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Best of 2011: Tales of a travelin’ man

Planes (jet and prop), trains (speedy and meandering), and automobiles (convertible, utility and luxury) took me on my journeys in 2011, along with an odd assortment of motorboats, canoes and a monorail.

I’ve had more hyperbolic years in the past, but a mixture of financial limits and contemplative mood had me slowing down my travels this year. I took time to savor a slice of southern Europe and three islands in Hawaii, to drive the Pacific Coast (on three different occasions) and to visit every one of the beaches in “Surfin’ USA” ― except for Narrabeen, which is inexplicably in the song despite its location in Australia.

It was a rather modest year in terms of the breadth of travel. I made it to five states ― California, Hawaii, Nevada, Arizona and Massachusetts. My foreign journeys were concentrated on two relatively long trips to just a pair of countries ― Canada and Italy. I once wrote that Florence was one of the most overrated destinations in the world. My trip this year softened that rather sweeping statement, though I still prefer Rome and Venice.

Like a lot of readers, I focused a big part of my energy closer to home. I found that even a night away from home and work could refuel my spirits.

Here’s my list of best travel trips and experiences from 2011, with contact information below:

Most beautiful spot: Venice, Italy. If you stand at the lagoon at sunset, there’s a feeling of connection with hundreds of years of human history. The sparkling water, the glow of the sun on the ocher-painted palazzos, the hum of motorboats, and the dipping and swaying of the gondolas as the sun sets behind the Lido create an experience I wish on everyone.

Best new discovery: the east side of Molokai. I’ve been to every one of the major Hawaiian islands, some many times over. But I’ve only been to Molokai once before, when I stayed on the dry, ranch-like west side. This year I rented a car, stopped at a market and headed off to the green, wet east side. My rental was 15 feet from the water and had views over the Kaiwi Channel to Maui. It was the most relaxing three days of the year.

Best story idea: digital detox. I went to Italy and didn’t take along my computer. I loved the calming effect it had on my brain and the pace of the days. Judging from reader mail (mostly electronic), the story resonated with many of you as well. Just because we can be instantly and constantly connected to the rest of the world wherever we go doesn’t mean we have to be. The idea of a vacation is to “vacate” certain parts of our lives. It’s hard to “be here” when you are constantly being pulled back “there.”
A Pacific Surfliner train rolls through Santa Barbara, California, and offers a great way to see California. (Orange County Register/MCT)
A Pacific Surfliner train rolls through Santa Barbara, California, and offers a great way to see California. (Orange County Register/MCT)

Best travel song: “Baby You Can Sleep While I Drive,” by Melissa Etheridge. Anyone who has taken a very long car trip with someone at the beginning of a relationship or rough patch along the way can relate to the sweet, sad lyrics.

Best travel movie: “The Descendants.” George Clooney keeps turning up in great travel movies ― I still watch “Up in the Air” any time it comes on the movie channels at home. Like Clooney’s character, the movie shows its location ― Hawaii ― as astride two worlds, one modern and almost indistinguishable from the rest of the country, and another lush, ancient and unique to the nation. The movie was directed by Alexander Payne, whose “Sideways” ignited a tourism boom in the Santa Barbara, Calif., wine country.

Favorite U.S. city: San Francisco. Whenever I touch down in the city by the bay, I realize how tough it would be for any other city to break into this slot. It only made matters worse for the competition when the October weather was clear and warm, I could snack my way through the Ferry Terminal food market on a Saturday afternoon and check out City Lights, one of the shrinking number of truly great independent bookstores in the country.

Favorite foreign city: Rome. It was too hot and crowded (as always), but the Italian capital is a place where “timeless” is no cliche. I sat on first century BC marble stones that had tumbled down in the Forum and I explained the landscape of temples and churches to my son and daughter. We walked the same routes as Julius Caesar, St. Paul, Raphael and Mussolini. The city shows you can grow old gracefully.

Favorite U.S. town: Concord, Massachusetts. I drove the route of the first major fighting of what would become the Revolutionary War and spent the night in the town where “the shot heard round the world” was fired. The man who wrote that, Ralph Waldo Emerson, is buried in the Author’s Ridge at the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, near the grave of his friend, Henry David Thoreau.

Favorite foreign town: Powell River, British Columbia. No journalist could fail to love the town that was once home to the largest pulp and paper mill in the world. Now the site of a much smaller boutique paper products operation, the town has survived the rounds of layoffs and departures by remaking itself into an arts colony while preserving its architectural past. The heart of the town is the Patricia Theatre, which opened in 1928 ― the year before the stock market crash. It’s still showing movies in its restored single-screen hall with flamingo murals.

Best alternative reality: Las Vegas. The city built on customers’ overrating their streaks of good luck is riding a long bad streak. But Sin City is trying hard to recover its “Hangover”-style swagger despite the half-finished, dead dinosaur hotels and shuttered Sahara at the north end of the Strip. Just take a stroll through the diamonds and designer dresses at CityCenter and you can see a whole city crossing its collective fingers.

Best hotel: Arizona Biltmore, Phoenix. Room 5227 was a “cottage” on the grounds of the main hotel. There’s much debate over how much Frank Lloyd Wright designed the hotel, which is officially credited to Albert Chase McArthur. But the hotel touts itself as “Wright influenced,” and the famous architect was on site for much of the design and early construction, leaving in a huff when he felt McArthur was overexpanding the hotel and cutting corners on materials. A book sold in the gift shop says Wright distanced himself from what he felt was a flawed effort, but did more than he admitted. The prefabricated block cottages, with their art deco designs and beautiful corner windows, are considered the most likely to have been designed by Wright himself.

Room with a view: Commonwealth Hotel in Boston. Room 508 overlooked Fenway Park, about as beautiful a view as there is for a baseball fan. In the evening, all the lights were left on, and the magnificent green stadium with the red seats shone through a fierce thunderstorm. Best of all, I could walk to two games from the hotel.

Best pool: Fairmont Princess Scottsdale, Arizona. Despite February temperatures in the 50s, my daughter and I couldn’t pass up a chance to ride the twisting pair of slides that empty into the pool from a three-story tower. The water was a cozy 82 degrees, but the run back up to the top of the tower had quite a wind chill factor.

Best day trips: Los Angeles. Plural, because you could never see the original definition of urban sprawl in a day. My favorite trip was taking my 10-year-old daughter for the first time to some of my favorite spots: Farmers Market, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the Sunset Strip and finally to see the crypt of Marilyn Monroe at Westwood Village Memorial Park. I also enjoyed a stay at the Century Plaza Hotel with my wife and an evening out in Little Osaka around Sawtelle Boulevard. Finally there was a pair of trips to downtown Los Angeles, wandering the University of Southern California campus and having lunch at Langer’s, the remnant of Jewish Los Angeles amid MacArthur Park’s Central American neighborhood. It’s a city that still has surprises for someone who has explored it for nearly a half-century.

Favorite train trip: the Pacific Surfliner from Orange County to Santa Barbara, Calif. I ditched the car for this trip and took the Amtrak train. Though a friend driving up the coast actually beat me into town, I was able to read all the way through Los Angeles County and then look out at the beaches of Ventura and Santa Barbara before pulling into the 109-year-old Southern Pacific Railroad station at my destination.

Best “cruise”: BC Ferries from Vancouver to Victoria, British Columbia. It was a gloriously sunny day as we pulled out of the port south of Vancouver into the Strait of Georgia, threading our way through the islands on our way to Victoria. We passed close enough to vacation homes that the residents came out to wave, and we could see islands on the other side of the invisible border with the United States. Along the way, a pod of black and white orcas (like Shamu) frolicked about, looking for wild salmon.

Best breakfast: Du-Pars, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Fluffy buttermilk hotcakes are the specialty of the house. I had them at the original spot at Farmers Market (a favorite television executive hangout) and later at the new outpost at the Golden Gate Hotel in downtown Las Vegas.

Best lunch: Neptune Oyster Bar in Boston. The lobster roll is a ubiquitous item in seafood places around New England _even McDonald’s sometimes has one. This variation was warm, with a slathering of butter on the roll. It’s sloppy but amazing stuff. This North End hole in the wall is worth enduring a frustrating hunt for nearby parking.

Best cheap dinner: Fry Bread House, Phoenix. Not every culinary revelation has to drain the bank account. For under $10, this small cafe tucked away in a fading commercial strip in Phoenix serves up traditional hot-from-the-fryer Native American bread topped with beef, cheese and chilis.

Best expensive dinner: Sostanza, Florence. My wife and I took our two children to the tiny “kitchen-style” restaurant where we had eaten during our honeymoon 21 years before. The roast-size steak was thick, juicy and just a tad rare for my taste _ but you take it the way they make it. Everyone else in our party had the equally famous butter chicken. It won’t win any “heart healthy” awards, but an occasional bit of excess is part of any good vacation.

Favorite bar: Pied Piper, San Francisco. The Palace Hotel is now part of the Starwood chain, but its roots go back more than a century in San Francisco. Its bar is famous for the illuminist Maxfield Parrish painting from which it takes its name, though the masterpiece now shares space with a wide-screen television showing 49ers football games. Great martinis ― I prefer top-end gin, shaken till near hand-numbing cold, with one olive.

Best coffee: Sant’ Eustachio Cafe, Rome. One of my best years for coffee in a long time. I drink espresso, so it is hard to hide the true nature of the roasted bean. Sant’ Eustachio is tucked into a little plaza behind the Pantheon. You pay ahead of time at the cash register, then take your ticket to the barista (to speed up your spot in line, place a euro on the receipt). I also had great coffee in Vancouver at Black Cat and the Elysian Room, then at classic San Francisco spots Caffe Trieste in North Beach and at the Blue Bottle Coffee stand in the Ferry Building. (The original is in nearby Oakland.)

Best drive, U.S.: Palms to Pines, Southern California. The winding drive from the pine trees of Idyllwild to the desert floor of the Coachella Valley is a miniaturized tour of the climate zones of Southern California. It’s also a cultural shift from mountain (chain saw art, hiking gear stores) to uber-trendy (midcentury modern revival architecture and film festivals).

Favorite museum: Neon Museum, Las Vegas. Though it now has a centerpiece collection in a lot on the north end of downtown, the great innovation of the museum is to save and rehabilitate the great art form that flourished in Las Vegas before the arrival of LED screens, then transplant it to spots around downtown. You never know when you will turn the corner and find a masterpiece of old or new neon ― unless, of course, you picked up the map at the visitor’s center.

By Gary Warner

(The Orange County Register)
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