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:

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

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

And some places NOT to visit. . .

One of the books displayed on our Amazon carousel now is 101 Places Not To See.   It's a different sort of travel guide recently published by Harper Collins.  Its author, Catherine Price, has put together an eclectic collection of places that she, and several guest contributors, recommend that we don't bother visiting.

You might be saying, "But the world is out there to be explored:  good, bad, and ugly." And I admit we were somewhat skeptical at first.. .but then came the chuckles and that led to laughing right out loud.  After all, how can one read a book that includes "The Testicle Festival" (held each year at the Rock Creek Lodge outside Missoula, Montana) or "The Amsterdam Sex Museum" and not laugh?

I disagree with many of Price's slam-dunks on places; for instance, she seems to have written off the whole state of Nevada -- a place where we recently completed  one of the best road trips imaginable; or the Mummy Museum in Guanajuato, Mexico (so. . .it's not for the squeamish, but we thought it was interesting). Several items such as the smell of the (San Francisco Bay Area) BART rapid transit train carpet or 'an AAA meeting when you are drunk' seem almost to be 'fillers' and detracted from  excellent tales such as the night spent at a Korean temple (that one had me laughing out loud).

However, she's included a good number of places -- such as The Gum Wall tucked away in an alley near Pike Place Market right here in Seattle  --  that I'd never heard of before.

Each place gets no more  than 2- 3 pages in the book making it a great over-all quick read. It might be the perfect gift for some travel-fanatic friend of yours who always is looking for some new off-beat destination; she certainly has plenty of them!  

Note:  The publisher provided us a copy of the book to review; however, there were no commitments made to review the book on the blog.  We've read the book and enjoyed it, particularly the author's statement concerning why she wrote it: she was tired of those books telling her all the things she needed to do before she dies and felt it time to let people know those things they could remove from their to do lists.  

It got us thinking, "Where would we have included in the book?" What place would you have included? Add a comment below:

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Summer Travel - Novel Destinations

The next best thing to actually traveling there, is being transported by some writer whose skills with the written word take us from Kirkland to far-away places.  We've had some great armchair trips this summer to:
          "Winds of Crete" Loutro, Crete

  • Crete - Two outstanding books of vastly differing subject matter have led us back to our favorite spots on this southern Greek island.  
A very used, dog-earred paper-back copy of Winds of Crete, by David MacNeil Doren, that I found in Portland, Oregon's Powell's Bookstore kept us totally absorbed as the author recounted the six years that he and his wife lived in Crete.  The book was first published in England in 1974.
Who Pays the Ferryman? a novel by Michael J. Bird, based on his BBC television series of the same name, took us to some of our favorite cities as we followed the story of Alan Haldane's return to Crete after a 35-year absence and the love story that ensues. We ordered this book, first published in England in 1977, from The Book Depository (which offers free world-wide shipping; no minimum purchase required).
  •  Europe  - by train, bike, horse, boat and on foot in two books by a London journalist, Andrew Eames.
In his, The 8:55 to Baghdad, we tagged along on his 2002 trip from London to Iraq on the trail of Agatha Christie, the legendary mystery writer, who as a 30-something recently divorced woman in 1928 made the trip alone.  He masterfully weaves a biographical account of Christie into his travel tale that had us wanting to hop the next train from London and learn more about Agatha's travels. I came across this book in the biography section at a  Barnes and Noble.

(This book re-ignited our desire to read more Agatha Christie books and have just completed a cruise in her Death on the Nile and took an English garden tour in Nemesis.)

Patrick Leigh Fermor, the British travel writer who at age 18 in 1933 set out to walk the Hook of Holland to Istanbul provided the inspiration for Eames' Blue River, Black Sea, the story of his own journey on foot, bike and horseback along the Danube into the heart of the New Europe.
           Sipping raki with Bill and Val Kitson 

  • England has been the setting for a murder mysteries written by Bill Kitson, the author we met in the tiny village of Loutro, on Crete's southern coast.
The first book -- in what we hope will be a long series of mysteries -- introduces detective Mike Nash, in a riviting read titled Depth of Despair.  I ordered it on-line through Amazon.  While not a travel book, the plot has taken us from tarns in England's Lakes District to Russia and back. It is a book with such a gripping storyline that it we found it hard to put down.   I've just received the second book in the series, The Chosen, also set in England, which by coincidence opens with an article, fictitious of course, from The Seattle Times.

Note: I've been able to add all but one of the books referenced in this post to the Amazon carousel that appears on our blog - if you click on a book it will open an Amazon page that describes the book, author, and offers professional and reader's reviews.  And yes, if you click on one of the books and ultimately buy it from the carousel, we get a few cents from the sale.  (That's a disclaimer; not a sales pitch!)


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