Lake Havasu City may be in the middle of nowhere, but it’s a convenient road trip that’s a little more than two hours from Las Vegas, three hours from Phoenix, and four hours from LA County. It hasn’t been around long. After attracting miners and serving as an army recreation site, Lake Havasu City was founded in 1963 as a master-planned community by Bill McCulloch, who’s often spoken of like royalty by the locals. The guy made a fortune in the chainsaw business and carved out his own vision of what a vacation town should look like. The big draw here-you’ve got water and desert in one place. Tourism drives the local economy, but it doesn’t feel touristy.
Lake Havasu itself interrupts the Colorado River as it borders California and Arizona. It’s known as a Spring Break destination, but the peak of summer is the real party zone. That’s when it gets hot. Really hot. While Death Valley officially has the highest recorded temperature on earth, Lake Havasu is actually recognized as the hottest incorporated city. Snowbirds dominate the winter months with lots of second homes and Airbnb rentals. Zoning isn’t really a thing, so don’t be surprised to see multimillion-dollar communities next to worn-out trailer parks. Generally speaking, there isn’t much trash or graffiti. Crime is low, even without a major police presence.
For the most part, Lake Havasu leaves gambling and entertainment to nearby Laughlin. Here, people just want to hang out-usually outdoors. “Havasu time” is very real, so keep that in mind when making plans. Most bars don’t skimp on the booze, preferring their drinks to be truck-driver strong (even on the craft cocktail side). In many ways, LHC is like a party where everybody is off in a corner doing their own thing, whether parking a boat on a secluded cove, drinking craft beer on Main Street, or speeding through the desert on ATVs. It doesn’t take long to figure out Lake Havasu City, but it helps to plan your visit in advance. So get familiar with all the stuff you’ll want to do after arriving in town.
Snap a few pics of the London Bridge
Much of Lake Havasu’s identity is connected to the London Bridge, which extends about 930 feet, connecting the mainland to a small island in the Colorado River. It’s the second most visited tourist attraction in Arizona behind the Grand Canyon. Once upon a time the bridge actually spanned the River Thames in London, replacing the original which inspired “London Bridge is Falling Down.” Since it couldn’t handle the weight of auto traffic, it was put up for auction as the world’s most expensive antique and bought by Lake Havasu City. It was shipped over and reconstructed brick-by-brick over sand (making for some surreal vintage photos) before Bridgewater Channel was dredged underneath it to create Lake Havasu Island. Fun fact: the bridge is hollow now. McCulloch actually sold the inside material and turned his London Bridge purchase into a profit. Some people are just good at business.
Indulge in your love of the great outdoors
Nobody sits still for too long in LHC. Off-roading is a way of life, whether on a dirt bike or behind the wheel of an ATV/UTV. The city is basically carved into the foothills of the Mohave Mountains with plenty of rolling desert terrain to explore, including the Arizona Peace Trail (an off-road loop between Kingman and Yuma). Dry camping is hard to ignore with RVs pulling up in barren areas off the main highway-often in unofficial but organized mini-communities. The law says you’re allowed to stay in the same spot for 14 days before moving elsewhere. Others prefer to set up a tent on the beach. Pretty much anything you want to do on the water is possible-boating, swimming, parasailing, bass fishing, and more. Personal watercraft (water scooters commonly referred to by brand names like Jet Ski, Sea-Doo, WaveRunner, etc) are a big part of the local culture. An early version of the technology was actually invented in Lake Havasu City.
Enjoy the serenity of the Bridgewater Channel
The Bridgewater Channel is more-or-less the central hub of Lake Havasu City, surrounded by hotels, bars, and restaurants. Dredged after the construction of London Bridge, it flows for about 2.5 miles from Lake Havasu to Thompson Bay, which leads back to the Colorado River. The channel is a no-wake zone, making it a popular spot for boating, kayaking, and paddleboarding. The water is framed by parks and sidewalks, as well as the English Village, a small promenade where you can shop for souvenirs, book tours, and grab some food and drink at hangouts like Blue Chair or Burgers By The Bridge. A vintage red phone booth (with no actual telephone inside, of course) and a royal carriage replica in the London Bridge Resort lobby are a couple of British-themed photo spots to help keep your Instagram feed interesting.
Spend the day on the water
If you had to sum up Lake Havasu City with one word, it’s probably boating. The community sits on an uninterrupted 60-mile stretch of the Colorado River, where boats can zip along without any speed limit to worry about-although traffic jams aren’t uncommon during the busy summer months. Boats are a big part of the party scene, especially when packed together in areas like Copper Canyon, where swimmers can take the plunge off Jump Rock, or gathered around a small island known as the Sandbar. Don’t have your own boat? Rentals are easy to find. But even better-book a sunset cruise with Sunset Charter & Tour Co. on Serenity Now. The custom-designed vessel holds six passengers with stadium-style seating, drink holders, and a crystal-clear sound system. A three-hour tour includes detours to historic spots like Steamboat Cove and rock formations that are best viewed from the water, like the Sleeping Indian, a mountain formation that resembles the image of a Native American warrior lying down.
Drink your way through the local beer and spirits scene
If you’re going to live like a local in Lake Havasu, you gotta drink beer like a local. College Street Brewhouse & Pub makes its own beer on site with a patio deck, lake views, and food that’s heavy on Southern favorites. Barley Brothers is on the island next to London Bridge with a microbrewery, wood-fired pizzas, and plenty of TVs for watching a big game. Mudshark takes advantage of the hot Arizona sun, using solar power to brew its own lineup of beers, which are a frequent sight in not only its public house, but stores and bars throughout the region. Hangar 24 at the regional airport serves its own beer too, although it’s brewed in California. If spirits are more your thing, the Copper Still Distillery is big on flavors and infusions, including root beer, chocolate, peanut butter, cherry, peach, or lemonade whiskey and jalapeno or cucumber vodka.
Go for a hike in SARA’s Crack
Hiking is popular, especially in SARA’s Crack-and yes, that’s what it’s really called. Let’s explain. SARA is short for Special Activities Recreation Area and generally referred to as SARA Park. The “crack” is a three-mile slot canyon formed by water drainage that’s made its way through rock formations over thousands of years. Some parts aren’t ideal for those with vertigo or claustrophobia-and there’s a few detours to help with that-but the hike isn’t especially difficult. You might even see a rope or ladder left behind from previous visitors to help with the more challenging terrain. If you come across a seven-foot slope of rock, just slide down it like everybody else does. The final mile of the journey leads to Balance Rock (a towering rock formation that narrows before dramatically expanding at the peak) at a picturesque cove on the banks of the Colorado River.
Eat up at the best restaurants
You’ll build up an appetite with all that outdoorsy stuff, so you gotta ask-where can I get a bite around here? Lake Havasu isn’t a place for fancy fine dining. Even the nicest restaurants skew casual. Fortunately, the city isn’t overwhelmed by chains, allowing independent locally owned businesses to enjoy most of the attention. Cha-Bones is as formal as it gets, but no one will get mad if you walk in with a pair of shorts on. Steaks and tapas are the specialties and the happy hour is legendary, running from 3-6 pm every day. Shugrue’s serves seafood by the water with great views of the London Bridge. Ask for a table by the window. La Vita Dolce is an East Coast-style Italian restaurant, where you’ll wolf down lasagna and shrimp scampi with a robust glass of red wine. Blondies Bar & Grill is a dive bar off the beaten path known for its tacos and a tiki-style outdoor patio. El Paraiso may have the best Mexican food in town, not to mention a sandy backyard overlooking the lake.
Hit the party scene hard
Lake Havasu has a well-earned reputation as a Spring Break destination-and while that’s still true, the real action is in the summer. The top spot for partying and skimpy bikinis that’s not on a boat is Kokomo, a multi-level pool club at London Bridge Resort. However, as long as the pandemic continues, Kokomo remains temporarily closed. Another popular party spot, WET Bar at the Nautical, also remains closed until further notice, but you can still take a dip in the largest infinity pool in Arizona at WET Pool. Other hotspots on Bridgewater Channel include Jeremy’s Juke Joint, a hub for regular live music and smoky Old Fashioned cocktails, and Martini Bay, a restaurant with fire pits on the patio, where the pace picks up (and the music gets louder) later in the night. The Flying X Saloon on Main Street is the top destination for country music with a large dance floor for boot scootin’ and checking out live music. Just down the street, PJ’s Cabana Bar has both DJs and karaoke fanatics working the mic with drink specials on a large outdoor patio.
Drive, walk, or bike around the island
You’d think Lake Havasu’s island would be covered with resorts and tourist attractions from end to end, but that’s not the case. Once you get away from the bridge and channel area, the island turns residential with a few quirky destinations-including an energetic vortex if you believe in that kind of stuff. Take your time and enjoy the four-mile path that loops around the island with bikers and walkers traveling in opposite directions. Crazy Horse Campgrounds is popular for RVs, but also has cabin rentals, launch ramps, a pool, and private beach with boat and jet ski rentals. BeachComber Estates is a trailer park on the water with serious real estate value. Look out for quail crossing the road. Site Six is the only free boat launch in Lake Havasu and notorious for its steep ramp. Leftover from military use, it doesn’t always handle newer, larger boats well and fails are well documented on YouTube. Before a fence was built, spectators used to set up lawn chairs and watch the chaos. These days, the Boathouse Grill is a more popular hangout, gaining a reputation for “overboard” Bloody Mary cocktails with lobster tail, prawns, a large hot wing, or maybe even grilled octopus among the garnishes. Look carefully toward the center of the island and you’ll see the outline of an old military airstrip that fell out of use long ago.
Drive out to a bar in the middle of the desert
Off-roading is crazy popular in Lake Havasu City. How popular? So much so that a couple bars have popped up in the middle of the desert to take advantage of the traffic. The trend started at Nellie E. Saloon about an hour away in Parker. More commonly known as Desert Bar, it’s basically a mini-ghost town renovated from an old mine site. It’s only open Saturdays and Sundays from October through April-since drinking in the hot summer sun isn’t comfortable, no matter how much whiskey you order. Yeah, you can take the main road, but all-terrain vehicles love to go the “back way” through the desert where the saloon seems to pop up from out of nowhere. The Bunker Bar is closer to Lake Havasu and a newer take on the concept. It’s about three miles off State Route 95, reachable via a “road” that’s barely dug out of dirt and rock. A jeep works fine, but expect plenty of dust. Open on weekends, the place has grown dramatically with multiple bars, outdoor seats, games, a covered stage for live bands, and Greek food by Niko’s. The entire operation is solar powered and decorated with old military equipment, most notably a helicopter wedged on the mountainside. Red Star will happily take you out to either place on a jeep tour, while in between visits to sand dunes, rock formations, abandoned cabins, and old gold mines.
Get familiar with Main Street
About a mile inland from London Bridge, McCulloch Boulevard semi-officially turns into Main Street for a few blocks, which is the closest thing to a downtown district in Lake Havasu City. Independent shops like the Book Exchange and Glitz have their charm, but you’re really here to eat and drink. The Red Onion, renovated from an old bank, is a great spot for breakfast and lunch with its own next-door R.O. Bar ready to serve up a Bloody Mary topped with parmesan shavings or the Morning Glory mix of fruit juice, vodka, and sparkling wine. McKee’s is an Irish Pub with the best sandwich in town: the Hangover Remedy of roast beef, jalapenos, and mushrooms. Fug’s has the right combination of craft beer, wine, and pizza in a bright, newly renovated space, but if dive bar charm is more your thing, head to Desert Martini.
Soak in the sun at a Lake Havasu beach
No visit is complete without dragging your toes through the sand at one of the beaches scattered throughout hundreds of miles of Lake Havasu coastline. London Bridge Beach might come up first in a Google search, but it’s more of a park than a beach (although it’s a great place to bring your dog). It’s on the channel where swimming isn’t allowed anyway. Just south, Rotary Community Park has its own beach with a designated swim zone as well as picnic areas, volleyball courts, and a skate park. The best overall pick is the white sand of Windsor Beach inside Lake Havasu State Park. Just be prepared to pay a fee at the entrance. Otherwise, boaters love to discover smaller beaches in secluded coves that aren’t accessible by car or foot.
See every lighthouse on the water (or have fun trying)
Lake Havasu has more replica lighthouses than any other city in the United States, modeled after historic counterparts from throughout the country. The latest count is 28, but more are in the works. The new versions are about a third the size, but built to scale based on original plans. All are in working condition and follow official Coast Guard guidelines. The idea was hatched by the Lake Havasu Lighthouse Club, who wanted to beautify the solar-powered light markers that line the waterways. The organization has an online map and sells a $10 color booklet to raise funds for ongoing construction and maintenance.
Book a room at the right hotel
Lake Havasu City has its share of hotel chains, including a snazzy new Holiday Inn Express, but it’s the independent resorts along the water that come with an extra dose of charm and character. The Nautical helped kick off Lake Havasu as a tourist destination back in the ’60s, yet it still feels new with a timeless art deco design. Suites open up to a lawn and beachfront on Thompson Bay, where guests can park their own boats. Hang out at one of two pools, grab a drink at Turtle Bar, and watch the tours float by. Heat is a little more modern-like ’80s Miami modern-and popular with pet owners, the Spring Break crowd, and anyone who wants to lounge on a daybed at the rooftop bar. The London Bridge Resort is “party in the front” (with Kokomo, Martini Bay, and a waterslide at the pool) and “business in the back” with comfortable suites that are larger and more contemporary than the hotel’s exterior suggests. They come with full kitchens that may or may not have unexpected perks like a set of steak knives or a blender… you know, just in case.
Pick the right time to visit
Lake Havasu takes pride in being a year-round destination, although early spring and fall are when locals enjoy having the place mostly to themselves. Summer is the party zone, often with a carnival atmosphere. Temperatures are through the roof, but hey, it’s a dry heat. Some prefer to plan a trip around a big event. The Desert Storm Poker Run & Shootout attracts multimillion-dollar boats that not only zip along the river, but parade down Main Street to maximize the spectacle. Competition is fierce in the International Jet Sports Boating Association World Finals and UTV World Championship. Rockabilly Reunion is a ’50s-inspired car show and festival while WinterBlast is a multi-day fireworks presentation by the Western Pyrotechnic Association. Some of these events have been or will be postponed during the pandemic, so always check directly for the latest information. Still on track, however, is a 50th anniversary celebration of the London Bridge this October, spotlighting the landmark that helped make Lake Havasu City a true vacation getaway.
Rob Kachelriess has been writing about Las Vegas and other destinations in Thrillist for more than seven years. His work has also appeared in Travel + Leisure, Trivago Magazine, Sophisticated Living, Modern Luxury, and other publications. Follow him on @rkachelriess.
You can’t be all things to all people. Yet a new Italian restaurant strikes an intriguing balance between authenticity and inventive touches while helping to shape the identity of a new community in the booming Southwest Valley of Las Vegas.
Basilico Ristorante Italiano is now open at Evora, a master-planned apartment development still under construction that won’t be finished for at least five years. The 160-seat restaurant follows the vision of chef Francesco Di Caudo, a Sicily native who draws on his heritage and experience throughout Italy to build a compelling menu based on traditional techniques and modern ingenuity.
“I come from a country where farm-to-table is nothing new,” says Di Caudio, while emphasizing the importance of ingredient sourcing and simple, straightforward flavor combinations.
Just look at the appetizers. Americans are used to eggplant parmesan that’s breaded and fried without restraint. Di Caudo sticks to a traditional Sicilian recipe with the vegetable sliced thin, sizzled in a pan, and layered with tomato and basil. No mozzarella. On the other hand, the Smoked Cigar is destined to be a signature showstopper. Duck, foie gras, and porcini mushrooms are packed inside a thin, cracker-like shell, presented in a box, and dipped into a glass ashtray. The “ash” in the centre is a black sesame and truffle mix. Don’t be shy about double dipping.
The risotto is bound to be another conversation piece. The recipe uses Carnaroli rice, a starchy grain from North Italy that produces a creamy texture, balancing the saltiness of a parmesan broth with a sweet splash of chestnut honey. The real surprise is the inclusion of Lavazza espresso, manipulated to crackle in your mouth like Pop Rocks candy.
All pastas are made in-house, from a parsnip cavatelli to a lamb and thyme tortellini in a broth filtered from braised prosciutto. Some dishes have a subtle Asian influence, including a hamachi crudo with pomelo (similar to yuzu), Hokkaido scallops with oxtail, and a planned octopus braised in dashi. The flavours come to life inside a sharp, contemporary dining room with deep red chairs and stone, wood, and marble touches. The wine collection is dominated by Italian labels, with a few California and Oregon picks thrown in to round out the list. Bottles are on display near the front entrance and inside illuminated square shelves. “It looks like a fancy restaurant, but when you sit down, I want you to have fun,” adds Di Caudio.
The bar is the heart of the restaurant, ready to serve up to 16 people inside and dozens more via accordion-style windows that open wide to a covered patio. The outdoor space, temperature-controlled with overhead fans and heaters, effectively extends Evora’s open-air plaza with dramatic water and fire features. It’s a natural spot for tastings and special events with a covered stage for live music. Evora is rolling out in four phases, with the first 342 apartments ready by fall. There could be as many as 1,400 when it’s all said and done. Rent begins at around $1,800 for studios and one-bedroom units and goes up to $4,000 for two-story top-floor residences with a loft and Strip views. The community will include swimming pools, pickleball courts, a putting green, a dog park, firepits, EV charging stations, and pavilions equipped with audio and video features.
“Basilico matches the demographic for our apartments,” says Danny Sorge of Digital Desert Development, the company behind the community. “The term ‘youthful sophistication’ has been thrown around about the restaurant and Evora as a whole. It brings something new to the area.”
The development follows a deliberate strategy to have the commercial tenants in place before the first residents move in, occupying a stand-alone building that strikes a commanding presence on the corner of Patrick Lane and Buffalo Drive. Lemon Tree Cafe & Market is already open as a European-style grocery store with plenty of room to sit down with a sandwich and glass of wine. Keep your eyes peeled for Taps & Barrels (a self-service beer hall), Tachi Ramen, and EVOQ hair salon in the months ahead, with more businesses to come. The timing couldn’t be better. The Southwest Valley is on fire right now, with the Durango hotel and casino and UnCommons mixed-use development taking shape as new attractions in 2023. The Bend, a long-promised shopping and dining district, has been in a holding pattern for years but holds promise in an area where everything is getting bigger and better.
Meanwhile, the team behind Evora is staking a claim with Di Caudio running the kitchen at Basilico. The chef’s recent collaboration with Chef Oscar Amador helped Anima by EDO score a recent James Beard Award nomination and reputation as one of the best new restaurants in Las Vegas. Di Caudio first came to Las Vegas to work at Zeffirino at the Grand Canal Shoppes-a gig he expected to last about six months before returning home. Instead, he stuck around and continued to build his reputation at culinary destinations like Sinatra at the Wynn and Ferraro’s off the Strip.
Ultimately, Basilico will be a restaurant to keep an eye on as it develops under Di Caudio’s guidance. The menu will shift and evolve based on the chef’s preferences and the availability of seasonal ingredients. Di Caudio is also planning a smaller menu and social hour for the bar area and a reasonably priced tasting menu with around 10 dishes served family style.
Rob Kachelriess has been writing about Las Vegas in Thrillist for more than nine years. In addition, his work has appeared in Travel + Leisure, Leafly, Supercall, Modern Luxury, and Luxury Estates International’s seasonal publication. Follow him on Twitter @rkachelriess.