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America's Northern Midwest: Madison to Eau Claire

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The capital of Wisconsin has always lived in the shadow of Milwaukee, but Madison has its own character completely distinct from that of its far larger neighbor. Madison achieved its status as the state capital in a highly questionable fashion, in that the federal judge who purchased the land and built the city essentially bribed the territorial legislature with choice lots and buffalo robes. Given that, however, it is hard to complain about the capital's location in the south central portion of the state amid a chain of beautiful lakes. I hadn't realized until we were almost at our Airbnb that the city's downtown occupied a narrow isthmus between two large lakes. Thanks to the short drive from Milwaukee we'd arrived in plenty of time to explore the center of the city. The first thing we noticed is that downtown is designed such that the state capitol building can be seen from almost every intersection, thanks to the diagonal roads that point to every corner of the building. The capitol is one of the most impressive in the fifty states with a neoclassical design reminiscent of the US Capitol and the largest granite dome in the world.
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We continued our walk until we found a Thai restaurant for dinner. Afterwards we saw a crowd in the park at the shore of Lake Mendota and realized we'd stumbled on a waterskiing competition. The jumps and other stunts were very impressive. It was a good reminder that it isn't just people who live on the coasts who can become adept at water sports.
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There wasn't a whole lot to do in Madison on a Monday but we were armed with a long itinerary of sights outside the city. First we had breakfast at Ella's Deli, a locally beloved luncheonette with a carousel in front and all sorts of toys and displays inside. It was a kid's paradise that represented one couple's labor of love over decades and doesn't feel commercial at all.
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About an hour to the west of Madison is Taliesin, the estate of the iconic American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The combined residence and studio was designed by Wright himself and is emblematic of the architect's desire to have his buildings reflect the nature of the surrounding landscape. Personally I'm not attracted to the homes Wright designed, which look to me more like medical clinics than comfortable homes, but of course no one ever asked my my opinion about architecture. At the time we visited the architectural school Wright established at Taliesin was in session although it closed not long afterwards. The tour was rather dry even for us adults so once the group moved to the outdoors we remained in the fresh Wisconsin air after the others had returned to the interior.
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Amazingly enough there is another unique architectural attraction just ten minutes away from Taliesin which has nothing whatsoever to do with Frank Lloyd Wright. In the 1950's an eccentric multimillionaire named Alex Jordan Jr. decided to build a sprawling Japanese-style home atop a rocky outcrop well above the surrounding valley. The fourteen rooms of the House on the Rock are filled with antiques, replicas, and eclectic artwork except for the Infinity Room, a cantilevered projection over the valley which uses forced perspective to create the impression of a never-ending corridor. The house is surrounded by gardens and pools that have a vaguely Asian character but would probably look like a nightmare to any Shinto temple designer. Jordan opened his house to the paying public in 1960 and the subsequent owner has continued to keep it open and even add to the collections inside. Some have described it as the "ultimate tourist trap", but we found our tour to be an enjoyable taste of American eclecticism.
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Wisconsin still had more unusual sights in store for us that day. I had been eagerly anticipating a visit to Dr. Evermor's Forevertron since I had discovered it while doing my Wisconsin research before the trip. The park is in the middle of nowhere but fortunately fairly close to both Spring Green and Madison so it was the next logical destination on our day trip. Thank to the out of the way location, we were the only visitors when we showed up. Tom Every, the artistic genius who called himself Dr. Evermor, had already had the first of a series of strokes that eventually led to his death in 2020 and wasn't at the park. However his wife was there to explain the concept and direct us on our self-guided tour. The park is filled with whimsical metal sculptures of animals and improbable machines. The piece de resistance is the enormous Forevertron, en enormous construction in the center of the park that resembles a rocket launcher. The egg shaped capsule in the center is intended to be propelled into the celestial sphere via the collection of lightning energy from the surrounding devices. Ian was particularly awestruck by the sculptures and we had to watch him continuously to be sure he didn't wander out of our sight.
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Back in Madison after an exhausting but exhilarating day trip there was just time for a leisurely dinner and some exercise before bed. When we're on the road we have to improvise when it comes to keeping in shape.
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We had already experienced more in and around Madison than we had any right to expect from a relatively small American city, but we still had more ahead of us. On the morning of our departure we stopped at the Olbrich Botanical Gardens, a breathtaking collection of flora at the shore of Lake Monona. The peaceful gardens are filled with water features such as a creek, pools, and waterfalls and the landscaping is somehow meticulous and feral at the same time. The prize of the garden is a golden Thai pavilion, a present from the government of Thailand in recognition of the large Thai student population at the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin.
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About an hour north of Madison is an area known as Wisconsin Dells which has a concentration of water parks and other outdoor activities. The kids were just getting to the age where they could have fun at a water park so we decided to try out one called Kalahari. As I expected the kids loved it although it was nervewracking trying to keep my eye on both the older kids at the large splash park while Mei Ling entertained Spenser in the toddler area.
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The drive to Minneapolis would have been quite long so we decided to break things up in Eau Claire. This was a typical midwestern town just large enough to have a downtown commercial district with a string of ethnic restaurants and small boutiques on the attractive main street. For an added bonus there was a decent-sized farmers market the following morning with a Vietnamese food truck to fuel us for the drive. We made one final stop at a very large and innovative city playground and then we were off to Minnesota. Wisconsin had been an amazing experience, one of the most fun and interesting states we've ever visited. We were eager to see what more surprises lay in wait for us in this unheralded part of our country.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 08:28 Archived in USA Comments (1)

America's Northern Midwest: Milwaukee

I've lived in several different parts of the United States thanks to the vagaries of educational and employment opportunities and over time I've come to appreciate the subtle cultural differences between regions. These differences are much more pronounced in the major cities and I've developed a fondness for the variegated character of American cities. Some time ago I set a goal of visiting every major American city and I've seen the majority of them. My favorites are New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon but I've been surprised how many others differed radically from what I expected. Houston and Atlanta were upside surprises while Seattle and Chicago were disappointments. 2016 was the year that Cleo told me she didn't want me to take her out of school for travel any more (she was four) so we wedged two trips into her summer break. We had a long road trip in central Europe planned for the end of the summer so we devised a two week itinerary for the American Midwest right after Cleo's school ended for the year.
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Every July there's a multi-day event called Taste of Chicago which bills itself as the world's largest food festival. I'd never been there, but word of mouth was that it was a big culinary event in which some of the best restaurants in Chicago served their food from stalls in a downtown park. As luck would have it the end of our two week time slot coincided perfectly with the beginning of the festival so we decided make Chicago the end of the road trip rather than the beginning. We flew into Chicago in the evening and crashed in a cheap motel, and then picked up our rental minivan the next morning. We had our nanny with us to help take care of Spenser, who wasn't even a year old yet, and watch the boys when we wanted to go out to dinner with Cleo. After loading up the minivan we drove straight to Milwaukee which was just an hour and a half away.
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In 2016 the food hall movement was rolling along in American cities. It was lunch time when we arrived in the city so we headed to the Milwaukee Public Market even before dropping off our stuff at the Airbnb. The market was very busy and had a mixture of mini restaurants and delis. With six of us we were able to sample most of the restaurants that interested us and get a very satisfying lunch. It was a perfect way to kick off the road trip.
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Not many Americans, let alone international travelers, would think of going to Milwaukee on vacation. To the extent the city even has a reputation, it is as a boring midwestern nonentity with a lot of breweries. Fortunately I've learned not to pay much attention to those capsule summaries of American cities that are largely generated by media and people who've never been there. Los Angeles is not a shallow wasteland of surfers and celebrities, Boston is not a snobbish Brahmin enclave, and Portland is not overrun with hippies chomping granola. Nor did Milwaukee turn out to be a convocation of beefy Nordic types washing down sausages with cases of canned beer. Over the next two days we discovered that Milwaukee is quite beautiful, surprisingly quirky, and full of interesting things to do for families. Our Airbnb was a pleasant if undistinguished three bedroom house in a funky central neighborhood called Walker's Point. We made a brief stop there after lunch to drop off the bags and be sure we had a place for the night.
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Our first stop after checking in at the Airbnb was Brady Street, a nine block stretch in the bohemian Lower East Side neighborhood that's famous for restaurants and bars but also has eclectic stores, ethnic markets, and thrift shops. Art Smart's Dart Mart is the kind of store that every mid-sized city should have at least one of, a colorful collection of novelties and offbeat sports equipment that ultimately has something for everyone. If you can't find something at Art Smart's that you never knew you needed but now you can't live without, then I don't want to know you. Close by is another necessity of American city life, an authentic Italian market. Glorioso's has been an institution on Brady Street for seventy years and once we were inside it felt like we had entered a place where nothing had changed for decades.
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As the afternoon went on we continued to explore Milwaukee's cornucopia of unique attractions. Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory is known affectionately to locals as "The Domes". The cluster of three glass hemispheres sits improbably in a nondescript park like an outpost on a distant planet. Inside are elegantly landscaped plant collections that would be the envy of any botanical garden. It was one of the most beautiful and magical places I can remember seeing within the continental United States.
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Milwaukee hadn't finished amazing us for the day. Lots of American cities have a river snaking through their center and too many of them have no clue whatsoever how to incorporate them into the urban landscape. My hometown of Miami is one of the worst offenders. Fortunately Milwaukee got its act together in the 1990's and constructed a beautiful path that extends along three miles of river that pass through the city's oldest and most scenic neighborhoods. The RiverWalk provides a relaxing way to admire Milwaukee's river and historic buildings while enjoying a series of eclectic sculptures such as the Bronze Fonz.
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We topped our awesome first day in Milwaukee with dinner at Wolf Peach, which at the time was one of the city's most beloved bistros. The contemporary American food was pleasant if not particularly innovative, but what was most enjoyable was the restaurant's brick and stone farmhouse style and patio seating on a cool summer evening.
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We kicked off our second day in Milwaukee at the South Shore Farmers Market, a large Saturday market in a beautiful residential neighborhood right at the shore of Lake Michigan. We never judge an American city until we've seen at least one farmer's market and once again Milwaukee passed with flying colors. The market was busy and energetic with live music, plenty of greenery, and a lovely park with a lakeside view for a picnic.
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Science museums are a great way to make sure the kids are having as good a time traveling as we are. Milwaukee's Discovery World has a great location on a short promontory into Lake Michigan. It is just a block away from the Milwaukee Art Museum whose Quadracci Pavilion was designed by renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. The pavilion is topped by a sculpture of enormous steel wings that opens and closes twice a day and we were able to time our visit to enjoy the spectacle.
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Discovery World was one of the better science museums we've visited in the United States. There was heavy machinery to operate, a decent music lab, and a design workshop. One surprising display was a bed of nails that patrons were invited to lie on. Mei Ling took a go at it and discovered that they weren't fooling around. The nails were really sharp. Of course since her weight was distributed on all of them her skin didn't get punctured but they left some nasty marks that lasted most of the day.
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Milwaukee is a pretty large city but so far we'd spent almost all our time close to downtown. We ventured inland to the River Bend neighborhood to check out American Science & Surplus, another unusual hobby and curiosity shop that is like a nerd's paradise. It was the kind of store where one could have stocked up on a full year's worth of Christmas, birthday, and Tooth Fairy presents for a curious kid. I would have been happy to spend most of a day in here but it became exhausting trying to keep up with the kids as they tore through the aisles investigating all the colorful knickknacks. We didn't leave before selecting a few puzzles and games for the road trip.
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We had dinner at Circa 1880, a highly regarded small restaurant that had the added advantage of being walking distance from the Airbnb. It was nice to have a relaxing dinner with just us and Cleo without constantly having to keep an eye on what the boys were doing.
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On our last morning we had another farmers market to visit, much smaller than the one we'd been to the previous day. It was set in another pretty park surrounded by idyllic homes. In the center of the park was a cluster of colorful metal tree sculptures, yet another taste of that Milwaukee funkiness that we had quickly come to love. Afterwards we took a brief swing through the Milwaukee County Zoo before getting back on the road west to our next stop, Madison.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 19:41 Archived in USA Tagged travel family blog milwaukee wisconsin Comments (0)

Around the World 2015: California Bay Area and Napa


View Around the World 2015 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

Mei Ling and I originally had a long distance relationship, so when she came to visit me in Miami we would usually fly off to some fun location in the Caribbean or South America for four to seven days. Most of our experiences together involved travel, so once we got married and starting having kids it seemed essential that we continue to enjoy that part of our lives. Aside from holding off on leaving the US with an infant under six months, we haven't let pregnancy or babies hold us back at all. In fact, the frequency and duration of our trips has continued to increase. My two year old daughter will have been to nineteen countries and my one year old son to seventeen by the end of this trip. I've only recently been inspired to start blogging after a particularly amazing road trip in Southern Europe last fall.

We're currently close to the halfway point of our second round the world trip. The inspiration for these trips is that Mei Ling's family is in China, so we have to travel to the opposite side of the world to see them. Rather than brutalize ourselves with twenty four hour flight itineraries each way with two babies, we break up the trip with stops on the West Coast, Asia, and Europe. On our first RTW in 2013 we visited London, Tokyo, and San Francisco in addition to Mei Ling's hometown in Heilongjiang, China. This time round our itinerary includes Northern California, Seoul, Mudanjiang (where Mei Ling's family now lives), Guangzhou, Delhi, and the Loire Valley in France. I'm currently writing from Mudanjiang, where there isn't much to see so I have my first downtime of the trip.

We chose Northern California (specifically the East Bay and Sonoma/Napa valleys) as our first stop mainly because we've already been to San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle. We're running out of places on the West Coast to visit that would be fun with two babies and have direct flights to Asia. There's still LA which I find pretty boring except possibly for good Southeast Asian food. San Diego and Phoenix? Zzzzzzzz. I'll have to do some intense research before our next trip to China otherwise we'll be repeating San Francisco. Fortunately we had a great time in Northern California even though we didn't do much wine drinking, due to my driving and Mei Ling's pregnancy.

We decided to take a westward course on this trip for two reasons. First, I wanted jetlag to work in our favor by getting us up earlier in the morning rather than making us sleep late. Also, the pregnancy forced us to take the trip in April rather than my preferred months of May or June and I wanted to reach France in May when I expected the weather to be warmer. The only negative was flying against the jet stream which resulted in slightly longer flight times.

We had an afternoon departure from Miami, which was good because it allowed us a calm last morning of preparation for the trip (which didn't stop me from forgetting a few important items) but also meant that the kids didn't sleep at all on the flight and that our entire first day of the journey was consumed by travel. The flight was full and the American Airlines plane was typically cramped with the typical sour staff. Combine that with my daughter Cleo's constant restlessness and my son Ian squirming on our laps and the flight felt much longer than six hours. Eventually we landed in San Francisco, where our plan was to catch a taxi to Berkeley. At the airport I impulsively decided to try Uber for the first time and was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to download and use the app. Our Uber driver was friendly and efficient and got us to Berkeley for about thirty bucks less than a cab would have cost.

Our Airbnb in Berkeley was a pretty one-room cottage close to the commercial center of town. We just had time to walk downtown and grab a quick dinner before crashing.
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Berkeley is a wonderful town to spend a day in. We started out in the Berkeley Rose Garden, where the roses weren't blooming but the terraced gardens reminded me of an overgrown Roman amphitheatre. Across the street in Codornices Park we found lush greenery and a playground that included an enormous concrete slide. At first, I tried to keep Cleo away from it but eventually I gave in and rode down with her on a sheet of cardboard. It's scarier than it looks! Cleo dragged me back to the top another five times before we could finally get her to leave.
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Next stop was the UC Berkeley campus, which was surrounded by a funky area full of vegetarian cafes, vintage clothing shops, and music stores. The campus lived up to its reputation, with placards announcing various protests virtually everywhere we looked. We walked as far as the Campanile Esplanade, which was lined with bizarre-looking London plane trees.
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We headed back to Shattuck Street, the main drag downtown, where we browsed a small farmers market and stocked up on strawberries. We had lunch at Chez Panisse, one of the best restaurants in Berkeley. We were a little nervous about bringing the babies into such a high end place, but the staff couldn't have been friendlier and got us a booth where the kids promptly fell asleep. Lunch was amazing and a great way to finish our short stay in Berkeley.

From Berkeley, we detoured to the west to Muir Woods National Park for a walk through the redwoods. The majestic trees are emblematic of the great natural treasures that the western US has in abundance. After a peaceful stroll through the quiet paths and wooden bridges of the forest, we got back on the road to Sonoma.
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For the next two days in Sonoma and Napa, we devoted ourselves to amazing breakfasts in diners and tastings in beautiful wineries. The first morning we had breakfast in the famed Fremont diner and then went to the Hess winery, which had beautiful grounds and its own art gallery. Cleo's favorite installation was a speculative representation of what dinosaur poop probably looked like.
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Next up were Darioush, famed for its Persian columns and opulent tasting room, and Frog's Leap, where we tasted wines outdoors under a beautiful trellis.
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We finished our winery itinerary for the day at Castello di Amorosa, a modern replica of a medieval Tuscan castle. The Castello has 107 rooms and frescoes painted by Italian artists, as well as a dungeon and torture chamber. It's quite an astonishing sight arising out of the California countryside.
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We had dinner at the Oxbow Public Market in Napa, an awesome gourmet food court with a wide variety of restaurants and specialty food stores. We tasted a few different things and eventually settled down at a raw bar which had pasta for the kids.
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The next day we met up with my college buddy Mike who practices law in Palo Alto. The day was another blur of wineries, the only one whose name I remember being the Coppola winery. I'll never forget the beautiful scenery and the sleek tasting rooms of Sonoma and Napa.
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On our last full day in California we took the kids to the Sonoma Traintown Railroad, where they got to enjoy some rides and a petting zoo. Afterwards we drove to the northern reaches of Sonoma Vallley where we had lunch in the quaint town of Healdsburg.
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We made a last minute decision to spend the night in Oakland but once we arrived we only had a little time to walk around and have dinner. In the morning we went straight to the airport braced for the longest flight of our trip, the Trans-Pacific leg to Seoul.

Posted by zzlangerhans 09:55 Archived in USA Tagged sonoma napa wineries napa_valley berkeley muir_woods Comments (0)

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)

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