Adventure

Yucatan Magic – Chichén Itzá and a lot more

When you visit the Yucatan, you visit Mayan country. Not just dead ruins and pyramids, but Mayan people. Today, there are currently an estimated 20 to 30 million direct descendants of the ancient civilization living in southern Mexico, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, where the indigenous group is most prevalent.

Valladolid Cathedral

We booked this tour with Amigo Tours for Tuesday, not at 4 am, but a little better at 5:30. We were picked up at the Vidanta Mayan Palace, then driven to a rendezvous spot where we boarded a large, comfortable tour bus driven by Jorge. Our guide, César, began his informative and entertaining talk given in alternating Spanish and English about Chichén Itzá and the ancient Mayan people living a thousand years ago.  Although it was a long drive to our first stop, the wonderful colonial city of Valladolid, the time flew by. We learned about the fascinating Mayan numerical system, the Mayan culture, and the archaeological wonder we were about to visit.

Valladolid Zócalo

 

 

 

We briefly stopped in Valladolid, and enjoyed a few minutes near the central zócalo or square. Its colonial buildings are colorfully painted and marvelously maintained. If we’d had more time, a visit to a nearby chocolate museum and shop looks like it would have been an excellent option.

Our next stop was a village with an indigenous craft market, where we were encouraged to purchase authentic items made by the locals, including carved obsidian. We also had Mayan horoscopes made (nearest analogy), and were blessed by a Mayan shaman. We then had a wonderful buffet lunch with a variety of Mexican food, including the Yucatecan specialty, cochinita pibil, slow-roasted marinated pork, served with handmade tortillas.

Temple of Kukulcan

A short time later, we arrived at Chichén Itzá, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. César led us on a walk through the grounds, where we learned about the construction of the enormous stepped pyramid, El Castillo (Temple of Kukulcan). César explained that the feathered serpent god, Kukulcan, can be observed “descending” the pyramid during the spring and autumn equinoxes – the stones create an undulating pattern at those times of year. This was important to the Mayan people, since they were dependent on the ability to know when to plant their crops. César also thoroughly described the numbering system that was incorporated into the building–the pyramid’s levels and the intricate positioning and placement of the stones. He also told us that the pyramid was built on a scaffolding over a cenote, or sinkhole, such as the one we were soon to visit. The next major site we saw was the famed Great Ball Court, where games played with 12 lb. rubber balls thrown through a stone hoop ended in human sacrifices. The elaborate tzompantl, or skull rack, is nearby, a testament to the warlike Mayan culture. We were free to wander the grounds for around 45 minutes before boarding the bus. We chose to seek shade from the relentless sun and tropical humidity, and walked over to the restaurant at the entrance to the grounds to enjoy a cold beer in the shade.

Xcajum cenote

We were really able to cool off at our next stop, the Xcajum cenote, a limestone sinkhole filled with fresh water. César informed us that there were about 5,000 such cenotes in the Yucatán, all interconnected and many regarded by the Mayan people as sacred.

We changed into swimsuits, donned our life vests, showered, and descended 150 shallow steps to the cenote. We marveled at the layered limestone walls covered with jungle vines, and enjoyed a cool, refreshing swim. Now this was a swim. No wading allowed when the water is 150 feet deep, wall to wall. I was reassured by the lifeguard in the nearby rowboat. Then, it was back up the 150 steps to the bus for our return trip.

Later, back at the resort, we took the tram back to Salum and Huama Cerveceria for dinner and a pint of our favorite draft, Chela Vista Mosaic IPA. For a change, we ordered from Robayaki Grill & Sushi for some very tasty and creative sushi rolls.

Wet tropics

There is a reason that the Yucatan is lush and green. It’s called rain, and during the night, the thunder and lightning blew in and rain pounded down. We had made reservations for Wednesday morning to see the ruins at Tulum, an hour south of Riviera Maya, but at 4 am, we looked out at the pouring rain and called to cancel our trip. But, being the tropics, the rain can move quickly, and by mid-morning, there were clouds on the horizon, but the sun was shining bright, and there were plenty of orioles splashing around on the wet leaves. We spent some time out on our own, checking out local birds, and took most of the day easy. After all, we were on vacation.

Across the highway from Vidanta,  the Cirque du Soleil has a theater and were performing a show called JOYÁ. We were considering seeing the show, but Steven, our birding guide insisted that it was well worth it to go for the dinner as well. Laurel had seen an early Cirque du Soleil show in Santa Monica years ago, held in a tent by the pier, but I had never seen one. We are very glad we signed up for both the show and dinner.

Joya appetizers

This performance is held in a theater that Vidanta has built especially for Cirque du Soleil. The theater layout, design, and tiered seating ensure that all seats are good, and our table for the dinner put us right in the middle of the action! We were served appetizers as soon as we were seated, and our waiter brought us our champagne (included) right away, as we enjoyed the pre-show music and dance.

A very tasty menu

The dishes, described on the menu printed on edible (!) paper, were very creative. The theme was Natura (nature), Arte (art), and Sciencia (science) and the presentation included a mysterious, atmospheric touch of smoking dry ice poured into a small vase of rosemary in the center of the appetizer plate. The food was not only well-presented, but also delicious. We both enjoyed the main entrée, braised short ribs, followed by a selection of desserts presented in a box designed to look like an old book of arcana, in keeping with the theme of the show.

Plenty of swordplay in Joya

And what a show! The story involves an alchemist and his granddaughter, Joyá, who’s interested in her grandfather’s work, which often results in her curiosity getting the better of her! Throughout, various performers drop in and out (literally) of the theater. The acrobats, pirates, and a juggler were all exceptionally skilled and entertaining. Some performers mingle with the audience, and if you are at the VIP tables, are right in front of you! The breathtaking action (and there were a lot of aerial and acrobatic performances) was accompanied by excellent live musicians playing in the wings. There are many magical scenes and set changes that build the story throughout the evening – never a dull moment!

We enjoyed JOYÁ immensely, and highly recommend it to visitors to the Riviera Maya area.

Ruins at Tulum

On Saturday morning, we finally got a chance to see Tulum, and it was interestingly different from Chichén Itzá. Beto, our guide, told us it was because of the weather. Tulum is close to the Caribbean, which moderates the heat that bakes other areas farther inland. We could actually see how the city was laid out with streets and boulevards and even the ruins of private homes. Inside the walls of many of what was left of the homes, the grass and vegetation was dead. Beto told us this was caused by tombs below ground. The Mayans buried their family members in their own homes. Instead of being extra lush and green as you’d expect, the ancient gravesites featured brown patchy grass. This was due to the Mayan’s practice of embalming using a compound containing mercury. Seeing both Chichén Itzá and Tulum certainly gave  us a better understanding of how these ancient people lived and what was important to them.

We flew home on a nice midday flight and even gained two hours on the way, making it quite a pleasant little trip. When we reached U.S. customs, we pulled out our Sentri cards and there was no line at all. We’re very glad to have gotten these cards. It makes coming back through any U.S. customs a cinch.

Happy travels,

Written by Vic and Laurel, Photos by Laurel

 

Yucatan Magic

Wedding at La Palapa

We visited Puerto Vallarta in 2008, watched a fancy beach wedding being set up in the sand and decided to get engaged ourselves. On that trip, we stayed at the Mayan Palace. We were really impressed with the resort and joined the timeshare program managed by Vidanta, the parent company. Since then, we’ve revisited Puerto Vallarta and also went to the Mayan Palace in Puerto Peñasco, known as Rocky Point, Arizona’s beach.

We had heard that their resort in the Yucatan, at Riviera Maya, was something special and decided to go there in October. What we didn’t know was that our adventure would begin well before our plane landed in Cancun.

Laurel booked a room at the Mayan Palace for mid-October, and I went online to find flights. I went to our old standby, Alaska Airlines. All the flights were two and three stops, taking 16 to 29 hours! I checked out several other airlines. None good. For example, Delta took 6 to 12 hours making 1 or 2 stops, and American was 7 to 10 hours, also with 1 or 2 stops. A coworker of Laurel’s recommended Volaris, a Mexican airline that flies out of Tijuana. We looked it up. Nonstop from Tijuana to Cancun. Only 3 ½ hours. Much more like it.

A320 Volaris

And as we started doing our research, we found out about CBX, Cross Border Express. We live just a half hour from the Mexican border, and in recent years, a crossing at Otay Mesa has been built. You simply park your car in a secure lot in the U.S., enter a modern, well-equipped terminal and check in. Several Mexican airlines are located there. Then you get your boarding pass and roll your luggage into the Tijuana airport, crossing the border as you go. The airport is shiny and new with every facility and rows of duty-free shops for your return flight.

Volaris flies Airbus jets, and we had a comfortable flight to Cancun, then got on the shuttle sent by Vidanta for the hour-long ride to the Mayan Palace. Which we were to find was only one of five hotels on the mammoth property that was crisscrossed with walkways, small roads and drives, and serviced by trams connecting hotels, swimming pool complexes, beach bars and every kind of restaurant you can imagine. The entire facility grows out of stunning Yucatan jungle alive with local birds and animals. They have a flamingo pond, as well as a crocodile enclosure, which I’m happy to report is well fenced.

Salum

We looked at the map of the complex, and saw “beer bar” indicated in the area called Salum, which looked to be a centralized restaurant area. Hungry after the early morning flight and bus ride, we took the tram and found a food court more luxurious than you could believe. Outdoor, multi-leveled lounge areas with a view of the Caribbean, and everything from Japanese to tacos to hamburgers and tapas, all excellent. A creative cocktail lounge and the aforementioned beer bar, which surprised us with a dozen taps and 20 or 30 bottles of Mexican craft beer. Needless to say, we had found our lunches and dinners for the week, no need to traipse into Playa del Carmen looking for food.

Of course, while spending a week in the tropics, we had to take a look at the local birds, and we found a terrific birding guide, but I’ll let Laurel tell you about that:

“Prior to our trip to the Riviera Maya,  Vic researched Yucatan birding guides on Trip Advisor, and was very fortunate to have found Steven! Steven Koevoet speaks at least four (that we know of) languages fluently: Dutch, Spanish, English and Bird. Steven not only knows his stuff, but is very enthusiastic, cheerful, and has a great sense of humor.

Laughing Falcon

Day 1: Ría Lagartos and Various Stops
Our first birding tour was a full day’s trip over to the Gulf, to the Ría Lagartos area. Steven met us at the Vidanta Mayan Palace at 4 am on October 21st. Our driver, Zeferino, stopped to pick up another birder, Paul, who, like Steven, is a native of the Netherlands. Our first birding stop was the town of Kikil Tizimin, although we did park along the way to get a better look at a Bat Falcon, which flew away as soon as the van stopped. In Kikil, we saw a good variety and amazing number of birds (orioles, woodpeckers, warblers, etc.) in the large trees in the center of town, and on the vegetation growing on the roof of an abandoned church. It had been hit by lightning, prompting the locals to abandon it, to be taken over by birds such as the Summer Tanager and Tropical Mockingbird. Walking a road leading from the center of town, we were rewarded with other sightings, many of which were life birds for Vic and me, including a gorgeous Squirrel Cuckoo. Moving on, we stopped briefly along the highway to see a Crested Caracara and some other raptors, including a Laughing Falcon and a Gray Hawk. In fact, we named a drink after the Laughing Falcon, celebrating our duty-free purchase of some very good mexcal.

American Flamingos

We stopped in another rural area and village to have William join us. He would be our local guide and panga boat driver for Ría Lagartos. We checked out some additional grassland birds such as the Blue-Black Grassquit and Rose-breasted Grosbeak, then visited another village that has an American  Flamingo colony. We also saw a White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill and a Tricolored Heron at that location, along with common birds such as the Snowy Egret and Black-necked Stilts.

Then, it was on to Ría Lagartos. The town sign (the multicolored plastic variety frequently seen in Mexico) says Río Lagartos, but “estuary” is known in Spanish as “ría.” We placed our lunch order at a waterfront restaurant, then boarded the panga for a tour of the mangrove estuary, which is a biosphere preserve that has been set aside by the Mexican government. The birds here were easy to see, since they were settled in mixed groups of shorebirds, pelicans, and waders on the few available sandbars, or perched in trees alongside the network of channels that form the estuary. We saw many kinds of waders, including a couple of Reddish Egrets and Little Blue Herons, various shorebirds including Short-billed Dowitchers, Semipalmated Plovers and Ruddy Turnstones, and various gulls, terns, and Brown Pelicans. Raptors included several Common Black Hawks and Osprey.

Mangrove Warbler

One of the highlights was a very cooperative Mangrove Warbler (subspecies of the Yellow Warbler), which posed in the mangroves and on a dock. We returned to the town, where we enjoyed a nice lunch before concluding our first day of birding. Other notable sightings included a crocodile in the mangrove swamp, and a Spider Monkey swinging through the trees on the main highway. Kudos to Paul for spotting the monkey, and to Zeferino for getting us positioned safely to see it from the van. We are eagerly anticipating being able to see the wonderful photos that Paul took, which he’ll share with Steven when he returns to the Netherlands. I will try to post some pictures, but they fall short of those that Paul took.

Tree full of birds with Paul and Steven

Day 2: Riviera Maya Birding
Our second day of birding, while closer to the resort, was no less spectacular. We met Steven at a more forgiving hour (5:50). Our driver, Elias, picked up a Scottish couple, Neil and Susan, and we were on our way. We birded a privately-owned nature preserve called Reserva Toh, which Steven had a hand in creating. He told us that he was birding this property some time ago, when it was pretty much undeveloped and strewn with PVC pipes, when the caretaker approached him to ask what he was doing. When he said looking at birds, the man wanted to know why anyone would do this. Steven said, “Why, because birds are beautiful!” and showed him a bird in the spotting scope. The man was fascinated and told him that he’d check with his boss to see if he could get Steven permission to bird the property. The owner was the next one hooked on birding because of Steven, and now the property is a nature preserve, and several of the workers have turned into monster birders. We saw some interesting species along the road in front of the property, including two species of hummingbirds (Canivet’s Emerald and Wedge-tailed Sabrewing), which are not out and about this time of year. Also seen were various flycatchers (Boatbilled, Dusky-capped, Social) and orioles (Altamira, Orange, Hooded, and Yellow-tailed). When a brief downpour came our way, we repaired to the large palapa where we would later be served a home-cooked breakfast. Steven brought out the gaiters that he thoughtfully provided for the next part of our trip, and we put them on (what did we do before Velcro?). Our truck arrived, and then the real adventure began! Vic rode up in front with Elias, and the rest of us climbed in the back and sat on the benches. We received many “Mayan massages” along the way, getting slapped with wet boughs and various vegetation, and ducking frequently. Once there, we were in a wild area with a few worker huts, lots of trees, and open areas. It was easily navigable, and Elias did a good job of assisting Vic where the going was not as easy.

Black-headed Trogon

The area was loaded with birds. We spent considerable time on one tree with orange berries, which was providing a feast for Red-Eyed and Yucatan Vireos, Red-legged Honeycreepers, and other birds. We were thrilled to see several particularly special birds, including a Turquoise-browed Motmot, a pair of Barred Antshrikes, a Black-headed Trogon, and a Collared Arakari (a toucan-like bird), found by Neil (who also is an excellent photographer). We tried for the elusive Green Jay, but were only able to hear this bird. Then, we were back in the truck, getting yet another “Mayan massage,” albeit slightly less wet. Upon returning to the main area, we were served a delicious breakfast of scrambled Mexican eggs with tomatoes, fresh tortillas and salsa, black beans, and fresh lemonade.

Collard Arakari

We enjoyed our birding trips immensely, had a great time with our fellow birders, and were very appreciative of the excellent service provided by Steven, Zeferino, William, and Elias. We highly recommend Birding with Steven, and look forward to birding with him again the next time we visit the Yucatan.”

If you’re still with us after all these birds, we’re going to give you a break. We’ll come back with part 2 and drag you through Chichen Itza with its majestic pyramids and sacrificial ball courts.

Happy travels,

Written by Vic and Laurel, Photos by Laurel

The Danube Waltz Part 2

Vienna!

The very name breathes images of waltzes and white horses, of ball gowns and chandeliers.

The Danube wetlands

But we spent a very different kind of afternoon, paddling an inflatable raft through a backwater channel in the wetland of Danube-Auen National Park, an hour east of city center. Assisting us were another married couple, these two from Minneapolis, our driver-guide and a park ranger with Danube-Auen. She knew the area well, and when we saw digging and burrowing marks on the muddy banks, she could tell which were from beaver and which from wild boar.

Danube channel

Halfway up the channel, a summer shower soaked us all, then blew off to the east, and we all dried out in the warm sun that replaced it. We spotted Europe’s version of a Great Egret, a Common Sandpiper, a few Gray Heron, Common Wood Pigeon and Eurasian Blue Tits. What a fascinating way to see another side of the famous river.

Cafe mocha and creme cake

But don’t get us wrong. We had spent the morning on a walking tour that ended at Vienna’s own St. Stephens Cathedral, the church of Empress Maria Theresa, her 16 children and her 64 grandchildren. The empress spent her life making sure her progeny married well. Unfortunately, her most famous, Marie Antoinette, lost her head in Paris. We stopped at a sidewalk café a few blocks away, sipped café mochas and shared a crème cake.

Good wine, not so good music

And just to make it a full day in Vienna, we joined other passengers on a bus to the famed Grinzing district for a Heurigen evening at Weingut Wolff Winery. That’s the day when the locals sample the new vintage of wine. And do they sample it. We saw a beautiful winery up close, but we felt that it got a little out of hand, with members of the staff pouring glass after glass, we didn’t know what except that they were either red or white. There were plenty of snacks, sausage and cheese, bread and pretzels, too. And the two older guys playing fiddle and accordion might have sampled a little less through the evening. Their playing definitely got a little sloppy as the night wore on.

I Love Bratislava

During the night, the Legend sailed the short distance east to a different country, a different capital, a different language. We woke up Friday morning in Bratislava, capital of Slovakia, where Slovak, not German is the language of choice. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Slovakia was the eastern half of Czechoslovakia, now divided peacefully into two countries in 1993, by what some call the Velvet Divorce. With more than five million people, many of them well-educated, Slovakia needed an industry, and along came the automobile. Since 2007, the country has been the producer of the largest number of cars per capita, with Volkswagen, Audi, Kia, Land Rover, Citroen and Peugeot adding to the mix. The charming old town of Bratislava and its riverwalk  were definitely worth seeing. We would have liked to see more, but we had to be back on board before eleven.

Mute Swan

Sometimes it can get busy on a river cruise, and today is extra full of changes. It’s still morning and we’re  leaving for Budapest, the capital of Hungary and a big, beautiful city. We spend some time in our stateroom in the afternoon, happily with its big wall of windows. Laurel spots a flock of Mute Swans swimming along with the ship right below our window. The swans are wild, but plentiful all along the Danube, especially in Germany and western Austria.

Hilton Budapest Castle district

The Legend arrives in Budapest at about 10:30 pm. We’ll spend Saturday with a city tour, and in the evening, the ship will host stars of the Hungarian Opera. We’ve booked two extra days in Budapest, staying at the Hilton Budapest, a modern hotel two blocks north of the cathedral on Cathedral Hill. The Hilton is a remarkable hotel, having gotten approval from the city to build the hotel on and around a 13th century Dominican monastery. As you go through the various rooms, pieces of the ancient structure are exposed, creating a real feeling of history.

Vic with Dávid Laposa

But before we check into the hotel, we leave our floating home at seven in the morning to meet Dávid Laposa, our guide for the day. As many of you know, whenever we travel, Laurel and I try to find time to do some birding, since we know it’s likely that we haven’t seen a lot of the local birds. But I’ll let Laurel tell you about it.

White Stork nest

“Vic and I birded the area outside Budapest on July 21st, 2019. Vic set up the trip with Hungarian
birdwatching.com

in the US, prior to our Viking cruise, and it was a snap! Our English-speaking guide, Dávid Laposa, met us at the dock. Our first stop not far outside Budapest was to take a look at a White Stork nest alongside the road. Dávid continued our journey, stopping at various sites he was obviously familiar with, or whenever he spotted a particularly interesting bird. Which was often! We were especially delighted to see not one, but two, Great Bustards. Dávid told us we were very lucky to see them. Next we stopped at a fish farming/hunting area covered with large lakes and marshes, where we ate the nice lunch prepared by Dávid. He remarkably was able to identify from a considerable distance several species of waterfowl.

European Bee-eaters

Next, Dávid took us to an area with some European Bee-eater nest boxes, and a European Roller nesting colony, where we saw dozens of these birds, flying in and out of their holes they’d established in a sand bank. Our grand finale consisted of a visit to a Rook and Red-footed Falcon colony. Dávid explained to us that the Rooks nest in March-April, then the falcons reuse the nests. Here’s a link The Danube Waltz Birds to our total count for the trip, including those we saw with Dávid. Our total for the Kiskunság trip was 46 bird species (seen and heard) with most being life birds.
Great guide, Dávid, great time, us!”

On our last day in Budapest, we bought tickets to the Hop-on Hop-off Bus Tour because there were several places in the city we wanted to see.  (A word to the wise: When you buy tickets, make sure you know where the bus stops.) We looked at the map in our tourist guide and saw that number 7 stop was only about three blocks south. After walking and waiting at four or five stops, we reached the Buda Hill Funicular, which was mentioned in the brochure. Unfortunately, it wasn’t included in the tour, and we didn’t feel like spending more for it. A couple of blocks back a lot of people waited at a stop, and small buses from Castle Tours came and went, picking up a few at a time. Laurel talked to one of the drivers, and he told her to “go down the hill.”

So down we went. And what a hill. Flights and flights of stairs and inclines, a lot of it through lovely green woods. When we reached the bottom, we could see that we were at the upper end of a street of businesses, offices and restaurants, and ahead of us was the Buda end of the Chain Bridge. By the way, it’s really two cities, Buda on the west bank of the river and Pest (pronounced Pesht) on the east. The Hungarians are adamant about the pronunciation, because Pest reminds them of something historic they’d rather forget, the Black Plague.

Across the boulevard, we could see a bus stop with double-decker buses lined up, our double-decker buses. Our companies’ route never goes up Palace Hill. We walked across, and they checked our tickets and we got on a waiting bus. The bus pulled out and crossed the bridge into Pest. It drove for a few minutes and then started up a long hill. We learned that the monument at the top with the incredible city views is known as Heroes’ Square.

A pretty good Pilsner

Near the top of the hill, the bus stopped and we got off, and Laurel started walking up the hill to the viewpoint, but my morning of chasing the on-off had done in my legs, and I told her I’d wait for her. There was a terrace bar right there, and I ordered a Pilsner and sat down with relief. In about a half hour she returned, and we had a second beer while we waited for the next bus to arrive.

Meat, and lots of it

Back down in the city, we walked from the stop to the neo-gothic Central Market Hall, which Laurel had visited the day before. A fabulous market that dwarfs the Pike Place Market and challenges the Chelsea Market in New York, the ground floor is all edible, booths filled with vegetables, fruits, spices and meat, especially meat. Hungarians love meat, beyond anything else. Seafood is not a big deal in Budapest, but steaks, and chops and roasts alike all bring smiles to their faces. We were told that Hungarians never travel without their sausages.

Paprika in the Central Market

And if you’re going to add something to the meat, it’s paprika, hot, sweet, smoky—versions of paprika you and I have never heard of. Many of the booths in the market sell nothing but paprika. Up the broad marble stairs to the second floor, which is mainly for clothing—blouses, jackets, dirndls, hats and caps—rows of booths filled with Hungarian clothing. After Laurel said no to about five shirts and blouses, I told her I was beginning to get tired.

The everpresent Duna with its seven bridges

We left the market and crossed the broad square in front of it, found one of our buses and returned to the Buda side of the bridge. We crossed the boulevard and walked a few blocks south. An attractive bistro with outside tables and the interesting name of 1792 beckoned, and we sat down. Laurel ordered a mojito, and I asked for a Campari and soda. We sat on the broad parkway, looking out at the fabulous river and all that had been built around it and toasted Hungary one more time.

That evening, we enjoyed dinner at the hotel’s excellent restaurant, Lang. Caesar salad, pork schnitzel, warm potato salad, stuffed bell pepper, crème caramel, and a Janus Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

The next morning, we rode the shuttle for about an hour to Budapest’s airport and flew to Zurich, where we boarded an Airbus 350 for a non-stop flight to San Diego, arriving just a couple of hours after we left. Amazing what world travel can do. One of the best and most memorable vacations we’ve ever had. I know you’ll be reading about other river cruises from me.

Happy travels,

Vic and Laurel

Special Bonus! We tasted Austrian-style Potato Salad while on the ship and fell in love with it. Fortunately, the Executive Chef, Christian Seegatz, explained the basis for the recipe, and we now make it at home. Here’s a copy of it for you.Austrian Potato Salad Be sure to use Yukon Gold potatoes, the American version of what they use in Austria, and vegetable broth if you’re vegetarian. Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

The Danube Waltz

Our friend Andy picked us up in his taxi at 9am on Saturday, July 13th. He dropped us off at the San Diego airport, and we checked in and went to Stone Brewing’s airport branch, where we split their tasty duck confit with scrambled eggs and each had a glass of Aggro, their new IPA. We were celebrating while we waited to board Lufthansa’s flight 9075 to Munich, Germany.

We were about to embark on a grand adventure, Viking Cruises’ river cruise they call the Danube Waltz, seven days cruising down the Danube River from Passau, Germany, across Austria to Vienna, and then to Budapest, Hungary. We had booked the cruise months before and were really excited now that it was finally happening.

Viking Legend with adjacent sister ship

After transferring in Denver, we flew to Munich, and since we were flying east, lost nine hours and were greeted by hosts from Viking on Sunday morning. We joined a busload of some of the other 180 passengers for a two-hour ride to Passau, Germany, where we would board the ship Viking Legend. We’d stay overnight in Passau and see some of this lovely city before sailing to our next stop, Linz, Austria.

The countryside east of Munich is an interesting combination of industrial and agricultural, and we drove through miles of open broadleaf forest, interspersed with fields of corn and areas of industry that included a large BMW auto plant. Some of the fields were of solar panels, and we were surprised and happy to see the emphasis on solar energy here in Germany. Later, the land grew hilly and the conifers began to equal the broadleaf trees. The weather was showery, and there were times when the rain came down pretty hard, followed by bright blue-sky sunbreaks.

Once we had arrived at the ship and dealt with our luggage and settling into our stateroom, we climbed the staircase to the lounge at the bow of the ship, where we met Anja, a crackerjack bartender and coffee maven from Serbia. We asked her about the available beers and found that the ship did indeed stock a house IPA from Bayreuth. It was quite good, and we were pleased to know that it was available.

We went back to our room to rest after the long flight, bus ride and time change. For those of you who have cruised, river cruises are easy after dealing with the large ocean cruise ships of six to nine decks. The Viking Legend is three decks with a sun deck on top. Our stateroom was on Deck 2, the same level as the dining room and the reception area. Viking calls our room category a French balcony, which has no balcony but a wall-to-wall sliding glass door. The AC is turned on in the room. To turn it off, simply open the sliding door a bit for outside air.

The Grand Organ in Passau’s cathedral

At six o’clock, we walked down to the dining room for our first gourmet Viking experience. Our waiter, Borko, who was also Serbian, poured us glasses of local wine and handed us the menu. (Each meal had menu items, plus a large buffet selection in the middle of the room. Laurel ordered a ribeye steak, and I asked for the salmon. Our second waiter, Epul, is a charming young man from Djakarta, and he brought us a pair of excellent Caesar salads. The desserts were always sublime, from mango ice cream sundaes to perfect New York cheesecake. And all of our waiters were always happy to pour us just a little more wine.

The next morning, we boarded one of the buses that would take most of our passengers through the lovely city of Passau, including a visit to the magnificent Baroque St. Stephens Cathedral and its incredible pipe organ, one of the largest in the world with more than 17,000 pipes, where we would hear an inspiring concert of Bach and other Baroque pieces. All of us were equipped with headsets, keyed to our guides’ microphone. Each bus had its own guide, and we walked through the city listening to the local wisdom of Brigitte Keller. She was the best we had for the entire week. Born and raised in Passau, she knew the culture and history completely and had a delightful sense of humor to boot.

Cafe Simon–Delectable chocolate truffles, gin and tonic cake and so much more that’s sweet

On our own after the tour, we discovered Café Simon, a chocolatier ne plus ultra. How many places will you find in your life that will serve you a piece of gin and tonic cake? The most exquisite sweets we had ever seen, and we bought a few of their melt-in-your-mouth truffles, which we savored throughout the cruise. In the afternoon, I was confused about the time. We stopped for a  couple of beers and almost missed the ship sailing downriver to Austria, first stop Linz.

In one of the Danube’s locks

A side note: We traveled through nine locks while sailing to Budapest, the end of our journey. The Danube begins in the Swiss alps and drops 800 feet on our part of its route, and it becomes commonplace to see your ship tied up and dropping next to a stone or concrete wall of some lock or other. At times you look out of your stateroom, and all you see is concrete wall, sometimes only a few inches away!

Speaking of concrete walls, many of the walls in Linz came down at the end of the Second World War, leveled by Allied bombers flushing the Nazis out. Happily today, Linz has rebuilt and created a beautiful city filled with museums and art schools.

In fact, in 2009 Linz, together with the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, was chosen as the European Capital of Culture. Since December 2014 Linz has been a member of the UNESCO Creative Cities (UCCN) network as a City of Media Arts. Cities receive this title for enriching the urban lifestyle through the sponsorship and successful integration of media art and involving society in these electronic art forms. Linz is also well known for the Linzer torte, which is said to be the oldest cake in the world, with its first recipe dating from 1653.

Leaving Linz, we sailed through one of the prettiest places on earth—the lovely Wachau Valley. As you cruise, you pass one after another small, picturesque towns seeming to still be frozen in the 1700s, each with the high point of a church steeple and architecture that comes from picture books. And above them, on the steep hills, are vineyards growing the fabulous Wachau Valley grapes that went into the wine we enjoyed daily. Our favorites, Gruner Veltliner, a nice, dry white similar to Pinot Gris, and Stift Gottweig Pinot Noir.

The lovely Wachau Valley, Gottweig Abbey and Winzer Krems Winery

We arrived in Krems, at the east end of the Wachau Valley, in time for lunch. After lunch, we spent the afternoon touring beautiful Gottweig Abbey, which is partially financed by the wine made by its monks continuously since 1083. In 2003, UNESCO named the abbey a World Heritage site. Following the abbey tour, we were guests of Manfred Winkler, a man I will call “The P.T. Barnum of the Wine World,” who led us through Winzer Krems Winery, one of the valley’s largest wineries, with zest and humor, and just a little bit of instruction. We bought a half case of the fabulous white wine, surprisingly only about five dollars a bottle.

Swans for our tenth anniversary

Krems will hold a special place in our hearts, because we were there on July 17th, 2019, our tenth wedding anniversary. Lots of toasts with friends we had made on the ship, and Laurel and I split a bottle of Champagne. When we returned to our room in the evening, Razvan, our Romanian steward, had built of large heart from swans made of towels on our bed, and there was a card of congratulations from the ship’s staff.

—to be continued in Vienna and Budapest—

 

Anza-Borrego Birds, March 2019

Anza-Borrego–Hawk Heaven

Swainson’s Hawk

On the last weekend of March, we drove over to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. It’s about an hour and a half inland and another world. Part of the attraction is the April migration of scads of Swainson’s Hawks coming from as far south as Argentina and flying north to Canada and even the Arctic. They drop in here and feast on sphinx moth caterpillars to sustain their trip. The early Saturday report from Hal Cohen, the resident hawk expert, said 511 Swainson’s Hawks had landed on Friday night, so we were excited to see what was happening.

We drove to the viewing site on Borrego Valley Road, arrived by 9am and were rewarded by a sky filled with departing hawks. Some of them were right above the road, maybe only 20 or 30 feet high. We had never seen the Swainson’s so close, and there were kettles of them on all sides, some high, some low. Probably close to 200 taking off. They were all gone by 9:30, and Hal told us that approximately 2/3 of the hawks from Friday night had left.

Juvenile Prairie Falcon

We said we’d be back for the evening show and drove south to Hawk Valley, where we had seen a Prairie Falcon the year before. We got lucky and saw an adult, plus a juvenile falcon. And at least two Rock Wren for good measure.

The flowers were very good, but not as amazing as two years ago. Some of them are running late this year because of the evenly spaced rain. Some have probably already bloomed. They’ve had rain in the desert every month of the winter season. And some of the migrant birds are running late as well, but we still saw plenty of good stuff. Speaking of plenty, Laurel managed to take plenty of terrific pictures of the flowers that were there. Here’s a sample:

Desert Dandelion, Indigo Bush, Parish Poppy

Beavertail Cactus, State Park Visitor Center

Fishhook Cactus, Ocotillio and Teddybear Cholla, Desert Chicory

Saturday evening we drove to the viewing spot about 5:30 to wait for the evening hawks. About ten of us waited and watched, but nothing happened. Finally, at about 6:00, we spotted a couple of hawks on the horizon, passing the farthest peak to the southeast, which birders call “the pyramid.” Over the course of the next hour, a few more hawks arrived from the south and landed in a row of eucalyptus trees half a mile away.

Then at 7:00, in the cloudless blue-dusk sky above us, a hawk appeared, just about half a block away, and dropped down into the trees of the nearby date farm. We continued looking up, and, seemingly from nowhere, another bird materialized. Although we only ended with about 20 birds total for the evening, seeing these birds simply arrive from out of nowhere was a magical experience.  In reality, they were dropping down from about 8,000 feet, the elevation they achieve while migrating those thousands of miles north. On the following Thursday, Hal reported between 1,000 and 1,400 hawks. Timing is everything.

Sunset at Carlee’s

Joe and Julia Ensley, good friends from Seattle, visit Palm Springs every winter, and they drove up to join us and see what all the flowers and feathers are about. We had a great time Saturday night with them at Carlee’s, one of the best restaurants in Borrego.

A Word of Warning:
Sunday morning we hiked some of the trails down by Tamarisk Grove. Because of the rain, some of the trails have been crowded by shrubs and ground cover, as well as by flowers. We were hiking the Yaqui Well trail, and parts of it were narrowed by the growth. Fortunately, I was looking down at the ground and spotted a rattlesnake in the bushes next to the trail a few feet ahead of me. It had its head raised, looking at me, since I’m not the quietest hiker. I shouted “Snake,” to warn Laurel behind me, as well as another couple coming from the other direction. It dropped down and started to crawl away from the trail, and Laurel pounded her tripod on the ground, which sped it up. It had four segments on its tail. Once we got home, we looked it up, and it was a Red Diamond Rattlesnake less than two feet long.

We saw another animal we’d never seen which was far less alarming, a type of squirrel that looks a little like a chipmunk called a white-tailed antelope squirrel. We also saw some other good birds—here’s the list:

Ram’s Hill

We discovered a new place for lunch on Sunday, as well, to toast my first sighting ever of a rattlesnake on the trail. It’s called Ram’s Hill, and it’s a very fine complex of residences and a golf course with water features. The restaurant sits atop a slope, and its large covered patio has a gorgeous view of the golf course and the valley beyond.

On the way back to San Diego, we stopped in Ramona at an excellent local winery called Chuparosa, which is Spanish for hummingbird. They make several fine reds there, including a superb Cabernet Franc and a Zinfandel that’s worth taking home. They told us about another winery in the area called Woof ‘n Rose, an extremely dog-friendly place that also makes a very good Cabernet Franc.

 

Gourmet Mexico, Part 2

We had made a reservation at Vinos Lechuza for noon on Wednesday. Having read good reviews, we called them to check on their hours and found that they did wine tastings by appointment only, so we decided on Wednesday before lunch. We were also interested in taking a look at Rancho La Puerta, a spa near a reservoir west of Tecate on Highway 2, which parallels the border to Tijuana, and figured there would be plenty of time in the morning before driving to the valle.

Rancho La Puerta, the spa we never found

Evidently, we took the wrong highway, driving west on the free road rather than the toll, and went right past the spa. After about an hour of nothing but auto shops, small businesses and Oxxo stores, we got concerned about getting back to Tecate and down to Guadalupe in time for our tasting. We stopped at a gas station and asked the attendant if there was a way south over the small mountain ridge to the valley, and he nodded and told us to go back to the road marked Las Palmas. Back we drove and, sure enough, found the Las Palmas road. We drove about 15 minutes up into the hills until we came to the town of Las Palmas, a new town of a couple of thousand people. We drove through it and discovered that it looked to be the end of the line.

Spotting a police car, we asked them how to get down to Guadalupe, and the driver smiled and said, “Follow me.” He proceeded to lead us clear down the road back to the highway, then turned right. In about a mile, he turned off onto an unmarked road and drove a couple of hundred feet, where he pulled over and rolled down his window. We pulled up and he pointed up the road and said, “Aqui.” Amazed at the time he had spent driving us down to this spot, we thanked him and drove on. Reaching the top of a ridge, we came to a gate and fence with a couple of large buildings beyond. The gatekeeper told us this was a branch of Northern Baja University, but the road went no farther and he wasn’t sure how we would get down to the valley, which we could now see below.

With a locked gate and no answers, we turned around and headed back. There was a small residential community on the next ridge east, and we found a side road that took us there. It was a quiet little place with very little going on. We drove around, and at one point, a large truck built for hauling dirt came out of a dirt road, blowing dust all over our car. A young boy about eight stood by the road playing with a stick. He waved to us, and Laurel asked him if there was any road that went down to the valley. He nodded, and pointed to the dirt road the truck had come from, then motioned right. “Derecha. Derecha. Derecha.”

The wrong way road

We looked at each other and decided we might as well try it. The road was rough with plenty of gravel and rocks and accordioned for a bumpy ride, but it headed in the right direction. Before long another truck approached and drove by us, then another and another. We had found some kind of primitive highway for construction trucks. Eventually, we reached a point where the road leveled out and continued past parked road equipment and piles of gravel and soil, then finally reached Highway 3, the road to Guadalupe. We were in Palm Valley and still 20 minutes or so from our winery date, but it felt good to be back driving on pavement. I called ahead to the winery, and the manager said no problem. We like to think of this holoholo as the “wrong way” to Guadalupe.

Vinos Lechuza

When we finally reached Lechuza, we were half an hour late, but our pleasant host seated us on their terrace and served us a delicious and educational tasting. He told us about other wineries he felt we should try and gave us the phone number for the owner of Bichi, just five minutes south of the rancho, to make an appointment for us. We bought a bottle of Amantes, an excellent red blend. We were also pleased to find that they work with a wine distributor here in the U.S., so we can buy their wine here at home.

Just up a side road from Lechuza is Finca Altozano, a casual, open-air restaurant, and one of our favorites in the valley. They serve very good food and a nice selection of local wines. We were starving after all the morning excitement, and we took advantage of its location in between three or four wineries in the center of Guadalupe.

The next day was Thanksgiving, and we celebrated by splurging at Laja, also just a short drive from Lechuza. We first tried Laja in 2017 and raved about it then, and it’s nothing but even better today. Laja is all about the food. A choice of either four or eight courses which change all the time. We asked for eight courses with the wine pairing. That’s eight incredible courses for only $50, plus eight matching wines for $25 more. I won’t write anymore, just quote the menu:

Tomato salad with aromatic herbs and roast piñons
Pressed piglet with butternut squash
Sea bass carpaccio with kimchi and black salsify
Spider crab raviolis with squid ink
Catch of the day with arugula pasta and tender squash
Local beef with sweet potato puree and sautéed vegetables
Yogurt and ramonetti cheese with quince in syrup
Flamed meringue with tuile and fig leaves ice cream

We liked it better than turkey and cranberries.

On Friday, we took the short drive south to Bichi, a new winery just a couple of miles from the rancho. With their first vintage release in 2014, the two brothers, Noel and Jair Tellez, and their mother, Ana Montaño, are putting Tecate on the map for a new concept in winemaking: Raw, or natural wine. In fact, the name Bichi means “naked” in their Sonoran dialect, where they moved from when they found Tecate, its ancestral grapes and its weather and soil. Raw wine is made from grapes grown on non-irrigated, organically farmed vineyards. They found some vines in the region that are so old no one really knows what variety they are. But so what, when the wine that comes from them is such high quality and wonderful tasting? With no additives and special aging techniques, Ana Montaño currently oversees the farming and is responsible for converting their vineyard to biodynamics. (Here’s a link to an article with more about Bichi and raw wine.)

With Noel Tellez at Bichi

Noel has ended his law practice in Tijuana and now spends all his time working at the winery. When we drove into the parking lot, we knew we were in a different kind of place—no tasting room, no souvenir shop, a working winery. Noel greeted us and led us past a couple of buildings and back to the edge of one of the vineyards. He found three glasses and a bottle of water he used to rinse the glasses between tastes, then took us into one of the buildings where he took wine out of an aging barrel and described its history and taste. And we sampled several superb wines that were completely impressive, except for one, which we tasted and then threw out at Noel’s request. He wasn’t happy with the way it’s aging. We ended up buying two bottles, one lovely rosé which didn’t yet have its label. I wrote Bichi Rosé on the bare bottle when we got home. We also got a bottle of “No Sapiens,” “No Name,” one of the grapes they bottle whose variety is unknown, but terrific to drink. While we were there, their mother, Ana, came by and gave us hugs and chatted for a while. Lovely people we’d like to spend more time with.

We had heard that Bichi was affiliated with Laja, where we had such a wonderful meal just the day before. In fact, we noted that two of the wines they served were Bichi varieties. But we were surprised and impressed to find that Noel’s brother, Jair, had founded Laja in 1999 and was the chef who cooked such exquisite fare. He now has two more restaurants, both in Mexico City, and is considered one of Mexico’s most influential chefs.

After all these discoveries, you can bet that we’ll be going back to Tecate before long.

Gourmet Mexico, part 1

Tecate sign at the Zocalo

In early November, Laurel spotted an extra good deal in her vacation timeshare program. It was at Rancho Tecate, which is appropriately in Tecate, Mexico. After some looking into it, we learned that Tecate is only a little more than an hour from San Diego. We’ve gone down to Ensenada several times, and two years ago, we discovered Valle de Guadalupe, the magical wine valley just inland from Ensenada. Well, Tecate is on the other side of the valley, just 45 minutes east and right on the U.S. border. So we decided to spend Thanks-giving week finding out more about the town that we only knew as the source of Tecate Beer.

The real photo

We drove down the Friday before Thanksgiving. It was late afternoon, so it was already dark. We found the rancho just 10 km (six miles) south of town, and turned in toward the gate. The guards checked our papers and told us how to find the business office. A lovely young woman named Esmeralda met us there. She was wearing a parka, as it was chilly outside, only about 40 degrees. (Tecate is at close to 2,000 feet high, so it gets cool as soon as the sun sets.)

She came out and climbed aboard a mini-cart to show us our room. We followed in our car, parked under a grove of trees and walked across to a row of Spanish style rooms. The place looked fine, and we moved  in our luggage, then drove back to the office and asked where we might find the restaurant. It was, as I said, dark, and we didn’t feel like driving back into town for dinner. Esmeralda told us the restaurant was just around the corner. Driving there, we saw a field of grapes on the right. It was labeled 1893. It looked to us like the rancho had deep roots here in Tecate.

The restaurant, Puerta Norte, was nearly empty with only two tables filled. We chose a table and Laurel asked the server what he might recommend.

“Parillada, for sure, ma’am,” was his answer.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Mexican mixed grill,” she said.

We agreed and ordered it, then asked to see the wine list.

“You will want to try one of our own reds, either Nebbiolo or Cabernet Sauvignon,” said the server.

We ordered the Nebbiolo and it arrived with a plate of housemade rosemary bread. The wine and the bread were both excellent, and just the beginning of what was a superior dinner. The parillada came on a large platter— several types of steak, plus chicken and chorizo served with beans, tortillas, chips and guacamole. We returned to our room very satisfied and slept well in the comfortable king-size bed.

On Saturday morning, we drove south on Highway 3 toward Guadalupe. After reading lots of good reviews, we had decided to try Corazon de Tierra (Heart of the Land) for lunch. It had become well known for using local everything in very creative, and sometimes surprising, ways. We reached the valley in just 45 minutes and decided to try a couple of wineries we hadn’t visited before. On the north road through the valley, in Porvenir, is a large winery called El Cielo. We went in for a tasting, but all their tastings included tours, and we didn’t want to take the time. Looking through their store, I found a red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Malbec for only twelve dollars, and we got a bottle to try later. Up the road west is a winery known as Pijuan, named after its Spanish owner. We split a tasting there and were both impressed with the quality and the prices, so we bought a bottle there, as well.

Excellent small plates, radish ice cream, the kitchen garden

Driving back toward the center of the valley, we headed down a dusty road and made several turns before we found Corazon. It’s a modern wood frame building with lots of glass, and we could see that on a warmer day, some of the wall windows slid open to the surroundings. We were seated at a corner table that looked out onto the restaurant’s practical and picturesque kitchen garden, and we knew that we’d be sampling the harvest from some of what was growing there. It’s a prix fixe menu, and we had five courses, beginning with a velvety puree of bitter greens, and including minced roast carrot with tiny dice of lamb liver, and sauteed sweetbreads. We only had mixed feelings about the capper, an ice cream dessert made from pureed radish.

Sunday morning was bright and sunny, and we drove east toward Mexicali, which is two hours from Tecate. But we turned north an hour east at the small town of La Rumorosa and drove a few miles to the entrance of Sitio Arqueologico Vallecito, an important national preserve with many cave paintings by the Kumeyaay Nation, as well as others. The Kumeyaay lived in this region and all the way to San Diego. In fact, Highway 8 between San Diego and El Centro is called the Kumeyaay Highway. Some of the paintings at this beautiful piece of high desert are 3,000 years old.

An easy, mile-long trail takes you past five major examples of the paintings, one of which astonished us. The second painting on the trail features a red devil with horns. It’s called El Diabilito o del Solsticio, and to show how advanced these people were, it was positioned so that the sun on the winter solstice hit its eyes and lighted them up. I want you to appreciate the photos Laurel got here—many of them were in such awkward spots beneath over-hanging boulders that she spent a fair amount of time lying on the ground. The other interesting camera note is no flash is permitted, and admission is free except for a 45-peso charge if you plan on taking photos. There were signs everywhere warning of rattlesnakes, but fortunately they’re hibernating this time of year or Laurel wouldn’t have spent so much time on the ground.

Back in Tecate, we drove past the big brewery. We had planned on taking a tour, but they have recently merged with Heineken, and there is a lot of remodeling going on and no tours right now. We’ll have to do that on our next trip here.

Frida’s mural, chair fence, tortilla soup, 84-hour sandwich

We had heard good things about a restaurant named El Lugar de Nos, which loosely translated means Our Place. When we got there, we were sure right away that there were artists involved. Including the parking lot, the place is about a block long, with a large mural of Frida Kahlo next to a fence covered with pieces of chairs. Inside the parking lot, another wall was covered with all manner of wooden kitchen cabinet doors. The restaurant itself was filled with eclectic art pieces, another shrine to Frida, and three large dining rooms, all done in different styles. The place was buzzing with both diners and employees. We were seated right away, and began to peruse the varied menu. We were both impressed with their duck tacos and grilled octopus. Relaxed and friendly, we liked El Lugar a lot and went back a second time during the week, when we ordered tortilla soup which we agreed was one of the very best we’d eaten and a beef sandwich that was beyond tender. After all, it’s called 84-hour beef.

Can you top that? We can. One day we visited Restaurante Amores, a literal hole in the wall. Actually a glass door below a nearly hidden sign that opens into the kitchen. Our host, Joshua, met us at the door and led us past one of the cooks who was cutting large quantities of limes. The dining room feels a little bit like someone’s living room, and I spent the meal rubbing shoulders with a bookcase filled with cookbooks and listening to soft Brazilian sounds. Joshua is the young manager and a graduate and now teacher at a culinary school. The chef, Kenji, a Mexican of Japanese descent, is a brilliant food designer as well as a believer in “eat local.”

Our five-course tasting menu just made us say, “Wow.” Corvina, a delicate white fish, topped with chayote foam. Potato topped with smoky onion powder made from burnt onions. A fork- tender piece of beef. Orange cake gelato. And finally, three Mexican candies: piloncillo, macaroon, and marzipan. As he served each course, Joshua explained the philosophy behind the methods and the ingredients, so we learned a fair bit about cooking as well as eating like royalty. Not surprisingly, Amores is Tecate’s top new restaurant on Trip Advisor.

One morning we drove a little west of town and up into the foothills near the border to a park named El Profesor. It proved to be quite popular with Tecate residents. There were a lot of families and children enjoying the park, and evidently it’s a popular place for weddings, the natural surroundings and the views are so beautiful. We hiked most of a trail that took us to viewpoints that were really stunning.

By the way, you may know that much of the country east of San Diego is batholith, mountains made up of jumbled peaks of boulders. The area around Tecate and to the east where the cave paintings are also has huge slabs of stone, and many of the trails put the slabs, known as slick rock, to good use. Walking from slab to slab, it almost seems at times that you’re hiking on a paved road.

To be continued –

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Return to Paradise, Part 2

One reason we decided to go back to the island in September is the fact that they inaugurated an international birding festival a couple of years ago, and throughout the week we were there, there were guided tours and events. While we lived in Kona, we hiked many of the available trails and didn’t want to go back on them to the tune of a couple of hundred dollars each for a guide. But on Sunday morning, a pelagic tour left Kaloko-Honokohau Marina, and we had never done a pelagic trip in Hawaii. We knew there would be plenty of new birds for us there. Happily, the ocean was flat and blue, blue, blue, no heavy swells and no hot sun, when we boarded the boat, along with four guides, the crew and about 40 passengers.

Wedge-tailed Shearwater by Brad Argue

Offshore, we promptly saw a Wedge-tailed Shearwater, the most common seabird at the island, but still a new lifebird for us. We were to see many of them during the morning’s cruise. We headed makai until we had an excellent view back at Mt. Hualalai, then turned south. Throughout the morning, we counted eight species of seabirds, seven of which were new to us, like the Parasitic Jaeger and the Sooty Tern. We had seen Great Frigatebirds in the islands before, but only soaring up high, not down just above the water like these birds were flying.

Strangely, we didn’t see a single dolphin or whale, as they’re plentiful in the waters off Kona. For other bird nuts like us, here’s the complete list–Big Island Birds 2018–of what we saw during the entire week on the island.

After coming ashore, we drove down into town and celebrated seven lifebirds at a new brewery. It’s called Ola Brew Company, and while we were there, they were trying out a new brew, called A’a IPA, for our money the best IPA in the islands. We bought a growler-full of it to enjoy back at the condo. A’a is the word for one of the lava types that cover parts of the island, very rough and crusty-looking. The other predominant lava form is pahoehoe, which looks like melted chocolate that’s hardened. But this ale was nothing like either. Crisp, dry and hoppy, it was a pleasure to drink.

When we lived in Kona, we heard about the “cloud forest” on the way up Hualalai and drove up there a couple of times to walk the along the road looking for birds. There are quite a few Kalij Pheasant up there, and we also saw an Apapane, a bright red forest bird of the island. But when I was researching our trip back, I discovered that there is a guided tour through the cloud forest, directed by the owner of a large estate. The reviews of the tour were so good that I called the owner, Kelly Dunn, and he and I talked at length about what he’s doing. I signed us up for the two to three hour tour (only $25 per person!), and Laurel and I drove up there on Monday morning.

Kelly met us on the road outside his place and gave us each a big golf umbrella, “Normally, it’s sunny in the morning, but with this storm that just passed through, the rain is coming and going at odd hours,” he explained. A second couple arrived, and the five of us walked up the drive to Kelly’s house once they got their umbrellas, as well. As we stopped for a minute outside the house, the rain started. And for the next two hours, as we walked through the most fantastic tropical jungle we had ever seen, it poured. The umbrellas did a good job, but passing by dripping foliage and under trees adding to the downpour, we all got quite wet. It wasn’t cold, and it wasn’t muddy, as Kelly explained that the cloud forest has no soil under the plants. They grow on a few inches of dead leaves and roots, and below that is nothing but lava rock from old eruptions.

Hualalai is the only cloud forest left in Hawaii. In fact, while there used to be thousands of cloud forests around the world, today there are only 25 left, thanks to deforestation and development. One of the reasons that Kelly has acquired this acreage is a type of eucalyptus tree brought here from Australia. The Hawaiians dislike the tree; it’s foreign, and they have cut down most of these “painted trees” that grow on the island. The thing that fascinates Kelly is the rainbow bark on the tree that changes through its lifetime, and the fact that no insect will touch its wood. There may be a medicinal use if someone can figure out its properties.

He explained that the cloud forest is completely symbiotic. Everything that grows here supports everything else. You can break a piece from a plant and toss it a few feet away, and it will take root. And the plants grow here in such abundance that it staggers the imagination. Laurel and I were so impressed by what we saw and learned that we would recommend it to anyone visiting the island.

Humpy’s Big Island Alehuse

After the wet and wonderful cloud forest, we drove down the mountain to the sunny day below. On the main shopping street, Alii Street, one of our old haunts is still there. It’s called Humpy’s Big Island Alehouse, and it has a narrow deck with a street view that’s great for people watching with an ocean view. Plus, Humpy’s has 36 taps and either ono or halibut fish and chips. We sat there in the heart of civilization still amazed at what we had just experienced.

Monday turned out to be a day full of superlatives, because we had scheduled our big splurge for that evening. Our favorite special occasion place in on the Big Island is the Canoe House at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel, a half hour north of town on the Kohala Coast. A grove of palm trees accents the view of the beautiful bay. The award-winning chef uses primarily local produce, meats and fish to create wonderful dishes like Heirloom Tomatoes “Poke,” Seared Ahi, and Sautéed Day Boat Scallops.

While we were on the island, we visited one of our favorite spots: Kaloko Honokohau National Historical Park. The beautiful beach that begins on the north side of the marina leads along lava tide pools, where you almost always see a few honu (green sea turtles). They love the sea lettuce that grows in the pools. And between September and April, the rocks are busy with Ruddy Turnstones, Wandering Tattlers, Pacific Golden Plovers and other shorebirds that call this island home when they’re not migrating back and forth to Alaska and the far north for breeding.

Kaloko Honokohau

Half a mile up the beach, Aimakapa Fishpond sits just behind the steep beach berm. Built by Hawaiians as a place to stock and grow fish, the pond is undergoing much needed expansion and cleanup. Some of the invasive plants that have taken over are being removed, and the net result will be a pond nearly twice the size to attract visiting birds.

In fact, the entire park is receiving a lot of attention and restoration. We stopped at the visitor center and talked to one of the young rangers, who was very excited about all the progress she’s seeing.

Mauna Kea Beach

One of the special attractions for us on the Big Island is its beaches. Many of the beaches on the Kona side have wonderful sun, sand and shade. In particular, the beach at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel is a broad, sandy expanse that also has a rocky reef at its edge that Laurel loves for snorkeling and is edged by trees that I love for the shade they give me for sitting and reading. The beach is about a half hour north of Kona, but get there early. The hotel offers a free parking lot for visitors, but it fills up quickly. After a bit of walk down from the lot, there’s a nice bath and shower facility at the edge of the beach.

If you’re staying in Kona, another excellent option is Kahalu’u Beach Park, a county beach that’s right on Alii Drive toward the south end of Kona. Laurel says it has more fish than any of the other local beaches. It also has a free parking lot, bathroom and shower facilities and plenty of shady spots, as well as a large, covered picnic area.

On the day we flew back to San Diego, our flight didn’t leave until the afternoon, so we drove back down to Alii Drive and had lunch at Huggo’s On The Rocks. The place is right on the beach with beach tables and chairs, and the floor is lovely sand. It looks right out onto the bay and is a true piece of Hawaiian heaven. We had some more terrific fish and chips and beers to toast the island aloha and mahalo, then drove up to the airport to board our plane. We’ll be back.

And aloha and mahalo to all of you.

Seattle–Seafood, Family and Traffic

Mt. Rainier and Washington State ferry

Laurel and I flew to Seattle in mid-July for our annual visit with my daughters and grandkids, to touch base with good friends who live there, and to fill up on the great seafood that runs rampant through the Puget Sound region. On this trip, the weather in Seattle was glorious: 80 degrees and sunny. And when it’s sunny in Seattle, there’s no place, as the song goes, that has bluer skies.

Before we left San Diego, we talked to our friends Joe and Julia Ensley and were warned that in the last five years, City-limits Seattle has grown from six to seven hundred thousand people. Be prepared for bad traffic, made worse by the fact that construction happening everywhere is blocking lots of streets. And the ferry terminal is being renovated, so consider driving around part of Puget Sound instead of sailing across to get to their place on Bainbridge Island. I checked out Google Maps and decided to do just that, so we headed south from Sea-Tac airport instead of north.

Tides Tavern in Gig Harbor

We drove down toward Tacoma and turned west to cross the Tacoma Narrows bridge, the famous span that was known as “galloping Gertie” and in 1940 broke in half and collapsed. Fortunately, only one death was caused by this amazing accident that someone actually caught on film. (Check it out on Wikipedia.) We continued northwest and entered the picturesque town of Gig Harbor, once the home to quite a fleet of salmon boats. Fortunately, it’s still home to Tides Tavern, which just celebrated its 45th anniversary. And even more fortunately, they were serving Copper River sockeye salmon and chips.

We sat out on the sunsoaked deck and had the first of several of the week’s great lunches, topped off with a pint of Fremont Lush IPA from the iconoclastic neighborhood in Seattle. Filled with independent spirit, there are signs that advise, “Entering Fremont Time Zone. Set Your Watch Forward Five Minutes.”

Zamboanga in Winslow

After lunch, we drove on north through Kitsap County past Bremerton and Poulsbo, then crossed the bridge at Agate Passage to Bainbridge Island and the town of Winslow where Joe and Julia have a store called Zamboanga, filled with clothing they design and commission on the island of Bali, half a world away. We stayed the night with the Ensleys, and, of course, Joe grilled salmon on the barbecue.

Seattle skyline

The next day, Thursday, the four of us took Marco, their Portuguese water dog, for a walk along the scenic shoreline of Fort Ward State Park, then stopped in Winslow at the Harbour Public House for lunch, where Laurel and I split a delicious ling cod sandwich. After lunch, it was no problem getting on the ferry to Seattle. We went up to the top deck to enjoy the views of the blue water and sky as we approached the city. We did notice that there were more building cranes than normal and remarked on the fact that the skyline was more populated with new buildings than we had seen the previous year. And, as we drove up the gangway and out into the streets of downtown Seattle, the removal of the old Alaskan Way viaduct seems at its height. I skirted around much of the downtown area toward Aurora Way North, Seattle’s highway 99, but the traffic slowed us every step of the way.

The Whisky Bar

The drive north to our motel took us past Woodland Park with its greenery and zoo, and Green Lake was busy with folks enjoying its grassy spaces and beaches, but it’s evident that the city is bursting at the seams. We weren’t really looking forward to the drive back into the city, but we had reservations at a jazz club called Tula’s and were looking forward to seeing Overton Berry, a jazz institution in Seattle. Once parked, we began looking for a new bar to us: the Whisky Bar. It was just a block south and quite a place, with more than 180 whisk(e)ys and 160 Scotches. We ordered two Sazeracs, the famous drink of New Orleans, and our friendly bartender served up a pair of excellent ones, after clarifying that we wanted the drink and not the brand, since they carry a brand that’s called Sazerac Rye Whisky.

At Tula’s, not tired of salmon yet, we split an order of Smoked Sockeye Salmon Fettuccine before Overton and his bassist came on the stage. He’s now 82, but still plays seemingly ageless piano, and his treatment of an evening of songs, including tunes from Black Orpheus, was terrific.

Bald Eagle

On Friday morning we filled our travel mugs with coffee in the motel lobby and headed north. The traffic out of the city wasn’t bad, and we passed through Everett and Mount Vernon, then turned west at Burlington to reach Deception Pass, whose bridge spans the deep passage between the mainland and Whidbey Island, which occupies the northern entrance to Puget Sound and Washington from Vancouver Island and Canada. The road south to the Clinton ferry at the south end is 55 miles long and travels through rugged forest, coastal shore and farmland.

We pulled off at the viewpoint before crossing the bridge and got out to enjoy the view and take a couple of pictures, and, as we stepped onto the end of the bridge, a majestic Bald Eagle flew down and landed in a snag just across the road, posing for pictures against the blue morning sky. It was the first of twelve eagles we saw that day, two of them sitting in nests atop high tension power poles.

We stopped at two of Whidbey’s state parks, Fort Ebey and Fort Casey, both of which, during World War II, held massive gun emplacements aimed at the entrance to Puget Sound from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a narrow body of water leading east from the Pacific Ocean and Japan.

Mountains of mussels at Toby’s Tavern in Coupeville

East of Fort Ebey, lunchtime found us in Coupeville, the county seat for Island County. Coupeville sits on a small body of water made famous by its mussels: Penn Cove mussels, arguably the best-eating mussels in North America and famous in restaurants everywhere. Sitting out on a pier in downtown Coupeville, Toby’s Tavern serves up Penn Cove mussels to the tune of more than 2,700 pounds a month. We happily sampled a pound each of the tasty bivalves, and Laurel was smart enough to order a cup of mussel chowder, too. I stayed traditional and had clam chowder, but the mussel chowder was better.

After spending a little time on another beach, we headed from Clinton across the short span to Mukilteo on a 20-minute ferry ride and headed south, and I do mean south. We had a date with our friends Dave Wilson and Barb DeVincentis in Burien, all the way south of Seattle and west of Sea-Tac Airport. Not to bore you, but at Northgate, 110th North in Seattle, traffic ground to a crawl and continued slow until we passed downtown, then happily sped back up. We had reservations for 7:00 at Angelo’s and arrived breathlessly seven minutes early. We had a great time with Dave and Barb and split an order of seafood cannelloni that was rich with Dungeness crab, another Northwest specialty.

We were expected at my daughter Emily’s place at three on Saturday afternoon and decided to check out one big park we hadn’t birded together. Now called Warren Magnuson Park, it was Sand Point Naval Air Station for many years before that. The park borders a large section of the Lake Washington shoreline and protects many acres of wetlands. Even though July is a notoriously birdless month, we did see many American Goldfinch, the Washington state bird, as well a goldfinch nest that was keeping a female busy. We also saw our first Downy Woodpecker for the year and a few other things, but it was mainly a nice walk.

Elysian Brewing Company at Tangletown

Elysian Brewing Company has expanded and now has five locations in Seattle, where they serve their wonderful IPA, Space Dust. We stopped in at their Tangletown location near Green Lake for lunch and were delighted to see that they served Saturday brunch with live jazz. Of course, we couldn’t possibly pass up two Sockeye Salmon Benedicts to go with the brews.

That afternoon, we hung out at Emily’s and petted her little rescued sorta spaniel, Daisy. We also got to know her new temporary visitor, Canela, which means cinnamon in Spanish. She’s a sweet Heinz 57 variety that’s one of 32 dogs rescued in Costa Rica and brought to the U.S. for new homes. Canela loves everyone and acts accordingly. Later, my daughter, Jenny, and her husband Kevin and high-school-senior son Nathan joined us, and we drove over to north Lake Union for an excellent Mexican dinner at Agua Verde Café.

Pike Place Market

On our last day in Seattle, not counting return flight day, we drove down early to visit the Pike Place Market. If you’re ever in Seattle, it’s a great place to visit, but do it early. By ten in the morning, it had become a mob. One of my favorite places is Jack’s Fish Spot, across the street from the main market. We picked up a nice piece of smoked salmon, and they wrapped it so it would hold unrefrigerated for 24 hours. We’re also quite fond of Jack’s clam chowder, which has smoked salmon in it, as well. We have the Pike Place Market Cookbook, and that chowder recipe is in it, so we enjoy it frequently at home.

The Hammering Man at SAM

We left the market and walked down to SAM, the Seattle Art Museum, just a couple of blocks south on First Avenue. They have a terrific show on right now that’s a major retrospective of Edward Curtis’ Native American photographs, combined with exhibits of three indigenous Native artists. Following that exhibit, we were pretty much museumed out, so we went back to the car and drove up to Capitol Hill.

Taylor Shellfish has grown to six locations in Washington, three in Seattle alone, and we went to the branch on Melrose to get some of the best oysters on the halfshell you’ll ever find. We accompanied that with a serving of their smoked oyster dip and a tuna poke bowl for a fabulous meal.

Sunset at Ray’s Boathouse

After an afternoon break, we drove over to Ballard in northwest Seattle, and it occurred to me that Laurel had never seen the Hiram Chittenden Locks, the connection between Puget Sound and all the fresh-water lakes in Seattle. On the far side of the locks the fish ladder is the gateway to Seattle and its lakes and rivers for spawning salmon, and we saw quite a few in the windows with underwater views of them on their way up from the salt water. We continued on to Ray’s Boathouse and Café, north of the locks with a view of passing boats, sat out on the sunny evening deck at the upstairs café, and split an order of sea scallop pasta, our first scallops of the week. The downstairs Ray’s Boathouse is a quieter, fancier place that serves all manner of 5-star seafood.

Monday morning, we flew home to San Diego, went grocery shopping and collected the mail.

The Prado in Balboa Park

The next day, Tuesday, July 17th, happened to be our ninth wedding anniversary, and we celebrated it by going to the wonderful Prado Restaurant in Balboa Park. Every Tuesday, they have what they call Date Night, which includes excellent salads and entrees for two, along with a bottle of wine for $46.95. Quite a bargain! By the way, we both ordered their excellent pork chops.

Click here to read the true story about Yamashita's Treasure, the inspiration of the book.

STAIRWAY-PRINT-COVER 2014 (Custom) (Custom)

Buy in Kindle or Paperback

"If one wants to follow a captivating couple pursue their careers in exotic climes brilliantly described,
Stairway of the Gods
is just the right way to do it."
Gordon Osmond at Bookpleasures.com

“The author, Vic Warren, skillfully weaves in actual political events into his tale, making it seem so real. I can’t help but congratulate him for making me stop at parts and ask, is this fiction or fact? I would highly recommend it to readers who enjoy a gripping tale of high adventure.”
From All Books Review

Read What Else They’re Saying About Stairway of the Gods

Vic Warren is an award winning Art Director, credited with creating the "Eskimo portrait" as the aircraft tail logo for Alaska Airlines. If you need help in designing your book cover, check out these designs.

Stairway of the Gods continues to impress. The book's cover just won the Best Self-Published Book Cover Design Contest sponsored by A&A Printing.