Saturday, August 9, 2014

End of the End of the Road

There is a reason why they call it "The Grand Canyon":

We arrived at the North Rim on a foggy, drizzly morning, and even in those conditions it was a magnificent spectacle. It was too early to check into the lodge, so we drove up the road to the few viewpoints accessible by car: Imperial Point, Roosevelt Point, Cape Final, Vista Encantada. We stared off into the distance, as the fog rose and fell, toward hoodoos and mesas and great piles of eroded rocks, things with romantic names like Jupiter's Temple and Freya Castle, and we were amazed.

 Eventually the fog lifted, and we were amazed again. Words fail me.
The Colorado River used to run red. Since the dams built across it above the Canyon, it's now a mundane shade of greenish-brown for most of the year.
While we were there, we took a hike along the Widforss Trail, which goes west from the road along the rim of the canyon to join with another trail near an overlook at the top end of Transept Canyon.
This formation is called a "temple."
Transept Canyon
When the fog lifted

To see the rest of the pictures from the Canyon, click here.

Beginning of the End of the Road

What that means
Our last day in the condo in Birch Bay was a quiet one; I went up into the town, such as it is, to have lunch with the Church Lady and the Perfesser (Buttermilk didn't want to go). We picked a place called CJ's Beach House, with a deck overlooking the bay; we chose it just because of that deck, and because, well, there aren't a whole lot of options in the little shoreline community of Birch Bay. As it happened, the place wasn't bad. The food was good with the exception of the shrimp used to top the seafood salad; they were small, cold, limp cocktail shrimp, so if I were to ever go back I'd order something else. But the service was very good and the ambience, featuring the bay across the road (with almost no traffic), was superior.
CJ's Beach House on Urbanspoon

After that, we went back and fetched Buttermilk and forced her to indulge in some ice cream from the C-Store in town, then dragged her up to the little miniature golf place for a round. (I won't mention who won; I've already taken all the bows I'm going to take.)

In the evening, the Perfesser mentioned that he wanted to try something called a "poutine," which we had seen on menus in a number of places. It was described as french fries covered with sausage gravy, and he thought, repulsive as that sounded, that we ought to at least try it. After all, we wouldn't go to Delaware and not try scrapple, would we? We recalled, perhaps incorrectly, that Bob's Burgers & Brew in Ferndale had had it on their menu, so we went to the Bob's location in Birch Bay ... which didn't have it. Not only did they not offer it, the hostess wasn't entirely sure what it was. "Is that that Canadian thing with the gravy? Yeah, we don't have that." Ah, well, so we have at least one thing in Canada to look forward to besides the 2015 Women's World Cup.

What that means
(The Birch Bay location of Bob's Burgers & Brew was nothing special: I opted for a New York steak, which was a mediocre cut served slightly overcooked and, all things considered, slightly overpriced by local standards, and, it naturally follows, grossly offensive to the sense of value honed in south Texas.)
Bob's Burgers & Brew on Urbanspoon

Then it was back to the condo for a last round of margaritas.

Morning comes, and off we go. On the way down to Sea-Tac, we stopped off at Burlington in response to the powerful and ineluctable call of Lafeen's Donuts. This time, it looked like hundreds of people had read and believed my previous post, as the display cases were stripped nearly bare. I could not, therefore, get an exquisitely light French cruller, nor a thick, fruity apple fritter; but had to settle, regrette rien, for a chocolate-dipped old fashioned doughnut and a blueberry fritter. (It's been almost a week and writing this makes me think of contacting them to enquire about a care package.)

Then it was down to the long-term parking where I'd stored my little convertible during the Group Tour. A quick goodbye to Church Lady and the Perfesser (because by now the rental charges on the anemic Rogue were accruing hourly), then throw our stuff in the Roller Skate, and we're off for home, the long way.

The first order of business was lunch, which we had at Las Palmas, a Salvadoran restaurant just down the street from the parking lot, where I had eaten a pretty good breakfast two Sundays before. Salvadoran food is similar in many ways to Mexican food, of course, but with a tropical twist that makes it identifiably different, certainly from the Tex-Mex variety that's so common in my home town, and from the more exotic varieties that are available in many places in south Texas. My own experience with Salvadoran restaurants back home is limited -- I can only think of two that I've been to, though I've been also to Honduran and Costa Rican restaurants, which I think are indistinguishable in any meaningful way from Salvadoran cuisine.

What that means
Our lunch wasn't quite as good as that breakfast, but it wasn't bad. I had a spinach papusa and a papusa revuelta (if memory serves): beans, beef and cheese on a thick, pillowy tortilla. Both were ordinary-good, neither was exceptional in any way. Overall the place was good enough to recommend but not good enough to recommend heartily ... except that it was cheap. And when I compare the prices I've seen around Seattle to the prices I'm used to around San Antonio, I think Las Palmas is an excellent place for lunch.
Las Palmas Restaurant on Urbanspoon
By the time we got to the freeway after lunch, we had discerned that the air-conditioning in the car wasn't working. That's not a big deal, I suppose, in Seattle, even in August, but we had six days in the desert southwest ahead of us. In fact, the drive across eastern Washington was looking like it would be hellish. But first, we decided on a stop at Snoqualmie Falls, it being a beautifully clear day, and much cooler up in the mountains.

After all the build-up to Snoqualmie Falls -- it was on the list of Things To See four years ago, and again two weekends before, and I never managed to get up there -- you would think a curmudgeon like me would have been disappointed. I wasn't. It is a beautiful waterfall, in a nice setting, with a pleasant lodge above it and not really all that many people for a magnificent summer Friday near a big city. In fact, I wish it had been another day, when I didn't have to get back in the car and head on down the road. It would've been real nice to have spent more time there.

We drove, top down, across eastern Washington. Boy, was that a mistake. Generally, my rule is this: if it's not raining, the top will be down if the temperature is more than 70 and less than 94; between 55 and 70, and between 94 and 97, it depends on other factors; but at 55 or less, and 97 or more, the top will be up. But then, I usually have air conditioning. Not this time, so I left the top down even though it got to 103, and nary a cloud in the sky. (Some smoke from the continuing wildfires, but that hardly qualifies as the silver lining in that particular cloud.)  So when we pulled into Baker City, Oregon, we were a little crispy around the edges. (After that, no matter the temperature, if the sun was up, so was the top.)

Baker City is a charming little community in eastern Oregon, once a stop on the Oregon Trail, later
Geiser Grand Hotel
and still a center for local agriculture. In the 1880s, it was prosperous enough to have a landmark hotel, the Geiser Grand, which was renovated about 20 years ago and returned to its former glory. I don't usually stay in such luxury, being too cheap to throw much money at a place to be unconscious; but every now and then I like to splurge, and in all honesty it wasn't really that much -- about what you'd expect to pay in a Hilton Garden Inn (which I'd never stay in, given a choice) or a Marriott. For the price we got an elegant room with a king-sized bed, a 14-foot ceiling and huge bathroom. The kind of hotel where they have embroidered bathrobes hanging there for your use. Not quite the Plaza, but beats the hell out of any Hilton Garden Inn.  Outstanding service, too, except in the bar.

twilight in Baker City
It was just coming sunset when we arrived, and it was First Friday, when this surprisingly arty little town has its monthly gallery walk. There were rumblings of distant thunder and not many people on the streets, but the several galleries in the town's Historical District around our hotel had a number of patrons in them, and enough interesting artworks visible through large windows that I would have been happy to browse among for a few hours -- but it was already pretty late and we were hot and tired and in need of a drink, so we passed on all the galleries and just strolled down to the one tall building in town, around that block to the courthouse, and back to the hotel bar. Then we retired to our room and slept the sleep of the exhausted cattle baron.

compare this to May 2013
We had no specific plans for the next day, except to get to Panguitch, Utah, so as to be within striking distance of the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. That didn't stop us, though, from taking time to see Shoshone Falls, in Twin Falls, Idaho. I had been there a year ago on the Western Circuit (an excellent trip that, I'm surprised to discover, I wrote nothing about; though I posted lots of pictures), and was as impressed as any yokel by the massive amount of water cascading over the cliff. That was in May, though; in August, it's not quite the same experience. Still nice, pretty, unexpected in such a desert, but not awesome.

There aren't a whole lot of towns in Utah south of Salt Lake, but Panguitch, a town I stayed in with a friend a couple of years ago, is a pleasant little town with almost all the motels in Southern Utah (it being 20 miles from Bryce Canyon and close also to Zion National Park, Cedar Breaks, Grand Staircase-Escalante, Capitol Reef, and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon). It also has one good restaurant, the Cowboy's Smoke House. (Don't get the brisket; it was dry two years ago and is still dry, but the sausage is very good and the pulled pork is outstanding. So is the service. The prices are reasonable but they only take cash. They're open, and packed, until 10.)
Cowboy's Smoke House on Urbanspoon

What that means
In the morning, we headed for the Grand Canyon. We had breakfast at the unexpected Bäkerei Forscher in Orderville, Utah. What is a high-quality German bakery doing out in the rural wilds of the Colorado Plateau? Well, obviously, they're doing a successful business, judging from (a) the big, clean, sparkling new building beside the highway and (b) the display cases that looked like everyone in Utah had been there that morning before us. From what was left, Buttermilk had a nice rhubarb streuseltaler, moist with a nice crunchy topping; while I had a vanileshiffen, which had a very good cream filling inside a slightly dry bread shell (which made it perfect for dunking). The prices were not as high as at similar snooty bakeries back home. The counter help, which may or may not have been German, was a little vague in replies to my enquiries about their offerings, so I gave up. (Besides, I didn't really want to know about the pastries, I wanted to eat them.)

Forscher German Bakery on Urbanspoon

(This is getting too long for most people to bother with reading, so I'll break it off here and continue it on another post.)

Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Nice Place to Live, But I Wouldn't Want to Visit There

After a day off from touristic pursuits (to do laundry, shop and watch a soccer match on TV), we took a day trip up to Vancouver, British Columbia. We drove inland to the border crossing north of Lynden, Washington (where there was no delay to get across) and went by the set of the current television show "Bates Motel," which airs on some cable channel. (We had thought it was the set of the movie Psycho when we planned the excursion, not having carefully read the place description on line.) Then we headed into the city.

Let me pause here for a brief product review. Our anemic rented Nissan Rogue comes with a GPS Navigation system proprietary to Hertz Car Rental. I would not have thought it possible that I could be persuaded that the ancient first-gen navigator on my own convertible was anything but the most annoying and tedious piece of vintage technology. Now I know better. Hertz's "NeverLost" machine, like my ancient navigator, seems not to know about many roads built in the last 15 years. My machine has the excuse that its information comes to it on old DVDs; but Hertz's is constantly updated. (We know this because every now and then it would announce that it has been updated.) 

Hertz's NeverLost device is slow to respond to input on its touchscreen. You put in a letter (having to spell everything) and it registers, but you don't know that it registers so you put it in again, and then it responds. Twice. So you have to back up. That usually involves starting over. Sometimes you touch one character and it registers a different one; and you have to back up. Or start over. And even more irritating is that the device will not allow you to orient the map with north at the top (unless you zoom out so far as to make the map pointless); it insists on having the direction of travel at the top, so the map is always rotating and you can't tell at a glance if you're going the way you want (and many times, you aren't). Most irritating of all is that the machine won't simply show you a map of where you are; it will only show programmed routes. Given the slowness of the machine, and its failure to deal well with missed turns and changed plans, it is all but useless in tight city driving; of which there is plenty in a place like Vancouver. 

(I also get irked at the crass commerciality of the system. It takes a long time to come on every time you start the car, at least in part so that it can give you options of finding "Popular Chains" -- outlets for companies that have paid Hertz for advertising; and its "Explore" option lists only the few half-assed tourist destinations that, similarly, have paid for the privilege of being represented. If Hertz had its customers' interests anywhere in the forward part of its collective corporate mind, it would at least show the destinations clients might actually want to explore ... like Stanley Park or the Queen Elizabeth Gardens. But there's no direct money in customer satifaction, is there?)

Vancouver skyline
After a long (and unnecessary) wander through city streets (thanks to the NeverLost Navigator's inexplicable routings), we finally gave up on technology and just went to the freeway into Vancouver. Our first stop was Queen Elizabeth Gardens, which occupy the highest point in Vancouver and have both beautiful landscaping and excellent views over the city. We spent the better part of an hour up there, then drove into the heart of the city. (Using printed maps for navigation, we got where we wanted to go with only the normal traffic troubles.) By this time we all wanted lunch, so we parked on a sidestreet near a corner where we were offered the choices of Greek, Thai, Vietnamese and Irish-Pub cuisines. We did not choose wisely. The first three were all storefronts, mom-and-pop places; the Irish Pub, Cieli's, was large and a little upscale, just to the point of being flashy. We chose the Irish Pub, part (it turns out) of a chain of such places.

The bartender greeted us cheerfully, and then was never seen again. It being another gorgeous day, we wanted to sit outside, but they only had two-tops there, so we pulled up to a high table just inside the wide open doors. Naturally there were televisions all over the place, so we couldn't entirely avoid watching; but at least they were showing British sports, such as you might have to see in an Irish prison: darts on one screen, golf on the other. (Darts, it seems, is as abstruse as cricket. Scores seem to go up and down at random, and we couldn't tell just by watching whether a throw was good, or otherwise.) Our waitress brought menus and drinks quickly. So far, so good.

The menu includes such overpriced traditional Irish fare as sliders, flatbreads and nachos. These are the things we ordered. (As Hispanics have moved farther and farther north, I have more or less rescinded my rule against eating Mexican food north of Round Rock, but then, this wasn't really Mexican food. Let's call it cucina-inspired.) Church Lady and the Perfesser both went for the pulled-pork sliders. They report that the little burgers had good flavour but not a particularly good texture, neither moist nor dry, just vaguely unsatisfying: too little meat, too little slaw, too much bread.  "Disappointing" was the word used twice.

Buttermilk's flatbread was better. It had a topping of pulled pork with pineapple salsa and jalapeños on a crispy layer of bread. The topping was adequate in quantity, though more meat would have been unobjectionable, and the crust maintained its integrity throughout the meal.

My nachos were interesting. They were made from a number of small tortillas, cut in half and fried, then stacked in a jumble on a plate. Toppings of meat (pulled pork again), corn, onions, peppers and jalapeños were scattered across it, then dosed with a drizzle of sour cream. The menu referred to "lots of cheese" on the dish. There was, arguably, the promised amount of cheese, but it was mostly in one part of the plate, as though the arm doing the scattering of ingredients had tired towards the end and just abandoned the effort. Because of the interlacing of the nacho chips, the dish was a little hard to eat, but that produced the rare yet desireable result of allowing me to finish lunch after the Perfesser, who is reknowned for his deliberate approach to meals.

What does that mean?
We almost didn't learn any of this about the food at Cielli's, because the service was so very bad. (I was reminded of a rude comment of a friend, years ago in Mexico, who told a waiter that we had received lo mas pinche servicio. It would have applied here, but we were all too polite to express ourselves except through the gratuity. We did not get our food before we had reached the point of calculating how much we should leave for the drinks if we walked out. It was easily a half hour between ordering and serving, during which time we learned nothing about darts scoring either. It would have helped our mood, to say nothing of the tip, if our waitress had come by to check on us during that long wait, or to let us know there would be a delay. Instead, she studiously avoided so much as looking in our direction; she devoted herself to the farther sides of the room, the exterior tables, and the areas behind the kitchen door. She was not a good waitress.
Ceili's Modern Irish Pub on Urbanspoon

pretty building, not much inside
After lunch came another disappointment: we went to the MacMillan Space Center. At ten bucks a head (the senior rate) for the admission, plus $5.75 a head for the planetarium show, we were expecting significantly more. But then, we're all grown-ups, and this place is clearly aimed at ten-year-olds with a reasonable vocabulary; a fact we think should have been mentioned in the descriptions on line and in our guidebooks. The exhibit halls, which are not extensive, contain some photographs and video recordings relating to space flight, along with a number of hands-on exhibits that have suffered much from having too many hands on. 

The planetarium show was just okay. The people behind it seem to be too enthralled with their new equipment to consider in any depth what people, especially grown people such as their audience, might like to see; and the gradeschool questions thrown out for the audience ("What do you know about Mars?") were tired and uninteresting, as well as being largely ignored by the sparse crowd. (I finally started responding just to get the show moving.) 

We went from there out to Stanley Park. Let me tell you, Vancouver is not a city with a happy relationship with cars. At 3:00 on a weekday, you expect a certain amount of traffic in the center of any large city, but Vancouver has given itself over entirely to pedestrians and bicycles, to the point where lines of cars waiting to turn right -- right, mind you -- stretch back for blocks, because only one car can get through the throng of the crosswalks on each signal's cycle. They seem also to randomly select streets to serve as pedestrian malls. In the end it took us about 45 minutes to go the 4 1/2 kilometers (2 1/2 miles) from the space place to Stanley Park. 

Stanley Park is huge, and popular with locals. For tourists, it's not so great. It's so big that you can't walk from one part to another without repeatedly paying the typical exorbitant parking rates. It's so poorly marked that we didn't find the many sites we had wanted to see there, settling in the end for the wildlife of the Lost Lagoon (which we found right off; I guess it's only lost because nobody's looking for it, and I understand why), consisting of lots of racoons and ducks, a few other birds, a squirrel and -- surprisingly -- a coyote; all of whom seemed to want to be fed (except, thankfully, the coyote, which was happy to just chew on himself); and the waterfront view of the Lions Gate Bridge, mainly of interest for the forest of kelp floating along the shore. On our way out of the park, we passed Sunset Beach, which we had intended to visit later on because our guidebook called it "a less populated beach." That must mean it is less crowded than Times Square on New Year's Eve, because it was packed four hours before sunset. We quietly dropped that plan and headed on to Canada Place, which was mildly interesting and slightly informative with its postings on Canadian history; and we drove by the Gastown Steam Clock --- it was too congested to stop, but we got a good long look and a decent picture out the car window while waiting for crosstraffic; we had a stop sign, they didn't.

From there we headed up to Lynn Canyon, a public park on the far side of the Burrard Inlet, in North Vancouver. We spent a happy couple of hours traipsing up and down the trails and across the suspension bridge rigged over the creek.

By then it was time for dinner. I had located -- on, a trip-planning website that I heartily recommend -- a strip of local shops, clubs and restaurants on Commercial Drive, and we headed down there, parked, and explored the area on foot. It is, as described, a collection of funky bars and clubs, many with live music; ethnic restaurants; and shops featuring all manner of oddities. As the neighbourhood evolved from Italian to ethno-mix, big chains have made some unwelcome inroads; there's a Starbucks and a Tim Horton's, and more necessary installations like banks and pharmacies. But it still maintains a unique localist vibe that we enjoyed experiencing, even so briefly. We chose an Italian restaurant called Arriva, which had a sort of faded-glory feel overall. The service was on the Little-Italy-New-Yawk model: cadre-style, professional and just a little sassy. It was good for the most part, but one of the three servers seemed to have acquired the knack of appearing to give good service while not actually doing anything. When we asked for another basket of bread his response was, "Absolutely, but it'll be just a moment." It never came, until we asked another server for the same thing. (His response was, "Absolutely. Immediately." And he brought it.) The food came quickly enough to please us (especially after the godawful service we'd had at lunch; see above) and we tucked into spinach tortellini, sole florentine, and ravioli. 

What does that mean?
I didn't try the ravioli, so I can only say that it reportedly was very good. I did try the tortellini alla panna and can confirm that it was excellently made, robust and excellently seasoned with a rich cream sauce. I had the sole florentine, one of the day's specials: a filet of sole cooked in white wine until just the slightest crispiness began to form along the edge, then topped with spinach wilted with sautéed garlic in a white wine reduction. It was nicely presented with roasted potato quarters and crunchy-crisp sautéed vegetables. A glass of house white wine was an excellent accompaniment. Really, the only thing about the food that was the least bit below standard was that bread, a reasonably fresh focaccia with a lightly oiled texture on top but just the slightest dryness overall. Hardly worth mentioning, but I can't resist grousing about something. Not entirely.
Arriva Ristorante Italiano on Urbanspoon

What's that mean?
We followed this up with a stop for gelati at Caffe Calabria, which calls itself the oldest Italian cafe in Vancouver. Who knows? Who cares. What I know is it has a tremendous display of Italian deli items, gelati, and baked goods. Oh, the baked goods! How hard was it to resist those! But I did, and settled for a double-scoop of the gelato tornado, which the counter clerk thought of as being like cotton candy. Other than being very sweet, it was nothing like cotton candy. It was indescribable. It was fabulous. It was rich, and luscious; it was the Jennifer Lawrence of gelato. (The Tiger Tiger, an orange and licorice flavour, was also very good, and that from someone who doesn't like licorice.) The gelati at Caffe Calabria have the additional distinction of being just about the only thing we found in all of Vancouver that we didn't consider overpriced.
Caffe Calabria on Urbanspoon

In the end, our day in Vancouver was nice, putting aside the delay getting back across the border at Blaine. But the high prices, the heavy traffic congestion, the difficulty in getting around in the central part of town make me confident that I'm unlikely to ever return. The border-crossing issues all but ensures that.