Wednesday, August 26, 2009

More adventures in the Pacific Northwest

Picking up where I left off last week… Wednesday after work we walked over to the Pacific Science Center. We toured the museum, which is geared more towards children but has enough fun exhibits for people of all ages. We also watched an IMAX movie about the Lewis & Clark expedition. There was a somewhat bizarre temporary exhibit called Animal Grossology – featuring everything you ever want to know about animal & insect excretions. I enjoyed the butterfly garden, the mole rat colony, and the section devoted to Lucy, the fossil hominin discovered in Ethiopia in 1974. Thursday after work we took the bus south to the Museum of Flight, our one remaining ticket in our CityPass booklet. I was actually pleasantly surprised at the nice layout and thorough information provided in the exhibits and by the docents. Greg took a ride in the 4D simulator (I skipped this fearing it would trigger motion sickness). We also got to walk through a British Airways Concorde and retired Air Force One. We caught the bus back to Pioneer Square and had dinner at the New Orleans Creole Restaurant. The food was basic but tasty enough – I had cornmeal-battered fried oysters and Greg had spicy shrimp creole. It was another beautiful evening and we had planned to buy cheap tickets at the box office for the Seattle Sounders match. We totally underestimated how popular soccer is here! The lowest price for a single game ticket is $20, but when we showed up about 15 minutes before the game, the cheapest available seats were $45. We ended up buying ours through a reseller for $35 and were very close to field level with direct line of sight to the goal. Beer was not cheap -- $8.75 for a premium draft. We had a lot of fun – everyone was so into the match that they stood the entire time! The only unfortunate aspect of the week was that I started coming down with a cold on Thursday and by the end of the evening I was definitely sick – sore throat, sinus congestion, etc. That’s always the price you pay when you’re always on the go and not getting adequate rest. But I wasn’t about to let that interfere with our long weekend trip to BC. We got up early Friday morning and walked down to the waterfront to catch the free #99 bus to the downtown Amtrak station. I guess I’m spoiled by all the conveniences associated with taking Amtrak in NYC – Penn Station is massive and has many restaurants, delis, and other stores where you can buy just about anything. But King Street station had none of these; only a couple of vending machines. So our plan to buy breakfast to take on our 7:40AM train fell through. Luckily the train did have a cafe and we purchased breakfast sandwiches to eat at our seats. The scenic four hour ride up the coast passed quickly with the exception of lots of stops & starts once we were in proximity to Vancouver. From Pacific Central Station it was a short walk across the street to catch the SkyTrain into downtown Vancouver, and then a few blocks walk along Granville Street to our hostel. They are doing massive construction in Vancouver in preparation for the winter Olympics beginning 12FEB2010. Walking on the sidewalk involves a bit of an obstacle course, there is a fair amount of jackhammering noise and dust to contend with, and some buses are rerouted to avoid closed roads. Still, Vancouver is very much a walkable city, fairly compact and not terribly hilly. It is also very bicycle friendly, with well-marked street signs and bike lanes. After having soup & sandwiches for lunch at a grocery store café, we stopped at the Tourist Information booth for some additional maps & info and then at a drugstore so I could get sinus medication. It was another beautiful, sunny day so we walked around Chinatown, then along the waterfront facing the shipyard (where I spotted a harbor seal watching us from the water), then around to Gastown, where we stopped for a well-deserved beer. From there we walked to Yaletown (which very much resembles NY’s SoHo) and along the waterfront facing Granville Island. We decided to have dinner at Honjin Sushi, where we ordered the special “dinner for two” featuring assorted sushi, sashimi, tempura, dumplings, tofu, miso soup, and more. As we dined, a young couple was seated at the booth adjacent to our table. We didn’t take much notice of the two, but soon enough, other diners were stopping by their table asking for photos and autographs. Our dining companions turned out to be Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart of Twilight fame. We didn’t even know for sure who they were until I was able to double check their photos online. Exhausted from a long day of travel, walking, and my dealing with a head cold, we headed back to the hostel to shower and get some rest, thankfully in a private room (but with shared bath). We got up around 7:30 Saturday morning and took advantage of the complimentary breakfast at the hostel (toast, bagels, muffins, cereal, coffee). We went ahead and packed up our backpacks and checked out, leaving the bags in storage. We had miscalculated the distance/time it would take to walk across the bridge to Granville Island, but we survived the trek and enjoyed browsing around the market. We wisened up and took a bus back into downtown and picked up our rented bikes to ride the loop around Stanley Park. This turned out to be a wonderful way to spend a few hours and we stopped intermittently to look at totem poles, lighthouses, statues, and the rose garden. From there we headed back to the hostel to pick up our bags and took the SkyTrain back to Pacific Central where we boarded a coach bus to Tsawassen to catch the ferry to Victoria. The 1½ hour ferry ride was comfortable and scenic. The area we went through reminded me a lot of sections of the Inside Passage that I cruised in Alaska last year. Upon docking at Swartz Bay we hopped on the #70 bus (a double decker – Greg & I sat on the top deck in the very front) for the 40min ride into downtown Victoria. We checked into the hostel, this time in a couples dorm with 4 bunks (8 beds total). After a quick look around, we took a nice walk across the Johnson St Bridge out to Victoria Harbour where we had dinner at Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub. By the end of the meal I was truly exhausted from being sick and on the go for two days straight so we called it a night. We got up relatively early again Sunday morning (7am) and packed up and were out the door by 8. We had breakfast at the oldest bakery in BC, Willie’s, where I enjoyed a delicious Pacific eggs benedict (with lox & fresh spinach) and Greg had a BLT croissant with scrambled eggs. We walked along Government Street to the Inner Harbour, reading the historic building markers along the way. We were able to take a free tour of Parliament where we learned a bit more about the architect as well as the structure of the current government. From there we walked to Beacon Hill Park, out to mile marker 0 of the Trans-Canada Highway. We walked back into town through the park, past blooming flower beds, duck ponds, a putting green, and over an old stone bridge. Then up to Chinatown and the summer Sunday market, which was really just one block of vendors selling made in Victoria clothes, jewelry, accessories, music, etc. We picked up our bags from the hostel and retraced our walk from earlier in the day as we had spotted a sign at a café advertising the #1 coffee in the world, Panama La Carleida, which they were selling for $10 per 8oz cup or $105 per ½ lb. We were treated to silver service and sipped our coffee slowly, savoring every drop (although Greg drank his as if it were Starbucks!). We then walked back along the waterfront to Inner Harbour where we enjoyed a beer outside overlooking the harbor. Wanting to continue the outdoors theme, we had a late lunch/early dinner at the rooftop beach club of a nearby hotel accompanied by a pitcher of Kokanee beer. Then it was time to check in for our boat ride back to Seattle – not on a ferry but something along the lines of a yacht with capacity for around 300 people and an interior very similar to an airplane. It was a bit choppy in the more open water around the Strait of Juan de Fuca but I fought off motion sickness with some ginger candy and just by sitting quietly and not trying to focus on anything. We docked in Seattle around 9:45PM and cleared customs then walked back “home” to Queen Anne and quickly called it a night. Monday & Tuesday were recovery days for me. Very nice to be able to work from the hotel, do laundry, cook dinner, and just rest & relax. I did make one foray into downtown Seattle to drop off a few books at the central library and also picked up a few things at the ExOfficio store in Belltown. Today Greg & I celebrated our six month anniversary. Actually, celebrated is a bit of an exaggeration considering neither one of us knew in advance that today was different than any other day. I just happened to be going through my work calendar from earlier this year and noticed that today marked six months of our being together. The time has flown by and we have crammed in a lot in those months – Greg came up to NYC to stay with me for the better part of April & June, we took some mini vacations on the beach and in the mountains, we jumped out of an airplane together, we celebrated birthdays and shared meals with family and friends in Nashville, and now we have lived in Seattle for the past month. So what did we do to fete the occasion? Took the bus to Interbay and had lunch at Red Mill, a burger joint featured on Man v Food on the Travel Channel (and the last on our list of restaurants featured in the Seattle episode). We pigged out on supersize bacon cheeseburgers and onion rings and then returned to the hotel to finish working for the day before enjoying a beer on the roof deck with a clear view of Mt Rainier. It’s hard to believe we’re down to our last week here. We really only have a few more days left in Seattle since we’re going to Portland this weekend. So we’ve been making our final list of top things to see & do before we leave. Of course, it involves food and beer for the most part!!!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

San Juans & more

Another activity-filled weekend has come & gone. The more time I spend in the Pacific Northwest, the more convinced I am that I should live in this general area some time in the future. On Friday afternoon Greg & I took a charter bus service up to Anacortes and then the ferry to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. We picked up our rental car and dropped off our stuff at Brendan’s house (our gracious host for the night whom I found on Brendan gave us some tips on what to do and where to eat. As it turned out, the San Juan County Fair was in progress so we walked from Brendan’s house to the fairgrounds. We spent the evening observing the locals & livestock and checking out all the exhibitors and noted that the weather felt more like October than August. We got up early Saturday morning and had breakfast in town to fuel up for our whale watching trip with Jim Maya’s Westside Charters. We drove up the west side of the island to Snug Harbor where Jim’s boat was docked. It was a beautiful drive in the morning sunlight and we had nice views of farmland and the coast. Jim proved to be an entertaining host to our group, made up of a couple from Toronto, two women from Florida and Greg & I. Things started out fairly quiet -- there had been no whale sightings at the time we left the dock. But soon enough the calls started coming in and we zipped over to meet up with the orcas of J Pod. We ended up staying with them all morning as they were very active -- spy hopping, jumping, feeding, and generally frolicking in all directions. We also saw a bald eagle, harbor porpoises, and harbor seals. This is my second time to whale watch on a small, private boat (first time was in Icy Strait Point, AK last year) and, compared to the large group tours which I have also done, I highly recommend this more personalized experience. Greg & I spent the early afternoon driving around the north end of the island at Roche Harbor and we stopped at an oyster farm where we shucked and ate fresh European belon and Pacific oysters. Our final island destination was the American Camp, which was established in 1859 when the U.S. and Great Britain jointly occupied the island. It is now a National Park and offers great coastal hiking along with a dose of history. We picked up dinner in Friday Harbor and boarded the ferry back to Anacortes and from there caught the charter bus back to Seattle. All in all it was a great 24 hour getaway! We did not initially have a plan for Sunday other than to sleep in a bit (if you call 8am sleeping in!). But then Greg suggested we check another Man vs. Food restaurant off our list, so we caught a bus up to Green Lake and had breakfast at Beth’s Café. If you did not happen to see the episode in question on the Travel Channel, Beth’s is famous for being one of the best places in Seattle to nurse a hangover because they offer all you can eat hash browns. But that’s in addition to your choice of a 6 egg or 12 egg omelet! Greg & I wisely opted to split a 6 egg omelet but we did get a second order of hash browns. The food was delicious, the atmosphere was very much informal diner, and despite having to wait 30 minutes for a table, we really enjoyed the experience. Not to mention that Beth’s is ideally located a block from the north end of Green Lake, which has a great walking path around the entire lake -- perfect for burning some calories after a big meal! We did walk the west side of the lake, but then detoured up to Woodland Park Zoo for an afternoon with the animals. It was definitely one of the better zoos I’ve been to, as it has a more open plan with plenty of space for the animals to roam. This also means that visitors often won’t be able to see all the animals as they may be hanging out in an area that’s not visible from the general viewing area. For the most part we got a glimpse of everything we wanted to see with the exception of the tigers, baby snow leopards, and hippos. The weather was absolutely gorgeous -- warm (in the mid-70’s) and clear blue skies. For the first time since we landed in Seattle two weeks ago we were able to see Mt Rainier from the roof deck of our hotel. Not wanting to miss what can be a fleeting opportunity to take pics of the mountain, we used the second voucher from our City Pass (the first was the zoo) and went to the top of the Space Needle for 360° views of the city. As an added bonus, we also enjoyed the most colorful sunset we’ve seen yet. Of course it was back to work at 6am Monday morning, but now that our City Passes are activated (and only good for 9 days), we’ve been spending the late afternoons doing more touristy things. Monday we visited the Seattle Aquarium, which is small compared to some of the other great aquariums I’ve been to like Monterey Bay or the Tennessee Aquarium, but it still had some interesting exhibits and we enjoyed watching the octopus feeding and seeing the harbor seals and otters. Afterwards we sought out an authentic Mexican restaurant below Pike Place Market called El Puerco Lloron. You pick what you want off a handwritten menu on the wall, place your order with the counter staff who prep the food in front of you, and then you take your own tray to your table. The food was delicious and the price was right -- all the entrees were under $9. Yesterday we took the one hour harbor cruise on Argosy Tours’ Spirit of Seattle. But first we enjoyed happy hour at Elliott’s Oyster House, where the price of oysters starts at $0.50 at 3pm and increases by .25 every half hour. And draft beer was only $3! Not to mention we were sitting outside enjoying a view of downtown and the harbor. The cruise was a nice way to see the skyline from the water as well as get an up close look at the shipyard. And Greg was pleased that the boat had a full bar and draft beer was only $5.50. We’ve only got a couple more attractions left on our CityPass which we should be able to knock out in the next two days. The weather continues to be wonderful and is actually getting into the 80’s this week. We’re off to Vancouver & Victoria this weekend, so will update again after that side trip.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Summary of Seattle Week 1

It’s hard to believe our first full week in Seattle has come & gone. We’ve been blessed with almost perfect weather since we’ve been here – sunny with highs in the 70’s or even cooler. I rarely leave the apartment without my fleece jacket! It finally rained for the first time Monday and I was actually grateful for it as I don’t want Greg to get the idea that the weather is always like this here. We’ve been enjoying walking along the waterfront to downtown, through or alongside the Olympic Sculpture Park. We’ve also pretty thoroughly explored our little neighborhood of Lower Queen Anne at this point. One of our favorite things to do is take a break from work and go up to the roof deck for fresh air and beautiful views. Last Saturday we went to Mt Rainier. Since we booked the rental car at the last minute, there were no vehicles available for pickup in the downtown area, so we took the train out to the airport and picked up our car there around 8am. The drive to the mountain was easy and took about two hours. Unfortunately there were clouds surrounding the mountain the entire day, so we never got to see the summit. But it didn’t rain, so we hiked through the subalpine meadows, and drove to both Paradise on the southwest side of the mountain & Sunrise on the northeast. It cleared up enough while we were at Sunrise that we were able to see Emmons glacier and a fair amount of the Cascades range. We dropped the car off at the airport after 8pm and took the train and monorail back home. On Sunday we went to a Mariners game at Safeco Field. From the hotel we can walk about 15min down to the waterfront (the northern end of Alaskan Way) and catch the free bus that runs all the way down Alaskan Way and then turns east to Pioneer Square and the International District. From there it’s just a few blocks walk to Qwest Stadium and Safeco Field. One thing we noticed as we approached the stadium were all the vendors set up along the street selling typical ballpark snacks (sunflower seeds, peanuts, popcorn, Cracker Jacks, hot dogs, etc). The difference here was that everything except beverages could be taken into the park. You could even buy a whole pizza and take it in with you! We opted instead to go to Pyramid Brewery, which is located across the street from Safeco, and ate lunch and drank beer there before going into the stadium. Speaking of beer, we were hoping stadium prices would be lower than at the new Yankee Stadium and Citi Field in New York. But a premium draft beer was still $8.75. It was a fun game and despite only paying $22 apiece for our upper level seats, we had a great view directly behind home plate and weren’t straining to see at all. The Mariners won the game 11-2 and Russell Branyan even hit a grand slam. But to Greg’s disappointment, there was no appearance by Ken Griffey, Jr. After the game we walked to the massive Asian grocery store, Uwajimaya, and admired the wide variety of foods available there. We then walked uphill to the Danny Woo International District Community Gardens. This is where elderly and low-income neighborhood residents can grow fruit and vegetables. We took the free bus back up Alaskan Way and walked home, noticing the three huge cruise ships at port and the influx of tourists along the piers. On Tuesday after work we took a local bus across town to the REI flagship store. Believe it or not, we didn’t buy anything but had fun checking out the latest and greatest outdoor gear. We then walked north to Lake Union and checked out the Center for Wooden Boats. Although rain was in the forecast, it was actually fairly sunny so we walked along the piers and then had happy hour drinks at Duke’s. Much to Greg’s delight, we also came across the only Hooters in Seattle so that became our dinner destination. After a pitcher of beer and unlimited wings, we decided we’d better walk home to burn some calories. We checked our map and saw that we could just follow Mercer or Republican all the way back to the hotel. Unfortunately, the map did not indicate that we would have to cross some busy streets with no crosswalks and concrete lane dividers. It became a bit of an obstacle course, but we made it back unscathed and went up on the roof deck to take some night shots of the Space Needle and downtown Seattle. Tomorrow afternoon we’re on our way to the San Juan Islands. We’ll only be gone one night, but are particularly looking forward to whale watching on Saturday.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Greetings from Seattle!

We landed at SEATAC around 8pm Monday night. Seattle has a new light rail system operated by Sound Transit. Although they have not finished the section that connects directly to the airport (due in Dec’09), there is a free bus service to the nearest station in Tukwila, which only takes about 10 minutes. From there it’s a direct train to the end of the line at Westlake Center in downtown Seattle, which costs only $2.50 and takes about 30min. It’s a quick transfer upstairs to the Monorail for a $2.00/2min ride to Seattle Center (home of the Space Needle, Experience Music Project, and more), which is a few blocks from our hotel. We are staying at The Mediterranean Inn in Lower Queen Anne. It’s a great location as we can walk into downtown Seattle in about 45min via Belltown, or take a 10-15min $2 bus ride or the Monorail. We’re just a few blocks inland from Puget Sound and the hotel has a roof deck with Adirondack-style chairs and 360° views. The hotel is set up for extended stays so all rooms have a small kitchenette. We have a studio on the first floor with a ceiling fan but no air conditioning. Yes, they had record-breaking high temps out here last week, but we timed it just right and the days have been mostly sunny & beautiful with highs in the mid 70's and lows in the 50’s. There’s a nice Safeway grocery store across the street and a wide variety of restaurants within a 2-3 block radius: Mexican, Thai, Greek, Indian, Italian, sushi, Dick’s (a late night burger & shake place), an Irish pub, and assorted other fast food or more formal places like The Melting Pot. There’s a Starbucks in our building as well as a couple of nice independent coffee shops up the block. There are plenty of banks nearby and the post office is a block away, along with nail/hair salons, independent bookstores, and pretty much anything else you could need or want. On Tuesday after work, we walked downtown and strolled Pike Place Market, stopped for a beer at Pike Brewing, then hiked three blocks uphill (who knew Seattle was like San Francisco?!?!) to the Central Library. After taking in the view from the 9th floor, I applied for a library card and checked out a few books. Then we walked back downhill to the waterfront and along the piers to our dinner destination, The Crab Pot. By coincidence, we were watching the Travel Channel this past weekend and they aired an episode of Man vs Food filmed in Seattle. So, of course, we took notes and fully intend to eat at all three of the restaurants they featured. The first on the list for us was The Crab Pot, where you order a seafood feast for two, tie on a bib, and then eat your steamed halibut/salmon/crab/mussels/oysters/shrimp/andouille sausage/potatoes/corn (which they dump on the table in front of you) with your hands, a mallet, and a small fork. We also ordered a pitcher of Alaskan Amber. It truly was a feast and the quality & quantity of food was amazing!Yesterday we stayed in the hood and had Thai for lunch and Greek for dinner. We also did more extensive grocery shopping as it is not in our budget (nor do I want) to eat out for every meal. We are still formulating our plans for further evening & weekend activities, so stay tuned for the results in future updates.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

I’m overdue for an update, but you haven’t missed much. My excellent adventures have had a local flavor for the past couple of weeks. The weekdays are occupied with work during the day and reading in the evening. I can plow through a book pretty quickly and I’ve managed to read three novels (Rita Golden Gelman’s Tales of a Female Nomad; Gayle Forman's You Can't Get There From Here; Phoebe Damrosch’s Service Included) along with my magazine subscriptions, The Tennessean, and Rick Steves guidebooks. I did spend a few hours at the DMV on Friday, and I am now an official Tennessee resident once again. With no offense to any of my friends or family, I can’t say I’m particularly proud of this! Weekends tend to be a bit more spontaneous or at least a little less predictable. Greg & I spent last weekend at my mom’s house in Orlinda, TN. The primary purpose was to help take care of my Grandmother Patterson while Mom & Ronnie were in Terre Haute, IN. But we also got to baby sit my nephews, Grant & Bryce, on Friday night. It was a nice getaway with plenty of time to cook, read, walk, talk, and generally relax. We even took a quick drive up to Franklin, KY past miles and miles of corn and tobacco fields. It really is a beautiful area if you like country living. And we always enjoy feeding Mom & Ronnie’s goats! This weekend brought an unexpected but welcome visitor, Greg’s brother Doug, from Atlanta. We picked him up at the bus station in downtown Nashville around 9pm Friday night. Of course, he had plenty of stories to tell about his fellow passengers on the Greyhound bus! We had a fun evening walking down 2nd Avenue and drinking beer at Big River Grille. Saturday was a mix of work & play. We borrowed a neighbor’s truck and hauled a load of stuff to the dump and then met my Dad & Debbie for lunch. I also sold an unused X10 security system on Craigslist and we delivered it to the buyer’s house, which I never would have done if I was alone but we happened to be in that general vicinity for lunch and I had three other people with me. I only bring this up because I now believe the reason the guy bought the security system is his house is being used for dealing drugs. I only saw what I would call the living room of his house and there was nothing livable about it! A new adventure starts on Monday. Greg & I are flying out to Seattle for the month of August. As we both work remotely, we decided to take advantage of the opportunity to test out living in another city. I’ve been to Seattle many times, and even looked at houses in the area a few years ago, but ended up buying in New Hampshire instead. Greg has never been anywhere north of San Francisco so this is a nice way to get a feel for the Pacific Northwest to find out if it’s somewhere he might be interested in living. We’ll be working during the week, but should have plenty of time to explore the city in the evenings. We also have a total of four weekends to take some overnight trips to places like Portland, Vancouver, and the San Juan Islands. Our home for the month is an extended-stay hotel in the Queen Anne neighborhood, a couple of blocks from the Space Needle. We should be able to walk or take public transportation anywhere we need to go. I am definitely looking forward to not being dependent on a car as is necessary here in Nashville. I’m also ready for some fresh seafood and a multitude of non-chain restaurants to choose from. The food is what I miss the most about New York, besides the public transportation (and my friends of course!). So today (Sunday) will be spent packing and preparing for being away for a month. The nice thing about Greg’s and my life at this point is our lack of strings. Meaning there’s nothing that ties us to a particular location right now. It remains to be seen to what extent we’ll take advantage of that.