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The Legendary Pacific Northwest: Seattle

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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

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

Rocky Mountain Highs: Steamboat Springs


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Since it was the kids' first real winter vacation I crammed as many outdoor activities as I could on the way to Steamboat Springs, expense be damned. First up was snow tubing at Frisco Adventure Park. I had booked our time slot well in advance of the trip, which was fortunate because when we arrived we found the lodge completely packed and the day had been completely sold out. The sleds were large inflatable tubes with canvas floors that the kids could sit inside. There was a magic carpet lift up to the top of the hill where we linked up our tubes and then flew down the slope with a push from the attendant. It was the perfect speed to thrill our kids. Cleo felt a little sick from the altitude since we were now at 9000 feet, but she managed to get past it and enjoy a few runs.
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We had to hightail it back east to make our scheduled departure on the Georgetown Loop Railroad. I had hesitated to put this on our itinerary due to mixed reviews but in the end decided we had nothing to lose since there wasn't anything else to do at night in the area. Georgetown was a very cute and rustic town that was originally a mining camp. The railroad itself was kind of a bust. Our car was super crowded and the Christmas light displays outside were mediocre. The ride was far too long as well, forty-five minutes. The kids on the train were either too young to know where they were or old enough to be bored after twenty minutes. Cleo spent most of the last half of the ride asking me how much longer until we were done. The buffoonish Christmas Carol skit in the middle of the ride wasn't much better than staring out the window. When we disembarked from the train at the top of the windy hill, it was the coldest we'd been on the trip so far.
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There was no shortage of restaurants in Georgetown and we got a hearty dinner of pho before we drove to our motel in Idaho Springs and settled in for the night. Idaho Springs was another picturesque mountain town with a strip of hotels along the highway and a main street crafted for tourism. We were efficient enough getting out of the motel that we could grab a hasty but hearty breakfast before getting on the road.
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We were just 39 miles from our snowmobiling site in Fraser which seemed like it would have been an easy distance to cover in an hour and a half, but we barely made it. Soon after we exited the interstate onto Route 40, the road began a steep ascent into the mountains that was marked by sharp hairpin turns on unplowed asphalt. Fortunately it had already been two days since the snow fell and cars had left tracks that we could follow without getting into the slush. The snow-covered mountains and evergreens around us were beautiful, to the extent that I could take my gaze off the center of the road. At one point we even saw a good-sized avalanche taking place across the valley from the highway.
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We made it to the snowmobiling location in the nick of time for our reservation and quickly got suited up. We were well-prepared with three layers of clothing, fleece balaclavas that covered our necks, and polarized goggles. The departure point was a flat field surrounded by snowcapped mountains. The snowmobiling itself was fairly sedate, with the adults driving and the kids holding on behind. I was relieved that we never came close to the speeds of my first snowmobiling experience twenty tears ago in Iceland.
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After snowmobiling we ate at a surprisingly good Cajun restaurant in Fraser, then set off on what seemed like an interminable drive to Steamboat Springs. The Airbnb condo was fantastic, a spacious and beautifully-furnished two bedroom with a good kitchen and not a trace of a draft.
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I'd expected to have some hiccups getting ready for our first day of skiing, but it turned out to be more of an unholy cluster than I could have imagined. I had thought the parking at Steamboat Ski Resort would be obvious, but then I missed the closest lot which forced us to walk several hundred meters carrying all of our equipment. We had to drop the kids off for their lessons in two different locations, and once I got the little ones to the right place I couldn't get Spenser's boots on. His feet had slipped in fairly easily at the rental shop, but now they seemed to have grown two sizes. Finally a couple of employees were able to get them on and I was able to leave him at his lesson. I found Mei Ling dropping off Cleo and Ian at their lesson and then I was finally able to take all our stuff to the lockers. I tried to save a few bucks on a small locker and ended up losing a few bucks by having to rent a second locker. Then when I tried to get my own ski boots on it was a no go. I stretched them as much as I could but it was pretty clear neither foot was going to go in. I had to open up the locker again, grab my shoes, and head over to the ski rental shop at the resort. I guess my boots had frozen while I was getting Spenser ready, because the guy at the rental shop put them on a warmer and afterwards they went on just like they had the night before. Then back to the lockers to drop off my shoes and I was finally ready to hit the slopes at eleven AM, almost three hours after we'd arrived.
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For the next four hours I was on my own. I'd skied a fair number of times up until I was in my early twenties and then gone cold turkey. I decided I simply didn't enjoy it enough to justify all the logistical hassles, and I hadn't really missed it much over the last twenty-five years. I was curious to see whether my body memory would activate after so many years away from the slopes. The first lift from the main ground area was a gondola, which provided nice views over the resort and the surrounding valley.
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It felt very weird to surrender myself to gravity on the slopes, but fortunately it only took me a couple of runs before I felt that I was close to the mediocre skier I had been in my teens and twenties. One thing that helped was that the mountain was a lot less crowded than I had expected. One guy I shared a chairlift with said he thought it was because of the temperature. It actually didn't feel that cold and I was surprised to learn it was in the single digits. I guess I chose my ski clothing well. Eventually I made it to the very top of the mountain although I never got up the nerve to intentionally try one of the black diamond slopes. I did encounter a short segment of moguls after taking a wrong turn which accounted for virtually all of my falls during the day. The most embarrassing fall happened when I ducked too enthusiastically to avoid getting my head clocked by the lift as I jumped off at the summit and then fell backwards onto my butt. In the end my late start didn't matter because by three in the afternoon I was exhausted and bored. It seemed that no latent love of skiing had been born in my soul during my quarter century sabbatical. Back at the base I collected the two families and slogged all the equipment back to the car. In my exhaustion I completely forgot that it was New Year's Eve and that there would be a torch parade down the slope and then fireworks at dusk.
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The prix fixe New Year's Eve dinners in Steamboat Springs were outrageous, so we'd decided to make dinner at home. Our friends were supposed to join us at the Airbnb but fell asleep and never made it. I had a headache and no appetite whatsoever, which confused me until I realized that while we were currently under 7000 feet elevation, the mountain rose to 10500 feet at the summit. I was suffering from mild altitude sickness. Now I also knew why my stumbles on the mogul slope had been so exhausting. A couple of times it had taken me a couple of minutes to catch my breath just from getting myself back to an upright position. Fortunately everyone else was fine and by the morning I was back to normal.

The first day of skiing had been an expensive and arduous undertaking for me, but it was worth it after seeing how much fun the kids had had. Cleo had naturally done the best but it didn't seem like she had progressed enough to be able to manage even the easiest slopes at Steamboat. Personally I'd already had more than enough skiing and altitude sickness for the next twenty-five years, but the kids were very excited to keep going. Fortunately my extensive research had revealed a way for us to keep skiing without paying thousands for more lessons at Steamboat. The town of Steamboat Springs is also home to Howelsen Hill, the oldest operating ski area in North America, which has no affiliation with Steamboat Ski Resort and sells adult full day lift tickets for $50, a fraction of the cost of the resort. Howelsen Hill isn't the best choice for experienced skiers due to the small number of Alpine runs, especially on weekdays, but the bunny slope was open daily and seemed like a perfect option for us. In the morning we loaded up all our equipment and headed out for another day of skiing.

We only encountered one logistical issue this time around. I had entered "Howelsen Hill" instead of "Howelsen Hill Ski Area" into Google Maps which took us on a completely wrong route up the hill on the opposite side from the ski area. Eventually we encountered a snowy uphill slope that I valiantly attempted to summit and failed. Fortunately I never lost control of the car and was able to maneuver to the side of the road. Our friends in their 4WD were able to reach us and we realized the discrepancy in our destinations. I worked the car back around and down the hill and soon we had found the correct place. The ski area was actually quite simple to get to from the center of town and didn't require any uphill driving at all. There was a magic carpet lift to the top of the bunny slope which proved to be very slippery. The kids would slide backwards into me if they tried going up on their skis and a couple of times we fell off completely. It was all I could do to go up with my skis on if I leaned forward and dug my poles into the rubber treads. The slope was great for the kids to learn how to control their speed by turning instead of the silly "pizza" moves they insisted on teaching at the resort. We skied at Howelsen Hill for the next three days, although by the last day the boys had enough and it was just Cleo and me. I was quite proud of how skilled Cleo had become after just a few days of practice. At the end of the last day we decided to attempt the Poma lift to the long beginner trail. Of course it had been a long time since I'd ridden one of these but I remembered they were trickier than they looked. I wasn't too worried about myself but I wasn't sure Cleo would be able to handle it. Surely enough, Cleo got on but immediately got her skis caught in the snow and was tossed to the side. I tried to convince her to get back on but she wasn't having it. I really wanted to see what was at the top of the hill so I told her I'd just be a few minutes and took my turn at the front of the line. I mounted the Poma without a problem but I forgot about the strong recoil after the lift took my weight and I got unceremoniously thrown as well. The two of us slunk back to the lodge in disgrace and packed up to go home.
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It snowed about six inches on our second morning in Steamboat Springs. Once again we had lucked out by getting all the benefits of fresh snow without the hassle of having to drive long distances through it. Cleo helped me shovel out the car and later we all climbed the huge mountain that was left by the plows. On the last day when Cleo and I went skiing on our own, Spenser and his friend Bao Bao made their first snowman.

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We didn't see much of Steamboat Springs until our last full day in town. Until then we had just gone to the supermarket and a couple of the more heralded restaurants on the small town's main drag, Lincoln Avenue. The most impressive was B├ęsame, a two level Latin fusion bistro where we sampled most of the menu and every dish was on point. Even more impressive were the waitresses on the upper level who glided between the crowded tables like birds, never missing a beat or getting flustered no matter how hectic the scene got. It was an exceptional dining experience. Our other dinner out was at a sushi place called Tahk. Because of the kids we couldn't opt for the omakase but I got a picture of their cool set-up before we left.
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There isn't much to see in Steamboat Springs outside of the stores on Lincoln Avenue. On our last afternoon we spent a couple of hours browsing through a consignment store and an art gallery, eventually purchasing a couple of beautiful horse sculptures that were the work of a local artist.It's a pleasant town but I doubt it would be much of a draw if it wasn't for the year-round outdoor activities.
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On our last day we took the kids on the Outlaw Mountain Coaster at the ski resort which they enjoyed but probably wasn't worth the $25 a pop to share a sled. The drive back to Denver seemed excruciatingly long and was only brightened by the snow-covered landscape we passed through.
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W got back to Denver early enough to take the kids bowling for the first time. We drove out to a suburb instead of making another attempt at Lucky Strike downtown. Bowling is another activity I haven't participated in for about twenty years. The alley had rails blocking the gutters that came up when the kids bowled. Did those exist when I was a kid? Not that I recall. Anyway, they certainly made the experience a lot more fun for the kids. After bowling, we found a hot pot place that provided us with a very satisfying final meal for the trip.

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We crashed in a very basic Airbnb near the airport and got up before dawn for our flight back to Miami. It had been a very different kind of trip but I think the children will remember it more than any of the others we've taken. It's hard to underestimate the impact of a full week of winter with sledding, snowmobiling, and skiing on Florida kids who have never even seen fresh snow before. I was content with having seen how much fun the kids had and also with having crossed another major American city and state off my travel list. I'm pretty sure we're going to have to do an annual ski trip now, and I'm excited to try it in some of the states we still haven't visited like New Mexico and Michigan. The kids are also pretty close to the age where it would be fun to start hitting the national parks in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah on summer vacation. As usual, the more trips we take the longer our wish list gets.

Posted by zzlangerhans 17:58 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Rocky Mountain Highs: Denver


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Perhaps it's just a reflection of my own native bias, but I find the United States to be one of the most interesting countries to travel in. There's a stark difference between the United States and Europe. In the US most of the regional differences are best appreciated in large cities while in Europe it's the small towns that exemplify the regional character. There are very few countries that can boast the kind of difference in culture seen between Miami and San Francisco, New Orleans and New York City. However, it can be difficult to find distinguishing characteristics between small towns in Arizona or South Carolina, on opposite ends of the country. For that reason, my favorite way to travel in the US is to fly to a major city and build a road trip around it that hopefully encompasses other large cities. That's an easier task on the coasts and the upper Midwest, but out in the large western states major cities are few and far between. That's why most of the remaining major cities I haven't seen in the US are out west: Denver, Phoenix, and Santa Fe to be exact. Of all of these, Denver seemed like the most glaring omission so when I felt the time was right to take my family on their first real winter vacation I focused on ski resorts in Colorado. It was quite easy to choose from the countless ski towns because I was determined not to expose us to any risk of altitude sickness. Coming from Miami at an elevation of zero, the adjustment couldn't be any worse. Almost all the Colorado slopes have base elevations well over 7000 feet with some rising as high as 13000 feet. The only town that was even close to 7000 feet was Steamboat Springs so that made our choice pretty easy.

It's possibly, but unlikely, to feel ill from altitude even at 7000 feet so I gave us three days in Denver to acclimate at 5000 feet before pressing onward into the Rocky Mountains. As it turned out, three days was more than enough time for us to check out everything that we could do in Denver in the middle of winter. We took an evening flight from Miami and were at the rental car counter by ten o'clock, benefiting from the two hour time change. I had taken a substantial risk by renting a front-wheel drive car instead of spending three times as much for an SUV. What settled me on the car was the rental company's refusal to guarantee that even the SUV would be four-wheel drive. I have no idea what percentage of their SUV's were two-wheel drive, but I wasn't about to pay triple and end up with essentially the same wheels. I did make sure to check that our ride's wheels had the mud-snow rating. American airport car rental agencies are usually super-efficient but there was a hiccup this time as our agent suddenly determined that the car our children and luggage had been packed into had not actually been released. In return for transferring all our kids and bags into another car in the frigid winter air we were given a free tank of gas. By the time we arrived at our Airbnb in the Jefferson Park neighborhood west of Downtown it was way too late for anything except pizza delivery.

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One unusual wrinkle about this trip is that we were joined by a small family that Mei Ling is friendly with in Miami, consisting of a four year old boy, his aunt, and her mother. In the morning we met up and began our downtown exploration at Denver Union Station. Denver's original railway station underwent a very successful restoration and redevelopment in the first half of this decade and now evokes memories of the great train stations of the early 20th century. A warm and welcoming waiting area is surrounded by coffee shops, lunch restaurants, and bookstores. The building is still a major transportation hub with a commuter rail station and an underground bus terminal.
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One thing I noticed right away was the very upbeat atmosphere among everyone at Union Station, both employees and patrons. One patron at the bookstore where we were browsing suddenly turned to me and made a joke about the cover of a book. That doesn't happen in most cities. Was it a Denver thing? We ate at Snooze, a popular Denver breakfast chain, which was pleasant but not remarkable. The staff there was likewise cheerful and laid back, despite the hectic atmosphere. I wondered if everyone's positivity was somehow related to the wide availability of legal cannabis. Were they just stoned 24/7? People seemed to be eating as if they were. Walking around afterwards we discovered Mercantile Dining & Provision, a beautiful restaurant with an open kitchen attached to a gourmet market. I regretted not having explored the whole building before breakfast, but at least our meal had been very satisfying.
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Next door to Union Station we spotted a very cute Chinese cafe called Zoe Ma Ma and went in to check it out. They had just opened and were getting dumplings and pancakes ready for lunch. It was a very authentic place owned and staffed by Taiwanese immigrants and they were pretty happy to meet Mei Ling and the kids.
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Our next stop was the Colorado Convention Center to see a modern landmark, the Big Blue Bear. I love these kinds of whimsical installations that help to give cities a memorable and unique profile, and I knew the kids would get a kick out of the statue. The enormous sculpture was even more imposing than I had expected, and worth every penny of the half million dollars the city paid for it.
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The bear is just two blocks from downtown's main thoroughfare, the 16th Street Mall. Although the Mall appears pedestrianized, pedestrians would be wise to keep a watchful eye on the large shuttle buses that careen up and down the street with alarming speed and regularity. Despite the stately and ornate buildings that lined the Mall, most of the ground level businesses were convenience stores and low end eating establishments and we didn't find much reason to hesitate as we walked southward.
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At the end of the Mall we encountered Civic Center Park, which was dominated by the imposing Colorado State Capitol Building. The grayish-white granite exterior was impressively pristine in the bright winter sun and the golden dome gleamed cheerfully.
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In the plaza at center of the park there were so many people in small groups that at first we thought we'd stumbled on a farmer's market in the dead of winter. It turned out to be something less salutary, a large encampment of homeless people many of whom had carts piled high with their belongings. At the north end of the park we passed through the Voorhies Memorial, a neoclassical monument with a pleasing semicircular design and a fountain in front. Our tour of the neighborhood had ended almost as quickly as it had begun. I was somewhat nonplussed at how small and bland the downtown area had been compared to other American cities of similar size such as Boston or Minneapolis. Thus far Denver seemed more on a level with smaller cities like Buffalo or Orlando, not that there was necessarily anything wrong with that.
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Once we'd finished with Downtown, it wasn't easy to choose another destination to visit. I hadn't found any particularly interesting neighborhoods in my research, and certainly no ethnic neighborhoods. There wasn't much in the way of eclectic stores or markets like we'd found in other cities either. Eventually we decided to visit the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, which seemed to be the best choice for young kids among Denver's museums. We spent more than an hour wandering among the wildlife dioramas on the second floor before realizing that there was a much more interesting area called Discovery Zone on the ground level. We gave the kids another hour here because they enjoyed the interactive displays much more than the static exhibits upstairs. As we left the sun was setting over the large expanse of City Park.
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Denver was a little light on activities in the winter months but one area where the city seemed to be very competitive was food halls. There were several sizable ones in the central city and some other good ones in the suburbs. For our first dinner in Denver we chose The Source, a former iron foundry in a neighborhood called Five Points adjacent to Downtown. It wasn't a typical food hall in that several of the spaces were occupied by retail boutiques. The few restaurants were mostly of the sit-down variety and there was very little in the way of common area to combine purchases from different vendors. The division of the development into two disconnected spaces made each section seem somewhat threadbare and inert. We had drinks in the small central bar called Isabel while we perused the appealing menu of a restaurant called Acorn, which fortunately was just opening and permitted us a large table on the condition that we be out in less than two hours. No problem there. The food was prepared in that contemporary, farm-to-table American bistro style that's often attempted but rarely well-executed. In this case it was done very, very well and we were very pleased with our first real restaurant in Denver. I noted ruefully that we would probably have to try ten new restaurants in Miami to expect to find one meal that good. Afterwards we went to the adjoining market hall which is attached to a boutique hotel. Here we found a barbecue restaurant and some cool eclectic art. On the roof of the hotel was a stylish bar with great views over Downtown.
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During the night something pretty awesome happened. It snowed. To a lot of people reading this that might seem fairly mundane, but none of my kids have ever seen snow falling or freshly fallen snow. The closest they've come has been old patches of spring snow in Andorra and Norway that were dotted with sheep dung. When they woke up and saw what was going on out the window they were incredulous. It had been fifteen years for me since my last snowfall and I have to admit it looked pretty sweet. There were several inches on the ground and the snow was still coming down. It was light, powdery stuff that melted quickly when it touched our skin. For the kids the snow was pure excitement but I had other things to worry about. I'd decided not to pay threefold the price to rent an SUV after the rental company refused to guarantee me a four-wheel drive, so we had a regular front-wheel drive full size car. At least we had the mud-snow rated tires, but I felt a little guilty about having chosen the cheaper and somewhat riskier option. The car was perched atop a very steep driveway that had been easy to negotiate before, but now I had to reverse it down into the street. I carefully made sure that there weren't any cars coming our way before I backed it down, and fortunately the car didn't slip. The roads hadn't been plowed but the snow on the asphalt had already largely been churned to slush by morning traffic. It was still unnerving driving in snow again after so long. Funnily enough, I'd driven through much worse countless times in Boston during my residency with a light front-wheel drive Nissan sports car which didn't even have snow tires. I rarely thought about it being dangerous even though I'd had to dig myself out of the middle of the street more than once. Having a wife and three little kids in the car changes one's perspective on these things rather dramatically.

Asian-Mexican fusion Onefold proved to be an excellent choice for Sunday brunch. All eight of us were delighted with the delicious and creative food and returned to the outdoors warmed and satiated. We browsed a gourmet food store called Marczyk Fine Foods for a while and then drove around Belcaro, which seemed to be the wealthiest residential neighborhood within the city limits. It was nice, but didn't have the same wow factor as the high end neighborhoods in other cities.
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It was barely noon and I was completely out of ideas for what to do in Denver. All I had left was my list of food halls. We decided to drive half an hour south to the small town of Castle Rock which had a small food hall called Ecclesia Market. As we exited the highway we passed the distinctive butte that gave the town its name. The enormous caprock at the summit evoked the ruined castles we've seen atop similar hills in Italy and Spain, but the town itself was classic Americana. Inside the market were a specialty foods store and a couple of small restaurants that didn't really tempt us. There was a also a fish market which didn't have much fish but incongruously sold fresh coconuts which were quite delicious. The very friendly guys working there entertained the kids with a fake spider in a box.
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Down the street from Ecclesia was a large crafts market and variety store where we browsed for about an hour and bought some toys for the kids. Our first stop back in Denver was the closest thing we could find to an ethnic neighborhood, a mixed Mexican and Vietnamese section of Federal Boulevard in the southwestern part of the city. We stocked up on noodles at Vietnamese supermarket and then chose a Vietnamese-Cajun crawfish restaurant called The Crawling Crab for lunch. Vietnamese-Cajun? Yes, it's a thing. Apparently it was started by Vietnamese who had been displaced to Houston by Hurricane Katrina in 2009 and spread back to New Orleans and then all over the country. We even have one in Miami and it's the best crawfish I know of here. It turns out a couple of big bags of messy, spicy crawfish and a couple of dozen freshly-shucked oysters were all that we needed.
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We drove back downtown with the idea that we could spend a couple of hours giving the kids their first experience with bowling at Lucky Strike Denver, but when we arrived we learned there was a four hour waiting list. Instead we bought tickets for the huge video game arcade which suited the kids just fine, although watching them flail on the complex racing games made me wince. On the way to dinner we passed by an outdoor carousel and Larimer Square, both of which were beautifully lighted.
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Our choice for the evening food hall was Denver Milk Market, also downtown and not far from Union Station. This was a fairly large food hall that was pleasantly energetic and crowded, but the food choices were fairly banal. It felt like someone had created a list of the most popular fast foods across all the food halls in the United States and then put them all in one place. As it turned out, one restaurateur was behind all sixteen vendors so perhaps this was exactly the concept he was looking for. The one exception was a cheese shop where we put together a platter of whatever cheeses and salumi took our fancy. Cleo also loved the carpet of pennies in front of the counter. On the way out we stopped for a brief chat with a blue Lego man who was sitting morosely on a bench.
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On our last morning in Denver we dressed the kids up in the color-coded fleece underwear I'd carefully selected before the trip. It had been surprisingly temperate in Denver but I knew it would be a lot colder once we got into the mountains. I decided to take a shot at a brunch reservation at Root Down, one of the most celebrated restaurants in Denver, and surprisingly got a table for the eight of us. We arrived a little early, ten minutes before the restaurant opened, which meant we could fulfill another of the kids' dreams. Their first snowball fight! There was a small park right across the street from the playground that had several inches of pristine day-old snow. The kids never really got the hang of packing snowballs. They were in too much of a hurry, and most of their attempts disintegrated as soon as the snow left their hands. I took it pretty easy on them, but I still made sure they each got to experience the unique sensation of getting nailed by a snowball.
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Root Down had solid American food, although the menu was small and not very adventurous. It was definitely no competition to the brunch we had at Onefold the previous day. The kids were entertained by the display of colorful rotary dial telephones, whose purpose they had trouble identifying. Close to Root Down, we stopped at another small food hall called Avanti Food & Beverage although we didn't have any inclination to keep eating. It looked decent although there weren't many customers on a Sunday morning.
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We were an hour ahead of schedule for snow tubing in the mountains so we made one last stop at an amazing used bookstore called West Side Books. The place reminded me of the bookstores I used to frequent as a college student in Boston. It's too bad that our hometown of Miami doesn't seem to have any worth visiting. The kids all got a kick out of it and we found several books to keep them away from their iPads for a while as we drove into the Rockies.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 01:38 Archived in USA Tagged travel denver blog tony friedman Comments (0)

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