Friday, July 29, 2016

Victoria B.C. Afternoon: Exploring on a Budget


During my recent afternoon in picturesque Victoria, B.C., I didn't plan on being on such a tight budget. While fishing around in my purse for my wallet on the Clipper trip up from Seattle, I wasn't there. (It was in my camera bag back at home.)

Fortunately we already had prepaid reservations for Tea at the Empress Hotel, so going hungry wasn't a problem for this day trip from Seattle. Beyond that, though, I can say that not much money is needed to explore and thoroughly enjoy this charming and historic city.
After we finished the wonderful tea (read about it here), my niece and I had about 3 hours before boarding our ferry back to Seattle.  For starters, we explored a bit of the beautiful Fairmount Empress right behind the Tea Lobby.

With its polished stone floors and colorful, vintage stained-glass skylight dome, the Palm Court is a visual treat. Back in the early 1900s, the original Empress Victorian-style tea was served in this space.

Skylight Dome
According to tour guide Mandy Kray, the tea service was moved out of the Palm Court to avoid the particular acoustics of the room that amplified whispered gossip a little too clearly. Today the Palm Court is an elegant space for private events.

Vancouver Island is home to rich Northwest Coast/First Nations aboriginal art and culture, and striking totem poles are scattered around Victoria. As we walked through the Empress lobby past elegant shops and the adjoining Victoria Conference Centre to the street beyond, we passed some fine examples of this art. 

Outside on the street behind the conference centre, we walked several blocks up Douglas Street and over to Market Square, and then on to Victoria's historic Chinatown, one of the oldest in North America. You know you're approaching by the banners and Chinese lanterns hanging over the street.

I always love Chinatowns outside China.  Suddenly you feel transported to a fascinating cross-cultural hybrid of East meets West, but often in time capsule form because they're usually historic districts.

About halfway down the block after passing the Chinatown gate, we noticed a very narrow passageway to our left. Entering Fan Tan Alley was like I imagined it would be to enter Daigon Alley of Harry Potter fame. (Maybe the photo below was purposely blurred to evoke the sense of passing into another reality. Or not:)

While the alley widens a bit after the first stretch, it's lined with an eclectic collection of shops, no doubt catering to tourists.  Historically a reality-altering industry did occur here: it was a popular place for opium dens and factories until 1908, when opium became illegal in Canada.

Then we wandered back toward the Inner Harbour, stopping in a few shops that drew in my niece and enjoying the charming old buildings.  We weren't hungry, but noticed a lot of appealing cafes, restaurants, and coffee shops.

"This would be a great city to come back and eat in," observed my niece Willa.

A Storm Trooper in a lower window keeping watch over the street below.

After meandering around the shops and old Victorian buildings, we cut over to Wharf Street along the water and made our way back toward the Empress, enjoying the waterfront views along with many others.

Parliament Building in the background.
While we only had about 90 minutes before our ferry boarding, we decided to check out the Royal BC Museum, which has a world-renowned collection of First Nations of art and culture.

Well....on a budget, it was a bit much (over $40 for my niece and I), and we really didn't have enough time to do it justice. But I enjoyed the displays  of impressively huge old First Nations carvings in the lobby while my niece browsed the gift shop and got a cute sweatshirt (because she didn't forget her wallet).

Royal BC Museum
As we made our way back toward the ferry in the James Bay Village area, we lost the throngs of people after passing the Parliament buildings. We thought about hitting the Saturday farmer's market, but got there too late.

Instead we found a perfect place to recharge, Nourish Kitchen & Cafe in a cozy converted Victorian villa. They specialize in wholesome and nourishing food, so my niece spotted me the $4.50 Canadian for a glass of their housemade water kefir, a flavorful fermented drink full of probiotics. 

My kind of place.
With about 25 minutes left, we walked down along the waterfront in Laurel Point Park just as the sky started threatening rain.

Too soon we were boarded back on the Clipper (about 4 pm) for the return trip to Seattle on this now cloudy and rainy summer afternoon. I'm not complaining, though, because I love a good summer rain.

So long Victoria!
We were blessed with a smooth ride home, except for some big bounces over the wake of departing cruise ships bound for Alaska.  

Next time I'd take my bicycle and stay a night or two like I've done in years past, but with the tea and exploring, this was a fun day. Highly recommend! But don't forget your wallet. :)

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news.

When You Go
The Victoria Clipper leaves Pier 69 in Seattle 7 days a week, weather permitting, year-round. The trip is under 3 hours each way, with good food service on the trip up and back. If you're lucky, you might see a whale in the Salish Sea, but we didn't. Here's a map of Victoria where we wandered.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Around Mt. Rainier: Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail to Sourdough Gap

While books, movies, and social media have drawn thru-hikers to the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail from all over the world the last few years, here in the Pacific Northwest we've been day hiking and backpacking the PCT for decades.   

One of my favorite day hikes on the PCT is the section from Chinook Pass just north of Mt. Rainier to Sourdough Gap and a bit beyond. The visual feast along the trail is spectacular. (Volcanoes! Craggy peaks! Alpine lakes and meadows! Wildflowers!) Just driving to the trailhead along the Chinook Scenic Byway offers magnificent scenery and close views of Mt. Rainier.

Because the trailhead starts over a mile high (elevation 5,400 feet), as soon as you start hiking, bam! You're in gorgeous alpine high country, with lush greenery and wildflowers lining the trail during the summer.

Initially the trail parallels Highway 410/Chinook Scenic Byway, but the road quickly descends down the valley toward eastern Washington. Colorful and delicate wildflowers like scarlet and magenta paintbrush, subalpine lupine, and bear grass line the trail. By September they'll be done, but now a splendid display is happening.

Scarlet paintbrush

Bear grass

This far from Seattle (it took us about 2 hours to drive here on a Sunday morning), the crowds aren't quite so heavy as the PCT at Snoqualmie Pass. But the first leg, about 1.5 miles, to Sheep Lake is well-traveled. This lovely alpine lake is an easy backpack destination for families with kids because the trail is fairly flat.

Sheep Lake
After stopping at the lake to shed layers, we continue upward into increasingly beautiful alpine meadows and views. Although the grade steepens a bit, it's still an easy ascent.

This early in the season, before the masses of PCT thru-hikers pass through in August/early September, there's not as much traffic past Sheep Lake. Maybe the weather forecast for afternoon thunderstorms in the Cascades kept some hikers away.  

We reach Sourdough Gap (literally a gap in the rocky ridge) and drop down to traverse a talus slope toward the next saddle. A couple hundred yards on we reach the PCT junction, where the PCT starts descending. We stay high.

Sourdough Gap, looking back toward Chinook Pass.

We continue to the saddle, where the trail drops down toward Crystal Lakes.  Just below the saddle we enter Mt. Rainier National Park, where Tahoma finally reveals a glimpse of herself behind the gathering clouds. (Factoid: Tahoma/Rainier is considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world.)

Here in the national park, dogs aren't allowed. As we settle for lunch on a knoll overlooking upper Crystal Lake, an unmistakable canine howl reverberates across the basin, not too far away (OWOOOOOOOO). Pretty soon a whole chorus starts calling to each other, echoing all around us.

It's primal and awesome.

I'm momentarily thrilled that it might be wolves, but another hiker above us says, no, just coyotes. (Howl not deep enough and yipping.) So that bucket list item is not yet checked off.

Lunch spot view not too shabby. Upper Crystal Lake.
With a car shuttle, you can continue down beyond the Crystal Lakes to a lower trailhead, but today we turn back at this point, making it about 7 miles roundtrip.

Back at Sourdough Gap, we meet the first PCT thru-hiker I've seen this year. Friendly "Connecticut" (his trail name) is happy to share trail stories as we scramble to keep up with him.  I always love to talk to thru-hikers about their journey and where they came from. Connecticut, who's doing the less common north-to-south thru-hike, started his journey about two weeks ago.

Connecticut, going all the Mexico.
Back at Sheep Lake, we notice the clouds are turning bruised dark, and then a sharp crack of lightning and the deep rumbling of thunder rolls overhead. I do not like being in the mountains during a thunderstorm.

With little spits of rain possibly threatening a downpour, we pick up the pace. I figure our hiking poles are little lightning rods. By the time we reach the car, we shaved about 30 minutes off our ascent time.

Lucky us, just as we're pulling out of the parking lot, it starts raining. All in all, a great hike. We drive away with that endorphin-fueled mountain high I always get after a good day on the trail.

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news.

When You Go
The trailhead to the PCT is about 1/4 mile beyond Chinook Pass if you're coming from the west side of the Cascades. You'll need a Northwest Forest Pass to park since the trail starts in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest before entering Mt. Rainier National Park. From the Seattle area, it's about 150 miles roundtrip drive (more if you're coming from north Seattle like we did).

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Victoria B.C. Day Trip: By Sea for Tea at the Empress

Part 1 of 2 about a terrific day trip to Victoria, B.C., from Seattle via the Victoria Clipper. 

One of the great things about being in the Pacific Northwest is our proximity to beautiful British Columbia, Canada, just a few hours north of Seattle. A fun way to travel north is via the Victoria Clipper, direct from downtown Seattle to Victoria's Inner Harbour in less than 3 hours.

While I usually head to B.C. for epic kayaking, hiking, or skiing, sometimes I go for more urban pleasuresLast weekend I had a thoroughly enjoyable day in Victoria, B.C., with my niece Willa via the Clipper, where we indulged in the famous Victorian-style tea at the grand and historic Fairmount Empress Hotel.

It's an early morning start for sure, with a 6:30 a.m. check-in at Pier 69 on Seattle's waterfront, but definitely worth the predawn wake-up. Because we went just for the day, we opted for the 7:30 rather than 9:00 a.m. departure to make our reservations for tea and have more time to explore.

And we're off! Seattle skyline receding in the Clipper's wake.
First, I'd like to say the Clipper staff and crew were exceptionally friendly and helpful on the trip up and back. Everyone was already in vacation mode, but the crew added to the ambiance. For onboard food and drink, they feature as much Northwestern fare as possible, and I enjoyed some excellent tea and a sandwich for breakfast, while Willa had locally made Greek-style yogurt and fruit.

As Willa napped enroute, I chatted up other travelers. Although I heard several languages besides English being spoken, interestingly, most of the people I talked to were fellow Northwesterners from Washington and Oregon.

Just arrived. The Empress from the Inner Harbour.
After disembarking about 10:30 a.m. at the Clipper terminal, we wandered over to the Empress a few blocks away for our tea reservation at 11:15. While the Victorian tea is traditionally a mid-afternoon treat, for us it was perfect timing. This early lunch left us more time to explore in the afternoon.

The impressive French chateau-style Empress facade.
Recently renovated, the tea lobby is spacious and light in an Old World charming way.  We were seated close to the big windows shown in the photo above at the old entrance.

Even though it's not promoted as such, this was a filling and satisfying lunch for us both. Our ├╝ber friendly server Jan (yes, everyone who served us all day was gracious) started us off with an impressive tea selection. I chose a delicate, floral jasmine tea, while Willa went for a fragrant mint. (Neither of us are caffeine fiends.)

The Empress Tea China was first used here for the 1939 Royal visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

We're each given our own pot with a timer for steeping, and when I understeep, Jan quickly refreshes my pot so I can get a stronger steep. Because it's about the tea. And the sweets, scones, and tea sandwiches, which are perfectly prepared and decadently delicious.

"It doesn't feel like it's warm, but inside it's perfect," said Willa as she raved about the creamy, soft warm Empress signature raisin scone, served with English-style clotted cream and strawberry jam. 

Neither of us could finish everything, but I tasted a bit of each treat.  My favorite tea sandwich was the island egg salad with basil on a mini brioche bun. My favorite sweet was the chocolate cremeux dome tart, while Willa's was the passion fruit strawberry pavlova. And the warm raisin sconedivine. As I ate it, I thought to myself: This might be the best scone I've ever tasted.

I've never seen my petite gymnast niece eat as much food in one sitting. Now, Empress, that's saying something about your excellent fare. To quote my niece:

"Canada, you Empressed me." 

We lingered over the tea for as long as possible, but it was time to move on and go explore for a few hours.  Check back soon for the next post about walking around the Inner Harbour area!

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news.

When You Go
The Clipper ferry departs Seattle for Victoria seven days a week (weather permitting), check schedules and fares here. Because we traveled on a weekend, we got reservations for tea at the Empress in advance. Here is their tea menu. They accommodate dietary needs (e.g., my niece is a vegetarian and got meatless sandwiches), especially if you let them know in advance. They do have a dress code, so basically leave the torn jeans, sports clothes, and flip flops at home and opt for smart casual attire (or dressier if that's your thing). I wore clean jeans and a jacket, which was fine.