19 September 2016

Seattle Diary

Day 1 Midmorning arrival at our Air BnB after an easy 2 hour flight from home, then a ride on the fancy metro link and a bus. First impressions arose from a walk through the nearby International District, gritty and shabby despite vibrant Asian stores and markets. For much of the walk we saw mainly Asians, and several shops catering to Vietnamese shoppers. We were amazed, and pleased at this sign of the city's diversity. Crossing under the I-5 freeway, we were greeted by an endless string of homeless people and noticed a sprawl of tents in an informal encampment.
So, on to the stuff tourists come to see ...

First stop: Grand Central Bakery at Occidental Square in the Pioneer Square district. Rustic breads and an assortment of fruit filled buttery pastries filled us with glee. At an outside table in the wide open square under a gray sky we enjoyed steaming coffee and a pastry in a pleasant atmosphere created by live music, totem poles, big, leafy trees, and views of the Smith Tower and other attractive buildings.

With restored spirits and energy level we wandered over to Waterfall Garden Park, then explored Pioneer Square, where we admired the bust of Chief Seattle and the totem poles, before continuing along busy 3rd Street lined by retail stores and restaurants.

Next stop: Pike's Place markets. A wander down the aisles to gawk at brightly hued, high summer produce in their prime. More entertainment came from vendors selling various artisanal crafts  – gemstone jewelry, knitted woollies, scarves, pottery, and Seattle sports team paraphernalia.

Lunch at a deli across the street from the market was tomato soup and a roasted vegetable sandwich. A view of the waterfront and the local Pike's IPA  added to the feeling of indulgence.

Popped in at a few wine shops which resulted in the purchase of a red blend from a small winery (Nine Hats) just outside Seattle. We were eager to try it out over a leisurely meal, which would have to be prepared at our Air BnB.
So we hopped back to Pike's market for the enticing chanterelles we'd seen earlier. A few more purchases, including fresh pasta, and we were all set for our evening of relaxation. The trudge back (a mistake – we should've taken the bus, but wanted to work off the food we'd eaten!) was long, sweaty, and for the first half of the way we were pretty much dodging homeless bums and offers of marijuana. We resolved to stick with public transportation in the next days.
The evening didn't turn out as expected. Even though the apartment had a proper kitchen, there was NO STOVE! We couldn't believe it. After all, wasn't the point of a proper kitchen the ability to cook meals? The wine was excellent, compounding our disappointment of not being able to enjoy it with our chanterelles and pasta.

Dined at a nearby Vietnamese restaurant called Moonlight Café. A modest place with a full vegetarian menu. The vegetable pho and orange veggie chicken turned out to be exceptional, with lots of flavor and a decent selection of fresh, crunchy vegetables.

This was a prelude to Seattle's sophisticated food scene.

Day 2 – Birthday: Took in Seattle's main tourist attractions; and ended the day with an extravagant, indulgent meal at a top restaurant.

Wish I didn't have to acknowledge birthdays anymore, as they come quicker and quicker, and I lose track of how old I really am!! Started the day with strong Seattle coffee and pastry across the street from the Space Needle, then joined the crowds on the vertical jolt to the top. Spent a good hour taking in the views from all angles from the top of the Space Needle. Another gray day meant blurry mountain views. Where the heck is this Mount Rainier everyone talks about? We weren't disappointed though. All those curvy inlets and sounds and lakes and of course, the skyscrapers gave us plenty photo opportunities.

At ground level we headed next door to the Chihuly Glass and Garden museum. What an astounding display of blown glass sculpture! In dreamlike awe we floated through the museum, the stunning glasshouse, and into the garden where the marriage of brightly colored glass shapes and graceful plants seemed unexpectedly compatible in a wild, nontraditional way. Dale Chihuly sure is a genius with glass.

Crossed over to the outdoor sculpture park along the waterfront where quirky works of art made for an entertaining stroll toward the city center. At Pike's Place had a light lunch of cheese and tomato on a crumpet half at The Crumpet Shop. Necessary to prepare ourselves for the day's big event – a multi course dinner at the famous and very posh Canlis Restaurant.

Early evening we donned formal attire. Daryl in a black suit and tie, I, in a knee length silk dress. Public transportation got us to the posh Upper Queen Anne area. Entering the elegant restaurant you are instantly immersed in an atmosphere of pretentiousness. Everyone is super polite, overly attentive. Its location near the George Washington Memorial Bridge provided a splendid view of Lake Union from our table. A live pianist played uplifting tunes in a nonintrusive way. Each of the 9 courses, artistically displayed, arrived in well timed succession. A full bodied red wine, smooth and dry, from a nearby winery complemented the meal very well. Every attempt in clear evidence to make the meal an experience to savor. It felt like we'd been transported out of Planet Earth to some fairytale land for a few hours.
Definitely a memorable birthday.

Day 3 A drive to Snoqualmie Falls and the Cascades

On this warm, sunny day we picked up a rental car and got on the I-90 to Snoqualmie, Twin Peaks country. Marveled at steam trains of yesteryear at the Northwest Railway Museum, then had a light, forgettable lunch in the little town of Snoqualmie.

Returning to the I-90, with Mount Si on our left, we drove to Twedes Cafe in North Bend for the "best damn cup of coffee" and a slice of cherry pie.
Delicious pie; mediocre coffee.

Snoqualmie Falls, at 268 feet tall, was a gorgeous sight. A nature trail took us through pine woods and provided views of nearby mountains. Popped into the Salish Lodge (The Great Northern Hotel of Twin Peaks), located just above the falls. Nice combination of luxury and rustic, excellent restaurant with views of mountains and valley.

Later in the afternoon drove up the Snoqualmie Pass, taking in views of Mount Si and the Cascade range. Went all the way up to the summit, a popular ski area, before turning around.
From I-90 we took the scenic 202 past Redmond, where Microsoft is based, and stopped at The Commons in Woodinville for dinner. This little town, just minutes out of Seattle, is famous for its concentration of wineries and farm to table gourmet restaurants. Our meal of roasted tomato soup, fresh baked pretzel, fries, and a veggie dish consisting of lentils, grains, and an assortment of vegetables was divine. Couldn't imagine a better way to end a most enjoyable day.

Day 4 Further afield - a drive out to Mount Rainer

A magnificent two hour journey, with mesmerizing views of the king of the Cascade range, glistening white in the sunlight, patches of blue translucence, its graceful contours against a pale blue sky. Mount Rainier commanded awe. Bigger and more beguiling as we approached, an unforgettable day lay ahead of us. But, it was late morning and we hadn't had coffee or breakfast so we were on the lookout for a café. A particular type, in keeping with this part of the world, funky, and definitely locally owned. Found it a half hour before our destination. Yes, it had that small town American diner look about it, and the blueberry pancakes had a "made from scratch" appearance and taste, but the coffee was barely drinkable and the oatmeal was shocking. Made by shaking instant oatmeal into a bowl and pouring hot water over it. We saw them do it!! Well, we had the necessary calories...

... to sustain us through a 3 mile stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail in the Mount Rainier National Park. Immersed in sublime scenery the whole time – glimmering lakes, subalpine meadows, forests, and of course, Mount Rainier, at 14, 410 feet, the attention hogger. At one point we were able to see Mount Adams in the distance. Two exhilarating hours of pure mountain air, under a clear blue sky, the air temperature blissful in that late summer way. The hike itself was easy - a lot of the trail shaded by lanky pines, and only a 1,000 feet elevation gain.
On the drive back we yielded to a bakery's tempting selection of fruit pies which had a "homemade" look about them. We were on a mission to find huckleberry pie, but we had to settle for a "jumble berry" pie. Quite decent it was too.

Early evening in the city we explored the University district and strolled through campus for views of Mount Rainier. We had originally planned to have dinner in this area but despite the many viable options, the very casual vibe didn't grab me. It felt too much like Isla Vista back home.
Online research led us to Cafe Flora, an fine vegetarian restaurant near Madison Park, an upmarket suburb. Dinner of portabello mushroom pie and grilled polenta with a variety of glistening, seasonal vegetables was truly satisfying. Another example of Seattle's culinary expertise.
On our last day, a sunny, cloudless Saturday morning, we drove out to Discovery Park which buzzed with locals. The loop trail took us along the Puget Sound coast and directly across from us we could see the Olympic National Park. For most of the hike we had great views of the Olympic Mountains framing the sky in front of us. The Queen Anne neighborhood is closest to this park and because most of it is high up, residents have views of the Seattle skyline, the lakes, and the mountains.
Using Siri for lunch options we found ourselves at a small, but atmospheric farmer's market in the suburb of Magnolia. From the many tempting options we settled for a spicy mushroom pie, plump blackberries, and a berry tart. Sitting on the sidewalk we took in the elegant surroundings. Definitely upper middle class, a complete absence of homeless people.

As we headed back to the car for the drive to the airport I reflected on what a segregated city this is. Seattle is really a city of neighborhoods, each with its distinct character.

From the airplane back home we had incredible views of Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens, Mt. Hood, and the Columbia River Gorge.

19 January 2016

Holiday Destination: Trinidad and Tobago

December 17 - 31, 2015

Naturally, 2015 had to end somewhere exotic to bring a year of adventurous travel to a fitting close. From the East Coast, the Caribbean was a no brainer, and after ruling out the islands that provided nothing beyond stunning beaches, (hedonists we are not! I swear!) Trinidad and Tobago became our choice. This southernmost - just 8 miles from the coast of Venezuela - and least popular vacation destination in the Caribbean, is also the wealthiest in the region. A thriving economy based on oil, gas, and manufacturing has produced a substantial middle class population. Its mix of cultures, with ancestries from India, Africa, Europe, and Latin America gives it a richness which is immediately apparent in the local cuisine and the music.
A week in the capital, Port of Spain (POS), an emerging vibrant city, gave us the experience of learning about a new country and its people. Built up, clean, residents spiffily attired in the latest name brands, it was hard to believe we were on a Caribbean island (but for the fierce tropical heat and the accents and coconut palms and screeching parrots!).

Arriving at our VRBO rental in the upmarket Newtown area, we were reminded of South Africa. Heavy security in the form of gates, burglar guards, high walls, and barbed wire pointed to economic disparity and high crime. We had to be cautious at night, sticking to lit up busy areas. Luckily,  Kaisos Blues Bar, right next door, served excellent pina coladas, and their nightly live Jazz concerts were probably the city's best entertainment. Top restaurants, stores, and the city's main tourist attractions were minutes from us too.

Queen's Park Savannah, a block from us, is the focal point of the wild Carnival celebrations in late February, an event that draws floods of visitors to POS. In the day time the park, a wide grassy field studded with trees, is deserted due to the brutal tropical heat. But at dusk, when we strolled across the park, we saw lots of locals exercising, jogging or playing soccer and cricket. Vendors selling coconut water, and a night food market provide colorful atmosphere. We marched across the park, passed the Magnificent 7, an over the top row of mansions, then to the Royal Botanic Gardens. This peaceful setting was perfect for an early evening stroll. Massive trees, subtle tropical fragrances, and beautiful bird calls spiked up our moods. Every few minutes the peace was disturbed by noisy green parrots fluttering across treetops in flocks. 

It was cloudy with off and on drizzle, when we first ventured downtown. We noticed a vegetarian restaurant just before hitting the main shopping areas, so we ordered our first traditional Trini lunch of pumpkin, callalloo (made with greens and okra), and chickpeas. A blended drink of fresh tropical fruit juice and coconut milk was delicious and refreshing. Then we continued on to busy Frederick Street, found coffee at a Rico's, a Starbucks like chain, and headed over to Independence Square,
 a shaded, paved promenade between two parallel streets. Concrete chess tables and benches scattered about draw locals here to relax and "lime" (local lingo for hanging out with buddies). Arriving at the striking 18th century Church of Immaculate Conception, we were accosted by a vagabond who wanted Daryl's coffee! We turned around and entered bustling Charlotte Street, lined with produce vendors selling tropical fruit and very healthy looking vegetables. Weaving our way through the crowd and constant stream of traffic, we escaped to Frederick Street. With festive shopping in full swing, the stores and modern shopping malls were packed with locals whose ancestors came mainly from Africa and India. I kept thinking how close we were to Venezuela, and how far away we were from home.
A friendly woman called Michelle, of English descent, was our tour guide for a day. She drove us to the Asa Wright Bird Sanctuary in the Northern Ranges which stretch from the east to the west coasts of Trinidad. On the one hour drive out of the traffic clogged city and into the lush countryside, she gave us a lot of background about the country's history and geography. 

At the Asa Wright Center we, along with lots of other western tourists, sat on the verandah for a while to do some birdwatching. We saw brightly hued hummingbirds and honeycreepers. Then, on a guided hike through the sanctuary, we saw more birds and other wildlife.
Traditional Trini food: Roti skins - aka dhalpuri - are filled with split pea, and stuffed with spicy curries. Calalloo - a mixture of okra and a green spinach like herb called "bhaji", spicy chickpeas and pumpkin are common fillings. Shiann's, down the street from us, served the best roti wraps, and a long line of locals at lunch time was proof.
A popular street snack is doubles - spicy chickpea curry inside two small fried flatbreads. I never missed an opportunity to get these - and loved them every time.
At the Caroni Bird Sanctuary we went on a boat tour through the Caroni waterways during the last hours of daylight. Dense clumps of mangroves smothered the banks.

We saw crabs, and OMG(!) a snake all coiled up on a branch above. Lots of small blue herons and egrets swooped around us. The highlight occurred when we arrived at the lake right at sunset. Huge flocks of scarlet ibis, the country's national bird, appeared. They began to adorn the lush trees which covered the island in front of us. Time to roost. Apart from the cries of the birds, there was such tranquility and the natural world around us was just magical. On the ride back, in the dark, the driver flashed his light on caimans on the banks. Yikes! 

We allowed ourselves the luxury of 3 nights at the Hyatt by the waterfront for a different experience of POS. From our room we enjoyed stunning views of the Gulf of Paria, especially at sunset, always with rum and pineapple juice cocktails for the full tropical experience! The hotel's location, however, was not ideal to access restaurants, bars, and the Savannah after dark due to high crime. But blissful evening temperatures meant hanging out on the hotel terrace, and enjoying festive songs and old jazz favorites by seriously talented musicians.

Black cake, similar to Christmas pudding in taste and appearance, is a rich, moist, rum soaked fruit cake, and a traditional Christmas dessert in Trinidad. We'd discovered a gourmet bakery on French Street on our first day, where we'd found excellent bread and scones. Before leaving the city for Tobago, we returned there for this cake. On Christmas day and the days after, we savored every morsel of this sensational treat.

Our second week, which started on Christmas Eve, was all about soaking up the beauty and tranquility of paradisical Tobago. We stayed in a remote fishing village called Castara, which lay at the bottom of steep rain forested cliffs. Sublime vistas from our luxurious Castara Retreat apartment kept us in a state of euphoria. Lying on a hammock in the open walled living area, I caught up with my reading, and experienced the joy of gawking at tropical birds. Outside our apartment was a huge mango tree studded with epiphytes. 

We moved to a different apartment - Blue Mango - on Day 4 where we traded luxury for thrilling sunset views. We were closer to the water, on a headland, and from our balcony we were transfixed by views of both Little and Big Bays. As darkness fell, fireflies flittered about in the bushes below us. While our apartment was basic, almost shabby, and small, the beauty around us was pretty astonishing.
I could tell I was in paradise because every morning I awoke to a parade of gorgeous feathered visitors. Seeing the motmot was special. Other birds we saw were bananaquits, royal terns, kingbirds, barred antshrikes, hummingbirds, grey tanagers, magnificent frigate birds, pelicans, and parrots.
We started each day before sunrise with a walk on the beach, and getting splashed by the powerful, but lovely water. Fishermen fueled up their boats, and flocks of pelicans swooped over us. After sunrise, the air temperature rapidly rose, giving us the perfect excuse to lie on the hammock, and read.

Coconut bake is a traditional bread served at breakfast time. Chino's Coffee House made the best on the island, fresh and warm in the morning. Roasted coconut, the primary ingredient, renders the bread crispy and and delicious.What a treat with morning coffee!
A full day in the Crown Point area of Tobago - the most built up and crowded part, gave us a chance to check out the much hyped Pigeon Point Beach.
We rose at dawn and strolled to this protected park. And yes, it was indeed like the pages of a travel brochure with palm fringed beaches of white powdery sand, and heaps of coral and that perfect turquoise hued water. What pure joy to tread on the soft sand as we made our way to Store Bay Beach. Here, the calm, warm water beckoned. We had our most enjoyable swim of the vacation here. This was followed by a buffet breakfast which included delicious coconut bake, juicy pineapple, and scrambled eggs. We were staying at the Tropikist Hotel, right on the beach, so great sea views from our table enhanced the whole experience.

A 20 minute flight later got us back to POS on New Year's Eve. We spent a quiet evening at the Hyatt, listening to soothing live music on the terrace beside the Gulf of Paria. We needed a good night's sleep before the long flight home the next day, so we were sound asleep when fireworks were set off to herald in 2016.