Next Door Temecula

With all of our travels to wine regions in Baja, Washington and Oregon, we decided to stay home over the Labor Day weekend. Almost. Temecula is only an hour north of us, and it’s the home of a valley full of vineyards growing in size and respect.

We’re regular visitors to Temecula, but only to Old Town, which has a fine jazz club called Jazz at the Merc, as well as a very reasonable and very good Cuban restaurant, the Havana Kitchen, not to mention Rosa’s Cantina, not the classic Marty Robbins song, but an excellent Mexican restaurant with low prices.

But this year, fresh from our road trip north, we decided to check out our own homegrown product, and were we impressed!

Temecula and Valle de Guadalupe have a lot in common. Temecula is about ten miles long, the other twelve or so. Both valleys run southwest to northeast and have two main roads, one across the northern side and one on the south. Temecula is farther inland, but the Rainbow Gap in the coastal mountains brings ocean air into the valley.

Compared to vineyards farther north in the Central Coast and Napa-Sonoma, Temecula is fairly young, with the first grapes not planted until the Sixties. It now has approximately fifty wineries and is continuing to grow, and the region is home to many grapes, being at the same latitude as Spain, Italy and Southern France. Most wineries serve tastings of six wines, and we’ve found that three tastings a day is plenty. So there are many more places to visit when we return.

Another benefit of visiting wineries is that where there is wine, food follows fast behind, and some of the wineries have wonderful restaurants. We were lucky enough to be visiting during the middle of harvest time, and we spent one evening at Callaway’s Meritage Restaurant, where we saw the grape-picking going on after dark, when the grapes are more stable, so we were told. A type of tractor carrying fluorescent lights extended fore and aft drives slowly between the rows, and the pickers load grapes into plastic bins on the rear of the tractor. Everything is hand-picked.

The next morning we learned that other smaller wineries pick at dawn and are finished by eight o’clock, leaving their fields before the heat of the day.

Speaking of Callaway, it’s one of the first wineries you come to when you enter the valley on Rancho California Road, the northern road. It’s one of the oldest and largest wineries, so we decided to make that our first stop. Many of the wineries offer club rates on their wine. You get 20 or 25 percent off two bottles, then two more purchases of two over the next six months. The deals vary, with some wineries offering free tastings when you come back, and some include your guests as well. We liked the deal and the wine at Callaway, so signed up for membership. On the next two days, we went back to the winery and got free glasses of wine.

Most wineries charge $15 to $20 for six tastes, and over the weekend, we tasted some very good wines. Besides Callaway, we would highly recommend Cougar, a small winery which bottles all Italian grapes and also has a very reasonable Italian deli on the premises.

Another favorite is Frangipani, the name of the owners’ family, not the Hawaiian flower. Their Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc were definitely worth bringing home. By the way, be sure to bring your camera—many of the wineries are situated on hills, and there are some great views of the surrounding vineyards.

Europa Village began with the idea to recreate the southern European wines in this valley, which mimics the climate and soil of Spain, southern France and Italy. Their Italian-style wines are called Vienza, and they’re very tasty.

Falkner is one winery where we became members. Their whites and reds both impressed us a lot, as did the people. They have an elegant restaurant called Pinnacle, which has a spectacular view of the valley, and, being members, we got half off the wine we drank with lunch.

We’ve heard that it’s easy to get carried away joining too many clubs, so we were careful not to overdo it and only joined three. The trip home was a pleasant one-hour drive on Labor Day, and we’ll definitely be heading back, since it’s so close.

Bon appetit!

The Best Coast

Incredible! Wild! Spectacular! Rugged! Bucolic!

Just five of the words that came to us as we drove up from San Diego to Seattle. Wordsmith Laurel said bucolic. As many of you know, I’m originally from Seattle, and I have two daughters and grandchildren up there. So we fly up every year to see them. This year, with all the buzz about road trips, we decided to rent a car and drive up, then fly back.

Why the 5?

Friends have asked us why we didn’t drive up the more scenic highways 101 and 1. First of all, the area around Big Sur is undriveable right now, thanks to a massive slide. But mainly, we chose the sights we wanted to see: San Luis Refuge. Sierra Nevada Brewery. Crater Lake. Eugene. Portland. Mt. Rainier. String them together, and the 5 only made sense. I have to mention that I guess I’ve become a Californian. No one in Seattle says, “The 5.” They call it “I-5.” But with so many highways in Southern California, we’ve learned to call them “the 110,” “the 91,”   or “the 5.”

We left on Friday, June 30th at 5:30 in the morning and beat a lot of the awful rush hour traffic in Los Angeles. We only had one slowdown all the way to the Grapevine north of LA. By about 1:30, we reached Merced. Like most towns in California, it has several new craft breweries. We decided on the 17th St. Public House. Merced was in the high 90s, and the AC inside the place was a welcome relief. We asked to see the menu, and the beertender apologized, explaining that they only serve beer, but we were welcome to buy food elsewhere and bring it in. We followed her advice and walked down the street to Donut King, which had three menus on the wall: Donuts, Subway-style sandwiches and French-influenced Vietnamese bahn mi. We brought a foot-long bahn mi and a bag of chips back to the public house and ordered two pints of one of their India pale ales. The IPA was quite good and refreshing, and the bahn mi was excellent.

San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, a few miles back south of Merced, is the main reason we made this side trip. This refuge is one of the most important wildlife preserves in all of California, for animals as well as birds. Talking to the game warden at the visitor center, we learned that thousands of Sandhill Cranes fly south from Alaska to winter here every year. A few years ago, we saw a small flock of the cranes in Fairbanks, but seeing these kinds of numbers would be a real thrill, so we’ve decided to head back up next February.

Swainson’s Hawk

In the meantime, we drove out into the preserve, where there are several self-guided auto tours to take. One tour travels five miles around an enclosure for endangered tule elk, and we got a good look at a herd of about 30 right near the dirt road. The next morning, we headed east to a trail where the ranger said we might see some good birds. Sure enough, a fair number of birds, including a beautiful Blue Grosbeak and unexpected Swainson’s Hawks.

If you’re really into birds, here’s a link to the full list of what we saw on the trip: Birds sighted on our trip to Seattle

We spent the night in Los Banos, a few miles south of San Luis, and stopped in at Paraiso Brewery, a friendly place that is brewing some very good beer. While we were there, they poured us a taste of a brew in progress. It had cucumber and chile flavors in it, but it was still flat in the barrel and yet to be carbonated. Nevertheless, both of us liked what was happening with it. For dinner, we discovered great Bar-B-Q, as Hot City BBQ & Bistro spells it. A major smoker sits next to the entrance, and you can often find Steve Weaver, the owner, who calls himself Boss Hog, sitting out there. This is BBQ to write home about, and after our first long day on the road, we went to bed happy.

A tip to those of you with big appetites: Wool Growers Restaurant has two branches, Los Banos and Bakersfield. We’ve eaten before at the Bakersfield place. It’s run by a Basque family, and everything is served family-style and in large portions. You won’t go away hungry.

In defense of the Central and San Joaquin Valleys, I need to point out that all of the miles through these areas are not necessarily a boring drive. At times, it’s inspiring because of all the produce California provides the country. In fact, the state grows more than 90% of the country’s almonds, artichokes, dates, figs, kiwi fruit, olives, clingstone peaches, pistachios, pomegranates, walnuts, garlic, plums, broccoli, nectarines, canned tomatoes, celery, apricots, wine grapes, strawberries, and cauliflower. Laurel had selected an album of iconic country singer Merle Haggard’s, and it fit perfectly with our drive through this rich countryside. While I’m at it, I should remind you that whenever you’re traveling on a secondary highway, don’t forget to stop along the way at local produce stands. Their produce is very fresh, and sometimes you find tasty things that you haven’t tried before.

Sierra Nevada Brewery

We drove north to Chico and the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company for lunch. Opened in 1979, Sierra Nevada is now a major beer destination in Northern California. They’ve grown into a large facility with tours, a taproom and a restaurant. We saw families in cars from all over the map. After a tasty lunch and brew, we left Chico and headed up to Redding, where we spent the night. It was over 100 degrees, but our room was a very nice, air-conditioned Super 8 on Churn Creek Road. Nearby Final Draft Brewing had plenty of excellent beers and, believe it or not, peanut butter chicken bites, which were crunchy and tasty. It put us in mind of chicken satay, and, now that we’re home, we’re going to see if we can recreate them on our grill.

On Sunday morning, we visited the Sundial Bridge, a large pedestrian bridge that crosses the Sacramento River. Turtle Bay Exploration Park is right next to it, and there are lots of activities, trails, and a museum. We’ll experience more of it sometime in the future, but today we have to drive to Crater Lake, take a look at it, then drive to Eugene for the night.

Into Oregon

Crater Lake

A small aside: A few years ago, we went to Yosemite over 4th of July weekend. We decided to drive in to the visitors’ center to get current information and a map. We sat in line in our car for over three hours, and by the time we reached the center, it had closed. We had to turn around and drive out of the park to our motel, then come back the next day—early! One would think, lesson learned. But no, we’re at it again, sitting in our car and idling up the mountain for two hours to see the stunning lake. It was worth it. Laurel was amazed at how blue the deepest lake in the country is. But never again will we travel to a big deal national park on any holiday.

The drive back down the mountain and north to Eugene was a long stretch of forested country, made better by the fact that there was almost no traffic. After checking into our motel, we took a look at Laurel’s Android for local brewpubs and found one less than half a mile away. We decided to walk there and reached Falling Sky Brewery after Google Maps took us on a silly route that became a full mile instead of half. The brews were very good, and the menu includes an excellent lamb burger. The secluded courtyard made it all even better, and the walk back was only a half mile, as originally advertised.

Hendricks Park

I had checked on local parks and other options for a little morning birding, and we chose Hendricks Park, with its famous rhododendron glen, only seven minutes from the motel. The park was green and lovely, and there were some late rhodies and azaleas still blooming. As far as the birds go, most of them were absent, but we thoroughly enjoyed the walk through these lovely gardens.

It’s a fairly short drive from Eugene to Portland, so we’d decided to check on some of the vineyards in the Willamette Valley on the way north, but we stopped for lunch in Salem first. When we arrived at the industrial park, a rainbow flag led us to Southside Speakeasy. Inside, the large room was empty, but our host, Russell (R.D.) Dean, appeared almost magically and greeted us warmly. As more customers arrived, we saw that the staff enthusiastically welcomed everyone, and most nights there’s live music and a large dance floor. Happily, the beer and liquor is legal now, as is gay marriage.

View from the winery

After lunch, we drove back south a few miles to the Willamette Valley Vineyards. The tasting room is high on a hill, with a terrific view of the vineyards below. Both of us love Pinot Noir, especially with salmon, and the Willamette Valley has a superior climate for that grape. We bought one of their Pinot Noirs and also a Pinot Gris, which is crisp and dry.

Halfway to Portland, in the northwest corner of the valley, is Purple Hands Winery in Dundee. They produce only Pinot Noirs, one from their own vineyard, and several from neighbors’ grapes. We tasted five and wanted to buy them all, but settled for just one, from the Stoller Vineyard in Dundee Hills. Jordan Ernst will probably serve you, and he knows a lot about this difficult but wonderful grape.

Just two doors north of Purple Hands is Deception Brewing Co. We stopped there for a flight of their beers, and they gave us some good advice for Portland, so, after arriving at our downtown motel, we looked up Breakside Brewery.

Breakside brew list

Breakside has three locations. We chose one that was across the Willamette River from us. (Portland is a city of many bridges, some of which connect to still other bridges.) We drove across and found this brewery, which was a total zoo overflowing with families and singles, all seemingly enjoying themselves. But it felt like too much to us, so we drove back to what’s known as the Alphabet neighborhood, which is also much closer to our Travelodge. This Breakside was definitely busy, on the large deck and inside, as well, but it looked doable. We went inside and amazingly got a table right across from the bar and its giant menu of beers. We split a pulled pork sandwich that hit the spot, along with two West Coast style IPAs, Breakside and Wanderlust, which we liked so much that we bought a bottle of each.

A Fourth to Remember

Powells-City of Books

Next day, on the Fourth of July, we spent the entire morning at Powell’s Books, the world’s largest independent bookstore. It was a morning of discovery for Laurel, since she had never been to Portland, let alone Powell’s before. They call themselves City of Books for good reason. New or used, chances are you’ll find it there.

Blinded a little from reading so many covers and flyleaves, we walked up Salmon Street to The Picnic House, which I had found on Yelp and seemed a good choice. Believe me, it was more than good. Picnic doesn’t really conjure up the classy place we found ourselves in, designed by someone with a flair for creative solutions, including several growing walls covered with plants and other areas with antique printing plates. The cuisine was equally good. Try the wild mushroom soup. And the service was outstanding. Right next door is Barlow Artisanal Bar, owned by the same owners. It wasn’t yet open, but we took a peek, and they’ve done the same thing over there in art deco that they did with natural ingredients at The Picnic House.

Haystack Rock

Taking a hard left off the 5, we headed due west to Cannon Beach on the northern Oregon coast. Full of charm, from cottages to restaurants, the beach at Cannon Beach is dominated by giant Haystack Rock, along the lines of California’s Morro Rock at Morro Bay. Beautiful and sunny but windy, we had to take our binocs out to the rock to see what was flying.

Parentheses: Like many birders, we keep what we call a life list, which is a list of all the species of birds we’ve seen, along with the date and location first seen. When we left San Diego, our list stood at 499, and we were extra excited to see what our number 500 would be.

Female Harlequin Duck, courtesy

Well, we found out at Cannon Beach. Bobbing around in the rocks below the big rock were a couple of female Harlequin Ducks. We had never seen one before, so that was number 500. As I said, it was beautiful and sunny, but the north wind was blowing hard, a very cold wind. As we continued to search, my hands got so cold that I couldn’t hold my binoculars steady. My eyes were watering, and the wind blew our tripod over. We finally gave up and decided to drive back down the next morning.

Bridge over the Columbia River

We drove the forty minutes to Astoria, where we had reservations at the Columbia Inn for the evening. I had also made reservations for dinner at Bridgewater Bistro, which has a major view of the mammoth bridge that crosses the Columbia River at its mouth. The restaurant was getting excellent reviews, and, since it was July 4th, we figured we should reserve a table. It turned out to be a wise decision, since the back end of the place was reserved for a wedding party. The bride and groom were still in their wedding clothes, and everyone was making speeches and toasting the happy couple. It made us feel good, since our own eighth anniversary was coming up during the month. We toasted each other with artisanal Martinis. In addition to the very fine food, the service was terrific. Our server, Sharon, lured us into a dessert which we didn’t regret.

Back at our room at dusk, we crossed the street to a viewpoint deck that jutted out into the river. There were about twenty people already there, and in ten or fifteen minutes, the fireworks from upriver began. The neighbor cities of Astoria and Warrenton did themselves proud. When it was over, we walked back across the street to our room. What a nice, easy way to see some terrific Fourth of July fireworks!

On the morning of July 5th, the sun was shining, and the wind was calm in Cannon Beach. We went back out to the rock and saw several Tufted Puffins flying to a grassy area at the top, where they have dug burrows. Number 501! Driving back north, we stopped at Lewis & Clark National Park, site of Fort Clatsop where Lewis and Clark’s party spent the winter as the guests of local Indians who saved their lives. It’s a delightful park with trails that follow in the steps of the explorers and exhibits and demonstrations illustrating everything from the making of tallow to firing and loading a flintlock rifle. We continued up to Astoria and crossed the long bridge that spanned the Columbia between Oregon and Washington, then drove to Long Beach, the home of Willapa Bay oysters. We had a creamy dozen on the half shell and the best clam chowder we’d had in years at Castaway’s Seafood Grill. The new manager/chef Stephen is also a attentive server, and we had some interesting chats about all kinds of seafood.

Now we headed back across the bridge and east on Highway 101 to re-enter Washington at Longview. Coming down the long hill to the city, the view is dramatic, with several pulp mills and stacks and stacks of logs. We turned north onto Highway 5, then east toward the largest volcanic mountain in the lower 48 states, Mt. Rainier. Paradise Inn is a classic lodge at 5,400 feet on the 14,411-foot mountain, and we had a room reserved. The weather was warm and sunny, and we had some spectacular views of the mighty mountain as we drove up, but we arrived fairly late, about 7:30 in the evening. At the reception desk, it turned out that an error had been made, and they had no room for us. (Later I discovered that I had mistakenly booked an inn at Paradise, CA.)

A Sweet Discovery

Dejected and worried about finding any room nearby, we went back down the mountain to the nearest tiny community of Ashford. If there were no rooms there, we would have to drive nearly an hour more to the outskirts of Tacoma. We passed two places with No Vacancy signs, then saw a neon sign in the window of Base Camp Bungalows which said OPEN. When we knocked, the owner came to the door, looked at the sign and said, “Oh, I forgot to turn that off.”

She could see the disappointment on our faces and asked, “How many nights do you need?”

“Only tonight.”

“Well, I have one bungalow left, just for tonight. Would you like to see it?”

We followed her back on a brick walkway between several cottages and mini-gardens. Back around the corner, she stopped and opened the door, “This is “Songbird.” Come on in.”

Inside was the prettiest little cottage you could imagine. Straight out of classic Disney. Polished wooden floor, which I later learned was ash. Everything detailed out, down to fresh-ground dark coffee and a real coffee pot. The view through the multi-paned window was filled with green, plus a little shrine that had two bird feeders on it.

View from Songbird

“Here’s a little bird seed that you can put out in the morning while you drink your coffee,” she said, handing Laurel a jar. “Then sit and see what comes.”

The manager’s name is Wendy, and it was great fun to spend some time the next morning talking to her about what she and her boyfriend have done to the place. It’s a perfect jewel, and the next time we decide to drive up to the mountain, we’ll stop here for sure.

It’s now Thursday morning, and we’re due in Seattle today, but the road trip isn’t quite over yet. We bypassed Seattle and drove up past Bellevue and Redmond, what’s known as the Eastside in Puget Sound country. We drove to Woodinville, a few miles north of the tip of Lake Washington, which borders the east side of Seattle for 22 miles. We had an excellent lunch on the patio of the Barking Frog. (We heard no barks and saw nary a tadpole). Then we drove to one of the nearby tasting rooms. Woodinville has had tasting rooms for large wineries and breweries like Chateau Ste. Michelle and Redhook for more than twenty years. The grapes and most of the bottling happens in Eastern Washington, but major marketing goes on here.

But today we discovered that the place is filled with tasting rooms. We arrived at our destination, Airfield Estates, which grows its grapes in the Yakima Valley east of the Cascade Mountains. To our surprise, it was in an upscale strip mall with another dozen or so wineries. The brochure for the area lists 60 wineries represented right here. We got three bottles at Airfield and three more at nearby Goose Ridge, whose vineyard is in the Columbia Valley, nearly to Idaho and north of the Columbia River. We drove back to Seattle and spent three pleasant and summery days with friends and family.

Taylor Shellfish

We can’t forget to tell you about Taylor Shellfish. I wrote about them after last year’s visit to Seattle. This year, we discovered that they have three branches in Seattle: Lower Queen Anne Hill, Pioneer Square and Capitol Hill. We spent one evening at their Melrose Oyster Bar on Capitol Hill and reaffirmed our belief that they have the best oysters you can get. Served in a stylish setting and with great service. Once you’re there, you’ll probably talk to Lance McCune, the general manager, who knows more about oysters than you could imagine.

Oh, one last note: If you’re flying home as we were, Alaska Airlines will allow a full case or half case of wine along with your luggage. No charge. Ask for details.

This trip has gotten me so into the idea of road trips that I’m re-reading Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, and this fall we’re planning a trip to the Southwest, including the Grand Canyon and Zion. I’ll tell you all about it when we get back.

Good travels,

Vic (and Laurel)






A Grape Discovery


Over the Memorial Day weekend, Laurel and I drove down to Ensenada. We’ve visited the city many times before, but we had never gone inland to Guadalupe Valley. Recently, we’ve heard a lot of talk about wineries in the valley and decided to check it out for ourselves.

Just as you’re arriving at the north end of Ensenada, Highway 3 goes east, and the sign says, “Ruta de Vinicola.” We turned and drove through an industrial area full of trucks and dust. Beyond that, typical coastal scrub, chaparral and cactus for a few miles, then you come up to a ridge, and over it lies an amazingly green and beautiful valley, planted edge to edge with vineyards and olive trees. We had done some research, and our first stop was at a museum devoted to the history of wine and vineyards worldwide, beginning with the earliest grape growing in ancient Egypt and Georgia (Eastern Europe, not America).

We talked to a graphic designer in the boutique shop filled with all sorts of aspects of wine and vines. He gave us some excellent advice on where to go first. The museum even has a tasting room, and we got a detailed map showing vineyards, restaurants and hotels. We were astonished to find out there are about 160 vineyards in the valley, which produce ninety percent of the wine in Mexico!

Before we left for Mexico, we checked at Yelp and found some highly recommended wineries and restaurants. Many of the restaurants have chefs who use fresh ingredients from their own gardens and seasonal seafood and meat from local sources. It was about noon by now, so we drove up to Finca Altozano, one of the restaurants most highly rated. It was an open air, rustic place filled with happy eaters/drinkers. We found a place at the bar, which also offered the entire menu, and had mini-tostadas of octopus ceviche, house-made sausage and fresh-baked crusty bread with olive oil, along with glasses of a terrific local Sauvignon Blanc.

(I have to warn you. If you read this entire blog, you’ll go away hungry.)

Another warning: Part of the charm of Valle de Guadalupe is the fact that two paved roads run through it east and west. Highway 3 continues north to Tecate after it joins the northern road through the valley. There’s one paved road that connects the two on the west side. All of the roads to the wineries, hotels and restaurants are simply dirt, some of them a little bumpy, so your pace will be slow, and your car will need a bath when you get home to the states.

After lunch, we drove a little farther east to L.A. Cetto, one of the largest wineries in the valley, for our first tasting. We discovered that the tastings aren’t especially cheap and usually run between ten and fifteen dollars for five tastes, depending on the types of wines. We stood out under the shade of some large fig trees and tasted five, one of which we liked so much we bought a bottle. It’s a white blend, with Chardonnay, Viognier and Pinot Noir grapes. I might add that actually buying bottles needs to be a rare event, because the California wine industry protects itself, and only one liter per person is allowed through customs.

We visited a couple of other vineyards that afternoon, and both also offered excellent wines. After our tasting at La Cielo, they gave us the very nice glasses we had used. And Adobe Guadalupe told us about The Wine Connection in Del Mar, which sells both Adobe Guadalupe and L.A, Cetto, as well as a couple of other Mexican wines. Outside this winery is a row of stone mounds with flying horses mounted above them. Of course, they’re sculptures, made of metal, but create an interesting backdrop to the sampling area.

We took a break from wine during the afternoon and visited Laja, a restaurant that gets many five-star reviews. We made reservations for lunch the following afternoon.

Early Sunday morning, we left our hotel in Ensenada, near city center. The valley is only about a half hour from the city, so we had decided to stay there, even though the valley has some excellent hotels and resorts. Excited by what we had seen on Saturday and the prospect of lunch at Laja, we drove up and arrived before many of the wineries had opened for the day. We had heard very good things about Viña de Frannes, so we headed up the northern valley road. When we reached the entrance to the vineyard at about ten, a rope was still stretched across. One of the nearby guards waved to us, walked across and dropped the rope, then beckoned us through. The buildings of Viña de Frannes were still at some distance, probably more than half a mile away beyond large fields of grapes.When we arrived, we parked the car in an empty dirt parking area and walked to the main building.

Our server, a young woman who had only begun working there a short time before, greeted us and showed us to a row of tables outside on the veranda. We were the first customers of the day, and she spent quite some time pouring and describing each of the five wonderful wines we tasted. She told us that the winemaker, Ernesto Alvarez Morphy Camou, had opened Frannes just a few years ago, after many years of running his earlier vineyard, Chateau Camou. The new winery he named after his son, Francisco, plus Ernesto. The modern buildings of Frannes are nestled near the far northern edge of the valley, below steep bluffs, and the views from the veranda are beautiful. We still had to buy one of the two bottles California would allow back in the state, and we chose an exceptional 2012 Cabernet Franc to bring back.

After this incredible experience, we decided to find out what Ernesto’s flagship winery, Chateau Camou, was like, now with new owners. Camou turned out to be a huge whitewashed building with well-worn wooden doors. Inside, the place was filled with oak barrels and chandeliers, giving a buttery light to everything. The indoor welcome was as inviting as Frannes’ outdoor was. We drank some fine red wines, some of them fifteen years old, and a couple of surprisingly mature whites. By the time we finished at Camou, it was nearing our reservations at Laja, so we headed south.

Laja is a bit of a splurge but well worth the price. For fifty dollars, they serve eight courses, small enough so you don’t waddle away from the table, but large enough so you’re very satisfied. For an additional twenty-five, they match a local wine with each of the courses.

It turned out to be a wise decision on our part, because it was one of the best meals we’ve ever eaten, and included courses with scallops, octopus and local lamb you could cut with a fork. The spinach ravioli with duck cracklings was extra special, as was the catch of the day, which was white sea bass. Two very creative desserts finished the meal. Lemongrass and kohlrabi ice cream (Really!) followed by a spinach biscuit with goat cheese ice cream. We’ll be going back sooner than later.

EZ Exit

Last Thanksgiving, we drove down to Ensenada for the holiday. Coming back, we waited at the border for three and a half hours! We decided this would not work if we wanted to continue visiting Mexico. We found out about Sentri pass, which costs about a hundred dollars and lasts for five years. We now have Sentri passes, which are good anywhere you come through customs into the U.S. The Sentri pass line was less than a half hour long, and when we reached the gate, we handed our passes to the customs official. He scanned them and said, “Thank you. Go ahead,” as we were pulling out our passports. He said, “These are all I need,” when we told him that this was our first time using them, and we should expect our car to be thoroughly examined and even X-rayed.

He smiled and said, “The computer says everything’s okay, so have a nice day,” and we drove through with relief and delight at the way they worked. They take about three months to get, but they last five years. If you’re interested in visiting Mexico, as we are, I strongly suggest you get them. They even speed your wait through lines in airports anywhere in the country. Happy traveling!

Pura Vida for the birds

In early March, Laurel and I spent an incredible week in Costa Rica. We went to several of the national parks with a guide and spotted a total of 127 bird species. 89 of them were life birds. Following is the complete list, divided into the various locations.


Costa Rica 2017 Birds

Black-bellied Whistling Duck

Black-bellied Whistling Duck

The italicized birds were life birds.

2/12—Metropolitan Parque La Sabana
Fulvous Whistling Duck
Black-bellied Whistling Duck
Muscovy Duck
Rock Pigeon
Black Vulture
Clay-colored Thrush
Great-tailed Grackle
House Sparrow
Rufous-collared Sparrow
Great Kiskadee

Turquoise-browed Motmot pair

Turquoise-browed Motmot pair

White-winged Dove

2/13—Carara National Park
Orange-billed Sparrow
Black-tailed Flycatcher
Dusky Antbird
Rufous Piha
Streak-headed Wood Creeper
Bay-headed Tanager
Turquoise-browed Motmot
White-winged Dove
Chestnut-backed Antbird
White-shouldered Tanager
Great Tinamou
Lesser Greenlet
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Plain Xenops

Scarlet Macaws

Scarlet Macaws

Golden-naped Woodpecker
Scarlet Macaw
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird
Black-hooded Antshrike
Inca Dove
Blue-grey Tanager
Rufous-naped Wren
White-whiskered Puffbird 

2/13—Tropical Mangrove Boat Tour

Costa Rica Swift
Green Heron
Gray-breasted Swift
Great Kiskadee
White Ibis
Yellow-crowned Night Heron
White-tailed Kite
Groove-billed Ani
Mealy Parakeet
Boat-billed Heron
Bare-throated Tiger Heron

Bare-throated Tiger Heron

Bare-throated Tiger Heron

Northern Jacana

Orange-fronted Parakeet
Yellow-headed Caracara
Tricolored Heron
Little Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron
Redwing Blackbird
Black-necked Stilt

Neotropic Cormorant
Magnificent Frigatebird
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Baltimore Oriole
Yellow-naped Parrot
Barn Swallow

Yellow-naped Parrot

Yellow-naped Parrot

Cattle Egret
Northern Waterthrush
Roseate Spoonbill
Mangrove Hummingbird
Tropical Pewee
Green Kingfisher

Common Toady Flycatcher
Mangrove Yellow Warbler
Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler

Mangrove Black Hawk
Mangrove Swallow
Brown Pelican

2/14—Tropical Adventure
White Hawk
Yellow-throated Toucan
Silver-throated Tanager
Buff-rumped Warbler
Black-faced Grosbeak
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Rufous Mourner
Scarlet-rumped Cacique
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird
Black-and-red Grosbeak
Long-billed Hermit
Ruddy Ground Dove

Mealy Parakeet

2/14—Cope’s at La Union

Long-billed Hermit
Spectacled Owl
Northern Jacana
Violet-crowned Woodnymph

Northern Jacana

Northern Jacana

Pale-vented Pigeon
Clay-colored Thrush
White-necked Jacobin
White-tipped Sicklebill
Chestnut-headed Oropendola
Montezuma Oropendola
Scarlet-rumped Tanager
Keel-billed Toucan

2/15—Tortuga Island Cruise

Laughing Gull
Caspian Tern
Great Frigatebird
Magnificent Frigatebird

Brown Pelican

Montezuma Oropendula

Montezuma Oropendula


2/16—Downtown San Jose
Crimson-fronted Parakeet

2/17—Quetzal National Park
Black-capped Flycatcher
Talamanca Hummingbird
Slaty-backed Nightingale Thrush
Blue-and-white Swallow
Blue-and-yellow Silky Flycatcher
Peg-billed Finch
Black Vulture
Sooty-capped Chlorospingus
Black-billed Nightingale Thrush
Volcano Hummingbird
Grey-breasted Wood Wren
Collared Redstart

2/17—Tapanti National Park
Cattle Egret
Turkey Vulture

Keel-billed Toucan

Keel-billed Toucan

Rufous-collared Sparrow
Common Chlorospingus

Yellowish Flycatcher
Scaled Antpitta
Torrent Tyrannulet
Black Phoebe
Collared Trogon
Olivaceous Wood Creeper
Black Guan

2/18—Poas Volcano National Park
Violet Sabrewing
Fiery-throated Hummingbird
Magnificent Hummingbird
Baltimore Oriole
Black-cowled Oriole
Purple-throated Mountain Gem
Melodious Blackbird

Crested Guan

Crested Guan

2/18—La Paz Waterfall Park
Townsend’s Warbler
Wilson’s Warbler
Spangled-cheek Tanager
Chestnut-capped Finch
Crested Guan
White-tipped Dove

A Crested Guan in the park’s aviary seemed to develop a crush on Laurel’s long-legged tripod. It jumped down and began to rub against the legs.

We also saw several fascinating animals
Long-nosed Bat
Honduran White Bat
Phantasma Bat
Three-toed Sloth

Honduran White Bats

Honduran White Bats

Cope, our guide on Tuesday, found these bats for us on the underside of a banana leaf. Curled up, they are just a little larger than a mothball.





DSCN6083 - Copy




I couldn’t end this list without showing off at least one of Costa Rica’s 52 beautiful hummingbirds. This little one is a Violet-crowned Woodnymph.

Pura Vida


Keel-billed Toucan

In English, pura vida means “pure life.” But in Costa Rica, it’s come to mean much more than that. The phrase means everything from “hello” to “excellent.” It’s the statement that symbolizes Costa Ricans’ love of their country and pride in what nature has given them.

Recently, Laurel and I visited Costa Rica for the first time, and we came to enjoy and respect what the Ticos, as they call themselves, have. The country ranks percentage-wise first in the world in protected land mass, with more than 25% of it designated as national parks or preserves. Since we’re avid birders, we were excited about the fact that, even though it’s only about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire, it’s home to more than 900 bird species and a wide variety of animals. In less than a week, we spotted nearly 90 life birds, thanks to our very able guides. (For bird lovers, I’m posting a separate blog that describes in detail what we saw.)


National Theatre in San Jose

We stayed in a comfortable condo complex in San Jose, the largest city in Costa Rica. It’s about the same size as San Diego, but a word of caution here. If you’re enticed to visit Costa Rica, don’t rent a car and drive. The traffic is insane—narrow highways full of large trucks and crowded conditions everywhere around the city. Traffic lanes are marked, but treated merely as suggestions. In addition, street names just grew with the city. Avenida 3 is not necessarily next to Avenida 4. It takes an experienced taxi driver or guide to take you where you want to go.

That said, San Jose is an intriguing city full of parks and some excellent museums. We visited the Pre-Columbian Gold and Jade Museums, and they were both filled with wonderful art and provided an introduction to the history and culture of Costa Rica and its many indigenous peoples, several of whom still live in their old ways in various areas of the country.

Vic and Deimer

Deimer and me

Our primary guide, Deimer Espinosa, comes from a family that’s descended from the Charotegas people of Guanacaste, the region on the Pacific that now hosts several excellent beach resorts. He owns a company that has been influential in developing recycling methods for the country (you see recycle bins everywhere). He also leads a school that trains future guides, knowledgeable in the country’s flora and fauna. And he led us to a series of national parks and venues brimming with lush rainforests, crocodile rivers and tropical volcano craters. Everywhere we went, the spectacular countryside was fascinating and beautiful.

Tuesday was Valentine’s Day, and for a change of pace we decided to splurge and treat ourselves to a nice dinner. Rated #1 out of 524 restaurants in San Jose is a French restaurant named La Terrasse, so we made reservations (highly recommended, since the restaurant is in the owners’ home, and there are only six or seven tables). Here’s the address, in typical Tico fashion: Avenida 9, calle 15, 45 metros al Norte de Café Mundo, 25 metros al sur del hotel la Amistad, Barrio Otoya San José, describing that it’s 45 meters north of Café Mundo and 25 meters south of Hotel la Amistad, landmarks for the lost. Our cab driver knew the general location and, after a couple of wrong turns, found the home south of city center. We knocked on the door, and our host opened it and welcomed us in.

patricia richer

Patricia Richer

The chef of La Terrasse is Patricia Richer, and her husband, Gerald, is the waiter, wine steward and genial host. Together, they served us one of the best meals we have ever had. And in such lovely, intimate surroundings. Here’s the menu:

Vegetales orgánicos de Joseph Dugast, La BioFinca de Don Pepe.

“Para el placer de un cena romantica.”

Coctel Glamour

Crema de esparragos, aguacate
Cardamomo & coco

Mini brocheta de camarón con especias.

Mini Tarteleta de hongos y queso camembert
Pisto de berros.

Soupe d'asperges et avocat Saint ValentinPechuga de pato, especias
Emulsión de Martini blanco y naranja
Gratinado de papas al aceite de trufas.

Fondante de caramelo espéculos & nueces caramelizadas
Croquante de chocolate.
Trufas de chocolate blanco & praliné.

And here’s a photo to give you an idea of what their “small home” looks like:

San Valentin (Custom)We highly recommend that if you ever spend an evening in San Jose, spend it at La Terrasse.

On the wild side of Costa Rica, we spent a late afternoon cruising the Tarcoles River, which empties into the Pacific. In two hours, traveling up and down the river with our knowledgeable pilot, we spotted 42 different birds, 29 of them life birds! We also saw several crocodiles, some of them hauled out on the river’s grassy banks. One of them had to be at least twelve feet long. We asked the guide why some of them lie with their mouths opened wide, and he told us that’s how the crocs cool themselves. We finished at the mouth of the river in time to see the sun set out on the Pacific. Click on Jungle Crocodile Safari to read more about the boat ride.

On the way to the river, we stopped for lunch at Restaurante Bar & Grill Los Toneles and had some excellent sandwiches, actually washed down by a Costa Rican craft beer. The craft beer explosion has hit Costa Rica, too, and it was quite good. Like a lot of countries, there is one beer that everyone drinks. In Costa Rica, that beer is Imperial. It even comes in draft at some places and is not bad, but it’s not a craft beer.

P3On the day we spent in the city perusing the museums, we walked up Avenida Central and discovered that it turns into a pedestrian mall for blocks in the city center. Bustling and busy, with shops from farmacias to book stores, live bands and women selling their produce spread on blankets, it was a delightful find. On one corner, we even found a craft brew tavern. Called Pub P3, it’s on piso tres, the third floor, and it’s a sophisticated little club that looks out through open windows at the sights below. Flocks of Crimson-fronted Parakeets flew up the street while we sampled their excellent IPA.

We wanted to get a better look at Costa Rica’s Pacific coast and spent a day on Calypso Cruise’s terrific catamaran, the Manta Raya. It took us out on a calm sea through several islands off the coast and eventually to Isla Tortuga (Turtle Island, although we didn’t see any turtles). We spent five hours ashore on a beautiful sandy beach and had a terrific beach lunch. Laurel got in some snorkeling, and she saw a few fish but  said the water was warm and a little murky.


Lucia Quesada

On the last two days, we were joined by a lovely young guide named Lucia Quesada. She has recently finished her three years of education as a naturalist/guide, and she was a fountain of knowledge, not only for birds, but also the culture and history of the country. Her family comes from the Huetares people, on the southern part of the Caribbean side. She and Laurel became a dynamic duo, spotting birds everywhere and then finding them in the bird guide.

We visited the Poas Volcano, another national park, and had a great look at the still hot caldera, then avoided all the crowds when our Deimer and Lucia took us back on a trail where we only saw two or three people. On the way to the volcano, we stopped at a terrific restaurant, Freddo Fresas. It’s in the heart of strawberry country and has a wonderful selection of pastries and desserts featuring the gorgeous berries. Freddo owns land across the street from the restaurant and has turned it into a garden filled with feeders. Hummingbirds everywhere!

Saturday was our last day before returning to San Diego. We started by hunting for the legendary Quetzal, which has a national park named after it. We didn’t find it, but we saw plenty of other birds. Finally, we visited the La Paz Waterfall Park, which has a series of three waterfalls in lush jungle. At the top is a major tourist attraction which features a zoo and a large aviary. Lots of birds in the aviary, but we didn’t add any to our list. We still finished the week with 127 different birds, 89 of them new to us.

crested guanOne bird we saw in the aviary was a Crested Guan, about the size of a small turkey. We stopped near it to watch it perch on a railing. It seemed quite tame and was attracted to Laurel’s scope mounted on its tripod. Finally, the bird jumped down and began rubbing the legs of the tripod with its beak. Definitely, he must be a bird who appreciates long legs. Quite a laugh for all of us.

CR waterfallsA word of caution: If you want to climb down to see the waterfalls, be prepared for what seemed to be about 300 stairs. Fortunately, you only have to climb back a quarter of the way, where a shuttle bus is waiting. A strenuous climb, but worth it.

It was our first trip to Costa Rica, but it won’t be our last. The Ticos’ idea of “pura vida” is addicting.

The "pura vida" in Costa Rica

Pura vida in Costa Rica

Time Travelin’ Guy

Last night, Laurel and I experienced an event that, while not life-changing, certainly improved our lives, because we saw and heard the phenomenal music of Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxson.

blind boyPaxson was born in Watts to a family whose roots went back to Evangeline County, Louisiana. He grew up listening to his grandparents singing old country blues songs and began to play the fiddle at twelve, following that with the banjo two years later. He began to go blind as a teenager and lost most of his sight by the age of sixteen. He has added piano, harmonica, Cajun accordion, ukulele, guitar, and the bones to his musical arsenal, and is amazingly proficient at them all.

banjo geniusOn top of that, he talks through the entire show, telling stories and giving bits of information about the music he’s playing. For instance, he sat down at the piano and played a blues with the lyrics, “My baby left me on the 219, but she came back to me on the 217.” After finishing, he explained that back in the day, the 219 was the train from New Orleans to Los Angeles, and the 217 was the returning train.

At the end of his show, he told us he had one more number to do, but because of his blindness, it was too much work for him to leave the stage and come back for an encore, so we’d best give him the applause for an encore before he did his last song. And the audience went nuts.

at the pianoHe’s now 28 and is compared to major players like Taj Mahal and Keb Mo, but we’ve never heard anyone who seems to channel the music of the 1800s, the 1920s or the 1930s like this man. We’ve decided that he must be a time traveler from back then, but we’re fortunate to be hearing him now. Take a listen.

Mole In The Ground

I Ain’t Got Nobody


New Discoveries in Baja

This Thanksgiving, we thought we’d trade in the tired turkey for some lobster, so we spent the weekend with Laurel’s Aunt Lydia and cousins Amanda and Mindy in Ensenada.

We drove down on Thanksgiving Day and arrived at La Fonda about two o’clock. Last year, its owner, Dmytri, bragged to us that they served the best lobster in Baja, so we decided to take him up on it. One of the combos appealed to me, so I ordered shrimp stuffed with lobster for $12.95, and it was delicious. But Laurel ordered the whole shebang—the best lobster plate for only 26 bucks.

Thanksgiving at La Fonda and the view of the beach

Thanksgiving at La Fonda and the view of the beach

When her plate arrived, her eyes widened. It was heaped high with three lobsters! Not the too big lobsters that are often tough, but three perfectly cooked medio lobsters. She shared one with me, and it was as good as any I’ve ever eaten.

Hotel Posada Don Fernando

Hotel Posada Don Fernando

We drove into Ensenada and checked into the Hotel Posada Don Fernando, right near downtown. At only $69 a night, it was a bargain. A small hotel, nicely maintained and quiet, and just a few blocks from all the action of the city.

On Friday morning, we discovered a tented sidewalk café with great eggs benedict and French pastries. It was the outdoor room of El Rey Sol, a classy French/Mexican restaurant that’s been there since 1947. The next day, we went back for a second breakfast, this time in their splendid dining room that felt like a holiday was underway, complete with black-tied waiters, a large Christmas tree and a pianist playing listenable classics. This is a place we’ll return to whenever we’re in the city.

Wendlandt Brewery and the flower vendor out front

Wendlandt Brewery and the flower vendor out front

We’d heard that the craft beer phenomenon in San Diego is starting to move south, and Laurel found two breweries in Ensenada on Yelp. The first was Wendlandt Cerveceria, right on the main boulevard next door to Starbucks. A really classy, up-to-date kind of place with several of its own brews on tap and forty or so other brands in bottles. With some very tasty food, as well.

While looking for the brewery, we discovered the entrance to Ensenada’s new marina park, with plenty of malecon to stroll and lots of shops and eating establishments. It’s brightly lighted in the evening and safe for strollers.

Enjoying Aguamala and the view from the bar

Enjoying Aguamala and the view from the bar

On the next night, we drove a small distance north from town and tried Aguamala Cerveza Artisanal. Some more tasty brews on tap, plus the most stunning view you’ll ever see from a barstool. We couldn’t stop eating their cacahuates (peanuts), made with whole garlic cloves and chiles, and their hamburger was extra good. Talking with Arturo, one of the owners, we asked what their IPA’s name, Astillero, meant. He told us it means “shipyard,” and they named the beer that, because they were renting space for the brewery from a shipyard at the time.


Craft beers from Tijuana and Mexicali

Craft beers from Tijuana and Mexicali

We’ve always enjoyed going down to Baja, and now that we’re only a half hour from the border, we’ll be going down more often. But we’ll get ourselves a Sentri Pass, which makes coming back into the U.S. much quicker. This time we waited more than three hours at the border! The Sentri Pass will make the whole trip a plus.

Kauai: A Growler, Slap Koozies, and a Laughing Thrush

On October 13, 2013, we returned to the mainland after living on the big island of Hawaii. Last week, nearly three years to the day later we spent a wonderful week on Kauai, our second favorite island, which we hadn’t visited in eight years. It hasn’t changed much, which is a very good thing. Today it has a Costco and three breweries instead of one, both improvements in our eyes.

Hanalei Valley

Hanalei Valley

October is the beginning of the rainy season on Kauai, and we spent the week ducking out of the downpours that blew across the island, most lasting only five or ten minutes. You have to remember, however, that Kauai is called the Garden Isle for good reason. In its center is Mt. Waialeale, one of the rainiest spots in the world, with an average 452 inches of rain a year. Its name means “overflowing water.” It’s an apt name, and the result of it is one of the greenest places you’ll ever see. In the Arctic, the Inuit have many words for ice and snow. On Kauai, you’ll be hard pressed to come up with the names of all the greens you look at.

Poipu Beach

Poipu Beach

Notwithstanding the rain, we enjoyed a lot of pure, delightful sunny weather, where the skies were an unbelievable deep blue, and the breeze blew to temper the heat to an enjoyable level. Plus, the soft, warm air holds you like a lovely blanket, smelling of growing things. All in all, not a bad place to spend some time relaxing from the hustle and stress of home, taking things in, as they say, in “Hawaii time.” If you can’t tell that we love Hawaii, you haven’t been paying attention.

Melodious Laughing Thrush

Melodious Laughing Thrush

Being bird nuts, we spent time on muddy trails and soft powder sand looking for some of the island’s birds, and in a week saw about a third of what Kauai has to offer, including a part of the title, a Melodious Laughing Thrush, a life bird for us. What a wonderful name for a small, robin-like bird that sang to us for a quarter hour in a beautiful piece of tropical forest. If you’re looking for it, it was on the Wailua Ridge Trail. The Wailua River is one of the only navigable rivers in Hawaii, and, farther down, an easy drive from Kapaa, it becomes the gorgeous twin spouts of Opaekaa Falls.

We stopped for happy hour at the nearest brewery to our hotel, Kauai Beer Company in Lihue. They had good food and better beer, the IPA, named a modest Kauai IPA, was quite hoppy, and we bought one of their growlers and took two pints home to our hotel.

Monk Seals

Monk Seals

The next day, we drove down to Poipu Beach, and Laurel snorkeled while I read more of James Lee Burke’s Sunset Limited, a violent and classy mystery set in Louisiana. While we were there, we were lucky enough to see two monk seals hauled out on the sand. Happily, the lifeguards had put a protective barrier around them to keep fascinated visitors away. Hawaiian Monk Seals are extremely endangered, with only about 1100 of them left. One suggestion if you ever spend time on Poipu Beach: when you’re ready for lunch, walk across the street to Brenneke’s Beach House. Terrific food and the best Mai Tai we had while we were on the island.


Salt Ponds Near Barking Sands

Salt Ponds Near Barking Sands

We drove west to ‘Ele’ele and sampled the second brewery on the island, Kauai Island Brewery and Grill, quite another place to put on your bucket list. Terrific beer like their Captain Cook IPA. Past ‘Ele’ele, the climate changes. You’re approaching the dry side of the island. About half way up the west side, there’s a salt pond preserve. Plenty of shore birds on these ponds, which were created and stocked with fish by the original Hawaiians.

I had read about Stevenson’s Library in the Hyatt Grand Kauai on the east corner of Poipu, and we stopped by there one evening. Named for Robert Lewis Stevenson, it’s a classic bar paneled with dark wood and, of course, featuring bookcases filled with books. Their menu is sushi and pupus, the island name for small dishes. And their bartenders make some high quality, creative cocktails. The one I ordered featured cucumber vodka and sake and was a terrific, dry alternative to the too many fruity drinks offered today. Laurel tried a Hawaiian Mule, made from Bourbon, ginger liqueur, lime and mint. She declared it excellent, and we have learned to make it at home.

On Wednesday, we went up island and spent the morning taking a three-hour tour of Na ‘Aina Kai Botanical Gardens and Sculpture Park. In 1982, Joyce and Ed Doty retired to Kauai from northern California and decided to finish their backyard, which was a bare and dry plot. Now 320 acres, the garden is a sheer work of love. Planting acres of teak and other hardwood trees as it grew, the trees attracted moisture that had never been there before. Dotted through the extensive gardens are more than 120 life-sized bronze statues, many of them based on their children and grandchildren.

Na 'Aina Kai Botanical Garden and Sculpture Park

Na ‘Aina Kai Botanical Garden and Sculpture Park

Julie, our guide, has volunteered at Na ‘Aina Kai for eight years now. On the side, she manages the Laysan Albatross that use a part of the garden as a nesting site. Living on Kauai for 36 years, she is a fountain of knowledge on the plants, birds, Hawaiian history and the changing environment of the island. This is a tour not to be missed.



Our last night was a wonderful splurge. We had dinner at Gaylord’s, on a plantation between Kapaa and Lihue. It’s an open-air restaurant that looks out on a broad, green lawn. On one side is a small performing arts platform, and the musician who played for us a combination of Hawaiian and popular music certainly added to the ambience. Gaylord’s has an excellent menu and an extensive wine list. The food, the service, and the atmosphere all blend to create a truly memorable evening, worthy of an anniversary, or even a wedding, many of which take place here. It was a night to remember on an island we will never forget.

We’ll definitely Return to Paradise as often as we can.


Aloha and Mahalo.


koozie-customBy the way, slap koozies are stiff rubberized wrappers that curl around your favorite glass when you slap them on. They’re worth getting, because they fit on just about any glass.


The Rain Excerpt


rain cover (Custom)It was June, and in Hong Kong, that means one thing: Rain. Today was no exception. It wasn’t a hard rain. Rather, a big rain, with the sky full of fat, lazy drops that seemed to fall in their own sweet time, secure in the knowledge that when they hit you, you would get wet.

Kwong cursed the month and fumbled the lobby door open, juggling his cane and an umbrella that had water coursing off of it and down the leg of his tweed slacks. The air-conditioned interior of the building’s lobby was a welcome relief. He looked for a spot to shake the water from his umbrella, and, seeing none, grumbled and closed it, still moisture-laden.

He crossed to the elevator and pushed the up button, then heard the ring of a car behind him. He twirled and crossed toward the closing doors, jamming his wet umbrella between them.

At least the damned thing is good for that, he thought, pushing the button for the sixth floor. On six, he went down the hall to 615 and opened the door that read, “Henry Chee, M.D.” Inside, Mrs. Yim, Chee’s receptionist, was missing. In her place, a young woman, barely more than a teenager, asked if she could help him.

“I have an appointment.”

“And you are?”

“Lawrence Kwong. Dr. Chee is expecting me.”

“I’ll just let him know that you’re here, Mr. Kwong.” She picked up the phone and whispered into the receiver, then said, “You can go in now, Mr. Kwong.”

Kwong crossed to the adjoining office door and went in, closing it behind him.

“Morning, Chee. Where’s Mrs. Yim?”

“I’m afraid I’ve lost her. She’s moved to Tienzhen, to be close to her grandson. And her daughter, of course. Why are you in such a foul mood, Kwong?

“It’s the damned rain. And your new girl treated me like I was here to rob the place.”

Chee grinned, “That’s Daisy. I’m afraid her bedside manner needs a little work. But she’s doing an admirable job with my billing. Even getting some of my ornery patients to pay their past due bills. I’ll talk to her and explain to her that if we did have a robber, you’d actually cart him off to jail.”

Finally Kwong smiled and said, “It’s good to see you, Henry. I understand my annual labs are in. Will I live another year?”

“I don’t know how you do it, Lawrence. You’re sixty-plus years old. You weigh 308 pounds. I know you drink too much. And you don’t exercise enough. But you’re as healthy as an old bear. What’s your secret?”

“You know, Henry, I just talked to a man who summed it up very well. His name is Ling, and he works the member parking at Happy Valley. Do you know him?”

“I’m afraid I haven’t been to the races in years.”

“You should try it sometime. Consider it a prescription for the doctor. At any rate, Ling turns eighty-two later this year. He chalks his good health up to a whisky every evening before dinner. I imagine that I must follow his lead, with possibly a small amount more on days that require celebrating.”

Chee smiled, “And what kind of day might that be, Lawrence?”

“Why, today, for example. I might celebrate the fact that it’s Tuesday.”

“You’re a dog, Kwong,” said Chee, “At least, try to get a little more exercise.”

“Now that you mention it, I have recently started taking the Star Ferry across on decent days and walking the mile up Nathan Road to my office. Does that count?”

“That’s good for a start. Oh, by the by, a friend said he saw Sarah Hunter back here in Hong Kong. I know you were heartbroken when she got married to the other man.”

“A strange story, Chee. Matson Tai, my assistant, and I went to San Francisco on holiday last winter. Hunter had just been murdered. And Matson and I solved the case. Sarah and I are back together, so to speak, although only from time to time. Nearly forty years later, she can’t leave her life, and I could never quit the police or move from Hong Kong. But we’re very happy, when we’re together. In fact, she was just here last month. That must be when your friend, as you say, saw her.”

“Must have been. Well, when you see her next, give her my regards.”

“I shall, Henry. And thanks for the clean bill of health. I must say, it takes some of the sting of this nasty rain away. I might just go out and dance in a puddle.”

“Well, best of luck, Lawrence.”

Kwong let himself out of Chee’s office and stopped at the receptionist’s desk.

“Dr. Chee tells me you’re doing excellent work for him, Daisy. I’m Police Inspector Lawrence Kwong, and I’m an old friend of the doctor’s. Keep up the good work.”

Back down in the lobby, Kwong looked out through the windows and saw that it was raining harder than ever. The gutter was overflowing onto the sidewalk, and, even though he was three short blocks from headquarters, he knew that he didn’t need the exercise today. He took out his phone and called Matson.

“Matson, it’s Lawrence. I’ve just finished at the doctor’s office. I’d much rather have you pick me up with the car than risk being carried away with Noah and the flood. There’s a good chap. I’ll be in the lobby watching for you.”

It was just a matter of minutes before Matson pulled up in the big blue Chrysler 300. Kwong pulled the entry door open and crossed the sidewalk, now turning into a shallow river. He juggled with the umbrella, his cane and the door, slipped and came down hard on the curb. He howled in pain, and Matson jumped out of the driver’s side and raced around the idling car, soaked instantly in the deluge. He bent down, and Kwong looked up at him, scowling.

“Damn! Now I’ve done it. It’s not good, my man.”

Matson gently slid his fingers over Kwong’s right leg, “You’re right, Lawrence. Don’t move. It’s a bad break.”

He hurried back around the car, got in and picked up the radio, “Sergeant Hsieh, it’s Matson. Kwong is down. No, no gunshots. He slipped in the rain and fell. He needs an ambulance. Now. We’re on Kimberley Road, a block east of Nathan. Right. We’re in the Chrysler.”

Matson put the phone back in its holder and looked across at Kwong, who was lying just outside the car, “Sorry, old chum. Just keep the umbrella over you. Help’s on its way.”

Kwong smiled wryly at Matson, “And Chee just gave me a clean bill of health. God, but I hate the rain.”

When the ambulance arrived, Matson got out of the car and told the lead paramedic what had happened, and they went to Kwong’s side on the sidewalk.

“Sorry about this, Inspector. I’m Jeremy, and I just need to do a little preliminary check on your leg. How are you feeling?”

Kwong shook his head and answered, “I’ve felt better. My leg hurts like hell, and I’m bloody well not happy about lying here in the mud.”

Jeremy felt up and down the leg, then said, “To be safe, sir, try not to move your leg. We’re going to get you on a gurney and take you to hospital where you can be treated.”

He got up and went back to the ambulance, then returned with the gurney and his second. “This here is Adam, Inspector. I’m afraid we’re going to have to damage your slacks. Pardon me, sir,” he said, taking a pair of shears and cutting Kwong’s tweed pant leg nearly to the hip.

Matson took the umbrella from Kwong and stood nearby, trying to keep the downpour from hitting him.

While Adam pulled Kwong’s arm out of the jacket sleeve and took his blood pressure, Jeremy said, “Sorry, sir, but we needed to see how the leg is looking, but I’m happy to tell you there’s no blood. From the feel of it, it’s a serious fracture of the femur. I can feel that the broken ends have shifted, but the bone hasn’t broken the skin.”

“As little as it is, I suppose any good news is to be appreciated,” said Kwong.

They positioned the gurney next to Kwong, and Jeremy said, “I’m afraid that we’ll need your help, Inspector. Adam and I will have some trouble lifting you on our own, so if you could be so good as to roll yourself over toward the gurney, and we’ll assist you. Try to keep your leg fairly straight.”

“Do you need my help?” Matson asked.

“You’re doing just fine, sir, keeping the rain off the inspector here.”

Kwong turned to his side and winced at the pain, and the two men grunted and managed to get him on the gurney, then lifted it to its upright position. They rolled Kwong to the rear of the ambulance and slid him in.

“We’re taking the inspector to Ruttonjee Hospital. I understand that it’s clear across in Wan Chai, but it’s the closest fully-equipped hospital,” said Jeremy. “Will you be following on?”

“Absolutely,” answered Matson. “I’ll find him there.” He turned to Kwong and said, “Don’t worry, Lawrence. I’ll be there when you need me.”

“Good man, Matson. Call headquarters and fill them in.”

“Will do,” said Matson, snapping his fingers.


shenzhen flooding (Custom)As the ambulance turned south on Carnarvon, Kwong pulled his phone from the pocket in what was left of his slacks and punched in a number.

“Hello, Daisy, this is Chief Inspector Kwong. Yes, I enjoyed meeting you, also. Is the doctor in? Henry, it’s Kwong. I’m afraid I have something of some import to report to you. As I was leaving your building, I slipped and fell on the wet sidewalk. No, I’m not suing you. Nor the building. I just wanted you to know that we’ll be seeing more of each other in the coming weeks than either of us would like. I’ve broken my leg, a rather bad break, to hear my paramedics’ story. Yes, I’m in the ambulance now. They’re taking me to Ruttonjee. Yes. The lead paramedic is named Jeremy. Here, I’ll put him on for you.”

He reached forward and said, “Jeremy, I have my physician on the line. Would you be a good chap and tell him what’s going on? Here, he’s on my cell.”

He lay back and looked at the ceiling of the ambulance, cursing the rain and the pain and his own carelessness.


Matson lost the ambulance in a matter of a few blocks. They had their siren on and were easing through red lights. He could have started his siren, but his getting to the hospital wasn’t urgent. He decided to simply drive incognito and get there when the traffic let him.

The heavy rain began to subside a bit, and he cut the wipers to a timed sweep. He radioed Sergeant Hsieh and told him that he was following the ambulance to hospital. He’d call in with more information on the inspector when he had it.

He pulled into the hospital’s parking garage, parked the Chrysler at the front end of the handicapped row, got out and put the blinker on the roof. The parking attendant waved to him and said, “Don’t worry, officer, we’ll keep an eye on it for you.”

“Thanks,” he answered, and went into the emergency room entrance.

“I’m sorry, sir,” said the admitting nurse, “Inspector Kwong has arrived, but he’s already in surgery. My guess is that you won’t be able to see him for at least an hour and a half. Maybe two. Check back with me then.”

Matson looked at his watch. It was a quarter after one, and he realized that he hadn’t had anything all day but coffee. He took the blinker off the roof and climbed into the car, waving at the attendant and shouting, “I’ll be back later.”

He drove up to Under Bridge Spicy Crab, just north of Hennessy. The rain was letting up, and he went into the restaurant without his umbrella. He ordered salt and pepper chicken wings with a Tsing Tao. While he was enjoying the beer and waiting for his lunch, he called Laura.

“Hi, Matson, what’s going on? You never call me in the middle of the day.”

“Don’t take this wrong, but I’m killing time at lunch. Lawrence had an accident, and he’s in hospital.”

“Oh, dear! I hope it isn’t serious.”

“He slipped on a flooded sidewalk and broke his leg. He’s in surgery right now. I’m waiting until I can see him and find out more information.”

“Well, give him my love. Are you still coming this evening?”

“A little rain won’t keep me from seeing you.”

“You’re sweet. You’ll be here at six?”

“Absolutely. Do you need anything from the store?”

“No, I think we’re all set. Mother’s excited that you’re coming.”

“I always enjoy seeing your parents, too.”


The chicken wings and the rice were plenty, and Matson looked at his watch. He still had time before he needed to be back. He ordered another Tsing Tao and relaxed amid the sweet and spicy smells of the restaurant.

When he returned to the emergency room, the nurse told him that Kwong was still in emergency, but now in a room where Matson could see him. He took the plastic bag that had a bouquet of irises poking out of it and headed back to room 3A.

At 3A, he opened the door and found Kwong on the bed in a hospital gown. His right leg was encased in a contraption built of plastic and cloth that reached from his hip to his ankle.

“Lawrence, it looks like that’s going to slow you down some.”

“Bah!” answered Kwong. “They put three pins in the bone, and they’re telling me that I’ll be in a wheelchair for eight weeks, if I’m lucky.”

“Why a wheelchair? Why not crutches?”

“Some folk could get by on crutches, but they say, because of my weight, I’ll heal faster in a chair with the leg up. By the by, the flowers are sweet, but you know they’re not necessary.”

“They’re just a cover, Lawrence. I know what’s necessary. There’s also a bottle of Balvenie and two glasses in the bag.”

Kwong smiled, “It’s not by accident that you’re my assistant, Matson. Good work.”


Stockholm Sweetnin’

I felt knocked down when I learned that Wendy had gone to Sweden. We had been dating for six months; then, suddenly, she disappeared. No one seemed to know where she was. I called Phoebe, her best friend, who was ready to file a missing persons report. She had last seen Wendy on Sunday night, when they had dinner at The Roost.

Sunday. That was the last time I saw her, I told Phoebe. We had gone to the Huntington to see the French portrait show, and coming back, she complained of a headache. So I had just driven her home and dropped her off. She had been wearing a velvety sweater that felt good when I held her and kissed her goodbye.

Her parents didn’t know anything either. Tuesday was usually her day to join them for bridge, but she hadn’t even called to cancel. They were getting very worried, as well.

cellphone-financing (Custom)At six o’clock on Wednesday morning, my cell phone sounded off. It was Wendy.

“Where are you? Everyone’s worried about you,” I said.

“I’m in Stockholm. I was in the mood for snow and decided this would be a nice place to find it.”

“In Stockholm? Wendy, that sounds crazy. What’s gotten into you?”

“Nothing, really. I just had a notion, and it occurred to me that I never do anything strange. So I thought to myself, what would be a lovely, strange thing to do? I flew over Sunday night on a redeye. It’s wonderful here. The people are so gracious and thoughtful. I think I might like to move here.”

“Well, before you do, you should call your mother. She’s worried sick. And Phoebe’s about ready to send the police out looking for you.”

“Of course, I’ll call them both. But not until I take a little walk before it gets dark. It gets dark very early here, you know.”

“Yes, I know. Stockholm is somewhere up north, like Alaska. Which is why they’re both so green. And dark in the winter.”

violets (Custom)“Well, the sun is bright during the short days. At least it has been since Monday. I was out this morning scouting around for a place to eat lunch, and a little old lady was selling bunches of violets. I bought a bunch from her. I put them in a glass here in the hotel room. They smell of springtime.”

“You realize that it’s December, don’t you, Wendy? It won’t be spring up there for five long months.”

“Why don’t you come join me for a visit, Nat? You can bring some spring feelings with you, and it would be fun to go to the symphony together. They’re doing a series of Mahler, and Esa Pekka will be guest conducting.”

“Sounds inviting, but I’ll have to think it over. I have two cases that I’m working on that I can’t just drop.”

“Oh, but you can, Nat. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Turn them over to one of the other partners. And come to Sweden,” she said. “All of a sudden I miss you.”

“Well, I don’t know. What night is Esa Pekka conducting?”

“Not ‘til Saturday. Oh, you will come! I’ll get the tickets!”

Strange. Suddenly inviting. I was starting to catch the aura of her excitement.

“Wendy, I thought I knew you, but this is a whole, new side of you. I’m beginning to like it. Call me back after your walk and after calling Phoebe and your mom. I’ll put something together.”

“Oh, goody! Come fly to me, darling! We’ll have such fun.”

“Okay, sweetheart. Call me later.”

“Later, honey. Kisses.”

My cell phone read Call Ended, and I wondered what I was getting myself in for.

I went to the computer and checked on available flights from LAX to Stockholm. Alaska Airlines had a partnership with SAS, and I had enough frequent flyer miles. The roundtrip flight would only cost me $60 in taxes and airport charges. Not bad, I thought.

At nine o’clock, I called the office and asked if Peter Temple was in yet. He owed me a favor, and this seemed like a good time to cash it in. He didn’t arrive until ten o’clock but called me right back and agreed to fill in for me.

“What’s the emergency, exactly, Nat?”

“The emergency, as you call it, Pete, is my girlfriend,” I answered, a little embarrassed. “She’s gone to Stockholm, and she misses me.”

“Wow! And you’re flying over to keep her company? This must be serious.”

“I didn’t realize that it was until this morning, but I guess maybe it is. Thanks, Pete. You’re a prince.”


Something sour in the air greeted me as I deplaned at Stockholm’s International Airport.

“What is it that stinks so?” I asked the air hostess.

“Our apologies, sir, but it seems some kind of pipe has burst. I am sorry if it offends you on your arrival in Stockholm. It will be rectified immediately.”

nathan woolrich (Custom)I passed into the terminal through the jetway, and fortunately, the odor didn’t follow me. Instead, I saw Wendy holding a sign that said “Nathan Woolrich” in bright red letters. I dropped my carry-on and threw my arms around her. We kissed for a long time, until she pulled away and smiled.

“So I had to travel half way around the world to get you to fall in love with me.”

“Lucky for you I’m rich with frequent flyer miles,” I said, giving her another short kiss. You know what they say. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

“But I was only gone for two and a half days.”

“It seemed like two and a half years, when I realized you were gone.”

Inside the cab, Wendy told the driver to take us to Strollingsbad Place.

“It’s very close to the hotel. There’s something I want to show you there. And I’ll help you roll your suitcase.” She stroked my arm. “I’m so happy to see you, Nat. I was hoping you’d have a goofy streak, too. And here you are.”

The cab pulled over, and Wendy gave the driver some money. I hadn’t had time yet to get any kroner. She took the suitcase and left me with my laptop and briefcase.

“Follow me, honey,” she said, crossing the street when the light turned green.

“To the ends of the earth,” I grinned, “almost.”

We headed down a block of nineteenth century brick store fronts. Midway in the block a sign jutting out from the wall read “Swensen’s Rare Books.” I followed her through the door, and she asked the clerk if we could leave my bags near the front. The store was the most magical book store I had ever seen. Dark wood shelves filled to the brim and stretching to the high ceiling.

mark-twain-the-innocents-abroadAfter half an hour browsing through all of Swensen’s treasures, I spotted something that made me light up—it was a first edition of Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad. It was in very good condition, and it wasn’t overpriced. I opened it up, and on the copyright page was a handwritten note to someone named Wilhelmina. It was signed M.

“You knew this was here, didn’t you?” I said, grinning at Wendy.

She merely shrugged and smiled, “You never know what you might find if you only look,” and she took my face in her hands and kissed me.


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

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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.