NearandFarAZ

No doubt you’ve heard a lot about the young, adventurous solo travelers out there taking fabulous trips to remote spots all over the world, and blogging about it as they go. I applaud them and love to read their stories and see their social media posts.

But when it comes to the slightly older “seasoned” traveler? There isn’t much buzz.

I happen to know from experience, though, that the thirst for travel isn’t quenched in your youth. As far as I’m concerned, the desire to see more and more of the world only gets stronger as the decades go by.

What likely does change, however, is the way you travel, as well as new challenges you face as a mature traveler. That dormitory-style hostel you stayed in as a young backpacker probably isn’t going to work anymore. And things like learning new public transportation systems or new technologies can seem more difficult. All of those little issues are compounded when you’re traveling alone.

Over the course of my recent solo trips to Hong Kong, Quebec, Berlin, Copenhagen, and the Czech Republic, I’ve come up with some tips that have made the going easier and more enjoyable. Here are a dozen of my favorites:

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Narrow your eyes a bit as you walk along the winding streets and alleys of Třebíč’s Jewish Quarter, and you could be back in 1930s Czechoslavakia.

Rising on each side of the rough cobblestone walkways are the interconnected stucco buildings of the former Jewish ghetto, preserved largely as they appeared before World War II.

Step into Seligmann Bauer House, and you are instantly transported to a 1930s-era Jewish home, complete with a table set for Shabbat, pear trees in the backyard, and the ground-level shop selling everyday items.

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Heartbreakingly, though, Třebíč’s Jewish Quarter no longer serves as a home for Jewish families; history shows that the 300 Jews living in Třebíč in the 1930s were deported to concentration camps, and most were killed by the Nazis during World War II. Only 10 to 15 Jews returned to Třebíč after the war, and today, no Jewish families remain.

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Before my road trip to Hatch, New Mexico, in early October, I wasn’t even aware that “Hatch-heads” existed. Now, after spending a few days exploring the area, I have to admit that I’ve joined the ranks of those somewhat obsessed fans of the chile peppers native to the Hatch Valley.

Admittedly, I’ve always loved green chiles. I can never resist the rich fragrance of roasting chiles at my local farmers’ market. And I always have a supply of canned diced chiles in my cupboard, or whole-roasted chiles in my freezer. I use them in everything from tortilla soup to refried beans to chile rellenos.

But I had never before experienced the chile bonanza that is harvest time in Hatch. From the minute you leave Interstate 25 about 185 miles south of Albuquerque (exit 41 onto New Mexico Route 543) and cross the tree-lined Rio Grande, you are transported to a virtual chile wonderland.

Shop after shop in the small farming village of Hatch features bright-colored signs and rows upon rows of ropes bursting with drying red chiles.

As I drove down Hatch’s main street, the Grajeda Farms Hatch Chile Market caught my attention, with its six-foot-long strings of glossy red chiles. I spent more than an hour wandering through the outdoor curtains of pepper strings and exploring the indoor market with its shelves of chile powder and Mexican-style pottery.

Permeating everything was the rich scent of chile peppers.

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The strings of dried red chiles at the Grajeda Farms Hatch Chile Market come in lengths of anywhere from two feet to six feet. These six-foot-long strings make an impressive curtain and are eye-catching from Hatch’s main street.

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If I could snap my fingers and ensure that all of my travel-dining experiences would be as delicious and delightful as the one I happened upon at Prague’s Restaurant U Sádlů on my first evening in the Czech Republic, I would be an eternally happy traveler.

On that warm night, a plateful of creamy wild-mushroom risotto, a cold mug of Budvar Dark beer, a cozy ambience, and a friendly proprietor all added up to a big travel win just when I needed it.

Of course, travel doesn’t always work out that way. When it comes to eating on the road, you win some, you lose some, and sometimes you make do. Example: The paprika-flavored potato chips that served as lunch and dinner on my train ride from Prague to Berlin were anything but perfect. And the supermarket bread and cheese that I stashed in my Ostrava hotel room for breakfast? Filling, but not very tasty. Sometimes, convenience and availability override everything else.

But if you’re lucky, your travels will include a few spectacular meals, along with some surprisingly tasty snacks, and a refreshing beer or two.

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There are a few things you’ll probably know before heading to the Czech Republic. The beer will be plentiful, delicious, and inexpensive. Prague’s Charles Bridge will make your jaw drop. And the castles will be splendid.

All of these assumptions will hold true. No visitor could possibly be disappointed, for instance, by the enormous selection of beers. Every town seems to have one of its own, and yes, it’s sometimes cheaper than water.

And the Charles Bridge? The ubiquitous photo shoots speak for themselves.

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Photographers accompanying fashion models, brides and grooms, and travel couples are common sights along the photogenic Charles Bridge.

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Towering over it all is Prague Castle, which can be described only as breathtaking.

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Suffice it to say that Prague will not disappoint. An early morning stroll through the ancient city’s Old Town will fill your soul.

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A beam of sun shines through the Church of Our Lady Before Týn at sunrise in Prague’s Old Town Square.

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For me, Jocelyne Belleau perfectly summed up the Quebecois’ passion for their home.

“My blood is maple!” the petite dynamo said dramatically, hand on her heart.

With that, I knew I was in good hands for my first food tour through Old Quebec City.

Because really, who better to describe the delicacies of a city than someone with the region’s most iconic export pumping through her veins?6FE8B19E-1EC1-404C-A630-796B9A45EF50Belleau’s comment was part of an introduction to the culinary treats that awaited the dozen or so of us gathered in front of the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac for a Tours Voir Quebec food tour, as a part of the Women in Travel Summit 2018 conference in Quebec City.

Not only did Belleau’s comment reveal her love of Quebec, it also showed her sweet sense of humor.

And that was a trait that was never in short supply as I traversed Quebec City through a series of food and history tours. It was a joy to find that the city’s tour guides were funny, personable, informative, and deeply knowledgeable. No reading from a homogeneous script here. Every tour was unique and personal to the guide.

Of course I loved the food – I mean, thick french fries smothered in gravy and squeeky-fresh cheese curds; sumptuous chocolates filled with maple syrup; crisp, citrus-y wines straight from the fields of the Ile d’Orleans; silky-smooth apply butter; roasted-octopus-and-salmon salad paired with a local craft beer; tender smoked salmon garnished with a plump blueberry; and soft nougat studded with chewy currants and almonds.

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The Spanish explorers obviously knew a good thing when they saw it.

History shows that when 17th century explorer Sebastian Vizcaino happened upon the sandy strand that juts into the Pacific Ocean off the southern-California coast, he named it Coronado, or “the crowned one.”

I think he nailed it. Even then, the intrepid entrepreneur must have seen the potential of the lovely beaches and shining bay.

Because there is no disputing the fact that the slender finger of land that lies just across the San Diego Bay was “crowned” with more than its share of natural attributes.

On my recent first-time visit to Coronado Island, I couldn’t decide which I loved more: The soft-sandy beaches on the Pacific Ocean side, or the mirror-like waters of the bay, with the San Diego skyline as a backdrop.

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Thankfully, you don’t really have to choose, because the two sides are literally within walking distance of one another. Along portions of the narrow Silver Strand, the two sides of the peninsula (it’s not actually an island, but a “tied peninsula”) are separated by no more than the width of a highway.

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If it’s a hiking challenge and a fitting reward you’re after, the trails in Prescott, Arizona’s Granite Mountain Wilderness Area – and the nearby Iron Springs Cafe – might just be made to order.

Located west of the city, the wilderness area features a network of trails that zigzag through the granite boulders that make up the foothills of the massive Granite Mountain.

And located conveniently along the way is the old Hillside Depot building, which was moved to the spot decades ago, and now serves as the popular Iron Springs Cafe.

Among the most popular of the wilderness area’s routes is the Little Granite Mountain Trail, which begins from a trailhead located about eight miles from downtown Prescott along Iron Springs Road.

The trek is rugged and the climb is steep, but the payoffs are rich. Alligator junipers, agave cacti, and massive rock formations crowd the first mile or so of the trail.

 

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Mention hiking in Phoenix, and a few prominent spots likely come to mind – Camelback Mountain, Piestewa Peak, Peralta Trail in the Superstitions.

Each is amazing in its own way – offering variations on stunning desert terrain and sweeping views. But they all come with another, less attractive feature as well – throngs of hikers.

On the other hand, mention South Mountain, and many people, even Arizonans, will draw a blank. Even though it’s the largest of Phoenix’s parks, the 16,000-acre South Mountain Preserve usually isn’t included in the same category as the other popular hiking areas.

And that’s good news for those who do venture to the South Phoenix park. The day I visited, I encountered only a few other hikers on the trail, and I had the trail’s summit views all to myself.

Another major plus of the South Mountain area? The Farm at South Mountain, a charming pecan grove-cum-eatery that features, among other restaurants, the picnic-friendly and rustic Farm Kitchen.

Because of its proximity to the hiking and mountain biking trails of the South Mountain Preserve, The Farm makes for a perfect “Hike and a Bite” adventure – another in my blog series of beautiful trails and the delicious refreshments often available nearby.

Mormon Trail

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What is it about trains? I’m far from a railroad buff, but still, there’s something in the lonesome whistle of an old locomotive that speaks to me.

I was reminded of that again and again on my recent trip to Durango, Colorado. Among the activities I had planned was a daylong trip to Silverton on the historic Durango to Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

Even before I got near the train depot in downtown Durango, though, there was no question that I was in a railroad town. The long whistle could be heard all over town, and the plumes of gray-and-white steam could be glimpsed over the tops of buildings and trees. It definitely served to build up anticipation for the actual train ride.

Of course, the train isn’t the only thing Durango has to offer. I also loved the historic downtown and the gorgeous Animas River Trail and Greenway. (See my related blog).

But the train is the real star in this southwestern Colorado town. Nearly 200,000 passengers rode the train in 2017. And certainly, the three-and-a-half-hour ride to Silverton delivers on multiple levels. Among them: The non-stop views of the Animas River and surrounding San Juan Mountains.

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Every now and then, you visit a place that seems to have it all: Jaw-droppingly gorgeous surroundings, charming city streets, a fun vibe, and uniquely entertaining activities.

Durango, Colorado is just that kind of town. At a population of only about 17,000, it’s not a large city, but it IS big in so many other ways. Take the San Juan Mountains. The rugged peaks rise all around, making for stunning views in virtually every direction.

And the downtown, which lies at the base of the mountains, is bursting with history. Countless old buildings have been preserved and re-purposed as cool bars, restaurants and shops.

Then there’s the “river runs through it” thing. The lovely Animas River really is the heart of Durango. The rush of its chilly blue-green waters can be heard and seen from patios, trails, and city sidewalks all over town.

And who could forget the feature that is perhaps Durango’s main claim to fame – the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad? With its multiple daily trips to the mountain town of Silverton, the train is ubiquitous in Durango. Its whistle and smoky-steam plume are true symbols of the region.

But more on the train later (See related blog).

On my recent trip to southwestern Colorado, I also had another objective: To see Durango from river level. So, for the introductory blog on my “A Hike and a Bite” series, I give you the Animas River Trail.

 

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What can I say? I love trails. It doesn’t matter if they’re rough single-track passages through the mountains or wide pathways in the prairie, I can’t seem to resist a scenic recreational route.

And Durango makes it easy. The Animas River Trail is about nine miles of mostly concrete path that hugs the winding route of river. It’s never hard to find, and because the route is mostly flat, it makes for a leisurely walk.

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When it comes to life’s simple pleasures, I believe there are few things that can top a walk through beautiful scenery, capped off with a bite to eat or a frosty brew (or both!) in an out-of-the-way café or brewery.

With that in mind, I am kicking off two new blog series, “A Hike and a Bite” and “A Hike and a Brew.”

Along the way, I plan to feature treks through the stunning, rugged terrain so common in the U.S. Southwest, as well as strolls through the fascinating city centers that I love to explore all over the U.S. and around the world.

Every now and then, the two converge for an extra-special adventure of gorgeous hiking and charming city sidewalks. (Sedona, AZ; Durango, CO; and San Francisco, CA come to mind).

For my introductory “A Hike and a Brew,” I am heading to a city that is virtually synonymous with beer – Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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Although Milwaukee has a number of nicknames – MKE, Cream City, City of Festivals – I like the simple “Brew Town.” After all, it WAS beer that made Milwaukee famous all those years ago.

These days, the city has transformed from the heyday of its massive beer industry into a hub of fun craft breweries and scenic riverside trails.

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