NearandFarAZ

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

When 17th century explorer Sebastian Vizcaino happened upon the sandy strand that juts into the Pacific Ocean off the southern-California coast, he promptly 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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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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“Are you traveling alone?” the Canadian customs agent asked me sternly. “No, I’m traveling with my son and daughter-in-law,” I answered, pointing to the young couple talking to a nearby agent.

Looking at my passport, he asked, “What brings you all the way from Arizona?”

At that point, I decided to play what I’ve come to think of as the “birthday card.”

“Well, it’s my birthday,” I said, “and I’m on a weekend trip to celebrate it.”

Another quick peek at my passport, and the agent smiled, “Otherwise known as Super Bowl weekend, right?” he asked, (wink, wink). “Happy Birthday,” he said, and waved me on.

It was an exchange typical of the responses I get when I take my annual February trip to celebrate my birthday. Through the years, I’ve discovered that the perks of being on the road for your birthday are plentiful. Here are a few of them:

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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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Over the years, I’ve had plenty of infatuations with beautiful cities. I fell hard for Amsterdam, with its lovely canals and spirited street scene. I loved the energy and air of self-importance of New York City. Rome took me by surprise, with its awe-inspiring antiquities, bordered by narrow, shady alleys. And New Orleans – what can I say? It was like the bad boy I knew wasn’t that good for me, but couldn’t resist.

All of them were short-lived flings, though, involving quick visits. I definitely would like to return some day, but I no longer harbor dreams of living in any of them.

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San Francisco was different. Probably because I’ve been able to return again and again to visit my son, who lived there for years, I feel like I forged a bond with San Francisco and understand its rhythm and soul. So much so, in fact, that it has become my metropolitan measuring stick.

San Francisco, you’ve spoiled me for every other city! Here’s why:

 

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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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