NearandFarAZ

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 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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From trudging through snowy-white sand in New Mexico’s 90-degree autumn weather to venturing deep into the shady woods of central Czech Republic, my hikes of 2018 were varied, to say the least.

Also unique this year was my participation in the 52 Hike Challenge – a movement that encourages people to get out onto the trails at least once a week for the entire year.

It was fairly casual participation on my part, because I didn’t fully document every single hike I took on social media, and some of my hikes were repeats on local favorites. Even so, I had plenty of ‘first times’ too – from the beaches of Southern California, to the mountains of Utah, to the depths of the Grand Canyon.

So, as 2018 comes to an end, and as I close in on my 52nd hike of the year, I am taking a look back at the top 10 – my personal ‘greatest-hit hikes’ of 2018:

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When I moved from the upper plains of North Dakota to the desert southwest of Arizona years ago, one of the questions I frequently got from friends back home went something like this: “How do you get into the holiday spirit with no snow?”

True, it took some getting used to. In place of the frigid moonlight toboggan parties I was used to around Christmastime were balmy days at the barbecue grill. And rather than a landscape that was almost guaranteed to feature glistening snowy hills were towering saguaro cacti backlit by golden sunlight.

Of course, living in Northern Arizona, I still occasionally get a white Christmas. But they are few and far between. More likely is a holiday season featuring vivid blue skies, a few fluffy clouds, and mild 50- and 60-degree weather.

After a few decades of Southwestern life, though, I’ll have to say that the desert Christmas has grown on me. In fact, a lit-up palm tree can get me a little misty-eyed. I’ve come to appreciate the joys of wandering through the lit-up plazas, courtyards, and hotel grounds of the Christmas-y towns of Arizona.

Here are a few of my favorite Arizona spots to take in a delightful desert Christmas.

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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.

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 sent 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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