Month: April 2016

5 unique desserts in Central Jersey

There’s nothing wrong with a classic scoop of vanilla ice cream or a helping of hot, chocolate brownie to finish off a hearty meal.

But where do you go if you get a hankering for a dessert that you can’t find just anywhere?

Luckily for locals, Central Jersey’s finest restaurants have put some serious time, energy and forks to work in creating exciting desserts that venture from the norm.

The Courier News, Home News Tribune and MyCentralJersey.com scoured Central Jersey’s restaurant scene to find the most decadent, interesting and delicious desserts in the area, all of which put the simple chocolate chip cookie or slice of cake to shame.

Read on below to find out where you can go for a craving that just won’t kick.

The banana cake at Origin Thai. (Photo: ~Courtesy of Origin Thai)

The banana cake at Origin Thai. (Photo: ~Courtesy of Origin Thai)

Origin Thai’s Banana Cake 

Bananas don’t make their way into many American dishes, but Origin Thai of Somerville is bringing the fruit back to the dessert plate with their banana cake.

The homemade cake is twisted with caramel sauces and topped with fresh banana glaze, served alongside vanilla ice cream.

“In Thailand, we always use bananas,” said Chon Suthwee, manager. “This dish is a twist between Asian and American dishes.”

For $8, visitors can get the decadent dessert at Origin Thai, a French-Thai fusion restaurant with an elegant and upscale vibe located at 25 Division St. in Somerville and 25 Mountainview Blvd. in Basking Ridge.

The Himalayan salt bowl sundae at Stage Left. (Photo: ~Courtesy of Stage Left)

The Himalayan salt bowl sundae at Stage Left. (Photo: ~Courtesy of Stage Left)

Stage Left’s Salt Bowl Sundae

How would you like try a dessert that has an evolving taste – as you eat it?

The salt bowl sundae, which features a bowl cut from a solid piece of Himalayan pink salt and is layered with caramel, ice cream, candied pecans, banana bruleed with a blow torch, chocolate sauce made with Valrhona chocolate and a pretzel rod, does just that.

“People love that its interactive and changes over time,” said Francis Schott, owner. “Personally, I have never seen anything like it.”

Customers can split this dessert, intended for two, for $19, at the sophisticated New Brunswick eatery located at 5 Livingston Ave.

The crepe cake at the Bernards Inn. (Photo: ~Courtesy of Bernards Inn)

The crepe cake at the Bernards Inn. (Photo: ~Courtesy of Bernards Inn)

Bernards Inn’s Crepe Cake

No one can say no to a sweet crepe for breakfast on a Sunday morning, but what about a crepe for dessert?

The Bernards Inn serves a crepe cake, which consists of 12 layers of buttery, paper thin crepes, married with creamy vanilla infused Diplomat cream and topped with a thin layer of caramelized sugar. The dish is then garnished with fresh winter citrus fruits and a small touch of toasted pistachio.

Elizabeth Katz, pastry chef, said, “This combination creates a three-dimensional experience for the palate as the light flavors of the crepes and custard is met with deep crunchy caramel.”

For $11, visitors can get this dessert from the Bernards Inn, a 100-year-old elegant staple of the region, at 27 Mine Brook Road in Bernardsville.

The blood orange bar at the Pluckemin Inn. (Photo: ~Courtesy of the Pluckemin Inn)

The blood orange bar at the Pluckemin Inn. (Photo: ~Courtesy of the Pluckemin Inn)

Pluckemin Inn’s Blood Orange Bar

Restaurant-goers don’t think twice about ordering a lemon bar for dessert, but the blood orange bar at the Pluckemin Inn has caused some confusion.

“So many people don’t understand what it is,” said Kathryn Alberalla, pastry chef. “But then they order it and they realize it’s so good – it tastes just like oranges, but sweeter.”

The blood orange bar is paired with with brown butter caramel, fresh blood oranges, pomegranate seeds, lemon ice cream and a candied lemon garnish.

Guests can get this dessert for $10 at the Pluckemin Inn, a country-inn restaurant with a vintage flair, located at 359 Rt. 206 in Bedminster.

The Banana Caribbean at the Metuchen Inn. (Photo: ~Courtesy of Metuchen Inn)

The Banana Caribbean at the Metuchen Inn. (Photo: ~Courtesy of Metuchen Inn)

Metuchen Inn’s Banana Caribbean 

It may be the dead of winter, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way at the Metuchen Inn.

The inn is serving up their dessert the Banana Caribbean, which is very fine filo stuffed with fresh bananas, walnuts and chocolate chips served with vanilla gelato.

Jose Solano, manager, said, “People are always recommending it to their friends. The flavors are just fantastic.”

Guests can get the Banana Caribbean for $8.50 at the 1843 building, located at 424 Middlesex Ave. in Metuchen.

Snacking gets social with small plates restaurants

Written for MyCentralJersey.com on 3.2.16

Only a few years ago, the yearned-for dining experience revolved around a white tablecloth and the hope in receiving as much food as possible for the number written on the bottom of the check.

As small plate and tapas restaurants, which are eateries that encourage people to purchase several small dishes to taste and share with companions, throughout Central Jersey have gained in popularity, it’s clear that the times have changed.

Instead, the primary demographic – those about 25 to 45 years old, said Gus Sleiman, owner of Barca City Café and Bar in New Brunswick and Mike Proske, owner of Tapaste in Somerville, said – can be seen swapping plates, trying out new dishes and bringing a social element back to dining.

“There has been a shift in dining perception – nobody wants a three-pound plate of pasta anymore,” said Proske. “People want lighter, smaller portions and tapas restaurants are exactly that.”

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Tapastre has been a fixture in Somerville for nine years and since then, Proske said that he has definitely seen dining as a whole moving towards the small plate trend.

So what is making people clamor for less food with more varieties? According to Sleiman, it’s the focus on healthy eating.

“The more the American consumer moves away from large plates and starts to eat healthier and do portion control, the more popular tapas become,” he said.

Plus, as Proske pointed out, dining isn’t just about the food – it’s about great company and conversation, too. Tapas-style dining allows people to have a constant conversation as their share and taste the various dishes on the table.

Tapastre, an eatery featuring tapas paired with craft beers, receives about 500 to 1000 visitors each week. Their small plates range from $5 to $14, with include popular dishes such as the beer-braised short ribs with mushroom sauce and seasonal vegetables, shrimp and chorizo in a hot garlic oil and duck confit crepes with caramelized fennel and onion.

The chorizo tapa. ~Courtesy of Barca City Cafe and Bar

The chorizo tapa. ~Courtesy of Barca City Cafe and Bar

Barca City Café and Bar has seen its visitors quadruple since its opening in May 2015, now fetching 1,100 weekly customers. Tapas at Barca City range from $2.25 to $16 with some of the most popular dishes being the chorizo al fuego, a tableside flamed sausage, the tres leches and Eduadorian-style ceviche.

“Before going to a tapas restaurant, know that you are here for the whole experience, so order slow, order a variety and as you need, then take a break and feel free to order again,” said Sleiman.

Proske also mentioned that two to three tapas per person is usually enough to fill someone up, so keep that in mind when ordering and prepare to be social and share – in food, drinks and conversation.

A common misconception, said Sleiman, is that tapas are simply a sampling, when really, they are a normal-sized appetizer.

Plus, another misconception is that one style of a tapa dish is the only style, when really, some tapas have ten to twelve ways of being prepared and also differ by region and ethnicity.

Tapastre actually avoids using the term ‘tapas’ because the menu isn’t limited to Spanish-style dishes and instead, have dishes that are also influenced by Asian, American and other types of cuisine.

“Our menu is reasonably priced and allows you to live the true tapas experience by sampling a variety,” said Sleiman. “I sum it up by ‘stimulate your spirit, nourish your appetite, wet your lips and sooth your senses.’”

Scallops over roasted butternut squash with crispy leeks and brown butter. ~Courtesy of Tapastre

Scallops over roasted butternut squash with crispy leeks and brown butter. ~Courtesy of Tapastre

BARCA CITY CAFE AND BAR

Where: 47 Easton Ave., New Brunswick

Cost: Dishes range from $2.25 to $16, with two to three being enough to fill one person

Contact: barcacity.com, 732-640-1155

TAPASTRE

Where: 1 W High St., Somerville

Cost: Dishes range from $5 to $14, with two to three being enough to fill one person

Contact: tapastre.com, 908-526-0505

5 local parks to explore this spring

Written for MyCentralJersey.com

After a long New Jersey winter, spring is finally here — and, as long as you remembered to take your allergy medication this morning, you may be gearing up for a season spent hiking, biking and exploring Central Jersey’s scenic parks.

The Garden State may get a bad rap for a few crowded highways and smelly cities, but in general, New Jersey’s nickname doesn’t lie — our state is packed with places to enjoy the outdoors, many of them nestled in Central Jersey.

If you’re wondering where to head with the dog this weekend, then read on below to discover popular parks where you can enjoy the spring season and get to know Mother Nature.

Sourland Mountain Nature Preserve was formerly a quarry for large boulders. (Photo: ~Courtesy of Sourland Mountain Preserve)

Sourland Mountain Nature Preserve was formerly a quarry for large boulders. (Photo: ~Courtesy of Sourland Mountain Preserve)

Sourland Mountain Nature Preserve was formerly a quarry for large boulders that were crushed to obtain railroad ballast, concrete aggregate and surfacing for roadbeds. Today, it’s a 375-acre park covered by second-growth oak forest.

With four trails, hiking, biking, cross-country skiing, horseback riding, rock climbing and dog walking is permitted, as well as superstition — some say compasses do not work in the hills and others say that the mountains are haunted.

To see it for yourself, head to the Sourland Mountain Nature Preserve by driving to 233 Rileyville Road, Ringoes. For further information, visit http://www.co.hunterdon.nj.us/depts/parks/ParkAreas/Sourlands/info.htm.

Round Valley Recreation Area is home to the deepest body of water in New Jersey at 180 feet. (Photo: Karen Mancinelli/Staff Photo)

Round Valley Recreation Area is home to the deepest body of water in New Jersey at 180 feet. (Photo: Karen Mancinelli/Staff Photo)

Round Valley Recreation Area is home to the deepest body of water in New Jersey at 180 feet, surrounded by 12 miles of three trails on 1,288 acres that are host to hiking, biking, horseback riding and cross-country skiing.

Created in the 1960s, it also has picnic areas and wilderness campsites for those willing to extend their outdoor experience. It’s one of the only New Jersey parks that offers campsites. Visit Round Valley Recreation Area by heading to 1220 Lebanon-Stanton Road, Lebanon, for $2 to $20, with prices ranging depending on type of vehicle, state of residence and time of year.

Park hours also currently range — from now until Memorial Day Weekend, it will be open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. For more information, go to http://www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/round.html.

Duke Farms, which was once the home of the Doris Duke Estate, was transformed into a landscape open to the public as of 2012. (Photo: ~File photo)

Duke Farms, which was once the home of the Doris Duke Estate, was transformed into a landscape open to the public as of 2012. (Photo: ~File photo)

Duke Farms, which was once the home of the Doris Duke Estate, was transformed into a landscape open to the public as of 2012 and has remained a fixture for the outdoorsy ever since.

With 2,740 total acres and 18 miles of trails, the area is known as one of the largest privately owned public spaces in the United States.

At the property, visit can find a farm-to-table market, an orchid range, an outdoor sculpture gallery, a former 22,000-square-foot former horse and dairy barn, bicycle rentals, a trolley and more.

Head to Duke Farms by visiting 1112 Duke Parkway West, Hillsborough, from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day except Wednesdays. Admission is free. For further information, visit dukefarms.org.

Cheesequake State Park is stuffed full of 1569 acres and 9.5 miles of four trails. (Photo: Tom Spader/Staff Photo)

Cheesequake State Park is stuffed full of 1569 acres and 9.5 miles of four trails. (Photo: Tom Spader/Staff Photo)

Cheesequake State Park is stuffed full of 1,569 acres and 9.5 miles of four trails that allow for hiking, biking, dog walking and cross-country skiing.

Packed between two ecosystems — Pine Barrens and mixed oak forest — visitors can see plant species characteristic of the northern and southern parts of the state. Located near the trailhead parking area is Cheesequake’s nature center, which is host to changing exhibits, an auditorium and a covered front deck for birdwatching.

Visit the park by heading to 300 Gordon Road in Matawan from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. for $5 to $20 per vehicle, prices ranging depending on state of residence and time of year. For more information, visithttp://www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/cheesequake.html.

Lake Surprise in Union County's Watchung Reservation is a prime destination for hikers, kayakers and fishermen all year long. (Photo: ~File photo)

Lake Surprise in Union County’s Watchung Reservation is a prime destination for hikers, kayakers and fishermen all year long. (Photo: ~File photo)

The Watchung Reservation may border Route 78, but it retains a natural, wild state, free from noise thanks to sound barriers. Animal and plant life are also protected inside its 2,000-acre wooded tract.

On 1,995 acres of land are 13 miles of trail, winding through Surprise Lake, the deserted village of Feltvile/Glenside Park, the Trailside Nature and Science Center, Seeley’s Pond and the Watchung Stables.

Check out Union County’s largest park by going to 452 New Providence Road, Mountainside, which can be visited from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day. For more information, visit http://ucnj.org/parks-recreation/paths-trails-greenways/watchung-reservation/.

 

Monroe family reinvents Perth Amboy Cuban restaurant

Written for MyCentralJersey.com

Those who have visited the happening bar inside Terrazza Restaurant at 273 High St. in Perth Amboy may be shocked to see that within only a week’s time, it has transformed into a seductive, upscale Cuban restaurant with a completely reinvented menu, renamed La Terrazza Cubana under new partnered ownership.

“This is the kind of place where you would want to take a date,” said Monroe resident Jessica Lopez, restaurant manager and daughter of co-owner and head chef, Jay Lopez, also of Monroe. “It’s very sexy with elements such as our floral mural, black velvet booths, beautiful black-and-white tile and chandeliers, all reminiscent of Havana.”

The new upscale take is supported by the new eatery’s menu stocked with authentic Cuban cuisine, which only uses premiere cuts of meat and “the finest ingredients,” said Jay Lopez.

Paella at La Terrazza Cubana.  Mark R. Sullivan/Staff Photo

Paella at La Terrazza Cubana. Mark R. Sullivan/Staff Photo

Specialties include the lechón asado tradicional, the restaurant’s signature, slow-roasted pork with a secret blend of herbs and spices ($27) which was featured on Good Day New York and is only available in a limited quantity each day. Already a favorite of clientele, Jay Lopez said that his customers have been telling him that they love the “delicious and moist pork with crispy skin, delivered in their own personal, fresh ham.”

Other entrees include the churrasco a la parrilla, a 14-ounce Angus skirt steak with housemade chimichurri, peppers, onions, white rice and black beans ($27) and the paella cubana, which includes shrimp, scallops, mussels, clams, chicken, Spanish chorizo, peas, peppers, olives, spices and saffron rice ($27).

Dinner entrees range from $19 to $29 and lunch entrees range from $10 to $13.

Roast Pork done La Terrazza Cubana style.  Mark R. Sullivan/Staff Photo

Roast Pork done La Terrazza Cubana style. Mark R. Sullivan/Staff Photo

“Being 100 percent Cuban, the food I present is what I like to eat,” said Jay Lopez. “I love that its comforting soul food, with an ethnic twist.”

Jay Lopez, who was born and raised in Pinar del Río, joined the restaurant team, his second alongside A Little Bit of Cuba Dos at 2 East Main St. in Freehold, at the end of March. Within just a few days, they completed wide-scale renovations and have been open to the public as of April 1.

“Since we renovated very quickly, we are going to have a grand opening in a few weeks after we ease into everything,” said Jessica Lopez.

Beef skirt steak with black beans and white rice at La Terrazza Cubana.  Mark R. Sullivan/Staff Photo

Beef skirt steak with black beans and white rice at La Terrazza Cubana. Mark R. Sullivan/Staff Photo

Terrazza Restaurant was formerly focused on the bar scene, but Jessica Lopez said that La Terrazza Cubana is much more culinary-focused, although the former restaurant also featured Cuban fare and drinks.

Jessica Lopez said that her family had been looking to expand the success of A Little Bit of Cuba Dos for some time, however with La Terrazza Cubana, they finally found the right location and partners.

She said that their Freehold customers are excited to try their new restaurant and have a space for parties, plus, the new restaurant has gotten a positive response from those in the area and on social media.

La Terrazza Cubana, a Cuban restaurant located at 273 High St, Perth Amboy.  Mark R. Sullivan/Staff Photo

La Terrazza Cubana, a Cuban restaurant located at 273 High St, Perth Amboy. Mark R. Sullivan/Staff Photo

La Terrazza Cubana seats 200 people, while A Little Dos of Cuba sits about 120 people. Plus, La Terrazza Cubana features a bar, while a Little Dos of Cuba is BYOB, and the new restaurant has 6,000 square-feet to host private parties.

“Perth Amboy is going to attract a whole new demographic for us,” she said. “Now, we can bring in people from northern New Jersey and Staten Island and bring the Cuban experience to more people.”

Jay Lopez said that he thinks that the large Hispanic population in Perth Amboy will appreciate the Cuban fare. Plus, he said that he is “absolutely” open to purchasing or partnering with more Cuban restaurants.

“We are always looking for great spots where we can teach people to eat Cuban food in a way that you don’t compare it to rice and beans,” he said.

LA TERRAZZA CUBANA

Where: 273 High St., Perth Amboy

Cost: Dinner entrees range from $19 to $29 and lunch entrees range from $10 to $13

Contact: terrazzanj.com, 732-442-8100

Halal food cart settles in East Brunswick

Written for MyCentralJersey.com and DailyRecord.com 

Most New York City hot-dog carts barely get a passing glance from busy pedestrians.

But there’s one Big Apple food cart that has been pulling in lines so long that customers sometimes wait for hours during its 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. hours. It has inspired a chain of 200 worldwide restaurants, one which is coming to East Brunswick April 30.

The Halal Guys, called, “one of the longest-running and best-known food-cart businesses in New York City” by the New York Times and “perhaps the city’s most famous open-air dining destination” by the New York Post, features American Halal Food, or premium-quality seasoned Halal chicken, gyro or falafel over a bed and rice, pita, lettuce and tomatoes and covered in the famous white or hot sauce.

Khattab Abuattieh of Princeton, operations manager of the new 621 Route 18 location, said that he and his business partners have been fans of the Halal Guys for over 15 years.

Lines for the food cart sometimes last for hours. (Photo: ~Courtesy of the Halal Guys)

Lines for the food cart sometimes last for hours.
(Photo: ~Courtesy of the Halal Guys)

“We used to drive to the New York City food cart on nights and weekends just to get the halal food,” he said. “I have tried other food carts and nothing even comes close.”

Abuattieh and his business partners have plans to open more Halal Guys locations on the East Coast.

About a year and a half ago, the team began the East Brunswick project, which has spawned into a 1,250-square-foot restaurant that seats 23 people. Platter and sandwich prices at the East Brunswick location range from $5.99 to $8.49.

“Since it’s based off of a food cart in New York City, it’s in a style where people pick up their food and then are on their way,” said Abuattieh.

Abuattieh said the Halal Guys in East Brunswick will be exactly the same as the New York City food-cart version, just in a different environment where people can have a seat if they choose to. He does expect the restaurant to have long lines, similar to the food cart.

Halal Guy food cart lines can last for hours. (Photo: ~Courtesy of the Halal Guys)

Halal Guy food cart lines can last for hours. (Photo: ~Courtesy of the Halal Guys)

“Although you see long lines at the cart, people know the line moves quickly and it will be the same at the restaurant,” he said. “The lines were out the door for about six months at some of the other new locations, so we expect to have lines out the front door for the first month or more.”

Because Route 18 is so well traveled and the demographics of the area, Abuattieh said that his marketing and real estate team “loved” the East Brunswick location. Judging from social media feedback, 9,000 Facebook likes and frequent knocks on the yet-to-be-unlocked doors, the team is expecting much success.

Abuattieh said, “Once we got our sign outside, people couldn’t stop asking us when we would open. As the construction got going, people would open the door and ask if we were open yet.”

The famous halal food may come out of the kitchen quickly, but that doesn’t mean that the restaurant owners sacrificed any bit of quality to pump out the high-quality meats, which separates the Halal Guys from its food-cart competitors.

According to Abuattieh, it was this attention to quality that attracted his team to the franchise in the first place — besides the scrumptious food.

The Halal Guys is different than other food carts because they only use premium-quality meats. (Photo: ~Courtesy of the Halal Guys)

The Halal Guys is different than other food carts because they only use premium-quality meats. (Photo: ~Courtesy of the Halal Guys)

“The owners really care about the preparation of the food,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s one customer or 40 customers, they are very particular about how it’s prepared. There is no cutting corners.”

The Halal Guys operation began in 1990, when the “Halal Guys” — Egyptian immigrants Muhammed Abouelenein, Ahmed Elsaka and Abdelbaset Elsayed — launched their own American dream by opening a hot-dog cart on West 53rd and 6th Avenue.

However, surrounded by dozens of other hot-dog carts, they noticed a hole in the street-side marketplace — no halal food for Muslim cab drivers looking for one of their favorite meals: a platter of chicken and gyro over rice, smothered in white or red sauces.

“I love the white sauce, the crispy lettuce, the premium chicken,” said Abuattieh. “And the combination of all of it together? Just delicious.”

The Halal Guys

Opening Date: April 30

Where: 621 Route 18, East Brunswick

Cost: Platters and sandwiches range from $5.99 to $8.49

Contact: thehalalguys.com, 732-254-2525

Fanwood man trades N.J. traffic for Utah tourism

Mike Coronella, the 52-year-old founder of Deep Desert Expeditions of Moab, Utah, didn’t always spend his days exploring the desert southwest and hosting guided hikes through some of the country’s most breath-taking landscapes.

Much earlier in his life, this Fanwood resident worked for the Courier News as a delivery boy when he was 13-years-old, and again as a page, where he drove to pick up advertising copy, when he was 21-years-old.

Five years after his year-long stint working for the Courier News, Coronella found himself in a rut, reeling from a breakup and odd jobs, eager for a change that differed from his mundane life in New Jersey.

“I didn’t want to go to Wall Street and follow in my parents’ footsteps,” he said. “So, I decided that I would drive my Jeep out to Utah, where I had been two or three times before with my family, and ski for the winter while staying with my brother, who was a graduate student at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. When I got there, I said to myself, ‘You know what? This is nice out here. ’”

Mike Coronella in Capitol Reef National Park, from the third time hiking between Arches and Zion national parks in 2005. (Photo: ~Courtesy of Mike Coronella)

Mike Coronella in Capitol Reef National Park, from the third time hiking between Arches and Zion national parks in 2005.
(Photo: ~Courtesy of Mike Coronella)

It’s been 26 years since then, and Coronella hasn’t come home yet. Nor does he have any intention to.

He said that he hasn’t been back to New Jersey in about 20 years – he doesn’t remember the last time that he was here. Following his parents’ move to Phoenix three years after he arrived in Utah – making him the most eastbound one in his family – he had no reason to.

“I couldn’t even visit New Jersey comfortably now,” he said. “It would be very repressive to me. Fanwood is about one square-mile and it has 10,000 people. My county is 2,600 square-miles and it has 8,000 people.”

When Coronella first relocated to Utah, a world away from New Jersey, his family and friends weren’t thrilled. “My folks thought I was nuts, but they saw that I was happy with what I was doing,” he said. “I was paying the bills, and even though I had roommates and old junky cars, I had a smile on my face all the time.”

Arches National Park. (Photo: ~Courtesy of Mike Coronella)

Arches National Park. (Photo: ~Courtesy of Mike Coronella)

To make ends meet, Coronella held a slew of odd jobs, including a bartender at high-end ski resorts and a community college photography professor. This gave him time to do what he really wanted – ski, backpack, hike, raft and play.

He said, “Even after two years there, my friends would ask me, ‘When are you coming home?’ And I would just tell them, ‘When I’m done exploring.’”

After those initial two years of settling in, it finally occurred to Coronella that he would stay in Utah for good. His long-term relationship with a woman from New Jersey was over, and he found himself with a new love – Moab, Utah, which is where he lives now.

“I visited Moab with a friend and I was blown away by what I saw,” Coronella said. “I said to him, ‘How am I going to go back east?’ And my friend said, ‘Why would you?’”

Canyonlands National Park. (Photo: ~Courtesy of Mike Coronella)

Canyonlands National Park. (Photo: ~Courtesy of Mike Coronella)

After Coronella decided that he was in Utah for the long haul, he made another long haul after eight years in the state – one from Arches National Park to Zion National Park, which are on opposite sides of the state of Utah, since he said he needed “40 days in the desert” to revamp his life. After walking for 520 miles over a 94 day-period, Coronella and a friend reached their destination – and landed themselves in Backpacker Magazine.

Coronella’s “40 days in the desert” soon turned into much more. Looking at a long distance trail management map, he and his friend noticed that there was a vacant hole in the desert southwest with no trail. Two years later, the pair created one based off their original route – this time, after 650 miles and 101 days. They called it the Hayduke Trail, named from a character in the novel “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” which is about a mystic crew who decides they will defend the desert against development by any means necessary.

The trail, which is an 850-mile backpacking route, winds through public land with back-country, the Grand Staircase and six total national parks.

Around the same time Coronella founded the Hayduke Trail, he also had another life-changing experience, that led to creation of his own guiding company, Deep Desert Expeditions, in 2010.

Coronella on the San Juan River during "the early days." ~Courtesy of Mike Coronella

Coronella on the San Juan River during “the early days.” ~Courtesy of Mike Coronella

“After I had a heart attack and a triple bypass, I said to myself, ‘I don’t have enough time to work for someone else anymore,’” he said.

Relying mostly on word of mouth, he said that business has been doubling and he expects to guide around 2,000 people this year, partially due to his newly launched Mighty Five Tour.

Deep Desert Expeditions, beginning in June, will bring groups of six people through guided hikes on a 10-night, nine-day journey or a six-night, five-day journey from St. George, Utah for $7,800 a person or $5,200 a person, respectively.

Guests will visit Utah’s five “Mighty Five” national parks while staying in the region’s finest hotels and eating at the best restaurants, making for a backcountry expedition with a luxurious twist.

“It took me a few years of working the rat race until I realized that it wasn’t really interesting to me,” Coronella said. “I finally found that I didn’t have to follow the footprints that were expected of me.”

For more information on Deep Desert Expeditions or the Mighty Five Tour, visitdeepdesert.com

Should you book cruise to Cuba?

Written for MyCentralJersey.com and DailyRecord.com

When President Barack Obama normalized relations with Cuba and loosened restrictions for travelers on March 21, just two days later, cruise giant Carnival was quick to announce the launch of the first cruises from the United States to Cuba in more than 50 years.

The cruises, now on sale, will operate as bi-weekly seven-day trips out of Miami on Carnival’s social impact-focused Fathom brand on their 704-passenger Adonia, the first which will depart on May 1.

Lisa Lee, 18-year travel consultant with Avenue Travel Group, American Express in Bedminster, said that her office has had about 10 people already express interest in booking a Carnival cruise to Cuba. Plus, escorted tours to Cuba have been “selling out like you would not believe.”

The cruises, now on sale, will operate as bi-weekly seven-day cruises out of Miami on Carnival’s social impact-focused Fathom brand on their 704-passenger Adonia ship, the first which will depart on May 1. (Photo: ~File photo)

The cruises, now on sale, will operate as bi-weekly seven-day cruises out of Miami on Carnival’s social impact-focused Fathom brand on their 704-passenger Adonia ship, the first which will depart on May 1.
(Photo: ~File photo)

“Being that Cuba is so close, it’s not that long of a cruise,” said Lee. “Plus, travelers can experience this forbidden Cuban culture that they have never explored.”

In terms of safety, Lee said that she wouldn’t have any more hesitation for clients traveling to Cuba than she would if they were traveling to any other destination.

“In today’s world, you need to be careful anywhere you go,” she said. “Plus, many Cubans live in the United States, so the culture isn’t completely removed and the country is similar to Mexico and South American countries.”

Lee said that Cuba is now much more appealing to the average traveler because Carnival is an American-owned brand and cruising allows tourists a “one-stop shop.”

Arlene and David Kaplan of the Gillette section of Long Hill visited Cuba last month. ~Courtesy of David J. Kaplan

Arlene and David Kaplan of the Gillette section of Long Hill visited Cuba last month. ~Courtesy of David J. Kaplan

However, by no means is the cruise cheap. Fares start at $1,800 per person — excluding Cuban visas, taxes, fees and port expenses and including all onboard meals, onboard experiences and several on-the-ground activities — which Lee said is a bit of a high price, although not uncommon.

Diane Levitz, a Sea Girt resident who has been on 63 cruises, 10 of which were Carnival, said that she would love to go on a cruise to Cuba, even though she also finds the fares to be pricey compared to other seven-day trips offered. She said that she always books a room with a balcony, and on Carnival’s Cuban cruise, that fare ranges from $3,150 to $4,147. The room accommodates two people, and can accommodate up to two more in select rooms with cots.

However, that doesn’t make a Cuban cruise out of the question for her. She is considering going on one in the near future. That she could visit Cuba on a Carnival cruise makes the decision easier for her, though.

“I like to eat on a ship that I’m familiar with. Plus, I have heard from several friends who visited Cuba on tours that they have gotten sick from the local food,” said Levitz. “Also, there are a limited number of hotels in Cuba. I would feel much more secure simply cruising with a familiar cruise line such as Carnival.”

Arlene and David Kaplan of the Gillette section of Long Hill visited Cuba last month. ~Courtesy of David J. Kaplan

Arlene and David Kaplan of the Gillette section of Long Hill visited Cuba last month. ~Courtesy of David J. Kaplan

Arlene Kaplan of the Gillette section of Long Hill visited Cuba on an International Expeditions tour in February for eight days with 38 other travelers. Although she said she enjoyed her time there tremendously and would recommend a visit for the average tourist, Kaplan said that she was surprised by the degree of poverty in the area and that tourists can expect to see the same degree in Cuba that they see on many other Caribbean islands.

Kaplan said that she noticed many half-finished buildings and abandoned supplies, as well as evidence of hunger because food is rationed in Cuba and Cubans only receive 10 pounds of rice a month.

“Visitors need to keep in mind that everything is controlled by the government — even our tour guide was a government employee,” she said. “We weren’t allowed to wander off by ourselves — when we were on land, we were in buses going from Point A to Point B.”

Arlene and David Kaplan of the Gillette section of Long Hill visited Cuba last month. ~Courtesy of David J. Kaplan

Arlene and David Kaplan of the Gillette section of Long Hill visited Cuba last month. ~Courtesy of David J. Kaplan

Kaplan said that despite the government control, she encountered no animosity during the trip, and she found that the Cubans she met couldn’t wait for Americans to visit.

“I think that they think the Americans will open everything up for them,” she said. “That may happen, but not right away.”

Levitz, Kaplan and Lee believe that Carnival’s new cruise offerings are positive for travelers.

“I am very old. I remember when it all fell apart,” Levitz said. “Fifty years have accomplished nothing. We need to get over it.”