NearandFarAZ

Theodore Roosevelt National Park was my first national park. Indeed, a trip to the western-North Dakota park is one of my earliest childhood memories and probably my first family vacation.

I remember piling into the car with my sisters and parents and driving for what seemed like days. Actually, it was a four-hour drive from our home. But from that packed backseat, the flat terrain along Interstate 94 had an endless quality.

Once we arrived, though, I was transfixed by the park – its herds of buffalo, the adorable Prairie Dog Town, and the endless rolling hills of the Badlands.

Later family trips would take me to Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, and Redwood national parks – all gorgeous and remarkable in their own ways.

I believe those family trips planted the seed for my love of the outdoors. They also made me appreciate the natural beauties that have been preserved all over the country. As an adult, I have gone on to visit many more national parks.

But I’m glad my first park was one that paid tribute to Theodore Roosevelt, the father of so many of America’s national parks, reserves, and national forests. Considered the “conservationist president,” Roosevelt is said to have shaped his views about preservation during his time ranching in the Badlands of North Dakota.

Although I have always loved national parks, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that has cut off access to so many of the parks has made me appreciate these national treasures even more.

So, during this National Park Week of 2020, I am highlighting my favorites. Here are 9 national parks that are truly knockouts.

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Warm breezes, soft sand, rolling waves: Soaking up the beach vibes is undoubtedly at the heart of any good oceanside vacation.

But for me, it is just a part of the equation.

The routine might vary depending on the destination, but basically my beach itinerary consists of: swim, lounge, hike, explore, shop, dine, repeat. All capped off with a bit of local adventure.

With those priorities in mind, I believe I found the perfect combo on a recent trip to the Mexican Caribbean’s Riviera Maya – the all-inclusive resort.

Of course, I had heard of the charms of Mexico’s all-inclusive resorts for years. But for some reason, I had envisioned a somewhat generic experience, with guests mostly staying onsite to partake of the complimentary food, drink, and entertainment.

It always raised a question for me: Why travel to a far-off locale if you’re going to limit your experience to the grounds of a resort?

What I found at the Secrets Capri Riviera Cancun was an entirely different experience. Sure, there were excellent food and drink choices available, along with extravagant nightly entertainment and a lovely beach setting.

But there were also vans and buses coming and going throughout the day, taking guests to the region’s varied attractions – from coral reefs for snorkeling to underground rivers to island excursions.

After my short stay at Secrets Capri, I left with the impression that an all-inclusive resort offers the perfect base to explore the gorgeous Mexican Caribbean. Here’s why:

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As a first-time visitor to Indiana, I didn’t know what to expect when I embarked on a winter trip to Hamilton County and its small-to-mid-sized Indianapolis suburbs.

Certainly, I didn’t expect what I found in Carmel, a city of about 92,000 people located 40 minutes north of Indianapolis.

There, amidst the 128 roundabout intersections (yes, Carmel is known as the Roundabout Capital of the U.S.!), I found a community brimming with businesses owned by dynamic women entrepreneurs, brand-new festivals that are drawing in hundreds of thousands of people, and a lovely city center anchored by a 1,600-seat concert hall.

Intermingled with all of the recent developments are lively and fun spots where visitors can take in everything from a traditional English tea room owned by a knowledgeable U.K. transplant, to a chic chocolate shop selling Austrian-style goods with an Indiana flare, to an elegant cake shop that recently garnered national attention as a 2019 inductee onto Oprah Winfrey’s list of favorite things.

In fact, Carmel and its surrounding towns seem to have all of the bases covered. With the area’s vintage train that features fun seasonal themes, along with the history-come-to-life treasure at Conner Prairie, Hamilton County is a great family destination.

The area also appeals to adults of all ages with its unique wineries (complete with cozy igloos), its beautiful Monon Rail Trail, and plenty of quaint shopping districts..

You would be hard-pressed to get to all of Hamilton County’s attractions in one weekend, but here are a few of the features that are sure to make it a sweet visit. Read More

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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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 with 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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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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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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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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