Monday, August 24, 2015

An Update on Greece ~ Because you’ve asked. . .

We are interrupting our tales of sailing from Asia to Istanbul this week because so many of you’ve asked about our stay at The Stone House on the Hill following the cruise and how we are faring in light of ‘the situation’ in Greece.  I’ve had so many things to tell you about Greece that I thought of starting a second blog, but since that hasn’t happened, here’s a recap and I’ll be back to cruise posts next week . . .

I’ll begin at the end. It was very difficult to leave The Stone House on the Hill after our stay this spring. Four weeks simply weren’t long enough. Since purchasing our home in The Mani area of the Greek Peloponnese last December we’ve spent nearly two months in it; three weeks last winter and our most recent spring stay.

"Our" Mani Agios Nikolaos in the foreground and Stoupa in the background

“The Situation?” you asked . . .

Our departure for the U.S. from Greece turned out to be only days before the banks there closed and their economic world turned upside down. Had we been there, we would also have been under the same withdrawal limitations on our Greek bank account as were the Greeks. The banks have reopened as has their stock exchange, however, we are still unable to wire funds from the United States to that Greek bank account of ours.

Unlike the reports you’ve seen on headline news around the world, our friends and neighbors there assure us via emails and Skype conversations that the cash machines in our area of Greece have funds, the grocery store shelves are stocked and medicines are readily available.

Tourists, according to Ekathimerini, the English-language newspaper published in Athens, reported yesterday that tourism is going to hit record numbers in 2015 if the upcoming Greek elections result in a stable government. Estimates are that more than 25 million foreign tourists will visit. Arrivals during the first six months of this year show U.S. visitors increased by 41.6%, Germans by 23.5% and British by 21.2%.

The Stone House on the Hill . . . what did we do there?

The Stone House on the Hill - Sunset, June 2015
Certain areas of The Stone House on the Hill or its gardens and grove were torn up during our stay, put back together and then another spot torn up and put back together as work progressed to make it ‘our home’ – one that reflected our colors, tastes and designs.

After out with the old comes in with the new
There were several days during our stay that we made shopping trips to the big city and then a few days later The Scout would drive down the hill to meet delivery trucks from Kalamata and lead them back up to the house as you might recall, we don’t have an address so deliveries can be a bit of a challenge. Then there was the matter of getting items to the house – a good workout!

Many of those items required assembly and we discovered we were able to read directions and ‘build’ things, as well as paint walls – all of which was admittedly work, but also labors of love.

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Small bedroom on its way to becoming a den with bookshelf put together by us
Several major projects were completed while we were 'in residence' including replacing the buckled and water-soaked Formica gold-swirled kitchen counter and marble window sill with black granite. These projects we turned over to professional craftsmen who worked wonders with not only the counter top but also the window sill (which was a gift – no charge). An electrician hooked up the new stove and exhaust fan we purchased to replace the ones that weren’t working:

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Kitchen re-do Spring 2015
Many of the projects had been completed between our winter stay and our return this spring and only needed some decorative touches, like the stairway linking the upper and side garden. The previous owner had used a ladder to get between the two. Made a great place to start my potted herb garden!

New stairway and herb container garden
One area that really took shape this spring – perhaps my pride and joy -- was my Lemon Tree Wine Patio. When we’d first seen it last year it was so overgrown I had thought it a small patio maybe large enough for a small table and a chair. We rolled up our sleeves, put on the work gloves and were reminded of what a bit of cleaning and clearing can do!

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Lemon Tree Wine Patio debuts
The house came with a small olive grove – 15 trees – and it was so overgrown that we’d never been able to walk through it.  Prior to our arrival, the orchard grass was cut and we had stairs constructed between the terraces . . .the idea being that guests might like to stroll through the grove and someday there will be table and chairs down there so we can entertain a la Under the Tuscan Sun style with long afternoon meals with visiting friends. . .

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The Grove at The Stone House on the Hill
Our days were busy and happy at The Stone House on the Hill.  We continue to be glad we chased and then caught that daydream in Greece. And how we are looking forward to our return this fall! To those who’ve asked about ‘the situation’  - your interest and concern are most appreciated. I'll tell you more about the house and 'hood in future posts. The photo below was taken from our main deck - sunsets like this made every evening spectacular.

A Messinian Sunset
We’ll resume our tales next week of our time in India and then we’ll head west to the Middle East in subsequent reports.  Happy and safe travels to you and yours ~

Linking this week with:
Travel Photo Thursday – Budget Traveler’s Sandbox 
Our World Tuesday
Travel Inspiration – Reflections En Route
Mosaic Monday – Lavender Cottage Gardening
Mersad's Through My Lens
Photo Friday - Pierced Wonderings
Wordless Wednesday

Thursday, August 20, 2015

A Stay in Myanmar’s Grand Old Strand Hotel

“Dear Mr. Smith,

. . .You share our Guest Register with the likes of George Orwell, Sir Peter Ustinov, Somerset Maugham, David Rockefeller, Sir Noel Coward, Rudyard Kipling and HRH Kin Taufa’ahau Tupou IV of Tonga (in 1936), who have all stayed at The Strand.

Enjoy your ‘Burmese Days’ and the magical experience that is Myanmar and its wonderfully friendly people.”

That excerpt from the welcome letter from The General Manager was to set the tone for an extraordinary stay at The Strand Hotel, Yangon, Myanmar.

Stepping into the lobby – admittedly small in stature and décor when compared to today’s 5-star behemoths – with its marble floors, rattan furniture and lofty ceiling felt as if we were stepping back more than a century in time into the British Colonial Far East.

Lobby of The Strand - Yangon, Myanmar
For three days and two nights we’d get a taste of the genteel grandeur of British-influenced early 1900’s in the still developing Rangoon, Burma, as it was then called. Today it is Yangon, Myanmar, one of the ports of call of our Oceania cruise that took us from Bangkok, Thailand to Istanbul, Turkey last spring.

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The Strand, Rangon, Myanmar, left, Raffles Hotel, Singapore, right

Because the cruise line allowed for on-shore stays, we’d planned to stay in this historic haven since booking our cruise. This neo-classic charmer was built in 1901 by John Darwood, and was later acquired by four Armenian brothers – the Sarkies – as part of their early 20th Century luxury hotel collection that included The Strand, the Eastern & Oriental in Penang and the Raffles Hotel in Singapore.

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Serenaded at checkin; we sipped watermelon juice with another couple from the ship
‘Genteel’ became the operative word for this stay. Doormen greeted us and the reception staff ushered us to cushioned rattan couches and served us fresh watermelon juice while we listened to live music and another staff member completed the paperwork for our stay. No long lines or impersonal registration counters here.

A Brief Hotel History

From its beginning this three story hotel, “was regarded as ‘the finest hostelry east of Suez’ and Murray’s Handbook for Travelers in India, Burma and Ceylon, 1911 edition, says the hotel was patronized by ‘royalty, nobility and distinguished personages’,” according to Philippe Delaloye, the current General Manager.

However, during the intervening decades, the British Colonial period ended and Burma became an independent country (1948). The once-luxurious hotel served as a home for Japanese soldiers during Japan’s occupation in World War II and then fell into a state of disrepair in the 1960’s. A Burmese businessman purchased it in 1988 and commissioned its extensive renovation. There were no new towers, fitness clubs or pools added; it was simply restored to its once-luxurious self. And a few modern conveniences like free wi-fi and  flat screen televisions have been added.

Fresh blooms and toiletries in our bathroom
It reopened in 1993 as a 31-room, all-suite, 5-star hotel and is currently the only hotel in Myanmar to be part of the prestigious Leading Hotels of the World.

We were shown our second-floor suite by the butler assigned to our floor.  A butler (or two) are assigned to each floor 24/7 and simply await a call from guests ~ they open your door for you when you return to your room, push elevator buttons, and lock up your suite when you leave.

The Butler's station was manned 24/7 on each of the hotels floors
Double doors led from our suite's entry hall into an oversized bathroom with separate shower, tub and toilet area. At the end of the hallway we entered an enormous bedroom with king-sized bed. A separate sitting area with sofa, chair and coffee table was the perfect place for afternoon coffee and cookies – served . . . by the butler, of course!

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Suite 102 The Strand, Yangon, Myanmar where treats were left each night by the butler
My favorite spot in the room was the large desk where I could imagine literary giants of yesteryear penning novels that would transcend the decades and continue to tantalize readers like us with tales of the British Colonial period.

Dining at The Strand

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Dining was a delight at The Strand from breakfast to dinner
Several of you – who read the earlier post on drinking water served from communal cups attached to water tanks along the streets – asked about the food.  We didn’t try street food and ate one (very good) meal at a British pub a few blocks from the hotel. The majority of our meals were eaten at the hotel. Breakfast was included in the price of the room. The menu offerings included items like fresh banana pancakes and fruit for breakfast.

The hotel’s specialties included Onn-Not-Khao Sive, a chicken in light coconut gravy with egg noodles, crispy noodles, boiled egg, shallot and lime (pictured lower left) and the Strand Mohinga, a signature dish, a lemon-grass and ginger infused fish soup, not pictured. We tried them both - they were excellent!

Enjoying the genteel life at The Strand, Yangon, Myanmar
Our time at this hotel, named for its address 92 Strand Road, was far too short.  We vowed we’d have to return. With any luck we will one day. 

That’s it for our visit to Myanmar. We returned to the ship and that evening set sail for our next port of call, Cochin, India. We’d have three ‘sea days’ while crossing the Bay of Bengal, the largest bay in the world before finally setting foot in India.  Was the hassle we had with getting an India visa worth it? We’ll let you know in our next post!  Happy travels to you and yours until we meet again~

Linking up this week with:
Travel Photo Thursday – Budget Traveler’s Sandbox 
Our World Tuesday
Travel Inspiration – Reflections En Route
Mosaic Monday – Lavender Cottage Gardening
Mersad's Through My Lens
Photo Friday - Pierced Wonderings
Wordless Wednesday

Friday, August 14, 2015

Yangon, Myanmar ~ The Girl Under the Bridge

“Hello!” a sweet young voice called out in perfect English.

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Yangon River

I turned to see who had issued such a cheery, understandable greeting. And then it took a minute to collect my thoughts as I  couldn’t quite comprehend what I was seeing  ~ the welcome  had come from under the bridge pictured above.

The bridge we’d just walked across was the roof of our little greeter’s house – a wooden bridge leading to one of the docks along the murky waters of the Yangon River, some three blocks from our 5-star hotel.

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Life under the bridge - Yangon, Myanmar
In her pink dress the little one  looked like a doll. Her smile was as bright as the sun, as she waved and again called out to me, “Hello!”

She was standing in a space under the bridge, (identical to the space in this nearby bridge shown in the photo above).  Note: Even this shutterbug could not bring myself to take photos of my young greeter and her family.

The scene was indelibly imprinted without photos: Her mother squatted by a small cooking fire, her father was asleep on a mat and her brother played off to the side. . .in her home under the wooden bridge at the side of the murky Yangon River

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Surveying life on the murky waters of the Yangon River
I smiled, returned her greeting and we retraced our route  across her roof to continue our explorations of Yangon, Myanmar – the place not so long ago know as Rangoon, Burma.

“Yangon means ‘end of strife”

We were spending three days and two nights in Yangon, Myanmar, formerly Rangoon, Burma, as part of our 34-day cruise aboard Oceania’s Nautica; a spring sailing that was taking us on a “magic carpet ride” from Bangkok, Thailand to Istanbul, Turkey.

While the Hindu and Buddhist temples and pagodas were as stunning as tourist promotional materials promised in Myanmar, it was scenes like our little greeter that left the most lasting memories during our far-too-short a stay:

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Feed the Birds - that's what she cried, in Yangon, Myanmar
. . .like the lady selling crumbs to feed the birds on the street corner.

Burma,now known as Myanmar,a British colony for nearly100 years,declared its independence in 1948. It remained a representative democracy until a military coup in 1962 initiated an isolationist policy.

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Playing real-life "Chicken" in Yangon, Myanmar
. . . or the memory of the nerve-numbing frenzied, flurry of automobiles, pedicabs, ancient buses, and pedestrians on the labyrinth of streets – requiring all who entered or tried to cross to play a game of chance, an all-too-real reality game of “Chicken”.

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Yangon public buses
From the ship’s tour desk: “Yangon has an extensive bus network, but the buses are very crowded, do not have A/C, do not always adhere to published schedules or routes and are not available at the cruise pier area.” 

After seeing them, we understood the ship’s information. We weren’t inclined to climb about the buses. Walking was our preferred means of transportation during our stay. It was a great way of collecting memories. . .

From 1962 until 2011 Myanmar, formerly Burma, was ruled by a military junta. In 2011 the military introduced gradual political, economic, and foreign policy reforms.

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Who once drove those vehicles, we wondered
The street scenes were so varied they assaulted our senses.  The vehicles pictured above we found parked mid-way between our luxurious hotel and the beautiful MahaBandoola Garden below.

Since 1948 ethnic groups –- more than 100 -- within Myanmar have been infighting – the most recent draft ceasefire agreement signed in March, 2015 – only a month prior to our arrival.

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Mahabandoola Garden - Yangon, Myanmar
As visitors we had to remember we were still on the forefront; that tourism is a new phenomenon in this city of more than five million people. Walking along streets lined with charming worn buildings that reminded us of  its recent strife-filled decades.

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What stories the buildings could tell - Yangon, Myanmar
A tourism boycott was put into place in 1996 and lifted in 2010 when pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi (referred to here simply as, “The Lady”) was released from house arrest. In 2010 international tourists numbered 300,000; in 2012 one million.

Yet there are signs of economic growth and a renewed effort to emerge from those dark, isolated years. The photos above and below were taken within a few blocks of each other and reflect the kaleidoscope of scenes we encountered as we explored but a portion of this sprawling city.

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Yangon, Myanmar
In 1988 the military cracked down on protesters reportedly killing some 3,000 people and displacing thousands more.

It is easy to jump to conclusions about a place, especially when you are there for as short a time as we were.  So we’d hesitate to make any grand observations about  this city – for centuries a small fishing village --believed to have been founded in the 6th century. 

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Street eatery - Yangon, Myanmar
We can tell you that we felt safe walking its streets; the people with whom we had contact made us feel genuinely welcomed.  We did not eat or drink anything sold or available on the streets – they washed and cleaned dishes but used water that was questionable to our Western minds and stomachs.

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Street cafe - Yangon, Myanmar
The city is clearly more worn than modern – still showing signs of damage from a 1930’s earthquake and from World War II – and that could be a turn-off for some visitors. We found it charming. We want to return.

Yangon has some of the most beautiful pagodas  and Buddha statues  in Southeast Asia. One day we’ll likely tell you about them. They were stunning, but those places get a lot of publicity. . .

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Yangon River taxi 
Today I just wanted to tell you about the warm welcome we had from the little girl under the bridge.

Thanks – as always – for the time you spend with us! I had a computer melt-down this week which means the half-written post about our historic hotel stay in Yangon will come in the near future.  Happy and safe travels to you until we see you again ~

If you have some time check out  these collections with which we are linking this week:
Travel Photo Thursday – Budget Traveler’s Sandbox 
Our World Tuesday
Travel Inspiration – Reflections En Route
Mosaic Monday – Lavender Cottage Gardening
Mersad's Through My Lens
Photo Friday - Pierced Wonderings
Wordless Wednesday

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Myanmar ~ So Delightfully Different!

Myanmar, the country’s lyrical name, Mee yan Mar, simply sounded so,. . .well. . .so foreign and exotic. Even “Burma” its long-ago name and now a parenthetical reference, was equally enticing when we booked our 34-day spring cruise from Bangkok, Thailand to Istanbul, Turkey.

It was‘different’ we wanted – and Myanmar didn’t disappoint!

Land of Buddha - Yangon, Myanmar
Even better was that Oceania’s Nautica would stay in the port city, Yangon, for three days and two nights. A definite plus for this cruise.  And in keeping with their flexible approach to travel, we could take ship’s tours, arrange our own, or go it alone. 

A city street - Yangon, Myanmar

We opted to go it alone. We booked ourselves a room on shore*, packed a carry-on bag and were off to explore as soon as the ship had cleared local customs.

This short stay was a good way to test out our abilities to get around and explore this city with a population of more than five million; a place where ornate buildings that harkened back to the time of British colonial rule stand next to sleek, modern high-rises.

Located in southern Myanmar, Yangon (once called Rangoon) is the country’s former capital and its main point of entry (a number of Asian airlines land at its airport and cruise ships dock here).

P1000501 Actually the town is an hour’s drive (35 km or 22 miles) from where we were docked near the mouth of the Yangon River at the Thilawa Container Wharf.  The ‘cruise ship port’ is still a part of an industrial area, much like our experience in Bangkok.

The cab we shared into town with another couple from the ship crept along the narrow port road made even more narrow with oil trucks waiting for their turn to fill up the many containers ships in port.

The port road was a parking lot at times as we drove toward Yangon, Myanmar
The congestion at the port was a good foreshadowing of what was to come when we reached the city:

Traffic was simply crazy in Yangon, Myanmar
Our destination was The Strand Hotel, Myanmar’s oldest hotel. Its lawns once fronted the Yangon River. Now it stands just across the street (pictured above) from the river’s bustling Pansodan Ferry Terminal (pictured below). Our stay at The Strand, one of the Leading Hotels of the World, was nothing short of spectacular – a step back into a genteel time. . . morning coffee and afternoon tea served in our room’s sitting area by our floor’s butler, for example. Such a remarkable stay it was, that next week’s post will focus on this Grand Dame of the Far East.

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Pansodan Ferry Terminal alive with activity - Yangon, Myanmar

Burmese Kyat - local currency
Settled into the hotel, and money exchanged (here the currency is the Burmese Kyat – $1US = 1,070Kyat) we set off with a city map bearing the name and address of the hotel and a hotel umbrella to use for protection against the sun’s intense rays.

We left our bottles of water in the room, planning to buy some along the way. . .

. . .and that would be our first ‘lesson learned’ and reminder that we weren’t ‘in Kansas anymore, Toto’!

We’d walked a couple of miles through the city teeming with people when we agreed we were not where we thought we were headed. Problem was, we didn’t know where we were – and we disagreed about where we thought we were. It was hot - 95+ degrees under the mid-day sun. We were thirsty. It was time to buy that water, only there was none to be purchased, because drinking water was made available for free throughout the city:

Drinking water was free - and communal - in Yangon, Myanmar

None of the small markets that lined the streets we walked sold bottled water – people simply sipped out of the communal cups.

Local shopper taking a water/shade break -Yangon, Myanmar
Luckily, we learned quite quickly that a large number of people here speak English. As we paused on a congested sidewalk to ponder our map for the umpteenth time, a young man selling vegetables next to us asked, “Where are you trying to go?”  Within seconds he had us pointed in the right direction (we’d only been a few blocks off course).

The city was definitely a study in contrasts as within a few minutes, we left the congestion of the sidewalk markets to find ourselves sipping ice tea in the luxurious lobby café at the Shangri-La Hotel, while locals like the lady above quenched her thirst from the public water bottles.

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Top, lobby bar; bottom first floor bar - Shangri La Hotel - Yangon, Myanmar
The contrasts, the reminders of British colonialism, the pagodas, temples, Buddha’s, the congestion, the kindness and the welcome were nearly overwhelming – we found ourselves retreating to our room after a few hours just to regroup (and cool down) and to savor the delightful differences we were finding at every corner.

*Note: While the cruise line allowed you to stay on shore if you chose to do so, there were no refunds for the night not spent on the ship. Seemed fair enough as just being allowed off the ship for independent overnight stays was a first for us! Their only request was that you notify the ship in advance so your passport (they are held by the ship) can be returned to you and that you leave contact information and your anticipated location while on shore in event of any emergency you might have or any change in the ship's departure time.

Speaking of time, thanks for the time you spent with us today on our Magic Carpet Ride to and through the Middle East.  Hope you’ll be back next week as we tour The Strand Hotel.  Until then, happy travels to you~

Take a moment more and drop by these blogs for more travel and lifestyle inspiration:

Travel Photo Thursday – Budget Traveler’s Sandbox 
Our World Tuesday
Travel Inspiration – Reflections En Route
Mosaic Monday – Lavender Cottage Gardening
Mersad's Through My Lens
Photo Friday - Pierced Wonderings
Wordless Wednesday

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Washington Weekend ~ Apples Found Round-the-World

For the next few weeks our seasonal “Washington Weekend” posts return to TravelnWrite. In them we’ll take you along with us on road trips and ‘staycations’ in the Pacific Northwest’s, Evergreen State. The series begins, however, on the other side of the world. . .

We’d flown to the other side of the world – 11,149 air miles or 17,942 air kilometers – in April to board Oceania’s Nautica in Bangkok, Thailand for a cruise to Istanbul, Turkey.

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Back-of-the-seat monitors let you track your travel on Emirates Airlines

By whatever measurement, miles or kilometers, we were a long way from anything Washington State. . .or so we thought, until. . .

. . . we went into a grocery store just down the road from The Peninsula Hotel where we were staying in Bangkok. Grocery stores are among our favorite places to ‘tour’ when traveling because we find local foods interesting.  And sometimes the food isn’t always local, as we found out when we found ourselves standing before a display of Washington State apples.

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Apple display - Bangkok, Thailand
Pretty cool, we thought. (If you are new to the blog, you may not know that our childhood and early adult roots are in Washington State apple country; in fact, The Scout’s family were apple orchardists in Chelan. Therefore, the apple holds a special place in our hearts.)

The following week, in Phuket, Thailand, our third port of call, we’d sought shelter from the heat in a large retail complex which housed a large, very modern grocery store. Once again, we happened upon Washington State apples. Quite a selection as a matter of fact:

Washington Apples - Phuket, Thailand
(Although larger, Washington apple display didn’t quite compare with the ‘gift-wrapped’ Asian-grown variety next to them. Of course, by then we were taking ‘ownership’ in these Washington grown fruits and predicted that ‘ours’ probably tasted far better):

Asian apple display - Phuket, Thailand
It wasn’t until we reached India that we really were reminded of the far reaching impact of our state’s apple industry. I have to admit the salesmen at the Mumbai fruit and vegetable market couldn’t get over my fascination with the apples we found for sale. But it seemed there was a Washington State apple box at every turn.

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Washington apples were everywhere in the Mumbai market
India, we’ve since learned, was the fifth largest importer of Washington apples in 2013/14 with some 2.3 million boxes shipped there, according to the Washington State Apple Commission. (For those who like stats, Mexico was the largest importer at 10.5 million, followed by Canada, UAE (Dubai) and Taiwan).

The Commission reports that about 30% of the state’s apples are exported to 60 countries in the world!.  We probably could have found them everywhere we stopped, had we taken the time to look!

Apple Country travel is close to Home

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Apple orchard above Manson at Lake Chelan

The good news for those of us living in – or those visiting – Washington State is that apple country is easily reached within a few hours drive – no need to fly half-way around the world to find a great apple. Since wine country has co-mingled itself in the state’s orchard country, it is easy to follow Washington’s wine roads and find yourself in the midst of apple country as well. 

Apple orchard Yakima with Mount Adams in background
There are still 175,000 acres of apples grown here, primarily in the eastern foothills of the Cascade Mountains. Apple harvest begins in mid-August and generally ends in early November.
Notice the similarities between the wine region and apple land maps below.

We’ll pay more attention to those apple trees the next time we take a Washington road trip – no telling where in the world we might find ourselves and those apples being harvested the next time!

IMG_5100Again thanks so much for the time you spent with us today.

Have you found a taste of home on your travels? If so, please share the story in the comments below.

Our Magic Carpet lands in Myanmar in our next post. Hope you’ll be here when it does.  We are linking with Mosaic Monday so stop by there if you get a chance!

Until then, thanks to the Washington State Apple Commission for letting us reprint these fun facts about Washington’s apple crop:



Apple Crop Fun Facts

  • 10 - 12 billion apples are handpicked in Washington State each year.
  • Each Washington apple is picked by hand. There are no harvest machines to pick apples.
  • If you put all of the Washington State apples picked in a year side-by-side, they would circle the earth 29 times.
  • About 2,500 known varieties of apples are grown in the United States. More than 7,500 are grown worldwide.
  • Last year, the average U.S. consumer ate 19 pounds of fresh apples.
  • Red Delicious is the apple variety named as favorite by most consumers.
  • Apples are the largest agricultural product grown in Washington State.
  • Apples originated in Kazakhstan and were carried east by traders on the Silk Road.
  • The only apple native to North America is the crabapple.
  • Apple seeds are like people; you will never get the exact same type of apple from a planted seed.
  • The Red Delicious apple began life as a chance seedling on an Iowa farm. A chance seedling is a viable apple variety that grows from a seed.


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