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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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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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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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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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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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.

What’s not to love?

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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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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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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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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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It’s not exactly a well-kept secret. Hundreds of thousands of baseball spring-training fans already know it. Winter-weary residents of Northern Arizona know it. And sun-seeking spring-breakers from throughout the Midwest know it: Phoenix, Arizona in the springtime is hard to beat.

Unlike other parts of the country, where March and April can be a slushy, windy slog, Phoenix is at its best in the spring (in my opinion), with its warm breezes, sunny skies, and blooming wildflowers.

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So, it was with anticipation that I looked ahead to a Saturday trip to the Valley of the Sun in early March. To take full advantage of the season, I decided to put together a little itinerary of some of my favorite activities – hiking, sightseeing, eating, and shopping. In my mind, the perfect Phoenix day!

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