New vehicles for hitting the road

If you could buy a new vehicle for your 2013 road trip, what would it be? C’mon now, open your mind; show some imagination! Ellen Creager, travel editor of the Detroit Free Press, checked out new vehicles at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this month and picked out her seven favorites. Read about them here.


Coastal road trips

Not that potential road trip routes are in short supply, but Coastal Living has put together a list of five "stunning" coastal road trips and not all are the usual suspects. Instead of California 1 through Carmel and Big Sur, it recommends a stretch that starts in Jenner, about 75 miles north of San Francisco, and runs north to Fort Bragg. In the Southeast, Coastal Living recommends Mobile, Ala., to New Orleans – a trip I took last spring (although mine started in Miami) and would especially recommend for people interested in water and wildlife. Other trips: North Carolina’s Outer Banks (everything depends on ferry schedules; check them when you first start your planning), Alaska from Seward to Anchorage (a favorite of mine), and U.S. 1 in Maine south from Acadia National Park. 


What's included in an all-inclusive cruise fare?

If you’ve looked into booking a cruise and tried to figure out which cruise would actually cost more by the time you added in all the expenses – shore excursions, airport transfers, cocktails – you know how hard comparing costs can be.  Now, AllThingsCruise, a website for cruise enthusiasts, has done a good bit of the research and made it available on its website.  The site has posted a chart with answers from 33 cruise lines – the big mainstream lines to the small luxury lines and river cruise lines – to 13 questions about what’s included in the fare. The chart still doesn’t cover every money matter you’ll want to know about, like how many of a ship’s restaurants charge extra fees and does it have a drinks package,  but it will give you a head start on making those comparisons.


Gas prices expected to be cheaper in 2013

Here’s good news for roadtrippers: Gasoline prices are forecast to be lower this year than in 2012. Not that $3.44 a gallon — the price predicted by the U.S. Department of Energy — is low. In fact, it would be the third-highest price ever. But it would be the lowest in four years and would save the average family $205. (Full story here.) So pull out those maps and start planning a road trip!


Looking for celebrities in the Caribbean

It's high season in the Caribbean, and if you want to do some celeb-spotting, here's where to find the bold-faced names. 


Marjie's rules for choosing audio books for road trips

We were in our 30s, my brother and I -- him closer to 30, me closer to 40 back then -- and planning a drive north through California.  We need a book-on-tape to listen to, I told him. This was before iPods, before CDs, and audio books came only on cassettes.

Like me, he was a fan of fiction and left it to me to choose the book.

If you haven't tried to find common literary ground with another person, books that you're both happy to listen to simultaneously, let me tell you that it isn't easy. But Larry McMurtry is a crossover author, one who could bridge the gap between contemporary literature and popular fiction. At the time, his "Lonesome Dove" and "The Last Picture Show" were still popular, and I chose one of his less-known novels for my trip with my brother.

All went well until the narrative hit a sex scene. Ever watch porn with a sibling? You may not see body parts in a book, but the descriptions of sex are far more detailed and explicit than what you hear and see on the screen. We made a stop for gas and never hit the play button again. And thus came the first of Marjie's rules for choosing an audio book: Check out whether a book has sex scenes. Never listen to a book with sex scenes with anyone you don't want to sleep with.

Over the years, I've listened to hundreds of audio books, both on road trips and the daily commute to work. I've learned that some of the finest literature is a poor choice for audio, and some books I wouldn't waste my scarce reading time on are perfect for listening.

The key difference between reading and listening: Whether you're confused, enchanted, or rapt, the reader keeps reading at the same pace, the story keeps moving forward, and you can't keep rewinding to repeat what you missed or didn't understand.

Having made plenty of poor choices, I've developed my own guidelines for choosing audio books.

*Don't listen to a book known for its wonderful use of words. While you're savoring a particularly nice turn of phrase, the story has kept moving and you've missed it. I made the mistake of listening to "The God of Small Things," by Arundhati Roy, who makes lovely use of words. I repeated phrases to myself, pictured the detailed images her words created, and repeatedly missed whatever immediately followed. Eventually, I stopped listening and bought the book.

*Ditto for books that are exceptionally thought provoking. While you mentally debate what you’ve just heard, the reader keeps reading.

*Don't pick a book with a lot of key characters or by an author known for complicated plots. You can't flip back through the pages to remind yourself who is the sister and who is the wife, or which spy recruited a particular informant. Listening to “A Game of Thrones” on a road trip to North Carolina, I had trouble keeping the characters and their relationships straight and started to fall asleep. I finally pulled over and looked up the story on my iPad. John LeCarre's spy novels have wonderfully complicated plots and relationships; his books are perfect for readers, too complicated for listeners.

*Remember that you can’t skip over dull parts of an audio book. A well-written history or biography is particularly good as an audio book (“The Killer Angels: A Novel of the Civil War” by Michael Shaara is one of the best ever), but an author like David McCullough (“John Adams,” “The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914”) who apparently feels the need to account for every scrap of paper he came across in his research, becomes unlistenable because you can’t skip the ponderous, repetitious passages.

*Choose a book that engages no more than 50 percent of your brain. You -- or whoever is driving -- need the other half of your brain for driving. A book that feels lightweight or uncomplicated when you're reading it is probably just right for listening. A lot of detective novels and spy thrillers meet these criteria. My go-to list for listening includes authors Michael Connelly, Daniel Silva, Tony Hillerman, Sara Paretsky and Louise Perry.

The Millennium Trilogy (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” etc.) and “The Hunger Games” were terrific to listen to. I was so entranced by the first book in the Hunger Games trilogy that I missed my freeway turnoff and ended up doubling back. But the consistently best books I listened to, thanks to Jim Dale, the best reader ever, were the Harry Potter books.

All that said, here in no particular order are the best books I listened to in 2012:


“The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach

“Beautiful Ruins” by Jess Walter

“State of Wonder” by Ann Patchett

“Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn

“Where’d You Go Bernadette” by Maria Semple

“Wishin’ and Hopin’” by Wally Lamb


“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot

“Wild” by Cheryl Strayed

“My Life in France” by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme


Start off the new year by taking a hike

I plan to mark my New Year’s resolution of exercising more and leading a healthier life by … sleeping in on Tuesday. But for those of you who want to set the tone for an active and healthier 2013 on New Years Day, check out the Tuesday morning hikes being held at dozens of Florida state parks. There’s a ranger-guided walk along the Wetlands Trail at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park on Key Biscayne, a two-mile hike and history lesson on the Long Key Viaduct on the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail, three-mile hikes at Hugh Taylor Birch and John U. Lloyd parks in Fort Lauderdale, and a hike along 2.2 miles of four interconnected trails in Oleta River State Park, among others.  They are all part of a national “First Day Hikes” program that has spread to state parks in all 50 states in an effort to promote a healthy lifestyle. There will be more than 600 such events on Tuesday. Read more about the program here. Here’s where you can find out about hikes across the country, and here’s a list of events in Florida state parks.


Road trip attraction: Improvements to Kennedy Space Center

While we’re waiting for the Kennedy Space Center to complete the exhibit for space shuttle Atlantis, the center opened the first phase of a 10-year upgrade to the Visitor Complex on Thursday. The first piece is a $16 million entry plaza, which includes a retail shop, restaurant, ticket stations and other services. The grand entry plaza also has a 75-foot-long fountain, pictured above, that pays homage to the dreams of President John F. Kennedy and can put on light-and-water shows for guests in the evening.

Next up is the $100 million, 90,000-square-foot celebration of the space shuttle program, featuring Atlantis, scheduled to open in July.

Meantime, Delaware North, the concessionaire that operates the Visitor Complex, announced that it has extended three behind-the-scenes tours of areas that were closed to the public while the shuttle program was active. How long the tours will go on depends on whether NASA or commercial operators need to use any Kennedy Space Center facilities. Tours of the Launch Control Center and Launch pad have been extended at least through March 31, and tours of the Vehicle Assembly Building, which used to house the shuttles, have been extended through 2013. Price: $25 adults, $19 children, on top of admission. Information here.

Photo credit: Kennedy Space Center


Taste of Uruguay: peach meringue cake

I had a fabulous dessert for Noche Buena that made me want to go back to Uruguay and track it down: Chaja, a Uruguayan peach meringue cake that is a cousin to a trifle. It’s sponge cake brushed with rum-spiked peach syrup then layered with crisp meringue, peaches, dulce de leche and huge quantities of whipped cream. The proportion of less-than-solid ingredients to cake are such that it was structurally unsound. The cake came wound in a wide strip of plastic that acted as a girdle and helped the cake hold its shape. But after the plastic was removed and a few slices cut, the cake slumped to the side, which is when it began to resemble trifle. No matter. It was still delicious. Here’s a recipe that sounds very much like the version we had. Note that this recipe says the layer of dulce de leche is optional. Don’t skip the dulce de leche! In addition, our chaja was topped with slices of mandarin orange and dollops of more dulce de leche. Heaven! I was in Uruguay last year and just wish I’d known about it then. I may have to make a return trip.


Theme park review: Fantasyland

ArielfigureheadsmallHere's my report/review of the Fantasyland expansion and other news from Disney World.