NearandFarAZ

Life in the desert. Sometimes it can seem like a hot, dry slog – especially as summer begins, with its promise of months in the 90s and 100s.

But rest assured, there is always an oasis in the distance to remind you of the joys of living amongst the cacti and the lizards.

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I had one of those moments over the weekend, when I decided to check out a new trail (well, new to me) in the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix.

In recent years, my occasional hiking in the Phoenix area had focused on the urban trails – Camelback Mountain, Piestewa Peak, North Mountain. All are great, challenging hikes, with sweeping views. But I must say, the traffic on the trails can get heavy, even on weekdays.

On this particular weekend, I was looking for something a little more remote. I had heard good things about the views along the Peralta Trail, and I decided to check it out. photo 2(17)With little more than directions in hand, I set off on Highway 60, driving on the freeway through Mesa and Apache Junction.

It’s a bit of a haul, but I hung in there, and soon came upon Peralta Road, just past Gold Canyon, Arizona. After passing through a small community, the street ends, and a sign cautions that the next seven miles would be over a winding, dirt road.

But oh, what a dirt road! On this early-June day, the desert could hardly have been more stunning.

Really – the views through this stretch of the Tonto National Forest are worth the drive. With the craggy range of Superstitions as a backdrop, the desert seems to go on endlessly, dotted with leafy mesquite, blooming cholla, and massive saguaros.

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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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It’s true – you really can get just about anything you need on the streets of Taipei.

I’m not talking only noodles and dumplings, either (although they’re both plentiful). I’m talking about shoes, purses, electronics, cameras, jewelry, and just about any type of food imaginable.

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Of course I had heard about the night markets of Taipei, and they ARE everything you would expect – non-stop activity, music, and food.

What I didn’t expect, though, are the morning markets, the fish markets, and flower markets.

Even in March, when the weather was a little chilly and misty, the streets were packed every day with people cooking, eating, and shopping.

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If we hadn’t been looking for it, we never would have known it was there: The little Triori bed and breakfast was an unassuming presence on a block of tidy homes. Overlooking a rice field, the row house was marked only with a small sign peeking out from behind a twisted bonsai tree.

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After several action-packed days in Taipei, we had taken the short train trip to Yilan County along the northwest coast to experience Taiwan’s hot springs culture. Instructions were brief – get off the train at the Jiaoxi Station, and take a 15-minute walk to Qilidan Road, Lane 195.

We weren’t too worried. The town was small, and the walk was pleasant. Passing by the signs for dozens of commercial hot-springs resorts, we kept walking and soon came upon Triori.

From the start, it was obvious that the proprietors aimed to make our stay exceptional. Although we were a little early for check-in, they suggested that we explore the town on the bikes they provide to guests. We immediately set off on a quest for Yilan’s famed scallion pancakes. (You have to love a town known for its scallions!).

The little pancake booth located off the main drag was doing brisk business – frying up the crispy/doughy discs in huge vats of oil. A long line of customers stretched out to the street.IMG_1102

Parking our bikes, we joined the line and were soon seated at one of the nearby picnic tables, washing the savory pancakes down with milk tea. Satisfied, we headed back to Triori to check out the promised in-room hot spring. And wow! Our beautifully and minimally designed room included two levels – one with two sleeping areas and an outside patio overlooking the rice field, and another with a hot tub fed by naturally hot spring water.

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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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