Saturday, December 24, 2011

And So This is Christmas

And how are you celebrating this holiday season? 

Perhaps you're an Aussie drinking white wine in the sunshine with family and friends. Or maybe you're huddled around an adobe fireplace in northern New Mexico waiting for the blizzard outside to abate. Maybe you don't celebrate the season at all.

 Here in the Pacific Northwest many of us get outside for a walk or run in the woods before or after big holiday meals. Temperatures are mild, it's not raining (today at least), and the mountains are vivid on the horizon.

A man I passed on the trail today in Carkeek Park said he hadn't been back since leaving the region 47 years ago. He looked happy to be here.

As I was finishing my walk through the forested gully, a jet soared low overhead, no doubt on a landing pattern for Sea-Tac Airport 20+ miles south. I thought of all the people in that plane coming to see loved ones, and darn if it didn't give me a little lump in my throat.  The holidays are like that--amped up emotions mixed with nostalgia and hope.

Wherever you are, whether you've traveled a long distance or are sticking close to home this season, I sincerely wish for everyone lots of love, hugs, laughter, propserity, and peace now and in the year to come.

Happy holidays from the Pacific Northwest!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Holiday Shopping in Ballard: Keeping it Indie and Local

Despite my adolescent past as a mall rat, over the years I’ve developed an aversion to big box stores and shopping malls.  Give me small stores that are charming, useful, and manageable.  

Remember that sweet little bookstore in the film You’ve Got Mail that was driven out of business by the big bad chain store? That’s my kind of store. 

Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood has several blocks of such great little shops right on the street where you can hop in and out quickly (or slowly if you want to browse longer).  And small doesn’t necessarily mean more expensive.
Here’s a run-down of must-visit Ballard shops in a neighborhood that’s becoming a bit overrun with trendy restaurants.  Head to Ballard for the feel of a true urban village and support these quality small retailers!

Market Street
Just a few doors east of Ballard’s main intersection (Market and Leary) is La Tienda Folk Art Gallery, which features hand-knitted hats, gloves, socks, lots of cool jewelry, fabrics, and more with an international, ethnic flare.  Look for the frame-worthy hand-embroidered, colorful molas from the San Blas Island of Panama and beautiful Woodstock wind chimes.
Woolly knit gloves at La Tienda

On the next block west are several more shops worth a visit.  Romanza is the place for extravagant Christmas decorations, lotions, soaps, and of course much more. This is one of my go-to shops for tree ornaments.
One of the beautifully decorated trees at Romanza's
A few doors down to the west is Annie’s frame shop, which also sells artsy cards, posters, and other interesting knick knacks. I always find gifts here when I’m in need of inspiration. Then just a few steps away is Ballard’s prime indie bookstore, Secret Garden Books. Besides books, they also carry cool calendars. 

For the foodie on your gift list, stop in Savour (west past Bop Street Records, which sells vintage record albums). You might be tempted to grab a tasty sandwich or gourmet mac ‘n cheese to eat there while picking up unusual imported and local foods like divine hot cocoas, honey from Tasmania, or fine Washington wines.
Treats from Italy at Savour
Ballard Avenue
Cross to the south side of Market street mid-block at the pedestrian crosswalk and angle down historic Ballard Avenue, which I think is the most charming several-block stretch in all of Seattle. There are too many wonderful little shops on Ballard Avenue for me to list here without this post getting way too long, so here are some gems.

Historic Ballard Avenue

Pass several great bars, pubs, and restaurants en route to Kavu, home-grown in Ballard. Kavu, which expanded their retail space couple years ago, sells locally designed and made hip, casual clothes  for guys and gals that are relatively inexpensive. And they regularly have great sales!  
After shopping for a spell, stop in Miro Tea for a relaxing break and sip some fine tea.  And then pick up some tea or accoutrements for the tea drinkers on your gift list.
Tea lover's gifts at Miro's

Continuing down Ballard Avenue, you must stop in Curtis Steiner’s new, larger digs. This world-famous, jewel box-like shop features exquisite jewelry, beautiful artisan cards, and other unique hand-crafted stuff.  Not cheap, but everyone needs a splurge now and then, right?  
Curtis Steiner new location in the old Guitar Emporium
A couple doors down is d’Ambrosio Gelateria Artiginiale, where you might just need to indulge in the best gelato this side of Italy when you’re buying gift certificates. Proprietor Marco d'Ambrosio's father Enzo, who is a master Italian gelato maker, helped Marco develop the business and gelatos.  Check back often for their seasonal flavors.

Cross the street to stop in a string of cozy and lovely little shops. One of my favorites is Lucca Great Finds, an enchanting store designed to echo Parisian gift salons of the 1920s and ‘30s. Want a paper cut-out of the Eiffel Tour? This is the place. You’ll also find fine linen tea towels, soaps, beautiful cards, and such. Continue to the very back for a tiny hand-paved courtyard with rustic garden ornaments.
Feel transported back to 1920s Paris at Lucca's
Next door is Camelion Design, chock full of quality home furnishings as well as some gorgeous jewelry around the front counter.  Check the very back of the store for handsome leather purses.
Had enough of the oh-so-charming giftie stores?  Go down almost to the end of the next block to Second Ascent for the outdoorsy/backcountry person on your gift list (or yourself, in my case). With the closure of Outdoors and More, this is now THE place for discounted outdoors clothing and gear in Seattle.  They get and sell samples from many top-rate brands like Mont Bell, Arcteryx, and even Patagonia that are new but not quite so outrageously expensive.  Get backcountry ski gear, climbing gear, snowshoes, bicycle gear, hiking boots, and lots of clothes.  In the very back you’ll even find some used clothes, which are a great bargain. 
Venue features artist studios within their store
Okay, if you’re still reading, here’s a plug for one more gallery/gift boutique: Venue on 22nd Avenue between Ballard Avenue and Market Street is full of hand-crafted items made by local artists.  Besides jewelry, there are lovely photographs, artisan chocolates, and, well, you’ll just have to go see for yourself. Venue also has studio space for artists , so you might get a chance to chat up an artist who made the gift you just bought.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Searching for the Fungus Among Us

Sometimes you see the most amazing things when you’re paying attention.  A Ballard birder I know saw five orca whales (with a baby!) swim past the beach at Seattle’s Golden Gardens Park a few weeks ago.  Never been that lucky. 

But here in the Pacific Northwest, our forests and many patches of earth even in cities are teeming with ubiquitous, otherworldly, and ever variable fungi. We have thousands of varieties here lurking in dark corners, under leaves, on decaying downed trees, and sometimes in your front lawn. They especially love our damp climate here west of the Cascade Mountains.

Last weekend on my weekly hike through the forest trails in Carkeek Park in north Seattle, my niece and I ended up on a quest to shoot mushrooms—with cameras.

“Wow, look at that!” exclaimed my niece, pointing out a florid-looking fungus growing on a log beside the trail. But this was like a Halloween version of a floral display, dark gray with rusty-orange “buds” and weird fang-like spikes on their underside.

Now I’m the first to admit I don’t go hunting for chanterelles, morels, or other wild edible mushrooms, although I enjoy eating them. I leave foraging to the pros. And I’m not a true naturalist.  I don’t know what the names are of these fungi. But once we got started looking, it was like an organic scavenger hunt, a challenge to see as many as we could.

Moss-covered, decomposing downed logs were the best spots. And there the mushrooms were, gray and smooth, dark brown and in clumps, small and delicate, mossy green, biomorphic, with DNA somewhere between human and plant.

We didn’t touch any because, well, you never know. Some are highly toxic, with names like Death Cap.  When I was a kid, a group in Portland cooked dinner with some wild mushrooms they harvested. Four died that night and two needed liver transplants.

So instead we looked, found, and shot.

Can you name any of these? 

When You Go
The Puget Sound Mycological Society has regular events and foraging trips led by experts. In the Portland area, check out the Oregon Mycological Society for similiar educational events and outings. If you want to explore further online, check out the Pacific Northwest Fungi Database out of Washington State University.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Skiing Crystal Mountain: Seize the Bluebird Days

Mount Rainier from the top of Crystal's Green Valley chair

Usually I ease into the new ski season by starting out on mostly groomed blue runs to loosen up and get my ski legs back. (Sound familiar?) But when the first day brings blue skies, a foot of fresh powder, and avid skiing buddies who challenge me to keep up, I can’t resist pushing it. Even though I know certain neglected muscles will scream at me the next day.

Such was the case last Friday at Crystal Mountain, the Pacific Northwest’s premier downhill ski area. Okay, I can hear you Bachelor and Baker skiers grumbling at me now, but c’mon. On, former U.S. Mogul Ski Team member Mike Hattrup recently listed Crystal as number two of his five favorite ski mountains in the U.S.  And as the dude who rode up the High Campbell chair with me said,

“Crystal is a skier’s mountain.”

How true. With bowl after bowl and seemingly endless routes down steep and steeper pitches, many not officially designated runs, it’s a mountain of well-kept and not-so-well kept secrets.

With November storms smashing into the Cascades every few days and the freezing level jumping up and down like a kid on a trampoline, I watched the weather forecasts carefully.  Friday after Thanksgiving was the day to go over the holiday weekend.

The traverse down Kelly's Gap

I wasn’t alone, that’s for sure.  But I still managed to find a few stashes of untracked pow in which to leave my signature, whooping with joy as I floated down.

And I’ll never tire of the always stupendous view of Mount Rainier, just 20 miles distant, as you crest the ridge near the Summit House above Green Valley. Rainier is, after all, the biggest, most heavily glaciated mountain in the contiguous U. S. (although the second-highest, just shy of Mount Whitney). How many times can I take pictures of Rainier on a beautiful day?  No limits.
The Big Kahuna of Cascade volcanoes

For November, the snow coverage  was good (helped along by new snow-making at the top of Green Valley). Yea, I got one particularly nasty gash in the base of my skis on the southward High Campbell traverse, but Powder Bowl was in fine form for early season.

Also in fine form was Lyndsey, the Snorting Elk cookie-baking maven.  I scooted into Snorting Elk Deli after a great day skiing and snagged one of her freshly baked crocodile spice cookies. Hmmmm.  Still the best around.

So get on up to the mountains, skiers and riders, and start your ski season.  Like my late friend and former Crystal ski instructor compadre Dean Meinert always did, watch the weather and carpe diem. Life is too short to spend those bluebird days indoors.

Have you gotten up yet this season? We'd love to hear about your best first-day-of-the-season ever in the Comments below!
When You Go
While Crystal is awesome, there are plenty of great places to ski throughout the Northwest. Here’s a tip to save a little money on your lift ticket:  After buying your first ticket of the season, keep the plastic Go Card they give you and reload online at the Crystal website. You save $5 a day on your ticket and bypass the ticket booths lines. Just flash your card in front of the scanner at the base lifts.  BTW, Crystal did NOT raise their rates this season, as of last weekend.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Northwest Gratitude

‘Tis the season again already.

Plenty of work, for which I am grateful, is keeping me from blogging as much as I’d like. In the meantime, I’m challenging myself to list at least 10 Pacific Northwest things I’m grateful for today.

So here’s my challenge to you – please reflect for a moment and then leave a comment below with a few things on your gratitude list.

Here's my list, which just got me warmed up:

1.  Carkeek Park in north Seattle, where I can walk in a lowland forest and see salmon spawning.

2. The Panama Hotel, Miro, and Zen Dog teahouses, for their fine tea and soothing ambiance.
Brewing tea in a gaiwan at Zen Dog Studio Teahouse
3. The sound of driving rain outside this morning when I was cozy warm in bed, and the sound of pouring rain as I write this.

4. Washington State ferries—love those ferry trips across Puget Sound.
Riding the Bainbridge Island ferry across Elliott Bay
5. The discounted new books at Powell’s Books in downtown Portland, where you can get wonderful cookbooks at more than half price off. (Or just Powell’s, period.)

6. Crystal Mountain’s South Back on a clear day with fresh, cold snow.
Silver Basin in Crystal's South Backcountry
7. The fireplace in Timberline Lodge.

8. Weekends at the lakeside North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center nestled in the North Cascades of Washington.

9. Our remaining patches of old growth forest, may they remain a sanctuary for all.

10. The craggy awesomeness of our snow-covered volcanoes on a clear day.

Wy'East/Mt. Hood
11. Our local organic farmers and small family artisan food vendors, bless them for their hard work and bounty.

Samuele makes the BEST fresh pasta!

12. Crimson vine maples and fresh huckleberries in the Cascades each fall.

Oh my, once I got started it was hard to stop. 
May you treasure each moment and savor each bite.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Northwest Thanksgiving Weekend Getaways: Historic Lodging, Fine Dining, and Outdoors Fun

Although this post is originally from 2011, as of September 2018 I've updated some links and restaurant recommendations and added a few more suggestions.

I just read an article in Bon App├ętit magazine about exotic Thanksgiving escapes to places like Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Toulouse in southern France. Really? I wondered if the author enjoyed negotiating busy airports that weekend.

While I’ve battled the airport crowds on T-day weekend trips to New York City and San Francisco, my favorite holiday getaways have been exploring here in the Pacific Northwest.  Here are a few trips I’ve done that might inspire you, too.
Long Beach Peninsula, Washington
Late November is the stormiest, wettest time of the year in the Northwest, and the coast gets the brunt of the storm fronts.  How about heading there for the real action?

Where to Stay - I spent a relaxing Thanksgiving weekend at the cozy Shelburne Inn in Seaview close to the ocean in southwest Washington.  The Shelburne is the oldest continuously operating hotel in the State of Washington (since 1896) and a great launching point for exploring the peninsula’s beaches, cranberry bogs, historic small towns (like quaint Oysterville), or just reading a good book in your room.

Leadbetter Point State Park

What to Do - We headed south along the coast to the Lewis and Clark National Historic Park (where we got some of the miserable weather that drove Meriwether Lewis into what was likely deep seasonal affective disorder) and another day drove up the peninsula to Leadbetter Point State Park. If you’re feeling adventurous and have good rain gear, take your sea kayak and paddle out to Long Island in lovely Willapa Bay, where I spent one of the wettest nights camping in  my life. Fabulous birding in this part of the region.

Where to Eat - We had incredible meals while staying at the Shelburne Inn in the former Shoalwater Restaurant, but the owners have moved and opened the Bridgewater Bistro in Astoria that looks worth a trip down from Seaview. However, the new restaurant there, Shelburne Restaurant and Pub, looks excellent, with a focus on local, seasonal fare.

[In June 2018 I spent a weekend on the peninsula, which you can read about here.] 

Mount Hood, Hood River, Columbia Gorge, Oregon
If you’ve read my blog, you know I love the Columbia River Gorge, Mount Hood, and northern Oregon along the Cascade Crest.

Where to Stay - We started the weekend staying at quirky and boisterous McMenamin’s Edgefield in Troutdale after Thanksgiving dinner with family, then drove up to Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood the next day for an overnight. Our third night was at the historic Hood River Hotel after a nice drive around the mountain and down through Hood River Valley.

View of Mt. Hood summit from Timberline, Magic Mile chairlift visible.
What to Do - If there’s skiing anywhere in the Cascades in the early season, it’s at Timberline. I got in my first turns of the season and then thoroughly relaxed that evening in front of the massive stone fireplace in the beautiful old lodge.  The next night in Hood River we wandered across the street from our hotel to the Skylight Theater Pub (where they also serve good pizza) for a movie.
Enroute back to Seattle we drove across the Columbia River and explored the Washington side of the Gorge, with a side trip up to really historic and very rustic Carson Hot Springs. Their spa offers massages and mineral baths in old claw foot tubs with water pumped in from the river raging outside the windows. Rumor has it that the place is haunted. [They have added some new buildings and spiffed up the place since I was there, so probably not as off the beaten path or rustic anymore.]
Where to Eat - Dinner in Timberline Lodge’s Cascade Dining Room was fabulous—I had savory fresh papardelle pasta with mushrooms, then a nightcap in the Ram’s Head Bar on the balcony overlooking the fireplace. We also had an excellent dinner in the lobby restaurant at the Hood River Hotel. Just a few months ago I dined at Celilo Restaurant and Bar in Hood River within a block or two of the hotel, wonderful!    

Warming up by the fire, Timberline Lodge
San Juan Islands, Washington
Any time of year is a good time to head to the lovely San Juans, but the islands are less crowded in the late fall and winter.
Where to Stay – Rustic Doe Bay Resort on Orcas Island is always fun. In Friday Harbor on San Juan Island we stayed at the Argyle House Bed & Breakfast, a comfy refurbished craftsman-style home just a couple blocks from downtown and easy walking to restaurants. New owners have taken over the place since we were there, but it looks as lovely as ever. I also spent a couple nights a few months ago at the earthbox inn in Friday Harbor. Clean, recently renovated, and great location for walking to town.

View from road up Mt. Constitution, Orcas Island
What to Do -  Winter is a great time to hike in Moran State Park. Drive up Mount Constitution in Moran State Park on Orcas Island for great views (or not, depending on the weather). When I was there on a T-Day weekend, a big raven greeted us at the misty summit. Or take your sea kayak and cruise the island rocky shorelines studded with starfish. The next day we took an interisland ferry over to San Juan Island, where we hiked and explored along the west side of the island at Lime Kiln State Park. This park is one of the best places to spot orca whales from the land.
Where to Eat -  In Eastsound on Orcas Island, cozy Hogstones Wood Oven has some of the best wood-fired pizza I've ever tasted. Their motto is "Reverence for Excellence." I've also  eaten recently at the Doe Bay Cafe, now transformed into a foodie's heaven with their mostly vegetarian but locally sourced, seasonal gourmet fare.

Dinner at Doe Bay Cafe is exquisite.

Mount Rainier National Park
Late November usually brings heavy snow to the Cascades, and Mount Rainier gets some of the heaviest snowfall on the planet. Head to the mountain with your cross-country or back country skis.

Mt. Rainier from above Paradise
 Where to Stay – We stayed at the National Park Inn at the Longmire Historic District, lower down the mountain than more famous Paradise Inn. Open year-round, historic Longmire is casual and low-key but comfortable, and a great place to unwind in the evenings.

What to Do -  If there's enough snow on the ground – cross-country or backcountry ski up around Paradise.  If there's not much of a snowpack yet – hike, there are plenty of trails around Longmire or higher up.

Snowy Paradise Lodge
 Where to Eat – In the park this late in the year the options are limited. Longmire Inn has a decent dining room, where we had some good meals. They also serve a traditional American Thanksgiving buffet there. Click here for reservation info.

More Ideas
Lake Quinault Lodge on the southwestern edge of Olympic National Park, splendid old-style lodge and setting, plus good walks through old growth forest nearby to burn off the turkey and stuffing. Or go to equally historic Lake Crescent Lodge on the northern edge of the park, where you'll find the same ambiance and forest walks.

Frosty winter morning at Lake Quinault Lodge
Relaxing on the porch at Lake Crescent Lodge.

Sun Mountain Lodge in the Methow Valley of north-central Washington is also a great destination.  The views don't get much better and most years you can cross-country ski too. Talk about burning calories! 

And for you vegetarians/flexitarians who really want to get away, try Breitenbush Hot Springs in Oregon's central Cascades, where they serve a vegetarian buffet. Soak and enjoy their usual Daily Well Being programs.

Okay, that's just scratching the surface of all the places to go. Do you have a favorite Thanksgiving weekend destination?  Jump in the conversation by leaving a comment below!