Monday, July 28, 2014

Busy, Busy

On Friday, we crossed on the ferry from Swartz Bay, north of Victoria, to Tsawwassen, south of Vancouver, and drove down to our condo in Birch Bay, Washington -- enduring a long wait because of the ludicrous and specious security procedures at the border; procedures which Canada has apparently copied in retaliation, judging from the line waiting on the northbound lanes.

The condo is a nondescript little complex on the one road in the area; tiny seaside cabins across the street in front, a creek behind. Nice enough inside, and with all the necessary accoutrements: utensils, cooking gear, fireplace & television. We spent some time settling in, then headed up to the grocery store -- and, more importantly, the liquor store -- to stock up. We cooked (skillet chicken & rice) & ate in after a pitcher of margaritas had worked their mellowing magic. It was not a tragedy.

This one I actually liked
"Endangered Species"
a quicksand hot tub?
Yesterday we started exploring the area in earnest. First was a small sculpture garden at Big Rock Park in Bellingham, a large town about 15 miles south of here. The park features about 30 works of art placed along gravel pathways among the trees: a gorgeous setting for what I could describe as the usual assortment of mediocre post-modern sculpture with a couple of more interesting pieces accidentally included.
Ooh! What's that smell?

Next stop was Whatcom Falls Park, where the US Government, following a previous Republican-inspired economic meltdown, built some charming improvents around a stream with a couple of waterfalls, for the employment of that generation and the enjoyment of subsequent ones.

Still in Bellingham, we drove down to the city center and walked along pleasant streets, having lunch at the Mount Bakery, a trendy (but not too trendy) small eatery featuring quiches, crepes and baked goods. I had "crepos rancheros," an excellent crepe filled with poached eggs, onions, peppers, tomatoes and a mild salsa, with a side of black bean and poblano soup. I followed it up with a nice marionberry scone (because they were out of peanut butter pie, which I really wanted). It seemed just a little overpriced, which, in this area, is probably normal.

(The Curmudgeon's ratings:
FOOD: 3 1/2 chili peppers (out of 5)
SERVICE: 3 chili peppers
AMBIENCE: 3 chili peppers
VALUE: 2 1/2 chili peppers)
Mount Bakery Cafe on Urbanspoon

After lunch, we walked across the street to the Spark Museum of Electrical Invention, a place filled with odd and rare old devices from the dawn of electricity: Tesla coils and old telephones, radios, televisions, galvanometers, and all the things used to bring mankind to the understanding we now have (some of us, anyway) of electricity and its applications. Best part of the visit was the show they put on once a day, where a man dressed as a mad scientist demonstrates (without really explaining) static electricity and the operation of a Tesla coil. He does some interesting tricks, lighting fluorescent bulbs without connecting them to anything, and putting a volunteer in a giant metal cage and running two million volts at it. Fun for kids, as much fun for grown-ups.

We took a short walk around the city center before heading back to the car and up to Big Four Mountain, east of Granite Falls. There used to be a big resort hotel there, but it burned down in the 1940s, and now it's just a part of the Mount Baker-Snohomish National Forest. So of course the entire area was beautiful, and it would have been perfect in a convertible. We found the trailhead and hiked up toward the mountain.

The mountain is called Big Four because there's a place near the top where, when most of the winter snows have melted away in the spring, snow in the shape of a numeral 4 is left in a low area for a good long while. That, though, isn't the attraction that brought us to the mountain. We were there to see the ice caves that form at the bottom of the mountain. Snow falls from the upper parts of the slopes down near-vertical cliffs that range from two to four thousand feet. It forms a large pack at the bottom, and then snowmelt running down the mountain runs in at the top and out at the bottom, forming large caverns entirely of ice. Of course, with those cliffs and that snow there's a strong likelihood of avalanches, and even now, in mid-summer, the resulting caves could collapse at any time. Somebody dies in there every ten to fifteen years, but that didn't stop a lot of people from running around in the caves with their children. It stopped us from leaving the trail, which is on slightly higher ground 100 yards or so away.... Most of us, anyway; I told myself I didn't come all that way to stand that far back and look, so I climbed down onto the talus deck and approached nearer to the caves, mentally calculating how far a total collapse of the ice would move out away from the mountain wall. (Not all that far, because there's not all that much snow and ice left at this time of year.) I stood in front of the largest cave to get a picture and to feel the alternating hot and cold breezes as winds came first off the mountainside to my right, and then out of the cave in front of me.
Big Four Ice Cave
click here to see all the pics
from the Condo Week

And that was the first day of Condo Week. On the way back we stopped for dinner (not at Subway: Buttermilk and Church Lady wanted something "more interesting") at Conway Bar & Grill, in Conway, Washington. It was about 9pm when we arrived and the place was a-jumpin'. It was karaoke night, and everybody was singing along. Loud? You betcha. Crowded? You betcha. Fun? You betcha. All the locals getting drunk -- why, oh why could I not find places like this when I was young and single and willing to sleep with anything that seemed likely to move? But the beer was cold and the food was good. The burgers were gigantic, the kind you cannot get your mouth around but can only nibble along the edges; the fries were perfectly fried and plentiful, and the service was cheerful and efficient. Prices seemed high to my South Texas sensibilities, but not too high, so I guess they're perfectly in line with what locals would expect; about $10 for a burger & fries, if memory serves. (Sometimes it does.)  All in all, a super-fun place to eat and drink on a Saturday night, and the kind of place where, I bet, if you show up twice you're as good as a local.

The Curmudgeon's ratings:
FOOD: 3 chili peppers (out of 5)
SERVICE: 3 1/2 chili peppers
AMBIENCE: 5 chili peppers
VALUE: 2 1/2 chili peppers.
Conway Pub and Eatery on Urbanspoon

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Buds & Bugs

Having only two days in Victoria, we planned around the weather. Wednesday was to have a good chance of rain, so we planned to do things in the city that would keep us indoors most of the time. It worked out well, and we hardly got wet. In fact, the threatened rain turned out to be nothing more than a slight drizzle until mid-afternoon, at which point the weather gods gave up and left us with only clouds.

Thursday was the important day, when we were to be outside almost completely. There was a slight chance of rain in the morning, but in the event it was only morning clouds, followed by a spectacular midsummer afternoon of blue skies and breezes. We spent way too long at Butchart Gardens, a fabulous botanical spot in a long-dead rich old lady's back yard quarry north of Victoria. My feet still ache from the experience.

We arrived early, shortly after their opening, and stayed until around 4pm. At that point we headed down the road a short distance to the Victoria Butterfly Garden, which was more fun than I had anticipated. When that exhibition closed, we headed across the street for dinner at a so-so family restaurant before going back to Butchart Gardens, because they were supposed to be really something to see after dark.

Ross Fountain at Butchart Gardens
Night is slow in coming this far north in mid-summer, and it was well after 8pm before you could tell that the thousands of lights around the garden were on at all. We spent most of the wait in the Japanese garden section, relaxing in a small gazebo, before venturing out into the nearly-deserted gardens. With only about an hour before closing time, all we could really see was the Ross Fountain, with a dozen or so jets of water that dance with coloured lights. People naturally compare all dancing waters to the fabulous fountain at the Bellagio, in Las Vegas, but this fountain predates those by a decade or more; and even so, the Ross Fountain is vastly more relaxing to sit and watch, surrounded as you are by extravagantly gorgeous gardens, rather than the bustle of the Strip. 

After that, we just had time to walk through the Sunken Garden on the way out.

On To Canada

First sight of Victoria
After meeting everybody at the airport, and trying to park my car in the wrong long-term lot, we finally got away. We drove up to Port Angeles, where we caught the ferry to Victoria, on Vancouver Island in British Columbia.  Cleared customs easily and located our hotel with no trouble. Victoria is a very manageable size, and though we are well out of downtown, it's only a matter of blocks from the hotel to the center of activity. We unpacked and headed out for dinner at a new English pub (because the Persian place we wanted to go to was already closed).

On our first full day, we hit all the highlights of the city: the provincial capitol building;

Miniature World; 
diorama of the battle of Bastogne

the Bug Zoo;

and Craigdarroch Castle, home of western Canada's greatest robber-baron.

We spent a good deal of time walking around, including lunch at a hot dog stand that virtually doesn't exist, and dinner at a locavore place that was pretty good. I would say more, but (a) the pictures more or less tell the entire story, and (2) I'm too tired.

I think the only thing I would particularly want to single out, that's not represented by the pictures, is the truly outstanding job done by a "floor supervisor" named Adriana at Craigdarroch Castle. Of all the employees I've encountered at any tourist site in any city on any continent, she is undoubtedly the most interesting, knowledgeable and entertaining, not to mention vivacious. What would have been a self-guided tour of perhaps an hour in an interesting old house became a truly enlightening and fascinating three hours. She's an argument in favour of human cloning: with more like her, more people would want to know more about history and architecture, and that can only be a boon to society.