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Coastal Carolinas with Jim Morekis

1. What aquatic activities do you recommend trying while on the coast?

I’d certainly recommend kayaking on the beautiful blackwater Edisto River in South Carolina’s ACE Basin. Kayaking isn’t usually the first thing people think about when they think of Hilton Head, but there are actually some great trips in that area as well. Windsurfers and kiteboarders will be in heaven on the breezy Outer Banks. Go down to Hatteras Island for more breathing room.

2. What beaches are the most family-friendly?

The entire Myrtle Beach experience, of course, is designed with families in mind, as is the sometimes-overcrowded Nags Head on the Outer Banks. But you might want to try some more peaceful beaches like Hunting Island, Edisto Island, Sullivan’s Island, and Isle of Palms in South Carolina, or Kure Beach in North Carolina. Hilton Head also has excellently managed, alcohol-free beaches, though beach access can be a little difficult.

3. What signature seafood dishes do you recommend?

The two must-have dishes are shrimp & grits and she-crab stew in Charleston, for sure. You can get some great fresh fried seafood further up the coast in Myrtle Beach and nearby in the Calabash area of North Carolina. Probably the most unique seafood experience is in Jamesville, N.C., inland from the Outer Banks. At a little riverfront shack called the Cypress Grill, from January through April you can enjoy the regional delicacy of fried herring. They’re served headless, but other than that you eat the whole fish, tailbones at all. Delicious.

4. The barbecue in the region is said to be very good. Where can visitors get their fill?

My favorite barbecue joint in the world is a relatively new place, Fiery Ron’s Home Team in the West Ashley suburb of Charleston. They have a Sullivan’s Island location as well. It’s not very old-school, but I’ve never tasted better, both in terms of the quality of the meat as well as the sauces. Edisto Island’s Po-Pig’s and JB’s Smokeshack outside Charleston are other standouts. Keep your mind open about the indigenous South Carolina mustard-based barbecue sauce – it’s an acquired taste, but I’ve developed quite a craving. In the Tarheel State you can find some great barbecue using the indigenous vinegar-based Eastern North Carolina barbecue sauce at Jackson’s Big Oak Barbecue in Wilmington or Big Oak Drive-In and Bar-B-Q on the Bogue Banks.

5. If you only have a weekend to explore, what can’t you miss?

The coastal Carolinas are at least a ten-hour drive from one end to the other, so if you just have a weekend you’ll need to focus your trip. I’d suggest either a Charleston stay with side trips to Beaufort and Edisto Islands, or an Outer Banks stay, being sure to explore the area’s many National Wildlife Refuges. If you take children to the Outer Banks, be sure to stop by the Wright Brothers National Memorial, site of one of America’s most shining moments, and the enormous natural sand dune of Jockeys Ridge just down the road.

6. The coast is riddled with historic lighthouses. Which ones do you enjoy visiting?

It is indeed riddled with lighthouses, but not all of them are open to the public. My favorite is the one at Hunting Island State Park in South Carolina. It’s inactive but open to the public for climbing. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse on the Outer Banks is highly recommended for its amazing views, though it can get crowded at times during the peak summer tourist season. The smaller Bald Head Island Lighthouse outside Southport is the oldest existing lighthouse in North Carolina and open to the public for climbing.

7. What’s the best way to experience African American heritage in this region?

The South Carolina coast from Georgetown south to Hilton Head is the place to go. Charleston has a great variety of African American-themed sights, from the Old Slave Mart, to the excellently restored slave cabins at Boone Hall Plantation, to the well-conserved servants’ quarters at the Aiken-Rhett House. Beaufort is very significant for its role as a Union Army hospital center (where Harriet Tubman worked as a nurse) and a stop on the Underground Railroad. The most significant African American aspect of the South Carolina coast, however, is its role as the center of Gullah culture, the legacy of freed slaves of the Sea Islands. Go to the Penn Center outside Beaufort to learn more. Hilton Head also features a number of lesser-known sites of Gullah importance.

8. Where is the best place to stay for a romantic getaway?

Charleston is one of the most romantic cities on earth, so a stay at a downtown B&B is a no-brainer. Try the John Rutledge House, the Andrew Pinckney Inn, or Two Meeting Street Inn, though there are many others. Alternatively I would suggest either of the Beauforts. Beaufort, S.C. (pronounced “byew-fert”) is famous for its mossy beauty and scenic roles in films, as well as extremely friendly people. The smaller Beaufort, N.C. (pronounced “bo-fert”) has a charming waterfront and a quieter vibe. For a peaceful, beach-only getaway in South Carolina, try Edisto Island. The Outer Banks of North Carolina can also be very romantic, especially Ocracoke Island and Hatteras Island.

9. What is your favorite time of year to travel up and down the coast?

For the South Carolina coast, I prefer October-November. Hurricane season is waning and hotel prices go down significantly, but the weather’s still quite warm and enjoyable. Christmastime in Charleston is particularly lovely. For the North Carolina coast, I recommend a late spring visit – no threat of hurricanes and the throngs of tourists that overwhelm portions of the Outer Banks during the height of summer are not in evidence. Wilmington, N.C., is best any time of year when the local colleges are in session, for the added excitement the student populations bring.

10. How would you describe the spirit of the Carolina Coast?

The spirit of the Carolina Coast is a great blend of some of the nation’s oldest history, its friendliest people, and the vibrancy that comes from a fairly steady stream of transplants coming from other areas of the country to live and work in the sunshine and take advantage of recreational opportunities, especially on the water. It’s very much an old-meets-new vibe, set against a backdrop of constant Southern hospitality.

The Latest from Bangkok

It’s been a terrible couple of months here in Thailand. As you’ve probably seen in the headlines, parts of typically friendly and laid-back Bangkok looked like a war zone last week. From my apartment in central Bangkok, just a couple of blocks from the main protest area, I could hear shots and explosions as anti-government protesters, who had been occupying areas of central Bangkok for two months, were pushed out by military troops on May 19th. As protesters were disbanding, arsonists set fire to more than 30 buildings in the capital, targeting malls, movie theatres and banks. Bangkok’s skyline filled with columns of smoke but it wasn’t the property damage that was the most shocking or tragic part. In a one-week period leading up to and including the military operation, more than 50 people, mostly civilians and at least one journalist, were killed and hundreds more injured.

[pullquote align=”right”]As the dust settles and cleanup begins, everyone is trying to make sense of the current situation.[/pullquote]And the upheaval was not just confined to Bangkok. Provinces in Northern Thailand, Northeast Thailand and Central Thailand also saw riots and attacks on government buildings, though fortunately there were no additional deaths reported.

The Thai government has imposed a strict curfew until this Sunday. Armed soldiers are patrolling the streets and dozens of embassies, including the US embassy, have issued travel warnings advising their citizens to avoid Thailand unless absolutely necessary.

Thailand is no stranger to political instability–there have been 17 coups in the past 70 years, the last in 2005, but it’s been decades since there was violence on this scale. And while this week’s military action put an end to protests, nothing has been done to address the deep social, economic and regional rifts that started them the first place.

As the dust settles and cleanup begins, everyone is trying to make sense of the current situation. Some political analysts say Thailand has changed forever and the “Land of Smiles” is a thing of the past. Others are more hopeful and believe that the Thai people can and will work through the issues brought to light by the protests and reconcile with one another.

I’m not sure what the future holds for Thailand. People are saddened and shocked by recent events and there isn’t a lot of smiling going on in Bangkok right now. But the Thai people’s general openness and kindness towards strangers has not changed a bit. Even the soldiers, a menacing presence in any situation, have been generally kind – one offered me a cold bottle of water yesterday while I was out walking my dog.

Much of the country, even Bangkok, is the same wonderful place it has always been for visitors and when things stabilize (hopefully in the next week or so) there’s no reason to skip a visit here.

Touring New England: Small-Town Flavor

The single story white building of the Norman Rockwell Museum surrounded by lush grass.
The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.
Photo by the Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism licensed Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivatives.

This tour takes advantage of the fall foliage that most visitors to New England come to see, along with the countryside of white-steeple churches and red farmhouses. Along the way, it presents the opportunity to sample some of the simpler pleasures of the region—hot apple cider, tart cheddar cheese, and maple sugar candy.

Day 1

After a stroll around downtown Boston and bucolic Boston Common, get in the car and take a long drive down I-90, I-84, and Route 4 to the rolling hills of Litchfield (2.5 hours) in the northwestern corner of Connecticut.

Days 2–3

On your first day here, take an all-day tour of Litchfield’s scenic town common and the historical sites of this colonial-era town. The next day, take a driving tour of the orchards and town greens of the Litchfield Hills, cruising down leafy back roads and stopping in antiques shops at will.

Day 4

Drive north along Route 20 to Stockbridge (1 hour), one of the most picturesque of all New England towns. While there, pay homage to small-town America with a visit to the Norman Rockwell Museum.

Days 5–6

Drive east along I-90 and north along I-91 to the quaint southern Vermont town of Grafton (2 hours), where you can stroll the picture-perfect town center and see cheddar made at the Grafton Village Cheese Company. Another day, take a drive around the surrounding small towns, including Weston, where the Vermont Country Store is a trip back into an earlier era. Spend the night in a quaint country inn in the area.

Day 7

Drive north along I-91 and west on Route 4 for a lunch stop on the delightful Main Street of Woodstock (1 hour). Retracing your steps east on Route 4, stop for a hike down Quechee Gorge as you make your way up I-91 to overnight at the college town of Hanover (0.5 hour).

Day 8

Take a tour of Dartmouth College and the Hood Art Museum and poke around the shops in downtown Hanover, before heading down I-89 to peaceful Sunapee (0.5 hour) and its namesake lake.

Day 9

Take a boat tour of picturesque Lake Sunapee, and ramble around Mount Sunapee State Park before preparing to head back to Boston tomorrow.

Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon New England.

Minas Gerais Road Trip, Part 2 (At The Market)

Colorful jarred foods at the market
Photo © Michael Sommers.

Although it is not a terribly alluring city, I have developed a real fondness for Belo Horizonte, capital of the state of Minas GeraiS, referred to by Mineiros as “BH” (pronounced “BAY ah-GAH”). Translated literally, Belo Horizonte means “beautiful horizon,” an allusion to the fact that the city is spread out along the slopes and bottom of a valley surrounded by Serra do Curral mountain range. Traveling around BH is akin to sliding up and down the sides of a gigantic bowl. The higher up you happen to be, the more fetching the horizon.

Brazil’s first planned metropolis, construction of Belo Horizonte was initiated in the late 1800s. The modern capital of perpendicular streets and parallel avenues – modeled in part after Washington D.C. – was built to replace the former capital of Ouro Preto, with its tortuous cobblestoned streets and fading baroque architecture, whose fortunes had dwindled with the end of Minas’ great gold rush of the 18th century. Those seeking colonial charm in Minas should head to the so-called “cidades históricas” of Ouro Preto as well as Tiradentes, and Diamantina, two smaller and particularly well-preserved towns.

[pullquote] Due to its modern layout and ample greenery, Belo Horizonte is an agreeable place to wander around. [/pullquote]

However, fans of modernism are in for a treat in Belo Horizonte: the city is replete with interesting houses and buildings from the 1950s (and quite a few gems from the preceding decades). Moreover, in the 1940s and early ’50s, Belo Horizonte served as a three-dimensional drafting board for an ambitious young architect by the name of Oscar Niemeyer. His earliest, and still surprisingly vanguard, buildings can be seen in the city center as well in the in the upscale neighborhood of Pampulha.

Due to its modern layout and ample greenery, Belo Horizonte is an agreeable place to wander around. Aside from a handful of museums, a thriving cultural scene, and some top-notch surrounding natural and cultural attractions, Belo Horizonte is also a terrific place to sample traditional Mineiro food. One of my favorite places to do so is at the Mercado Central, located right in the center of town on Avenida Augusta de Lima, 744.

Covering an entire city block, the building is a nondescript 1960s pavilion (the market itself was founded in 1929) that is hardly inviting from the outside. Step inside, however, and you’re treated to an amazing exhibit of “Mineiridade” with gleaming white tile stall after stall displaying a spectacular array of typical wares and produce from all over the state. My Mineiro friend, Luiz, and I visited the market last week to stock up on local produce and soak up local atmosphere. Nowhere in Brazil will you see markets in which everything is so precisely and artfully arranged in a manner that mingles beauty and bounty with an immaculate sense of organization that, according to Luiz, is a Mineiro attribute.

Those with a fondness for cookware will find it difficult to resist the ridiculously low-priced enamel cups and plates as well as pots and pans made of copper and soapstone. The latter are fashioned from the same bluish-gray stone used by genius Mineiro sculptor Aleijadinho (“Little Cripple” – a name inspired by the debilitating disease that left the 18th-century mulatto artist deformed), whose expressive soapstone carvings of saints and other religious images for the ornate colonial churches of Ouro Preto, Congonhas, São João del Rei, and Tiradentes set the standard for Brazilian baroque.

Meanwhile, foodies will have a field day with the edible delicacies on display such as the bottles of hot peppers in traffic light hues of red, yellow, and green and the jars stuffed with preserved green papayas, guavas, and oranges in syrup. Equally enticing are the jars, blocks, and individually wrapped squares of doce de leite, a rich caramel-like concoction made from boiled milk and sugar, which is as beloved by Mineiros as the bricks of goiabada (guava jelly).

Among the more exotic typically Mineiro fruits you’ll happen upon are dark, purply jabuticaba and bright orange pequi whose soapy perfume verges on nauseating, but whose delicate, rarefied flavor, muted during cooking, is unique. Frango com pequi (a chicken stew) and arroz com pequi (pequi rice) are common rural dishes, but I’ve also tried pequi dipped in chocolate and pequi liqueur (served chilled), both of which are pretty divine. Luiz (who makes a mean frango com pequi) and I are both unconditional pequi junkies and while he purchased an intriguing bag of farinha de pequi (pequi flour), I indulged in a jar of pasta de pequi (pequi spread).

Minas is famous throughout Brazil for its creamy cheeses. Unless you buy them counterfeit (by law, the real cheese can’t be commercialized outside the state), the industrialized versions produced from pasteurized milk that are sold throughout the rest of the country are a far cry from the artisanal queijos made from fresh milk that follow centuries’-old recipes. You can purchase fresh and creamy versions of queijo de Minas (known as queijo frescal) as well as aged, or cured versions, which are harder, with a yellow skin, and have a delicious mild tang to them. If you ask to “provar um pedacinho“, vendors will comply and slice a thin wedge from the gleaming rounds on display.

Of course, Minas is also legendary for its fine cachaças. Ronaldo Licores e Cachaças (Loja 141) is the best place to pick up a bottle. The shelves of this small boutique are stuffed from floor to ceiling with more than 450 varieties of Mineiro pinga (“drop” – slang for cachaça), ranging from the most basic brands to the king of cachaças, Havana, an aged bottle of which goes for R$480. The staff is knowledgeable and will invite you to sample the wares. The variety of tastes is impressive as are the beautiful labels that adorn the bottles. Although, the market vendors have boxes of all sizes and are expert packagers, if you’re worried about packing liquids in check-through luggage, opt for the cachaça jellies or truffles.

You can also savor cachaça at the market’s traditional bars, the most atmospheric of which are located near the Rua dos Goitacazes entrance. These bars constitute a beloved pit stop for Belohorizontinos who cram the narrow corridors between them on Saturdays and Sunday mornings. It’s certainly hard to resist the estupidamente gelada (“stupidly icy”) beer, especially when the bottles, covered in a gauzy layer of frost known as a veu de noiva (“bridal veil”) are held out seductively to passersby by barmen (and women) who climb onto the tiled bars and sing their praises. Once installed on a rare bar stool (more likely, you’ll be standing), order a portion of figado com jiló. Grilled on the spot, this classic market dish consists of grilled liver, onions, and jiló, an oblong, dark green fruit (used as a vegetable), whose usually bitter taste evaporates with cooking. If you’re not a fan of liver, you can opt for grilled beef instead, which is what Luiz and I did when we visited last Sunday. We didn’t leave until the iron gates were pulled down at 1pm (closing time), leaving us out on the street, in a contented daze, our stomachs full and our knapsacks overflowing.

Minas Gerais Road Trip, Part 1

Plate with cheese and guava jelly
Photo © Michael Sommers.

On Saturday night I flew from Salvador to Belo Horizonte, capital of the neighboring state of Minas Gerais, to meet my most recent ex, Luiz de Abreu.

Luiz is a contemporary dancer and choreographer whose works explore issues related to being black and Brazilian – his most recognized work is a riveting performance called Samba do Crioulo Doido, or Samba of the Crazy Nigger. Simultaneously lyrical and in-your-face, Samba speaks volumes about questions of race in Brazil, and has had a considerable impact on audiences both in Brazil and overseas.

More recently, Luiz won a grant from the federal government to develop a project that focuses upon the influence of each of the three states in which he has lived and worked: Minas Gerais (where he grew up and cut his teeth as a dancer in major dance companies); São Paulo (where he moved in his 30s to carve out a solo career for himself); and Bahia (where he sought to immerse himself, personally and professionally, in an Afro-Brazilian context; 85 percent of the population of Bahia’s capital of Salvador is of afro descendancy).

[pullquote] To carry out interviews and help him shape and edit the eventual text he plans to write, Luiz called upon me to stroll down memory lane with him. [/pullquote]

As part of his investigation, Luiz decided to literally take a stroll down memory lane by visiting and interviewing a handful of key figures from his past in Minas, São Paulo, and Bahia, all of whom were seminal in his development as a dancer and who challenged him (directly or indirectly) to come to terms with, develop, and sometimes rethink his sense of himself as a black artist.

(Aside: Historically, professional dance in Brazil has been an elite realm where trained classical, modern, and contemporary dancers have traditionally been white, educated and fairly well off. Although black Brazilians might have eventually infiltrated the ranks of dance companies as “bodies,” the number of black directors, choreographers and heads of university dance department heads is negligible. That Luiz grew up poor and black in the interior of Minas Gerais and never completed a university degree – in dance or any other subject – makes him somewhat of an anomaly in the world of contemporary dance.)

To carry out interviews and help him shape and edit the eventual text he plans to write, Luiz called upon me to stroll down memory lane with him. I jumped at the chance, not only because the project is interesting and Luiz is very creative, but because travel was involved.

So here I am at the beginning of this road trip, which for me is pretty fascinating since it is providing me with some unique insights into Minas’ distinctive culture, which is markedly different from the Bahian culture that is my main reference point.

Yesterday, for instance, Luiz and I interviewed Suely Machado, founder and co-director of Primeiro Ato, a renowned dance company where Luiz first began dancing when he first arrived in Belo Horizonte from his home town in the interior. Suely had invited us to her house in the country for a typical Mineiro lunch, but Luiz screwed up the times so (to my great chagrin) the lunch was not to be. Instead, we ended up doing the interview at Suely’s dance school/studio, amidst thermoses of scalding Mineiro coffee (Minas is prime coffee growing territory) and golf ball-shaped pães de queijo (“cheese breads”), a ubiquitous and frighteningly addictive Mineiro specialty consisting of airy, cheesy, chewy dough surrounded by a hard, crunchy crust.

Suely was disappointed that we missed the lunch since she had been counting on baring her soul to us. As she pointed out, whereas Paulistanos will take you to a restaurant to reveal themselves, and Baianos will take you to a festa or to the beach, for a Mineiro, the ritual of inviting guests into one’s home and plying them with food (and cachaça) is an essential way of offering not only hospitality, but also a glimpse in one’s more intimate self.

Throughout the rest of Brazil – and even amongst themselves – Mineiros are famed for their (relatively) taciturn and reserved temperament. Suely explained that this carefully composed “exterior” functions as a type of armor beneath which often lurk unfathomable depths that Mineiros don’t reveal in public (in direct contrast to Baianos or Cariocas, whose tendency is to let it all hang out, often quite spectacularly).

In this sense, Mineiros’ collective mentality mirrors the state of Minas itself, a landlocked region of steep mountains and deep valleys, whose origins stem directly from the frenzied and determined search for hidden realms of gold, emeralds, diamonds and other precious minerals buried deep beneath the earth (the name Minas Gerais signfies General Mines; mineiro is also the word for “miner”). One never knows what may be found beneath an innocuous looking mountain – a priceless treasure or a dead end – but this sense of deep unplumbed reserves, coupled with an innate distrust of the “surface” (not to mention other miners), is a defining characteristic of the Mineiro jeito de ser, or way of being.

Luiz had warned me that Suely could be very seductive, and I found myself entranced by her mining metaphor as we walked home to the friend’s house where we are staying and where we were subsequently plied with more food and drink.

As we entered the house, I was still thinking about mining, and thinking about Minas, and I then I stopped thinking altogether because our hostess removed an opaque lid covering a large silver tray, revealing a treasure that knocked all thoughts out of my mind – a generous chunk of pearly white, vaguely salty queijo de Minas (Minas cheese) topped with a deep red, gleaming slab of homemade goiabada (guava jelly). An inspired and classic Mineiro match made in heaven, this classic dessert goes by the poetic designation of “Romeu e Julieta” (“Romeo” is the cheese and “Juliet” is the guava jelly) and, unlike Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, there is nothing tragic about this pairing. In fact, momentarily, I felt as if I too had struck had struck gold.

Road Trip to Red Rock

The past year has seen great things for our National Parks. Ken Burns’ gorgeous and inspiring documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, aired last September. Recently, President Obama proclaimed April 17-25 National Park Week and entrance fees at all 392 of our national parks were waived for visitors. What more impetus could one need? This spawned a camping and hiking adventure among the jagged peaks and vibrant red slickrock of Utah’s national parks. I wasn’t the only one taking advantage of National Park Week—campgrounds were full and visitors were out in droves enjoying the first warmth of spring.

Arches National Park

Arches National Park lies in southeastern Utah, an inauspicious turn off I-70 near the small town of Green River. The flat 25-mile road toward Moab belies little of the red rock sandstone, soaring arches, and delicately balanced rocks of this high desert wonderland.

View through the Delicate Arch at Arches National Park.
View through the Delicate Arch at Arches National Park. Photo © Sabrina Young.

Originally set aside as a National Monument in 1929, Arches graduated to National Park status in 1971. It’s soaring namesake arches and rust-colored landscape were made famous in Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, published in 1968 when Arches was still fairly undeveloped. Since then, scenic roads have eased travel through much of the park, opening access to trails and arches, but much of “Abbey’s country” remains invitingly unexplored.

Arches National Park contains more than 2,000 natural arches, sculpted from the Entrada sandstone by water and wind. The landscape silhouette ranges from soaring spires and jagged pinnacles to slickrock cliffs and red-rock balancing acts. Touring the park road provides a brief introduction to these striking structures, but hiking is the best way to explore these features first-hand. The best, and most popular, hikes include stunning Delicate Arch, the 7.2-mile trail through Devil’s Garden, and a ranger-led hike into the labyrinthine Fiery Furnace.

Devil’s Garden is Arches sole campground and while satellite campgrounds in surrounding BLM land and Moab accommodate the crowds, do not deprive yourself the privilege of camping here. Some of the 50 sites closely abut the camp road, but others offer private slickrock playgrounds, a glimpse of the snow-capped peaks of the La Sal Mountains, and epic vistas across Arches 119-square miles of plateaus and canyons. Days can bring scalding heat or sudden thunderstorms, while sunsets set this stunning, isolated moonscape aflame in vibrant oranges and crimson reds. At night, stars lighten the pitch-black skies and even a half-moon is bright enough to see by.

Canyonlands National Park

Nearby Canyonlands joined the National Park system in 1964, preserving one of the last areas of the Colorado Plateau. Encompassing over 337 acres, Canyonlands is divided into four districts; scenic Island in the Sky district is only about an hour’s drive from Arches and is highly accessible for camping, hiking, and biking.

The winding edge of the Island in the Sky mesa as seen from above.
Island in the Sky, a sandstone mesa that rises 1,000 feet above its surroundings. Photo © Bill McRae.

The bucolic 25-mile drive to Island in the Sky features overlooks from sandstone cliffs deep into canyons more than 1,000 feet below. Shafer Canyon Overlook and Grand View Point provide the best perspectives (and views) of how the Colorado and Green Rivers carved and sculpted this landscape. Short hikes like Mesa Arch Trail and the Grand View Point Trail offer an opportunity to stretch your legs. Better yet, camp at the Willow Flat Campground or use the campground at Arches (or at nearby Dead Horse State Park) as a base and really explore this district up close by hiking Upheaval Dome or biking the 100-mile White Rim Road.

Zion National Park

Compared to Arches and Canyonlands, Zion is a grandfather in the National Park system, designated by Congress in 1919. Nestled in the southwestern corner of the state, Zion showcases stunning sandstone canyons dramatically eroded by the Virgin River. Jagged plateaus tower over Zion Canyon Road resulting in neck-stretching peaks such as Court of the Patriarchs, Angel’s Landing, and the Temple of Sinewava.

This is recreation Mecca–trails are popular and crowded, so get an early morning start for the cascades of Emerald Pools and the heart-pounding, gravity defying Angel’s Landing trails. The park shuttle bus, definitely this National Park’s best idea, makes car travel unnecessary and offers a relaxing way to drink in the sights once your legs are done for the day. Reward your efforts with lunch or dinner (reservations required) at Zion Lodge, with tableside views of Lady Mountain and Heaps Canyon.

Zion’s two campgrounds—South and Watchman—make up in convenience what they lack in privacy and solitude. With an extensive visitors center, a movie theater, shuttle stop to nearby Springdale, and even a Thai restaurant all within walking distance, this is hardly getting away from it all (especially your neighbors). But all that is forgotten when you emerge from your tent to see the cloud-encased peak of 6,545-feet Watchman standing sentinel in the early morning quiet. Civilization falls away replaced by wilderness, waiting.

Next year, it will be Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. These National Parks are waiting for you as well, patient as the wind and water that formed them. What are you waiting for?

Sophisticated Sands: From Bars on Wheels to Beach Barracas

Salvador beach with many people and colorful umbrellas
Photo © Michael Sommers.

One can get spoiled by living in Brazil. Several summers ago, I was visiting my sister in New York and, she enthusiastically suggested we beat the heat and humidity by heading to a beach – in the Bronx. Having never been to a beach in NYC, I was game – even though it took about an hour on various subways and buses to get there.

Upon our arrival, I have to admit that I wasn’t blown away by Orchard Beach, whose rather optimistic nickname is the “Bronx Riviera.” Having become accustomed to Brazilian beaches over the years, I was taken aback by the insipid color of the sea and horrified by its Arctic temperature. Although I later discovered that the sand was imported, instead of investing in grade A, fluffy, white stuff from down south, some unambitious urban planner had merely shipped over some sandpapery beige grains from Queens and New Jersey for us to spread our towels upon. That we were obliged to lay down towels at all struck me as dismal: in Brazil, the moment your flip flop hits the sand, you’re immediately offered collapsible beach chairs and parasols for rent – that is if you don’t want to take shelter at a shaded beach barraca serving all manners of food and drink. (A barraca generally refers to a rustic, wooden structure that can vary from a palm frond roofed lean-to a swank, multi-terraced, air-conditioned restaurant/bar).

[pullquote] The range of goods and services available on a Brazilian beach varies quite a bit depending on how urban your beach is and in what part of Brazil you happen to be. [/pullquote]

Anyway, back to my Bronx flashback:

Once installed on our towels, I automatically found myself craving a drink 1. To refresh myself after the long journey and 2. to ease myself into a state of sun-baked mellowness. I looked around in every direction, but to avail.

“What do we do if we want to eat or drink something?” I forlornly asked my sister.

She pointed out that nourishment (and intoxication) was only possible by hauling ourselves up from the sand and going way, way, way across the boardwalk to a food stand where we could line-up, order, and then wait some 15 minutes for a greasy platter of shrimp and fries to emerge along with watered-down paper cups full of cola. Even if we wanted to transport all this grub back down to the beach, we could only drink icy beer surreptitiously, using straws, out of a brown paper bag, so as not to get arrested. And since nobody only drinks one illegal beer at the beach, if one wanted a second or third cold one, it meant trudging all the way back to the aforementioned food stand. Quite frankly, I was astonished by the shocking primitiveness of it all and, rather snottily, pitied the poor souls stuck in America’s great metropolis for the poverty of their beach experience.

In Brazil, going to the beach is a whole different frescoball game. Even on the most deserted, paradise-worthy stretches of sand, you’ll often encounter at least one outpost of civilization: a rustic barraca offering shade and serving fresh coconut water, icy beer, and freshly grilled fish and shrimp. Once you hit the more resorty and urban beaches, however, be prepared for VIP treatment. You have only to set foot on the sand, and your every whim will be catered to by a non-stop parade of one-man and one-woman enterprise,s either installed at strategic points along the sand or as “ ambulantes” who spend the days tracking up and down the sands.

If you choose to hang out in a barraca or rent chairs and parasols, you’ll suddenly find yourself the prized member of a private clubhouse. As your host or hostess leads you to a prime spot, he or she will already take your order for that icy welcome cerveja (beer), fresh fruit caipirinha, or água de coco (which, once you’ve slurped every last drop out of it, will be machete open so you can enjoy the tender coconut meat).

Barracas all have menus serving every kind of fish and seafood specialty imaginable both as tira gostos (appetizer portions) or pratos (meal-sized portions that generally feed at least three and come accompanied with rice, beans, and salad).

If you’re merely ensconced in a rented chair on an urban beach, chances are you’ll just get drinks (and the occasional sprinkling of your feet with a watering can); you can spend all day running up a tab – and then pay for your follies when you go wobbling home. However, even if you forego the chairs and go the canga route instead (canga is the local name for the sarongs that Brazilian use instead of beach towels – if you don’t have one, you can almost always purchase one on the beach), you can still partake in all the goodies proffered by passing vendors.

The range of goods and services available on a Brazilian beach varies quite a bit depending on how urban your beach is and in what part of Brazil you happen to be. To give you just a sense of the possibilities, I’ll use the example of my adopted hometown of Salvador (pictured above).

In terms of fluids, aside from cerveja, soft drinks, mineral water, and água de coco, there are such marvelous inventions as caipirinha bars on wheels where the national cocktail (and variations using other fruit) is concocted right in front of your eyes.

Also refreshing are picolés (or popsicles) sold out of decorated styrofoam coolers. Made from crushed fruit and milk, the vendors reel off the flavors as if they were beautiful songs: amendoim (peanut), coco queimado (burnt coconut), milho verde (corn), abacate (avocado), and graviola (a relative of jackfruit) are some of the more unusual flavors that I have adopted as favorites.

Grilled orangey-pink shrimp on wooden skewers make frequent appearances as do fresh oysters in the shell, which will be opened and spritzed with lime in front of your face (make sure you see other people eating these to ensure they are fresh).

A big favorite in the Northeast – which initially baffles, but then inevitably delights gringos – is grilled cheese on a stick. Sounds suspicious, but the cheese in question is queijo coalho, a tangy, vaguely rubbery, pasteurized white cheese that squeaks when you bite into it. Vendors trudge up and down the beach with skewers of the stuff and small portable barbecues. A mere signal is all it takes for them to approach and roast the cheese in the glowing embers before dusting it with oregano and dousing it with sugar cane molasses.

A number of vendors sell goods made fresh by a (usually gifted) home cook who is often a wife, mother, or even grandmother. Popular items include fresh fruit salad, cocadas, “sanduiches naturais” (healthy sandwiches – featuring whole grain bread and no meat), empadas (empanadas), and roasted peanuts wrapped in conical wands of paper.

Children inevitably clamor for the bags of algodão doce (“sweet cotton” i.e. cotton candy) brandished like bouquets of brightly colored clouds trapped in cellophane. However, there’s plenty of non-edible kiddie merchandise as well, ranging from sandcastle-building implements and animal-shaped water wings to miniature swimming pools (which can be purchased or rented).

Meanwhile, adults can splurge on everything from hats and suntan lotion (this is stuff for tanning, NOT for protection) to pirated DVDs and CDs and artisanal jewelry made of materials ranging from shells and fish scales to semi-precious stones. In terms of services, you can often get a foot massage or a reiki session and temporary tattoos are a dime a dozen. Rare, but not sometimes visible are cartomantes, who will read your cards and tell your future.

It’s amazing how you quickly you can get used to it all. And once you do, the Bronx just doesn’t compare.

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