Happy New Year.
I like typing 2020. Much easier than 2019, and 2020 holds a certain verbal rhythm. It’s also a year that I’m hoping to focus on the road-less-traveled.
Much has been written recently about tourist destinations that have been loved to death — Venice, Machu Pichu, Amsterdam, Angkor Wat, Iceland and Barcelona among others. Climbers on Mount Everest are navigating fields of litter and dying, for Pete’s sake, because of the crowds on the mountain.
Closer to home, our most popular national parks — Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Bryce and Zion — are under siege. Visitors must cope with traffic jams, crowded trails and lines at the gift shop. And remember the photos of the looky-loos trampling Southern California’s blooming poppy fields and daffodil hills?
It’s enough to make you want to stay home — but don’t!
There are plenty of other terrific, uncrowded places to visit that are wonderfully interesting and fun, and very possibly less expensive. I’ve visited some, others I hope to. Some are ideal bases of operations for venturing out each day to nearby attractions. Other places may stand on their own or be part of a low-mileage road trip.
I start with Ann Arbor, Michigan, which I visited recently and thoroughly enjoyed.
Downtown Ann Arbor (45 minutes west of Detroit) has a glow of its own — a welcoming energy with residents who are proud of what they have and what they do. Their lack of superlatives about their really, really cold weather is, well — refreshing. Life goes on in the dead of winter and much of it moves indoors. They put away the patio furniture but keep the good food — like the fare served at Detroit Street Filling Station in the Kerrytown neighborhood. Co-owners Phillis Englebert and Joel Panozzo prove vegan and vegetarian does not mean bland nor boring, truly serve local and seasonal foods, and gladly alter selections to fit other dietary needs. The restaurant serves as a happy home for Englebert’s plant collection (see the succulents in the window), provides employment for those in recovery and on probation, and pays a living wage with benefits.
“We are a family,” Englebert says.
Ann Arbor, rightfully so, has gained a reputation as a Midwest foodie haven, often thanks to immigrant chefs who have brought their native foods to this college town of 121,000 (plus 45,000 college students). Ji Hye Kim opened her Miss Kim Restaurant about a year ago and continues to wow with her Korean cuisine. Her after-college years took her from the health insurance industry to a deli to selling Korean street food to opening her restaurant. The dishes will be new to most, and they reflect Kim’s infectious energy and skill. Expect deep flavors, freshness and a continuous tingle of the tongue. Menu items are thoughtfully labeled for allergens.
Drive eight miles to the southeast of Ann Arbor to Ypsilanti and a less-than-modest, former Taco Bell restaurant that has been transformed into a Moroccan cuisine heaven known as Casablanca. Chef Abdul Mani works miracles with saffron, verbena, mint, lemon, turmeric, ginger and other spices used in a long list of native dishes that will have you wondering why we eat anything else. I’m not a big meat eater, but the lamb is exquisite and the hummus uniquely creamy. At least three-fourths of the dishes are gluten-free.
Space considerations dictate that I end here but know that Ann Arbor also has a wealth of craft breweries and warm, up-scale restaurants to keep you plenty snug during Michigan’s long winter nights.