Now that the trip is over, the #1 question I’ve been asked is “what was your favorite stop??”… people really need to get more creative with their questions. Favorite for vacationing? For living? For eating? It’s not like there’s that one perfect place out there (actually there is, but we already live there!) And so, in response, I’m compiling this list… our best stops of the Great Road Trip of 2012… in no particular order.
This was a surprise favorite. I had never expected to visit Utah, nor had I ever heard of Moab (I actually pronounced it “mobe” until someone in Grand Junction corrected me… oops). I did all my normal Yelp tests and decided before we even arrived that it wasn’t even worth a stop— I believe I even cut down our time spent here by a day or two, so that we could get to SLC sooner. Once we arrived, we confirmed that the town itself is nothing to look at. Well, it’s something to look at— the backdrop is incredible… but once you’re done looking you’ll find only mediocre food, at best… very uninteresting tourist shops… and possibly some shaved ice, if you’re lucky.
The surprise came when we entered the nearby parks. Since everything is so sprawling out here, each park is actually over half an hour in a different direction, so we could really only do one per day (plan accordingly.. we didn’t). We arrived at Dead Horse Point first. I had no idea what to expect… we just drove and drove and drove through tall red rock structures until I finally noticed that we were on a ledge— and a mighty high one at that. We kept climbing and climbing, until we finally reached the picnic area/overlook. The feeling I got must have been what early explorers felt when they saw the Grand Canyon for the first time. It expanded in every direction, as far as the eye could see. The beautiful red color of the rocks perfectly contrasted the blue of the sky. Each point around the overlook was similar but totally different… I had to stop and stare at each one. I absolutely never knew anything could be so beautiful.
At this point, the two other parks (Canyonlands and Arches) were beautiful, but not as big of a shock. We did Canyonlands that same night and had to speed around to see the whole thing before sunset. The scenery was similar to Dead Horse but much more diverse.
Arches, as one would expect, was more about the vertical structures. To give you a sense of scale, that’s a hiking path at the bottom center of the photo…
Different rocks in all kinds of formations, scattered across the jagged horizon.
This was also where we got one of my favorite photos of the whole trip:
Another surprise stop. We were planning on visiting Talahassee for a stopover on our way to Sarasota, but a friend pointed us toward Destin and said it would be worth the inconvenience. Boy, he was right. Destin, on the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico, contains the single most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen, or even imagined. The sand is white as snow, and the water is simultaneously crystal clear and a fantastic bright cyan that makes it look like liquid glass.
We even got to swim with sting rays!
The town of Destin is nothing to write home about, but that makes the hotels appropriately cheap. It would make a great couples’ getaway on a budget, as long as you don’t mind having dinner at a mediocre chain restaurant.
This one was a given. Our lives are pretty well documented in Portlandia. And even though I don’t think we classify as uber-hipsters, we definitely have some pretty hipster-ish habits that helped us overlook the pretentiousness and enjoy all the artsy comfort that is PDX (M called it “charming bootleggery,” which I think works as well).
I mean, come on… Pine State Biscuits… Stumptown Coffee… Powell’s Books… rose gardens… huge food truck villages? There is nothing not to like.
Well, if you don’t count the aggressive homeless population and too-cool-for-their-own-good champagne socialists.
Crater Lake, OR
Crater Lake is yet another place that just shouldn’t exist. We had just finished a delicious plate of vegan mac and cheese and some MCM shopping in Eugene (yes, I just wrote that sentence), and I was pretty much ready to settle down in Ashland for a few days. But as we drove, something jogged M’s memory and he suddenly had me reset the GPS to a destination I’d never heard of. It’s a long, flat road all the way out there… definitely nothing to get excited about.
You pay your entrance fee and keep on driving until you hit an enormous hill of sand.
Look over the ledge and… well…
Yep! That exists. In Southern Oregon. And it’s an active volcano, so that’s awesome. The water is so still, it causes a reflection of the sky which is unlike any body of water I’ve ever seen. Pretty much one of the craziest places ever, and it was just a random quick stop. It’s places like this that make me miss being on the road.
If you’d asked me what’s in Idaho before this trip, I would have responded “potatoes… maybe corn… mostly potatoes.” I would not have responded “stunning, clear glacier lakes.” And I would have been wrong.
Luckily, we lived in our car, so the change of clothes from sweaters and jeans into full-on bathing suits took only about 10 minutes, and we were off to the beach! In Idaho. I kept having to repeat that to myself.
I guess it makes sense… everyone talks about how pretty Alberta and BC are, and this is just a bit south. One of these is Idaho and the other is Banff, Alberta. And yet Banff is a vacation destination and Idaho… well, it just isn’t. Go figure. (not my photos, click for original source)
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
If you talk to someone from the mitten part of Michigan, they’ll tell you what rednecks yoopers are. But I think it’s just because they’re jealous of the stunning scenery.
One of the most out-of-body moments of the trip was driving south from Marquette (an adorable tiny city) toward Green Bay. The GPS took us on a small highway, which ran through a forest and along the coast of Lake Michigan. It was over 100 degrees out and we thought we were imagining the seemingly endless body of water ahead of us, but we pulled over anyway and got on our emergency swimsuits. Of course, the population of the UP is like, 6, so there was no parking or even a cleared path down to the lake. A few other cars had just parked on the side of the highway, near a clearing in the tall grass, so we followed suit and enjoyed the beach on the side of the highway.
The water was clean and almost bathtub-temperature, which is pretty amazing considering it’s the same water that we would later look out on from Chicago a few weeks later— where we definitely did not jump right in.
We arrived at our hotel in Green Bay still sandy and damp, but it was worth it. And by the way, it also marked the third Great Lake we’d swam in that week— fourth in our lives (we’re still missing Erie, although I’m not sure I want to swim off the coast of Buffalo, Cleveland, or Detroit…)
Louisville is like the Portland of the southeast. Except nobody talks about it. And I don’t even know if the general population of Louisville knows. But I’m telling you, guys… it’s a super awesome place.
Not only did we manage to randomly catch a music festival featuring lots of awesome bands, but we played ping pong at a converted garage covered in astroturf, enjoyed exceptionally well-brewed coffee, and drank craft beer to our hearts content inside a church.
If I had changed the word “Louisville” into “Portland” at the beginning, you would still be nodding along like “yeah, that sounds about right…”
Not all of Louisville is cool, but the parts that are, are great. There are at least 2 or 3 up-and-coming artsy communities that we found in our short visit, and lots of people we talked to had moved from all over the country when they realized how great it was down here.
Oh, and don’t miss the nearby distilleries. Various signs around town will point you in the direction… most are only a few miles away.
Technically we didn’t even visit Portsmouth on this trip. We considered the road trip started right after we left, and completed it when we arrived back to New York. But that’s only because Portsmouth already had our hearts. We were afraid that taking this trip would expose us to some other perfect spot… one that checked even more boxes or made us feel even giddier… but it’s pretty hard to replace great friends, and so even after 20,000 miles driven, we gladly returned to Portsmouth, and couldn’t be happier about it.
Guy Fieri doesn’t have a monopoly on taking road trips and eating at awesome hidden places. So here are the best and most unexpected meals we had on the trip (in the order in which we visited them):
Jose’s Cantina in St. Ignace, MI- fantastic tex-mex food. Tons of veggie options and a local fish special that I couldn’t stop eating. This was the first time on the road that we declared it had been “our best meal (so far).”
Sai Uwa in Marquette, MI- I am not kidding when I say that Sai Uwa has the absolute best drunken noodles I’ve ever had. The fact that I didn’t go back for every meal (or move here) shows a level of self control I didn’t even know I had. The owner also seems like a super nice guy which is a plus.
King Wok Nha Hang Co Do in Indianapolis, IN- fantastic, flavorful pho in a suburban strip mall in Indiana. No, I’m serious.
Palisades Restaurant in Eggleston, VA- this is what every small town should have, but only one actually does. Basically a meeting house for the town, with fantastic, fresh, local food, cheery waitresses, vintage charm, and a patio.
Lincoln Wine Bar in Mt. Vernon, IA- I know I’m not supposed to say this, but Iowa has pizza on par with (or possibly better than) NYC. This is pretty much the only place in town, and after a long drive we just felt like sitting still before continuing on the road to Iowa City. We almost drove an hour and a half back the following day just to get another pie. Everything is imported straight from Italy, cooked in a proper wood-burning oven, and served with a smile (and great wine).
Freshcraft in Denver, CO- We just needed food. Quick. Gastropub? Yeah, fine. Whatever…… Holy crap, this is fantastic. Between the avocado salad and veggie quinoa cakes, I was in heaven. If we weren’t on our way out of town that night, I would have applied for a job as a waitress just so I could have it every single day.
Takashi in Salt Lake City, UT- the absolute best sushi we’ve had… probably ever. And we’re snooty New Yorkers. The place is tucked away on a side street in SLC, and looks like any other Japanese-American place in the country. Don’t be put off by the 1.5+ hour wait… the food is worth it. We sat at the sushi bar and had Mr. Takashi as a personal chef
High West Saloon in Park City, UT- the Utahns aren’t know for their whiskey, but they should be. This is the first legal distillery in the state, and not only are they making a great drink, they’re making all kinds of insane food to go along with it.
Montana Ale Works in Bozeman, MT- We were planning on driving right through to Helena, but we stopped for dinner here and actually stayed overnight, thinking there might something going on in this town (and also, we were exhausted). Turns out, you can just eat here and keep driving.
Hops Downtown Grill in Kalispell, MT- After some really bland, uninteresting, overpriced meals, we were starting to think Kalispell had nothing going for it. And then we came here. Local, flavorful, reasonably priced food in a relaxed environment. And a pensive goat.
The Salmon House in Lake Quinault, WA- check the map on this one. This is the only restaurant within probably 200 miles. They could have been charging $50/filet and serving McFish, but they weren’t. The salmon was some of the tastiest and freshest I’ve ever had, and the tucked away location was beyond charming. (The first photo above is the house/restaurant and the second is the view of the lake). If you’re in a proper vehicle, take this dirt “road” until you hit a bridge, cross it, and take North Shore Rd. back to the main road. One of the most beautiful drives on the Olympic Peninsula.
Tanuki in Portland, OR- There are SO many great restaurants in Portland. But the point of this is to highlight more off-the-beaten-path kind of places. And for Portland, having less than 100 Yelp reviews is pretty much like not existing (Voodoo Donut has 2400, Pok Pok has 1300). Tanuki is a cavelike Japanese-themed tiki bar with an ever-changing “drinking food” menu, thoughtful cocktail list, and pinball. It might not have been the best food in Portland, but it was definitely the most interesting (and for Portland, that says a lot).
Garbanzo Grill in Eugene, OR- A beaten path? I think I saw one a few hundred miles back. This was easily the most out-of-the-way, bizarre, oddly delicious place we found. Their vegan, naturally low-fat mac and cheese was the best I’ve ever had, and I’m not vegan. I would also qualify mac and cheese as its own food group. If I could have someone fly this stuff directly from Eugene to my mouth, I would.
Simon’s Hot Dogs in Sedona, AZ- We happened to stumble into this hole-in-the-wall-inside-a-brewery after getting our car fixed across the street. If that’s not a reason to get a hot dog, I don’t know what is. Simon’s specializes in Columbian-style hot dogs, with large steamed buns and crazy toppings. All menu items can be vegan upon request (even bratwurst and chili dogs!)… order your dog, grab a delicious cold beer, and sit among the fermentation tanks or by the firepit in the backyard.
The Shed in Santa Fe, NM- This is probably the most widely-known stop on this list. It comes up pretty often in searches for the famous New Mex style green chile… but it also totally delivers. Some of the best Mexican (new or otherwise) I’ve ever had. And both the red and green chile is unbelievable.
Tipico’s in Dallas, TX- I can’t believe I’m announcing to the world that I liked anything in Dallas. But Tipico’s almost made the stop a tiny bit worth it. Super tasty Mexican food, served with tortillas so flavorful I almost didn’t want to put anything in them. Expect to communicate only in Spanish and you’ll do well here.
Citrus in Naples, FL- their specialty, a Key West crop called the Hogfish, was one of the more interesting things we tried on the trip. It kind of tasted like a combination of chicken and lobster, but in an enormous whitefish. And it had really mean-looking teeth, so I didn’t feel super bad about eating it. They serve it with a delicious rich black pepper sauce which I could only hope to re-create at home.
There are a lot of other places that I could have added here, but I think this is a good place to stop. We had some really excellent food and some real crap, but I’d prefer to remember the positives, so… here you go!