Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Waiting for Godot. . .er,. . .Air Miles

Waiting for Godot, the Samuel Beckett play in which two characters wait for "Godot" ranks high on the 'theatre of the absurd' list.

            BA Flight #48 - we were on it. . ..really!
I am writing a travel sequel,  Waiting for Air Mile Credits.  
Alaska Air is the producer and British Air has a starring role and we -- two Alaska Air loyalty program members --are but supporting cast members. 

The storyline:  We, the supporting cast, traveled to London on April 28th on British Airlines, one of Alaska Air's partners.  We paid for our tickets so qualified for the partner portion of the actual miles flown, about 1,200 miles per person.  Alaska's web site tells a loyalty member that it may take 60 days to recieve miles in their account from a partner. . .

Our wait began.
When no credits appeared on our accounts by the end of June, I faxed copies of the boarding passes to Alaska requesting the credit.

And we waited. 
After a few more weeks passed, I  updated the fax request and faxed it again..

And we waited.
Finally, I reasoned that I had faxed to the wrong number.
Of course! That had to be the answer. . . and I had a comedy in the making.
So in early August I called Alaska seeking the correct fax number.
But wait! Turns out I had been using the correct number.

A pause. . .a mystery plot was developing:
Seems a record of our flight was posted to our Alaska accounts July 3rd; BUT we won't  get credit for the miles until British Air verifies our request. 
(Can't imagine anyone at British Air remembering us. . .but I had faxed copies of our boarding passes. . . .maybe they've been sent  to British Air for verification - I couldn't bring myself to ask. )

May take another three to four weeks to appear, I was told.
This weekend marked four months since our flight.
No mileage credit has appeared on our accounts.
And still we wait.

Friday, August 27, 2010

A gastronomic gallop through Portland

That's the real reason I want to return to Oregon's "City of Roses".

                 Lobby and courtyard Hotel Modera
Yes, its parks and gardens were great, shopping plentiful, and our Hotel Modera was heavenly, (a most memorable nightcap was sipped along side one of its three large fire pits in the courtyard) but it is the promise of continued culinary adventures that seem to be the strongest draw. 

The Female Foursome did our best to sample as much as possible during our short stay with two notable highlights being:
 * Higgins Restaurant and Bar, 1239 SW Broadway, a place that has grown so popular since its 1994 opening that I was glad the Portlander among us had made reservations at this French bistro-style restaurant housed in an atmospheric historic building complete with pressed tin ceilings.  I had one of Chef/owner Greg Higgins' pasta creations in a fresh basil pesto with hazelnuts. Hazelnuts, also known as filberts, are grown in Oregon and this rich, satisfying dish did credit to the crop and the chef's creativity.

* Mother's Bistro and Bar, 212 SW Stark, was our breakfast destination where the menu items featured Oregon's fresh blueberries and blackberries on or in muffins, pancakes and French toast. We walked from our hotel to justify eating another meal so soon after dinner at Higgins - an easy walk and great sightseeing.

         Morning set up at Food Carts
Our gastronomic gallop through the heart of the city took us to two of Portland's innovative Food Cart blocks.  I am talking city blocks filled with gourmet food offerings served from windows of trucks, vans and trailers - think taco truck, ice cream man, Oahu's Northshore shrimp trucks and you  get the idea.  Small sidewalk bistro tables and picnic tables make up the out-door dining areas.

Ethnic specialties, old-fashioned locally made Brats, ice cream - its all there somewhere.  High quality food for low prices and each eatery a popular stop. One place that had as many published food reviews on display as ayou might find in a restaurant; but then many of these places are the launching pads for chefs who aren't quite ready to make the plunge into traditional restaurant settings, we were told.

               And then open for business
Clever names. Inventive food.  We stopped at The Dump Truck, open Monday - Friday 11 a.m. - 4 p.m., to try its gourmet steamed dumplings.  Dumplings, dump truck. . .get it? Ever thought of a bacon cheeseburger dumpling or one filled with Portobello mushrooms? They serve them here, where a hearty sampler plate can be had for $5.

Yes, I will go back but next time I'll slow the gastronomic gallop and simply forage through the food cart blocks. . .

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Portland "City of Roses"

Decades ago Portland, Oregon dubbed itself the "City of Roses" and today it still lives up to its name. Rose beds fill parks and rose bud images are found everywhere including imprints on water main covers in the middle of city streets. 

                Rose bed in South Park Blocks
Last week's visit as part of the Female Foursome  was just a taste of all this city at the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette (Wil-lam-ette) rivers, a few hours south of Seattle has to offer. 

The Foursome sampled a lot of the town during our time together and recommend:
  * strolling  the length of the 25-block boulevard between Park and 9th, an oasis of trees, gardens and statues that got is start back in 1852 and today is referred to as South Park Blocks.
  * visiting Powell's Bookstore, an independently owned business that covers a city block and is filled with more than a million new, used, and out-of-print books; a place so inviting that we had to go back twice during our short visit and still didn't have enough time to roam the entire maze of color-coded rooms.
             Fountain at Jamison Square
  * visiting the one-time warehouse district, now the urban renewal award-winning Pearl District , a place that also drew us back a second time to continue our tour of  its restaurants, shops, bars and galleries. 
   * enjoying the neighborhood parks - during our visit they were filled with kids making the most of the summer sun, playing in the fountains and pools.
   *  sampling some of Portland's micro-brews.

    Enjoying Portland's Deschutes Brewery
Portland's MAX light rail train and Streetcar - with their free ride zone in the heart of the downtown  -- made explorations a snap.  We'd walk until we couldn't go another step and then simply hop a train for another couple of blocks. 

I'd love to revisit everything I've mentioned, but if you want to know what  the real reason is for me wanting to go back, check the next post. . .

Monday, August 23, 2010

Ridin' Washington's Rails

We did it! After talking for months about this multi-generational 'girls trip' to Portland, Oregon, a trio of female travelers set out last week to visit a fourth who lives in the "City of Roses".

           King Street Station, Seattle
As many of my trips do, we began aboard Metro's 255 bus that picked us up across the street from my Kirkland home and dropped us an easy walk from Seattle's King Street Station; home to both Amtrak and SoundTansit trains. Restoration work continues at the stately old station that opened in 1906 with a clock tower patterned after Venice's Campanile di San Marco. When finished, it will be one of Seattle's showplaces - it is already looking good.

On the southbound journey we rode Amtrak's Coast Starlight which carries passengers as far as Los Angeles' Union Station.  My return trip the following day was on Amtrak's Cascades that runs between Eugene and Vancouver, B.C.

My traveling companions (pictured on the left) and I each had round-trip coach class tickets ($81.90 per person with a AAA-Club of Washington discount) that got us comfortable seats on the upper level of the double-decker train car. We had large windows, and ample leg room with both leg and feet rests. The seats would have been perfect but for the two undisciplined little boys who sat with their mom behind us. Remember the movie, "Throw Mama from the Train"? 
It comes to mind. . .

                 Trail & Rail Ranger on board
A highlight of the 3-hour and 45 minute ride was learning about Amtrak's Trail & Rail Program, a partnership with the National Park Service that puts volunteer rangers on board to explain the natural and cultural sites along various U.S. routes.  Two rangers on our train had notebooks full of information that they used when making announcements along the way in the Sightseer Lounge Car, pictured above.  

This Trail & Rail program operates on various Amtrak routes from spring until fall.  For instance, the rangers told us  volunteer rangers can also be found on Amtrak's Empire Builder between Shelby, Montana and Seattle.

The Portland adventures of the Female Foursome  -- two over-50-somethings and the two under-40-somethings -- continue in the next post.. . .

Saturday, August 21, 2010

On track in the Pacific Northwest

            Portland, Oregon's train station
"This is so beautiful," the man from Genoa, Italy exclaimed. "I think I have the good side." 

We were aboard Amtrak's Cascades traveling between Portland, Oregon and Seattle,Washington, passing through a part of southwestern Washington that I had always considered 'somewhat boring'. 

           Crossing the Columbia River
I had met the Italian  in Portland's train station while we waited in a long line for seat assignments. Having completed the business portion of his Pacific Northwest trip he was traveling by a train to the area's largest cities: Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, B.C.  He asked for  recommendations on what he should see; I ticked off the usual tourist sites as we inched our way towards the counter.

We'd chatted again as I made my way to the dining car for coffee. Back in my seat, I thought about his enthusiastic declaration and realized that I was guilty of traveling a familiar route, close to home and simply taking it for granted.

I decided it was time to really pay attention to my trip; I pulled out my notebook and made note of my discoveries:

*  Winlock, Washington, just south of Tacoma, home of the World's Largest Egg - the conductor announced it but unfortunately a freight train kept us from seeing it. It is 12-feet long and weighs 1,200 lbs - no joke; follow the link I provided above.
*  Speaking of Tacoma, if you pay attention as the train eases into the station from the south, you will go under the Chihuly Bridge of Glass with its Crystal Towers gleaming above you.
*  Passed a town I don't think I'd ever paid attention to before called Bucoda but its been around since the 1870's when it served as home to the first Territorial State Prison. 
*  A profusion of blooms filled acres of flower gardens along a portion of our route making me wonder if they were the Hmong Gardens I read so often about in newspapers; the ones that had suffered from our strange northwest weather this year.
* And then there was Mount Rainier, at 14,411 feet (4,392m) the highest mountain in Washington State. In the late afternoon sun it beauty was so striking that other passengers roused themselves from napping to take a look.

Majestic Mount Rainier from the train
Wish I could tell the Italian visitor that -- thanks to my brief encounter with him -- I won't ever take this trip for granted again.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Where are we going? We don't know!

"Tourists don't know where they've been; travelers don't know where they are going." 

The quote, attributed to travel writer Paul Theroux, describes the preparations for our fall trip, well. . .at least the last half does.

         Ferries in Piraeus Harbor, Greece
The itinerary for Holland America's Westerdam is so organized that we know not only where we will go, but the hour of each departure and arrival. But for the fews days before and two weeks after the cruise we will be 'travelers' by Theroux's definition: we don't know where we are going.

That's not to say, we don't have plenty of ideas, though. For us, the trip began the minute we had booked the cruise and started researching before and after destinations - most of which we will never get to but have had a great time exploring from a distance. We are reading our aging travel guides, a few novels, warming the computer keyboard with Google Searches, filling notepads with scribbles, and twirling the world globe.

The research has tempted us with many places, yet, we still don't know where we are going.

                       Leaving Piraeus, Greece
We will set our compass by 'where the winds blow us' within the confines of Greek ferry schedules. We just today discovered a great website for ferry schedules:  http://www.openseas.gr/

Axing a stay in Amsterdam we've gained a few extra days under the Grecian sun. The islands of Poros and Hydra, both relatively close to Piraeus, from where the Westerdam departs, would provide new scenery and adventures for the days prior to the cruise. . .It is hard to choose between the two. Joel suggests that after we arrive in Piraeus, we catch the first ferry heading to the Saronic Islands, the cluster of islands in which these two are found and stay at whichever place it reaches first.

That works for me!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Yakima: Fruitbowl of the Nation

                    Hop Vines Yakima Valley
The rich farmlands of the Yakima Valley are blanketed with truck gardens, fruit trees, vineyards and hop vines.  I grew up in this agricultural area in the center of Washington State. And, as a child, I loved those colorful painted signs along the roadway that proudly proclaimed the area to be the:  "Fruitbowl of the Nation". 

Now tourist signs with a single sophisticated looking wineglass herald the pleasures to be found at wineries and vineyards that proliferate the valley. Don't get me wrong; we love those wineries, but there's a lot more to the valley than wine grapes.

We traveled earlier this week through small towns named Toppenish and White Swan and through a portion of the Yakama Indian Reservation. Often we had the backroads to ourselves; only passing a tractor lumbering along with a spray rig in tow. Cultivated fields gave way to sage-brush covered open lands bordered with barbed wire fences. Then, unexpectedly, another irrigated stretch of land would appear.

Imperial's Garden, Wapato WA
We make this August trip annually from our western Washington home primarily to visit a favorite produce 'stand' called Imperial's Garden, (Lateral A, Wapato, WA.).   This year we found the 'stand' in much larger digs. Semi-trucks were being filled with just-out-of-the field produce boxes while people like us loaded our cars at the front of the building - also by the box loads.

Shopping options abound as painted wood signs direct those traveling along Lateral A, the best road to follow through this agricultural area, to other smaller, family-owned seasonal markets, some offering fruit, some produce and some a mixture of both. We visited many . . .tucking just a few more peaches and nectarines into the car.
          Just-picked canning tomatoes

We've traveled to some fabulous places in the world. But when driving through the Yakima Valley with the car windows open, savoring the intoxicating scents from the mint fields or fresh mown hay. . . or tasting that just-picked peach or tomato  -- I can't think of any other place I'd rather be during harvest season than back home in the "Fruitbowl of the Nation."

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Black Sea Medley

"Black Sea Medley" is the name given our 12-day cruise by Holland America . We'll be joining two thousand others on board its Westerdam setting out to explore ancient cities this fall.  The cities -- some we'd never thought of visiting before -- now tease our senses of adventure with images of exotic intrigue and tempt with explorations that will intoxicate our senses with new smells, sights, sounds and tastes.

We will set sail from Piraeus; the bustling port city near Athens.

We'll then travel to:
* Kusadasi, Turkey, gateway to the ancient city of Ephesus the once bustling seaport which might be called the religious center of early Christianity.
* Volos, Greece, at the foot of Mt. Pelion and featured in much Greek mythology.
* Thessaloniki, Greece, while the cruise line lists this as Greece's 2nd largest economic center (industry and commercial) I prefer to think of it as described in the Aug/Sept 2010 Saveur Magazine: "Greece's culinary capital,with an eclectic cuisine reflecting the proximity of Bulgaria and the other Balkan states (due North) and Turkey (to the East) as well as the city's key position on well-established trade routes between the Middle East and Europe."  Far more intriguing to me than 'industrial center'.
* Istanbul, Turkey, this magical city we visited for just a day on a 2008 cruise, was once called Byzantium then Constantinople. We arrive at noon one day and don't leave until nearly midnight the next. . .how many meals can we manage to eat during our time on shore?
          Morning coffee delivered to the room
* A day at Sea (to regroup the senses and diet after Istanbul) and not just any Sea Day as we will sail the Bosphorus and begin criss-crossing The Black Sea with stops at:
* Sochi, Russia with its Caucasus Mountains backdrop, is where the 2014 Winter Olympics will take place.
* Trabzon, Turkey - where the Byzantine and Ottoman eras are reflected in architecture throughout the town.
* Sinop, Turkey - offering one of Turkey's most beautiful natural harbors we are told, this was the birthplace of the cynic philosopher Diogenes.
*Sevastopol, Ukraine - we will be among the more than 500,000 visitors to this city each year and will see how many of its 1,800 historic monuments and memorials we can see during our stop.
* A Day at Sea en route to where we began:
* Piraeus, Greece

Next post we'll ponder what to do in the days before and after the cruise.

Monday, August 2, 2010

A Trip to Harrogate England

Thanks to England's crime fiction writer Bill Kitson for providing the following guest post:

Harrogate, in North Yorkshire, is an "event" town. There is always something happening, whatever the time of year. The International Conference Centre plays hosts to countless exhibitions, from toy fairs, to the spring flower show. In addition there are festivals, with themes ranging from music to crime writing. It was in connection with the latter that Val and I visited Harrogate recently.

The historical connection of Harrogate with crime stems from the fact that it was in Harrogate, at The Old Swan Hotel, that Agatha Christie was discovered following her mysterious disappearance from her home. The event was subject to the 1979 film, "Agatha," starring Dustin Hoffman and Vanessa Redgrave.

Castles and Countryside
In addition to its own attractions, Harrogate is a great centre for those wishing to spend time in some of the most spectacular scenery with some of the most appealing visitor attractions in the UK. Whether your taste is for the hills and dales, wild moorland or beautiful pastures, raging torrents or gently trickling scenes, you won't be disappointed.

Visitors will find themselves within striking distance of a number of historic castles, some ruined, most still occupied by the families who have lived there for centuries. Or, around the next bend as it were, they can take in the splendid architecture of a string of abbeys and monasteries, whose beauty even the wrecking crews of Cromwell's army couldn't destroy. Other features of the area are some magnificently kept gardens within a number of stately homes (usually better during summer - obviously) or take a trip back in time with a railway journey on one of several lines that run through the most beautiful parts of the county, sitting in a carriage being pulled along by a venerable steam locomotive.

Ale and Cheese
There are other attractions too. You could tour a visitor centre watching traditional arts such as cheese-making or the centuries old brewing methods still used to produce real ale. Afterwards, those who wish to may care to linger and try the produce.

Where we stayed
For our visit to the Crime Writing Festival, we stayed at The Cairn Hotel (part of Strathmore Hotels Group). We've stayed there before and found it clean and comfortable, with the staff cheerful and providing good service. Okay, so it needs a lick of paint here, or a bit of carpet replacing there, but we were only staying there, not living in the place. The rooms are spacious, no wear and tear to be seen in them, and the facilities within all you could ask for.

The terms were the other attraction. Our online booking enabled us to obtain a double room with full English breakfast for two at a price of £55 ($84). This compares with a rack price of £190 ($293) and the price of a room in the hotel staging the festival (only a few hundred yards away) of £300 ($462).
*Rate of exchange as at 07/24/2010


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