Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Winter Solstice

Here are some thoughts about the year’s coldest season on this, its first day:

I love how it begins with evergreen boughs on mantles, lighted trees in village squares, carols on the radio, and people knowing that life’s greatest joys come from giving rather than receiving.

I love its chilly mornings when fog clings to the surfaces of ponds.

I love sitting outside on those mornings drinking hot black coffee.

I love watching Sarah try to catch snowflakes on her tongue during our winter vacation.

I love driving across California’s High Sierra between snow drifts so deep they soar above cars and turn roadways into tunnels of white.

I love walking through Appalachian forests that are barren of leaves but laden with snow, and therefore have the appearance of black-and-white photos come to life.

And finally, I love that I can spend a whole day outside in Florida without feeling the need to shower every hour.

So for those who curse the cold: Remember that every season brings beauty, so long as we stop to notice it.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Starting at the top

Driving south from Reno, we came to the top of a high mountain pass and laid our eyes on what we had crossed a continent to see: Lake Tahoe, an immense oval of blue ringed by mountains of wintry white, stretched out below.

Three times the size of the Sea of Galilee, Tahoe is America’s largest alpine lake and was described by Mark Twain as “the fairest picture the whole earth affords.” Straddling the California-Nevada border more than 6,000 feet above sea level, it would be a must-see no matter what, yet skiing is what always comes to mind when you hear its name. The slopes above Tahoe are home to seven world class ski resorts and the towns surrounding it produce droves of Winter Olympians -- and when you combine that with its penchant for attracting well-heeled international jocks, you might think it is not the best place for a couple of past-their-twenties Floridians to take their first stab at skiing. Fortunately, you would be mistaken.

Although Erika and I hadn’t skied before, we had taken enough winter vacations to know that the geographical stereotype about snow -- that it tends to be icy in the East and powdery in the West -- is largely true. Armed with that knowledge, it made sense to go out West for our first ski trip because we were sure to spend a lot of time in the following position:

Once that decision was made, it was easy to choose Tahoe because every consideration put a check in its column instead of its competitors’. For starters, getting to it is easier than getting to any of the West’s other ski areas because there is an international airport only 45 minutes away and a regional one less than four miles away. And with so many resorts close together, you can visit a different one every day instead of anchoring your entire vacation to just one. Plus, competition among them means you are sure to find good beginners’ programs and better prices than you would at stand-alone destinations like Breckenridge or Taos.

Another advantage of Tahoe’s clustering of towns and resorts is the variety and affordability of lodging you can find. Rather than stay on-property at one of the resorts, we stayed in the town of Tahoe Vista at a place called Rustic Cottages. Across the street from the water, it offers 19 different rentals ranging in size from studio cottages to full-blown houses, and at prices ranging from $74 to $399 per night. We went with one of the cheapest and even it included a wood stove, refrigerator, microwave, and furnished porch. Here is a picture of the lakeshore across the street:

Based solely on an article I had read in the Tampa Tribune, we decided to take our first ski lessons and ski runs at Northstar-at-Tahoe, and could not have been happier. The instructors were helpful and down-to-earth and the slopes were fast. After the lessons we made several downhill runs, burned through calories, then scarfed down lunch under a cloudless sky before hitting the slopes again. Afterward, we downed a beer in a bar near the base of the gondola.

Unfortunately, as focused as were on learning how to ski, we left our camera in the car and got no pictures that day. Two days later, we made sure to avoid that mistake when we went to Soda Springs. Whereas the “Big Seven” resorts I mentioned earlier feature self-sustaining villages filled with bars, restaurants, condos, and shops, Soda Springs is an old-fashioned ski lodge with nothing more than lockers and a cafeteria and, therefore, low prices. We purchased lift tickets for roughly half the price of Northstar’s and were able to ski a lot more because the lines were short.

In addition to skiing, Soda Springs has become well-known for excellent snow tubing, so we gave that a try between runs. Below is a picture of the “moving carpet” that takes you to the top of its tubing hill. The conifers towering above make it look so small that you barely notice it:

On the day between our outings at Northstar and Soda Springs we opted for a laid-back, unscheduled approach by driving part of the Ring Road, which takes 71 miles to circle the lake; going to some shops in Tahoe City; walking beside the Truckee River, where Erika stepped in a weak spot and sank thigh-deep into the snowpack; and having a blast at North Tahoe Regional Park, where we built the snowman pictured below and got into a one-on-one snowball fight.

While at the park we also went sledding on a groomed hill, taking advantage of the fact that Rustic Cottages has plenty of sleds and allows you to borrow them for free. Here is Erika leaning against one of those sleds with Lake Tahoe in the background:

Although you will create memories to last a lifetime no matter where you go around this beautiful lake, there are some things worth knowing before you plan your trip. For one, the towns on the California shore tend to be quaint and peaceful compared to those on the Nevada shore, where gambling is legal and nightlife more prevalent. For another, the town of South Lake Tahoe is by far the biggest. And of the “Big Seven” resorts, Heavenly has the most skiable acreage while Mount Rose is the only one from which you can see both the lake and the Reno skyline.

When it comes to skiing, we learned that people are telling the truth when they say it’s harder to get on and off the ski lift than it is to ski. And we learned that after you fall, getting yourself back into a standing position while wearing skis is also harder than the actual skiing. But most of all we learned that this world-famous destination is just as ideal for novices as it is for experts.


1. Due to a contract dispute/airline bankruptcy, Lake Tahoe Airport (the one less than four miles away) is currently in the unusual situation of not having any commercial flights. But I wouldn't expect that to last forever, and you can still get here easily because Reno-Tahoe International Airport is busy as ever.

2. Don't take my description of Soda Springs as having "nothing more than lockers and a cafeteria" to mean that it lacks a rental shop and gift shop. It does have those things and it also offers ski and snowboard lessons, including private lessons starting for as little as $45.

3. Here is a link to another one of the area's ski spots that is not one of the "Big Seven." FYI, the lake you see from it is Donner, not Tahoe.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Autumn Equinox

In most years there is no doubt which date marks the official start of fall, but this year some sources say it is September 22nd while others say it is the 23rd. Although my research is limited it appears that, scientifically speaking, the 23rd is the correct date because the equinox will occur a few hours after midnight tonight.

Nevertheless, with temperatures dipping and even Florida beginning to reveal a few scarlet leaves, I would rather be a day early than a day late publishing my “beginning of the season” post. So here are some thoughts about autumn, on what is more or less its first day:

I love stepping outside on that first morning that fall’s nip is in the air.

I love how changing leaves turn Appalachian mountainsides into fiery palettes of orange, red, and gold.

I love driving winding roads through those mountains, catching glimpse after glimpse of falling leaves as they twirl their way to the ground.

I love cold nights marked by the scent of campfire and the sound of wind in the trees.

I love watching my daughter skip through the pumpkin patch looking for the perfect one to bring home.

I love walking behind her as she trick-or-treats on Halloween night.

I love pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving Day, and how it sets the ideal tone to start the Christmas season.

I love watching flocks of birds land in Florida at the end of their migration, while others keep flying to points further south.

And last but not least, I love football, especially college games where the fans are loud and the bands are blaring…and most of all, where Auburn is winning and the fight song you keep hearing begins with the line: “War Eagle, fly down the field, ever to conquer, never to yield!”

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

New York Nexus

With September 11th upon us, it is only fitting to be thinking of New York. If you find yourself there, do not hesitate to do the usual tourist things. Go to the top of Rockefeller Center for a bird’s eye view of the city. Catch a Broadway show. Get your picture taken with the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop.

And of course, go to Ground Zero, stand on the sidewalk, look at the pavement on Church Street...and understand that it is the very pavement onto which people leapt hundreds of feet to their deaths on that horrendous morning in 2001.

But then it is time to depart from the usual tourist circuit by taking a short walk to my favorite New York City nexus. From Ground Zero you go one block east to Broadway, then two blocks south to Wall Street’s western terminus, directly across from Trinity Chapel:

Then, you walk through Trinity’s cemetery and take note of its eroded, centuries-old headstones. Make your way to the cemetery's southern edge and you will find the final resting place of a Founding Father, for there, marked by a modest obelisk, sits the grave of Alexander Hamilton. When we were there, somebody had laid a bouquet at its base:

Right beside Hamilton’s grave is that of Robert Fulton, father of the steam engine. Elsewhere in the cemetery is that of William Bradford, who came to the New World on the Mayflower and became the leader of Plymouth Colony.

Leaving Trinity, you cross Broadway and start down surprisingly nondescript Wall Street. Just one block onto it, with Trinity’s steeple looming behind you, you come to the site where George Washington took the oath of office as America’s first president:

And across the street from that site sits the New York Stock Exchange. We’ve all seen the images of frantic traders on the exchange floor, and we know the atmosphere inside must be noisy and stressful and chaotic. But the outside of the exchange building is a picture of serenity that is dwarfed by much of its surroundings. American flags flying beneath its facade of Corinthian columns give it the appearance of a county courthouse from somewhere in the heartland:

Here, within two city blocks, you will have walked in the footsteps of at least four major historical figures, including the father of our country; visited three of their burial sites; stood at the spot where our republic’s executive branch came into existence; and seen the building where more wealth has been created than at any other spot on the planet. And you will have done it in one of the busiest, most ethnically mixed cities in the world.

Here, you get a sense of the real New York, the one of consequence instead of glitz and glamor. Here, you understand why the city is really significant, and you can feel the pulse of human freedom running from the past to the future, coursing through you in the present. You will know you are alive, and I hope you know what I mean.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Great Places to Drink an Adult Beverage in Tampa Bay

I have written previous posts about great places to drink an adult beverage, making five recommendations each time. But none of those recommendations were geographically concise, and recently I found myself thinking it would make sense to change that this time around, so you can check out more than one on a single trip.

Then, I figured that for this particular subject there is no better place to write about than the one where I live. Many people visit the Tampa Bay area on vacation and business, and as an almost-lifelong resident I can definitely steer you right, so my next several posts in this intermittent series will be about the Tampa Bay area’s best places to drink.

Since there are multiple counties here, the posts will be on a county-by-county basis. All of the recommendations in today’s post are in Hillsborough County, which includes the city of Tampa. Although it is on the eastern shore of Tampa Bay, Hillsborough does not face the open Gulf of Mexico like the other counties in this metropolitan area.

Anyway, here are my recommendations in alphabetical order:

Bern’s Steak House

When you talk about places to drink, people usually think of bars, not five-star restaurants. But when a restaurant’s wine menu has more than 6,000 selections and is frequently mentioned in Wine Spectator, leaving it off the list is unthinkable. That tells you everything you need to know about why to come to Bern’s, yet it is also worth noting that the five-star status does not automatically make Bern’s a budget-buster. Because its prices are not a la carte, it is considerably less expensive than most other fine dining establishments, and if you’re not up for a multi-course meal you can do something out of the ordinary by sitting at the bar and ordering a high-end burger to go with your Bordeaux.

Four Green Fields

Just as there are Irish pubs throughout the world, there are Irish pubs throughout Tampa, but Four Green Fields is in a league of its own all the way from its thatched roof to its platoon of bartenders who hail from the Emerald Isle itself. Despite being no bigger than a common village pub, it is very well known in Irish circles -- so much so that renowned Irish musicians from Sinead O’Connor to Paddy Reilly have come here to perform. You would be cheating yourself if you came to Tampa and failed to visit this place where the Guinness is always poured perfect, just two blocks from the city’s downtown waterfront.

McAnderson’s House of Brews

Located in a suburban area north of Tampa and roughly 20 miles from the beach, this place is off the beaten path for most travelers. But as you may know, many of the world’s best places are off the beaten path. McAnderson’s, which is better known as the Tampa House of Brews, features a beer menu that is high on quality yet easy on the wallet compared to similar menus at other places. And its food is comparable to what you find in the kind of restaurants that get written up in food magazines, yet it too is easy on the wallet. On top of that, McAnderson’s has plenty of specials including Micro Mondays and Thirsty Thursday’s Happy Hour Until Midnight. It is impeccably clean and its walls are decorated with humorous posters, one of which is pictured at the beginning of this post. Need I say more?

The Rack Sushi Bar and Billiards Lounge

How can you not be interested when the phrases “sushi bar” and “billiards lounge” are used to describe the same place? The Rack earns the first part of its description by serving up sushi and sashimi that are on par with above-average Japanese restaurants, and the second part by having a number of pool tables that blend into the scene without dominating it. The Rack has plenty of tables for dining; three bars that offer a full liquor menu; and ubiquitous low lighting that lends a metropolitan vibe. It is not to be missed. (FYI, it has two locations but this description is specific to the one in South Tampa’s Hyde Park District, since I have not been to the other one.)

Skipper’s Smokehouse

30 years ago some Air Force buddies bought a shack in North Tampa and turned it into one of the best hang-outs you’ll ever find. Today the shack contains a cramped smokehouse restaurant and enclosed oyster bar, while the area out back -- a smattering of picnic tables and irregular wooden benches under a giant oak -- is where the beer-guzzling and music-listening goes down. Everyone from blues legend Buddy Guy to country great Ralph Stanley has played here to intimate crowds. A reggae band plays every Wednesday and a Grateful Dead cover band every Thursday. Beer aficionados will be pleased that Skipper’s offers craft brews like Rogue Dead Guy Ale and Magic Hat #9, while bargain hunters will be pleased that it sells Bud and Bud Light for $1.75 on draft. What more could you ask for?

The pictures from Four Green Fields were taken, respectively, by my friends Allan Taylor and Michelle Chio.

Full disclosure: Erika’s stepfather is a dining room manager at Bern’s.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Waterfall Walks

Tranquil and energizing at the same time, waterfalls are unlike anything else. Their sound will move you whether it’s the shhhh of a modest cascade or the roar of a massive plunge. And they are always scenic, no matter if you’re looking at a thin ribbon of a fall or at a burgeoning cascade than gets wider as it drops.

Here in America, they are so plentiful that there are probably more than a thousand locales for which you can make a list of “hikes to nearby waterfalls,” but for this post I had no trouble choosing one -- the area around the close-together towns of Sylva, Bryson City, and Cherokee, in North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains.

In selecting the walks themselves, my criteria were: 1) that they be easy enough for a family with kids to complete, and 2) that the drive from town to trailhead not take more than several minutes. Having said that, here they are:

Mingo Falls

Tumbling almost 90 degrees down rhododendron-studded granite, this is the most impressive waterfall I have encountered east of the Rockies. I can not attest to exactly how tall it is, because I have seen it listed anywhere from 120 to 200 feet, but it does appear closer to 200. To reach the trail, turn onto Big Cove Road where it begins at the Saunooke Village Shopping Center in Cherokee, then drive for six miles or so until you see a sign that says “Mingo Falls Next Right,” directing you across a small bridge to the trailhead. The hike to the falls is only one-fifth of a mile and mostly flat, but be aware that it begins by climbing up 161 wooden steps. The picture at the beginning of this post is of me and Erika at Mingo Falls when the water volume was high (June 2001) and the one below is of us and Sarah when it was a little bit less (December 2008):

Juney Whank Falls

As waterfalls go, Juney Whank is not the most dramatic. But it has an undeniable calming effect and is one of my sentimental favorites because it is the first waterfall I ever hiked to, when my grandparents brought me and my cousins here in 1982. To reach it, follow the signs from Bryson City to Deep Creek Campground and drive to the end of the campground road, where you will find a parking lot on your left. The trail departs from the upper end of the lot and is clearly marked. Although it goes up and down quite a bit, it is only a third of a mile before it reaches the falls, where a log bridge offers a close-up view. From here you can backtrack to your car; or cross to the other side of the bridge and turn right on an intersecting path, then turn right on another one 25 yards later and follow it downhill to the Deep Creek Trail (described next).

Deep Creek Trail

This trail begins next to the same parking lot as the one above. Wide and level, it is actually a gravel continuation of the campground road, located beyond a metal gate that prevents cars from coming this way. It runs beside Deep Creek and after about one-fifth of a mile arrives at the spot where Tom Branch Falls is visible on the opposite side of the creek. Walk another half-mile and you will you reach a junction with the Indian Creek Falls Trail on the right. Turn onto it and after 100 yards or so you will arrive at the walk’s main destination, Indian Creek Falls itself. Unmarked side paths allow you to get right next to it, like I did here:

Pinnacle Park

This park is one of Western North Carolina’s best kept secrets. From Sylva, drive east on Skyline Drive, turn left on Fisher Creek Road, and follow it until it ends. A trail departs from here and follows Fisher Creek up the mountainside. Though the trail does not lead to any named waterfalls, the creek cascades plenty of times due to the mountain’s steep grade. The cascade pictured below was about 10 minutes into our walk and was not the first one we encountered. The trail through Pinnacle Park is easy in that it is wide and clear, but difficult in that it goes up, up, up for more than six miles; however, if you are here to see the cascades, they are everywhere and you can turn around whenever you want. Continuing all the way to the summit is a topic for another post!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

No Oil Here

I have written before about Treasure Island, FL, which is on the Gulf Coast about halfway down Florida's peninsula. Having just returned from our annual Beach Weekend there, I feel compelled to mention that it has not been touched by the BP oil spill and there is a good chance it never will be. This picture of me and Sarah shows how clean the water is:

And this one shows how beautiful Treasure Island is when the sun starts to go down:

I understand why tourists have been hesitant to make reservations for the Florida beaches, and since no one can promise they will still be clean months from now, I will not try to talk anyone into spending their money on plans to come here far in advance. But as of today, you would have to drive 420 miles from here to reach the nearest place that has seen even a tar ball from the spill. A trip to these parts is a very safe bet for the foreseeable near term, so if you are planning to take a vacation in the next few weeks and haven't decided where to go, head on down.

One benefit of the spill is that you may be able to get a good deal, because fewer people are making reservations this year. And maybe while you're in the water, you will have the good fortune to see a manatee swim right by, like happened to us on Saturday. Hopefully you will enjoy your trip as much as we enjoyed ours.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Summer Solstice

In my post at the beginning of winter, I suggested that those who curse the cold should learn to appreciate everything that is beautiful about winter.

Now it’s my turn. Because I do not like hot weather, summer is my least favorite season. But there are still things I enjoy about it, and surprisingly, some of them are specific to this sweat-soaked state in which I live. So here are some thoughts on summer’s first day:

I love opening the season with our annual Beach Weekend.

I love Independence Day.

I love that there is one time of year when I am able to prefer chilled white wine over room temperature red wine.

I love when evening breezes carry the sweet scent of orange blossoms across Florida.

I love watching swallow-tailed kites, one of my favorite birds of prey, as they soar in the air and seem to stay up there forever without flapping their wings.

I love watching fireflies illuminate the woods at dusk.

I love the dramatic pulse of Florida’s afternoon storms, when black clouds darken the sky and spew lighting and thunder and unleash torrents of blinding rain – only to blow away and be replaced by sunny skies in less than an hour.

And finally, though this would be true any time of year, I love San Diego.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Washington Wrap-up

To cap off my last two posts about Washington state's Olympic Peninsula, here are some pictures from the peninsula that we took in spots other than Port Angeles and the Hoh Rain Forest.

First off, here we are on Hurricane Ridge:

The next picture is of Lake Crescent Lodge, and below that is one of Lake Crescent itself. They are located next to each other in Olympic National Park, and the lodge is sure to satisfy you if you would rather stay in the woods than in town.

In my April 27th post I mentioned that we hiked along the Sol Duc River. The next picture is of that hike's ultimate destination, Sol Duc Falls. You can see how the river makes a 90-degree turn at the bottom.

Downstream from the falls, the Sol Duc gets wider, fuller, and faster. The next picture is of a part of the river known as Salmon Cascades. Because the Sol Duc flows behind the Cullen house in those uber-popular Twilight novels, I figured there might be some readers who would appreciate seeing this.

Outside the town of Sequim is this zoo that allows you to drive your car through fields of animals. I would be lying if I said it is one of the country's best zoos, but it is definitely unique. When a zebra blocked our path and his cohorts approached our windows to beg for food, I found myself wondering: Where else in America could this happen? And as a lifelong bear enthusiast, I loved being this close to a grizzly:

Now, I guess I have to admit that I was wrong when I said these pictures would not include any from the Hoh Rain Forest. The next two are of an enormous Sitka spruce that grows there, plus an informational sign about the tree. Because the tree is alongside the road to the visitor center, you can see it without venturing onto a trail.

Finally, if you read my last two posts you may have wondered how the Hoh can receive so much more rainfall than Port Angeles when they are so close to one another. It is because Port Angeles sits just inside the Olympic Rain Shadow, and for an explanation of that phenomenon, go here. The Olympic Peninsula is a lovely and fascinating place, and I hope you are inspired to visit it.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Northwestward Hoh

My last post was about Port Angeles, Washington, a town that receives only 25 inches of annual precipitation despite being located on the famously wet Olympic Peninsula. I wrote that spending time in Port Angeles could make it “hard to believe you are sharing the peninsula with temperate rain forests.”

But trust me when I say you won’t have to travel far to find those soggy woods. As the crow flies, less than 60 miles away is a valley where annual rainfall exceeds 12 feet and fog drip adds another 2½ feet to that. It is a place where branches are clothed in green moss, trees stand taller than 20-story buildings, and ferns grow larger than men. This is the Hoh Rain Forest, and here is a picture of Erika and me at the base of one of its giant Sitka spruces, looking frighteningly young:

Located farther north than Toronto, the Hoh disproves the common belief that all rain forests are tropical jungles. Its abundance of established trees makes it hard for young ones to gain a foothold on the forest floor, but this problem is solved by nurse logs. Basically, after a log falls it starts to decay very slowly, and in the process becomes a kind of compost. When seeds from other trees land on that log, they germinate and grow from it rather than from the ground; and as they age their roots extend not only through the log but around it. Eventually the log decays entirely and vanishes, and any tree that “nursed” on it is left perched on above-ground roots.

Animal lovers will enjoy the Hoh just as much as plant lovers. Its most celebrated species is the Roosevelt elk, which outweighs the Rocky Mountain elk by 25 percent and lives only on the Olympic Peninsula. Meanwhile, cougars prowl the forest and spotted owls nest in the canopy. Black bears feed on fish from the Hoh River, which include chinook salmon, coho salmon, and steelhead trout. And, not to be outdone, banana slugs attract attention with their 9-inch length and bright yellow color.

The routing of roads around the perimeter of Olympic National Park means you must travel farther than a crow to get from Port Angeles to the Hoh. However, the drive’s scenery more than makes up for its 1½-hour duration, and Twilight fans will be happy to know it goes right through Forks and past the turn-off to La Push.

Once you arrive you will have ample opportunity to experience the rain forest up close, since three hiking trails depart from the vicinity of the visitor center. They are the ¾–mile Hall of Mosses Trail, 1¼-mile Spruce Trail, and 17-mile Hoh River Trail. We completed the first two and hiked part of the third. This picture shows where one of them was routed between fallen logs:

Plan on spending at least one night in the wild if you want to hike the third trail in its entirety, because its 17 miles are one-way. From it, you can connect with the Hoh Lake Trail and make your way up the slopes of the peninsula’s highest mountain, all the way above timberline to the edge of Blue Glacier.

No matter how much you already “love nature,” after you see the Hoh Rain Forest you will have an even greater appreciation of just how prolific our world is.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Port Angeles

I stepped onto the private balcony, and immediately wished I lived here on the edge of America. Above me stood a western red cedar, dark green needles hanging from its limbs, and below me the town sloped gently to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. On the opposite side of the bed and breakfast, beyond town, the Olympic Mountains rose to snow-capped heights.

When Erika and I decided to travel to Washington state, we knew we wanted to spend part of the trip on the Olympic Peninsula. And after a little research we decided to stay in Port Angeles because it seemed to be the peninsula’s most ideally located place. This was before Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels made it the setting for several key scenes and caused it to become a bit of a household name.

Sitting just off-center on the peninsula’s north coast, Port Angeles is not too far east of the Pacific or west of Puget Sound. From its waterfront you can see Canada -- specifically, Vancouver Island and the capital city of Victoria, British Columbia, which will tempt you to head over on the ferry and make your trip international. If you do that, you might see orcas swimming the strait.

One of the best things about Port Angeles’s location is that it offers easy access to the gorgeous wilds of Olympic National Park, which are home to luxuriant forests, cascading rivers, and more than 60 miles of undeveloped coast. The following picture is of a hiking trail as it approaches Marymere Falls, with the falls hazily visible in the background. The same day we walked there, we also hiked along the Sol Duc River where a bald eagle soared low overhead (Twilight fans may recall that the Sol Duc is the river that flows behind the Cullen house).

A 17-mile drive from town takes you to the summit of Hurricane Ridge, whose mile-high altitude seems even higher because it rises from so close to the sea. Here is just one of the stunning views we saw from there:

But even if Port Angeles were not centrally located and close to the national park, it would still be a very worthy destination with its Waterfront Trail, museums and galleries, and attractive neighborhoods. Nice shops can be found throughout town, including this world-unto-itself where we bought just enough that we had to purchase another suitcase for the flight home.

Do not fall prey to the misperception that just because Port Angeles is on the Olympic Peninsula, it always rains here. In reality, it averages just 25 inches of precipitation per year, while Miami averages 62, Atlanta 51, and New York 45. Even Oklahoma City sees more precipitation than Port Angeles.

What’s more, greater than half the rainfall occurs from November through February, when people are least likely to be vacationing. If you come during the rest of the year -- especially summer, when temperatures are in the 70’s and rain averages less than an inch per month -- you will find it hard to believe you are sharing the peninsula with temperate rain forests. We had nothing but blue skies when we spent more than three days here in October.

There is all manner of lodging available, but I will always think of this as a B&B town because it was the first place we ever lodged in a true bed-and-breakfast: you know, the kind of inn where the owners greet you personally and prepare your breakfast each morning, and you get to know the other guests by eating breakfast together in the dining room. We stayed at the Five SeaSuns and could not have had a more pleasant experience. Its husband-and-wife owners, Bob and Jan Harbick, were a fount of information about the area and even called the ranger station to get information for us before we went hiking one day.

When we return to Port Angeles, we will stay at the Five SeaSuns again. But if you want to take the rent-a-house approach I have written about before, go here to check your options. And if you want to go the hotel route, both the Downtown Hotel and Olympic Lodge are well regarded.

In closing, here is a picture of us on the steps of the Five SeaSuns, taken by Mr. Harbick the morning we left:

Note: The picture at the beginning of the post was given to us by the owners of the Five SeaSuns.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Spring Equinox

Some thoughts about spring on its first day:

I love how it is often warm and rarely humid.

I love that bright, shimmering shade of green that new leaves give to old trees.

I love how wildflowers turn ordinary roadsides into vivid profusions of color and life.

I love going swimming with my daughter again.

I love sitting outside in the afternoon and drinking a margarita beneath a cloudless blue sky.

I love spring training baseball.

And finally, I am riveted by the most intense pursuit in all of sports: the NHL playoffs.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Great Places To Drink An Adult Beverage

Back in November, I wrote about great places to enjoy an adult beverage and said I would make it a recurring topic, each time offering up five recommendations in alphabetical order. Here, finally, is installment number two.

Over the past few days, as I went through my mental list of drinking spots I have been, a common theme emerged: Most of the ones that came immediately to mind have outdoor spaces. I don’t know why that is -- maybe it’s just because this winter has been especially cold and everyone is ready for spring to arrive -- but whatever the reason, there is no denying that enjoying a drink outside is a special treat, and no denying that most of us are eager for temperatures to warm up so we can do it again. So, here are five places sure to please:

The Balcony Bar & Restaurant; Eureka Springs, AR

I mentioned another merchant in Eureka Springs during a previous post, so you might say this Arkansas town has become something of a recurring topic all by itself. One of these days I will devote a post to the town as a whole, but right now I’m praising the simple charm of The Balcony Bar & Restaurant, which you will find on the second floor of the 105-year-old Basin Park Hotel. To get the full effect, grab a seat on The Balcony’s balcony and down a cold beer while the sun kisses your face. Look down at this view of the spot where Spring and Cushing Streets split, and watch as pedestrians scurry toward the town’s many shops. If you are into people-watching, this vantage point is meant for you.

Benziger Family Winery; Glen Ellen, CA

You have probably seen Benziger’s wines in your grocery store, and may have bought some to drink at home, but it is an entirely different experience when you consume their wine on their Sonoma Valley estate. You drive past terraced hillsides and an inexplicable replica of the Parthenon to arrive at the tasting room. Once there, you get to sample hard-to-find, limited production offerings you probably haven’t heard of before. After you buy a bottle, treat yourself to a drink while walking the grounds, which offer up views of trellises and tended vines and the low ridges which enclose the valley. Benziger is everything a winery should be.

Chowning’s Tavern; Williamsburg, VA

Josiah Chowning (pronounced chew-ning) opened his tavern in 1766, and today it continues on Duke of Gloucester Street in the heart of Colonial Williamsburg. The inside of Chowning’s has rustic appeal with pine floors and low beams, but for the purposes of this post, you need to take advantage of the large patio out back. There, you can sit beneath an expansive grape arbor while enjoying locally brewed ales. Butterflies flutter among the foliage in spring, clusters of grapes hang from it in early fall, and afternoons are pleasant either way. If you’re hungry, gobble down a pit-cooked barbecue sandwich...and if you feel you must spend time inside, come back at night when you can dine by candlelight and partake in 18th century games.

Forsyth Park; Savannah, GA

Savannah owes its reputation as America’s best walking city to its lush squares, tree-lined boulevards, stately architecture -- and also to the fact you can drink on the streets. Occupying a two- by six-block green space at the southern end of the city’s historic district, Forsyth Park is crisscrossed by paved paths that slip beneath oak branches and lead to a large Parisian fountain. Fill your cup with pale ale or chardonnay, then sip away as you meander. Lie on the park’s lawn with your lover, sipping together, and you will never want to leave.

The Mill Top Tavern; St. Augustine, FL

Situated atop a water mill that was built in 1888 on the oldest street in America’s oldest city, this tavern is small and unpretentious. Yet at the same time, it knows its atmosphere can not be beat. There is live music every day, and from the tavern’s open air deck you can see the Castillo de San Marcos, a fort that has been standing since the 1600’s. Whether you are here in the afternoon or late in the evening -- whether you are drinking a bottle of Sam Adams or sharing a pitcher of Bud Light -- The Mill Top will not disappoint. And as you can see, kids are welcome, at least during the day:

Thursday, February 18, 2010


...I gazed up at a skyscape that looked like it came straight out of Lord of the Rings. Just where the pinkish hue of the lower sky gave way to cobalt blue above, three figures were laid out beside each other like a celestial ellipsis, each of them icy white and starkly visible. On the left was the start of a distant contrail being formed as I watched, while Venus shone brightly in the middle and a waxing crescent moon hung suspended on the right...The only sound was that of the dawn wind blowing softly. I again found myself feeling sorry for those who don’t realize that similar moments are waiting to be had by them, every day, if only they would take time to notice the vast Creation in which we exist. (January 2008)

I didn’t have my camera with me to capture the image that morning, but I will never forget how the sky looked. I was hiking in the Cypress Creek Preserve north of Tampa, and was so moved that I wrote the above passage into my still-unfinished book. Today, I am remembering that morning while trying to write this unconventional post.

As I see it, travel is composed of two aspects. On the one hand, there is the physical act of leaving home and going somewhere else. On the other, there is the mindset of letting go of your daily worries and immersing yourself in the beauties and joys of wherever you are in the world. The latter aspect is more important, because without it, all the physical traveling you do will be wasted.

So what does the sky have to do with all this elementary psychobabble? Simply put, it offers an instant vacation of the mind that is available to all of us at all times. The sky is stunning to look at and awesome to behold, yet people rarely pay attention to it. Check out the view below, which I captured on my iphone camera while driving to work one morning. Noticing it made me feel positive and less rushed, and the feeling lasted all day.

No matter how old we are, we tend to get stuck in the child’s way of thinking “the sky is blue.” But in reality, the sky is sometimes orange, sometimes filled with leaden clouds the color of coal, and when it is overcast, it might be ashen gray or pearly white.

At night the sky is black, and out in the country, away from city lights, a blizzard of stars punctures that blackness with innumerable points of light. When the moon is bright, the night sky serves as a dark canvas. Images in the foreground stand out against it, as did this forest when I camped on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee:

Even when the sky is the usual pale blue we immediately think of, it is still beautiful. I took the next picture in Wyoming in 1989. At first it seems to be a portrait just of the Hayden Valley and the ridges beyond -- but it would be nothing without that expansive sky. The more I have looked at this picture over the years, the more I have come to think of it as a skyscape rather than a landscape, and the more I wish my 18-year-old self had noticed what stretched above me when I took it.

To illustrate how much the sky changes based on the amount of moisture, and the angle of the sun’s rays, and the direction you are facing, consider the next two photos. They were both taken in Hernando County, Florida, shortly after the sun dropped below the horizon. But the first was taken on an especially cloudy day looking west (i.e., in the direction of the sunset) while the second was on a day of average cloudiness looking east.

And do you notice how the second photo puts the lie to the notion that “sky blue” automatically means pale blue?

So again, where am I going with this? I just think that if people would take time to look up and appreciate the heavens, they would feel less stress no matter where they are or what they are doing. But instead, much like me in Wyoming, most people fail to appreciate the sky even when they are on vacation.

If we would just remember to glance up and ponder it every day, we would get more good vibes and life itself might start to feel like a vacation. Call me crazy, but that’s what I believe.