A Travellerspoint blog

August 2014

The Legendary Pacific Northwest: Vancouver

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Vancouver is a fairly large city, not much smaller than Seattle, but since we only had one full day we limited ourselves to the small peninsula on the north side of the city that most people call Downtown Vancouver. The peninsula actually contains three separate areas: Downtown, the West End, and Stanley Park. Vancouver's better known attractions are heavily concentrated around Downtown. No doubt there are interesting neighborhoods in the rest of the city but we chose to go on foot only during our stay which limited us to the local area.

Driving into Vancouver was a remarkable experience because of the amazing skyline of tall glass office buildings and condos that reflect green light from the cloudy sky and the water that surrounds the peninsula. Driving over the Cambie Bridge into Downtown felt like we were entering the Emerald City from the Wizard of Oz. Our Airbnb was in a high-rise condo and our host met us on the street to guide us to the parking garage. She got in the passenger seat and Mei Ling went to the back with the kids. As we turned the first corner the host made a horrified gasp. I looked around but couldn't see anything amiss outside and asked her what was wrong. "There was someone in the crosswalk!" she said. It was true, although I had barely registered it. A woman had just stepped off the curb on the opposite side of the street from where I was turning, and she was probably thirty feet away from the minivan. It never would have occurred to me in a million years to have stopped at the crosswalk until she passed. "Drivers here would stop at a crosswalk even if someone was still on the other side of the street?" I asked. "Of course!" She seemed shocked that I would even question it. Fortunately we didn't have to drive much further to the garage so there wasn't time for me to commit any more antisocial infractions. Inside I was laughing though. If she ever found her way to New York City or even worse China she was going to get the shock of her life. If she expected turning cars to stop for her in a crosswalk there, she was going to have to be prepared for a ride on someone's hood.

The Airbnb was a spacious and clean two bedroom on an upper floor with nice views of the surrounding forest of glass high-rises. The kids quickly launched on an exploration of the new territory.

The main thing we did during our stay in Vancouver was walk around the different areas of the Downtown peninsula. We were fortunate that while it was almost always overcast in never rained while we were there. Vancouver has a very clean and pretty downtown, in no small part due to the upbeat design of the high rises. The peninsula is surrounded by water of course which means there are promenades on every side to enjoy the views over Burrard Inlet and Vancouver Harbor. Downtown is subdivided into lots of miniature neighborhoods. Yaletown on the south side is a hipster neighborhood with converted warehouse lofts, boutiques, and seafood bistros. To the north by the harbor is Gastown, a historic neighborhood with cobblestone streets, vintage street lamps, and a famous steam-powered clock on a street corner. Unlike San Diego's Gaslamp District, Gastown doesn't get its name from the street lamps (which are electric) but from a 19th century saloon owner who was nicknamed Gassy for his renowned loquaciousness.

Next to Gastown is Vancouver's small Chinatown which is most notable for the Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. The compact and tranquil garden was reminiscent of the Lan Su garden in Portland. In my opinion these beautiful and culturally rich gardens add a great deal to the cities they inhabit.

On the opposite side of the peninsula the Granville Bridge connects Downtown to Granville Island, an artificial island that was created by dredging in the early 20th century. It's more like a polyp than an actual island, being connected to the mainland by a wide isthmus. Granville Island contains a lot of mid-market shops and restaurants that are popular with tourists and locals as well as the Granville Public Market, a farmers market and food hall where we were able to self cater an excellent brunch.

The middle part of the peninsula is occupied by the West End. This neighborhood is largely residential but is traversed by the intersecting commercial thoroughfares of Robson Street and Denman Street, which are lined with boutiques and Asian restaurants. We ate at a Korean restaurant our first night that made us feel like we were in Seoul. The West End is also the center of gay culture in Vancouver and has a concentration of bars and nightclubs.

The jewel of the downtown peninsula is Stanley Park, an enormous and wild green space that occupies the entire northern half of the peninsula. The park contains gardens, beaches, and recreation areas but most of it is a natural wilderness. We felt like we were seeing Vancouver exactly as it had been before humans had ever come across it. We came across a beautiful barred owl as well as a flock of inquisitive ducks at Beaver Lake in the middle of the park. It's probably the closest to nature I've ever felt inside a major city.

We walked out of the wilderness onto the paved promenade that encircles the park. At the farthest point of the peninsula the majestic Lion's Gate suspension bridge connects Downtown to North Vancouver. We saw a few people gathered on the promenade by the bridge and realized they were watching a group of otters that had congregated on a small sandbar by the seawall. It was the first time we had ever seen otters outside of a zoo. They had no fear of their human observers and spent quite some time playing around near the seawall, at one point even climbing onto a staircase that rose from the water to the promenade.

I was really glad we had made time to explore Stanley Park because its probably the most unique feature of Vancouver. It's a very pleasant, livable city in a great location on the Pacific coast but I didn't get the same sense of a true international destination the way I did in Toronto and Montréal. We may stop by again some time in the future as a stopover on the way to Asia and that time we'll stay longer to explore the rest of the city and Vancouver Island.

Our stop in Vancouver was pretty much the end of the road trip. All that was left was the drive back to Seattle, a quick dinner, and then an early flight back to Miami. This was our first real road trip in the USA as a family and it awakened a desire to explore all the diverse regions and major cities of our fascinating country. Since then we've done trips of similar length in the Deep South, the northern Midwest, New England, Texas, and southern California and we hope to do many more. I have to say the star of this particular trip was Portland and it remains one of my favorite cities in the United States.

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:09 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

The Legendary Pacific Northwest: Seattle


When I was young I don't recall Seattle being famous for anything except rain. Then two things happened: Nirvana and Starbucks. Suddenly Seattle became an American cultural touchstone for all things related to rock music and coffee. Twenty years later some of the Seattle mania had died down but the city's allure was still somewhat out of proportion to its population rank among America's largest cities. We stayed in the International District, a small neighborhood not far from downtown. The area had formerly been known as Chinatown but the name had changed to reflect a more diverse Asian population. Our Airbnb was quite an interesting place, a three story home whose hideous dark-green siding concealed a comfortable, chic, and environmentally-conscious interior.

Pike Place Market is one of the iconic tourist attractions of Seattle. The market was created in 1907 to allow local farmers to sell their produce directly to consumers without having to use wholesalers as middlemen. The market rapidly expanded to include butchers, bakers, and restaurants. Over time the market grew so much they had to build more levels underground. Since becoming a well-known attraction, the market has pivoted to businesses that cater largely to tourists such as souvenir shops and craft kiosks. The best known stall is still the original fish market, where the staff has developed a tradition of tossing the fish to each other around the store once it has been purchased. There are always more people gathered around to film the fish tossing than there are actual customers. We scanned the prices and quickly saw there wasn't anything close to a bargain. There were a few other interesting sights at the market but we quickly grew tired of the crowds and the general artificiality of the place. I have a feeling its a pretty rare event for anyone who lives in Seattle to actually go shopping at Pike's Place.

Outside the market there was a huge line for the original Starbucks, even though it apparently isn't the original, but we couldn't have cared less anyway. The appeal of brands like Starbucks is something I'll never understand. Outside a supremely talented street musician was playing the guitar and harmonica while keeping a hula hoop twirling on his hips. It irritated the heck out of me that people were leaving the Starbucks after paying something like ten bucks for a coffee and couldn't spare a dollar for this entertaining and hardworking guy.

Pike Place is also home to one of Seattle's most unique sights, the Gum Wall. In the 1990's people began a tradition of sticking chewed gum to the outside wall of the Market Theater while they were waiting in line for shows. Eventually the multicolored wads covered the entire brick wall and tourists began to add their own sticky contributions. The year after we visited the wall was pressure washed but apparently locals and tourists immediately began to rebuild the installation.

A block away from the market the tourist crowds thin out rapidly and the downtown streets become practically empty except for numerous homeless people camped out or roaming the sidewalks. Of course homeless people are nothing new to us but downtown Seattle was remarkable for their sheer numbers as well as how many appeared to be psychotic and potentially aggressive. It seemed that as soon as we were out of earshot of one large person walking along and shouting at nobody we were coming into the range of another. There were a few fast food restaurants and shops around but I didn't see anyone inside. It's kind of hard to imagine how any business could survive in that kind of environment.

Our next stop was the Broadway Farmers Market in Capitol Hill, a neighborhood in central Seattle well-known for ethnic diversity and gay culture. The market was decent but not on the level of the best ones we'd seen in Portland. Afterwards we walked up Broadway and had a really good lunch in a Nepalese restaurant, the first one I could remember eating at. We also stopped by the iconic drag bar Julia's for a show, where Cleo got a big kick out of handing tips to the performers.

On the other side of the canal that connects Puget Sound to Lake Washington is the neighborhood of Fremont which has a historic reputation for being a home for artists and countercultural types. Underneath the Aurora Bridge that connects Fremont to the Queen Anne neighborhood is an enormous concrete statue of a troll crushing a Volkswagen in his fist. The Fremont Troll was constructed in 1990 as a protest against the commercialization of the neighborhood that was squeezing out the artists. It was quite creepy and we were glad we'd made it to the troll while it was still broad daylight.

Our Airbnb had a pretty awesome kitchen so that evening we drove into the southern reaches of Seattle to shop at a huge Asian supermarket. We found a pretty awesome selection of seafood including amazingly cheap Dungeness crabs. It was too late too cook so instead we ate at a Vietnamese restaurant where I impressed Cleo by pretending to sneeze out a rubber toy I'd bought for her in a vending machine.

Besides Pike's Place Market, the Seattle feature that most people can identify is the Space Needle. Constructed for the 1962 World's Fair, the 605 foot tower has since welcomed over 60 million visitors. We made the obligatory ascent to the flying saucer at the top and checked out the panoramic views of the city and the bodies of water that surround it.

Adjacent to the Space Needle is Chihuly Garden and Glass, a permanent exhibition of the glass sculpture of Washington native Dale Chihuly. Chihuly is recognized as one of the most skilled and influential glass sculptors in the world and his work is strongly influenced by flowers and plant life. Besides the indoor gallery there is a large garden outside the exhibition hall which is filled with vivid sculptures that are evocative of plant life as it may have developed on other planets.

There are several other museums and recreational facilities in the Seattle Center including a children's museum, but it was already well into the afternoon and Mei Ling wanted to start on our home cooked meal. Besides the crabs and halibut we had bought the previous night at the supermarket we had fertilized chicken eggs, which I had eaten before in China. Some people are familiar with the Filipino version which is known as balut. Mei Ling prepared a delicious and healthy feast that was by far the best meal we had in Seattle.

The next morning we took our leave of Seattle. Our first stop was an arts festival in the suburb of Bellevue on the other side of Lake Washington. It was the first sunny day since we'd arrived in Washington and the outdoor festival was a perfect place to be. I've always loved the experience of going from stall to stall never knowing when I'll come across a artistic creation that blows me away. There was also sidewalk chalk for Cleo to play with and a fountain to help her wash away the summer heat and chalk dust. In the distance I could see a rather odd cloud that was shaped like a pyramid. With a start I realized that I was actually looking at the snowcapped peak of an enormous mountain. We had never seen Mt. Rainier in Seattle due to the cloudy weather. From Bellevue it looked almost surreal, a white pyramid floating high in the air while the lower part of the mountain was invisible against the background.

Half an hour west of Bellevue is Snoqualmie Falls, a powerful 268 foot waterfall with a clear view from an observation deck. The surrounding valley is filled with farms and hiking trails and is one of many pleasant getaways within an hour of Seattle.

The fractured northwestern coast of Washington is filled with inlets and islands that are reminiscent of the fjords of Norway. If we had had more time we could have explored the Olympic Peninsula, but I didn't regret using that time to visit Portland instead. I considered taking the short ferry to Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound on the way north to Vancouver but ultimately decided not to risk a late arrival. The island has a reputation for being quite scenic and full of wineries so perhaps we'll find our way there some time in the future. We did find one cute roadside market when we pulled off the highway for gas and loaded up on berries one last time before crossing into Canada.

At this point there was nothing left to do except get back on the interstate to Vancouver. The day we left Seattle had been our best day in Washington. The city had been a marked letdown after the incredible experience in Portland, so we were very glad we hadn't limited our vacation to Seattle as originally planned. Seattle may be a great place to live for all I know, but I really can't recommend it for a family trip and we'll probably never go back. All the things that we travel to experience like a vibrant ethnic culture, beautiful neighborhoods, authentic markets, and interesting architecture were nowhere to be seen. Downtown was a scary, deserted wasteland. Afterwards I wondered if we might have missed something about the city, but every time I've seen any article praising Seattle since then it always dwells on the Pike Place Market and the Space Needle. As far as I'm concerned those are two tourist traps that we could have done without. We still enjoyed ourselves, of course, but I can't imagine what we would have done if we'd had to fill up another day in the city.

Posted by zzlangerhans 06:08 Archived in USA Comments (0)

The Legendary Pacific Northwest: Oregon Wine Country

On Friday morning we had one last amazing Portland brunch and then set off for Sauvie Island, a huge island at the fork of the Columbia and Willamette rivers just northeast of Portland. The island is filled with lakes, trails and beaches but our destination was one of the many private farms offering pick-your-own berries. We already knew from the farmers markets that it was the height of the season for blackberries and raspberries but we were still blown away by the enormous volume of fruit on the vines. Ian was still too small to do much but Cleo immediately got into the excitement of filling her basket and turning raspberries into hats for her fingers.

No one would mistake the Willamette Valley wine country for Napa but it is regarded as one of the best areas in the world for Pinot Noir. Despite the absence of ostentatious chateaux and Michelin-starred restaurants, this wine region less than an hour from downtown Portland provides beautiful landscapes and warm hospitality. We had the winery we visited to ourselves and sipped Pinot Noir while admiring the rolling hills carpeted with grape vines and grazing land. Our bed and breakfast was a colonial style farmhouse that wouldn't have been out of place in New England.

After a filling breakfast we drove back to Portland for the Portland Saturday Market. This high energy outdoor market on the bank of the Willamette River was a showplace for a great collection of local artists and craftspeople and also had a live band and plenty of food. As usual, Cleo didn't mind at all being the only one dancing and the band made it clear how much they appreciated her.

We'd been north to Sauvie Island and south to Oregon wine country, so the only thing left to do was drive west to the Columbia River Gorge. A scenic road called the Historic Columbia River Highway took us on a winding path through the hills and evergreen forests overlooking the majestic Columbia River. The highway is dotted with trailheads that penetrate deep into the Mt. Hood National Forest and offer access to a number of beautiful waterfalls. We weren't about to set off on any hikes with the two little ones and the nanny so we contented ourselves with a view of the only waterfall that was right beside the highway.

Thoroughly amazed and satisfied with Portland, we set a course north to Seattle. After the last three days I couldn't help wondering why Portland isn't more recognized as one of America's most attractive destinations. With a population under two million, Portland's urban area isn't even one of the twenty largest in the country yet it has more to offer travelers than almost any American city other than New York City or Los Angeles.

1. Cool downtown with riverside park, food truck culture, beautiful Chinese garden
2. Vibrant food scene with many high quality bistros, ethnic restaurants, and gourmet brunch seven days a week
3. Awesome art scene with galleries and art walks in the Pearl and on Alberta Street
4. Immediate proximity to Columbia River Gorge and several state forests with fishing, winter and water sports, and one of America's iconic mountains
5. Washington Park with Japanese Garden, Rose Test Garden, and hiking trails
6. Portland Saturday market
7. Friendly and eclectic natives who don't feel bound by mainstream cultural trends
8. Willamette Valley wine country
9. Great farmers markets with excellent local fruit and produce
10. General upbeat, positive vibe with no depressed or decrepit areas near the central city area.

If all that isn't impressive, Portlanders are just an hour away from the Pacific coast and beaches. It's enough to make one wonder if there's any downside to living in Portland. I couldn't think of one so I started doing a little online research. It turns out people's main complaints are the frequent and heavy rains, high cost of living, traffic, and the steep Oregon state tax. The main issue for me would probably be the state tax since Florida doesn't have one, and after that the weather. Miami gets plenty of rain in the summer and fall but it seems that Portland is on a whole other level during the fall and winter. We were there in July and had beautiful temperate weather without a drop of rain to be seen, which may have biased us a little. In the end we decided that we weren't really so bored with Miami that we needed to transplant ourselves across the country, but six years later we still miss Portland and are looking forward to going back for another taste as soon as we can. One of the best things about traveling is the opportunity to discover unheralded cities that are secretly beautiful and magical, and Portland had proven to be an unexpected epiphany.

Posted by zzlangerhans 05:39 Archived in USA Comments (0)

The Legendary Pacific Northwest: Portland

The best travel year of our lives was 2014. We only had two kids then, and they were so young that we didn't need to time our travel with their school vacations. My work schedule was flexible as always and it seemed like every trip we took was better than the last one. We would start planning the next trip within a couple of days after returning from the previous one. I thought we should take a short trip in July and Seattle seemed to be a good choice. I hadn't been there since I was a kid and couldn't remember it at all. Seattle has a reputation for having a unique character among the second tier American cities, kind of like New Orleans or Miami. I thought about five days would do the trick, but then Mei Ling got the idea to drive across the Canadian border to visit Vancouver. Once we started thinking of it as a road trip, it seemed that we should check out Portland as well given that all three cities were just a few hours apart. We brought our nanny with us so that we'd be able to visit some high end restaurants without the babies.

It made the most sense to fly into Portland. To avoid the added expense of renting our minivan from the airport location we took a cab across the Columbia River to Washington State. The town where we picked up the car was also called Vancouver, funnily enough. We drove back to Portland and found ourselves at a chic Airbnb in one of the city's more upscale and modern neighborhoods, the Pearl District. Like many of the most desirable neighborhoods in American cities, the Pearl is a formerly blighted area of warehouses and rail yards that has been transformed into a vibrant neighborhood of lofts, high-rise condominiums, art galleries, and bistros. Our Airbnb was the quintessential loft conversion with a concrete floor and exposed pipes. The neighborhood vibe was amazing with block after block of attractive brick homes, cafes, and boutiques. In the center of the Pearl is Jamison Square, a small park with a fountain and a waterfall that is always full of kids escaping from the summer heat.

One of the first things I do when I research a city is to make a list of the farmers markets. Most of the time there are a few on the weekends and one or two during the week. In Portland I found four just on Wednesday. Once we'd had breakfast in the Pearl we decided to make the rest of the morning about farmers markets. On the way downtown we passed by Providence Park, the home of Portland's soccer team and a huge bronze sculpture of a man's smiling face.

The Portland Farmers Market was the first and best of the markets we visited that day. It was held in the north end of Shemanski Park, a one block wide string of green space that extends for about ten blocks in downtown Portland. We were really impressed by the quality of the produce, especially the berries. The blackberries and raspberries were among the biggest and sweetest we've ever tasted. There was a lot of variety and a great vibe, so we continued to be pretty impressed with our first day in Portland.

Continuing eastward through the downtown area we eventually found ourselves at the waterfront park on the west bank the Willamette River. Here we found another fountain to cool off in. Cleo didn't think she should be the only one soaked from head to toe so she tried to push me in.

We headed back inland a few blocks and found a large grouping of food trucks on Southwest Third Avenue where we got a decent lunch and enjoyed the rhythms of lunchtime activity in downtown Portland. The vibe of the area was really energetic and positive, a sharp contrast to the depressed and grimy downtown of our home city of Miami.

We kept working our way up north, passing by a long line of people outside of Voodoo Doughnut. Whatever voodoo spell induces tourists to line up for hours outside a doughnut shop didn't seem to have any effect on us. Eventually we reached the Lan Su Chinese Garden which was a much better way to spend the afternoon. This was the most authentic version we'd seen outside of China, which wasn't surprising considering it was designed by artisans from the Chinese water city of Suzhou.

By now we were close to our Airbnb in the Pearl, so we retrieved our car and drove across the Willamette to the east side where there was another farmer's market, quite a bit smaller than the first. We were still full from the food trucks but we loaded up on balloon animals for Cleo and then headed over to Northeast Alberta Street, a long stretch of art galleries and inexpensive ethnic restaurants in Portland's northern reaches. We had dinner at a Thai place and then returned to the Pearl. We had expected Portland to be pleasant but we'd been blown away by our first day. The neighborhoods, the farmers markets, downtown, the garden, the fountains - we'd couldn't remember seeing so much fun and interesting stuff in one city before. We were mystified why Portland doesn't really get any buzz when people talk about American cities, but we were glad to have stumbled upon it.

Our first full day in Portland was a tough act to follow, but our second day held up pretty well. We started the day with brunch, which is almost a religious meal in Portland. Seven days a week people line up outside their favorite brunch restaurants before they open as the best ones rarely take reservations. The variety of menu options and the level of cuisine at the places we chose was comparable to dinner at an upscale restaurant.

On the western edge of Portland, where the city grid gives way to the hilly suburbs, is an enormous park which houses a cornucopia of gardens, memorials, and hiking trails as well as the Portland Zoo. The International Rose Test Garden was created during World War I to provide a safe haven for the different varieties of roses that risked obliteration by the land war in Europe. Portland was already known for its ideal conditions for rose growth, and the garden has since become one of the world's foremost testing grounds for new rose varieties. You don't need to be a horticulturalist to appreciate the acres of colorful and fragrant rose gardens in a beautiful and natural setting. Not far from the rose gardens is Portland's Japanese Garden, which was the equal of the Lan Su Chinese Garden in beauty and authenticity. Afterwards we treated the kids to a couple of hours at the zoo which was just a few minutes drive away.

One of the unique Portland places I uncovered in my travel research is the Freakybuttrue Peculiarium. This kind of idiosyncratic curiosity shop seems to be unique to the United States, but unfortunately there's nothing like it in Miami as far as I know. Located in the funky Slabtown neighborhood northwest of the Pearl, the Peculiarium has been freaking out visitors since 1967. Even if we'd missed the sandwich board in front of the establishment, we probably wouldn't have walked past the zombie in the wheelchair on the sidewalk. Inside the displays ranged from an autopsy conducted by aliens to an enormous yeti. We made sure not to leave without picking up a couple of the scorpion lollipops.

There was one more farmers market that afternoon for us to get our fix of huge, succulent Oregon berries before we headed downtown for dinner. In two days Portland had absolutely blown us away. We haven't been to many places that got us seriously thinking about the logistics of pulling up stakes in Miami and moving in but Portland is probably the most attractive alternative we've ever found to our home city.

Posted by zzlangerhans 09:51 Archived in USA Comments (0)