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Not Your Typical Walk in the Park

Ann Marie Brown wasn’t kidding when she gave Yosemite’s Half Dome a “very strenuous” rating in Moon Yosemite. Mostly everything you’ve ever heard about Half Dome is true. It’s arduous, yes. It’s grueling, yes. It’s risky, yes. Insert any other adjectives that are synonymous with the three used above and I’ll most likely agree. Even with all this, you may ask, is ascending Half Dome really worth it? To that I give a resounding YES!

Collage of images including a danger sign, yosemite handbook, and triumphant climber.

[pullquote align=”right”]After miles of difficult terrain, loose gravel, manmade steps, and switchbacks, we reached the infamous steel cables running 200 yards up Half Dome.[/pullquote]Before I left to tackle this signature landmark, I was warned and cautioned. Some even tried to cajole me out of such risk. “On a danger scale of 1 to 10, this one rates at an 11” they said. Others said in the hopes of changing my mind, “Did you hear about the recent deaths at Half Dome this summer? I wouldn’t risk it if I were you.” While their points were valid, their arguments solid, and emotions behind their rhetoric almost convincing, I couldn’t bear another missed opportunity—another summer without my own Half Dome story.

On the morning of August 22nd, four friends and I hit the trail. As Brown notes in Moon Yosemite, the trek to Half Dome is “17 miles round-trip, a 4,800-foot elevation gain, and an unbelievable amount of company.” Again, she wasn’t kidding. We took our time, taking every break imaginable (water, bathroom, and food), snapping photos (of three bears no less), and enjoying nature’s art gallery with throngs of other hikers. After miles of difficult terrain, loose gravel, manmade steps, and switchbacks, we reached the infamous steel cables running 200 yards up Half Dome. At this point, Brown’s words kept running through my mind: “This is when many start praying a lot and wishing there weren’t so many other hikers on the cables at the same time. Do some soul-searching before you begin the cable ascent—turning around is not an option once you’re halfway up.” Despite the threat of storm clouds, we each (foolishly, maybe) grabbed a pair of gloves from the pile at the base of the cable route and made one of the scariest journeys of our lives. As I gathered my adrenaline from some unknown place in my body, and heaved myself (and my shaky legs) up the cables each baby step at a time—dear friends surrounding me—I prayed. I thought about my life, mortality, and my dad who passed away eight months earlier.

After what felt like an eternity, we reached the top, where we were met with cheers, smiles, excitement, and a warning in the form of rain drops. A few quick photos and countless sighs of relief later, we allowed our shaky, tired, and gloved hands to grip the cables once again; while jello-like legs and carefully positioned hiking-boot-clad feet anchored themselves on each small wood plank. Here’s what our descent looked like: Baby steps. A small slip here. A close call there. Baby steps. Repeat.

When we reached the bottom I tore off my gloves, hugged my friends in full recognition of the feat we’d accomplished, and immediately pulled out the camera to document the practically 45-degree angle, 440-foot climb we’d just pushed through. Looking back on this life changing experience a few days later, a thought hit me. The adventure I just had, and the feeling of accomplishment I was now reveling in, took place in my own backyard. No airline tickets were bought, few bags were packed, the passport was left at home, and little money was spent. Often I feel I need to leave home and travel abroad to do something exceptional, but for me, my Half Dome adventure ranks up there with many of my extraordinary international adventures such as: hiking Guatemala’s active Volcano Pacaya; camping out on the Great Wall of China; swimming with whale sharks off Isla Holbox; reaching the top of the Teotihuacán pyramids; viewing Paris atop the Eiffel tower, and many more. Ultimately, reaching Half Dome taught me that sometimes the most worthwhile adventures can happen right at home.

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Discover the Yucatán

A colonial street at night bustling with shoppers and small market stalls.
Enjoying the evening in Mérida. Photo by licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

On the northern coast of the Yucatán Peninsula is a place called Uaymitún, where swampy coastal wetlands reach almost to the ocean. Climbing to the top of a platform, you discover that the swamp — rather unappealing from below — is in fact filled with tens of thousands of flamingos, their bright pink feathers a stark contrast to the gray-green surroundings.

Behind you are the emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico. To the east is a small Maya ruin called Xcambó. Some And just down the road from Uaymitún is the quiet town of Chicxulub, built near the place where a massive meteor smashed into the earth 65 million years ago, gouging a crater 2.5 kilometers deep and 200 kilometers wide. Scientists believe the impact and its aftermath wiped out the dinosaurs and ushered in the age of humankind, making this, in a sense, the very spot where the world as we know it began.

Uaymitún is not a major tourist destination — were it not for the flamingos, it probably wouldn’t rate a mention. But in a way that’s what makes it all the more amazing. The Yucatán Peninsula has so much history, culture, wildlife, so many natural wonders and outdoor opportunities, that even a dusty roadside town seems rich with stories and possibilities.

For many travelers, the area’s Maya ruins are the biggest draw. Mérida is within easy reach of these spectacular archaeological zones, from the soaring pyramids of Chichén Itzá and Uxmal to the more intimate sites of Labná and Ek’ Balam. Farther away are even more ruins, including the famously beautiful temples at Palenque, Chiapas, and the impressive yet virtually unknown ruins in southern Campeche. It would take weeks to visit all of the Yucatán’s archaeological sites, but no more than one to leave you awed by the artistry and ingeniousness of the ancient Maya.

There’s more — a lot more. Mérida is just one of numerous beautiful colonial cities in the Yucatán Peninsula that boast distinctive architecture, broad plazas, and soaring churches. In San Cristóbal, a strong indigenous influence is palpable to this day; in Izamal, a grand cathedral and convent built atop an ancient Maya temple belie a complicated history of conquest, both physical and spiritual.

If you are a snorkeler or diver, Isla Cozumel is internationally known for its pristine coral reefs, varied sealife, and near perfect visibility, while the mainland hides the longest underground river system in the world, filled with crystalline water and spectacular cave formations.

[pullquote]The Yucatán Peninsula is one of those places everyone ought to visit in his or her life.[/pullquote]The Yucatán also is a world-class bird-watching area, and the northern wetlands from Celestún clear around to Isla Holbox teem with flamingos, herons, egrets, cormorants, spoonbills, pelicans, and more. Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, south of Tulum, also has terrific bird-watching, and is one of several outstanding sport fishing areas in the Yucatán Peninsula. Another biosphere reserve in Campeche State — Calakmul — is home to howler and spider monkeys, elusive jaguars, and mountain lions.

The Yucatán Peninsula is one of those places everyone ought to visit in his or her life. It is a place of beauty and mystery, with endless opportunities for exploration, learning, and enlightenment. It’s also a fun place to visit and home to a diverse and gracious population. For us it has been a joy to explore the region, and it is our sincere hope that the Yucatán not only meets your expectations but reveals, as it has to us again and again, places and people and stories beyond your imagination.

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An Amarillo Detour

A large statue of a cow bearing a sign reading Free 72oz Steak.
Photo © Laura Martone.
Last month, a reader informed me that she’s planning a cross-country RV trip this winter – from North Carolina to Florida to the West Coast. Since she’s never taken such a trip before, she was wondering if I had any suggestions for must-see destinations along the way. In fact, my husband and I have made the trip between Florida and California several times, though our specific itinerary has always depended on the amount of time available.

If you’re not on a tight schedule, take I-10 along the Gulf Coast and venture across Louisiana and Texas, making time to explore cities like New Orleans and San Antonio. Although you could continue along I-10 and visit intriguing spots like Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico; Tombstone, Arizona; and California’s Joshua Tree National Park, you might want to avoid the long, boring stretch across western Texas. If so, head north from San Antonio on I-35 to Austin (the Texas state capital), then on to Oklahoma City. From there, I-40 will take you across the Texas Panhandle to one-of-a-kind detours like Santa Fe, New Mexico; the Petrified Forest; and, of course, the Grand Canyon.

If you do opt for the I-40 route, I’d highly recommend stopping in Amarillo for a spell. There, you’ll spy one of my all-time favorite spots: the Big Texan Steak Ranch, a legendary place that’s been featured in numerous magazines and television programs. For several miles prior to Amarillo, you’ll notice billboards advertising the Big Texan’s free 72-ounce steak challenge – an infamous contest that began at the restaurant’s original location on historic Route 66. For nearly five decades, carnivores have accepted the ultimate dining trial: to devour a 72-ounce hunk of beef, cooked to order, along with a salad, baked potato, dinner roll, and shrimp cocktail, in an hour or less.

Those who pass the test get the dinner for free and their name emblazoned in the book of fame, where thousands of winners are preserved for posterity. Those who fail have to cough up 72 bucks for the meal (which, incidentally, takes three days to digest) – and usually cough up a lot more than that. Just ask founder R. J. Lee’s daughter, who accidentally left her watch on the stage when one sorry contestant found out his eyes could handle a lot more than his stomach.

This is no place for die-hard vegetarians. The cavernous dining hall, lit by wagon-wheel chandeliers, is lined with massive longhorns and a herd of stuffed deer heads. There’s also a giant stuffed grizzly bear in the foyer, plus a well-lit display of the contest beef, just waiting to tempt potential victims. But, even if you’re not up for the 72-ounce challenge, you’ll have no shortage of protein-rich choices, from pork spare ribs to filet mignon.

The Big Texan has been owned and operated by members of the Lee family for nearly 50 years. Numerous celebrities have dined there, and many waiters and waitresses swear that the place is haunted, which only adds to its charm. Not just a dining establishment, the Big Texan includes a Western-style motel (with a Texas-shaped pool), a gift shop, a gambling area, a shooting gallery, and a “horse hotel.”

Many of the Big Texan’s visitors have surely considered giving the contest a shot but, like me, opted for something in the 12-ounce range instead. It’s easy, after all, to feel daunted by previous winners: a 69-year-old grandmother, an 11-year-old boy, and a vegetarian couple who have succeeded nearly a dozen times. Still, people keep on trying. In March 2008, Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, the world’s best competitive eater, devoured the entire meal in just under nine minutes.

Although I’ve never accepted the challenge, I’ve always had a good time, and the steaks are worth every penny. So, if you ever find yourself on I-40, pay a visit to the Big Texan. It’s open every day of the year, including holidays. If you think you can take on a 69-year-old grandma with a hearty appetite, more power to you. I’ll be watching from a nearby table, ready to toss a bucket your way.

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Across the Florida Keys

A two story spanish style building surrounded by palm trees.
Hemingway’s Home. Photo © Laura Martone.
Islands are fascinating places, and few island chains offer quite as many diversions as the Florida Keys. Although the threat of hurricanes might make some people nervous to venture onto U.S. Highway I—the route that links most of the islands south of the Everglades—it’s definitely worth the trip. If you’re really concerned about the Atlantic hurricane season (which runs from June 1 to November 30), rest assured that you can visit the Florida Keys any time of the year. My husband and I went there in April, but summertime is just as lovely—if a wee bit hotter.

While you could easily spend a few weeks exploring the Florida Keys, this colorful island chain is also an ideal area for a weekend getaway. If you’re short on time, there are three highlights that you should definitely not miss.

For nature lovers, the first stop should be Key Largo, the northernmost island in this famous archipelago. When we visited, we stayed at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (102601 Overseas Hwy., 305/451-6300), the perfect spot for sunbathing, swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, and sportfishing. Established in 1963, this well-favored park offers convenient beach access, several picnic areas, a small campground, boat rentals, diving tours, glassbottom boat tours, and (my personal favorite) snorkeling tours amid the vibrant, shallow-water coral reefs of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

A completely different experience awaits travelers in bustling Key West. Following a fascinating drive across Highway 1—past numerous other keys, with names like Teatable, Little Crawl, Fat Deer, and Molasses—you’ll be greeted by palm trees, lovely Victorian-style inns, late-night bars, and gift shops galore. While Key West residents are fiercely proud of this crazy island, there is certainly a touristy vibe in many areas, and first-timers should be prepared for pricey hotel rooms and disappointing restaurants that frequently lure gullible tourists.

Still, whether you’re a visitor or a resident, you should definitely make time for a tour of the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum (907 Whitehead St., 305/294-1136, daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m., $12 adults, $6 children, children under 6 free). Arguably one of the most well-known novelists in the world, Hemingway called Key West home for roughly a decade, and his former house and gardens are now open to the public. Well-informed guides lead insightful excursions through the Nobel Prize winner’s old rooms, including his private writing studio.

Along the way, you’ll learn plenty of intriguing tidbits, like the fact that Hemingway’s wife replaced all the ceiling fans with impractical chandeliers (much to the chagrin of today’s summertime staff members). Throughout the house and grounds, you’ll spy numerous cats, some of whom are descendants of Hemingway’s own feline pals. Many of the cats have been named after famous artists, writers, and movie stars; my favorite was Charley Chaplin, a black-and-white cat with Chaplinesque markings on his face.

After touring Hemingway’s former home, you simply must stop by the Blond Giraffe (107 Simonton St., 305/296-9174, daily 9 a.m.-8 p.m.) for a slice of classic key lime pie. A frequent award-winner, Blond Giraffe offers four other locations in Key West, so it won’t be hard to find. If you’re really feeling adventurous, you should try the pie-on-a-stick, essentially a frozen slice of key lime pie, covered in dark chocolate. Just thinking about it makes me hungry all over again—and considering that key lime pie is my all-time favorite dessert, that’s a high compliment indeed.

For more information about the Florida Keys, including accommodations and activities, contact the Monroe County Tourist Development Council (800/352-5397).

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A Detroit Original

A few weeks ago I wrote about the surprises I found while putting content from our Moon Michigan guidebook online. Well, I’ve found another surprise—I have been eating Detroit-original Coney Dogs since I was a child. In fact, I just had some for the first time in years while visiting my mother this past Fourth of July weekend. I always thought that Coney Dogs came from Coney Island Amusement Park in New York and apparently that’s a common misconception.

Moon Michigan author Laura Martone tells us that the family-owned and operated American Coney Island (114 W. Lafayette, Detroit, 586/219-0995) is the place where a wiener with skin, beanless chili, onions, and mustard was first called “one with everything.” They’ve been in business since 1917 and these dogs still lure a clientele ranging from cops on the beat to fur-clad suburbanites grabbing a bite after a show at the Fox Theatre.

But if you’d like to get a taste of Detroit before your next visit, mom has agreed to share her recipe for the beanless chili that makes her version of Coney Dogs so delicious.

Coney Island Chili


  • 4 Tbsp. butter
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp. mild chili powder
  • 1 Tbsp. ground cumin
  • 1 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. ground sage
  • 1/2 cup chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup masa


Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat, and then add the first 7 ingredients and stir until the aroma “blooms,” then stir in the chicken broth and masa. You may need to add more broth or masa as you stir to get the right consistency—you should be able to spoon out the chili without it being gloppy or runny.

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Napa Valley on a “Semi-Funemployed” Budget

I consider myself “semi-funemployed.” As a recent college graduate, gone are the time constraints of classes and writing endless papers. Now I have the freedom to do whatever I please with my spare time—but preferably on a budget. In an aim to explore my own backyard, I consulted Moon California’s Wine Country section. I had previously been to the Napa Valley with family, but those visits were mostly parent-funded. So along with a friend, I decided to tackle Napa on my own terms, using my own wallet.

We began our excursion with lunch at Gott’s (formerly Taylor’s Automatic Refresher) in St. Helena. Sitting in their lush picnic area, I had a BLT and soda, along with their famous garlic fries (a serving feeds two). We spent roughly $12 per person on a satisfactory meal. Next, we headed to Mumm Napa Valley, a winery renowned for its sparkling wines (I’m a bubbly fanatic!). We took a free 45-minute walking tour of the premises, and got the rare opportunity to eat a grape right off the vine! After the tour, we received a coupon for 15% off any wine purchase. We split a $16 comparative tasting of their classic sparkling wines: Brut Prestige, Brut Rosé, 2005 Blanc de Blancs, and Brut Prestige Extended Tirage, which was aged a couple years longer than the classic. The exquisite view of the vineyard made for a nice pairing with our tasting. Having indulged our senses, we headed north to the oldest continuously operating winery in Napa, Beringer Vineyards. Though it is a rather touristy and popular destination, I still find it to be a must-see in terms of its historical, pioneering background. While we enjoyed our tasting experience here, I noticed some differential treatment, as the server seemed to devote more of his attention to the older individuals.

Nonetheless, our trip ended on a happy note. On the way home, we made a detour to Bouchon Bakery in the small town of Yountville. The patisserie is affiliated with the neighboring French bistro of the same name, and has pastries comparable to those I’ve had in Paris. They’re indulgences—both to your taste buds and your wallet—but well worth it. I recommend the chocolate bouchons (“chocolate corks”), decadent brownie bites made with Vahlrona chocolate, as well as their macarons, rich buttercream cookie sandwiches in various seasonal flavors (my favorites are raspberry and chocolate). Napa ValleyPastries range from $2-5, but you may find yourself spending more, as everything is just so aesthetically pleasing.

With these given locations, you can spend less than $40 and gain a decent experience that won’t burn a hole in your pocket.

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