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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Growing up in North Dakota, I can’t say that I truly appreciated the beauty of the prairie.

Oh, I loved being outdoors, and I regularly explored the acreage of my family’s farm. But to say it was beautiful? I’m afraid I didn’t go there. “So flat.” “No forests.” “Hardly any rivers.” “How far is the nearest beach?” – These were among the laments of my growing-up years.

As I matured, of course, I came to realize the truth of that old adage: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And when it comes to the prairie, I can now say that I – the beholder – find a wealth of things to appreciate.

It’s been 30 years since I have lived in North Dakota, and although I’ve visited from time to time, those trips were usually more about seeing family than exploring the countryside.

So, as my 40th high school reunion was approaching this summer, I decided to make my return a road trip, with plenty of time to revel in the things I so blithely overlooked as a child and young adult.

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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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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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Let me start by saying that I realize Canadians don’t live on a daily diet of poutine and Caesar cocktails. Any more than Arizonans have a chimichanga and margarita for lunch every day, or San Franciscans, sourdough bread and cioppino.

 

Admittedly, they all sound lovely. But my point is they’re mostly restaurant and/or tourist foods – the images that come to mind when people think about visiting places like Canada, Arizona, or San Francisco.

 

Still, I feel like these types of foods offer a glimpse into the culinary heart of a region. So, when I say “how to eat and drink like a Canadian,” I know I’m not an expert after my brief stay in Vancouver. But I did get a little insight into the appetites of Canadians!

 

First, let me mention the poutine. We had been on the lookout for this distinctly Canadian creation ever since we crossed the border from Washington to British Columbia. Finally, on a Saturday evening in Vancouver’s Gastown, before a big Vancouver Canucks/Calgary Flames hockey game, we decided to check out a quintessential hockey hangout, The Pint Public House and Sports Bar.

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We’re sitting at a cozy booth, polishing off the last of a skillet-full of gooey pimento mac-and-cheese, and balsamic collard greens, when the server stops by and hands us a stuffed paper bag, folded over at the top.

 

It seems that the restaurant, The Wandering Goose, was getting ready to close for the day. “We had some extras; hope you enjoy them,” the server told us. I had seen her give a similarly bulging bag to the guy sitting next to us, but had assumed it was a take-out order.

 

Cool gesture, and so typical of the day we were having crawling through Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Occupying a steep incline just east of Seattle’s downtown district, Capitol Hill is home to countless cafés, bars, and pizzerias. On my visit over the Christmas weekend, I was determined to visit as many as possible. That Saturday, my son, who lives in the neighborhood, agreed to take me on a tour of some of his favorite spots.

 

The Wandering Goose, located on the trendy/quirky 15th Avenue, was the spot we had decided to have a late lunch. It definitely had a Seattle feel, with its slogan, “I’m a wandering kind of goose” burned into the surface of the wood tables, and the wall of vintage leaded-glass separating it from the restaurant next door.

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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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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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