Friday, July 20, 2012

Overnight at Paradise Inn: Rainier's Rustic Jewel

Years ago I spent an evening huddled in front of a big stone fireplace in the Paradise Inn lobby, reluctant to leave the warmth and return to my tent at Cougar Rock campground down mountain. But tonight I’m drifting from the lobby back up to my cozy room here at the inn, where a feather bed and down comforter await me.

Who says an outdoorsy girl can’t splurge on a little luxury now and then?

As a lover of rustic mountain lodges, craggy mountain peaks, and national parks, surprisingly this is my first overnight at Paradise Inn on Mount Rainier.  A friend has never been to Rainier after many years living in Seattle, and I’m flattered she’s asked me to take her to The Mountain. Amazingly, I found a room at Paradise less than two weeks out. (Okay, so it’s a Monday night.)

On this lovely July day, we arrive at Mount Rainier National Park via the historic Nisqually entrance on the southwest side of the mountain.

After about 2.5 hours driving from Seattle, our first stop is a few miles into the park at Longmire to stretch our legs and have lunch. We meander through lush forest around the Trail of the Shadows, a self-guided nature walk around a large wetland fed by volcanic mineral springs.

As we drive higher up the winding road past waterfalls fed by fast-melting snow and get glimpses of glacier-heavy Rainier, my friend Felicity can't help but gasp. "This is incredible!" she cries at one point.

Seeing Rainier up close for the first time does that to even the most jaded urbanite.

The Incredible Hulk of Cascade volcanoes never fails to be anything less than awe-inspiring. And from the Paradise area at 5,400 feet elevation on the mountain's south flank, visitors can get a taste of the high alpine meadows.

Magenta paintbrush and avalanche lilies in a meadow above Paradise

There's still a lot of snow covering the meadows above Paradise Inn. After checking in, I stroll along the road below the lodge, where small waterfalls have sprung like leaks in a failing dam. And where there is well-hydrated soil, there are lots of wildflowers.

Paradise Inn

Mountain lupine
In one of the most civilized afternoon rituals I've experienced in quite a while, we enjoy tea and freshly baked chocolate chip cookies for overnight guests. I'm not sure if this tradition has been ongoing since the inn opened in 1917, but it's a lovely throwback to an earlier era.

After a relaxing afternoon, we're dining in the inn's cavernous dining room, where the service is very friendly and the food is not bad. But the Hogue Cellars pinot grigio goes down easily. An overnight at this historic lodge is more about the setting anyway.

With a steady stream of visitors from all over the world in the summer, there's also a range of activities going on based at the Jackson Visitor Center across the parking lot. After dark, an enthusiastic volunteer from the Tacoma Astronomical Society has set up a big telescope for stargazing.

Soothed by the mountain fresh air, I linger only briefly in the warm inn lobby before heading to bed.  Although there are numerous cozy nooks with comfy chairs to sit and read, tonight a sound sleep comes quickly.

Paradise Inn at dusk
One of several stone fireplaces in Paradise Inn
After an extravagant breakfast buffet the next morning, we opt for a "meadow meander" led by interpretive ranger Maureen McClean, a school teacher in the off season. Since the meadows are still under several feel of snow, we walk along the roadside and hear about alpine wildflowers.

Interesting factoid we learned from Maureen:   A patch of pink mountain heather she pointed out on the edge of the parking lot is probably 400 years old, and one patch in the park has been dated to over 1,000 years old. These hearty plants are older than many ancient forests!

Ancient pink mountain heather
Before heading back to the urban lowlands, we grab sandwiches from  Tatoosh Deli and enjoy a few more moments on the lodge deck overlooking the Tatoosh Range. A solo woman invites us to share her table, and we strike up yet another easy conversation with a happy, relaxed visitor. Everyone is happy and friendly up here. I meet interesting people from Georgia, Kentucky, Connecticut, Arizona, and my own Washington.

L to R: The Castle, Pinnacle Peak, Plummer, and Deman peaks in the Tatoosh Range
While this is a quick overnight, we both leave feeling refreshed and exhilarated from our time at Paradise. Although Rainier is a fantastic place to hike and climb, sometimes slowing down and just enjoying the wildflowers is  perfect.

Have you been to Paradise? We'd love to hear about what your visit was like in a comment below (especially those of you who have climbed Rainier).

When You Go
Rooms and campsites fill up quickly and early in Mount Rainier National Park, but you could be lucky like me and hit an opening from a last-minute cancellation. Our small room with twin beds and a sink was $112 + tax ($127 total). For an extra $50 you can get a private bath in your room, but we were happy to wear the  ample terrycloth robes and slippers provided by the lodge and walk down the hallway to shared showers and bathroom. The season at Paradise Inn is short - just June into September. However, the equally comfortable National Park Inn at Longmire stays open year-round.

Depending on the annual snowpack, the meadows above Paradise are generally free of snow by August, when you can hike up trails up to Panorama Point for fabulous views. And you'll likely see fat and happy hoary marmots, "the biggest flirts in the park," according to Ranger Maureen McClean.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Friday Harbor Getaway

Any time I head north to Washington's San Juan Islands, my stress level heads south. It starts the minute I arrive at the ferry terminal in Anacortes, and by the time I disembark at the destination island, I'm smiling relaxed, happy smiles.

Recently I spent a few nights at the earthbox inn & spa in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. (Thank you Groupon!) Friday Harbor is the "metropolis" of the San Juan archipelago with a population around 4,000. The two-night getaway was just what I needed after several intense months of work.

Located just four blocks up from the ferry landing and easy walking distance of the main business district, the earthbox inn is a comfortable base from which to explore the island. While it's essentially a classic American motor-in motel, the owners have updated the rooms with retro style.

earthbox inn  room

Dinner the first evening was on my little private deck, where I munched on salad fixin's I brought from home. Loved having a little refrigerator in the room to stash water and snacks and cut down on expenses.  Although the view wasn't much, I did enjoy watching nesting swallows pop in and out of their hideaway on the eave right above me.

After dinner I strolled around town and down to the waterfront, which was pretty quiet on a weeknight in late spring. 

Friday Harbor Marina
Friday Harbor waterfront

On previous trips to San Juan I've bicycled around the island, and the earthbox has bicycles you can check out. But this trip was about visiting a friend on Orcas Island, sea kayaking, and relaxing.

So the next morning after a bowl of oatmeal at the bean cafe, I hopped an inter-island ferry bound for Orcas.  On a sunny day, the route threading through the Wasp Islands is one of the most relaxing, scenic boat trips anywhere.

Cruising through the Wasp Islands

I love cruising past the many small islands and islets, some with private homes and others nature preserves. 

Things did get a little exciting when the sailboat pictured above didn't get out of the path of the oncoming ferry, forcing us to slow way down and prompting the captain to yell from the deck "ARE YOU REALLY THAT STUPID?" (Law of the sea: Smaller boats need to yield to bigger boats, and in these waters, the Washington State Ferries rule.)

Dinner that evening was at the Golden Triangle in Friday Harbor, an Asian fusion restaurant (mostly Thai and Vietnamese with Laotian specialties) run by a friendly Laotian emigre. My wonton soup was just what I wanted - light, fresh, tasty, and full of fresh veggies.  Service was excellent and friendly in this spacious, bright, and colorful space. 

After wandering through town and gift shopping (at Pelindaba Lavender store and the indie Griffin Bay Bookstore, among others), I drifted a couple blocks up Spring Street.  Lavendera Day Spa was offering 15-minute massages for community health night (first Thursday each month). My 15 minutes stretched to over 20 as the friendly masseuse and I discovered our two degrees of separation.

Thoroughly relaxed and well fed, sleep came easily that night.

Early the next morning I was off with my kayak to the west side of the island (which I wrote about here), then back for the late afternoon ferry to the mainland. Too soon.

What are you favorite places to stay or eat or do in the San Juans?  We'd love to hear about your trips and tips below under the comments. Cheers.

When You Go 
During the summer and early fall season, rooms book up quickly in Friday Harbor and elsewhere in the San Juans. I got a great Groupon deal at the earthbox inn just before Memorial Day weekend.  In the summer, I recommend going midweek if possible to avoid long waits to get on a ferry. If you don't have your own sea kayak, numerous outfitters such as Outdoors Odysseys take groups out for a few hours or few days.

Don't forget to relax!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Art in the Park 2012: Heaven & Earth at Carkeek Park

While I traipsed through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Louvre, British Museum, Rijksmuseum, and more venerable museums as an art history student, what most enthralled me was experiencing art in a natural setting.  In southern France I was fortunate to see ancient cave paintings outside a small village in the lush green hills of the Dordogne region: simple, graceful, powerful images of bovine creatures, painted on raw stone walls.

You don't have to travel to France or Spain to have a similar experience. In an enchanting blend of art in nature, visitors can wander through the forest trails at Seattle's Carkeek Park this summer and see kinetic sculptures and "landcape interventions." What a perfect blend of two of my favorite things: art and the beautiful Pacific Northwest outdoors.

Last weekend while walking on my usual trek through Carkeek, I chanced on a few of the art installations without knowing the Rootbound: Heaven & Earth IV exhibit had just debuted the same day. 

Colorful shards of glass inset into the cyclone fence railing on the stairs down to the beach refracted light from the setting sun.  At first confused, I soon remembered it was about that time of year again: this is the fourth year of this exhibit in Carkeek, one of the few such outdoors art exhibits in a public nature preserve/park setting in the U.S. 

Curated by David Francis of Seattle's Center on Contemporary Art, the exhibit features a variety of mixed media pieces, some of which will decompose during the course of the four-month-long event. While the event features mostly local Seattle-area artists, California, Oregon, and B.C. artists are represented as well.

As I stopped to read strings of hand-painted oyster shells hanging from a tree on a bluff overlooking Puget Sound (pictured above), several children clustered around as well, laughing and ringing the bells at the end of each string. Definitely not a stuffy art museum, where we're told to look but not touch.

Art from 2011 show

I haven't walked the whole 2- to 3-mile stretch of the exhibit, so look forward to discovering more as I go over the summer. I'll purposely not check the map to see if I notice what's different on my usual urban woodland walks.

Have you had an outdoors art experience that left you thrilled, awed, or delighted?  Or have you made it to Carkeek already and wandered through the exhibit?  I'd love to hear your comments below!

And a closing quote from Seattle artist Benson Shaw about the value of public art:

"Public art is important because it makes our built environment better - it shows that the community cares. Then there's also an intellectual component, the artwork usually references something or there's a little mystery in the stories of the artwork and it's fun to think about those."

When You Go
This exhibit officially extends through October 31, 2012, in north Seattle's Carkeek Park.  Be sure and park  at (or least walk to) the Environmental Learning Center, which is immediately to the right as soon as your turn off to enter the park, to see more of the exhibit in the meadow up there. (Most pass this and park down by the beach.)