- Author: Niki D'Andrea
- Category: Travel
- Issue: Nov 2013
Adventures await – by air, land and lake – at “Arizona’s playground.”
Lake Havasu City’s new slogan, “Play like you mean it,” should include the disclaimer “results may vary.” That’s because the definition of “play” varies so wildly in this still-young river town, where well-heeled winter visitors and relocated retirees split the seasons with craft-beer-swilling spring breakers and boating enthusiasts. The dual-purpose vibe has proven a boon for Havasu, established in 1963 by a chainsaw maker named Robert McCulloch, who bought the London Bridge from the City of London for $2.5 million in 1968, reportedly outbidding actor Red Skelton. The reassembled bridge (now spanning the waters of Lake Havasu) has been a major tourist attraction since opening in 1971, along with the Parker Dam-created Lake Havasu reservoir and its glut of gorgeous coves.
While water-centric adventures are legendary in Lake Havasu City, there’s plenty to do on land, too. This quirky desert-beach burg is also a budding bastion of nightlife, with an emerging creative community, and quality culinary, cocktail and craft beer scenes. And if you’re inclined to fly their friendly skies, they’ve got an Angelina Jolie-approved airport for that. David Hasselhoff has been here, too, but that’s another story (see sidebar at end of article).
Down by the Water
People looking for maximum access to the lake stay at The Nautical Beachfront Resort (1000 McCulloch Blvd., 866-248-0241, nauticalinn.com; ave. $160/night), where “water, water, water – with million dollar views” are sales and marketing director Rebecca Carder’s big bragging points. All rooms include a view of the lake, with its mountainous, blue-skied backdrop (houseboat rentals are also available), and easy access to the Nautical’s 18-hole executive golf course, private boat launches, infinity edge pool, bars and restaurants. Other lodging options include family-frequented London Bridge Resort (1477 Queens Bay, 928-855-0888, londonbridgeresort.com; ave. $110/night), a massive complex of faux cobblestone across the street from its namesake bridge; and boxy, boutique Heat Hotel (1420 McCulloch Blvd., 888-898-4328, heathotel.com; ave. $99/night). Each of the three accommodations frames a different leg of the lake.
Many businesses offer watercraft for rental, from paddle boats to jet skis to canoes (visit golakehavasu.com for options), but there are also some pretty cool cruises available on tour boats like the covered Kon Tiki. Operated by Sunset Charter & Tour Company (211 London Bridge Rd., 928-716-8687, sunsethavasuboattours.com), the Kon Tiki cruises to several spots of note, including majestic Topock Gorge and Copper Canyon, where people like to drop anchor and party, and in some (inadvisable) instances, cliff dive. A highlight of any cruise on Lake Havasu is the 22 replica lighthouses along its banks – functioning miniature models of famous boating beacons on the east coast, created by the Lake Havasu City Lighthouse Club (lh-lighthouseclub.org). Sunset Charter’s boat dock is located below the London Bridge at the recently renovated English Village, where you can see the history of the bridge in photos at the Visitor’s Center and browse the village’s assortment of shops, like London Bridge Candle Factory (londonbridgecandles.com), which waxes artisanal with wick-filled figures of unicorns, the Virgin Mary and desert scenes of saguaros and cactus wrens. Nearby food-and-drink options include the oldest of Lake Havasu City’s three microbreweries, Barley Bros. Restaurant & Brewery (1425 N. McCulloch Blvd., 928-505-7837, barleybrothers.com). The giant copper kettles of the brewery are viewable through glass windows behind the bar, and the smell of roasted malts permeates the dining room. Barley Bros. makes six house beers year-round, plus a few seasonals, but their brews aren’t sold anywhere else. It’s worth stopping in to sip one of their mainstays, like a creamy, coffee-kissed Kickstart Oatmeal Stout, and a smooth and fruity Trippleberry Wheat, which tastes like a Lambic meeting a Hefeweizen, sans sour notes. Soak up the suds with pub-grub from the Barley Bros.’ menu, which includes a “Cali Burger” boasting molten pepper jack cheese on a patty crusted with seasoned-skillet spices.
Outdoorsy types seeking a nice hike in a slot canyon look no further than what locals call “SARA’s Crack.” Located in Special Activities & Recreation Area (S.A.R.A.) Park (lhcaz.gov/operations/parks/saraPark.html), the officially-named “Crack in the Mountain Trail” follows a natural wash to Lake Havasu, logging a moderate 2.8 miles roundtrip through the lava flow-banded crack and back. The 1,100-acre S.A.R.A. Park also includes baseball fields, rodeo grounds, a BMX track, a dog park and myriad mountain biking trails. It’s one of the city’s many recreational areas, which also include Rotary Park, home to a brand new skate park honoring hometown hero Patrick Tinnell, a BMX racing enthusiast and Army PFC who died in 2006 while serving in Iraq.
Scott and Tina Stocking, owners of Mudshark Brewery and Restaurant (210 Swanson Ave., 928-453-2981, mudsharkbeer.com) know all about LHC’s outdoor recreation; she’s a competitive mountain biker and he’s a longtime local lake enthusiast who named the business after Mudshark Beach (now Rotary Park). They also know about making great beer, most notably their Full Moon Belgian Style White Ale, which beautifully blends orange peel and coriander and packs a hefty 8.5 percent ABV. There are six tasty drafts on tap, plus fun seasonals like the Peaceful Pumpkin Spiced Ale (served with brown sugar on the glass rim) and Abominable Winter Ale (aged in Jack Daniel’s barrels).
The newest of LHC’s triumvirate of breweries, College Street Brewhouse & Pub (1940 College Dr., 928-854-2739, collegestreetbrewhouseandpub.com) not only pours top-notch suds like the Big Blue Van (an unfiltered blueberry/vanilla beer), but also serves stellar food. One of their appetizers – fried avocados in a golden-brown bread crust, stuffed with lump crab and served with a side of house-made honey-jalapeño vinaigrette – is absolutely unforgettable, the rare “destination dish” which alone might be worth the three-hour drive from Phoenix. “[We want to show] Havasu can have a more cultured palate,” owner Lon Weatherson says. “We don’t have pre-packaged anything.” Weatherson pays equal attention to the integrity of his brews, infusing them with things like macerated dates from Yuma, hand-ground coriander and nutmeg, and organic grain.
Up in the Air
“If the sun is right, it looks like you’re in the Florida keys or the Bahamas,” airplane pilot Bob Hancock says, guiding his four-seater plane through the sky above the palm tree-dappled shores of emerald Topock Gorge. He’s taking us on one of his Hav-N-Fun Scenic Flights (928-566-2413, havnfun.com), an hour-long tour ($199) over every Lake Havasu City-area landmark imaginable: Parker Dam, London Bridge, Devil’s Elbow, Cupcake Mountain, Craggy Wash, et al. Hav-N-Fun flights depart from Desert Skies Executive Air Terminal at Lake Havasu City Airport (5600 N. Hwy. 95, 928-764-8000, airnav.com/airport/KHII/DESERT_SKIES), a large but low-key municipal airport terminal whose biggest claim to fame is Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie landing there before heading to IHOP (!) to eat. Too bad Brangelina visited before the terminal got Waldo’s BBQ (928-764-3663, waldosbarbeque.com), a pork palace well-worth a post-tarmac visit, both for its decor (including a vintage plane hanging overhead, antique wood bar with a saddle seat, and coin-op Harley motorcycle “hog” ride) and its menu of slow-smoked meats (including St. Louis spare ribs and Tennessee-style pulled pork).
Not everybody stays dry in Lake Havasu City, whether they’re on the lake or not. While a young, clubby vibe can dominate the beach bars during the day, nighttime pulls people away from the water, and into the city’s band of bars. Start out near the bridge, at Martini Bay (1477 Queens Bay, 928-855-0888, martinibay.com) inside London Bridge Resort. The bar’s menu of blended martinis includes a tart Lemon Drop, which tastes just like Lemonheads candy, and a smooth, seductive Peach. To fuel up for the night, nibble on umami-bomb appetizers like delicately greasy bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with creamy fontina cheese.
If you can stand the smoke, a great post-dinner place is J’s Cigar Bar (2038 N. McCulloch Blvd,, 928-680-2655, jscigarbar.com). This cozy lounge has a dedicated local clientele, who dress to the nines to meet up over glasses of fine wine and ashtrays of fine cigars. Owner Nancy Campbell is a second-generation tobacconist, and carries an extensive selection of smoking products, but her magnum opus is the Havanasu cigar, specially formulated to withstand Lake Havasu City’s dry heat, but manufactured in Nicaragua. It’s smooth and spicy, but more importantly, it won’t crumble during a long, hot day on the golf course or the boat. But they’re only available at J’s Cigar Bar, making these hand-rolled double gordos largely a locals-only love affair.
For a rowdier experience, head next door to Mad Dogs Bar & Grill (2048 McCulloch Blvd., 928-505-5253, maddogsbarandgrill.com), a popular neighborhood sports bar, or Flying X Saloon (2030 N. McCulloch Blvd., 928-854-3599, flyingxsaloon.com), a country bar where local artists like Matt Farris croon their tunes. You can even take two-step and line dancing lessons. And if you’re not good at it, don’t worry – this city has its own rhythm, often amusingly out-of-sync. In the end, maybe that’s what helps the hodgepodge of Havasu jell so well.
LHC in TV & Film
Lake Havasu City’s served as the setting for several films, including the 1985 made-for-TV movie Terror at London Bridge starring David Hasselhoff, and a few films by Emmy Award-winning director of the 1969 Summer Olympics, Andy Sidaris. MTV featured Lake Havasu City on their spring break coverage in 1995 and 2004. In 2009, actors including Christopher Lloyd, Elisabeth Shue, Jerry O’Connell and Richard Dreyfuss landed on Lake Havasu to make the movie Piranha 3D. For the record, Lake Havasu, which appears as the fictional “Lake Victoria” in the film, has never had any killer piranhas.