NearandFarAZ

Theodore Roosevelt National Park was my first national park. Indeed, a trip to the western-North Dakota park is one of my earliest childhood memories and probably my first family vacation.

I remember piling into the car with my sisters and parents and driving for what seemed like days. Actually, it was a four-hour drive from our home. But from that packed backseat, the flat terrain along Interstate 94 had an endless quality.

Once we arrived, though, I was transfixed by the park – its herds of buffalo, the adorable Prairie Dog Town, and the endless rolling hills of the Badlands.

Later family trips would take me to Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, and Redwood national parks – all gorgeous and remarkable in their own ways.

I believe those family trips planted the seed for my love of the outdoors. They also made me appreciate the natural beauties that have been preserved all over the country. As an adult, I have gone on to visit many more national parks.

But I’m glad my first park was one that paid tribute to Theodore Roosevelt, the father of so many of America’s national parks, reserves, and national forests. Considered the “conservationist president,” Roosevelt is said to have shaped his views about preservation during his time ranching in the Badlands of North Dakota.

Although I have always loved national parks, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that has cut off access to so many of the parks has made me appreciate these national treasures even more.

So, during this National Park Week of 2020, I am highlighting my favorites. Here are 9 national parks that are truly knockouts.

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When it comes to natural grandeur, I would argue that there are few places that can compete with the stunning Island of Maui.

Not only does the Hawaiian island feature sunny southern beaches, a 10,000-foot-high volcano, and lush inland rain forests, but it also boasts not just one, but TWO, magnificent north shores.

Before my recent trip to Maui, I had heard plenty about the East North Shore, better known as the Road to Hana. But I was unprepared for what was in store on Maui’s other north shore on the western side.

The drive I took along the western coastline packed even more of a punch because I had heard relatively little about it. All I can say is it delivered VIEWS with a capital V!

For me, Maui’s two north shores came down to a comparison of culture and vistas. The famous Road to Hanna is packed with Hawaiian culture hidden amidst its beautiful oceanside terrain, while the western shore offers an unparalleled tableau of lovely seaside blues.

Here is a breakdown of what I liked about each of Maui’s north shores. Read More

Warm breezes, soft sand, rolling waves: Soaking up the beach vibes is undoubtedly at the heart of any good oceanside vacation.

But for me, it is just a part of the equation.

The routine might vary depending on the destination, but basically my beach itinerary consists of: swim, lounge, hike, explore, shop, dine, repeat. All capped off with a bit of local adventure.

With those priorities in mind, I believe I found the perfect combo on a recent trip to the Mexican Caribbean’s Riviera Maya – the all-inclusive resort.

Of course, I had heard of the charms of Mexico’s all-inclusive resorts for years. But for some reason, I had envisioned a somewhat generic experience, with guests mostly staying onsite to partake of the complimentary food, drink, and entertainment.

It always raised a question for me: Why travel to a far-off locale if you’re going to limit your experience to the grounds of a resort?

What I found at the Secrets Capri Riviera Cancun was an entirely different experience. Sure, there were excellent food and drink choices available, along with extravagant nightly entertainment and a lovely beach setting.

But there were also vans and buses coming and going throughout the day, taking guests to the region’s varied attractions – from coral reefs for snorkeling to underground rivers to island excursions.

After my short stay at Secrets Capri, I left with the impression that an all-inclusive resort offers the perfect base to explore the gorgeous Mexican Caribbean. Here’s why:

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As a first-time visitor to Indiana, I didn’t know what to expect when I embarked on a winter trip to Hamilton County and its small-to-mid-sized Indianapolis suburbs.

Certainly, I didn’t expect what I found in Carmel, a city of about 92,000 people located 40 minutes north of Indianapolis.

There, amidst the 128 roundabout intersections (yes, Carmel is known as the Roundabout Capital of the U.S.!), I found a community brimming with businesses owned by dynamic women entrepreneurs, brand-new festivals that are drawing in hundreds of thousands of people, and a lovely city center anchored by a 1,600-seat concert hall.

Intermingled with all of the recent developments are lively and fun spots where visitors can take in everything from a traditional English tea room owned by a knowledgeable U.K. transplant, to a chic chocolate shop selling Austrian-style goods with an Indiana flare, to an elegant cake shop that recently garnered national attention as a 2019 inductee onto Oprah Winfrey’s list of favorite things.

In fact, Carmel and its surrounding towns seem to have all of the bases covered. With the area’s vintage train that features fun seasonal themes, along with the history-come-to-life treasure at Conner Prairie, Hamilton County is a great family destination.

The area also appeals to adults of all ages with its unique wineries (complete with cozy igloos), its beautiful Monon Rail Trail, and plenty of quaint shopping districts..

You would be hard-pressed to get to all of Hamilton County’s attractions in one weekend, but here are a few of the features that are sure to make it a sweet visit. Read More

12 of Portland’s quirky, unsung & simple pleasures

Major attractions tend to be big and bold in Portland, Maine.

The city’s Old Port area, with its dizzying array of lobster choices, offers a beguiling mix of working waterfront and tourist haven.

And the Portland Head Lighthouse, sprawling along the rocky Atlantic coast, is drop-dead gorgeous and might just be the perfect example of a lighthouse.

Certainly, those two things alone are reason enough to visit Maine’s largest city.

But on my recent visit, I was delighted to find multiple layers in Portland. The city is full of simple pleasures that perfectly complement all of that delicious lobster.

Here are a dozen of my favorites:

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5 ways Portland, Maine raises the lobster bar

Even before my recent visit to Portland Maine, the words “Maine” and “lobster” were inseparable for me – kind of like Idaho potatoes or Wisconsin cheese.

And it didn’t take long after arriving in Portland to realize that in the case of the vaunted Maine lobster, it’s no hype. The lobster is simply that good.

In fact, after my week and a half in coastal Maine, I may be ruined forever for prepackaged, shipped, or previously frozen lobster. I have to say it: A visit to Portland is almost certain to change the way you look at lobster.

Certainly, going into my Portland trip, my lobster standards were fairly low.

As a lifelong resident of landlocked locales, lobster has been an occasional treat for me – a celebratory meal or a holiday extravagance limited mostly to chain seafood restaurants.

Even in a pre-prepared form, though, lobster has always epitomized a gastronomic indulgence for me. Still, I always suspected there was more to the ruddy crustacean than what I was getting.

My week and a half in Maine confirmed it. Virtually every restaurant I tried in Portland served amazing lobster – sweet, succulent, tender, and plentiful.

I still don’t consider myself an expert, but after eating lobster virtually every day for my 10-day Maine visit, I learned a few things

Here are five reasons a visit to coastal Maine might make you bit of a lobster snob:

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Western chic meets outdoor splendor

Think of your coolest friend. You know the one. She’s out running a desert trail in the morning, taking in a hip art festival in the afternoon, and then ready for a night out on the town in the evening.

To top it off, she always knows the trendiest spots for brunch.

Well, when it comes to towns in Arizona,  Scottsdale is your chic friend.

I had a chance to explore the many sides of Scottsdale recently, and I have to say: This community seems to have it all.

Hiking opportunities galore, beautiful open-air dining choices, a buzzing downtown, two spring-training baseball stadiums, an Old West vibe, and fantastic shopping – just to name a few.

Located on the eastern side of the huge Phoenix-area Valley of the Sun, Scottsdale manages to distinguish itself nicely from the other metro areas.

Here are a few of my favorite features of “The West’s Most Western Town.”

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Finding the Salt River Wild Horses

With all due respect to the Rolling Stones’ classic “wild horses couldn’t drag me away” lyric, it turns out that Arizona’s herd of free-roaming Salt River Wild Horses can, in fact, drag thousands of people away from modern life – and into a scene straight out of the Old West.

I was happy to be among them on a recent warm spring day, when, right on the edge of Phoenix, Arizona – one of the largest metro areas in the U.S. – the wild-and-free animals were treating visitors to a taste of western culture unlike any trip to a museum or cowboy reenactment could ever deliver.

On that Sunday morning, I had a front-row seat to a little family of three grazing along the riverbank, occasionally sticking their noses deep into the lazy waters of the Salt and rolling energetically onto their backs in the rugged river rocks.

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On the scale of “things that make me happy,” wildflowers are up there – hovering somewhere between waterfalls and golden autumn leaves.

Apparently, I’m not the only one. I saw proof of the widespread flower mania during a recent visit to Scottsdale, Arizona’s Bartlett Lake – the veritable epicenter of the state’s 2019 “super bloom.”

On that mostly-sunny Saturday, you would have been hard-pressed to find a frowning face. As I hiked the lakeside Jojoba Trail, and then drove along the North Lake Road, I was tickled by the crowds of bloom peepers – young and old – frolicking and posing for photos alongside the fields of blooms.

It turns out I wasn’t exactly a trailblazer. Photos of Bartlett Lake’s gorgeous yellow-gold Mexican poppies had been popping up on Instagram and Twitter for more than a week, and I couldn’t resist. I decided to follow the crowd. And sometimes the crowd is right!

I simply loved the explosion of colors. In every direction, it seemed, were more flowers, stretching off into the distance. I happily joined the camera-clad crowds.

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After years of taking an annual trip on my birthday, I’m well aware that travel in February comes with some built-in pluses and minuses.

A major plus: Cheaper airfares and hotel rates.

And the obvious minus: The weather is at its most uncertain.

I learned that again in a big way this year when my early-February trip to Los Angeles happened to coincide with a massive weather front that brought drenching rain all along the Pacific coast.

So, while my weekend getaway was packed with fun experiences, the top take-away may have been “what to do in LA in the rain.”

And, it turns out there’s plenty to keep you busy in the “Entertainment Capital of the World,” regardless of the weather.

I can’t say I had any up-close encounters with major movie stars on my rainy birthday weekend to Los Angeles, but I did experience a number of show-biz moments – from an actress playing the “star card,” to a veritable runway-show of fur coats, to a sweet aspiring comedian/singer waiter.

I also took in a Broadway legend performing in Hollywood, ate some amazing California seafood, and got to dip my toes in the Pacific Ocean. Not bad for a rained-out weekend!

On the downside, I saw a bit of sobering tragedy along the way – another lesson of life in this frenetic city that never seems to sleep.

Here are 11 of the top lessons from my weekend birthday getaway to Los Angeles:

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img_9103“Over the red lands and the gray lands, twisting up into the mountains, crossing the Divide and down into the bright and terrible desert, and across the desert to the mountains again, and into the rich California valleys.”
The Grapes of Wrath

For me, any mention of Route 66 always conjures up images of John Steinbeck’s epic novel “The Grapes of Wrath” and the fictional Joad family’s arduous journey from Oklahoma to California.

Over the years, I’ve taken in bits and pieces of the historic highway, always marveling at the narrow two-lane road and its status for decades as America’s main east-west route between Chicago and Santa Monica, California.

A recent re-reading of “The Grapes of Wrath” set me to wondering about Arizona’s remaining sections of the original roadway. And, since I live within a few hours of all of the Arizona towns along the route, I decided to spend the coming weekends retracing the Joads’ route through the state.

Starting with Holbrook in the east, my goal is to head west, like the Joads – taking in Winslow, Two Guns, Flagstaff, Williams, Hackberry, Kingman, and Topock – all the way to the Colorado River on the California border. Of course, along the way, I’ll be stopping at some of the cool roadside attractions and epic hikes as well.

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The scene I awoke to Sunday morning, Jan. 13, 2019, was anything but the sunny hiking weather I had been expecting. The weather forecast the day before had been predicting rain for Saturday night, followed by a partly cloudy day on Sunday. But in Northern Arizona – at more than 5,300 feet elevation – you never know.

Magically, that light rain had morphed into several inches of fluffy white snow.

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