Road trip vacation tips and resources

stockphoto from MS Office Images

Let’s face it: Summer driving in Arizona deserts can wreak havoc on our vehicles, temperament and wallet. Once again I have compiled some hot weather driving prevention measures, safety precautions and travel tips from which we can all benefit:

Car check. The best time to “summerize” your vehicle was probably back in April, before the temperatures soar above 100 degrees. But if you’re just getting around to it; don’t forget to:

  • inspect your tires for wear and proper pressure. (Don’t forget the spare tire too!)
  • flush radiator and add new coolant
  • check your battery (Arizona heat allows a battery life of about two years — if you’re lucky!)
  • replace windshield wipers (It’s easy to forget about doing anything with wipers until the first heavy monsoon rain.)
  • check oil condition, level and filters
  • replace air filter
  • fix windshield dings and cracks, or replace windshield if necessary (you know how these grow and expand during extended freeway driving)

Emergency car kit. You probably should carry these items year-round, but they are especially important if you plan a motor vacation. Include:

  • duct tape
  • black electrical tape
  • flashlight with fresh batteries
  • jumper cables
  • safety vest
  • tow rope
  • water for radiator
  • flares
  • cell phone and auto or solar charger
  • first aid kit with motion sickness pills (for the passengers in back)
  • umbrella, hat and sunblock (in case you breakdown in an unshaded area)
  • drinking water and nonperishable food items (crackers, nuts – items that won’t melt)
  • car towels, rags for handling clean ups
  • “Ove Glove” for handling hot surfaces like the steering wheel
  • windshield shade (so you won’t need to use the aforementioned Ove Glove)

Avoid distractions. Keep kids busy with activity packets and travel games. Stow away cell phones or allow use by passengers only! Absolutely no texting or phone calls while driving! Load those DVDs for the backseat,  “Radar Love” travel tunes and audio books BEFORE you start driving.

Navigation aids: GPS, maps, itineraries, etc. (Don’t throw away those paper maps yet! They can still be used as backups.) Get the latest road trip travel apps and updates for your iPhone or Android. Find out how to access the current highway construction locations and roadway conditions? Call 5-1-1 in Arizona or visit the Arizona Dept. of Transportation website.

Other important stuff: Never leave home without: driver’s license, car insurance papers, automobile club identification card, credit cards, passports for driving outside the US. Plus, keep photocopies of all these documents in a separate location.

More driving vacation resources and information:

1. Don’t forget about Fido! Here’s my blog post about pet travel.

2. Get to know ADOT’s Highway Hawk.

3. Information about motorist Freeway Services from Arizona Dept. of Public Safety.

4. Road trip tips with many good suggestions from Fodor’s reader forums.

5. Great info on a variety of motoring topics from the forum page at Roadtrip America.

Readers: This is just a partial list of road trip packing lists, driving necessities and services. What’s on your list?

 

Fine Italian dining at Mare Blu in Rocky Point

dining room

Stop! Drop the lame excuse to try new restaurants! Now step away from your comfort zone! When choosing seafood restaurants during your next visit to Puerto Penasco, try something different! Mare Blu Ristorante has been on Sandy Beach for two years, so it’s certainly not new to Puerto Penasco (Rocky Point), but its difference is remarkable.

I usually don’t like to write reviews based on only one visit, so feel free to call this blog, “a first taste review.” During our Rocky Point vacations, we try to eat out for at least one nice seafood dinner. Unfortunately over the years, we have been stuck in a “restaurant rut” – going to the same two or three restaurants in the Old Port section of town.

On this recent trip, we just happened to stop by Mare Blu before attending Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers’ annual “Circus Mexicus” concert, held this year, just steps away, near Wrecked at the Reef. Sometimes spontaneous dinner outings– those new restaurant adventures — don’t turn out very well. Thankfully, this time, our ‘first taste’ of Mare Blu was delightful!

Upon arriving, I was immediately impressed by the well-maintained condition of the building and interior dining room, piano lounge and bar. Unlike the casual pool room, bikini and flip-flop ‘ambience’ at the Reef, the Mare Blu has finesse, polished charm — almost an aura of elegance. Our hostess seated us on the front outside patio, so we could watch the peak tide of Mare di Cortez as well as a growing number of concertgoers were lining up early.

piano

Grand piano in the Mare Blu cocktail lounge.

As I’m reading the menu my first thought is: What an ambitious goal, to capture the epitome of a fine, elegant Italian restaurant in Rocky Point… on Sandy Beach… next to the ‘Reef.’ (Now please don’t get me wrong. — I’ve nothing against Wrecked on the Reef. It has its own merits, but those will have to wait for another blog post.) The Mare Blu menu offers a solid, wide range of appetizers, soups, salads and entrees. The oenophiles in our group were pleased about the wine selection.

bar selections

Wine and liquor on display in Mare Blu Ristorante lounge.

We started with two appetizers, calamari and clams. The fried calamari was some of the best I’ve tasted in a long time: tender, succulent and lightly breaded! The clams were freshly steamed in a tasty bath of garlic and white wine. My husband and I shared one entrée: shrimp and angel hair pasta in pesto. The pasta was cooked perfectly — neither overcooked nor molto al dente. And my shrimp could have been absolutely perfect if only it had spent a minute or two less on the grill. But the combination of taste, presentation and quantity more than made up for the slightly overcooked shrimp. The two other couples in our group ordered unique menu selections so we all sampled a variety of menu items. Everyone was extremely satisfied.

patio

Sit outdoors on Mare Blu patio and you’ll be enjoying beach-side dining

At this well-organized, well-staffed and well-executed restaurant, we were happy to pay a bit more for high quality food, excellent service plus beachside dining. Plan to spend about $25 to $30 per person for the entire experience. Mare Blu Ristorante is worth it!

Readers: If you’ve been to Rocky Point recently, what are your favorite dining spots? I would love to know your recommendations!

Six reasons to visit Tonto Natural Bridge State Park

opening

For several years now, we’ve been extending our Arizona getaways to farther corners of the state and we often had sidestepped the communities closer to the Phoenix. We would stop only for refueling or quick restroom and snack breaks. But on recent visits to Pine, Strawberry and Payson, we rediscovered Rim Country. And Tonto Natural Bridge is the area’s best attraction! Here are six reasons to add it to your itinerary:

 

lodge

Now a visitor center, park office and gift shop, the main building was once a pioneer home and guest lodge

1. Easy access

It’s approximately two hours from the Phoenix area, just 14 miles north of Payson, Arizona, off state route 87. Paved roads all the way make for an easy drive, although the last few miles are on a steep driveway down to the park’s main parking lot and visitor center. Plan to spend at least four to six hours at the state park. There are trails to hike, boulders to scramble upon, cool breezes to inhale. Pack a picnic lunch and make a day of it. The park currently is open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and the visitor center is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. And easy access doesn’t mean it’s pricey. For a $5 adult entrance fee, the park is really the best deal for an Arizona day trip getaway!

 

springs

Be prepared to take a natural springs "shower" under the bridge

2. Hiking trails

These hikes aren’t long, but they are steep and some many have uneven steps. Others are very slippery and narrow and require boulder hopping or ledge hugging along Pine Creek. Prepare to get wet: if not from an accidental dip in the creek, you’ll feel the constant spray from the natural springs showering down from atop the bridge. You may want to bring some head gear or you can simply enjoy the drops. Sturdy hiking boots are recommended. Also, allow plenty time to climb up and down these trails. On weekends, the trails will be busy. When we visited in May, there was a constant stream of visitors. Bring along patience and common courtesy on the trail. If you’re not up to hiking down to under the bridge or along the creek, you can still enjoy the bridge sights from one of several lookout points.

 

garden

The garden setting near the main lodge building makes a great location for a picnic lunch

3. Picnicking

After a couple of these hikes, you’ll probably want a bite to eat and a cold drink. Remember: even in Payson, summer days are warm. It’s best to hike in the cool of the mornings and reward yourself with a picnic lunch. Some picnic areas have ramadas, but there are plenty of uncovered tables under the shade trees for your family picnic. Use this handy map to plan your visit. Restrooms and drinking water stations are located nearby. Please visit the park website for updates about fire restrictions before you light up one of the grills.

 

lodge

Main lodge building contains many historical items and a gift shop

4. Pine Creek

Of course, during early spring after rains or snow melt, or during late summer after monsoon rains, the Pine Creek’s flows are much higher. And conversely, during late spring and early summer the creek flows will be less. But natural springs surrounding all points of the bridge keep the creek fed. This constant spring water flow produces an array of graduated shades of green from layers of moss, mint, watercress and ferns at the creek bed. We spotted one of two designated swimming areas, but they look a bit on the stagnant side for my liking. Unless you want to step out of the water looking like Hollywood’s “Swamp Thing,” you may want to refrain from creek wading.

 

creek

Pine Creek flows under the Tonto Natural Bridge

5. Wildlife

It’s possible to spot many varieties of birds and small mammals around Tonto Natural Bridge and Pine Creek. Bats, swallows, owls, woodpeckers, vultures, squirrels, javelina and gray fox are among the common species making their home in the area. Take a look at the park website to learn more about the wildlife in the area as well as the geological facts and figures about the bridge.

 

squirrel

Watch for wildlife along the trails. You may see this photogenic Arizona gray squirrel

6. To support the park

Arizonans’ visits will help keep state parks like Tonto Natural Bridge remain open and operating. Private groups also have been successful in meeting the financial needs of the parks through fundraising efforts. For more information, see the website of the “Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge State Park.” The group has an event planned for this summer. Save the date of Saturday Aug. 4 on your calendar for “Taste at the Bridge,” a fundraising event put on by the Friends and the Arizona State Parks Foundation.

Readers: What’s your favorite Arizona State Park and why? How many of you have been to all of them? Some have closed; others are moving to 5-day schedules. What are your thoughts?

Rocky Point beach condo packing list ‘extras’

beach

Beach condo family vacations can be the most memorable.

So your vacation condo listing advises: “just bring swimsuit and toothbrush” but I’m sure you’ll probably want to bring a few more items. We’re getting ready for another beach vacation to Puerto Penasco, Sonora, Mexico so I thought a post about packing for a beach condo would be apropos. If you’ve made several trips to Puerto Penasco (Rocky Point) and have stayed at the condo resorts, you’re already aware of these tips. But even a seasoned condo guest may benefit from our list:

1. Extra coffee filters

Call me a control freak, but I like to bring extra filters from home. The condo may provide one or two, but if you need more, it can be a hassle. Forget to buy them on your back from town, and you’ll find yourself fashioning a makeshift filter out of paper towels or napkins. That’s why I bring a few both standard cone and basket filter types for most 12-cup coffee makers. After all, you’re on vacation — you shouldn’t have to work for your morning coffee.

2. Extra kitchen tie-type garbage bags

The condo or timeshare may provide a few bags, or your resort may provide daily towel and ‘tidy’ service. Nevertheless, trash has a way of doubling in size at check out time. Yes, you always could try to find a housekeeper with spare bags or maybe call up the front desk to send some up. It’s easier to just stick a few extras in your bag – they can always be used for wet swim suits, towels or sandy sneakers.

3. Small bottles of dish and laundry detergent, and liquid hand soap

Chalk this under the “why make an extra trip to the store this when you could be sitting on the beach and it costs three times what it’s worth at the resort mini-mart” column. I know, housekeeping is supposed to restock this stuff, but I think it’s just easier to bring small amounts to have on hand.

4. Plastic cups for the pool

With your own plastic cups or sports bottles, you can bring your own drink down from the room. You don’t have to worry about hiding a can or bottle under a Kan Koozie. (You wouldn’t bring glass to the pool anyway.) At the end of your stay, you can use plastic cups with lids for transporting home the kids’ seashells.

5. Insulated tote back or soft cooler

Resort management heavily frowns upon bringing your 120-quart ice chest down to the pool, setting it up next to the swim-up bar and serving 100 of your friends. So keep it classy and exercise a little decorum. For this reason, we love our small, soft cooler that resembles a backpack or beach tote.

6. Binoculars

At one condo we rented, the owner provided a spotting scope. It was great for viewing the ocean sights! Binoculars come in handy for those long distance views over the Sea of Cortez, keeping an eye out for early morning dolphins while you enjoy your coffee on the balcony. Bring a pair to the beach to watch kids on the banana boat, sailboats on the horizon, or to see if that crazy guy hanging out of the ultralight is someone you know.

7. Favorite foods and beverages

Although it’s not necessarily true of all parts of Mexico: some American products are really hard to find in Rocky Point grocery stores. So we often bring our favorite brands for wine, dark chocolate, club soda, English muffins, craft beer, apples, tea and cheese. Just about everything else is available at the Super Ley.

8. Folding camp chairs

Here’s why you may want to bring a few extra chairs: 1) Beach sand can get really warm! It’s too hot to sit on a little towel or even one of those grass mats for very long! 2) Chaises under the beach palapas can get very crowded during summer months and 3) poolside chairs also will be in heavy demand.

What’s on your beach vacation packing list?

hammock

Beach condo vacations can be relaxing with a little planning