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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The scene I awoke to Sunday morning, Jan. 13, 2019, was anything but the sunny hiking weather I had been expecting. The weather forecast the day before had been predicting rain for Saturday night, followed by a partly cloudy day on Sunday. But in Northern Arizona – at more than 5,300 feet elevation – you never know.

Magically, that light rain had morphed into several inches of fluffy white snow.

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When I moved from the upper plains of North Dakota to the desert southwest of Arizona years ago, one of the questions I frequently got from friends back home went something like this: “How do you get into the holiday spirit with no snow?”

True, it took some getting used to. In place of the frigid moonlight toboggan parties I was used to around Christmastime were balmy days at the barbecue grill. And rather than a landscape that was almost guaranteed to feature glistening snowy hills were towering saguaro cacti backlit by golden sunlight.

Of course, living in Northern Arizona, I still occasionally get a white Christmas. But they are few and far between. More likely is a holiday season featuring vivid blue skies, a few fluffy clouds, and mild 50- and 60-degree weather.

After a few decades of Southwestern life, though, I’ll have to say that the desert Christmas has grown on me. In fact, a lit-up palm tree can get me a little misty-eyed. I’ve come to appreciate the joys of wandering through the lit-up plazas, courtyards, and hotel grounds of the Christmas-y towns of Arizona.

Here are a few of my favorite Arizona spots to take in a delightful desert Christmas.

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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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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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For a true western experience that combines rugged high-desert terrain with refreshments in an authentic historic train-depot setting, Prescott, Arizona offers a classic duo: A strenuous hike in the Granite Mountain Wilderness Area, capped off with a fitting reward at the nearby Iron Springs Cafe.

Located west of the city, the wilderness area features a network of trails that zigzag through the granite boulders that make up the foothills of the massive Granite Mountain, Prescott’s largest and most prominent promontory.

And located conveniently along the way is the historic Hillside Depot building, which was moved to the spot decades ago, and now serves as the charming Iron Springs Cafe.

Among the most popular of the wilderness area’s routes is the Little Granite Mountain Trail, which begins from a trailhead located about eight miles from downtown Prescott along Iron Springs Road.

The trek is rugged and the climb is steep, but the payoffs are rich. Alligator junipers, agave cacti, and massive rock formations crowd the first mile or so of the trail.

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Mention hiking in Phoenix, and a few prominent spots likely come to mind – Camelback Mountain, Piestewa Peak, Peralta Trail in the Superstitions.

Each is amazing in its own way – offering variations on stunning desert terrain and sweeping views. But they all come with another, less attractive feature as well – throngs of hikers.

On the other hand, mention South Mountain, and many people, even Arizonans, will draw a blank. Even though it’s the largest of Phoenix’s parks, the 16,000-acre South Mountain Preserve usually isn’t included in the same category as the other popular hiking areas.

And that’s good news for those who do venture to the South Phoenix park. The day I visited, I encountered only a few other hikers on the trail, and I had the trail’s summit views all to myself.

Another major plus of the South Mountain area? The Farm at South Mountain, a charming pecan grove-cum-eatery that features, among other restaurants, the picnic-friendly and rustic Farm Kitchen.

Because of its proximity to the hiking and mountain biking trails of the South Mountain Preserve, The Farm makes for a perfect “Hike and a Bite” adventure – another in my blog series of beautiful trails and the delicious refreshments often available nearby.

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