a wonderful host and we had a fantastic evening. Even better was a follow-up phone chat I had with him.
BEST SUNSET: Pier 60 at Clearwater Beach, Florida. Awesome. And one of the best beaches in the U.S., too.
MAYBE THE BEST GOLF DEAL IN THE USA: Kukui O Lono on Kauai. Last I heard it’s $11 for nine holes. Not a great course, but truly stunning views.
BEST PAELLA: The Conrad Hotel in New York. A lovely restaurant with an awesome rooftop bar.
FAVOURITE NEW DRIVE: Gates Pass in Tucson. The road rises and falls and twists and turns as you navigate through high hills studded with towering Saguaro cactus.
FAVOURITE DESERT HIKE: A tie between Pima Canyon in Tucson and at the Spur Cross Recreation Area in north Scottsdale.
BEST POOLSIDE RESTAURANT: Tidepools at the Grand Hyatt on Kauai. Grab a table at dusk when the tiki torches are lit.
FAVOURITE KAUAI HIKE: The Na Pali Coast Trail is always awesome. This time, though, I found an easy, rewarding and beautiful hike just south of the Grand Hyatt Resort, as well.
BEST BROADWAY PERFORMANCE: Alan Mingo is outrageously wonderful as the lead performer in Kinky Boots. It’s a fantastic show with many great performances and fun music.
TOP AMERICAN SPA: The Boulders in Scottsdale has a beautiful setting and a lovely pool. Great massage treatments, too.
BEST PASTA: The simple but delicious pasta with silky pomodoro at Andiron Steak in Summerlin, Nevada; just outside of Las Vegas. They also do a killer waffle with baked macaroni and cheese inside.
SURPRISE FOOD DISCOVERY: The Hail Kale Salad at Market on South, a vegan/vegetarian spot in surprising Orlando. It comes with garlicky kale, blackened corn, pickled watermelon rind, red onion and housemade, multigrain croutos. Fantastic.
NEWEST LAS VEGAS ATTRACTION: The Park is a wonderful spot that leads from The Strip to the new NHL arena. It’s filled with cool restaurants with outdoor seating, nice benches and cool sculptures and fountains. Similar to The Linq pedestrian area further north, but with a bit more natural feel. Both, however, are hugely welcome changes for Las Vegas.
BEST BURGER: The Cowboy Burger at Relish Burger Bistro at the Phoenician Hotel in Scottsdale, with fried onion rings, pickled jalapenos, bacon, sharp cheddar and house-made steak sauce. Oh, and crispy tater tots on the side.
PRETTIEST POOL: The Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona; a shimmering beauty.
FAVOURITE NEW CALIFORNIA TOWN: Tiburon has a cool, tiny downtown and fun, seaside restaurants without the crowds you usually find in Sausalito. Lovely views of San Francisco Bay, too.
BIGGEST HOTEL SURPRISE: The Aloft in downtown Orlando is super-sleek and extra chic. Great margaritas, too.
BEST HOTEL REMAKE: I never quite understood the former design at the Four Seasons Resort Lana’i in Hawaii. It was a mishmash of Asian and European influences that always felt wrong to me. The new design is smashingly Hawaiian in feel, and the hotel is much the better for it. The pools are surrounded by lush, tropical gardens and the whole place has a luxurious, Bali Hai feel to it now.
COOLEST NEW HOTEL: The Andaz in Scottsdale, Arizona has a lovely, artsy vibe and a cool desert setting. Try the blue corn pancakes with lemon custard and poppy seeds, topped with rye whiskey and maple syrup. One of the best breakfast items of the year! Oh, and the showers are big enough to hold the starting front line of the Green Bay Packers.
BEST SUNRISE: Early one morning (go figure) at the Chateau Lake La Quinta in the Palm Springs area.
BEST (AND BOUNCIEST) CAR RENTAL EXPERIENCE: Bouncing down the dirt roads (that’s a generous description of a glorified goat trail) past the Garden of the Gods rock formations on the Hawaiian island of Lana’i to get to the longest, loneliest beach you might find anywhere in the U.S., Polihua Beach. An awesome experience I wish I had done with another person. But better alone than not at all.
MOST SOBERING EXHIBIT: The 9-11 Memorial at Ground Zero in New York City. Extremely moving stories of courage mixed with sheer horror.
SURPRISING WINERY: Flying Leap is a winery south of Tucson, where they’re growing exceptional wines at high elevations where the weather is cooler and more conducive to growing grapes than you would expect. Try their lush, ripe Petit Verdot.
FUNKIEST TOUR GUIDE: Sunshine (Sunny) Powers and her Flower Power Walking Tour of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. A groovy young lady who knows her history. And not someone one you’d want to mess with judging by the way I saw her break up a fight between two large guys outside a Thai restaurant I was eating at after the tour.
SMARTEST TOUR GUIDE: The incomparable Ace Bailey at the wonderful Hotel Valley Ho in Scottsdale, Arizona. Love that lady!
COOLEST OUTDOOR EXPERIENCE IN VEGAS: Try a tour of the old gold mining operation at El Dorado Canyon, south of Boulder City. Tons of fun, and a beautiful part of the desert, too.
MOST SURPRISING CITY FOR GREAT ASIAN FOOD: The Mills 50 District of Orlando is teeming with awesome Vietnamese and southeast Asian food spots.
STILL MY FAVOURITE TOWN IN FLORIDA: Dunedin has great shopping, a pretty waterfront and very good food, not to mention drag queen bingo and the state’s oldest craft brewery. Yeah, it’s also home to the Toronto Blue Jays during spring training. A great American town, for sure.
BEST SALAD: The arugula with candied lemons at Giada, located inside the sleek Cromwell Hotel on The Strip. Try for a table near the window on a warm day, as they open almost all the way for a lovely, fresh breeze.
MOST MAGICAL BOAT RIDE: I’d never taken a boat out to see the Na Pali Cliffs of Kauai until this past year. We saw dozens of dolphins that swam alongside our boat and darted in and out of the icy blue waves. It was also a perfect day, with brilliant sun and hardly any waves, which made for good snorkelling and sunbathing. They also played “Over the Rainbow” by Hawaiian legend Israel Kamakawiwo’ole over the loudspeaker, which always makes me think of my Mom, who gave me the CD for Christmas the year she died. Love you, Mom.