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Monday, Nov. 12, 2007

Forecast: Warm and Sunny

Jamaica and Arizona are perfect winter destinations

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A good winter getaway need not be in another country, but I`m a big believer in coming up with something that makes me feel like I`m, well, away. Why fork over a paycheck to be surrounded by all that is familiar? It`s a lot cheaper to stay home, watch Blue Hawaii and top a
pizza with pineapple or calamari. It is possible to get away from it all while working
with a safety net. Here are some places I`ve found with people who understand Midwest sensibilities when I`m far from home.


Jamaica


Along Negril`s trademark Seven Mile Beach is a nice slice of Minnesota in Jamaica. The family that owns CocoLaPalm resort used to be building contractors near the Twin Cities. Vice President Michael S. Mark says the bulk of his resort`s winter and spring business comes from Wisconsin and other Midwest states. He also counts Rita Marley, the late reggae legend Bob
Marley`s widow, among the regulars.

We chose to stay at this 70-room property because of its central beach location: We wanted to feel free to roam at will. It isn`t an all-inclusive business, so we weren`t compelled to return home to eat every meal and drink every rum punch or Red Stripe that we craved. Negril`s lanky beachfront is awash with great restaurants and live music. Day trips—to snorkel, hike in rainforests, learn about Bob Marley`s life—are arranged easily.

The area is meant to be absorbed at a laid-back pace. Though the community owns its share of hustlers, they aren`t con artists. Everybody wants to bring you a beach chair, fetch you a cold drink, tote your luggage, carve you a souvenir—and make a buck in the process. Fork it over with a smile. Even a meager tip makes a world of difference in this economically challenged area.

We were grateful that CocoLaPalm was a respite from the spring break guzzling and gawking that were in full force elsewhere. There is zero tolerance for marijuana at the resort, an adults-only freshwater pool, kid-friendly spaces and a manager`s reception with free drinks and appetizers on Mondays.

Our oddest entertainment was watching an elderly man eat and breathe fire, then lie on broken liquor bottles and eat half a cup of glass slivers. He used a cup of water as a chaser.

The best day trip was Mayfield Falls, an hour away in the Dolphin Head Mountains, with its pools of warm mineral water and cascading waterfalls. If you`re looking for another reason to visit, consider this: About 15% of Jamaica`s population is unemployed, 20% live below the poverty line, and tourism is the biggest industry. You`ll do good while enjoying a beautiful setting.

CocoLaPalm room rates can be as low as $60, if timed right (doing anything in early December?). Fly to Montego Bay; if you negotiate cab/van fare before you begin the 50-mile drive to Negril, you can expect to pay $50 to $80 for a one-way trip.

Arizona


This season`s Super Bowl will be in Phoenix, at the continent`s first stadium that has both a retractable roof and a grass field that is kept outside until game days, when the turf is rolled into the facility. What next? Arizona isn`t as steamy as Jamaica, with an average temperature of 70 degrees in February, but you certainly won`t mistake it for winter in Wisconsin. We`ve made this a nice break several times, typically for Milwaukee Brewers spring training in the Cactus League.

You`ll want to rent a car because attractions, lodging and restaurants are miles apart, and public transportation is not convenient. Think about heading to Sedona for a couple of days, about 120 miles north. Hikers and others in need of good energy—which the Sedona vortexes are said to provide—will love the looks of the ruddy red vistas and outcroppings. We stayed at A Touch of Sedona, a classy bed and breakfast operated since January 2005 by Chuck Deal and Nancy Hutchinson of New Berlin, Wis. She is a former criticalcare nurse, flight attendant and real estate agent.

Treats include fresh cookies and fine chocolates. One breakfast entre is Nancy`s clever tortilla egg basket. Rates begin at $155.

Among Chuck`s good advice was to take a quick drive to Oak Creek Canyon, both for the sweeping views of the 16-mile gorge and to consider the wares of the dozen Navajo vendors who sell pottery, jewelry and dream catchers.

On the return trip, think of Gordon Lightfoot, veer onto the Carefree Highway and head into the towns of Cave Creek and Carefree.

Barbara Vander Leest, a Milwaukee native, runs the Desert Treasures jewelry and gift shop in Carefree. "A hot summer here is nowhere nearly as bad as a Wisconsin winter," she says. "I still do everything that I want to do, like play tennis. It`s just that I don`t do it in the middle of the day."

Back near the starting point, sniff out Mabel Murphy`s in Scottsdale, which Wisconsin retirees Bev and Steve Weckstein have turned into a Green Bay Packers shrine. She was a teacher; he was a labor-relations mediator. Food specials at Mabel Murphy`s are gluttonous: $6.50 for all-you-can-eat chicken on Tuesdays, plus Wednesday steak nights (featuring free steak with a twodrink minimum). If the business name sounds a little too familiar, it`s likely because of an Oshkosh nightspot.


They have the same bar manager.

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