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 🐳

 

 

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An absent waterfall

Road trip. What comes to mind when you hear these words? Family vacations, away games, work, Grandma’s house? Campus tours, time with friends, or just seeking adventures?

In my life, I’ve enjoyed all these options, along with various degrees of traffic, car troubles, weather conditions and a variety of pass-the-time activities my parents would give us (in the days before handheld DVD players and smartphones).

But for me, there really is no better way to pass the time on a road trip than to enjoy the scenery. It’s always changing! Sometimes gradually, sometimes drastically, but decidedly different around each and every corner, curve and hill. Take, for example, the highways of Central Washington…

Dirt & rocks

Just east of the Cascade mountains, Central and Eastern Washington boast a wide variety of terrain: a dry desert climate, snowy winters, fertile soil for thriving agricultural crops, lakes and rivers for the recreation-minded vacationers and an abundance of wide-open spaces. And rocks. Big rocks, wide gorges, canyons and giant waterfalls—absent the water.

Noticing the many different layers of rock and sediment exposed to the elements, it’s easy for me to marvel at the geology, and to wonder. How did it all come to be?

In 1923, geologist J Harlen Bretz posed a theory about this region’s past that no one—not even his peers—would believe. His infamously dismissed statement? That a giant, catastrophic flood tore through this area, compliments of the Ice Age.

About 40 years after sharing his theory, and thankfully during his lifetime, aerial photography and satellite images proved Bretz right.

Water & ice

In Western Montana, during the Ice Age, a sheet of the ice blocked the Clark-Fork River, causing water from retreating glaciers to back up behind a dam of ice. Over time, this activity formed a glacial lake about 2000 feet deep.

Eventually the dam, about a half a mile high, could no longer contain this lake. The water—some 500 cubic miles of it—burst through the dam.

Making its way to the Pacific, the water traveled at speeds faster than 65 mph, carrying boulders and top soil along for the ride, depositing much of the dirt and sediment in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Eastern and Central Washington, stripped down to their lava bedrock, became carved out areas of canyons, gorges, and waterfalls.

Over a span of no more than two days, the rush of Lake Missoula (the Ice Age lake responsible for the flood) all but stopped. The “lake” was empty. In time, the waterlogged sections of Washington and Oregon settled into their newfound topography, and most of the temporary waterfalls dried up.

Before humans migrated to this section of North America, the ice-water-dam-flood pattern would repeat itself several times. Today, modern geologists, finding plenty of evidence in the canyon walls, coulees and rocky valleys, continue to prove Bretz right.

People & roads

Along highway 17 rests a particularly quiet, picturesque spot that features an excellent example of this catastrophically natural event: Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park & Visitor Center.

Visible from the road, the visitor center itself boasts the best view of Dry Falls. It’s totally worth the stop! Just a few steps from the parking lot, we were taking in one of the most spectacular and unobstructed views around.

Inside the center, we found museum-like exhibits, a theater running a documentary on Bretz and the area, large windows overlooking Dry Falls and a fun gift shop. Oh, and clean restrooms—an important discovery for any road trip.

Park rangers were available to answer questions about the history of the area, as well as help with recreational ideas. For anyone seeking a place to fish or play on or in the water—absent the large crowds—Sun Lakes has you covered. There’s even a golf course!

Food & drink*

When it was time to stop for a coffee, we found the perfect place. The Banks Lake Brew & Bistro sits just a few miles northeast of Dry Falls Visitor Center along highway 2 in Coulee City.

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Sharing its locale with a gas station, the bistro provides its patrons with a drive-through window, indoor seating, and a gift shop featuring crafts from local artists. And very yummy lattes, treats and entrees!

*Closed for the rest of this season due to a family emergency, Top Chef Concessions normally parks a very popular food trailer at Dry Falls Visitor Center. Top Chef’s trailer should be back in business at Dry Falls this coming spring.

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So, where are you heading on your next road trip? What will you tote along to pass the time?

Whatever your plans for your journey and your destination, remember to take in the scenery along the way. You just might discover something worth stopping for… J 🚗

 

My EPCOT day

How does one visit eleven countries in one day? Not easily. But what about a representation of countries—a circle of neighbors around a small body of water that just happens to find itself in Orlando, Florida?

Part of EPCOT (one of Walt Disney World’s epic theme parks) the World Showcase hosts this neighborhood of international places around its namesake lagoon.

With my family, I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying WDW parks many times over the years, but this would be my first solo visit. Having only one day (roughly 24 hours) available on my timeline, I chose to traverse this particular park.

Why EPCOT? It always reminds me of a world’s fair, but with more permanent structures, and of course, Disney flare. And since I’m a big fan of fairs (and markets and festivals and Disney), this made my narrow-it-down-to-one-park decision a little easier. So I began my one day by stepping into the future…

The future

Extremely visible from just about anywhere in the park, Future World’s Spaceship Earth was my first stop. Since I wasn’t fast enough for Fastpass on this particular trip, I targeted this attraction early in the day so as to minimize my wait time.

I really like the ride through history, particularly as it covers the progress of human communication throughout time, beginning with the drawings of cave dwellers and ending with our prototypes and predictions for the future.

Near the end of the journey, each car’s interactive touch screen allows its travelers to make selections about how they might want to live in the future. Somehow my future self ended up in outer space, but the view of Earth was phenomenal!

For my next Future World stop, it was time to take flight. I made a beeline for Soarin’ inside The Land pavilion. Another very popular attraction, I noted the wait time for the Stand-by line to be 60 minutes. Knowing the wait time approaching noon would only lengthen, I walked into the entrance, preparing to spend a little “me time” on my phone.

Well, I did spend time on my phone—playing an online Soarin’ trivia game with about one hundred other line occupants. Wall screens invited passers by to complete the quick login process, then presented the teams with True/False questions like “The Great Barrier Reef is larger than the Great Wall of China.” Definitely a fun way to pass the time.

As luck would have it, the line operator was looking for a single rider to board immediately, so after raising my hand (and shouting “Me!”), I was routed to my seat. I prepped for takeoff, and up-up-up-and-away we went. Such amazing birds-eye views and music! The Great Wall, the Golden Gate Bridge, waterfalls, plains, all as they appear from above.

The world

I fit in one last Stand-by attraction for the day, this time in Norway. Part of the World Showcase, this Northern European land was my first country stop of the day. The attraction? Frozen, which sounded really good on an 86 degree Fahrenheit day. Another 60-minute wait, but under cover, and with plenty of charming movie décor to admire before boarding the boat ride.

Young movie fans (and their chaperones) will love hearing the songs and seeing animatronic figures from the famed story as they glide along, enjoying a little drop (and maybe a splash of water) at the end.

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A trip to any of the Disney parks wouldn’t be complete without a character photo op. The trick is to queue up to the meeting spot before the Disney celebrity arrives. In Great Britain, I found the line for Alice in Wonderland just beginning, so I quickly took my place.

So very charming, Alice chatted with each guest for a bit, prior to signing autograph books and posing for photos. Watching the exchange between Alice and her fans made time pass quickly as the line progressed. And then it was my turn! She and I had a fun discussion about the Red Queen before smiling for the camera.

At the host country, I timed my visit just right to find a theater seat for an animatronic, cinematic and photographic tour through my nation’s history: The American Adventure. Narrated by famous Americans Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain, the two took turns weaving our historical events via a chronological timeline.

Along the way, other famous Americans such as Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglas, cultural icon Rosie the Riveter and Native American Chief Joseph, added to the compelling conversations. Inventors like Alexander Graham Bell joined the group too.

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Ending with images covering more contemporary moments, celebrities and events of our time/my time, I found myself truly touched—a little choked up even—but inspired by the messages conveyed during this quick tour of American history.

My early dinner reservation was fast approaching. Eager to stop by each remaining country at least briefly, I made quick visits to the following:

    • China
    • Mexico
    • Canada
    • France
    • Morocco
    • Japan
    • Germany

I’ve had longer visits to these locales during previous vacations, but I was still a bit sad I couldn’t hang out this time—dinner called. Speaking of dining…

The cuisine

Just in case you were wondering when I’d get to Italy, worry no more. My 24-hour visit actually began the prior evening at Italy’s Napoli Ristorante E Pizzeria. Nothing like a delicious Quattro Formaggi (four-cheese) pizza and a glass of vino to make me smile! Excellent service too. I finished off my meal with a delightful tiramisu. Ahhhh…

Between my visits to Norway and Great Britain, I ventured back to Future World’s Fountain View Café. Disney and Starbucks teamed up on this venture, and came up with something fun for fans of both. I stepped outside on the terrace and found a table in the shade where I could enjoy my icy usual and a sweet treat—and a partial view of the fountain.

Toward the end of my day—my last dinner at the park—I returned to Great Britain, and entered the Rose & Crown Dining Room. (There’s a fun pub attached to the restaurant, as well as a fish & chips stand too.)

I’ve enjoyed their fan favorite here before, but this time, I decided on a Scottish inspired salmon dish. A grilled and lightly breaded filet on a bed of veggies and lentils—amazing! Truly delicious. I asked my server to pay my compliments to the chef. I ate every bite. But not to worry; I saved room for dessert: sticky toffee pudding. So heavenly! (And yes, I ate every bite of that too…)

The shopping

Along with the marvelous food, souvenirs are tough to resist here at EPCOT. I made most of my purchases in Italy and Great Britain, but found a fun pair of suspenders in Germany, and a few co branded coffee mugs at the Future World’s Fountain View Café.
And just in case you become concerned about the lack of available space in your suitcase, WDW resorts can help you ship the souvenirs home.

When I returned to the Port Orleans French Quarter Resort for the evening (a fun New Orleans themed WDW resort), I headed to the gift shop. The cast members inventoried my collection of goods, gave me my receipt, and I was good to go! My souvenirs arrived at home in excellent condition about two weeks later.

The fireworks

Have you ever had the chance to enjoy Disney fireworks? In a word: spectacular! I caught the show from one of Italy’s Venetian style bridges, but the event can be seen from anywhere in the park. What a wonderful way to end my day.

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No matter how many times I walk this park, explore the pavilions, or dine at the restaurants, I always leave mentally planning my next EPCOT visit. Conversations with World Showcase cast members—all native to the countries they represent —remind me how enriched I feel, experiencing different cultures.

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So, if you’re a foodie and a Disney fan who enjoys exploring future concepts, walking through fairs and experiencing a bit of wonder from other places, you just might develop a taste for EPCOT. I know I have.

J 🌎🌍🌏

Tea’s Grand afternoon

Afternoon tea, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways—okay just one way—I can’t pass up the opportunity. No matter where in the world I am. Even in Florida’s hot and sunny weather. All I need is a little shade and some air conditioning, and I’m set. Oh, and just one more thing: Walt Disney World.

The locale

The Garden View Tea Room at the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa is a perfectly comfortable and wonderful place for me to indulge my craving for this historical tea time event.

The décor of this Victorian style resort—considered to be WDW’s flagship accommodation destination—features elegant, turn-of-the-century (previous century 😁) British furnishings that highlights outdoor activities and garden parties of days gone by.

The Tea Room is adjacent to the main lobby, in full view of an adorable garden. The terrace style restaurant was busy, but not hurried. Perfect for relaxing and enjoying a spot of tea…

The tea

The menu offered a handful of choices regarding afternoon tea delectables and their accompanying beverages. I chose the Bedfordshire Tea: finger sandwiches, a scone with jam, clotted cream and lemon curd, a tart (don’t tell the Red Queen! ❤️), macaroons and a strawberry—chocolate covered, of course.

And speaking of chocolate, my tea of choice: Twinings Nutty Chocolate Tea. Yum! I added a glass of Prosecco to round out my gastronomic event. Twinings is the featured brand at the Garden View Tea Room. United Kingdom—EPCOT’s World Showcase locale—sells some of the Tea Room’s choices.

The atmosphere

As I sipped my sparkler while enjoying my treats and English tea (with cream and sugar), I could see other patrons doing the same—relaxed and smiling, each celebrating some special event.

The staff also seemed happy and relaxed, despite their continual tasks. Considering the size and occupancy of the restaurant, I thought this observation to be rather special. Truly, nothing seemed amiss.

As I finished the last bite of my food, Michelle—my server—said “You can sit and enjoy all you like; there’s no rush.” Wow. Not feeling (or made to feel) rushed is a big deal to me.

Alas, time to leave. As I made my way toward the garden in an attempt to admire the flowers, my plans were thwarted by an afternoon thunderstorm. Perhaps a reminder from the Red Queen to leave her favorite dessert alone…

I may not have had the chance that visit to stop and enjoy the roses, but my tea experience at the Garden View Tea Room gave me the perfect opportunity to relax and reflect anyway. I hope some time this summer you’ll have the chance to do the same.

J ☕️

 

Hutchinson Island Zen

Ah, summer—today’s the first day! The very name of the season evokes a Zen feeling. What comes to your mind when you hear the word “Zen?” Meditation, relaxation, calmness? Vacation—a break from the everyday life? Associated with Zen Buddhism, this powerful three-letter word enjoys a positive place in our modern vocabulary.

It has come to describe people, places and things that equate to feelings of clarity and control, brought about by experiencing wonder, beauty and life’s simple pleasures.

These Zen moments can last just long enough for us to catch our breath, recharge our batteries and return to our daily challenges with a bit more energy—a fresher pair of eyes.

For me, Zen equals Hutchinson Island, on Florida’s Atlantic Coast. No matter what I have going on in my life, time spent here in this quite beautiful place always gives me the clarity and calmness I didn’t know I needed until I arrive.

While this locale is very vacation worthy (think long weekend or longer), sometimes I only have a day… but I’ll take it! Time to share my recent island Zen day with you.

Sea life

Cute and cuddly critters like puppies and kitties can give us that warm-and-fuzzy Zen feeling in our hearts almost instantly. But what about H2O critters? One visit to the Florida Oceanographic and Coastal Center’s stingray feeding program with melt your heart and calm your nerves quickly, as you learn how to pet and feed these entertaining rays.

Time for a pop quiz! Rays are a type of:

A) Fish
B) Dolphin
C) Shark

Answer: A) Fish! They’re just a lot flatter then your average finned swimmer. And these Coastal Center residents have their barbs filed down regularly, so there’s no chance for human visitors to be hurt.

My family and I have paid them many visits over the years, and we never tire of interacting with these amazing sea critters.

Along with the rays, rescued sea turtles and game fish enjoy ocean-fed pavilions and lagoons throughout the 57-acre property. The nature trail and visitors center—even a butterfly garden—and several hands-on displays help educate (as they entertain) patrons of all ages.

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Watching this facility grow over the years gives me a good feeling inside too. The employees are friendly, knowledgeable and dedicated to sharing what life is all about for their marine residents.

Past life

Directly across the street from the Coastal Center sits a modern museum with a flare for transportation: the Elliott Museum. Since their invention, classic cars from almost every decade are on display in a garage-type setting.

But before you happen upon these vehicles, you’ll find variations of bicycles as they evolved from styles of yesteryear, leading up to the most significant style of all: the precursor to the automobile. Sterling Elliot was the inventor and manufacturer of this pre-auto contraption. He managed to own quite a few patents, several having to do with modes of transportation. Many of his inventions greet you near the front entrance.

I enjoyed discovering those early bicycles and tricycles—many of their parts made from wood—as I made my way to the temporary exhibit: kites from around the world. I’d never thought of using these quiet, aerodynamic works of art to tell stories or share history, but show-and-tell they did.

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My price of admission to the Elliott Museum included entry to another museum a few miles down the road: the House of Refuge. So down the road I drove.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, walking into this structure was truly a step back in time. Located on one of the island’s backroads, the serenity of this area made it difficult to imagine the building’s once historical purpose: to serve as a haven for shipwrecked sailors.

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But the rocky beach was a reminder to me that the ease and success of navigation was largely dependent on the weather—and at what angle the shore and the ships met.

Beach life

Looking forward to dipping my toes in the sand, I headed north to Jensen Beach. Plenty of sand and shore awaited me, along with a very welcome ocean breeze. Time to stretch my legs!

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I start to relax just seeing this place from the parking lot. As I pass the Sand Dune Café (a nice walk-up by the way!) and head toward the water, I notice the most artful sandcastle I’ve ever seen: a sea monster of sorts 🦑, facing the ocean. Very impressive—kudos to the sculptor!

The monster facing the ocean. As I continued walking along the beach, I remembered some sage advice I hear often whenever I’m visiting the shore: never turn your back on the ocean. At least not when standing at its edge.

Ready for some refreshment and a little late lunch, I head a bit farther along the road to one of my favorite watering holes: Kyle G’s. Lucky for me, there was an available seat at the bar outside that included a perfect ocean view. James the bartender created a wonderful white sangria at my request. I enjoyed it very much, along with a delicious plate of fried oysters. My final Zen moment of the day.

Whatever your plans for summer, I hope you fit in a few activities designed to help you relax and recharge. Safe travels, and enjoy your Zen moments! J 🏖

 

 

 

Heralds of spring

Three weeks into the season, spring continues to announce its arrival. Blossoms, flowers, birds and bees—and baby critters—continue to pop up on a daily basis. The number of sunlit hours is ever increasing, and the air has a newfound freshness.

It’s always fun to visit places that showcase Mother Nature’s spring seasonal masterpieces. And Skagit Valley sets the stage beautifully: fields of sunny daffodils and colorful tulips amidst April showers, all against a stunning backdrop of snow capped mountains.

Sharing the spotlight with this jeweled valley is the charming town of La Conner. About 60 miles north of Seattle, you’ll find this small city between Skagit Bay—part of Puget Sound—and fields upon fields of flowers, along with farms and acres of produce. And although the floral festivities span just two months (two very beautiful months), La Conner entertains tourists year-around.

Hotel to intel

Cutting a path between Skagit Bay and Padilla Bay flows the Swinomish Channel. And along this waterway you’ll find the La Conner Channel Lodge. Between the water and 1st Street, this hotel has a great location—just steps away from shopping, dining, wine tasting and lots more.

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The hotel itself has a comfortable rustic lobby, complete with fireplace, and live piano music in the evenings. It really is quite lovely! We also enjoyed their continental breakfast—available to all their guests—each morning of our stay. And when we finished our morning meal, it was time to venture out. But where to first?

Strolling along La Conner’s sidewalks is a great first step to finding an activity or two (or ten). And from the Channel Passage walkway, we could see the picturesque symbol of this city: Rainbow Bridge.

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The town’s beautiful wooden signage appearing above several shops, galleries and eateries—along with several sandwich boards—are all eye catching and inviting. Planning ahead, I did my share of online research, but sometimes I just want to ask a real life person a question.

The La Conner Visitors Center is staffed with La Conner residents who can answer LOTS of touristy questions. Like knowing if the daffodils and tulips are really in bloom before making the six-mile trek to the fields. (Hint #1: the online map of the fields updates daily, letting you know exactly which fields are showtime ready.)

By the way, do you know the history behind the town’s name? Time for a pop quiz!

La Conner is named after:

A) Connersville, Indiana—the hometown of the first non-native American settlers

B) an Irish family crest belonging to the first farming family of Skagit Valley

C) Louisa Anne Conner, the first non-native woman to settle in Skagit Valley

The answer? C! Louisa and her husband John came to Skagit Valley in 1870, settling along the banks of the Swinomish Channel. Mrs. Conner’s legacy also includes raising funds—via canoe—for construction of Sacred Heart Church, which resides on Douglas Street.

International to local

Up for shopping? You’ve come to the right place. La Conner’s stores feature soooooooo many quality one-of-a-kind finds, along with beautiful imported treasures. Time to call out a handful.

Walking into Sempre Italiano reminded me of a Tuscan shop we enjoyed on a somewhat recent trip to Orvieto, Italy. Beautiful and functional pottery featuring colors as bright as the tulip fields! We’ve made a few purchases from this store in the last year, and continue to enjoy each item.

Across the street from this nod to Italy, you’ll find Africa Mama. Everything about this shop is playful and fun. I mean, how many stores display signs on their art that read “Play me!” or “Take a picture with me!”? My guess is not many.

If you’re running low on Polish pottery, step into the Olive Shoppe Ginger Grater. Each mug, plate or bowl is its own work of art. Lots of other kitchen gadgets to be found too. Such a fun store!

Not to be outdone by these aforementioned imports, several neighboring shops feature truly local art and other regional goodies. For example, The Wood Merchant offers creations by US artists—everything from tables to earrings. (And yes, I purchased some earrings…)

Also noteworthy, galleries salt-and-peppered throughout this hamlet show off the amazing works of all those who call this corner of the world home. And if you’re looking for something a little different in the art-display category, then I suggest a stop at MoNA: Museum of Northwest Art. For the price of a modest donation (that’s right—no admission fee), I enjoyed the paintings of Robert McCauley whose works are currently on display at MoNA.

Floral to flavorful

But—I think it’s safe to say that the main attraction this time of year is…? The flowers. Rows upon rows of gorgeous daffodils and tulips blanketing several acres of this fertile valley. Roughly 100,000 people visit these colorfully vibrant fields every spring, and the headcount is growing.

Not sure exactly where to begin tiptoeing through the floral acreage? RoozenGaarde Display Gardens is my recommendation. Not only is parking included in the nominal price of admission, the gardens themselves are something out of fairytales.

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The gift shops and food stands are in step with any self respecting festival (the main gift shop is open year around), and two vast fields—a daffodil and a tulip each—are accessible just beyond the display gardens. (Hint #2: wear footwear appropriate for muddy puddles and soggy walkways.)

With all our out-and-about activities, working up an appetite was no problem. La Conner is quite the foodie town. So many dining and beverage options! I’ll happily highlight just a few we enjoyed.

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The Calico Cupboard serves up absolutely deliciously hearty breakfast and lunch dishes in addition to very tasty pastries, with several coffee, tea, cocoa and other beverages to wash it all down. Lots of regional influence goes into their menu options, not to mention a heavy dose of yum. My favorite? Brussels Sprout Hash. They have table service (sign-in sheet at the door) and a to-go counter. The tougher choice will be what to eat…

If you’re looking for a coffee place, head to Stompin Grounds Coffee Co. Excellent coffee and treats, including ice cream—and ice cream drinks! Also there are cozy places to sit for a bit and enjoy your beverage, inside the shop or out.

Ready for a little wine tasting? There are a handful of wine establishments in town, but my favorite—hands down—is Skagit Cellars. Featuring regionally grown grapes (Columbia Valley, Washington State) bottled in the nearby town of Burlington, this wine is worth the trip all by itself.

We’ve enjoyed a few wine tastings here in the last year, and always leave with a few bottles. In fact, I have yet to sample a Skagit Cellars varietal I don’t like. (Heads up; their tasting room is open Saturday-Sunday only.)

Time for lunch or dinner? Nell Thorn is an excellent choice. The menu focuses on seafood, but has lots of delicious options for everyone. Excellent service too.

When nothing but Italian cuisine will hit the spot, make your way to La Terrazza. Pasta, pizza, meat dishes and more, all made and served just right.

Both Nell Thorn and La Terrazza had no problem accommodating our large party of eight. Whew!

Hungry for a good barbecue place? Okay, how ‘bout a great barbecue place? Then it’s time for Whitey’s BBQ. Across the street from our hotel, it was an easy stop for a cup of chili, sliders, cornbread—and a jar or two (or three) of their deee-licious barbecue sauces: Original, Orange Blossom and Spicy Apple—all so good I could drink them!

La Conner definitely has the shopaholic foodie in you covered.

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My uncle always says, “Flowers are for the moment.” Spring offers so many beautiful moments to enjoy, especially in Skagit Valley. So keep an eye on the Bloom Map, grab your camera and enjoy! I’m glad we did. J 💐

 

A Victorian getaway

Walkies. Tea. Places to see. Victoria is a very beautiful—and very walkable—city in British Columbia. Located on the southeast tip of Vancouver Island, Victoria shares the Strait of Juan de Fuca with Washington State as a natural border between Canada and the US.

Getting there is half the fun when you travel aboard the Victoria Clipper. And if you book your trip through Clipper Vacations (like we did), your transportation and hotel—even afternoon tea, and other events or tours—can be bundled together.

Going for walks

The Clipper docked at 254 Belleville Street on Victoria’s Inner Harbour a little after 10:30 am. From there, we rolled our suitcases just 800 ft. along the street to 463 Belleville: the Hotel Grand Pacific.

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Conveniently our room was ready at this pre-check-in hour (most likely due to our mid-week arrival), so we were able to unpack our bags and relax a bit before venturing out. Shopping, restaurants, attractions—all just down the street! So, where to first?

Seeing the sights

When was the last time you saw a Woolly mammoth? Okay, to be fair, when was the first time? If you don’t possess a working time machine and have yet to see such a mammal up close, visit the Royal BC Museum. Continuing along to 675 Belleville, the museum was a short but scenic walk from our hotel.

The mammoth—think ginormous stuffed teddy bear—resides in the museum’s Natural History exhibit. Items from our more recent history, like that of Captain George Vancouver, his discovery of this corner of the world and its native people (while he searched for the Northwest Passage), can be seen and explored in the walk-through Human History exhibit. An old west harbour town brought to life. Very cool!

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Our first stop inside, however, was the IMAX Victoria Theatre’s show “Mummies: Secrets of the Pharaohs” (Amazing!), followed by a walk through the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibit. Truly breathtaking images! I enjoy museums, and this happens to be one of my favorites.

Up for a slightly more ambitious walk, we made our way 1.6 miles from our hotel and the Inner Harbour along Government and then Fort Streets to a cozy manor at the top of the hill: Craigdarroch Castle.

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Built during the Victorian era, this National Historic Site was first home to the coal-wealthy Dunsmuir family. It has since served Victoria in many capacities, but today its rooms feature furnishings and amenities that were part of everyday life for the Dunsmuir clan.

If only the walls could talk! Listening to Darren—a castle guide—entertain questions about the colorful history of each family member, I began to visualize their very Victorian day-to-day life inside these beautiful rooms.

Wealth has a way of building castles and legacies. Or in some cases, a worked-out limestone quarry. But combine the empty quarry with a clever green thumb’s idea—financed by her family—and voila! The Butchart Gardens were born.

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In 1904, Jennie Butchart turned her husband’s old quarry and cement plant into the Sunken Garden. She soon added other gardens, all featuring many plants, flowers, and other delights that Jennie and her husband Robert brought home from their many travels abroad. The Butchart family loved to entertain visitors, naming their vast estate “Benvenuto”—“Welcome” in Italian. Today, the Butchart Gardens are a National Historic Site, seen by almost one million people each year.

Nearly 20 miles from downtown Victoria, these lovely gardens were a bit out of our desired walking range, but the desk for CVS Tours, located at the Fairmont Empress Hotel, was rather convenient—just a few minutes on foot for us.

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For the price of admission, CVS Tours provided transportation to the gardens, fun history told to us passengers by our driver, a map of the grounds, and a flower and plant guide. Admission even included a 45-minute stop at the fun-meets-fascinating Victoria Butterfly Gardens. Birds, bees, flowers and trees! And a few other critters too. Between the Butchart Gardens and the Butterfly Gardens, we enjoyed them all throughout this tour.

If you have room in your suitcase for a little local jewelry, stop by Jade (911 Government Street). Mined in upper British Columbia, this beautiful gemstone is crafted in very wearable ways. My weakness? The earrings. Gorgeous!

Stopping for tea

Walking along Government Street, just a little over half a mile from our hotel, we discovered Canada’s oldest Chinatown. And then we wandered into a fantastic tea experience: the Silk Road Aromatherapy & Tea Co. We enjoyed sampling Happy Tea (wonderful stuff!), and talking with the very knowledgeable and friendly tea-expert employees. And of course—making a purchase.

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A little closer to our hotel, we found Murchie’s Tea & Coffee (1110 Government Street), which just happens to sell lots of other goodies too: breakfast and lunch items, pastries, cakes, souvenirs, tea sets and accessories, and of course, tea, coffee and cocoa.

Established 1894, this shop’s founder—John Murchie—had delivered tea to none other than Queen Victoria herself. He learned firsthand the kind of tea his monarch preferred, as well as invaluable knowledge of the tea trade. When he immigrated to Canada, his put his tea and business smarts to the test, launching a successful company that still thrives today.

We managed to swing by for breakfast, and for an afternoon break or two. And yes, returned yet again for some shopping. There is always a line from the door to the counter, but it moves rather quickly. Finding a table can be tricky (unless placing an order to go), so I suggest stopping by between the breakfast and lunch rushes.

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A trip to Victoria is not complete without afternoon tea at the Empress. The Fairmont Empress Hotel is a true icon of Victoria’s Inner Harbour. Residing at 721 Government Street, this was another easy walk for us.

The tea room is beautiful, and the service is excellent. These are simple requirements of this famous place, which help remove any nervousness one might have when in the presence of elegant table settings. The Royal China collection used exclusively at The Empress has its own fascinating history, dating back to 1939 as a gift from the visiting King George VI.

Our choices of tea were presented to us as a book of samples. We could actually see the colorful ingredients for each blend! (The Empress gift shop features many of the hotel’s exclusive blends, along with its own line of honey products—from its own bee hives.)

The towers of treats were mini works of tasty art. We added glasses of prosecco to round out our indulgent event. Also, The Empress very kindly and deliciously accommodated our lactose intolerant family members, so no one went without.

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When the Far East meets a former British outpost on an island in the beautiful, bountiful, great Pacific Northwest, the resulting jewel for us is…? Westcoast Afternoon Tea at the Hotel Grand Pacific. Keeping in step with my walking references, this location was just an elevator ride and a lobby crossing away from our room.

Our server, Tim, shared with us his wonderfully vast knowledge of tea—knowledge he credits to his server training, and attendance at several tea courses given by… wait for it… Silk Road Aromatherapy & Tea Co. Yes! The very store we happened upon during our walkabout in Chinatown. It is also the very company that provides this hotel’s restaurant with its delicious—and now newly familiar—afternoon tea selection.

Are you aware of the color known as auspicious yellow? If so, then you just might understand why all of their teapots enjoy this happy hue. The tower of treats were Northwest delicious, and the teas (and prosecco!) absolutely hit the spot. And the chef substituted goat cheese for my lactose intolerant family members, which made our party immensely happy.

I always appreciate the pride and effort people put into creating quality products such as organic, authentic and traditional teas, then crafting time-honored and new experiences from these qualities to share in celebration with their patrons. Hats off to these merchants and restaurants of Victoria for exceeding our tea-time expectations.

Dining out

If you’re in the mood for Italian, I suggest a stroll to one of Victoria’s quiet neighborhoods where you’ll find Il Covo Trattoria (106 Superior Street). At just a half mile from our hotel, the distance was perfectly walkable.

We chose an early time slot, but the restaurant quickly filled up. Given this was a midweek evening, we guessed the locals were enjoying their favorite dinner place. Excellent food! The mushroom risotto was the best I’ve ever had. Wonderful and attentive service truly made our meal a great experience.

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Hungry for seafood? The Steamship Grill & Bar—directly across the street from our hotel—has you covered. Delicious cuisine and local wines (and great service too), this was the perfect way for us to end our last full day in town.


The Victoria Clipper took us back to Seattle the next day, carrying us, our overstuffed souvenir tote bags and a wealth of new and wonderful memories.

Along with being very walkable, Victoria is a very friendly city too. Even the crosswalk signs allow ample time for pedestrians, and drivers keep their cars well behind the white line. Their kindness is a reminder to me to always be a good neighbor. After all, we’d love to visit again. And again. J 🇨🇦