NearandFarAZ

“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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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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About eight months ago, I had a brilliant idea: Why not parlay my co-loves of travel and writing into a travel blog? Wow, how original, right? Little did I know that thousands – perhaps hundreds of thousands – of people were already doing just that.

 

Since starting my blog, nearandfaraz, in May 2015, I have explored countless travel blogs, and drooled over endless accounts of trips to stunning destinations. I’ve also taken a few trips of my own – most notably, Yosemite National Park, San Francisco, Sonoma, Big Sur, Zion National Park, Seattle, and Puerto Peñasco, Mexico.

 

I’ve had a blast – both on the trips, on which I’ve given my iPhone a workout on more than 150 Instagram shots and hundreds of tweets; and later, at home, while writing my blog posts.

 

To commemorate my first half-year of travel blogging, as well as the start of a whole new year (YAY, 2016!), I decided to come up with my big-10 travel and blogging resolutions for the coming year. Here goes:

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I freely and unabashedly admit: I enjoy being a tourist.

On my first trip to Seattle a year ago, I happily joined the throngs taking the elevator ride up the iconic Space Needle, and I braved the cold wind to take in the views of the city from the outdoor observation area. Afterward, I roamed the adjoining Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibit, completely absorbed in the graceful glass art. It didn’t bother me one bit that the attractions are considered by some to be tourist attractions. I thought they were fabulous.

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Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibit

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I’ve also been known to go a little crazy over San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, the Taipei 101 building in Taiwan, the Panama Canal in Panama City, and the Grand Canyon in my home state of Arizona. All tourist attractions, to be sure, but still amazing sights.

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I don’t really have a bucket list; I find it a little morbid. But if I DID have a list of things to do in my lifetime, hiking The Narrows in Zion National Park would have been near the top for the past decade or so.

Ever since I first spotted images of the soaring rock walls bracketing the rushing waters of the Virgin River, I was hooked.

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My obsession only intensified after I started following hiking enthusiasts on Instagram. Every time I saw a photo of The Narrows’ radiant slot canyons, I would mutter “damn,” and wonder why I hadn’t yet made the six-hour trip to Zion National Park.

So, when I recently had a chance to join a group of friends for a long weekend in Hurricane, Utah – just miles from Zion – I was in. Finally, The Narrows hike was within reach.

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If variety is, indeed, the spice of life, then my recent accommodations on a road trip through Arizona, Nevada, and California were as “spicy” as an order of jerk-chicken wings and a side of flash-fried shishito peppers (I really did have these tasty appetizers at Bartlett Hall in San Francisco’s Union Square, but that’s another blog!).

As I was planning the road trip that would take me to such diverse stops as Las Vegas, Yosemite National Park, San Francisco, Sonoma wine country, and Big Sur, I decided that I didn’t want my overnight stays to be a string of homogeneous chain hotels. Rather, I wanted the places to reflect their surroundings.

The result: An eclectic collection of charming/luxurious/quirky abodes that were all delightful in their own ways.

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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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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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First of all, I know that there are many, many gorgeous places that I have yet to see.

I’ve been around a bit, but I am under no illusion that I’ve seen it all!

Still, I have to wonder: Could there be any spot in the world that can top Sedona, Arizona on a hot, clear summer day?

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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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When I first heard about Jiufen while planning my recent trip to Taiwan, I immediately wanted to visit the picturesque mining town on the island’s north coast.

After all, I’ve lived within easy reach of Jerome – Northern Arizona’s notorious mining town – for years, and I’ve always loved the mining history. Early in my career as a journalist, I had spent six years covering Jerome’s spirited town government for the local newspaper, and I believed I understood the heart of a mining town.

Thinking there would be plenty of parallels, I felt an affinity for this Taiwanese town with the rich gold-mining past.

To be honest, though, the two towns turned out to have few similarities, other than their mountainous terrain. Oh – and their singular quirkiness.

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