Perry and Brandi Montoya

Photographs by Perry and Gannon Montoya

As a young man, while living in the western state of Utah in the United States, I read a fascinating copy of David S. Boyer’s (December 1958) archived National Geographic article entitled, Geographical Twins: A World Apart. As I read, I felt as if I’d been adopted into a long, lost family. I knew the day would come that I’d leave the younger of those twins (my hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah) to reunite my heart with her older sibling in the Holy Land that is Israel; never would I have believed at that young age that it would be as a tour guide of the region.

Israel and Salt Lake City, Utah twins? Boyer’s article aptly details some of the irrefutable likenesses such as each boasting: heightened and lessened elevations in the area, rich natural resources, fertile farmlands flanked by desolate salt flats, fresh water lakes connected (interestingly enough, both by a river named “Jordan”) to dead, salty seas, and the list goes on and on. I tell folks preparing to come with me to Israel that there are at least four must-see regions/experiences in this area. Perhaps some detail from each region will entice and edify those who are teetering on a visit.

THE MEDITERRANEAN COAST

Arrival (for westerners at least) in Israel comes from the Mediterranean seaside of the country. Most, and we’re no exception, fly in to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. The airport is clean and modern and welcomes the world through this constant cradle of travelers. Whether during one’s arrival by air or while distancing from the airport, each offers inviting glimpses of the Mediterranean Sea. Seaside lifestyle abounds in this region of Israel. Sand, surf, beach-goers, fun and costal beauty are staples of the terrain. I’ve been to coasts around the globe and Israel’s shores are much like any other – peaceful, soothing, and restorative. We frequent ancient Joppa (modern day Jaffa or Yafo) on this leg of the trip. As an extension of Tel Aviv, Yafo is both historic and modern at the same time. One can hear timeless calls to prayer from the minaret while gazing at spectacular sunsets.

Other notable stops along the coast include Caesarea Maritima (one of many surreal, standing relics from Herod the Great’s prolific building prowess), modern day Haifa (with its tech heavy work ethic focus coupled with wonders like the Bahá’í Gardens) and even a college-feel as found in Netanya (named for Jewish American, Nathan Strauss) which has been one of the most recent of the coastal towns to be populated.

SEA OF GALILEE (Tiberias)

Oriental (or Eastern, as in, “We Three Kings of Orient Are”) verses Occidental (or Western, as in, “Excuse me, but there isn’t any ice in my drink”) ways of living, speaking and defining is always a challenge when in Israel. Put simply, when in Israel, Western words and thoughts must give way to Eastern culture, language, and customs. Sometimes it’s good to have a “conversion chart” of sorts. For example, as a generalization, “mountains” in the Middle-East are like “hills” in the United States; “valleys” are akin to ravines, and “seas” (Mediterranean as a prime exception for sure) are like “lakes”.

To call the Sea of Galilee a true western visual of a “sea” would be to call Mt. Vernon – well, “Mt. Everest”. Indeed, the lake (named Tiberias, or Kinneret, Lake of Gennesaret or Galilee) is, on a clear day, almost small enough to see shore to shore on all sides. And those views can be spectacular, especially at sunrise as even the trees, waves and clouds appear to give obeisance to the east-rising morning sun.

Yet, despite its mini size, this region boasts a near constant flow of visitors. Where Joppa was “beach life”, Tiberias is spending days at “the lake”. However, this isn’t just any ol’ lake. Most visitors come for the historical and faith-based focus of “walking where Jesus walked”. Out trips from Tiberias include many half day or day trips to locations of historical and spiritual import to their visitors. Highlights of some of the lakeside New Testament sites include Tagba (traditional location for the multiplication of loaves and fishes and where Simon Peter fished), Magdala (thought to be the home of Mary Magdalene), Capernaum (where Jesus was “in the house” – KJV of Mark 2:1), and the picturesque Mount of Beatitudes or traditional location of Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.

THE “WILDERNESS”

Returning to the twin sisters comparison of Salt Lake City and the Dead Sea region, most compelling might be the fresh water lakes that are connected to hypersaline bodies of water, each with no outlet (or “dead”) coupled with the fact that both are fed by tributaries known as “The Jordan River”. Indeed, the contrast of this region compared to the others in country is stark and abrupt. This is desert as found in few other places on earth. Ask 100 people of their thoughts of Israel (or the Middle-East in general) and this is the picture they have in their minds. The region of the Jordan Valley is certainly arid and dry. Sites like Masada (a fabled defense location for the last of the Jews attempting to stave off Roman rule in the times shortly after Jesus Christ walked the land), Beit Shean with its Roman ruins (see below),

and Qumran (site of the found “Dead Sea Scrolls”) adorn hillsides while the Dead Sea looms nearby below each. The Dead Sea has become a draw for spa hounds worldwide. A float in this seemingly curative and revitalizing water is a must.

 

JERUSALEM

City life mixed with religious and racial tensions is the unfortunate rap that has been affixed to Jerusalem in the state of Israel. The truth is far from those extremes on a day to day basis with the wonderful people you’ll meet and interact with while in this iconic city and country. That said, if the aforementioned tensions exist, Jerusalem is (and always has been) at its heart. Three of the world’s major religions trace their roots to this fortress in the “mountains”. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all trace this spot to their “Father Abraham” as the land given of God to him and his posterity.

In the “old city”, one could spend all day people-watching at the Western Wall (especially on a celebratory Sabbath Friday evening), become happily “lost” wandering and shopping in the streets of the Jewish or Muslim or Christian Quarters, or become engulfed in combing the fabled quarters for ancient history and remains. Atop all other options while in Jerusalem, as with most who come to these storied streets, Jerusalem is a magnet for people of faith. While in town, people of faith take time to reverence such sights as:

  • “The Temple Mount” (Mt. Moriah) which is also the location of Islamic holy shrines and mosques (The Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa respectively).
  • Gethsemane, The Garden Tomb and The Church of the Holy Sepulchre (sacred locations to Christians worldwide as the locations of the suffering and salvation of Jesus Christ).
  • Hezekiah’s Tunnel (of Old Testament era fame) wherein water was brought into the city millennia ago.
  • Take in a modern concert at the Center for Near Eastern Studies (https://www.byu-jc.org/concerts/tickets)

Concert Tickets – BYU Jerusalem Center www.byu-jc.org. Tickets are free; however, you are invited to make a donation after each concert. Your entire donation is given to the performers

. . . and the list goes on and on . . .

Israel is like no other place I’ve been on earth. Its diversity of peoples, geographies, cultures, languages, foods and experiences seem never ending. Many feel this location to be the navel of the earth and it’s plain to see why. This land, considered holy by so many across the globe, is truly a “world apart”. Though it shares a geographical likeness with a modern sibling in Salt Lake City, Utah, it offers its own ancient and storied past with a host of regions and adventures that make it an obligatory destination for any serious traveler.

 

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Photos by Brandi and Perry Montoya

Ten inches of snow! That is the actual measurement on our front lawn the day we arrived in Mexico. Meanwhile, Quintana Roo had experienced a rainy period and subsequent better than average humidity. One local called it, “September weather in December”. We called it welcomed relief as news trickled in of our family and friends weathering an unseasonable cold back in Utah.

Just as we like it, JetBlue whisked us off from SLC to our eventual flight destination of Cancun, Mexico. It’s hard to say enough good about “Even More Space” seats on long distance flights. Couple that with your own TV and unlimited snacks and the recipe is set for fun.

The jaunt from Cancun to the Occidental Grand Flamenco Xcaret (our lodging for the week) was made easy by pleasant conversation with Miguel, our driver, and the comfort of a smooth riding travel van. Public transportation and taxistas are options from Cancun to Playa Del Carmen, but we’d recommend a trusted source and even, perhaps, a trusted touring agency for the trip.

Central to all things Experiencias Xcaret (the theme parks provider we’d partnered with as our guide for this foray) is Occidental Grande’s Flamenco resort. Accommodation at this all-inclusive hotel was not a disappointment given both their ambiance and ease of access to Caribbean sands and waters. The buffet, while a little below expectations for our lunch arrival was, during the remaining days, standard buffet fare.  Occidental offers finer scale restaurant options (which we greatly enjoyed) within their all-inclusive stay as well.  Often during our meals, we ate alongside indigenous animals including iguana and our first sighting of a Mexican raccoon called a Coati.

Perhaps the best thing about our stay at the Occidental was also the first thing uttered from nearly everyone who heard we were staying there. “That’s the park that is feet from the entrance of Xcaret!”  Indeed, Occidental was our gateway to the Xcaret theme park.

While vacationing with Experiencias Xcaret, the ecotourism and land/water options for enjoyment run long. Once you’ve played with them in this area, you’d likely never settle again.  While there are multiple Experiencias Xcaret parks to choose from (each with a myriad of excursions and diversions), we chose to spend our days as follows:

Xenotes

Anyone can go to one or more of the many Mexican sink holes (cenotes) that abound in this region. However, not just anyone can ride comfortably and worry-free to some of the region’s best cenotes, especially while being assured that all amenities are covered for your day in the wild. And, that’s not to mention being led by the likes of guides like Alfredo Sigala.  Alfredo represents the best of the best for Experiencias Xcaret’s Xenotes Oasis Maya.  His expertise was that of one that is both knowledgeable and enjoyable to be with for a full day in the shades and waters of this Mayan/Mexican forest.  Xenotes (their trademark name – though said just like “cenotes”) pairs a guide with each group that ventures through their park and rightly so; I wouldn’t want to experience this region without a guide to help make Mayan and Mexican history come to life.  That said, a Xenotes Oasis Maya Tour is an eco-hound’s Mecca.  Xenotes certainly offers a full day of enjoyment. While enjoying this tour, adventurers are treated to four different types of cenotes. We started at a fully open, pond-like cenote with zip line. From this first glimpse, we were sold on this amazing park. Our next cenote was considered a partially covered cenote. We began at ground level and descended (walking) via well-developed paths into the watery cave below. The initial portion of this cenote, though walled on multiple sides, gave way to a deep, can’t-always-see-the-bottom, sunlit cavernous snorkel adventure.  This one’s not for the faint-hearted nor for very young children.

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We followed the snorkel with a calming Mayan river kayak expedition where we were flanked by towering, vine-strewn rock walls and joined by birds, butterflies and the peaceful serenity that comes from the Mayan forest. All this was enough to work up an appetite!  Lunch was provided after enjoying this cenote (a multi grain bread sandwich and homemade chicken soup) and it not only hit the spot, it fueled us for the remainder of our adventures that day.  Drinks and water were also provided (it’s so easy in the Yucatan’s humid heat and cool waters to forget to stay hydrated) we were glad for the constant reminder and all that was provided.  For the remainder of the day, the various stops we made while in Xenotes park included multiple swings and zip lines destined for watery landings.  We took repeated runs on the zip lines and rode in varied riding styles; we went “Tarzan” style which was a standing position and I even went “Superman” which was a fully laid out position on my stomach.  Our day at Xenotes ended with a thrilling steep rappel into the deepest cavernous cenote we’d see throughout the trip.  Nothing was spared to make this park all it could be.  Even the bathrooms at Xenotes are built into the landscape and are open air style – carefully crafted to not remove you from your surroundings.  Indeed, we felt like nothing could extract us from this stunning jungle this day, but more fun-filled days with Experiencias Xcaret yet awaited us.

Xcaret

Surely, the namesake park for Experiencias Xcaret, Xcaret itself, was the flagship of this series of theme parks.  Day two would be spent here.  I could’ve never imagined the effect Xcaret was going to have on my soul. I knew Mexico meant relaxation. Researching our pending time in the region, I knew Xcaret meant culture and adventure. What I never could have known is that, on top of the theme-park enjoyment we’d have there that day, the night show known as Mexcio Xcaret Espectacular at Xcaret would mean reconnection with my roots and history in a way that would be otherwise unimaginable. Let me be clear.  I’ve been to Mexico multiple times before and I’ve never felt something like I felt at Xcaret that night.  Simply, in many ways, I’d come home.

Though its ruins likely date back to between the 13th and 15th centuries, Xcaret has been a Cancun/Playa Del Carmen theme park staple for some thirty or so years now. When we mentioned we were heading to this part of Mexico, nearly every person who’d ever been to Cancun and its surrounding areas, knew about Xcaret.  Again, most jumped immediately to “the night show”.  Rightly so.

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The night show is an extravaganza of sensory overload from start to finish. The music, history, dance, sport, food and personal side of Mayan-turned-Mexican inhabitants of this region could not be told more completely, correctly nor with any more enjoyment.  Having descended from Spanish-Mexican heritage, I was most moved by the overall message of the show which seemed to be encapsulated by a phrase spoken by the narrator of the show when she said something like, “As Mexicans, we don’t see the Spanish conquest of the Mayans as wrong or bad . . . because of it, we are here.”  Indeed, because of it, I am here and was there, deeply bathing in and rejoicing in my heritage like never before.  We’ve already begun to plan our return if only for this show.  However, the show comes at the end of a full fun-filled day in the Xcaret theme park.  While at Xcaret we highly suggest trying some of the add-on’s we loved including Sea Trek (a “SNUBA”-like underwater experience with local sea life like rays, sea turtles and sharks), wandering through their aquariums, taking in their awe inspiring aviary and saving time for village shopping and intermingling with the locals they employ there.  Any who follow my writings know I have a soft spot for local foods.  I couldn’t say enough good about the buffet (purchase it with entrance) at La Laguna and, having eaten all things Mexican throughout my life, was thrilled with the authentic, savory options.

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We’ll be back to Xcaret very soon and I don’t think I can say which of my senses longs to return the most!

Xel-Ha (including Tulum)

Tulum

At the tender age of twenty while serving as a missionary for my church in South Texas I met Betty. We knocked a door with a message of hope and there stood Beatriz Romero.  At 6’2” I was in awe as I stared down at all 4’8” of Betty. To show her appreciation for the message and lifestyle changes we’d brought to her, Betty bestowed upon me a poster of her homeland: Tulum.  It wasn’t until we arrived at Tulum during this trip that I remembered that poster. Oh how I wish I could go back and shake my twenty year old self for not making more of a fuss about her selfless gift. Tulum had been her home. Tulum had been the home of her ancestors. The poster, especially in a pre “smart phone” era, was all she had of home and she wanted ME to have it. I’ve never had more remorse nor love for a bygone friend then when we stood on the hallowed ruins of Tulum and I considered Betty transplanted far from this paradise and yet thinking enough of me to share her world with mine.

Tulum is a Mayan fortress that kisses the coastline and yet welcomes, with its historical embrace, all who would go back in time to hold on to its storied past. One can’t come this far south and not quickly forget the westernized world we’d just left.  Even before arriving at Tulum’s gabled walls, locals showcase their Mayan heritage and fare (this was, perhaps, the best place to souvenir shop for local goods while in this region of Mexico).  We’d highly recommend this excursion and/or ones like it including Chichen Itza (another Mayan-era ruin further north) or any of the many additional options/excursions that Experiencias Xcaret has to offer.

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Xel-Ha

Our time in Tulum was short but ample as we were headed to Xel-Ha for the day.  Xel-Ha is truly representative of all for which Cancun and Playa Del Carmen have come to be known.  What might not be so well known is the high number of adventures one can have in such a small geographical area and within mere minutes of each other while at Xel-Ha.  While here (as in all of the Experiencias Xcaret parks) we took advantage of the many photo opp stations to record the memories we were having.  Using these stations was simple.  Stand in the marked area for a photo.  Scan one of your party’s bracelets (all receive a bracelet upon entry into every park).  Then, look to the camera and smile.  Photos are captured and awaiting your approval for purchase (collected on a flash drive) at the end of the day as you leave the park.  This perk often kept us from needing to worry about our cameras throughout the trip.  While at Xel-Ha, we wasted no time in trying the Zip-Bike through the canopies of the park, in floating the Mayan river through the archway of Mangrove trees, in exploring the caves and caverns of the area, and in snorkeling in the crystal clear, river-fed waters as we emptied out into the open bay.

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Xel-Ha is for romantic couple time, frivolous family fun and certainly for large groups of thrill seekers, sand loungers and sun soakers. Buffet options here were exceptional as well.  I particularly enjoyed the array of fresh local “jugos” (juices) like mango, lime, and coconut while we feasted on local and U.S. staples.  We ended our day at Xel-Ha relaxing in hammocks with one foot planted in the sand for propelling while staring up at billowy cotton-like clouds, coconut palms and azure skies.  What a way to end our trip!  We’ll readily return to this region, but definitely not without paying homage to Xel-Ha.

Our week closed much like it began. Yes, as reported, ten inches of snow awaited us at home.  There’d be no September weather in December in Salt Lake City.  Cold may have returned to our bodies and we may have been torn from our Yucatan haven.  Yet, what’s ten inches of snow when the Yucatan, Quintana Roo and the Mexican Caribbean, with the sun and fun of Experiencias Xcaret still burns bright in our memories?  Famed singer James Taylor might have put it best in his hit “Mexico” when he said, “The sun’s so hot I forgot to go home, guess I’ll have to go now.”

 

 

 

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Photos by Aleah Montoya and Perry Montoya

For years I’ve lapped around Indiana’s borders but never seemed to dive in. The wait is over. It was time to stop letting big brothers Illinois, Ohio and Michigan take front seat. Indiana is no second fiddle. Indeed, Indianapolis touts its airport as the best inside of either coast and in all of North America and has the awards to prove it IND is central to statewide locations and, though not a primary or secondary hub for any major airline, touts various direct flights and off-the-charts customer satisfaction.

Bloomington was the destination this time for Aleah (my photog/social media guru who doubles as my daughter) and me. About an hour via shuttle from IND, we traveled to Bloomington worry free with Go Express Travel which has extremely reasonable prices. Bloomington is Everytown, USA. I’d guess more people know about this part of Indiana than they realize. Bloomington is home to Indiana University and truly no trip to Indiana is complete without making it to I.U. Like so many before us, we were welcomed through I.U.’s formal entry way known as Sample Gates. These pillars of welcome are some of Indiana’s most highly photographed; standing there in the moment, Aleah was all but ready to apply to I.U.

PIC #2 Sample Gates Web Ready

Many would make the pilgrimage to I.U. just to see the Assembly Hall (venue of Hoosier legendary basketball) or perhaps for a gawk at the Little 500 track (of movie fame) and a nostalgic heart thump at the thrill of one’s own “Breaking Away”. Sold.

PIC #3 IU Soccer and Little 500 Web Ready

We toured I.U. with a small group and were treated to peeks of the baseball, football, soccer and basketball practice and game day facilities and stadiums (Bart Kaufman, Mellencamp, Memorial Stadium and Cook Hall respectively – Assembly Hall was under renovation and closed to visitor’s during our visit.) Google “I.U. Football” and the first two hits are for basketball and soccer respectively. But, don’t be fooled. Memorial Stadium has an electric feel even when empty.

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This is a college town! And college town means college town food. Nick’s English Hut is “a Bloomington tradition” says their website.

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Merriam Webster’s defines tradition as, “the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction” and that is precisely what’s happening at Nick’s. Waiters know the menu by heart. Businessmen sit beside students. All share a love for their “Sink the Biz” fries and choices from burgers to pizza to sandwiches. We couldn’t chose between the Stromboli and Italian Beef sandwiches so we got both and split them. Incredible!

If Nick’s isn’t enough of a draw, Buffalouie’s seemed to be on the tongue of locals and visitors alike.

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As their name suggests, Buffalouie’s is a wing haven to behold. They proudly tout being one of USA today’s top ten wing joints and their wings match the hype and then some. Perhaps the only flop with their flappers was when we tried to break our order into several sauces for a “snack” size and were rebuffed – pun intended. Also they have a charge for extra sauces and veggies which could have been looped into the price of our food (author’s note: I always wince at upcharges which I’d have gladly paid for in the price of the meal, but see as “nickel and dime” when required to be purchased à la carte. An additional charge for chips and salsa at a Mexican restaurant would be another good example of this foodie phobia). Try this place. Enjoy the Americana that adorns their walls. Go when it’s game week. Expect fresh, filling, fire and fun. Such was our outing.

But Bloomington is more than merely a magnet for students. Yuppie foodies will fawn over the farm to table fare of the eatery FARM. While there for a “by invitation” dinner, we were treated to a macro sampling of what FARM is all about. Their menu changes with the seasons and the supply of local farmers. We savored everything from homegrown popped corn to farm fresh catfish. Indeed, in order, we consumed these tasty treats:

Frittered Smelt, purple cauliflower, red carrots, red peppers, grape tomatoes, fresh bleu cheese, arugula pizza with wild mushrooms, Brie, goat cheese basil pancakes, golden beet gazpacho, fresh ground corn fried catfish, whole roasted pig, cold rare bison steak, roast duck, pulled pork sliders, watermelon, wild grown mushroom (three types of mushrooms) salad, homemade mozzarella, smoked gouda, homemade marshmallows, pecan pie, sweet potato pie with fresh cream, goat cheese mousse, maple funnel cakes, peach cobbler, blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, a ginger ale and a bag of popcorn.

The full fare was presented at the farm-to-table eatery with the farmers there telling us about their products while chefs were preparing their items in the kitchen. I think we literally had one of everything. Maybe it was the popcorn at the end of the meal that might have kept me lying awake that night (he said, literally with tongue in cheek).

Our jaunt back to the hotel from FARM was pleasant and rewarding. En route, we overshot a street and wound up on Bloomington’s “B-Line” trail. The 12’ wide blacktop trail winds for a little over three miles through town and is frequented by cross-trainers, bikers, boarders and bladers. Even those of us who were on a casual stroll found it a nice diversion from semaphore controlled motor traffic.

The Courtyard Marriott (our lodging during the trip) was both convenient and comfortable. Upon arrival in Bloomington we’d found our room not to our personal liking and staff were quick to arrange our change of rooms and assure all was in order. I even had a wardrobe malfunction (with my belt) during our stay and one of their staff allowed me to use tools in their workshop area to rectify the problem. We’d gladly return to The Courtyard Marriott without hesitation.

In all, we found every quaint aspect of Bloomington worth each day of our stay. We’ve already set a date to tune in to the next I.U. vs. Purdue rivalry game and are prepared to cheer for “our” Hoosiers. We’ll be back to the friendly feel of Bloomington and relished our time among new found friends in “Honest-to-Goodness Indiana”.

 

 

 

Do surfers feel squeezed when we summer sun gawkers skim their swells? Are artists alienated by onlooker amateurs?  Can climbers feel crunched by this casual crest crawler?  Sadly, and admittedly, guilty as charged in all cases, particularly with our most recent infraction having occurred while exploring the breathtaking landscapes of Moab, Utah www.discovermoab.com with its alluring red rock and vaulted skies. You see, not far from our suburbia fish bowl lies beauty almost beyond description and yet, like a painter whose house remains unpainted, we fit the bill of hundreds of thousands of others who all-too-often scrimp and save only to spend our savings on someone else’s shores. Not entirely so this season as we selected the “local” wonder that is Moab for a couples get away.

While it may still remain obscure among the general population, Moab has long since lost its anonymity among nature hounds. This Southern Utah gem has hosted its share of jeep safaris, river raft floats, mountain bike events, film and art festivals, marathon and endurance races, and even dog competitions – all in the shadows of multiple national and state parks and each within just this past year.

For this couple (who could be accused of being more familiar “beating a dead horse” or with the “golden arches”) we ventured out to Dead Horse Point and Arches National Park for our weekend of free time and fun.

With an early exit from a day’s work in Salt Lake City, we were just in time to catch the setting sun on one of the most photographed points of interest in all the Western United States: Dead Horse Point State Park stateparks.utah.gov/parks/dead-horse.

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Maybe we’re admitting our “tween generation’s” status by admitting that, along with taking in the awesome wonder, we couldn’t help but YouTube the Mission Impossible 2 movie trailer to see just the angle where Tom Cruise scaled these majestic walls at opening credits (the likes of which I’m laying atop in the picture below).

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With its horseshoe shaped, river-carved base and its sheer sprawling cliffs, Dead Horse Point is a must. Arrive before 6pm to experience the visitor’s center and gift shop.  We arrived just after 6 on a hazy spring evening.  Sun lit peaks soon gave way to shadowed expanse and colors deepened and clarified as rapidly as the falling of that sun.  The nominal fee for entrance (ranging from $2 to $10 at print time, based on your vehicle and age) seemed only a token fee for such grandeur.   A sunset cuddle atop cliffs of crimson was the perfect end to a simple day.

Our half hour drive back to Moab came with a late check in to the Aarchway Inn www.aarchwayinn.com. With mostly rave reviews on the big travel sites, we found Aarchway to be all we’d hoped it would be.  Rooms were spacious and clean.  Amenities abounded (courts, pool, etc.). Breakfast in the morning had ample options; indeed, families and twosomes coexisted without incident.

The morning found us adventurous. We knew Arches National Park www.nps.gov/arch was certainly to be on the docket. We’d erroneously thought the day might be split between Arches and Canyonlands but Arches was simply too grand for anything less than a full day of devotion.  On a tip from a local professional landscapes photog, we plotted our day in the following order:

1- Balanced Rock  2-Turret Arch  3-Landscape Arch   4-Delicate Arch

Our day began early, and it’s good it did. There was a half hour wait (about 100 cars) on this Saturday morning just to exit the highway, pay, and get in.  Granted, the wait was entertaining as a family had stopped at the mammoth sand hill across the freeway and 4-5 children and their dad were taking turns summiting the hill only to roll, tumble and topple to the sandy opening at bottom.  We were tired (but enthralled) just watching them!  Once at the gate, we were warned of the potential for lack of parking at their more popular sites (Delicate and Landscape Arches) so we planned to be flexible.

Balanced Rock and Turret Arches were a 2 and 3 (maybe 4) respectively on a scale from 1 to 10 for “hard” hikes. We easily sauntered to each in the cool of the morning.  Landscape Arch was not so easy.  Perhaps it was a 6 on the scale (for length and terrain – especially in the heat).  We hit it more in the mid afternoon and trails were often sandy and up and down.  As the largest of their readily accessible free standing arches, it surely was a sight to see, yet one we might have skipped without too much frustration.

Delicate Arch was the hike we’d do and do again. Make no mistake, this is an 8-9 on the “non-granola” scale for which we fall.  We’d committed to each other that we’d first view the arch (famously displayed on most Utah license plates that aren’t “Ski Utah” plates) from the viewpoint below and decide from there.  The stamp sized view simply wasn’t enough for our liking.  We then made a pact that, if we were able to find parking close to the trail head, we’d make this hike if it killed us.  When a spot opened immediately at the trailhead, we were committed!  Taking plenty of water (a quart or so for each of us) we set out to conquer.  The first few hundred yards of the hike are level and pleasant.  We were immediately rewarded with aged petroglyphs found just off the trail.

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From there, freeing from the valley floor below, truly we had no idea the distance or grade in comparison to all else we had previously hiked. Now, I like to think of myself as “fat-letic”.   I played sports for 35+ of my 45 years of life and coached for still another several years.  While I’ve not fully maintained that status,  we’d just returned from a week of walking theme parks in Orlando and we felt up to the task.  That said, we were ill prepared for this hike.  The grade was steep for most of the way.  The sun was hot.  Shade was scarce.  Water was little relief.  Stops were few and far between.  Before finishing your hike to the arch, we’d recommend that the “pinnacle” of stops where you can be shielded from the heat would be the shaded rock atop the grade of the hike (just before again picking up the path that is only 500 yards or so from Delicate Arch itself).  We stopped on the slab of rock in the shade there and laid every inch of exposed flesh on that shaded rock.  Within minutes our core temperatures had gone down and we were back to enjoying ourselves instead of cursing the heat.

Heat aside, this was a memory and vista with payoff beyond compare. Upon topping the mountain, we immediately wanted to share it with loved ones who weren’t there. We vowed to return.  After some time taking in the arch and the view from atop, we descended with reflections that were deep and reverent.  Creations seemed to cry of a Creator.  We felt naturally inclined to reassure those who were passing by us just beginning their ascent.  We steadied and added cairns for added direction and hope.  This was a hike not to soon be forgotten.

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The night gave way to hunger. As always, we wanted to eat local.  Where better than the Moab Diner www.moabdiner.com to cap off our day? I was hooked at the teaser that’s scrawled without the diner’s walls that touts the “The Best Green Chili in Utah”. That screamed to be proven or disproved. And, right they were!  The Green Chili Smothered Sweetwater Potatoes with Skirt Steak added was out of this world!

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We ended the night at a local fav known as “MoYo”. Frozen yogurt at www.moabyogurt.com was both a cool and refreshing way to finish our blazing (polysemy intended) day.

Moab might not be in your own back yard, and locals certainly do abound in this Southern Utah showcase. However, consider yourselves cordially invited to my back yard and some of the world’s most awe inspiring natural beauty your eyes will ever behold.  As often exclaimed toward our arches, I’m not the only one asking “what’s holding you up?”

 

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Photos by Perry and Brandi Montoya; Gatorland Photo.

Every decade or so (perhaps more if a windfall should occur) every family ought to plan and take a “throw caution to the wind” vacation.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer in provident living, saving for what you want, and in only spending what you have.  That said, let’s be honest.  What you and I both have, once those precious heirs to the throne are born, is “borrowed time”.  Don’t borrow $ to maximize the time, but make a true vacation happen, and happen often!  Such was the case for the Montoya clan March of 2015 with Orlando, Florida as the benefactor of our hard-earned savings and us as the recipients of a Floridian uber-cation!

No vacay is complete without a few staples and a few surprises.  For us, flying with Jet Blue www.jetblue.com is a staple.  The red-eye to Orlando from SLC is new this year and a welcomed addition for the fleet that meets our fancy.  Our kids were spoiled from the beginning with roomy seats and cabin, as well as a TV in every seat, unlimited snacks and drinks, and a staff that ensures those amenities are a standard and not just an exception.

Arrival in Orlando is always surprising, coming from the dry, fortress of mountain walls from SLC that noticeably give way to endless wet clouds and long horizons.  Sunsets are prolonged here.  Shadows hold form and fade slower.  Local plant and animal life seem exotic and rare.  Not hard for vacation mode to be in full swing and that’s just upon arrival!

Certainly there’s no surprise that there is homage to be paid in Orlando.  One doesn’t fly to Paris to simply drive by the Eifel Tower or view the outside of The Louvre from afar.  No one would hit NYC and shun the Statue of Liberty or Times Square.  San Antone without the Alamo?  Get a rope!  Likewise, Orlando is for theme park dwellers and beach-goers.  Our week of weeks was certain to be filled with plenty of these staples!  Further, our Central Florida stay was best planned via Orlando’s convenient and seemingly all-inclusive Convention and Visitor’s Bureau which can be found here: www.visitorlando.com.  Our vacation extraordinaire would never have been possible without consulting and working with all that Orlando’s amazing CVB has to offer.  Order their Vacation Planning Kit and see for yourself! Our five days in Orlando couldn’t have been planned or carried out any better! And you know what they say about your good plans, “Don’t let them die of old age . . . EXECUTE THEM!”

Our execution went as follows:

DISNEYWORLD

Early in our week, Disney World https://disneyworld.disney.go.com is one staple we knew we’d hit and hit hard.  How we’d hit it was altogether a different dilemma?  With our daughter and two boys (ages 20, 16 and 12 respectively) anxiously engaged in the week’s festivities, we knew adventure was not only to be a possibility but certain to be a reality.  We managed to squeeze 4 park visits into one single day!  Again, we likely took for granted that our youthful children weren’t merely “in tow” but, rather, active participants in the foray.

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What started at a Magic Kingdom “rope drop” early on a Monday morning, would end though those same ropes some sixteen hours later.  In between we’d charted a fool proof plan to hit all the Magic Kingdom rides we’d desired to ride well before noon (making the most of Fast Pass +), loosing to Epcot (for a 3 hour walk around the world – I was so pleasantly surprised that my kids found the various countries and even Captain EO bearable), to Hollywood Studios for a Tower of Terror tribute and an Aerosmith Rocking Rollercoaster Romp.  Dinner in Hollywood Studios at Pizza Planet was a plus; it filled any gaps left over from our Epcot turkey leg and Coca Cola’s “Club Cool” soda samplers “lunch” (who eats much when it’s hot)?  We had just enough time for Fantasmic (Disney’s spectacular must-see show) and a final return to Magic Kingdom for a few late night sneaks on favorite rides while the parade and fireworks thin the crowds.  Tired? Extremely. Content? If you leave Disney World and you aren’t content, you’ve messed with the “happiest place on earth” mojo and there might not be much in this world that will please you.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER

As if Disney isn’t ample diversion enough to scream “we’re on vacation”, KSC www.kennedyspacecenter.com is truly out of this world! I can honestly say I didn’t fully know what to expect at Kennedy Space Center.  We’d done just enough homework (literally and figuratively – as my sixth grader has also been studying space travel in school this year as we were planning our Florida fun time) that we knew KSC had to be a key stop for our family – and should be for every family who comes within several hours from Central Florida.

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I left KSC a changed man. We began with a peek and pictures at the reflective Rocket Garden.  Then, we segued to one of the two captivating IMAX films shown on site.  With enjoyable stops in their Exploration Space and History of Space Exploration interactions and exhibits, we’d thought we’d seen it all.  However, certainly the capper for our already wonderful day was the Atlantis Shuttle Exhibit.   Again, all I can say (while overused and misused in a post 1980’s world) is “AWESOME”!  This one exhibit would be worth you full price of admission.  The chance to be up close and personal with this interstellar war horse is inexplicable.  We’ll hurry back to either see a launch, or even just to take the bus tour out near the launch pad.  KSC is a must-see for young and old, patriot and civilian, and all who wish to connect to the wonder of our world, the genius behind those who’ve managed to free from it, and the immensity of our universe together with galaxies without number.

GATORLAND & MEDIEVAL TIMES

Both of these Orlando staples were surprises to my family. Owen Godwin Sr.’s Gatorland www.gatorland.com might have been the original “theme park” for Florida.  Gatorland is home to more fun than a teen-ager can manage to muster!  My kids delighted in the rugged, raw animal power that Gatorland has to offer! We happened to be there during mating season which not only came with several gator to gator challenges but with deep guttural rumblings that invoked respect and bone chill all at once.  Hard to say what my kids enjoyed more.  Feeding the gators? Gator wrestling (including their own “rookie wrestling” of a gator)? Petting zoos? Animal encounters? Eating gator nuggets? The zip line over multiple gator “swamps” and ponds?

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Why choose?  Do them all!  Gatorland is not only a unique experience, but a real life connection to a Jurassic era.  Simply put, Gatorland meets every whit of its mission statement of providing their guests with “FUN, SMILES and SPECIAL MEMORIES.”  Lucky for your family and ours, Medieval Times is just blocks from Gatorland and is a great way to top off an amazing day with a nighttime dinner show.

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Medieval Times www.medievaltimes.com/orlando was surreal. I was so pleasantly surprised with the quality and quantity of both the show and food that I sat in delight throughout the night.  Who am I kidding?  I rarely sat – we were all up and cheering for our knight.  I took more vacation pics of the kids’ bewildered and amazed faces at Medieval Times than at any other time during the week.  I guess we’d expected the theme parks to be a blast.  We knew the beach would be relaxing and rejuvenating.

But we never could have planned for the raucous and rip-roaring time we had enjoying medieval time period appropriate tasty food, majestic horses, spot on sport and even enjoyable acting from most every character in the show.  I highly recommend this for any family who has kids who pretend “battle”, or who have a love for history, acting, or just plain want to be entertained.

UNIVERSAL STUDIOS ORLANDO

Wow, wow, and then wow some more!  Universal Orlando www.universalorlando.com seems to have placed many an egg in the Harry Potter basket and I’d never remove those eggs if I were them!  And, they’re hatching more than dragons and hippogriffs in Orlando!  Universal truly has given birth to the world of Harry Potter.  We opted for a 1 day Park to Park Pass to allow us to experience as much as we could of what both parks had to offer.  Read closely on the internet and you’ll find that next to no one will recommend hitting both parks in only one day.  I’d tend to agree and yet, as aforementioned, our 5 day sprint around Orlando only gave us this one shot and we intended to do it as best as could be done.  Our stay at Universal’s Royal Pacific hotel www.loewshotels.com/royal-pacific-resort ensured both Early Entry and Express Unlimited Passes so our chances of maximizing one day were as good as they were going to get.  We loved all things Harry Potter and still found time to conquer many a coaster!  We even took in City Walk (lunch seemed to be cheaper there) and gave ourselves enough time to ride the Hogwarts Express several times and even make it back to the hotel in time to swim/hot tub off the aches and pains of the day.  Get some Butter Beer.  Splurge for an interactive wand for each kid. Take plenty of pictures (even though the mental image of being in the Wizarding World will not soon fade from your kids’ memories).

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Perhaps much sooner than before another decade passes, it’ll be of a surprise to no one when we’ll return to Orlando to spend more borrowed time coupled with hard earned money – likely keeping to this very same itinerary.  It’s hard to picture omitting any portion of this truly memorable and lasting “super vacation”.  Until that time, one staple will keep us content: fond memories of Orlando and Central Florida as the treasured site of our “Spring Break the Bank” in 2015.

“This is the right place” said Brigham Young as Mormon Pioneers entered the Great Salt Lake Valley. Their overland exodus to the valley of Salt Lake officially culminated on July 24th, 1847. Records (according to www.Utah.com) show that, “on the very day of arrival the pioneers began tilling the soil and planting crops” (italics added). One thing is for sure, since that time the food that Salt Lake City has had to offer has only increased in variety and quality.

 

Certainly, the 2002 Winter Olympics brought the most recent national and international exposure to this great city and state . . . but, perhaps it was those same aforementioned pioneers that brought with them their culture and cuisine that gave visitors a reason to remember Salt Lake City as a culinary capstone of the west.

 

I’ve lived in (or near) Salt Lake City off and on for most of my forty-two years of life and have eaten at truly hundreds of restaurants and eateries in the valley. As to whether my palate best recalls the Dolmathes and Souvlaki from the yearly Greek Festivals of my youth (www.saltlakegreekfestival.com) or the years of “business lunches” during the late 90’s (sometimes 2 a day at different restaurants for more than 5 years) or the latest and greatest from now . . . I can’t say.

 

I can say that the foodie in me can aptly be described by the story of my traveling to Alabama a couple of years ago. I’d gone down for a speaking engagement. The man (Steve Goodwin) who picked me up from the airport, brought me several hours south to the conference; he was both kind and friendly beyond compare. In an act of true southern kindness, my hosts for the conference had authorized Steve to “take me to anywhere I wanted to eat – price was not a concern”. Steve proceeded to rattle off to me every chain restaurant from the airport to the college. Some were higher in price range. Others were southern staples, but chains nonetheless. Fortunately, I wasn’t hungry upon arrival and asked Steve if we could defer the meal until later. After a two hour drive, I’d begun to adjust to my surroundings and was ready to eat.

 

Feeling the two hours had bonded Steve and I sufficiently, I said, “Now Steve . . . I’ve come thousands of miles across the country and deep into the south. Please tell me you aren’t going to make me eat at one of the same chain restaurants that I can find in Utah. Isn’t there a place that locals eat in Troy, Alabama? A place I will not soon forget because of the food, the people, the experience?” If I thought Steve and I had been friends before, the happiness in his smile and the lift in his voice was now unrestrained. “I was hoping you’d say that!” exclaimed Steve. “I went to college down here and was really hoping to go get me some Crowe’s Fried Chicken. Would you eat there?” Friends, I have felt kinship to many a person in my day, but precious few foodie bonds surpass mine with Steve at that moment in Troy, Alabama that day. Crowe’s Chicken it was! That little dive was my birth into true southern food. Before I’d left the town that weekend, I’d had fried okra, grits with honey and butter, biscuits and gravy, and a host of other southern specialties. Not once did a chain restaurant cross my lips.

 

Henceforth, I’ve prided myself on being a true “foodie” for the past two decades and have, in this article, decided to share the wealth on a few of my SLC local secrets and staples.

 

In no particular order (which would be like commenting on which of my three children is my favorite), your visit to Salt Lake is sure to become a “foodies” foray with this “short list” of “Mont’s Musts”. Please note that, while there are many more that I could add to this list, I’ve chosen to keep it fresh by only including those of my most notable haunts and only those I’ve either been to or frequented in the last year.

 

 

Italian Village

I couldn’t start anywhere else. This is the restaurant that made me a foodie. I’ve been to this place no less than 100 times in my life. Honestly, I owe a childhood friend (shout out to Danny Savage) both for this find and for showing me the only item I’ve ever ordered when I go there. Sure, I’ve ordered the kids pizza or spaghetti through the years. Sadly, I’ve taken folks there that wanted to venture out and order on their own – poor novices! I’ve even snuck meatballs or various meats from the plates of some of them (and always with enjoyment) . . . But, it is the Pizza Bender that has any Utahan who is “in the know” by the calzones!
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It comes with cheese and any of three toppings inside as the standard. Pepperoni, ham and sausage is the original. I’ve chosen to substitute Canadian Bacon and add a fourth topping as of late – regular bacon! It’s scored in thirds and should be ordered with sauce (dipping is for purists!) Use some of the fresh parmesan and intersperse it with a nibble of garlic bread or two and your meal is complete.

 

Extra hungry? Get a side salad and some of their homemade blue cheese dressing. The simplicity of an iceberg salad always has its critics, but my mouth wants not to have anything introduced that veils the taste of the blue cheese; and remember, the goal is a “time out” with a speedy return to the bender anyway! A few years ago, the cheese changed for a few months. Fanatics of The Village were not fooled and our voices were heard. Almost overnight, we are back to the likelihood of assured drippings down your arm as you lifted a triangle to devour. The price is $ on the $$$$ scale and ever worth the wait. I can go on if you’d like, but suffice it to say that, while no one would put SLC on the map of U.S. Italian cuisine . . . it’s only because they haven’t been to Italian Village! You can’t miss this place when you come to Salt Lake!

 

 

Siegfried’s Delicatessen

Yelpers and Urbanspooners give this German deli 4.5 of 5 stars consistently. We took friends there just before the year-end remodel this past year and were treated to traditional favorites like bratwurst, knockwurst, spaetzle (noodles) with gravy, rotkohl (red cabbage sauerkraut), and weinerschnitzel (if you’re thinking of a foam hot dog antennae or an A-frame drive thru frankfurter hut right now . . . knock it off and get in here for this breaded, fried meaty wonder!)
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While meandering through a local street fair this summer we came across Siegfriend himself!
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Our selfie came after our sample of his street vendor version of his tasty deli meatsicle goodness. This place is not to be missed for traditional German food while in SLC!

 

 

African Restaurant

The foodie inside me shouts for joy when I see a dive that has the guts to call itself exactly what it is – no frills! From the minute we stepped into this place we were out of Utah and into Africa. One of the family owners, Liban, was our host for this evening of Ethiopian delights. We’d never tried Ethiopian food and were happy to have some suggestions. Our server suggested our party of four try an Ultimate Combo Wal-Maka Plate (seen below).
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The platter includes such delicacies as Kochee Foanii (seasoned beef cubes), Waaddii (more sauteed beef), and a variety of vegetables cooked in various ways all atop a Budenaa (spongy fermented flatbread). No utensils were brought the table and all were encouraged to use their hands – tearing away pieces of Budenaa and using it to scoop up the various spiced meat and vegetable items. This meal is both an experience and a delight. We are fans of Indian food and of french crepes; Ethiopian food from the African Restaurant seems to fit nicely somewhere in between. By far, the best part of our night was our half hour after the meal, spent with Liban, talking over Ethiopian foods, peoples, customs and cultures while basking in the spirit of this great soul! We have sent many a friend back and will return soon and often.

 

 

Wing Coop

Ok, so this place has been atop my list of wing joints and still, at other times, slipped below the horizon depending on who is running the fryers, mixing the sauces and working the ambience. I love the snow skiing theme that cries “We Are Utah” and there is a college kid vibe that might draw a wing and suds crowd depending upon the hour and day. Truth is, though I honestly haven’t been there this year, I’ve included this lil’ wing stop mostly for credence in my claim of “foodie” status. You see, I believe that no true “foodie” can claim that title without a few stripes on their sleeve, a few “color changes” of the belt, if you will. Sheer preponderance of places you’ve eaten might qualify. Having travelled the world and eaten/recounted its cuisine would certainly qualify. Finding the foods a restaurant is known for and taking on their challenges (when available) is a must for any “foodie”; a wing challenge is one such and it can place you atop this group of crazies known as “foodies”.

 

The Wing Coop has more than just your “run of the mill” spicy wing challenge. With 22 sauces on the menu and many more that can be/are created daily, the Wing Coop has a sauce for everyone. While award winners include “Tatanka” and “Honey Habanero”, the bully big brother of them all is their “Eleven” sauce.

 
THE CHALLENGE:

The challenge details include: 11 wings in 11 minutes. No other food, drink or sauce of any kind and no standing from where you sit until after the 11 minutes have passed. Eleven of the hottest peppers on the planet are “sauced” and become the bath for eleven over-sized wings. The remaining sauce is then generously spread across the top of these 11 little nightmares – challengers beware! In fact, the Wing Coop makes each would-be conqueror sign this waiver before the 11 minute challenge begins:
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In an attempt to do something we’d never forget, my buddy Trent and I undertook to climb the “Eleven Mountain” (I still love that man for his bravery; I couldn’t have done it without him!) We attempted this feat fittingly on the memorable date of 11/11/11. Our last words before beginning were to the clerk at the counter, “Any last words of advice?” He was quick with his reply, “Yeah, don’t do it . . . no . . . seriously . . . don’t!!”

 

While I know that my picture here can’t begin to explain the pain and suffering, it does show the behemoth size of the wings, the thickness of the sauce and the beat down that a grown man can take at the hands of such a little piece of chicken covered in the most wicked sauce I have ever ingested. I’m told one onlooker questioned the heat as we downed wing after wing and was given a bone of his own to try. He took one bite, said words no sailor would rightly utter, and spent the remainder of my challenge time in the bathrooom attempting various remedies to no avail.
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This pic can only be superseded by my victory pic found on the Wing Coop facebook hall of fame for those who completed the challenge which can be found mid-way down the page here.
And looks like this (courtesy of Wing Coop):
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Go to Wing Coop. Get your wings doubled down in the fryer for crispiness – big bones need longer frying times. Get a sauce or two on your wings and ask to sample a few more. Get a dab of Eleven sauce just so you can begin to empathize – but DON’T DO THE 11 CHALLENGE! I won’t even begin to endeavor to explain the horror I experienced for the next few days . . . suffice it to just say, “earn your foodie stripes in some other way my friends!” That said, like your daddy taught you when you were little, once you’ve beaten up the bully, no one else will mess with you. Nowadays, when someone says, “careful, that this is hot or spicy” I just laugh and think to myself, “if you only knew!”

 

 

R&R BBQ

While on the topic of foodie “musts”, seems like every foodie has a BBQ favorite or two. BBQ purists (and I pride myself as one after living in Texas for 2 years, paying for entrance into multiple rib competitions, and having arranged to attend a KCBS judging school event) look for taste, tenderness, smoke and presentation. From there, we all have a hankerin’ for sides that keep us amused and palate cleansed between bites of bone-in or chopped heaven.

In the past, even though I’ve had BBQ in Kansas City and several other notable stops (never been to Memphis or North Carolina yet so I can’t claim a clear cut knowledge . . .) Texas has dominated my reviews. I’ve raved about Rudy’s. I’ve shouted out to the Salt Lick. Heck, I’ve even nodded to Sonny Bryans. When I heard that two award-winning twin brothers were serving up smokesicles in SLC, I got excited. R&R delivers in many ways.

R&R BBQ is conveniently located off the 600 (6th) South freeway off-ramp in SLC and welcomes even the likes of the motley crew we drug in that day. David, Matt and I recently lunched there to our delight . We mixed it up and tried most everything on the plate meal menu. All the meats were top notch. Tenderness and presentation showed evidences of a nice smoke ring showing ample time in the smoker. I’m a smoke kinda guy when it comes to my meat and could have used a little more, but the bang for the buck was certainly there.

The surprise winner for me that day was the smoked wings. WOW! Smoked, deep fried AND sauced. Amazing! No question as to whether these brothers know their BBQ. Sides were a plus – especially the fried okra and the hush puppies. I always look for a stand out in cole slaw or beans and wasn’t displeased. Meats at R&R are uniform and top quality. We were given a peek at the smoker and walked through their daily process (bakers might be the only chefs who’ve got smokers beat on an early rise time each morning). Hope this place is around for a very long time and can’t wait to get back in and see what Rod and Roger are up to next.

 

 

Chin Wah

Let me begin by saying my favorite Chinese food memory was a decade ago while on my ten year anniversary trip to San Francisco with my gorgeous wife! We wandered through China Town and I found a place that I was sure the health department was only allowing to stay open because they were bribing them with the most amazing tasting, truly authentic Chinese food in the city. Brandi tried to stop me from eating there because of the look of the establishment. Butchers worked in the front and stopped their artistry only long enough to dish me out a rice and meat treat that cost me a mere $1.97! Chin-Wah is not that place. But, it is where you need to go when in SLC.

This Chinese (American Chinese) restaurant has long been a family favorite! We ate there last night (took a new couple for their first time – and, as expected, Chin Wah’s food never fails to please.

 

Foodies, I know you can feel me when I say, “I LOVE INTRODUCING PEOPLE TO NEW EATS!” Call me crazy, but I’d often rather see someone else enjoy what I know to be amazing than to eat it myself.

 

As for Chin Wah, we can’t go there without getting the Phoenix Chicken (medium or hot on the spice). Karl and I ordered their Hot and Sour Soup (chuck full of large pieces of Char Shu Pork and equally as large cut-aways of freshly cooked mushrooms). Wonderful! Online reviews take digs at their waitresses and, sorry Chin Wah, but I might have to agree; however, I’ve always had success with the waiters. That said, the food is worth the wrestle it might take with the service. The restaurant is light and airy. The food is always presented hot and as ordered – often with little or no wait. The price is right. What’s not to love?

 

You’d think I’d have snapped a photo or two last night but I wasn’t travel writing, I was playing and relaxing with friends. Glad I can still separate the two! I like the online reviews and simple photos found here: (Photos/Reviews). Looking for Chinese in Utah – this is it. Asian Star www.asianstarrestaurant.com could also please. We even like Enjoy Chinese in West Jordan (website found here). Don’t fall into the trap of going to the Utahan’s Mecca of The Mandarin in Bountiful. We went there last year with a party of 6. The drive and cost is not worth the mediocre food nor the hype.

 

 

Bruges Waffles & Frites

Who are we kidding? Greats like Guy Fieri (of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives) and Adam Richman (Man v. Food) have circumnavigated the globe and particularly the U.S. making a “foodies” job all the easier and less guess work. Don’t get me wrong, I feel most of us foodies feel we can run with those two on a few lesser known finds of our own. But, especially when traveling, I trust their work and often take the chance to eat at places they’ve recommended. And why not hit a few of those in my own back yard?

 

Bruges is a MVF tip I’m happy to say I’ve followed. In fact, we followed it almost to the letter by ordering the “Machine Gun” sandwich (which is baguette bread with lamb sausages, Andalouse sauce and frites – Belgian fries), then a Freakandel (another Belgian sausage with sauce over frites) and then a Torpedo Waffle (loaded with Belgian chocolate) and Liege Waffle (with crème fraiche and strawberries) for dessert. Both waffles contained droplets of polished sugar cooked into the batter – a decadence I can’t begin to explain. Now with several locations across the valley and one in Park City, the secret is out and is worth spreading! The cost is more than your average sandwich or treat shop, but it’s like my old friend Joe used to say, “You can’t buy a diamond for a dime . . .” (author unknown).

 

 

Moochies Meatball and More!

Here’s another tip from the Food Network. The pics online tell a pretty good story. The only dilemma at this place is on whether to get their Philly or their Meatball sandwich – take a friend and half them both! Guy Fieri went to the Salt Lake location (the Midvale location just came on board this year) and left saying, “Moochies is money!” Guy was right. Though I’ve mostly never tried anything but these two meat boats, I have even had a souped-up hot dog from here one time and left happy. Never been to Philly (save your boos . . . I will get there) but, I’ve had sandwiches at Junior’s in NYC, at Wheat and Rye in Detroit, and even Macados in Virginia and I’d rank Moochies with the best of them.

 

They tell me this place is straight out of Philly. Probably time for me to quit wondering . . .

 

 

Red Iguana

I couldn’t have a SLC foodie list and leave this hometown Mexican comfort-food fav off. This place is so epic they’ve opened a second one just blocks from the first! Who does that? The Cardenas family can and did after the near cult following this place has had over the years. Yes, the food and travel networks have been here. Yes, some famous faces who’ve visited can be seen on the walls. But, it’s the Cardenas family and a local cult following that keep this place on the national registry of “must sees”. Could be the Mole (said Moh-lay) varieties that tease and delight the tongue. Get adventurous and let your server guide you with the best mole of the day. We love the homemade chili verde (spicy and full of large pork chunks like my mother used to make). I recommend you try something you can’t get at just any Mexican restaurant (like the Mole) but we even like the “standards” such as the chimichanga.
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Taste of Punjab

Am I the only one who hears this name and expects to see the large bodyguard of Daddy Warbucks step out from behind a curtain and throw a knife at anyone who tries to stop me from getting to the buffet? Somehow, every time I have been to this place I never seem to have enough wits about me to snap off a photo. I must be so enraptured by the samosas, chicken tikka masala, chicken coconut korma, pakoras (garbanzo bean battered vegetables and meats – my personal favorites), mango lassi drinks, and rice pudding for dessert, that I am beside myself.

 

My pal Nate took me here and I’ve been taking people to Taste of Punjab ever since. The lunch buffet allows for a great sampling of all the above at an affordable price and comes with the drink. I never tire of Indian food, but this place is so good it brings to mind a phrase from a movie I once saw . . . I “crave it fortnightly”! The drive is about 20 minutes from downtown Salt Lake but also the same from many of Utah’s best ski resorts up Little Cottonwood Canyon including Snowbird, Alta and Brighton resorts (all 20-30 minutes due east of the restaurant). This would be a must stop for locals and visitors alike!

 

 

J Dawgs

The only eatery I am giving a shout out to that lies without the Great Salt Lake Valley is J Dawgs. Mind you, Provo, Utah has no shortage of amazing eats. I have eaten at dozens of Utah County (Salt Lake County’s southern sister) spots this past year with such notables as Malawi’s Pizza, Los Hermanos (Mexican), Bamboo Hut (Hawaiian), JCW’s (Burgers) and Italian Place Sandwiches. Further, I still have an active short list of places I need to try like Harley Davidson’s – I’m not afraid of a chain now and again, Five Star BBQ Co., Tucanos Brazilian Grill, Chubby’s Cafe, etc .

. .

However, J Dawgs might be the place I’ve sent or taken more folks to than any other place in the state (minus the aforementioned Italian Village of course – I’ve literally sat in every seat in that place, multiple times, even back during the “smoking/non-smoking” days gone by!)

 

The only word I can use to begin to describe J-Dawgs is “AMERICANA”. I use that word with a sense of patriotic pride when describing foods that have come to define what America is known for. Maybe J Dawgs has earned the title “UTAHNICANA”.

 

Sure, America didn’t invent the dog; but, Jason has perfected it! In a twist, I think he got some of his inspiration while living in Canada and frequenting food stands in Toronto. What began as a small red shack along a college campus street has become a frankfurter franchise that haunts my dreams! I crave the scored and seared edges of the quality beef or polish goodness. My jaw has muscle memory for the homemade buns. But maybe they both are just a bassinet for J-Dawg sauce. I know of more folks who’ve got a bottle of that sauce in their repertoire of sauces in their pantry than people I know who can spell repertoire!

 

For only a few bucks, the starving student lines up with the distinguished businessman in a DMV style lunch-line to savor these “dawgs”. I’ll never forget taking my buddies Marshall (teacher and renowned composer/pianist) and Mike (teacher and water-polo coach) there before a meeting one evening. We were in a rush and just had time to order and go. Each had asked how many dogs they should buy. Now my close friends and family know that I don’t have an “on/off” switch when eating – I never get hungry and I very rarely get “full”. Really. Diagnosed and not just in my head. Not knowing their appetites, I suggested these two start with one and see from there. Unfortunately for us, the line grew lengthy while we were downing the first round and it was certain we weren’t going to be able to go back for round two that night. The look on their faces and the urgency in their words was priceless, “We can be late to the meeting right?” Then, somewhat dejected, “I guess we have a reason to come back this week” (35 miles from each of their homes). Like every other person I’ve ever taken there, they’ve been back many, many times!

 

My brother was there the day I ate 3 and 1/2 of these sumptuous sausages and washed them down with Apple Beer on tap. We’ve returned again and again and never leave hungry or disappointed!
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So there it is . . . Utah for FOODIES (and anyone who eats)!

 

If you’re like me, your ending this article saying something like, “Are you kidding me Montoya? You really attempted a foodie article on Utah and missed greats like Pat’s BBQ (Food Network nod – their burnt ends are a sellout every week before the lunch hour is over on Friday), Ruth’s Diner (iconic Utah), Rodizio Grill, The Bayou, Copper Onion, Lone Star Taqueria, Los Cucos (you’ve got to get the steak stuffed avocado here BTW), Black Bear Diner (gargantuan portions and tasty to boot – or so I am told), The Pie Pizzeria (hilarious but true . . . I used to take their 23″ Mountain of Meat into local Cardiologist Clinics and provide inservices on new medical supplies while they ate) , Moki’s (after tasty polynesian morsels, get the Moki’s split – a pineapple sliced in half, gutted and filled with exotic ice creams, re-filled with the pineapple, toasted macadamia nuts, and whip cream), etc . . .”

 

Agreed.

 

I did give the forewarning that I was only going to include places I’d been and within the last year. I couldn’t include everywhere I’ve been, and wouldn’t include a few others. Simply not enough space in this article and not enough time to “eat Utah” right!

 

Get here and come hungry.

Let’s be honest . . . not one person reading this article has ever gone to New York and had the same experience as the next person who will read it. And, though I’m a huge fan of a Hansel and Gretel method of travel writing (leaving plenty of crumbs for readers to follow) I think I’ve finally come to terms with the reality that this could be my first pure travelogue I’ve ever written for RealTravelAdventures.com.

I’m throwing down the challenge. Indeed, I “double-dog-dare” you NOT to follow my footsteps nor recommendations on your own trip to NYC. Go. But go it alone. DIY – Do It Yourself. You, and whoever you might take with you, owe it to yourself to make NYC your own.

If you take my challenge, be prepared to fumble through it like the rest of us, but also be prepared to be hooked by the time you leave; your conquest of New York will endear you to it for a lifetime.

In what would be the first jaunt to NYC for three of the four of our party, we went with no plans, only a few possibliities for our itinerary and all of us in full doscovery mode. Four dear friends, one electric location and a lifetime of dreams ahead of us. Though time was limited, NYC provided any energy boost needed to make the most of every tick of that time.

JFK is a JetBlue (www.jetblue.com) hub – and who wouldn’t pick the most comfortable airline in the business to cross the country? TV at each seat, all the snacks you’d like, affable staff on all legs of the trip and plenty of seating space. However, after that tip . . . I’m sticking with my original statement – once you’re in NY . . . “go it alone!”

Find your own MTA (NYC Metro/Subway) route. The J Train line was under construction so we had a “run-around” route through Queens (coming from JFK en route to Whitehall Terminal). Queens was an experience in itself! We were on a Saturday (Jewish Sabbath) in Queens and had the joy of seeing many Jewish Orthodox men in their Sabbath best. Take your own path to the Statue of Liberty (harbor cruise?, Staten Island Ferry?, Liberty Island Tour? Etc.) We took the Staten Island Ferry (always free and always running every half hour).
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Mill around the south end of the island, but don’t take the Wall Street “Charging Bull” by the horns just because I did. Find your own icon to prove you were in the epicenter of the Empire State.
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Make your own way to pop Americana sites and attractions such as Times Square, Central Park, The MMA (Metropoltan Museum of Art), The Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, Grand Cental Terminal (Station), Yankee Stadium etc.
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Go without a travel agent’s recommendations. Use New York’s official travel website www.nycgo.com for anything you think you might want to do; perhaps dare to spring upon Broadway without pre-paid show tickets.
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While you’re on Broadway . . . eat where you want; though Junior’s (Deli and Cheesecake) www.juniorscheesecake.com will still be packed to the gills with or without you. Forget that the Reuben we had there – the one that still has me salivating and longing for their homemade Thousand Island Dressing. Forget that the 10 oz. Steak Burger and homemade pickles and beets were addicting enough for me to still adorn my office wall with a “take out menu”. You chose.
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Do or don’t make time for the 9/11 Memorial www.911memorial.org. Who am I kidding on this one – don’t miss it! Look close for the Survivor Tree. This tree, among the last living items removed from the site, is nothing short of awe inspiring. Stare into the black abyss of the two memorial fountains. Ponder the freedom that allows you to be in that very spot at that very minute. Breathtaking. Awesome.
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Do New York on your “own”.

Take the love of your life.

In the shadows of the Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge Mountains lies some of the greenest land in the United States of America. Merely flying in over this region was the first treat of the trip. A dear friend of ours (and native Virginian) often says, “God waters Virginia.” From the air, it appears that the only time the flora and fauna ends is when man has cleared it away for purpose/privilege of living in the middle of the garden. I’ve lived in Washington State and thus am no stranger to green or to the heavens opening to bring that green. However, Virginia somehow maintains its prolific and bright foliage in the midst of the heat of the south – that’s no small feat! In fact, while in Harrisonburg, we saw one small patch of brown and found it worth a picture because of its peculiarity and even its singularity on this trip.
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HARRISONGURG

Aside from being one of many Virginia cities that both Union and Confederate forces passed through during America’s US CIvil war, and from resting below the majestic Blue RIdge Mountains in the Shenandoah Valley, Harrisonburg, the little brother to Charlottesville, Virginia is a true college town. JMU (James Madison University) draws the masses. Once there, a variety of eats and haunts can be had.

In Harrisonburg, tradition truly meets today! Kline’s Dairy Bar www.klinesdairybar.com dates back to the early 1940’s as a frozen custard peddler extraordinaire and Kline’s customers have developed a near cult-like following. One can certainly get other cold goodies here, but the soft-serve ice cream in its chocolate and vanilla flavors (plus a day-of-the-week special – ours was Strawberry Cheesecake) is what keeps em’ coming back again and again. Further, though not so entrenched in Harrisonburg, the recently added southern fast food wonder known as Cookout is a great add to the area. Cookout brings all things Americana to the table. True to its name, we had burgers, hot dogs, chili dogs, bacon wraps and the like. Don’t leave Cookout without adding their crunchy and creamy cole slaw onto whatever you are eating.
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And, be sure to get your fix of Cheerwine from the tap! If you aren’t in the south, Cheerwine is not readily available. This was our first time tasting this full, rich, smooth cherry flavored soda and it might be reason alone to return to Virginia!

We found Cheerwine with most every other tasty treat at the Shenandoah Mennonite Market in Harrisonburg http://shenandoahmarket.net The Mennonite Market is an experience to long be remembered! From its fabric stores (frequented by Mennonite women buying a favorite textile to make their own clothing) to vintage/relic items, The Mennonite Market offers nearly everything in between. Our favorite places included the jam/jelly store known as Country Canner where we watched our preserves being made and Grandma’s Pantry (where we found nearly every bulk item imaginable). Don’t miss this gem just outside of Harrisonburg’s downtown.
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LEXINGTON

Not far south of Harrisonburg further down the Appalachian Trail you’ll find the birth and resting places of some of the nation’s most prized forefathers. A trip to central Virginia is not complete without paying homage in Lexington. Lexington oozes with American History. The campus of Washington and Lee is not only home to over a thousand current college students, it is the final resting place of Civil War General Robert E. Lee (remains enterred below Lee Chapel). While on campus, schedule time to see the Museum www.leechapel.wlu.edu The tour was both inspiring and enlightening as to the connections of Robert E. Lee to Virginia, to 1st American President George Washington and to the advancement of honor and valor in the American soldier and student alike.

Another must see in Lexington is the city cemetery where a fitting stone monument is laid at the final remains of Virginia’s own Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. This icon of the south proved to be, perhaps, the most troubling southern military leader of the war. With his deep knowledge of the Blue Ridge Mountains and all areas surrounding (including local caves and forests) Jackson often led his men into any such “hiding” place only to surface, conquer and resort again to the safety of back-wood Virginia. Jackson was deeply religious and felt driven by and relegated to God in every step of his life. Seeing his graveside, among others from the early 1800 (and even some 1700’s!) was nearly overwhelming.
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Both Jackson and Lee have roots to the VMI in Lexington. A stop at the Virginia Military Institute is also worth your time. It is said that Jackson trained young soldiers at the VMI and then led them into war against their northern brethren with the battle-cry, “The Virginia Military Institute will be heard from today.”

Situated between the cemetery and Washington and Lee campus along main street lies a Virginia legend in its own right – Macado’s. Macado’s www.macados.net has several decades of rolling out some of the tastiest sandwiches in the known deli world. One can find more than deli meats on a variety of fresh breads at Macado’s, but I’m not sure why you would go further than the Ziegfield’s Club or one of their amazing Rueben sandwiches. This time around, the service was beyond poor (took us nearly two hours to get in and out) but that was certainly atypical. I’ve recommended Macado’s many times before . . . and even since; we will be back for another stay I’m sure – here’s to a mouth watering wait due to the distance of miles and not delay of staff.

Leaving Macado’s with full bellies, we were geared up for the small drive and tiny hike to view America’s answer to Stonehenge . . . FOAMHENGE! The brainchild of creator Mark Cline coupled with the construction efforts of (according to one sign posted on the hill) that “one crazy white man and 4-5 Mexicans”, FOAMHENGE is a full scale replica of England’s mysterious Stonehenge.
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FOAMHENGE is an easy turn out en route to Virginia’s Natural Bridge Park which is just minutes from Lexington. While not a destination unto itself, it’s an artwork not to be missed along the way. We’re told the natural bridge is certainly a stop to make as well.

A great day (or two) trip in Central Virginia would be to not miss Harrisonburg and Lexington – two of the best looks at Americana and only within minutes of each other and a few short hours of the Charlottesville, Richmond or Roanoke airports.

John Denver was right. That given, Virginia’s country roads are home to many a happy southerner and to some of the best places to visit any time of the year. Though it isn’t my home nor was I reminded of a “home far away”, I sang that song loud and proud a few days ago as I drove the wonder that is the Blue Ridge Parkway in central western Virginia.

I know what you are saying at this point, especially if you are a John Denver fan . . . the song says, “West Virginia!” No slight to Virginia’s northwestern neighbor who has all but adopted the song as their unofficial anthem, but the only place I know of where the Blue Ridge Mountains meet the Shenandoah River is in the central western part of the lush, rich, and inviting state of Virginia. And, in this writer’s opinion, the starting point to see this wonder is via the sprawling city that lies in the foothills of those Blue Ridge Mountains: Charlottesville.

It’s hard to say whether Charlottesville, Virginia www.visitcharlottesville.org is more enchanting or historic. Perhaps the words of the 3rd President of the United States of America can mediate. Of Charlottesville (Albemarle County) Jefferson once said, “On the whole I find nothing any where else in point of climate which Virginia need envy to any part of the world . . .” (http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/quotations-albemarle-county).

I can almost hear the founding fathers singing the John Denver ditty at this point – can you? Speaking of the founding fathers of the USA, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe all hail from this treasure that lies very near the birthplace of America. Some might contend that Albemarle County is the cradle that nurtured those founding fathers for so many years. A visit to each of their homes will attest to their individual love of this part of the United States. For Jefferson, Monticello www.monticello.org was his home.
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Not as up on your US History as you’d like to admit? Pull a US nickel out of your pocket and flip it in the air. Catch. Reveal. Chances are 50-50 you are now looking at the US Mint’s rendition of Monticello. Similar chance that you are looking at the Author of the US Declaration of Independence who made that house a home for 56 of the 83 years of his life. Truth is, Jefferson would often have to take leave of Monticello while serving the United States in various capacities (including two presidential terms, one VP stint, Secretary of State, US Ambassador to Europe and delegate in the Continental Congress) but he certainly always considered Monticello his the home for which he longed.

Our trip to Jefferson’s home was wonderful. There are various self-guided tours (garden, cemetery, slavery at Monticello etc.) and a short film we’d highly recommend, but the tour of the house itself is not to be missed. Be sure to book/buy early and arrive in enough time to take in the ambience of this historical gem.
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Not far from Monticello, indeed, just down the mountain, James Monroe’s more practical and unassuming Ash Lawn – Highland Estate www.ashlawnhighland.org can be found. Home to the fifth President of the United States, Highland is well worth a stop. Within the descent of the same mountain, one can also visit MichieTavern www.michietavern.com where it is touted that for some 200+ years folks have been coming for food, drink and lodging. A time-period meal is available for those who desire to eat as the founding fathers may have eaten. We skipped along to a more current invite of eats at the Carter Mountain Orchard www.cartermountainorchard.com where we enjoyed fresh cider (apple and donut peach), preserves and baked delights. The views of the valley below are, in themselves, reason alone for the ascent atop the orchard. Apples to the right, grape vines to the front, and rolling foliage-filled rows of orchard everywhere you turn. Don’t miss this easily neglected favorite.
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Once down from Jefferson’s “little mountain”, we stopped downtown Charlottesville for a continuation of historical mixed with a hint of modern. Lunch at Brixx http://brixxpizza.com/locations/charlottesville for their wood-fired pizza (try the Pear Gorgonzola or Rustica for the advanced palate) was followed by a jaunt through Historic Charlottesville. Earlier, much as Jefferson himself had done during its construction, we’d caught a glimpse of the Rotunda at UVA (University of Virginia) from the back deck of Monticello. It was a treat to now climb its steps, take in its library and bask in the history of this well-crafted edifice. Outside its doors we walked past the Poe bedroom (dorm room for Edgar Allen Poe during the years in which he’d written his famed narrative poem, “The Raven”). We enjoyed the old churches, statues and various remnants of the Jeffersonian Era. UVA has done much to both preserve their deep rooted history and yet move comfortably into the now. UVA is a magnet for concerts and arts/film festivals, UVA boasts elite sports teams (having won 20 NCAA Championships in various sports) and is regularly ranked high among top schools for various aspects of higher learning and research.
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Freeing from UVA campus, we saved enough room for eats at another of Charlottesville’s epic eateries – The Virginian thevirginiancville.com. Their Stumble Down Mac N Cheese with fried potato cake is legendary.
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We also tried our hand at, and savored, their Spinach and Artichoke Dip. Coupled with our burgers and sandwiches, our light summer’s meal was truly a joy at this historic yet modern restaurant. Further, one would be crazy not to indulge in their Farmhouse Apple Cake.

Speaking of cake . . . knowing we’d be soon leaving Charlottesville, we took a local tip and stopped at Hot Cakes www.hotcakes.biz for our carb fix for the next few days. Their Hot Cake’s Best Coffee Cake, Peach Frangipane and Fresh Fruit Tarts, Napoleons, Cheesecakes and Cupcakes were both buttery and decadent. Somehow we escaped without Brandi letting me talk her into the Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray (Celery) Soda – my one regret. (Personal Aside: Curse you Perry Montoya! Who are you if not a lapper of celery soda when faced with the chance?) We’ll be back to this bakery-gone-bananas haunt on our return trip.
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Charlottesville, Virginia truly is the both a prime destination as well as a central, jumping-off point for any southern or even eastern seaboard vacation. Within a little over 2 hours north and east, Washington DC, Jamestown, Historic Williamsburg, the Chesapeake Bay (including Virginia Beach) can be reached. Head the same time/distance south and southwest and you’ll be in any of a number of state parks, the City of Lexington (home of the Virginia Military Institute as well as resting place for both Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson), or even be amidst such natural wonders as Natural Bridge www.naturalbridgeva.com in Rockbridge County.

Take me home, country roads . . . home to Charlottesville, Virginia and its down-home, warm-southern, history-rich, cutting-edge goodness.
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Perry Montoya, M.Ed., Husb., D.a.d., is a former banker and medical marketing and sales professional who left the business world behind to tackle a career in teaching while moonlighting as a traveler, writer and public speaker. His passion for people and travel can be found in his writing.

“Travel exposes you to a nation or region. Where you stay while there introduces you to people. Food welcomes, cements, reminds and endears you to their culture. Individuals you “chance” to meet sculpt your life and leave you changed. WHAT YOU WRITE about the aforementioned is a piece of who you are and an invitation to come along. The sands that adorn my office wall (from over 400 worldwide locations) are as eclectic as the stories that come with them. I’ve lived in 39 homes, reinvented myself again and again and yet remain the curious, accepting, convicted and compelled boy-gone-man that drives each new adventure.”

Perry currently resides in SLC, Utah with wife Brandi and their three children. He can be reached with questions/comments at pbmontoya@hotmail.com