Friday, December 31, 2010

Perfect Port Townsend Afternoon

We’re lucky to have great getaway destinations here in the Pacific Northwest, but Port Townsend, Washington, is near the top of my list. Why?

This former Victorian-era seaport has great places to eat or sip, charming shops and galleries, historic buildings and architecture, and an interesting cultural artsy-literary-outdoorsy vibe, all within an easy day trip from the greater Seattle-Tacoma area. (Of course you can make it an overnight or weekend trip as well.)

I’m overdue for a visit to Port Townsend to see my aunt and uncle, so today I catch the 9:40 a.m. Edmonds-Kingston ferry, which leaves me plenty of time to get there for lunch.

It’s a chilly morning, with snow squalls scurrying across Puget Sound while the ferry churns through the whitecaps. As we near Kingston after the 20-minute crossing, the clouds lift and the Olympic Mountains hover close by on the horizon, gorgeous in a fresh coat of snow. I’ll never tire of looking at these craggy peaks.

Just a couple miles before the highway crosses Hood Canal, I make a quick stop in scenic Port Gamble. Founded in 1853, this company-owned mill town on Hood Canal/Port Gamble Bay is now a National Historic Landmark, with a few shops, a kayaking center, and a newly revamped General Store. I’m too early for lunch, but the café now offers meals with an emphasis of local and seasonal fare. Next trip.

My Aunt Sylvia calls and asks me to pick up lunch at the Chimacum Corner Farmstand on the way to Port Townsend. This homegrown little store, which just opened in November 2010, features mostly Olympic Peninsula-grown and -produced food. I get a couple ham and Mt. Townsend Creamery cheese sandwiches on locally baked bread, although I’m bummed that the guy in front of me snagged the last two Cape Cleare (a local, sustainable fishery) tuna sandwiches. I also grab a package of stew meat from the freezer because it’s all grass-fed beef from Short’s Family Farm just down the road here in Chimacum.

After enjoying our sandwiches, my aunt and I head into Port Townsend to explore. Our first stop is Wild Sage tea and herb shop on Washington Street, a block away from Water Street and the main tourist action. “Would you like a taste of tea?” says the proprietor as we step inside the cozy little shop. Today’s she’s offering a yerba maté blend that’s redolent of almonds.

We were expecting to have a cupcake in the adjacent space, but the cupcake folks are moving into their own shop soon. In January 2011 Wild Sage will expand into the space and serve tea and light bites. I leave with a small package of a fragrant blended white tea with rose, vanilla, lemon, and white peony.

Next we cut downhill to Water Street and stop in a few galleries on our way to The Writers' Workshoppe, tucked upstairs in the back of an old building. Port Townsend is home to many writers and writer wannabes (well, anyone who writes is writer, right?), and this cute, small shop offers a room for writing and poetry groups to meet as well as books about writing and (my favorite) Writer’s Block chocolate bars. It’s so warm and bright up here I just want to settle in with my laptop and start composing prose on the spot.

My aunt bids me goodbye, leaving me with time to wander some more. My next stop: Lehani’s Deli and Coffee shop on Taylor Street for a quick cup of tea and then, even though I’ve had lunch, Hanazono Asian Noodle shop next door. I’ve been falling hard lately for savory and spicy Asian noodle soups. As I watch some big steaming bowls of Thai Tom-Yum soup come out of the kitchen, I wish I was still hungry. Instead I get a couple fresh spring rolls to go for dinner (they are very good).

Of course I have to go to my “must stop” in Port Townsend next: William James Books on Water Street. This long, narrow bookstore buys and sells used and out-of-print books, with a consistently fine and varied book selection at very reasonable prices. Just my luck, today I find a hardback Asian Noodle cookbook with full-page color photos for less than $10. I have a hard time restraining myself as I pull books off the shelf to buy. (I made myself put a few back before checking out.)

For old times’ sake, I walk up Water Street to Elevated Ice Cream and pop in. I’m not in the mood for ice cream, even though I’ve had some great scoops here in the past, but I do buy a soft, chewy handmade caramel, hmmm.

So I don’t completely ignore Port Townsend’s beautiful setting at the convergence of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and northern Puget Sound, I wander over to the waterfront and gaze at the sea for a moment. This is a great sea kayaking town, with mellow and exciting paddling up the Strait and down around several nearby islands.

My last stop today is the Haller Fountain and Terrace Steps on Washington Street. This lovely fountain is a recast of an original and lies at the bottom of a set of stairs leading up to the bluff above downtown. I dash up and down the stairs for the exercise and views, and trust me, it’s a decent cardio workout.

About 3:30 I need to get going to catch a ferry back to Seattle. After seeing posters around town for a community New Year’s Eve gathering, I wish I could stay and just settle in for a while.

When You Go
Click here for a map and directions to Port Townsend, which lies on the smaller Quimper Peninsula that juts off the northeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula. And really, an afternoon is just scratching the surface here. You could easily spend a weekend exploring the area beyond town. Above downtown, historic Fort Worden State Park features cultural events throughout the year, from an annual writer’s conference to Fiddles Tunes organized by Centrum, an arts organization that presents workshops, concerts, and artist-in-residence programs at Fort Worden. There’s lots more going on up here….another blog post!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Holidays!

Here on the west side of the Cascade Mountains, it’s a typical Christmastime – sorta raining, damp, chilly but not freezing, with temps hovering between the low 40s and 50s (Fahrenheit). There’s plenty of snow just an hour or so away in the mountains, though.

Are you ready for the holidays? No matter how much I plan ahead, I’m always running around at the last minute, sometimes buying random gifts that I don’t even give, just in case (I’m heading out as soon as I post this).

I’ll be cooking on Christmas for family. How about you? Although I love to pull together tasty and interesting meals for guests, it will be a push to get it all done by the time everyone arrives mid-afternoon. I’ll be pretty tired when it’s all over.

But even though my family is not overtly sentimental, affectionate, or expressive (it’s that Protestant-Scandinavian heritage), I’ll sense the love in little smiles and glimpses, or the way we all enjoy hearing the elders repeat funny family stories once again.

So of course it’s all worth it, even if I never do use the occasional odd gift (I really don’t need an electric juicer since I rarely drink juice).

I truly hope you have a lovely holiday season, and that we’re all imbued with the loving intent behind all the frenzy.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Seattle’s St. James Cathedral: Medieval Music, Marvelous Acoustics

Despite our long, dark nights in the Pacific Northwest near the winter solstice, our evenings are lightened by an abundance of diverse arts and cultural events—festivals, concerts, theater, and more. This time of year, I’m particularly drawn to European music from the Middle Ages and earlier. Did you know that Seattle has an outstanding medieval choir and a beautiful old cathedral where you can hear them perform?

As a college student in Paris, I fell in love with chamber music concerts at Église Saint Severin, a Gothic church in the Latin Quarter with amazing acoustics. In Seattle, St. James Cathedral on First Hill comes close to replicating that experience, although its architectural style is Renaissance rather than Gothic.

While I de-stress by listening to the Compline service chants on Sunday evenings (broadcast live on KING-FM from St. Mark’s Cathedral), at least once a year I go to St. James Cathedral to hear the resident Medieval Women’s Choir perform. Last weekend I went to their annual holiday concert.

Although it’s a rainy, messy night, inside the cathedral is glowing warm and light. We get there plenty early since we didn’t reserve seats in advance, which leaves us time to wander around and snap photos of the beautiful interior.

Years ago St. James had a central dome, but it collapsed during a snowstorm in 1916. In 1994 the cathedral was renovated to today’s layout.

Before the concert, Bill McJohn tunes one of his two medieval harps. Several musical instruments accompany the choir, which adds a layer of authenticity and complexity to the chorale music. But it’s still a stripped-down sound compared to an orchestra. I prefer this style of music, which makes me feel connected to an earlier, simpler time. (Although I gotta admit, I do like modern plumbing, dentistry, and central heating.)

Tonight’s program features medieval French music from Notre Dame de Paris, a few traditional French tunes, and instrumental interludes composed by the choir’s Artistic Director Magriet Tindemans (shown here with her medieval fiddle during intermission.)

No sound system or amplifiers are needed in St. James due to the fabulous acoustics. The blended voices and instruments fill the space and reverberate through the cathedral, enveloping us in medieval French harmonies that take me back to Paris and, perhaps, the 12th and 13th centuries.

It’s heavenly.

Which, after all, was the intent of this early music.

When You Go
Although the Medieval Women’s holiday concert has come and gone this year, their next concert at St. James is in February 2011. You can still catch an evening of holiday carols and candles with the St. James Children’s Choir (12/19/2010) as well as the annual New Year’s Eve concert (Mozart this year). St. Mark’s Cathedral on north Capitol Hill also has ongoing concerts, but a Seattle favorite is the regular Sunday evenings Compline chants at 9:30 p.m. Here's a map to St. James.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Northwest Fall Road Trip: Joseph to Hell’s Canyon

This is the last of a series on a late October road trip to southeast Washington and northeast Oregon.

How often do you get to cross a destination off your “must see” list? Seeing Hell’s Canyon, North America’s deepest river gorge, has been on my bucket list for years. With unpredictable work deadlines and life zipping by, I finally grab a small window of free time in late October to go.

The short story: Go earlier in the season if you can, when the weather is better and the canyon is more visible. But I still think any road trip is fun, regardless of the weather.

When we arrive in Joseph, Oregon, tucked up against the northern edge of the Wallowa Mountains near the Idaho border, a fresh dusting of snow highlights the dramatic backdrop behind town.

Joseph, a historic ranching town that has undergone a renaissance, now is home to numerous artists working in local bronze foundries and a rising tourist traffic. It’s also named after the famous Nez Perce Indian Chief Joseph, whose father Old Chief Joseph's remains are a cemetery just outside town overlooking Wallowa Lake. (Joseph's tribal name was Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, translated as Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain.)

We booked a room at Chandler’s Inn bed and breakfast for a couple nights as a base to explore the area. Good choice! Our hosts Lisa Allen and Syd Montgomery complement each other well. Lisa is the über-friendly talker and Syd is the great cook who whips up tasty omelettes and other breakfast goodies. We’re the only guests this weekend at the inn (a plus of going in the off-season), so we have the place to ourselves.

At Lisa’s recommendation, we head to Ember’s Brew House on Main Street for dinner. This bright and cozy spot has great bar food. My personal favorite: the sweet potato tots— crispy on the outside, soft and sweet on the inside, and a colorful vibrant orange. (Sorry, my photos of these delectable little treats came out fuzzy.)

Alas, the predicted early winter storm arrives the next morning, our day to go hiking and see Hell’s Canyon. After a wonderful breakfast omelette (Syd’s special ingredient – plenty of sautéed leeks), we grab rain gear and drive the 55-mile road through the mountains to the Hell’s Canyon National Recreation Area overlook.

Yes, it’s raining and snowing, but it’s still beautiful. We wind past glowing golden larches, raging streams, snow-flecked hills, deer, and a few hunters along the way.

After about 30 minutes of tromping in the rain and taking pictures at the overlook, the clouds dissipate a bit—just enough for us to get a sense of scale and what we can’t see today. This place clearly warrants a longer trip in warmer weather, either rafting or hiking through the canyon. After all, there are 900 miles of trails in the recreation area! And that’s not even counting adjacent Eagle Cap Wilderness!

When we get back to Joseph in the afternoon, I wander through some shops on the main street. I score a pair of lovely silver Navajo earrings at an end-of-season sale at the Joseph Fly Shoppe. Although this is primarily a shop for fly fishers, their selection of Southwest-style jewelry is impressive for the Northwest (yes, I’m a turquoise and silver junkie.)

Before dinner we go for a walk into the grassland that comprises the Iwetemlaykin State Heritage Area at the southern edge of town. There’s no one else out here, and the views in every direction are expansive and lovely. Interpretive signs remind us to respect this land, which is sacred to the Nez Perce, Colville, and Umatilla Tribes.

Tomorrow morning we need to hit the road early for the long drive back to Seattle (a little less than 8 hours), but I’ve just gotten a taste of what this area has to offer. Next time I’ll be back with my back-country skis or hiking boots. Shoulder seasons are good for deals, but not for optimum exploring.

When You Go
Here’s a map of the Joseph/Hell’s Canyon area. The overlook we drove to is identified by the number 28 on this map. If you stay at Chandler’s Inn, say hi to Lisa and Syd!