- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2003

The drive from Salt Lake City International Airport to Arches National Park takes about 3 hours and to Zion National Park about 4 hours. The logical route to take in all five parks is to begin at Arches and drive southwest, or start at Zion and head northeast. An alternative is to fly into Las Vegas and drive about 3 hours to Zion National Park.

Spring to early summer, and autumn, are cooler than July and August, which is important for those planning strenuous activity. Many families with children visit in the summer, when the children are out of school.

Where to stay

Red Cliffs Lodge, just outside Moab, provides a perfect introduction to the area. Set at the base of sorrel-colored cliffs overlooking a creek, it offers rustic but quite comfortable accommodations, a spa and pool, horseback rides and many other activities. Owner Colin Fryer is a former rancher who works to keep that heritage alive but also adds touches such as Utah’s first winery — a “cowboy winery,” in his words.

The nearby Sorrel River Ranch Resort offers beautifully furnished rooms, a full-service health spa and other amenities that provide a touch of luxury to the isolated setting. The nearby mesas are high, and so are prices.

The rooms at Cliff Rose Lodge in Springdale declare it to be little more than a nice motel. However, the lodge is set amid five acres of rolling lawns and flower-filled gardens.

Where to eat

Along with plenty of down-home meals, surprising touches of gourmet dining are offered by restaurateurs who could be cooking in more sophisticated venues but have chosen not to do so. At the Center Cafe in Moab, Paul and Zee McCarroll like to surprise diners with imaginative blendings of ingredients. An example is the excellent sweet-potato-and-goat-cheese ravioli appetizer with toasted pine nuts, sage and brown butter ($9).

Nearby in Moab, at the Desert Bistro, chef-owners Karl and Michelle serve nightly game specials such as pan-seared caribou medallions with a spicy plum-bourbon demiglaze ($22 with sides) and corn-tortilla-crusted chicken breast stuffed with goat cheese ($18).

Don’t let the name of Cafe Diablo in Torrey fool you. This is no cafe, and no tongue-searing Tex-Mex establishment. Chef Gary Pankow, a graduate of the Culinary Institute in New York, gave up working as executive chef at major resorts to hike, fish, ride his motorcycle — and create great food in southern Utah. His carefully crafted menu ranges from appetizers such as rattlesnake cakes ($8) and marinated loin of Utah lamb ($21 with sides) to a belt-loosening array of homemade pastries and ice cream.

Even tiny Boulder gets into the fine-dining act at Hell’s Backbone Grill at the Boulder Mountain Lodge. In keeping with their Buddhist leanings, owners Blake Campbell and Jen Castle say their goal is to serve outstanding food in “an environmentally and socially responsible setting.” They purchase only locally grown food, which accounts for the no-seafood rule. The restaurant is adjacent to a bird sanctuary that is a most pleasant place to relax before or after dinner.

A note about alcohol. In keeping with the strong Mormon influence in Utah, local liquor laws can be confusing. An explanation of them in the Moab Menu Guide begins, “Utah has a well-earned reputation as a challenging state in which to get any form of alcoholic drink.”

As best as I understand it, licensed restaurants may serve mixed drinks and wine, provided they offer food service. In some instances, an establishment may have a “beer bar” only a few feet from the restaurant, each with its own rules.

I found interpretation and enforcement of the regulation less stringent than in years past. For example, some establishments fulfill the food-with-alcohol rule by serving a small cup of chips and salsa.

For more information, call the Utah Travel Council at 800/200-1160 or, on the Internet, utah.com.

— Victor Block

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