Return to Paradise, Part 1

Plumeria in paradise

On Thursday, September 13th, Laurel and I flew to the Big Island of Hawaii, just a month shy of five years after we left the island and moved to San Diego. It was a trip full of joy and remembrance. If you’ve ever been to Hawaii, you know that when you step off your plane and feel the air and smell the blossoms, you’ve arrived in a special place. And Thursday felt just like that.

We picked up our rental car and phoned our hosts, Cecilia and Neil Paulsen, who run a VRBO up the beginning of Kona’s mountain, Mt. Hualalai, which stretches up behind the town some 8,271 feet. (Two directions that come into play everywhere on the island are mauka and makai. Mauka means up the mountain, and makai means toward the ocean. Wherever you are on the island, those directions are important.)

Banana Hale bedroom

Cecilia and Neil’s place, which they call Banana Hale, is at about a thousand feet mauka Mt. Hualalai. It’s a comfortable home (hale means home) surrounded by, of course, bananas, as well as pineapples, papayas, guavas and all sorts of local fruit and flowering trees. The owners live upstairs, and they play host to a one-bedroom apartment and a studio on the ground level. We stayed in the one-bedroom, and it was a lovely, quiet place to spend the week, except for the early morning symphony of birds.

Around the island, things were unfortunately quiet, too. The recent eruptions of Mt. Kiluaea have scared many would-be visitors away, even though the island is more than 4,000 square miles in size, and the eruptions only affected 3% of the island in the far southeast corner. Friends on the island told us that now that Kiluaea has quieted down, the air is clearer and brighter than it has been in more than 30 years.

Sam Choy’s

We drove down to Keauhou, south of Kailua, for our re-introduction to Hawaiian food. Sam Choy’s sits up high on a slope with a view of the Pacific that’s almost as spectacular as the food. We ordered the Local Mix Plate—teriyaki beef, teriyaki chicken and fresh fish of the day, which was opah, also called moonfish, because it looks like a big round flat silver moon. If you’ve never had opah, you don’t know what you’re missing. It’s one of the best-tasting fishes in the Islands. The trio also came with a side of potato salad, made with local purple potatoes. We topped it all off with a couple of Castaways, the excellent IPA made by local Kona Brewery. Wow! Welcome home!

Since we had our own small condo unit, we spent part of the afternoon shopping at Safeway, KTA and, of course, Costco, for easy-prep dinners. We decided to save going out for dinner only for a couple of splurges.

Friday is discount evening at the Kona Brewing Company, so we had to head there and fill our growler with the day’s IPA, which was Kua Bay IPA for 20% off. Their slogan is “Liquid Aloha,” which we are in total agreement with. We stopped for dinner and had their terrific bacon cheeseburger pizza. I don’t know why more pizzerias haven’t discovered this taste treat. The chilled lettuce and tomato on top are a nice constrast to the rest of the pizza.

Daniel Inouye highway

On Saturday morning, we hit the holoholo trail, which is the Hawaiian way of saying, “We went for a trip.” We drove across the newly finished belt road named for Hawaii’s famous senator, Daniel Inouye. Forty-nine years in the Senate, Hawaii’s favorite son. The new highway is a major improvement over the curvy old road to Hilo on the east side, the windward side, of the island. Hilo is the largest city in the island, with a population of close to 50,000. It’s also the rainiest city, so it’s not always our cup of tea. But, besides just driving there to see the new road, we have a favorite pond over there where there are always interesting birds, and right nearby is Suisan Fish Market, where we stopped for a nice piece of ono and some of their terrific poke. Ono is known as wahoo in California and Mexico, and it’s a terrific firm whitefish. In fact, “ono” means “delicious” in Hawaiian.

Anthuriums by Laurel Scott

On the way across the island, we drove through a couple of downpours, but when we drove into Hilo, the rain abated, and the sun actually came out for a while, so we attended the weekly farmers’ market and picked up a nice pot of anthuriums for five bucks to liven up our home-away.

We left Hilo and drove north up what’s known as the saddle road, through the Hamakua Forest Reserve and west to Waimea, the island’s cattle country. Home of the paniolos, begun in the 1700’s when Captain George Vancouver brought longhorn cattle as a gift to King Kamehameha. The original paniolos came from old Mexico and taught the Hawaiians how to be cowboys, pre-dating the more famous American cowboy by decades.

Great drinks at Merriman’s

Today, Parker Ranch is the largest and most famous of the ranches in this area, but we had reservations at a restaurant named Merriman’s. We had heard great reviews about Merriman’s, but had never been there. Today, however, we learned that the reviews were all accurate. Located in a simple-looking little house, Merriman’s has some of the best food and drink on the island. I had a Kalua Pig & Sweet Onion Quesadilla, and Laurel ordered Prawns in Kalbi Sauce. The drinks we chose were both inspired—my Manhattan had an infused sauce in it I’ll never be able to describe, and Laurel’s Mai Ttai was topped with lilikoi (passionfruit) foam that was pure delight.

Valley Farm by Harry Wishard

One of our favorite places on the island is the tiny town of Hawi, tucked in the far northwest corner of the Kohala range. It’s a few blocks of art galleries, coffee houses and shops and is easy to check out in an afternoon. About an hour northwest of Waimea, it seemed like a good spot to go before driving home to Kona down the west side. We had a nice chat with Wendy Williams (not the Wendy Williams, but a woman worth talking to). She was host at the Wishard Gallery, an eclectic collection of paintings, photographs, sculpture, jewelry, and just about anything that’s artistic or interesting. Harry Wishard, the owner, is an inveterate collector as well as an excellent painter. Born and raised on the Big Island, he fills his gallery with all manner of fine art.

We left Hawi and drove south, back to Kona, pleased with a holoholo well done.

—to be continued—

 

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.

Seven Nights of the Iguana

In 1964, Puerto Vallarta was a sleepy little beach town of about 20,000 people. That’s when John Huston decided to film “The Night of the Iguana” there, and the ensuing media frenzy over the affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton put PV on the map in the eyes of U.S. tourists. Partly in response to that, the Mexican government gave a green light to an international airport, and PV hasn’t stopped growing.

Puerto Vallarta zocalo

In 2007, Laurel and I decided to visit Puerto Vallarta and liked what we saw. By now, it had grown to over 200,000 and was a full-fledged city. We found a restaurant called La Palapa right on the beach and went in for lunch. The long wall on the beach side is completely open, and you have a lovely view of the ocean. They almost didn’t take us because they were setting up the place for a wedding: Flowered platform on the sand, rows of linen-covered tables, a classical guitarist playing in the corner. But they offered us a booth in the back and we sat down and ordered drinks and lunch. After a while, with all this happening I couldn’t resist, and I asked Laurel, “When we get married, where do you want to have the wedding?”

She was surprised at the way I proposed, but there it was, and eventually we decided that the LA area made more sense for most people, even though Mexico and Hawaii both seemed romantic. This year, after more than ten years later, we decided it’d be fun to have a sort of anniversary down there.

Green Heron at Estero de El Salado

The town definitely keeps growing. It’s up to about 275,000 now, and a lot of the growth is good growth. There are many new high quality restaurants and hotels, and the state of Jalisco government is doing admirable things in preserving the quality of the natural surroundings. We spent a morning taking a boat tour through a mangrove estuary and were pleased with our guide, Flor, and our driver, Luis. It’s called Estero de El Salado, and it’s a very large nature preserve right in the city.

But there is growing poverty, as well. The magnetism of the place attracts a lot of people from other parts of Mexico and Central America looking for jobs, and its rapid growth has caused pollution in Banderas Bay, the large bay where the city is located. In fact, the people at the estuary have established a breeding program for the local crocodiles, which are dwindling because of the growth and are a major part of the ecology of the bay.

Sunset at La Palapa

On the evening we arrived, we went back to La Palapa, and, true to form, they were setting up another wedding. Folks see pictures of weddings on the beach and flock to lots of beachy spots in PV. And La Palapa, with its excellent food and location, is a major draw. We stayed over dinner long enough to see the ceremony, and I was tempted to approach the bride and groom afterward and tell them how the romance of La Palapa worked for us. In July, we’ll be nine years married.

Monday morning, we took the bus back down to next door to La Palapa. Today we were meeting our guide for a boat ride across Banderas Bay to Yelapa, a cove on the southernmost corner of the bay, for snorkeling, sightseeing and lunch on the beach. By the way, the buses in PV, while some of them are rattletraps, perform punctually every 15 minutes for only 15 pesos a couple. Less than a dollar for the two of us. Travis, our guide with Jet’s Boat Tours, met us on the pier, and we climbed down and boarded a nice, covered panga for the trip over.

Los Arcos

The bay was calm, and we passed by many palatial homes on the way to Los Arcos, a collection of tall rocks jutting from the bay. The rocks are home to the massive numbers of Brown Pelicans that patrol the shores of the bay, as well as a Snowy Egret rookery, where their chicks were visible in nests. We were also lucky enough to see three Blue-footed Boobies, an uncommon bird that lives in scattered spots along the Pacific coast.

Before we reached Yelapa, we stopped in a small cove, and Laurel went snorkeling. She said she saw plenty of fish, but the water was green, and the visibility not great. Travis told us that the bay tends to be a little murky this time of year. One major problem with murky water is not being able to see sharks that might be lurking nearby, but he assured us there are no sharks in the bay, because the dolphin keep them out.

Yelapa

We cruised into Yelapa and saw a broad stretch of beautiful sandy beach with restaurants and a few shops at the top. We waded in, and three employees from Tino’s Oasis, the restaurant we were heading to, helped us out of the water. We took a table at the front of the place, looking right onto the beach and ordered two Pacificos. Laurel had lobster, and I had a whole red snapper which fit perfectly on my plate. The service and the food were excellent, and we discovered why everyone raves about Yelapa.

By the way, we met Travis and the boat on a pier called Los Muertos, which means “the dead” in Spanish. Curious about the grisly name, we asked and were told that in days past, pirates used the beach to bury their dead. Ignoring the negative sounding name, there’s a very good brewery a few blocks from the pier. It may be called Los Muertos, but its brews are alive and kicking.

While still in San Diego, we read plenty of 5-star reviews on Trip Advisor about a birding guide named Gerardo Hernandez and had booked two mornings with him. Per the schedule, he showed up punctually at our hotel Tuesday morning at six o’clock. Today, he was driving us an hour north to a dry riverbed in what he called a dry tropical forest. Gerardo has been guiding birders in PV for more than 35 years, speaks fluent English, and knows the area’s birds incredibly well.

Golden-cheeked Woodpecker

When we got to the dirt road where we would start, he rolled down the window and slowed the car to a crawl. We heard a bird sing in the trees nearby, even though it was still only faintly light. Gerardo mimicked the bird perfectly and waited to see if it would repeat the call. It turns out that he knows just about every song of the birds in the region. We got out of the car, got our binoculars and packs on and walked to the riverbed, which was completely sand, and spent the next four hours walking on a beach in the middle of a dry forest under the gaze of grazing cattle, some of them Brahmas, all of them with horns, but completely indifferent to us. He told us that in a month, the rains will come, and the river will be totally filled with water, and this hike will be impossible until next year.

 

 

In El Tuito with Gerardi

On Thursday, he took us south to the small town of El Tuito, which he told us began in the sixteenth century, when the Spanish first came to Mexico. On this hike, we were up at about 2,000 feet on a dirt road in a jaguar preserve. There was no danger, as jaguars are very endangered as well as very shy. We saw many different birds, plus a few of the same. Altogether, Gerardo’s outings brought us more than 50 species, many of which are life birds. (For you bird geeks, here’s a link Puerto Vallarta 5-2018 to the complete list, along with others Laurel and I saw on our own.)

 

If you’re curious why I named this piece “Seven Nights of the Iguana,” I’ll explain by telling you that we stayed at a luxurious resort hotel called the Mayan Palace.

One of PV’s iguanas

The grounds are covered with trees and gardens, and a canal runs through the property and empties into the bay. Anyplace you have green in Puerto Vallarta, you have iguanas. They munch on the grass and eat leaves from all kinds of plants, and they are plentiful at the Mayan Palace, so we saw them every day lying on the walkways or climbing up into the trees. Ergo, seven days and nights of iguanas.

Earlier, I mentioned that the growth in PV has resulted in some high quality new restaurants. One of them is called Tintoque, and it’s just a few blocks from our hotel at the end of the marina shops and restaurants. We had dinner there one evening and were quite impressed. Besides single dishes, the chef prepares either a six- or eight-course dinner that’s fantastic. And the design on the plates is as elegant as the taste of the food, so Laurel had to take a few pictures. You can make reservations through Open Table, and we both highly recommend it.

Three of our fabulous courses at Tintoque

If you’re into craft beer, as we are, you’ll find another new place downtown on the Malecon. La Cerveceria Union has a beautiful view of the bay, a large list of craft beer and wonderful seafood, including oysters on the half shell and grilled octopus.

Misty morning view from our hotel room

Gaining two hours on our flight back to San Diego, it was strange that we left Puerto Vallarta at 4:15 and arrived in San Diego at 4:45, a nice, quick flight after a too quick week in a gorgeous place. PV, we’ll be back.

Desert Magic

When you live near the Pacific Ocean, you learn that there are times when the heat of the land and the water disagree, and you get something called “June Gloom,” lots of cloudy or foggy mornings clearing later, one hopes. In San Diego, the natural warmup for June Gloom is May Gray, and it works pretty much the same way.

On Saturday, May 12th, the forecast looked pretty miserable, so we decided to drive to the desert to find some sun. There’s a county park about 20 miles south of the huge desert park of Anza Borrego. It’s called Agua Caliente Springs for good reason: Several hot springs surface there, and it’s become a popular place to camp, except when it closes for the summer due to the heat. Interstate 8 leaves San Diego and heads pretty much due east, heading for Arizona and beyond, passing over the Laguna Pass summit at 4,055 feet.

The gray led us up and east, and as we went, we passed into thick clouds and rain, which became dense fog near two or three high points. The weather persisted until we passed the last of the coastal mountains and was replaced by bright sun, blinding after all the gloom. We turned north at Ocotillo, driving through windy conditions for about ten miles, until we crossed through a draw, and the wind magically stopped. Looking back west to the mountains, white clouds piled above them, stopping at the peaks like a cliff. Fifteen miles farther, Agua Caliente basked in lovely 80 degree sun with only light wind to cool things off.

Marsh Trail begins near the warden’s office and heads northwest for about a half mile to a small palm oasis created by another spring. Most of the trail is a dry creek bed of sand dotted with rocks, and it’s fairly level and easy going. Desert ridges reach up on either side, and it’s sometimes loaded with birds taking flies and gnats from the mesquite, creosote bush and cactus. On the 12th, the bird population is a little thin, but there are quite a few Pacific Slope Flycatchers calling out and a couple of Black-tailed Gnatcatchers to keep it interesting.

About two-thirds of the way up the trail, we met a young couple from San Diego who were spending the weekend with their young daughter. The woman told us that what they were really hoping to see was a desert bighorn sheep, which are numerous in the area but rarely seen. Ten minutes later, as if on cue, Laurel and her eagle eye spotted a ram up on the ridge to our south. He was young, but he sported two massive, curled horns. Another couple joined us, and we all watched as he sprung down the rocks towards us. He took his time, and ten minutes later disappeared into a draw.

It was our third time at Agua Caliente and our first sheep, a very exciting sight. We had seen a couple of young ones in Anza Borrego a few years before but not one here. None of the other folk had ever seen one here before either, and we were all inspired to see the young family’s wish come true.

The other couples were going back to the campground, and Laurel and I headed on to trail’s end by ourselves. The spring at the palm oasis was lackluster, and only a bit of mud was there now, barely enough for any animal to drink. We headed back on the trail and were surprised to find the same ram a little farther ahead up on the ridge again. He stayed up top, but followed along parallel to us as we hiked, grazing at times. After about twenty minutes, we reached the trailhead for the Desert Overlook trail, which is a steep climb to a view of the entire area. The ram crossed to the other side of the ridge and dropped out of sight, and we walked the last quarter mile or so back to the ranger station.

When we reached the campground, we looked back, and the ram was standing up on the nearest ridge, silhouetted against the bright blue sky. He stood there for a couple of minutes, then dropped back out of sight. So magical was his presence, that it half seemed to me that he had followed us all the way to make sure that we got back safely.

And there was a lot of excitement here, as well. One of the campers told us that 20 or 30 sheep had come down to water at one of the spring’s drainage canals. No one we talked to had seen this kind of thing happen before, and one of them had camped here seven times. Laurel and I missed the large group of sheep, but there were still eight or nine of them grazing right nearby.

There were a lot of birds in the trees around the campground, and we saw a couple that we have happily added to our year’s total, but it was the bighorn sheep that made May 12th so magical.

All That Jazz, and More

The alarm clock sounded off at 3 am on Friday, February 2nd. Laurel and I got out of bed and finished packing and loading the car, then drove to the airport for a 7 am flight to San Francisco. We connected there with a flight to Ft. Lauderdale. Thanks to the three-hour time change, we didn’t land in Florida until about 6 pm.

Celebrity Summit

The reason for all this silliness was the Celebrity Summit, a recently renovated and posh cruise ship that embarked on Saturday afternoon for New Orleans and Cozumel, in Mexico’s Yucatan, with 2,450 passengers and 1,000 crew members. But the thing that made this cruise extra special was the hundred or so of the best jazz musicians and singers in the world who were about to perform on Entertainment Cruise Productions’ 2018 Jazz Cruise.

Riverside Market Grill

In the meantime, we were in Ft. Lauderdale at dinner time. On our first trip to the city in 2010, the best beer we had been able to find was a bottle of Samuel Adams. But things are different in 2018, and Laurel found a brewpub on Yelp called Riverside Market Grill. We took a cab from our motel and found a bustling spot with two large walls of refrigerated cases that held more than a hundred different craft beers. They had plenty of draft beer on tap, as well. We tried a couple of pints of Jai Alai IPA from Cigar City Brewing near Tampa, and it was terrific. In addition to the mammoth beer inventory, Riverside Market Grill has a great brewpub menu.

We had dinner with our beers and chatted with friendly local quaffers and the owners, Julian and Lisa, who were very gracious hosts. Wherever we travel, beer lovers pay attention when they hear we’re from San Diego, “beer central” of California.

We had read about jazz cruises in prior years. Entertainment Cruise Productions has been doing them since 2001, but this year the list of talent just grabbed us, and we knew we had to be there. Each day, performances in several venues began around noon and lasted until midnight with the late night Birdland-produced series. Each concert was ninety minutes, and we saw three or four each day, so we were immersed in jazz for from four to six hours a day. And what a treat it was!

Birdland floats on the Jazz Cruise

I won’t go into the entire list, but a few highlights were, in the singer category, Kurt Elling, Nnenna Freelon, Ann Hampton Callaway, the New York Voices, John Pizzarelli, Niki Haris and Roberta Gambarini for starters. The musicians included the Clayton Brothers, Jeff Hamilton, Joey De Francesco, Wycliffe Gordon, Anat Cohen, Houston Person and Benny Green. Happily, a lot of the chairs and lounges for listening were comfortable, not just folding chairs. The large theater actually had rows divided like loveseats by twos with small tables, and the sight lines were very good.

Commander’s Palace

Monday, February 5th was Laurel’s birthday, and she was going to celebrate it in New Orleans! Around midday, we sighted land, and the Celebrity Summit headed upriver through miles and miles of Mississippi delta. We docked around four in the afternoon and went ashore at about five with a busload of hungry and thirsty passengers. Our destination was Commander’s Palace, an excellent restaurant in the Garden District of New Orleans. It was established in 1893 and features Creole fare. Our ship had booked the entire restaurant, and circular tables seating eight filled the dining space. As we entered, I told the hostess that it was Laurel’s birthday, and in a few minutes a bouquet of balloons was added to our centerpiece. They were pouring wine for all the guests, but I went to the bar and ordered two Sazeracs, the famous New Orleans cocktail made with rye and absinthe, although this one was made of cognac and Pernot.

One of the perks of sailing on this cruise is the fact that the singers and musicians live aboard and eat and drink and have lives like the passengers. When the crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to Laurel, two of the people at the table next to us were John Pizzarelli and his wife, Jessica Molaskey, and they were singing, too. In fact, when we left to go back to the ship, we ended up in an overflow bus with just ourselves, John and Jessica, and Gianni Valenti and his wife. Gianni is the owner of New York’s famous Birdland.

Gotcha!

We overnighted in New Orleans, and the next morning, Laurel and I went on a swamp tour in a covered, flat-bottomed boat. We learned a lot about the swamps and marshes that are so common in Louisiana, saw a Bald Eagle nest with eagles in it and, of course, plenty of alligators. In fact, Laurel got to hold one. I had to take the picture.

Back in the city, we had the pleasure of eating lunch at Muriel’s, a famous French Quarter restaurant. The food was superb, and a local jazz band played NOLA-style music. They also served us Sazeracs, which were the classic recipe, and they didn’t charge us extra for them. As the ads for the cruise said, “A taste of New Orleans.” This certainly whetted our appetite, and we’re eager to travel back for more.

The ship sailed in the early evening, bound for Cozumel, an island in the Yucatan region of Mexico, and we had nothing to do but spend a few more hours listening to great jazz.

When we reached Cozumel, we were surprised to learn that more cruise ships in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico call on the island than any other port. The docks were filled with lines of passengers from several ships, either walking to a bus or waiting for one to arrive. We had chosen an excursion to the site of ancient Mayan temples, combined with a beach visit, and our group walked several blocks through a bustling mall to reach our bus.

Mayan Beauty

Adrian, our excellent guide, informed us that while the Yucatan is full of Mayan ruins, the Mayan people are by no means extinct. In fact, while he is a native of the island who is not Mayan, his wife is. And throughout the region in Mexico and Central America, more than six and a half million Mayans live in today’s world. The island of Cozumel is known as the island of butterflies and flowers and is held sacred by the Maya, because it is the coastline in their land that’s farthest east, therefore, it’s the first point to welcome the rising sun.

Found my beach.

Laurel had hoped that the beach would be good for snorkeling, and she had brought her mask and snorkel, but the open surf crashing on the beach led her to a lifeguard station, where she learned that the water was dangerous. Instead, she settled for the option of sharing the shade of an umbrella with me, at a table on the sand with fish tacos and Pacificos and margaritas for lunch. Behind us, waiters literally ran full speed through the restaurant serving food and drinks to the overflowing crowd of visitors from the ships.

When the bus dropped us off back by the docks, we headed toward the ship, but noticed La Internacional Cerveceria, a craft beer bottle shop on the street, and had to check out the brews they carried. Behind the bar were rows of bottles brewed all over Mexico, along with plenty from the U.S., too. It’s amazing how craft breweries and beer shops are popping up in Mexico and Central America, as well as in the states. We tried a local IPA that turned out to be quite good.

Wycliffe Gordon pays tribute to Pops

We boarded the Summit in time to attend a swingin’ concert by the Clayton Brothers Quintet before dinner. The ship sailed at six, heading home to Ft. Lauderdale, which we would reach after our final day at sea. On Friday evening, the last night of the cruise, the New York Voices joined John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey for an all-star vocal session. The room was even more crowded than usual, since a lot of musicians were finished performing, and many of them stood in the wings and edges of the space to share in the music.

All in all, a cruise that Laurel and I will never forget.

Bigger Than IMAX II

 

Turret Arch in Arches National Park

We spent the night in nearby Torrey. The next morning, our car was totally covered with frost, but as soon as the sun hit it, it melted. We drove into the rising sun and two-and-a-half hours later reached what just might be the most spectacular place in all the Four Corners. (By the way, the Four Corners refers to the junction of the four states of Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico.)

The Three Gossips at Arches

The place I’m talking about is Arches National Park, and the name says some of it, but not all. There are red rock arches here, but a whole lot more. One particularly interesting rock formation is called Three Gossips by the park, but to us it looked much more like the magi. Balancing rocks, rock structures that resemble giant pipe organs, towering pillars and, of course, natural arches. We drove through it twice, visiting at each area in morning and afternoon light.

Leaving the park, we passed a young woman selling organic peaches next to the road and stopped. She told us the peaches had been picked in Palisade that morning. We bought seven gigantic peaches for ten bucks, and the rest of the week we split one each day for a morning snack with coffee. They were the best peaches we have ever eaten. When we arrived home, I looked up Palisade on the web and found that it’s a small valley just east of Arches in southwest Colorado. Not only do they have plenty of orchards, but the climate there is also good for grapes, and there are 24 wineries in Palisade, as well. The town’s motto is, “Life tastes good here all year long.”

Organic peaches from Palisade

We loaded our peaches into the car and continued south to the sophisticated town of Moab, Utah. It caters to adventures of all kinds: hiking, river rafting and (they say) the best mountain biking in the world. We visited Moab Brewery for lunch and took a couple of cans of Johnny’s American IPA with us for later, then drove back up the couple of miles to Arches for our second look.

For dinner, I had seen The Ghost Bar and Jeffrey’s Steakhouse on Yelp, and it sounded good, but when we got there, the place looked classy, but was completely booked, so we started hunting on Laurel’s Android and found The Atomic Lounge. Maybe a strange name for a restaurant/bar, but they make some of the best craft cocktails we’ve tasted lately. Including plenty of classics like a mule, an old-fashioned and a Sazerac. Plus, their food is as good as their drinks, and, being Utah, you must eat as well as drink. A really great find.

Spruce Tree House–Mesa Verde

The next morning, we drove a couple of hours south to Mesa Verde National Park, past Canyonlands National Park. (There’s an abundance of riches here; you just can’t do them all.) We checked in at the visitor center and got some good advice for a short visit, then drove to the nearest attraction, the overlook for a pueblo called Spruce Tree House, which was built in the 12th century. We talked to the park ranger there and learned that the proper name for the ancient people who lived here is now Ancestral Pueblo people. Throughout recent history, they’ve been called the Anasazi, but we now know that “Anasazi” was the word for “enemy” in an adjoining nation’s vocabulary. Anasazi is out, Ancestral Pueblo is in.

Square Tower House

We drove to several other ancient sites, amazed by the ability of these people to build such complex structures on the faces of steep cliffs with only primitive tools. We didn’t do the hiking tours, since they must be booked in advance at the visitors center and involve some climbing, but seeing Mesa Verde only whetted my appetite to see more sites, like Canyon de Chelly and Chaco Canyon. We’ll have to do those on other trips, because we will definitely be back, thrilling to the history and the geology of the region.

Our visit to Mesa Verde was our only excursion into Colorado, and now we drove south into New Mexico, the fourth of the Four Corners states. We planned to spend the night in Farmington, which turned out to be a welcome surprise. In her previous visits, Laurel hadn’t been that impressed with Farmington, but priorities had changed, and now we enjoyed the city and its surroundings.

The bar at Three Rivers Brewhouse

Three rivers, the Animas, San Juan and La Plata Rivers join each other in Farmington, and the brewpub in town is logically named Three Rivers Eatery & Brewhouse. Its excellent brews with food to match have made it quite successful. In fact, it occupies a full block on Main Street with the aforementioned brewpub, a pizzeria, tap and game room, and banquet hall. The Three Rivers Cubano sandwich with house-smoked pork shoulder and honey pork belly is outstanding.

The next morning, we visited the city’s Riverside Nature Center and headed up a trail next to the Animas River. Before we left the parking lot, we saw a few mule deer grazing in the brush, as well as prairie dogs poking their heads out of holes in the bare dirt patch on the opposite side. We talked to volunteers at their nature center and learned that the deer and are practically tame because they’re protected here and have access to feed and water. Children flock to the center to see the many birds that hang out at the feeders outside. There are many common birds on the feeders, but we even saw a Plumbeous Vireo and a Wilson’s Warbler among them.

Patrick Liessmann and Austin Jacobs with me

We went back to Three Rivers Eatery for lunch and had an interesting chat about hops with Patrick Liessmann and Austin Jacobs, two of the brewers.

Gallup movie palace

South of Farmington is the town of Gallup, New Mexico, made famous in Bobby Troup’s big hit, “Route 66.” Gallup has many stores specializing in Southwest Indian art and turquoise jewelry, including Navajo and Zuni artifacts and Hopi Kachinas. After racing through the huge Richardson’s Trading Company, which first opened in 1917 but was closing for the day when we arrived, Laurel found some lovely turquoise earrings and a necklace of turquoise beads at Silver House Trading Co.

On Friday, we started heading back west. First stop, Flagstaff, back in Arizona, and the following day, all the way home to San Diego. Today, we roughly followed the path of old Route 66, but now it’s I-40 and it’s not coming “from Chicago all the way.” The 40 comes clear across the country from Wilmington, North Carolina, almost due east of Atlanta and all the way west to Barstow. There’s an interesting break about halfway between Gallup and Flagstaff: Petrified Forest National Park, where the ground is littered with pieces of some very old trees, many of them ancestors of our cedar trees.

Flagstaff mural

Back in Flagstaff, we took a walk through the downtown area and found a terrific mural memorializing Route 66 and the railway that preceded it to the city. We also discovered one of the best restaurants we’ve eaten at for some time. It’s called Root, and the menu looked so fascinating that we came back later for dinner. But first, we drove back east about seven miles to Walnut Canyon National Monument, a wonderfully scenic park forested with high altitude pinyon pines. The canyon is another site where Ancestral Pueblos made their home, and here and there on the steep slopes of the canyon walls are structures where the hardy people built their homes, climbing up and down from them on ropes to live in safety.

We drove back to the safe haven of our Days Inn, then went to Root for dinner. The waiter gave us the drink menu, and we were pleased to see that this menu was as adventurous as the dinner menu. Excellent wine selection as well as craft cocktails. Laurel ordered a Hopped Up Pisco (Pisco, local hops, lemon, egg white, blood orange powder) and I had a Serenity (Chamomile infused rye, sweet and dry vermouth, Luxardo maraschino liqueur, barrel-aged bitters) and we split a Whole Leaf Caesar Salad and The Board (pork belly confit, country pork paté, Olli calabrese, peach-bourbon compote, Beecher’s Flagship cheddar, Point Reyes blue and accompaniments). We were not disappointed. Root is now a must visit whenever we’re in Flagstaff.

Plains prickly pear

Saturday morning, and we got an early start, since it’s a good seven hours to home. The weather continued to be sunny, and by the time we got to Phoenix, it was plenty hot again. This was my first time through all this majestic land, but it definitely won’t be my last.

If you’ve been patiently waiting to see more of Laurel’s beautiful photography, and large enough to look at, here’s the link. laurels southwest

Bigger Than IMAX

We enjoyed our trip up the coast in July so much that we decided to do some more driving, and Laurel and I drove through much of the Southwest in early October. Wow! I’ve traveled to a lot of places in this world, but I’ve never seen places that are so expansive and huge. The idea of wide open spaces had never been revealed like this to me before.

Photo courtesy Beaver Street Brewery

We left early Friday morning and stopped in Phoenix for lunch, where we discovered the Phoenix Ale Brewery Central Kitchen. Like the name says, they brew ale and serve food, both delicious. Two hours past Phoenix, we reached Flagstaff, where we stopped for the night. Since it’s 7,000 feet high, there’s beautiful high pine forest around the city, and we visited Picture Canyon, a nearby park. Back in Flagstaff, both of us were surprised at what a hoppin’ place it is. After checking into our motel, the Days Inn Flagstaff East, we had dinner at the Beaver Street Brewery and Whistle Stop Café, a very cool restaurant with lots of craft beers.

A note about Days Inn. We used these motels on several of our overnights, and we’re happy to report that Wyndham Resorts, who has acquired the chain, is doing an admirable job of updating and redesigning fresh, comfortable rooms with nice attention to detail. Most of them have bedstand lamps with electric outlets in the bases. Very handy for recharging phones and tablets. The Flagstaff East Days Inn has a hair dryer with a night light built into it, useful when you’re stumbling around in the dark looking for the bathroom in a strange room.

Saturday morning, we got up bright and early. And it was bright. We were fortunate through the entire trip and managed to miss a couple of storms passing through. Later in the week we arrived in Farmington, NM on a sunny day right after three days of rain. We headed north to the Grand Canyon, one of the main reasons for our trip. Laurel just couldn’t believe I’d never seen it, so I was knocked out (as everyone is) by the scale of the place, not to mention the beauty and colors of all the geological layers.

While researching our trip, I read that there was a hawk watch going on. An organization called Hawkwatch.org uses volunteers all over the country to count raptors during their spring and fall migrations. We had already visited two hawk watch sites on other vacations: Hawk Hill at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge, where WWII gun emplacements once guarded the entrance to San Francisco Bay, and Key Largo in the Florida Keys where raptors leave the U.S. and head down into the Caribbean and South America. The Grand Canyon watch was taking place on Yaki Point, a small peninsula of rim jutting out above the southeast corner of the canyon.

At Yaki Point, we followed the signs and found three volunteers sitting in lawn chairs on a mostly level slab of rock whose edge dropped off to the bottom of the canyon. Needless to say, neither of us approached the edge. One of the men got up and welcomed us, and we began to chat about what they had been seeing and the other hawk watches we had visited. In my research, I had seen that three California Condors inhabited the Grand Canyon. The volunteer told us that was old info, and the reports were seldom up to date. In 2017, there are about thirty condors living in the canyon with three nests confirmed. Plus, that very day, a group from the Peregrine Fund, in collaboration with the Oregon Zoo, was releasing three condors south of Marble Canyon on the Vermilion Cliffs. We told him we were actually spending the night at Marble Canyon Lodge, and he told us that there had been a nest under the Navajo Bridge, just half a mile north of the lodge. Since it was a 3 1/2-hour drive, we decided to leave and get up there, but, before we left, an American Kestrel and a Sharp-shinned Hawk flew overhead, and they added them to their list. They told us it had been a slow day. Only about forty birds.

By the time we crossed the Navajo Bridge, it was nearly dark, so we drove a half mile past it and stopped at the lodge. We checked in and looked around, which took no time. Marble Canyon consists of the lodge, its gift shop and restaurant, all owned and operated by a Navajo family, plus a Chevron station. We paid for our dinner in the gift shop and discovered some beautiful artifacts, including one of the finest Navajo rugs we’d ever seen. Incidentallly, the LA Times just reviewed the lodge in their Travel section on October 22nd. Short article, but worth reading.

The sky was clear and blue on Sunday morning as we drove back to the bridge. The original steel Navajo Bridge was built in 1929, one of the first bridges to span the Colorado River before it reaches the Grand Canyon. In 1995, a new, wider bridge was built, and the old bridge became a pedestrian bridge. An interpretive center and parking lot are now located at its south end. Hikers, bikers and visitors who only want to take pictures of the beautiful view of the river and canyon use it regularly.

We parked and began to walk across the bridge as the sun moved above the canyon rim, lighting the west wall of the canyon. Laurel was taking pictures of the beautiful location, but we were also working hard to see below the bridge, searching for the kind of structure that could only nest young condors.

The California Condor is one of the world’s rarest birds. It is also the largest bird in North America, having a wingspan of almost ten feet, compared to the six-foot Golden Eagle wings. It became extinct in the wild during the 70s, mainly due to hunting and lead poisoning caused by the birds eating animals shot with lead bullets. The few remaining pairs were bred in captivity at the San Diego and Los Angeles Zoos and by the Peregrine Fund in Boise, Idaho. The Peregrine Fund was originally created to breed Peregrine Falcons, which were also on the verge of extinction due to DDT. Today, the fund breeds many species of raptors and works with other zoos, releasing condors at the Vermilion Cliffs, about 15 miles south of Marble Canyon. Today, including the three condors released the day before, there are more than 500 of the great birds in the wild.

At about two-thirds of the way across the bridge, I leaned over and looked back beneath the bridge and saw a huge black bird standing on a sunwashed ledge with its mammoth wings spread out to dry. Laurel was on the other side of the bridge, and I motioned her over, and she got this shot. Our first ever condor in the wild. We saw what looked like white paint on its wings. Our bird was P6, and the Peregrine Fund tells us it’s a female and the first second-generation condor from their program born in the wild. Her mother was born in the wild as well. She’s a juvenile, a little more than two years old and still with the blue head that young condors wear before they become adult and change to a red head.

A few minutes later Laurel spotted a second bird in the metal struts of the new bridge, which turned out to be an adult with the ID of J4. The Peregrine Fund tells us she was raised at their headquarters in Boise, Idaho and released at the Vermilion Cliffs. She’s about eight and a half years old.

We never found a nest, but we left soon after, elated with what we had seen. We turned off the highway a few miles south and drove a couple of miles up a dirt road to the Vermilion Cliffs viewing station that was still staffed by several volunteers watching yesterday’s release site. By the way, the Vermilion Cliffs are aptly named, standing out in the morning sun in bright red-orange layers.

At the top of the mesa we could see a structure that had been built, and the folks monitoring the site told us a butchered steer was used to coax the new birds out of their cages, which had taken several hours. The carrion had attracted several other condors, and at one point I saw five of them circling over the cliffs. Along with the numbered placards on their wings, each bird is equipped with a miniature transmitter, and one woman at the station was waving an antenna picking up VHF signals from the birds, while a second volunteer recorded her findings. A very impressive system, but when you’re saving an entire species, technology can be a big help.

If you’re as nuts about birds as we are, here’s a link to see the full list of the birds we saw on our way around the four states.

We crossed into Utah, and after passing through a couple of border towns, the sky opened up, and we were driving through the biggest country I can remember seeing. All around us were ranges of mesas and mountains, but all so far away that they seemed like miniature models. Close to us was nothing but sage desert, and it stretched away into the distance.

The beauty of Zion, including a desert bighorn ram.

When we reached Zion National Park with its spectacular cliffs and canyons, it felt downright intimate. We climbed aboard one of the shuttles, included in the entrance fare of many national parks, to get a look at the major parts of Zion’s canyons. On the way back to the visitor center, we got off at the trailhead for Emerald Pools Trail. The trail is nicely paved and involves some uphill walking, but is not too much for me. What was too much was the yelling and screaming of out-of-control children running up and down the trail, not to mention a couple of hikers who found it necessary to bring their bad pop music into the area on their iPhones. We couldn’t wait to get away from the crowds and find quieter spots in other parts of Zion.

We spent the night in St. George, about 50 minutes west of Zion. We had read good reviews about George’s Corner, a likely name for a restaurant in St. George, and we headed there after checking into the local Days Inn. It was Sunday night, and the place was full to the brim, so we gave the hostess our name and prepared to wait 30 minutes. True to her word, we were seated in just 30 minutes, and we discovered that Utah has some unique laws when it comes to alcoholic beverages, one being that you don’t order alcohol without also ordering food. Well, that was our plan anyway, so no bother. We ordered two Zion Canyon IPAs, brewed just outside the park itself in Springdale, and a lamb burger to split. Excellent on both counts.

Back at the motel, I checked the weather forecast for our visit to Bryce Canyon the next day. A couple of days earlier, the forecast was mostly sunny, but now we were dismayed to see a 40% chance of thunderstorms with rain and snow likely. Well, we had a schedule to follow, so we got up on Monday morning and drove north with our mugs filled with coffee. The highway traveled higher as we went north, and we reached an area full of small junipers and pinyon pine that had been dusted with snow. It was breathtaking, and we drove through it as tiny snowflakes drifted onto our windshield, so small and dry that the wind blew them off. We reached the entrance to the park under cloudy skies, but it was merely cold, not stormy as predicted.

Bryce Canyon isn’t a canyon at all. It’s a series of amphitheater-like areas between 8,000 and 9,000 feet high filled with “hoodoos,” strange towers created by frost and erosion, that resemble stacks of rocks piled high in rows that might be symphonic organs or architecture from some ancient Mesopotamian city. They fill a large area that’s best seen by car with stops at the more special geologic structures. Very different from Zion, but each incredible in its own way.

Two-and-a-half hours northeast of Bryce another national park fills the Utah landscape. It’s Capitol Reef National Park, and it surrounds what was created over millions of years when an ancient fault lifted the lands to the west more than 7,000 feet higher than those to the east. Instead of cracking, the higher land folded over, leaving the more than 100-mile long Waterpocket Fold. Today, the fold can be seen as canyons, cliffs, domes and bridges of multi-colored red rock.

In the 1880’s, Mormon farmers settled in a part of what’s now the park, and they named it Fruita. It’s located at 5,500 feet at the confluence of the Fremont River and Sulphur Creek, and they built irrigation systems and planted orchards of apple, peach, pear and apricot which still exist today. During the season, you can pick and eat fruit from some of the orchards in the park for free. Other orchards are privately owned, so be aware of which ones you’re sampling from.

And not to worry. When you visit Capitol Reef, you needn’t drive the entire 100 miles to see it. In fact, most of the park is only available to hardy souls on dirt roads, horseback or hiking trails. The eight-mile scenic route from the visitor center gives you a good look at what was created by the geologic cataclysm, plus a lovely drive through green and glowing orchards. The combination of red rock and green trees makes the whole place a painter’s dream.

-To be continued-

All photos by Laurel Scott unless noted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 IllinoisRaptorCenter.org

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!

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.