My Big Apple favorites

Dining out? Facing a googolplex of options? Italian, French, Korean, Slavic, American, and so on…? Enjoying a ginormous park in the middle of a vast metropolis? Perhaps discovering a quaint, beautifully maintained zoo (or two) inside the park? You just might be in New York City.

Home to hundreds of restaurants and scores of parks, NYC’s theatre district showcases dozens of on-and-off Broadway productions. Finding yourself in The Big Apple also means plenty of bars, pubs and fancy cafes where one can enjoy a favorite coffee or nightcap, or a fancy new boozy beverage.

So many options! Only your available moments limit your choices. Let me share with you a few of my favorite discoveries…

A ghost

Open year around, the Central Park Zoo is home to some very special critters. Like playful sea lions. Fancy peacocks. And the elusive snow leopard. Referred to as a “ghost cat” in the 2013 movie “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, this beautiful hunter seemed in sync with its wintery surroundings.

Visiting the zoo in early March meant cold weather for us, but also smaller crowds. Bundling up, we were able to visit each group of animals with ease, having great vantage points at every stop.

When we were ready to warm up a bit, we ducked into the Tropic Zone. Adjusting to the immediate climate change by removing our coat-glove-scarf combos, we discovered the occupants to be just as welcoming as the temperature. They seemed just as curious about us as we were about them.

A legend

Still inside Central Park—just outside the Tisch Children’s Zoo—stands a very special statue: Balto. Famous for leading his sled team in the final 53 mile stretch of snow-blinding wild Alaska wilderness (destination Nome) January 1925, this Siberian Husky and his pack won the hearts of people all over the world. Their cargo? Medicine, desperately needed to battle a diphtheria outbreak.

Their successful impossible mission inspired New Yorkers to commission this statue that very same year; a beautiful monument to all the sled teams—all the people and dogs who saved the lives of Nome’s children. Having enjoyed the 1995 animated movie “Balto” that featured a cameo of this statue, it was exciting for me to see it in person.

A queen

In step with our winter theme, we headed for the St. James theatre and Disney’s production of “Frozen” on Broadway. Having enjoyed Disney’s movie version—and its cruise line musical version—we were curious; how would it transition to this world famous entertainment capital? Answer: beautifully!

Queen Elsa, Princess Anna, and all their friends took to the stage, sharing their story in both familiar and new ways. Similar to Disney’s at-sea production, this bold version adds new songs, and tells the tale in a way that appeals to Frozen fanatics without leaving any Frozen newbies in the cold. We absolutely loved it.

A plate

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed many an afternoon tea, but the Russian Tea Room provided a unique first for me: caviar atop a mini pancake. Delicious! Another first: sour cherries to flavor the tea. Also delicious! RTR has treated NYC restaurant patrons for almost one hundred years. We truly enjoyed wonderful food and fantastic service in this beautifully appointed room.

Sometimes there’s nothing better than a plate of linguini and a glass of vino to sing my soul to sleep. Biricchino Italian Restaurant—definitely a Chelsea neighborhood gem—features flavorfully fresh ingredients woven into pasta perfection. Lots of other amazing dishes too, but my favorite is the linguini with clams…ahhhhh…

And sometimes there’s nothing better than simplicity. A simple menu, a perfect cut of beef and a side of crispy French fries. And in this case, the fries really are French. Entering Le Relais de Venise and glancing at the paintings, you might think for a moment that Italian is the cuisine. Even the name might suggest so, but it’s only a nod to a street in Paris. The menu is set; the server asks only how you’d like your meat prepared.

Enjoying our green salads with a glass of beautiful French wine, and awaiting the main course, we began to relax in this place of clean and simple elegance. The price is no nonsense too; very reasonable. Wonderful food and excellent service, Le Relais de Venise is a fun place for me to revisit every time I’m in The Big Apple.

In search of something hot and nourishing one chilly evening, we headed out for a big bowl of soup. Thankfully we found our savory broth at Miss Korea. Just a block from the Hyatt Herald Square—our very comfy hotel—we didn’t wait long for a table, despite the restaurant’s obvious popularity.

Each of us ordered the beef bone broth. Soooooo gooooood! That, along with delicious house barley tea and fresh sides; we ate like royalty.

When you’re in the mood for something sweet—a ginormous something sweet—I suggest paying a visit to Levain Bakery. Lots of delectable goodies, and coffee drinks too, but you owe it to yourself to try their signature item: the chocolate chip cookie. Quite possibly the biggest chocolate chip cookies in the city, this bakery doesn’t just go for size; it goes for quality too.

The line is always out the door here, no matter the weather, so be sure to pack your patience as you wait for your turn at the counter. It will be worth the wait. Trust me.

In addition to purchasing one cookie each to enjoy right away, we picked up a dozen to share with friends and family back home. And by some miracle, two chairs freed up at their small dining counter just as we made our purchase, allowing us to enjoy the atmosphere (as well as our lattes and cookies) as we awaited our pink box of take-home goodies.

A drink

When it’s time for a spirited beverage (before, during or after dinner), I recommend Crimson and Rye. There are tables available, but our preference is to take a seat at the semicircular bar. We love to watch the mixologists in action as we nosh on bar food while enjoying our libations. This visit, I chose an Irish Coffee. Yummy stuff!

As you might have guessed, narrowing my favorites list for NYC was not easy. Not a bad problem to have… J 🍪

 

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NYCity High Line

I love New York! In the city that never sleeps, it’s rather easy to find food, entertainment, attractions and activities that speak to all people and budgets.

It can be overwhelming, given all the choices, but if you’re willing to humor yourself with a mere sample of what NYC has to offer, you’ll be just fine.

Lots of transportation choices too for getting around, but my favorite way is to walk. Simply put, I can see more of the town (while I bank more steps to my FitBit).

On a recent March trip to the Big Apple, my travel companion and I challenged ourselves to reach all our city destinations on foot. A bit of a lofty dare, given winter was in no hurry to leave. But one route in particular made our Chelsea District adventures a pleasure: an elevated path known as The High Line.

The walkway

From our hotel—the perfectly placed Hyatt Regent Square—we headed west along W 30th Street. Picking up an access stairwell at 10th Avenue, we soon found ourselves at one of the most beautiful urban walkways I’ve ever seen.

Repurposing an old elevated railway line, Friends of the High Line and the City of New York created a uniquely clever public park—one that showcases a bit of its history along with some very modern urban art.

The scenery

The view from the walkway features a few key signature NYC skyline items, such as the Empire State Building and the Hudson River. But this long-and-lean park also grants one-of-a-kind views that highlight artistically painted buildings (and some “unofficial” art) we encountered along the way.

Not to be outdone by objects outside the park, The High Line is home to many cleverly displayed works of art created just for the walkway. Beautiful in their own right, all artwork inside this public space complimented the surroundings perfectly, without being distracting.

The factory

Ever heard of the National Biscuit Company? Perhaps if I shortened its name: Nabisco. That’s right—from the 1890s to the 1950s, Oreos, Premium Saltine Crackers and other iconic baked goods were manufactured here at this location.

In the 1990s, this factory site was given a facelift, and Chelsea Market was born. Exiting The High Line at W 17th Street, we entered the old brick building ready to explore.

Similar to The High Line in shape, Chelsea Market stretches the long way between 9th and 10th streets, running parallel between W 15th and 16th. Much of the old brick walls and concrete flooring that once housed flour and giant bakery equipment now hold exciting specialty shops and fun restaurants.

Walking through the market, I loved discovering showcases of local and factory history. But what really caught my eye was how one piece of old plumbing was turned into an indoor urban waterfall. Pretty cool! Also cool: seeing old Nabisco ads—painted onto the brick—as active participants of the market’s décor.

We grabbed matcha green tea lattes (and pastries!) at Chalait, then headed back to The High Line. Finding a bench in the sun, we enjoyed our well earned treats.

Returning to Chelsea Market the following three days via our new favorite walkway, we enjoyed brunching at Friedmans Lunch. And shopping! We visited many stores and stands, making purchases at Artists and Fleas, Pearl River Mart and Chelsea Wine Vault.

Inclement weather can limit access to The High Line—something we discovered one icy morning—but the park’s crew works hard to keep the walkway open, and the stairwells and elevators in good condition, maintaining safety for its patrons.

Now that spring is in the air, walking outside is a little more comfortable. So if you find yourself in NYC this season, and fancy a stroll with a view, head to The High Line. My new favorite urban walk. J 👣

 

Willamette Valley winter

Going out for a drive—in January? Winter road trips through the Pacific Northwest can display a variety of climate changes and weather conditions, all in the span of just a few miles. But in general, staying west of the Cascades, things like mild temperatures and on again-off again precipitation are fairly predictable. So, gambling on a mixed bag of sun and rain, we packed up the car for our off-season adventure.

Heading south along I-5 from Seattle, the passing evergreen trees (seemingly oblivious to seasonal temperaments) stand alongside the many deciduous rows of arbor.

Nearing our destination, the now dormant branches and vines hold the promise of fruit, hazelnuts and wine grapes. Welcome to the Willamette Valley! Oregon’s modern day land of milk and honey. Excitedly, we pull into our first stop: Erath Winery.

Pinots & popcorn

I always enjoy celebrating fun (albeit slightly obscure) holidays, and discovering new food and wine pairings, but didn’t really expect to do both on our first day. Erath, however, enjoys hosting events for its patrons that combine holiday themed nosh with its world famous pinots. As luck would have it, we timed our visit on National Popcorn Day.

Munching a caramel coated cup of the famed American snack alongside each wine flight, we added a meat, cheese and hazelnut plate to our table of treats. Surprisingly, I found myself asking our server for more popcorn goodness (made by How Sweet It Is of Portland), eventually purchasing two containers worth to go along with our take-home wine bottles of choice.

As we sipped our pinots, our server, Brandon, answered our many curious questions. By the way, do you know that Riedel makes a wine glass just for New World Pinot Noirs? It’s true! Inspired by this coastal state’s amazing production of said varietal, we enjoyed each item from our tasting menu in one of these “OPN” (Oregon Pinot Noir) Riedel wine glasses…

Ducks & doughnuts

Saying goodbye to Erath, we made our way a little farther south in the valley to Eugene. Time for a little trivia! This college town is home to the University of Oregon—the only school with a famous Disney cartoon character for a mascot. Once partnered with Walt Disney himself, the U of O now adorns its athletes and fans with a logo featuring a version of the one and only Donald Duck.

We pull up to the Valley River Inn, our home for the next two nights. We love this place! Our room faces the beautiful Willamette River, with a wonderfully walkable path to Jacobs Park located on the riverbank across the water from our hotel. And when we’re ready to do a little shopping, Valley River Center sits just across the parking lot.

Time for something sweet! Generally speaking, doughnuts are not a regular item on my shopping list. But when in Eugene, there’s one thing we don’t leave town without: a box of Voodoo Doughnut. Let’s see, how shall I describe VD? Different? Yes. Unusual? Yup, that too. But I think my word of choice has to be this one: DELICIOUS—they make the tastiest doughnuts! Absolutely—every time.

Corks & Kings

Up for a short drive, we made our way through the quiet, green countryside on the outskirts of Eugene to the rolling hills of King Estate Winery.

Founded by Edward J. King Jr. and his son Ed King III, this family owned and farmed vineyard commands a breathtaking view of its Willamette Valley grounds. Inside the establishment, elegance and quality are visible in every direction.

During previous visits here, we’ve enjoyed combining a wine flight in the restaurant with a late lunch, but on this visit we chose to taste—then tour.

First, the tasting. Alyssa served our wine menu selections, commenting on the style and nuances of each pour. We learned a little vocabulary and history too. For example, Oregon wine grapes were first planted in the 1960s. King Estate’s vines—first planted in 1991—provide a sizable amount of the Willamette Valley AVA (American Viticulture Area) pinots. Just how sizable? Tour guide Emily filled us in…

Time for a pop quiz! How many acres make up Oregon’s AVAs?

  • 500,000
  • 1,000,000
  • 3,000,000+

Answer? The current total is about 3,400,000 acres. That’s a LOT of wine grapes…

We began our tour in the room where the grapes begin theirs: the crush pad. The impressive industrial equipment crushes the fruit into juice, then sends it through Willy Wonka-like sky tubes to various (and ginormous) steel tanks along the walls of the pad.

Making our way around the facility, Emily shared with us a few details about King Estate’s big-picture approach to farming, referring to biodynamic farming as their method of choice. Everything from bees to compost do their thing on these 500+ acres.

Once the juice is mixed with yeast in either steel containers or oak barrels, the soon-to-be-wine concoctions are managed very carefully by the King Estate team.

Corks or caps? Like many wineries, King Estate uses both. On our tour, we learned that when it comes to bottling wine, both sealing methods continue to prove successful.

Steel tanks or oak barrels? Again, King Estate uses both, but choosing the proper container for fermentation depends on the desired outcome. In general, white wines are stored in steel tanks that can hold from 300 to 4000 gallons.

Red wines almost always go through fermentation in oak barrels. A regular sized barrel will produce about 300 bottles; large barrels fill about 4000. Because oak can breathe, it provides an oxidative aging process, as well as flavor from the wood. However steel tanks provide a reductive means of aging; nothing passes through the walls to the fermenting wine.

Leaving King Estate—a few bottles added to our inventory—we felt good about their commitment to the quality of their products, as well as to the land.

We truly enjoy visiting this beautiful corner of the world known as the Willamette Valley. Quiet now, the activity level will pick up as winter gives way to spring, then summer, then harvest. The tourist headcount will pick up as well, which isn’t a bad thing. There’s always room here for those who like to celebrate all this valley has to offer. J 🍇

Notes on Nashville

Until my recent autumn visit to Nashville, I’d never heard of hot chicken, seen the Parthenon, or experienced music—great music—coming from every bar and restaurant simultaneously on a downtown street.

And now? Hot chicken is my new favorite, my knowledge of geography and history are in sync, and my impression of the music scene will never be the same.

Let’s start with the music, a legend and a funny song…

Native son

Back in my youngster days, watching evening television meant watching whatever program my parents chose. Thankfully, there were a few shows we all could agree on. From 1969-71, The Johnny Cash Show entertained families like ours all across the country.

His records were a big part of my mom and dad’s vinyl collection. And while the deeper meanings of his lyrics escaped my youthful ears, one of his songs always made me smile at any age:“ A Boy Named Sue.” So, learning we’d be in Nashville for a spell, I knew I just had to visit the Johnny Cash Museum.

A quick walk from our hotel (the Hampton Inn & Suites), this museum was a convenient and entertaining way to spend a couple of hours. Following a timeline of sorts, the direction of our self guided tour took us through his youth, his discovery and fame, and his golden years.

The exhibit items triggered many memories for me, but also provided me with several new-found facts about the life of the “Man in Black.” For instance, not only is he in the Country Music Hall of Fame, but also the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame too.

Walking the streets of Nashville, we quickly learned this town honors not only several equally famous country music stars, but all walks of art, melodic and otherwise. Most obviously though, day or night, from any sidewalk or street corner, we were within earshot of seriously great live music.

National exposition

A centennial mile marker is no small feat. One hundred years of statehood is celebration worthy! But what would be the best, most memorable way to honor Tennessee? Well, in 1897, with a little assistance from the NC&StL Railway and a big desire to establish a true hub of art and culture in Nashville, Centennial Park was born.

And now, it’s time to sync up my knowledge of geography with a little less-than-ancient history. The Parthenon—as in Athens, Greece—was built from 447-438 BC to honor the city’s patron saint, Athena. Hundreds of years later, in 1897 Nashville, a replica of this very famous Greek landmark came into being as part of the centennial celebration.

Serving as a gallery of fine arts during the exposition, the purpose of this new Parthenon was to inspire love, beauty and a true appreciation for the arts. And today? Looking around this city, I’d say the Centennial Park version is a solid monument to that very ideal.

And what a beautiful place it is. We loved walking through the park’s many gardens, stopping every now and then to admire the pond, read the signs, enjoy the statues, and of course, visit the Parthenon. Still featuring fine art—and a ginormously tall Athena statue!—this museum (maintained by the Nashville Parks & Recreation) is fantastic. As in, WOW!

Noshing local

All our appreciation for beautiful music, “modern” replicas and unique museums helped us work up an appetite for yet another art: culinary. Time to showcase a few of Nashville’s foodie hits.

While fried chicken is a well known southern treat, “hot chicken” was a new term for me. But Hattie B’s Hot Chicken brought me up to speed instantly. Talk about delicious! Soooooo moist and flavorful, from the perfectly breaded crust to the very last juicy cayenne peppered bite. Every piece of chicken was this way!

The side dishes too were amazing. Excellent quality and flavor. We visited two different Hattie B’s, both wonderful, and each featuring a unique set of local microbrews—a little something special to help wash down the heat…

Local and sustainable. That’s what our daughter was looking for in a sit down restaurant. Her find? Farm House. Just a five-minute walk from our hotel, this eatery was packed with patrons (on a Monday night…?…thank goodness for reservations). Together we shared an unpretentious atmosphere that featured excellent food and service. What more could we ask for? Well, maybe some candy…

Savannah’s Candy Kitchen was the perfect place to find souvenirs, as well as something sweet to enjoy on the spot. Not much beats the amazing aroma of confections in progress; Savannah’s creative staff was hard at work assembling lots of sweet praline, decorative caramel apples and chocolatey nut clusters.

Back to the music; just so you know we didn’t enjoy tunes only from the sidewalks. We stepped into a bar called Crazy Town for a shot of bourbon and to hear—and see—the live band performing just near the entrance. The musicians put their hearts into each and every song, here and in every other bar we passed by on our way back to the hotel. It really was a nice way to end our stay.

If ever you find yourself looking for a melodic artsy foodie town that knows how to celebrate each moment of the day, I suggest paying Nashville a visit. Chances are you’ll leave with a whole new appreciation for all things art and soul. J 🎶

 

Under London

I ❤️ London—it’s an amazing city showcasing centuries of history, layered in royalty, exploration and culture. World famous landmarks like the London Bridge and Big Ben dot the skyline.

And London is big. Big, wide and deep. Stairs, tunnels, The Tube—even The Chunnel—carry you down, down, down, then all around. So, while there is much to see all over this town, there’s plenty to discover just below its surface. Recently we decided to spend a day recovering from jet lag by visiting a few places under London.

Medieval cells

“Thrown in the Clink” is a popular and somewhat flip expression describing a guilty party’s new residence: behind the many locked doors and iron bars of a prison. But did you know The Clink is an actual place? Well, it was…

Back in the day—way back from 1144 to 1780—a series of prisons existed near and along Clink Street. Why this specific site? The first such prison in the area opened in 1127. No more than a cellar, it belonged to the Palace of the Bishop of Winchester.

Over the next five centuries, hundreds of debtors, assorted criminals, religious martyrs and would-be witches spent time (and most likely their lives) in “the Clink.”

Today, a small wall is all that remains from the original facility, housed in The Clink Prison Museum. Near the London Bridge, this modern day nod to The Clink features many medieval devices used to restrain prisoners, as well as themed decor and sounds that set the tone. Entering the museum, we walked down into the awaiting and dark bit of London’s history…

The walls displayed easy-to-read placards, corresponding with nearby weapons and tools of a featured era, telling the stories of prison life and politics. A little like a haunted house, our self-guided tour took about 40 minutes. A quick “sentence,” compared to that of its former occupants.

Transportation tunnel

“Mind the gap” is a message painted along the edge of the subway platform, reminding all passengers to watch their step when The Tube doors open.

London cabbies are friendly and knowledgeable, and the red double decker buses are a fun, easy way to get around town. Still, my favorite way to shortcut the streets of this famous city is underground.

Making our way from The Clink to Camden Market, we headed down the nearest subway entrance—trusty Oyster cards in hand—exiting a mere 15 minutes later at our stop: Camden Town.

Tea in a basement

Next door to Regents Canal in Historic Central London, Camden Market features over 1000 unique shops, eateries and points of interest. Its own history is quite young, dating back only to the 1970s.

As the area’s industrial commodity (gin production) phased out, the music and fashion scene blossomed, growing into the diverse and contemporary gathering place it is today.

Approaching mid afternoon, we found ourselves ready for one of my favorite mealtimes: Afternoon Tea. And what better place to discover a modern twist to this time honored tradition than in a sub level shop: The Basement Tea Rooms.

Ready to take in our group of six, the Tea Room staff seated us at a fun low table, shopping options just an arm length away: sweaters, shoes, books—you name it!

Very reasonably priced, our tea, sandwiches and treats were fresh and delicious. Our casual traveler attire felt right at home here.

Stuffed after our delicious meal, it was time to sleep off our food coma back at our hotel. And despite the jet lag, we truly enjoyed our underground adventure.

What’s your favorite way to warm up to a different time zone? Well, when in London, I’ll head down under… J 🕳

 

Las Vegas lite

A weekend in Las Vegas? Sure! Help celebrate a few extended family birthdays? Of course—happy to! Only—I’ve never been. To Vegas. And I’m not much of a gambler. Or a partier.

So, what does one like me (of the low-key variety) do for entertainment? As it turns out, there’s something for everyone in Las Vegas—lots and lots of somethings…

Sin city sips

Chocolate is an easy sell for me. So is New York City. And so is Death By Chocolate, the martini styled chocolate drink I enjoyed with a few of my travel companions at The Chocolate Bar, two steps away from The Hershey Store at New York New York Resort & Casino.

A Las Vegas nod to The Big Apple, this resort features a little bit of everything one would associate with NYC: the Statue of Liberty, Time Square, the many burrows and that infamous skyline—but with a roller coaster weaving inside and out—just in case you forgot which New York you’re visiting.

Signature seasoning

As a youngster, Lawry’s Seasoning was a staple in my mom’s kitchen pantry. We enjoyed many a meal with Lawry’s enhancing the flavors of our food. I had no idea there would be an entire prime rib dinner restaurant by the same company awaiting our birthday celebration!

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A savory supper place…

This wonderful dining room features formal table side prime rib carving and tossed salad, along with some of the best service I’ve ever experienced at a bar and restaurant. Nothing was over-seasoned; all flavors were just right.

Also, I enjoyed reading the history of this flavorful company posted near their hostess podium. (Oh, and for anyone not interested in prime rib, there are other options on the menu.) A little bit of nostalgia mixed in with great food and wonderful service made for a very enjoyable dining experience.

Stars of the sea

A shark dive in the ocean? No. Not really my thing. Sharks within inches of my face—a thick, clear aquarium wall between us? Yes! Much more my thing. The Shark Reef Aquarium and Polar Journey at Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino features not only sharp-tooth swimming predators, but several species of underwater critters. Many tropical (and polar) land-based critters as well call this aquarium home.

Exploring this venue was the perfect activity for our entire group, ranging in age from seven to seventy-seven. All of us enjoyed watching the quiet grace and beauty of the sea life gliding before us, above us (and below) as they swam into our line of sight.

Lots of posted information, as well as a highly trained and experienced staff, answered all our questions. Queries like: “What’s the difference between venom and poison?” Or, “How do Stingrays eat?” We also learned that a Jellyfish is not really a fish.

Surreal stage

Calling “O” a stage show would be like calling Amsterdam a canal city. Both are sooooooo much more.

Cirque du Soleil’s “O” at the Bellagio Resort & Casino is beyond amazing. The performers sore, dance, swim—even dive—their way on-in-above (and below) the actual stage. The colors, costumes and scenery harmonize with the music to create a show unlike any other.

The stadium-like theater and tiered seating areas gave everyone an excellent and unobstructed view. This feature was most helpful, as there was usually more than one act in progress at any one time. Truly mesmerizing, this show was worth every penny. I would love to see it again!

Tuscany tease

Across the street from Lawry’s sits our hotel for the weekend: the Tuscany Suites & Casino. Hosting a convention attended by one of our family members, this place of lodging isn’t bedazzled like many a famous hotel on the strip.

It did however provide us with clean and spacious rooms, and a decent place to meet for breakfast: Marilyn’s. Understated but less expensive than many others in the area, we were comfortable here.

Next-time notes

Upon learning about our Vegas trip, many friends and family members gave us the following recommendations—places we ran out of time for, so they’ll just have to wait for a return visit:

Ziplining—over old Las Vegas! I love ziplining, so this event is definitely on my “next time” list.

Breakfast at The Egg Slut. The menu looks fantastic! And let’s face it—the name cracks me up.

Cosmopolitan hotel hair styling bar—because I’ve always wanted someone to serve me wine while having my hair styled…

I even dropped a dollar in a slot machine at the airport. Did I win anything? Let’s just say the city of Las Vegas is a dollar richer, thanks to me.

We really did have a great time visiting this surreal desert town. Maybe next time, I’ll get my dollar back. J 🎲 🎲

 

Scenic San Juan

How is it that a popular tourist destination at the height of tourist season can seem so…unpopulated? Welcome to the San Juans.

Enjoying a couple of three-day August weekends here gave me the chance to explore this archipelago’s namesake: the island of San Juan itself.

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed prior visits to San Juan, as well as trips to Orcas and Lopez islands too, and I always reach the same conclusion. Once we leave the ferry, where does everyone go?

The town

Inches from the dock, Friday Harbor greets ferry passengers as they disembark, ready to take them into its many unique stores, restaurants, inns and other attractions. And so much can be accessed via colorful, well maintained shop allies.

Pedestrian friendly, even near the dock, this town takes walkable to a whole new level. Plenty of sidewalks and crosswalks accommodate visitors. And the drivers exhibit patience I usually witness only in Canada.

The beaches

When you’re ready to get outta town, you won’t have far to go. Just a few minutes from Friday Harbor, we found ourselves driving along the island’s byways through farmlands, forests and hilly terrain on our way to the not so distant shoreline.

San Juan island is home to several beachfront state and local parks, all very nicely maintained. But if you’re looking for one that features a few extras—like whale watching from rocky cliffs—Lime Kiln Point State Park topped our list.

Truth be told, the Orcas that happened to be swimming by just as we reached the cliffs were the highlight of our park visit. Watching the pod make its way through the channel, so close to the shore, was a treat I’ll remember forever. Lucky for us, we could hear some of their calls too, as well as hear—and see—their blowholes in action. A few of the whales even popped their heads out of the water for a bit, as if to sneak a peek at us too. Talk about cool!

Near the cliffs, we found lots of illustrations and information posted about the Orcas, which was helpful in understanding more about these magnificent marine mammals. Lime Kiln also features an interpretive center near its picturesque lighthouse, and a snack stand.

If you’re looking for a beach where you can feel the sand between your toes, well… we discovered one of those too: Jackson Beach Park. A long stretch of beach, driftwood and sand awaited our arrival. And for anyone who’d like to have a picnic complete with a bonfire, Jackson Beach provides the necessary amenities.

Cattle Point—part of San Juan Island’s National Historic Park—features a little of both: rocky cliffs, and sandy beaches. And trails too. Such a pretty place! It’s worth a stop, just for the scenery.

The activities

A little more inland, we found fields of purple at the Pelindaba Lavender Farm. Approaching the end of the season, their plants still offered plenty of color and fun photo ops. The gift shop and treats counter provided ample shopping and munching opportunities, and the looping video programs and attractive displays made learning all about lavender fun and fragrant.

The winner here for me was the deliciously different lavender ice cream sandwich. Locally made vanilla lavender icy goodness squished between two double chocolate cookies…YUM! 😋

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If you’re in the mood for cuteness overload, check out the Krystal Acres Alpaca Country Store. Well, the cuteness is actually behind the store, roaming the fields. Alpacas—over 50 of them—didn’t seem to mind being photographed as they grazed, sauntered and otherwise enjoyed the day in their own mellow way. Some even seemed willing to strike a pose for our cameras!

Inside the store, we found beautiful wool garments (many imported from Peru), as well as yarn produced by our wooly photo models out back. As yarn is my weakness, I made a purchase. The yarn’s tags featured the photos and names of the Alpacas who provided the wool—how fun!

When we were ready for a sip of vino, we made our way to San Juan Vineyards. Under new management, this quiet, beautiful location features a brand new wine bar that runs the length of the historic school house—a structure featured on all their wine labels—with several stand up tables to accommodate many patrons.

After completing a wine tasting, my friends selected a bottle of their favorite. San Juan Vineyards also sells their wines on the ferries that service the islands; nice to see the success of their efforts expanding off the island.

Time to stretch our legs! The annual IslandRec 8.8k loop fun run celebrated its 41st year this month! And we were lucky enough to be a part of the event. Also lucky (for me), walking the route was perfectly acceptable. So I did, along with a friend who didn’t mind not competing for a placement ribbon…

A quiet yet well supervised course, water stations and event volunteers greeted us at almost every mile marker. And at the finish line, another annual event awaited our arrival: the San Juan County Fair.

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I love fairs! The exhibits, the animals, the food—and the competitions. Like chicken races. Nothing more adorable than watching young handlers release their fierce competitors at the words “Ready, set, GO!” Equally adorable is watching said handlers chase down and recapture their feathered friends, post race. (Okay, maybe more amusing than adorable…)

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The cuisine

Having a total of six days on San Juan allowed me the glorious opportunity to visit several eateries. Here’s a highlight of my favorites:

Vinney’s. When you’re in the mood for Italian food, this place tops my list—as in I wish it were closer to home! Excellent cuisine, great service and very popular with the locals. We dined here twice during one of my weekend trips.

The Cheesecake Café & Bakery. A dangerously delicious place. I enjoyed the ham & cheese croissants, lattes, and Nutella Rice Krispie treats. My friends enjoyed the cheesecakes—two of the many flavors, anyway. Tables available inside and out, in full view of the ferry dock, which just happens to be next door.

The Bean Café. Yummy lattes, cookies and more—just a very short walk from the dock. Seating inside and out, this location also features a TV displaying a live feed of the ferry dock; a noteworthy item for anyone timing an arrival or departure.

Blue Water Bar and Grill. When you’re up for seafood and wine, nachos and beer or something in between—all in full view of the dock—this is a great place to be.

McMillin’s. Located on the other end of the island in Roche Harbor, this place is worth the drive. An extensive menu and a wonderful view of its marina make it a great choice for an upscale lunch or an elegant evening.

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Downriggers. Facing Friday Harbor’s marina, very near the ferry dock, this is one of my favorites for a nice evening out. Excellent food and service; and excellent views too! We enjoyed watching float planes land behind arriving ferries, as well as dining in a lively—but not too loud—atmosphere.

From lively restaurants to quiet beaches, from Orca whales to wooly Alpacas, we enjoyed every inch of San Juan Island. And with plenty of elbow room too.

So are you ready for an island getaway? Come check out San Juan. The Orcas just might wave hello. J 🐳