NearandFarAZ

You know that feeling you get when you return to a place you love? You know exactly what you want to do, and you’re excited to get started? That’s how I felt on my most recent trip to San Francisco.

I arrived on the day before my birthday, and I couldn’t wait to hit the streets. Just one little problem, however: Rain. The online forecast for the weekend was all clouds, umbrellas, and raindrops.

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View from under the umbrella

Still, as I checked into my hotel on that slightly dreary Friday morning, I was encouraged by the attitude of the hotel concierge. “We’ve had worse,” he said when I asked him about the weather. With that, I tucked an umbrella into my tote and headed off.

Although I’ve visited San Francisco a number of times over the past eight years and experienced all types of weather, this trip was unique in one way: It was the first time I was completely on my own. When none of my friends or family members could get away to join me, I saw it as a perfect opportunity to come up a personalized agenda of favorites.

So here goes – my very own list of San Francisco treats:

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The third Monday of January – it’s that blue time of the year when I come to terms with a few things: the Christmas tree MUST come down; the sun doesn’t ALWAYS shine in Arizona; and I NEED to plan some adventures.

Last year at this time, I took advantage of mid-January – officially the bluest time of the year – to set some travel goals. Not only did it get me through my least favorite month, but it served as a springboard for some truly awesome trips.

At the time, I was about eight months into my travel and hiking blog, and I had some big plans for the coming year.

Now, it’s time to see how I did on my list of travel resolutions of 2016, and to set some new ones for 2017.

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I’ve spent my entire life land-locked – first on the Great Plains, and later in the mountains of Northern Arizona. While I’ve loved them both, I have a secret confession: I’m an ocean girl at heart.

 

In my opinion, there is nothing more refreshing and rejuvenating than a visit to the coast. I get giddy just thinking about the foamy surf, the salty breeze, and the screeching gulls.

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So when I planned a recent trip from my Arizona home to Irvine, California for a conference, there was no way I was going to pass up a visit to the Southern California coast.

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As a long-time resident of Arizona, I know that these are the dog days of summer. As August rolls along, it seems that Phoenix is in a continuous heated battle with Palm Springs, Calif. for the dubious honor: Hottest spot in the country.

In recent days, Phoenix has logged in at 117 degrees Fahrenheit. For those who’ve never experienced it, 117 is an oven-like, oppressive heat that melts asphalt, turns steering wheels into blistering rings of fire, and gives the streets of Arizona’s largest city the feel of an abandoned movie set. Northern Arizona is marginally cooler, but still sweltering.

Still, with the heat comes SOME perks. Everyone in the state seems to know a few secrets for beating the heat, and most of them involve water (in addition to the obvious – air conditioning!).

For me, the hot season typically conjures up two retreat options: a Phoenix resort (preferably with an awesome pool), or a Mexican beach. For those willing to brave the heat, Phoenix’s high-end hotels are usually a super bargain from Memorial Day in May through Labor Day in September, making out-of-reach resorts suddenly affordable. As for Mexican beaches, the locale of choice for much of Arizona is Puerto Peñasco (Rocky Point), just an hour across the Arizona/Sonora border.

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This summer, I combined both in one trip, and it was wonderful. It also allowed me to do a side-by-side comparison of the two summer-retreat options. Here’s how the two experiences, including the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess and Princesa de Peñasco, stacked up:

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I had heard the stories, of course. Scary accounts of trumped up traffic tickets, nights spent in Mexican jails, and requests for bribes. Fortunately, though, I had never had a run-in with a Mexican policeman. Over the past 25 years or so, I have driven south of the border dozens of times – sometimes with kids, dogs, and camping gear in tow. And although we often got the once-over at the border, I had never been stopped alongside the road.

I wasn’t so lucky this time, however. As I drove into Sonoyta (Sonoita), the Mexican town just across the border from Lukeville, Arizona, on my way home from a short stay in the beach town of Puerto Peñasco (Rocky Point), Sonora, Mexico, I noticed a pick-up truck behind me, headlights flashing. I pulled over, and as the officer approached my car, he was shaking his head.

The upshot was that I was speeding (the actual speeds and speed limits were somewhat confusing – what with the conversion from kilometers to miles, as well as the Spanish-to-English translation). What the officer did get across to me, though, was that he wanted money – cash – or he was going to take me to “the station.”

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When I started writing this blog post, I was going to title it “Rocky Point: Arizona’s Hamptons.” But after returning from my recent trip to the small Mexican beach town just across the Arizona border, I realized that “Hamptons” was too much of a stretch – even in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. Really, very little about Rocky Point screams the upscale Hamptons.

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So, in search of another comparison, I decided the vibe of the Jersey Shore more closely matches the sometimes-raucous, unabashedly touristy feel of Rocky Point (AKA, Puerto Peñasco).

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Either way, what I was trying to get across is the beach get-away aspect of Rocky Point. Like New Jersey and New York, most regions of the U.S. have their go-to spots for a day on the water – everything from North Carolina’s Outer Banks to Washington’s islands, to Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes.

But what about land-locked, arid Arizona? Where’s a desert dweller to go for a day at the beach? For me and thousands of other Arizonans, it’s simple: Head south of the border.

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I know, I know – girls’ trips have become so commonplace that they’re practically clichéd.

On a recent flight to San Francisco with two of my friends, we overheard the women in the row of seats behind us tell the flight attendant they were embarking on a girls’ trip. My friends and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes. We realized we weren’t all that special.

But if so many people are doing it, there must be a lot to love, right? In my experience, the answer is yes.

Over the past several years, a group of friends and I have celebrated our respective birthdays by taking short weekend trips. Along with the San Francisco trip, we’ve checked out a small mining town in Arizona’s Bradshaw Mountains, a resort in Phoenix, and a casino on the Navajo Reservation.

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Our hike in the Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area in Cave Creek, AZ

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It was the mystery of the missing ñeque, I think, that made me realize the extent of the cultural leap I had taken. Before traveling to the San Blas Islands off Panama’s Caribbean coast, I did not even know that ñeques existed. A rodent indigenous to Central and South America, the animal is the size of a large squirrel, but hunched over and without the bushy tail.

Just that morning, the resident ñeque had been scampering among the dozen or so guests who were eating breakfast at wooden tables along the beach at Isla Diablo, one of more than 350 powdery-sand islets that are a part of the holdings of the native people of the Kuna Yala Comarca. A small Kuna boy scooped the ñeque off the table and carried him to the family hut, admonishing him along the way.

By evening, however, there was no sign of the curious ñeque. And then, the shocking news: As they served our dinner, our Kuna Yala hosts happily announced that ñeque was on the menu that night. At first, my fellow guests and I were skeptical. But one look at the small slabs of jerky-like meat on our plates made us believers. It certainly was not beef or any other familiar meat. And as some of the guests tasted the meat, the consensus quickly formed that the friendly ñeque had indeed become our dinner.

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Panama was a bit of a fluke for me. Although never really on my list of must-see spots in the world, the Central American nation simply bowled me over when I got a chance to go.

It was a fluke, in part, because the main reason I visited was to join a friend on a trip to visit her daughter, who was living in Panama as a Peace Corps volunteer. That detail contributed considerably to the fun; there’s no substitute for an insider’s view. Regardless of how I got there the first time, Panama is now high on the list of places I’d like to return to, and here’s why:

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