Category Archives: Travel

To Cruise or Not to Cruise? (Alaska’s Inside Passage)

…that’s a question?

 

There is a small town on the Pacific Rim set within spectacular scenery – snow-capped mountains with glaciers streaming down to the ocean, thickly forested mountains, houses rising up the hill sides and 40 miles of paved road. There is no way out of this small town except to take a plane, boat or hike. The closest overland connection to the rest of the continent is hundreds of miles away. This must be a small town in a very remote area? It is – it’s the capital of Alaska, Juneau.

If Alaska was an independent nation – sorry AIP it’s unlikely – it would be the 17th largest in the world, but with less than 700,000 residents it would be one of the least populated on Earth (1 person per square mile). If you want to drive to Alaska from the lower 48, you will start at the Canadian border just south of Vancouver and travel over 1,700 miles through Canada’s British Columbia and the Yukon to Skagway at the northern end of the Inside Passage – same starting point for the Yukon Gold Rush of 1897-1899. To Anchorage it’s another 800 miles.

living in luxury: interior of the Rotterdam

I had never taken a cruise. I had never wanted to take a cruise for the same reason that I have never wanted to stay in an all-inclusive resort. Not that I don’t enjoy luxury with all the pampering that goes with that experience, but travel for me is discovery. I want to walk and explore. Six hours in port is not exploring, unless the port happens to be no larger than the suburban towns in which many middle class Americans live – Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan fit the bill.

The Inside Passage

Yet I knew that if I wanted to experience the breathtaking beauty of Alaska’s Inside Passage I had few choices – travel by floatplane, fishing boat, the Alaska ferry service or take a cruise. Frankly, the cruise was the least expensive – if less adventurous – mode.

Towel Art: by the very talented Indonesian Steward

Holland America Line’s Rotterdam is the sixth in an over century long line of flagships designed for trans-ocean travel. It’s not a mega-ship holding just 1300 passengers. Its Dutch officers and Indonesian/Philippine crew are superb with a terrific sense of humor (I now must visit Indonesia!). Passenger demographics cover a wide cross section of society and the world but basically fall into two categories: those interested in travel and those interested in consuming enormous quantities of food, drink and bingo.

A passenger can eat 24-hours a day (I am not exaggerating), and fortunately there are many venues where fine food with sensible portions are available. The Lido buffet was not one of those venues. Upon boarding the ship in Seattle, lunch was available only at the buffet. My first experience watching a woman in front of me eating from her plate, on the line, while waiting for the next plate was enough. The La Fontaine main dining room was spacious with both excellent service and sensible portions with imaginative menus – grilled quail, lamb chops, and ethnic breakfast items. The premium Pinnacle Grill ($20/per person surcharge for dinner) was elegant but a 22 oz. (size was not indicated on the menu) aged steak was overcooked and absurdly large. Twenty-four hour room service, a pizza parlor and an all day taco buffet – as well as many drink bars – were all available.  Passenger behavior on the ship ran the social scale as well – from  T-shirts and shorts in the dining room at night, propping bare feet on polished tables in the lounges, complaining about the Indonesian/Philippine accents, to appropriately dressed and behaved people enjoying the stunning scenery, the library and the many cultural opportunities Holland America provided. I believe there is a “time and a place for everything” but watching some passengers act out “The Jersey Shore” does not make me comfortable.

Shopping Waterfront: It can be anywhere

Shopping is another issue. It’s endemic both on and off the ship with too many passengers. I lived in the Caribbean for nine years in the late 1970’s and 80’s. I became well aware that the waterfronts of most otherwise beautiful Caribbean ports were identical – the same jewelry, souvenir, clothing stores and themed restaurant/bars no matter the island. I was surprised, perhaps naïvely, to find the same stores (literally still some of the same companies) lining the ports of Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan. Six hours in a port is just about enough time for the average shopaholic. I was told by a number of independent tour guides that cruise lines either own the companies or receive significant royalties on sales. I was also told that with the excpetion of the capital, the port cities literally close up between October to May! (What to people do for a living??)

Profits also flow to the cruise lines through excessively expensive excursions – from $400/person helicopter flyovers of glaciers to $55 bus trips to areas within a few miles of dock – the public transportation to the same areas cost a couple of bucks.

one of "bridges to nowhere" which didn't bother politicians - Sitka

Once I learned to ignore boorish behavior and excessive marketing, enjoying the unique beauty of Alaska’s Inside Passage and its villages – hardly cities – dominated my mind as the reason for the cruise. Juneau (31,000), Sitka (8,900) and Ketchikan (7,400) have a rough and tumble history worthy of a frontier – Juneau being the state capital still has a “rough and tumble” present… Cars, especially trucks and SUV’s, choked the streets even though each town has an average of 30 miles of paved roads – and not that many unpaved ones either. I was reminded that several years ago there was significant national controversy over the “Bridge to nowhere.” That happened to be the proposed Gravina Island Bridge that would connect Ketchikan to Gravina Island – which contains the Ketchikan International Airport – much safer than Juneau’s which has been cited as one of the ten most dangerous on Earth (jets take off and land facing a mountain that’s way too close!) I guess any bridge would be to “nowhere” unless it happens to take you home, or to the only airport, without taking the heavily subsidized Alaskan ferry service – but, what do you want, that’s politics. Each of these three towns has several ultra-modern bridges connecting the main town to what seems to the casual tourist to be “nowhere” – forested mountains – obviously this one was just another political football.

Juneau

Juneau has one reason to visit – I’m ignoring the shopping or the incongruous Victorian wooden Governor’s Mansion – and that’s taking the Mt. Roberts Tramway up 2,000 feet ($27.00/round trip) to learn about the slaughter of Alaska’s Eagles and see an informative film. The Raptor Center is a non-profit organization dedicated to rescuing as many as possible of the over 100,000 Alaskan Bald Eagles that are shot for sport by Alaskans every year (interestingly Alaska tourism does not like this getting out – I was told this information by a volunteer at the Raptor Center. The tourism office wants you to believe they were hit by cars…?).  Several miles out of town (a $6.00 public bus ride rather than the “many times more” cruise excursion) is the rapidly retreating Mendenhall Glacier – fortunately there are still 100,000 Alaskan glaciers, not all retreating. If you’re never going to see a glacier again in your life, it’s worth a visit to this very small example. (I do not understand why the National Park Service charges admission to the Visitor’s Center?).

Sitka

Sitka has a bit more history having been the capital of the Russian Empire’s Alaskan territory until its sale to the USA in the 1870’s. Same shopping, but it has a lovely waterfront park walkway that takes a visitor to the National Park Service owned early 19th century Russian Orthodox Bishop’s residence, and you can continue to walk or ride an inexpensive public bus to the Sheldon Jackson Museum – stunning collection of Tlingit art – and the Sitka National Historical Park with its excellent film, exhibits of North Coast art and history, Totem park walk and beach site of the 1804 victory by the Tlingit’s over the Russian invaders.

Russian Sitka

Unique in Alaska is the presence of a considerable number of Russian descendants of the original settlers that form the congregation of the all wooden St. Michael’s Cathedral. Now don’t think “cathedral = large.” St’ Michael’s is not only very modest in size, but the current building is a reconstruction after the great Sitka fire of 1966 that destroyed much of the town. Miraculously, Sitka residents rescued all but one of the priceless 19th century Russian Orthodox art objects – including decorated doors and panels – before the church was consumed by flames. Across the street is the very simple, and equally old, Lutheran Church which was burned three times before reconstructed in concrete.

Ketchikan

Ketchikan is interesting in two aspects: Alaska’s most famous and former, Red Light District, and Saxman village – the heart of the Tlingit totem pole art revival. As a rough and tumble fishing port, Ketchikan was known for over a century as the place where both “salmon and fishermen came to spawn.” Creek Street Historic District (the old Red Light district is an elevated series of 19th century and early 20th century wooden structures of tourist oriented stores and excellent, but very expensive, art galleries as well as the Dolly House Museum dedicated to its own history and honoring the “working girl.” The policeman’s ball sign in the collage is accurate. Saxman village, a couple miles out of town by public bus, is dedicated to the art of the totem. Mistakenly, and tragically, identified by Christian missionaries as “pagan idols,” these monumental visual genealogies and historical essays – in cultures without written languages – survive only 100 years on average in the very humid environment of the North Pacific Coast Rain Forest. Antique survivors are in museums only. The continuation of the totem tradition is both inspiring and maintains Native humor as well.

Floating slowly past pristine landscapes is the reason to take a cruise along Alaska’s Inside Passage. Having seen and walked quite close to glaciers in the Andes Mountains, I was surprised that a ship as large as the Rotterdam could sail within ½ mile of the vast Hubbard Glacier – still growing. Running commentary by both National Park Service rangers and Tlingit elders made the cruising tour the highlight of the trip!

Hubbard Glacier

After several hours of observation, the ship turned away from the glacier and I entered one of its hot tubs. I must admit, sitting in a hot tub, with a chilly breeze on my head swirling the hot steam while the Hubbard Glacier retreated in the background seemed a perfectly normal justification for luxuriating in total sensual decadence.

Vancouver Part 3 – What to see and eat…

….especially eat  some of the freshest produce, fruit, meats, fish and SEAFOOD ever but not always in restaurants.

Mecca for this abundance is the Granville Island Public Market with 50 permanent and over one hundred day vendors selling food and crafts. 

 It’s a vast space and on a beautiful Sunday afternoon it was packed. Not only is the variety and quality overwhelming and the prices very fair, but every ethnic “fast food” is available from Italian to Samoan – this is the Pacific Rim remember. Take your prepared foods outside to the tables and benches and you’ll also be entertained by dozens of buskers/musicians. The  picture collages are best viewed if you click to enlarge (want an item identified?  E-mail me through a comment. I’ll be happy to reply).

baked goods & chocolates

Although Granville Market is the largest, Downtown Vancouver has a number of smaller produce markets that you’ll run across walking through the city. So… you’re a tourist staying in a hotel with, maybe, a microwave in your room – not good for oysters? Why not book an apartment, or easier still, an apartment hotel. For six nights I had a one bedroom apartment with a complete kitchen, half a block from False Creek at the (first class) Meridian 910 Beach Avenue Apartment Hotel for $140/night including tax. When I tell you what good restaurants cost in Vancouver, as well as the $250 – $600/night at all other first class hotels, you’ll realize this is a terrific deal.

meats, cheeses and pates

I’m a seafood/fish freak – especially oysters (raw, fried, you name it). The northwest coast of the USA and Canada has survived the destructive pollution that has ravaged the eastern shore and Gulf coast beds.  For $18.00 I purchased two pounds of the largest, plumpest stewing oysters I have ever experienced. They provided my wife and me with the main course for two dinners and one lunch. I’m not a big fan of deep fat frying, but pan frying is another story altogether. I created a recipe which I consider quite nice:

Stewing Oysters breaded and ready for frying

Pan Fried Oysters with Scotch-Green Pepper Mustard Sauce (if using all two pounds  it will serve four people)

Ingredients:    

 2 pounds stewing oysters

Flour

4 eggs, well beaten

DRY bread crumbs or corn meal (I like corn meal)

¼ pound butter and 4 Tablespoons olive oil (more butter if necessary between batches)

Salt and pepper to taste

1 cup (8 oz. any Scotch whiskey)

2 to 3 Tablespoons green pepper corn mustard (if you cannot find this, use 2 Tablespoons Dijon mustard and 1 Tablespoons preserved – canned –  green peppercorns).

Finely chopped parsley for garnish

Procedure:

 (1) place oysters in a strainer over a bowl and drain for 30 minutes

(2) reserve oyster liquor and place oysters on paper towels to dry for 15 minutes.

(3) beat eggs in a bowl

(4) in a separate bowl measure out 1 ½ cups flour

(5) in a different bowl measure out an equal amount of cornmeal or flour

(6) Follow these directions for EACH oyster: using your hands (NOT A FORK OR TONGS – you will puncture the delicate oysters – hands are made for cooking)  (A) dip each oyster into the first bowl of flour and shake off the excess. (B) dip the floured oyster into the beaten egg. (C) coat the egged oyster in the additional flour or cornmeal.

(7) place each oyster on a wire rack/cookie sheet. When all oysters have been prepared, place the cookie sheet with oysters into the refrigerator for 30 minutes so that the coating will “set” – adhere to the oyster (you want to do this for anything you “bread”).

(8) in a heavy sauté/frying pan, non-stick is great, cut the 4 oz. of butter into pieces and add the olive oil. Melt the butter into the oil over moderate heat. When gently bubbling, add only enough oysters for a single layer – do not crowd! Sauté until golden brown on each side – about 2 minutes per side. Transfer to a paper towel lined platter that has been heated in a 225 degree oven and keep oysters warm until all are prepared.

(9) If the oysters have absorbed all the butter/oil, add 2 to 3 Tablespoons butter to pan and melt. Add the mustard/peppercorns and blend until smooth. Add the scotch and reserved oyster liquor and heat gently until smooth simmer for 2 minutes.

(10) Divide the sauce among the plates and top with four or five oysters.  Sprinkle with some finely chopped parsley. Serve with roasted garlic whipped potatoes and steamed asparagus. (email for the roasted garlic potato recipe).

Vancouver,  like most North American cities, has lost any distinctive cuisine having succumbed to the homogenized taste dictated by large food processors and TV advertising. The average restaurant serves the same burgers, fried fish, steaks and pasta dishes anyone will find in New York, Toronto or Dubuque – with the same variations on theme and price depending on whether table cloths are provided. “Fine Dining” establishments mean a couple will pay the same $150 with wine that they’ll pay anywhere for the same food and serve.

I did find one restaurant I thought was a cut above the norm in an unlikely venue since it’s in the middle of the uber-tourist/power lunch Downtown area of Canada Place/Harbor Center.

Aqua Riva and Heidi

Aqua Riva, 200 Granville Street, is a sleek, ultra-modern, glass sheathed space with spectacular views of Vancouver harbor from all tables. Recommended by friends who had dined there a few weeks before, it was an excellent choice for a first-class lunch. The same friends had told us we must have Heidi as our server, and without remembering in advance, sure enough, we were seated at a table served by Heidi – she’s waving to our friends in the collage (and was a friendly, trained, well informed professional).  Aqua Riva specializes in wood grilled meats and fish. As you enter the restaurant, the grilling area is open and blazing with the aroma of good food. Wild Salmon – in every form imaginable – is available at every good restaurant along the north Pacific coast and we had had our full after nearly two weeks of travel.  My wife had Cream of Sweet Potato Soup and Curry Roasted Lamb Sirloin Wrap and I had a daily special, Grilled New Zealand Lamb topping a square of fried couscous and crisp steamed vegetables on a demi-glace green peppercorn sauce. All was flavorful and well-seasoned, although I had asked for my lamb to be medium rare and it came well done – minor fault. Lunch with wine and tip was $100 for two. I would highly recommend Aqua Riva based on the ambiance, service, food and view – a couple would spend much more at lesser venues, but you will spend more for dinner.

Japadog stand, corner of Canadian Pacific RR Station
Vancouver Fast Food

Perusing many menus at Downtown restaurants confirmed that Vancouver’s venues were equal to most North American cities – predictable, possibly well prepared and presented but are they worth spending $100 – $250 per couple for lunch and dinner every day? What was interesting were the proliferation of spotlessly clean street vendors and office complex food courts. The occasional burger joint was around, but the majority were Asian inspired venues offering everything from made to order sushi to Japadog – “hot dogs” made from shrimp, gourmet pork and topped with such items as seaweed! With this abundance of markets and fascinating “fast food,” why spend in excess of $100 for just another tender grilled steak?

Cafe Carthedge

Yet there is a neighborhood where modest ethnic restaurants exist, from Irish Pub to North African. This is in the working class gentrifying Commercial Drive District east of Downtown. At Carthage Café we had superb Tunisian Cuisine. We shared a soup rich with the deep flavor of cumin, vegetables and lamb in a flavorful chicken broth;  a stew thick with chick peas, lamb, cinnamon and couscous and large, plump Prince Edward Island mussels in a saffron, ginger and red pepper sauce. Café Carthage, it turns out, is famous for its imaginative Tunisian twists on sauces for mussels. I would return to Commercial Drive to check the many Asian and some century old Italian restaurants. Lunch for two with wine and tip was $65.

Central Branch of the Vancouver Public Library

There are a couple buildings in Downtown that stand out among the glass jungle that are worth visiting. Chief among them is the 1995 central branch of the Vancouver Public Library constructed at a cost of $100 million dollars. Moshe Safdie, a highly respected Canadian-Palestinian architect, was born in the city of Haifa in 1938 when it was the British Mandate of Palestine (he moved with his family to Montreal when he was 15). In the early 1990’s he won a rigorous competition with his radical design that mimics the Roman Coliseum. The beautiful building, full of light, plants, books and fountains is a much beloved landmark.

four toeheads on a day trip to North Vancouver

A pleasant short trip from the  Canada Place ferry terminal in Downtown over to the city of North Vancouver, for the same $2.50/two-hour Trans Link ticket that gets you anywhere around the city, is a nice way to observe the very busy commercial port of Vancouver – fourth busiest in North America. The ferry is basically a commuter service because there isn’t really any reason to go to North Vancouver unless you are traveling to the ski resort of Whistler or other British Columbia mountain adventures. The Mall at the terminal does have a nice Market, and it is good for Americans to see how a  modern, efficient ferry service actually functions. I’ve been saying repeatedly how expensive Vancouver is, but I must mention that North Vancouver is the “Beverly Hills” of the region with home prices averaging $4 million. North Vancouver has an Irish connection. In the early 20th century, the Guinness family owned nearly all the land. In the depth of the Great Depression, they constructed the suspension bridge connecting Stanley Park to North Vancouver and made an additional fortune developing the land into luxury housing and collecting the bridge tolls until the 1950’s.

Stanley Park

From food to nature, at the far end of Downtown’s West End is the beautiful retreat of Stanley Park, named after its founder in the 1880’s Canada’s Governor General Frederick Arthur Stanley, 16th Earl of Darby and Lord Stanley of Preston, accomplished politician and athlete. He is most famous for establishing the sport of hockey’s Stanley Cup. A multi thousand acre preserve of both exquisite landscaped gardens, the very good Tree House Restaurant (pictured above, bottom middle) and hiking forests, Stanley Park is within walking, biking and driving distance minutes from anywhere in Downtown Vancouver. The best way to explore the park is by hiking or renting a bike. During the summer months a free shuttle tours the perimeter.

Vancouver Art Gallery - nice 1890's building but disappointing exhibits

There are three major museums in Vancouver of which only one is worth your time. If you’re on a cruise with only six hours in the city and enjoy local historical stuff, you might visit the Vancouver Museum. Many guide books praise the Vancouver Art Gallery because it owns 177 paintings by one of Canada’s most brilliant artists, Emily Carr (1871-1945), one of the famous post-impressionist “Group of 7,” but unfortunately you’ll see, if you’re lucky, maybe twelve – I have no idea where the remainder reside. Otherwise you’ll pay $19.50 to see what basically are sophomoric exhibits representing the University of British Columbia’s art school. But there is one gem that makes Vancouver a must visit. – the MOA.

MOA’s ancient art
Arthur Erikson's Provincial Court House

If walking around Downtown and you come across a low-rise building that causes you to say “wow” – because it’s neither a boring glass structure or a wedding cake (re: The Fairmount Hotel Vancouver), it was most likely designed by Arthur Erickson, (June 14, 1924 – May 20, 2009), Vancouver native, graduate in Asian languages from the University of British Columbia, Canada’s prestigious  McGill University  and internationally celebrated architect. Even if you only saw the outside of the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology you would be thrilled. Yet to spend hours immersed in its collection, tens of thousands of First Nation North Pacific Coast art and all the cultures of the Pacific Rim, are priceless. Unlike most anthropology museums, the MOA does not consider these cultures dead. Not only did Canada’s First Nation cultures survive extinction – despite disease and cultural genocide for a hundred years – but the museum has a mission to revive and maintain these vibrant cultures with their outstanding art. The juxtaposition of ancient North Pacific Coast art with South Pacific cultures is illuminating.  It’s obvious these cultures knew of each other’s existence – the Pacific was simply a big pond. The museum’s advocacy of the continuing revival in First Nation artistic traditions is inspiring.

The rebirth of the world
Arthur Erikson's MOA

Arthur Erickson’s 1971 design takes my breath away. Based on a North Pacific Coast Clan House, he managed to maintain his ideal of a simple concrete and glass structure that would be both  distinctive and bring the outside environment inside. Set on a forested cliff, hundreds of feet above the Pacific, at the edge of the University’s South Vancouver campus, the building is more than an homage to the collection. In the 1940’s the Canadian government built two eight foot thick concrete gun emplacements as part of World War II defenses for Vancouver harbor. Rather than attempt their removal, Erikson incorporated them into the museum. One is part of an outdoor garden and the other is an inspired decision – it is incorporated into the museum as the Rotunda Gallery, dominated by, and dedicated to, First Nation artist Bill Reid’s (1920 -1998) monumental wooden sculpture “Raven and the First Man.” It’s a truly moving statement to the mythic reality that out of destruction there is rebirth.

Vancouver’s Neighborhoods – what the guide books don’t tell you…

    

Very few of us are ex-patriots from our birth countries – although maybe some of us wish we were. So when first generation ancestors moved from Europe, Asia, South America, and even Africa (after the post-slave era) it’s not odd that they would want to settle in areas with similar immigrants. That’s an age-old tradition – the psychological first step in the process of integrating into a new society. Look at your own area. What do you call “Little…”? In the tourism literature of any size population center in North America there is a “Little… something” – from Italian to Ethiopian. Unfortunately today, many ethnic neighborhoods are shadows of this past uniqueness having been absorbed into the melting pot or turned into a tourist attraction – or striving to be “upwardly mobile.”   

“Gassy” Jack Deighton

 

Vancouver is not unique in that venue. Gastown, 1860’s, was the first “Vancouver” neighborhood twenty years before the official founding of the city in 1886. Named after “Gassy” Jack Deighton – a pioneer entrepreneur and saloon keeper – who brought  natural gas lines into this area of docks, warehouses, whore houses and anything else one can think of in a frontier port. After its destruction in the Great Vancouver Fire of the same year the city was officially incorporated, it was rebuilt in late 19th century brick buildings lined with cobbled streets. Yet it remained a rough European immigrant port district until its further decline during the Great Depression, and through the 1960’s, into a slum. Fortunately well-meaning urban planners were thwarted in their attempt to demolish the 19th century brick neighborhood. Unfortunately, Gastown today is “quaint” in that sweet, teeth jarring tourist up-scale shadow of its original self. Set only a few blocks from the cruise piers/Canada Place of Downtown on Water Street off of Hastings Street, it’s a neighborhood of cheap souvenir shops, expensive designer showrooms, cafes and some exquisite art galleries – if you can afford the multi-thousand dollar price tags. Like most of central Vancouver, its residents are young, upwardly mobile professionals who can afford the multi-thousand dollar rents for condos.   

   

 Gastown’s most interesting attraction is the Steam Clock. Conceived over a hundred years ago but not built until the 1970’s, it’s “chimes” are steam operated- not unlike a river boat – by Vancouver’s distributed Downtown steam-heating system.  Located on the corner of Cambie and Water Street, it sounds every 15 minutes and is definitely worth walking through the crowded, flower bedecked streets to observe.   

Gastown Steam Clock

Vancouver’s Chinatown – the third largest in North America – is no longer the ghetto that many Asian neighborhoods once were considering that the city’s population is 30% Chinese – many among the wealthiest residents of  the city.  It’s separated by a couple of blocks from Gastown by an odd stretch that is populated by drug dealers and prostitutes – perfectly safe in the daytime – traversed by all the tour buses ( note: no tour bus commentary – why?).  Except for the Sun Yat-sen Classical Chinese Garden and the Chinese Cultural Center there is no reason to visit Chinatown unless you wish to buy inexpensive trinkets.   

Chinatown

 

Downtown is actually the name of Vancouver’s central core, although it is in subdivisions which are discernable today only by architecture or color – not racial, rather the rainbow flag. The 1886 Great Fire not only rebuilt Gastown but expanded the city creating new neighborhoods for Vancouver’s growing wealthy. The mostly British merchant class built spacious  landscaped Victorian mansions and, in the early 1900’s, many Arts and Crafts houses. The vast influx of wealthy Chinese British passport holders from Hong Kong in the 1980’s and 90’s, and Vancouver’s subsequent economic boom, rebuilt Downtown (re: tore down the original housing) with luxury glass high rise condos. Yet even if this very expensive “urban renewal” is architecturally soulless, this is Canada. Real estate developers have to comply with strict codes requiring public art installations, inspired landscaping, public access through the developments – bike paths, pedestrian walkways and public ownership of the extensive waterfront.   

   

Robson Street, which runs the full east/west length of Downtown, is the fashionable shopping street but the Champs-Élysées it is not. Armani and Cartier are sandwiched between hundreds of small locally owned shops that make me wonder how they can afford the rent – obviously considering the crowds of shoppers they can. To its immense credit, the shops are mostly locally owned and not chain stores. It’s a carnival scene with Bentleys and Mercedes parked in front of non-descript storefronts. Granville Street was once Vancouver’s main shopping district but it fell on hard times after the Great Depression. Fortunately that means it still contains many original Art Deco buildings and is on an economic rebound. Yaletown, next to Granville Street, is a mix of residential lofts and hip stores in restored industrial buildings, as well as  glass condos catering to the growing affluent  population of under 35-year old professionals.   

The West End

 

West End is the wealthiest area and, to some extent, what’s left of the original Downtown. Tree lined streets, especially Bute Street, is a low rise haven of excessively expensive Craftsmen houses, Art Deco apartment complexes, and young families enjoying exquisite pocket parks. The noise and traffic bustle of the shopping district, only a few blocks away, seem worlds apart.   

     

The West End is also home to one of Downtown’s most unique neighborhoods, Davie Village – the heart of Vancouver’s gay district. Fuscia painted bus stops and trash cans decorate a vibrant shopping and café area – fully integrated with the non-gay community (remember, this is socially advanced Canada where gay marriage was legalized years ago). The Davie Village Community Garden, at the corner of Davie and Burrard Streets, is the most beautiful community garden I have ever seen. More non-edible plants than vegetables, it’s a fitting symbol of the commitment of Vancouver’s residents to preserving green space within the urban landscape. The incomparable Stanley Park (see next blog) borders the West End.   

Granville Island

 

Granville Island, situated in False Creek between Downtown and South Vancouver, was once an industrial center. After years of decline and neglect, it was revitalized a couple decades ago into the cultural/shopping/tourist/entertainment district of the city – beloved and much frequented by locals. The stunning Public Market (see next blog) is the major draw for locals, as well as mediocre restaurants, the excellent Arts Club Theatre of Vancouver, the Emily Carr University of Art & Design, trendy shops,  the best seafood stores ever (!!),  an entire toy store mall and park devoted to children and terrific buskers (licensed street performers).  Sandwiched between the Island and Downtown is an enormous yacht harbor, reminding you that water surrounds.  Nearly every structure is a renovated industrial building and one old company, a cement plant, still operates on the island. A small, unique collection of multi-million dollar floating houses line False Creek  east of the cement plant.   

floating houses of Granville Island

 

Just over the Burrard and Granville Bridges, and opposite Granville Island, is South Vancouver. At first it seems non-descript as one views the vast Molson brewery and a rather stark, treeless commercial district until you pass row upon row of car dealerships – Lamborghini, Lotus, Mercedes, BMW, Lexus, Bentley (not a Chevy or Ford in sight). Rising quickly up forested hills are modest houses and low-rise condos giving way to ever larger water front/view residences – everything with starting prices in excess of one million dollars. The reason for a tourist to visit South Vancouver is to walk around the spacious University of British Columbia campus and spend at least half a day at its stunning Museum of Anthropology (sorry, you’ll have to read my next blog). UBC’s MOA is a reason in itself why a traveler must visit Vancouver!!   

The Museum of Anthropology

 

Vancouver has an excellent and inexpensive public transportation system which, oddly enough, the official tourism department seems reluctant to advertise or supply any information on its workings. I believe the tourism officials want to promote the excessively expensive taxis in the city. (Do not take taxis unless you absolutely must!) The system, Trans Link,  includes buses, subway and elevated (the Sky Train). They are integrated but, given the lack of support by tourism officials, they require a learning curve – in my case, three days. First I used the system’s web site trip planner until it proved as unreliable as just about any other one I’ve ever used (first bus trip using the site left me off two miles from my destination.) Then I realized, “I’m in Canada!” The bus drivers have to be genetically friendly!! And they were!!!  All I had to do was ask, and I got more information than I needed. With that knowledge, I discovered the real neighborhoods of Vancouver – once more ignored by tourism officials.   

Commercial Drive & Main Street Districts

 

The Commercial Drive and Main Street Districts, east and north-east of Downtown, were once, and somewhat still are, the non-British European “Little Italy, Little Portugal, etc.” working class neighborhoods of Vancouver. Not as pristinely scrubbed as Downtown or the South side with a mixture of dollar stores, small businesses and streets lined with Craftsmen houses that make a lover of this architecture well up with tears of joy, this is the Vancouver in which I felt most comfortable. It has not lost its ethnic roots only that most of the old European communities are now Vietnamese, Thai, Pilipino, North African, Middle Eastern and Latino. The mix of languages, store signs, grocery stores and restaurants is dizzying. Historic architectural codes are preserving the extensive streets of early 20th century housing encouraging an influx of professionals, academics, artists and entrepreneurs who can buy/rent the “affordable” housing in the districts – starting prices for single family houses in the $700K and studio apartments in the $700/month range. Community gardens proliferate and Commercial Street in particular is colorful, has a bounty of ethnic restaurants – including well established Italian and Greek – and beautiful views of the Downtown skyline. Main Street is less gentrified and the center for both Asian supermarkets and Vancouver’s antique district (an affordable antique district).   

Despite some misgivings with the expensive glass jungle and overly tourist orientation of Downtown, Gastown and Chinatown, overall Vancouver is a highly livable city – if you can afford it – set on the edge of some of Earth’s most spectacular landscape. Pedestrians rule, with cars – even with fast drivers – dutifully stopping at the pedestrian crossings at nearly every intersection ( violations bring hefty fines). Trash on the streets is non-existent (and no, that’s not an exaggeration!) even though trash cans are not common – people simply do not litter (I know, it’s an unthinkable concept in the USA). Everyone picks up after their dog – if you forgot a bag, public boxes with bags line the extensive landscaped walkways throughout the city (and this is a city where I think it’s obligatory to own a dog). Public art, fountains, gardens and parks proliferate softening the urban reality, and everywhere there is the sea, the forested mountains and the mist shrouded islands.   

   

NEXT: What to see and eat in Vancouver.

Vancouver…but is it Canada?

  

Islands of mist shrouded forested mountains are set in the deep blue waters of English Bay. For 10,000 years, the one-thousand mile unsurpassed natural beauty from Seattle’s Puget Sound through Alaska’s Inside Passage has been home to the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth, Kwakwakawa’wakw, Tlingit, and Haida among other First Nation cultures. These prosperous, sophisticated societies existed well before Captain James Cook and George Vancouver explored the islands in these waters during the late 18th century.  

  

Much has changed in the region since that time. The Hudson’s Bay Company, incorporated by British royal charter in 1670, (the virtual government of much of British North America) founded the City of Victoria, 1843, and the City of Vancouver in 1886. The wealth generated by the lucrative fur trade was soon augmented by gold discoveries all along the west coast from California to the Yukon, quickly followed by steam ship trade with the Orient. Yet although Victoria became the capital of the English colony of British Columbia and Vancouver its most important port, both cities remained small Pacific coast outposts reached only by lengthy sea voyages or trans-continental train.  

  

Flags: British Columbia, Canada, Great Britain

 

A province of Canada since 1871, British Columbia, and its two principal cities, have always been a bit different than the rest of the nation. Perhaps due to its name being personally chosen by Queen Victoria, its 3,000 mile distance from eastern Canada, its Pacific sea trade and proximity to the USA’s west coast cities, Vancouver, and Victoria, ferociously maintained a British colonial sensibility – High Tea, manicured gardens, half-timbered cottages with Chinese staff and an eye towards the Orient.  

English Bay

 

Vancouver’s historically diverse population was also different. Just as with its neighbor to the south, westward expansion brought the largest non-British European groups: Irish, German, Scandinavian and Italian. Post World War II brought Eastern Europeans, Greeks and Portuguese – the city has the third largest Portuguese population in Canada. Vancouver’s First Nations citizens number over 11,000 people – 2%.  

By far, the most significant impact on the region’s diversity has always been its location as a major player on the Pacific Rim. By 1890 the small city of 12,000 included 1,000 Chinese residents.  In 2010, Vancouver’s Chinatown was the third largest in North America with 30% of the city of Chinese descent, followed by an additional 17% from Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia and the Philippines. That 47% (250,000 people) makes Vancouver the largest Asian city in North America, but at 4:00 PM the venerable Hotel Vancouver still serves a proper British High Tea.

 Of great significance for both Vancouver’s Asian population and the city’s economy was the near panic that swept over wealthy Hong Kong citizens when Great Britain announced in the 1980’s its plan to hand over the colony to China – following through in 1997. Thousands of new Chinese immigrants flooded Vancouver bringing untold millions in investment capital. The reality, of course, is that the sky did not fall that fateful summer day in 1997, and Hong Kong has continued to be a major force in the booming Chinese economy resulting in ever closer business ties between Vancouver and Asia. For Vancouver’s compact downtown, the result has been its total transformation from low-rise Victorian and Craftsmen cottages to a high-rise, pristinly clean and manicured jungle of gleaming glass condos – all with stunning views of  the water,  mist-shrouded islands and snow-capped mountains.  

  

By quantity of shipped tonnage, the Port of Vancouver is now the busiest and largest in Canada, and the fourth largest in North America. While forestry still ranks as British Columbia’s largest industry, Vancouver’s sophisticated urban culture, surrounded by nature, makes tourism its second largest industry. It’s also the third largest film production center in North America, earning it the nickname Hollywood North.  

Vancouver is the only North American city ranked in the top ten most livable cities in the world – #4. Couple a healthy economy, natural beauty and a climate considered temperate by Canadian standards, and it’s no wonder Vancouver is a mecca for young professionals, artists, fisherman and retirees. Like Seattle, it does rain, or rather heavy mist, quite often yet the summer months are typically dry, often resulting in moderate drought conditions in July and August. Annual participation is less than 47 inches a year compared to Philadelphia’s 44.  Temperatures average in the 70’s ° F in July and August, with winter temperatures usually in the 40’s-50’s ° F.  

What $1.3 million will buy

 

Like most cities, especially those created by immigrants, Vancouver is a city of neighborhoods, and today that is qualified as very expensive neighborhoods.  Although much of the original downtown is the aforementioned glass jungle it is not an evening dead zone like Houston. Most of the glass towers are condos where the fortunate are within walking distance to work and play creating a vibrant nightlife. A one-bedroom, 800 square foot condo costs from $350,000 to well over $1 million, double that for a two bedroom. Single family houses start in the $700,000 range for a small bungalow – in some neighborhoods that starting price doubles. I saw more luxury cars in downtown Vancouver than in Manhattan.  

                                           Vancouver is Canada. It’s just different.  

a busker on Granville Island

 

Next –  Part 2: Vancouver’s neighborhoods.

 

Seattle: Just a tease

My first time in Seattle. It reminds me of San Francisco, minus the fog. I was not anticipating a city built on hills overlooking the expansive and busy harbor. On first impression, it’s a sophisticated city with a good, inexpensive public transportation system, a young population and no trash on the streets. Although there are as few trash cans on the street as Philadelphia, people do not throw their trash on the street, and I am not just talking about the downtown tourist core. During 10-hours of walking around the city, I saw one Starbucks paper cup on the ground.

The Pike Place Public Market is a food mecca. Despite being a major tourist attraction, the huge enclosed and outdoor market displayed suburb produce, flowers, fish, meats, cheeses and crafts in abundance.

 A wide variety of street performers round out the browsing, eating and entertainment experience.

Palm Springs Living: More than a Bentley

The Coachella Valley from the heights of the San Bernardino National Forest over to the snow capped northern side of the San Bernardino Mts.

 

I fully realized, while surrounded by cooler air and wildflowers in the San Bernardino Mountains, that Palm Springs is a lot more than Bentley motor cars. Within an hour’s drive are  destinations favored by people for hundreds of years. White settlers built towns at these locations in the late 19th Century. Fashionable Lake Arrowhead and diverse Big Bear Lake in the northern mountains, family camping/cabin oriented Idyllwild on the southern side of the valley and the vast desert spectacle of Joshua Tree National Park are all easy, or leisurely, day trips.     

Idyllwild, Top Left: sauteed calamari, Bottom Right: salad w/roasted beets.It was 105 (F)/37(c) on a June day as I drove up dramatic Route 74 between the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains. The harsh, barren desert on this leeward side of the mountains slowly gave way to lush vegetation within the San Bernardino National Forest. So did the temperature. By the time I reached Idyllwild at over 5,000 feet elevation it was 80(F)/35 (C). I could make a play on the town’s name: In Idyllwild you idle away your time. It’s a charming, log cabin town within tranquility and beauty.  Restaurant Gastronome (54381 Ridgeway Drive) was a decent choice for lunch. Wood frame, stone fireplace, beam ceilings, stained glass bar and a pleasant tree-shaded terrace to dine outside. Nothing special except the atmosphere and the moderate prices for lunch.     

Joshua Tree National Park

 

Driving north out of the valley towards Joshua Tree National Park, I passed  the town of Desert Hot Springs, although the name should be “Desert Hot Winds.” With constant winds in excess of 40 miles per hour, the mountain sides are covered with thousands of wind turbines providing over 20% of the Coachella Valley’s energy needs. Joshua Tree National Park is vast. At 4,000 feet elevation it’s not as hot as the valley and at night it usually is cold. The park preserves the Joshua tree, a unique palm that is indigenous only to this specific region of the southwest. Besides, the landscape is stunning and the rock formations spectacular. At one lookout the San Andres Fault is clearly visible. Fifty miles north of Palm Springs, the park is an easy day trip.     

Top right & Bottom left: Big Bear Lake, Bottom right: Lake Arrowhead

 

 Fortunately I was not driving the car as we climbed the San Bernardino Mountains along the eastern flank on our way to Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead. If I had been driving,  the car would have sailed off the road because I could not stop turning my head to look at one beautiful scene after another. From the scrub desert, the 7,000 foot  ascent transforms into lush forests and narrow valleys filled with clouds. The lake region is popular all year round with skiing in the winter.  Big Bear Lake stretches for miles with a succession of communities both gated and so laid back it looks like the 1960’s. Lake Arrowhead is tony with a designer town, shops and restaurants to match. Once more, the landscape is stunning and in summer, the temperature at Lake Arrowhead in the evening was 65 (F)/17 (C). I took a day trip, but the drive to Lake Arrowhead from Palm Springs via I-10 west and San Bernardino takes less than an hour.     

The Palm Springs Museum of Art is a gem. I don’t know why I was surprised by the exceptional quality of its collection considering the wealth in the Coachella Valley. Ranging from mesoamerican art, classic 19th century American west paintings, southwest native crafts to modern sculpture in bronze that mimics dessert drift wood, the museum is a calm, enriching atmosphere. The lower level sunken outdoor sculpture garden is a delight with pools, fountains, glass and bronze art works. The temperature in the garden is a good 10 to 15 (F) cooler! At night you can walk outside the building and look over the wall at the  illuminated sculptures garden.     

     

Palm Springs and the surrounding area has no shortage of hotels from budget to ultra-lux. The historic district of mid-century modern homes has the oldest (1920’s) and finest  small inns in the city.  Many of them are in the $100 – $200/double range in off-season, and some even in-season (November – March) and blend so well into the residential community as to go unnoticed as hotels. Best of all, they are within easy walking distance (2 or 3 blocks) of Palm Canyon Drive and the heart of Palm Springs.     

The Old Ranch Inn

 

The Old Ranch Inn is a suburb 8-room hotel with its casita rooms surrounding the inviting swimming pool with a beautiful view of the mountains. An original late 19th century ranch, the owners first built casitas and a pool in the 1920’s for Hollywood visitors. By the time its current owners purchased the property ten years ago, time and neglect had taken its course. Ed and Larry painstakingly restored and upgraded the inn into well decorated large suites with kitchenettes, private baths, private patio retreats and a few fireplaces. The atmosphere is that of a weekend house party since the pool is the afternoon and early evening gathering spot. Conversation flows freely and new friends are made. A hotel can chart its success by the number of repeat quests, and when more than one room is occupied by repeat guests from Europe, I’d say the Old Ranch Inn is secure.     

Copley's on Palm Canyon

 

The Palm Springs dining scene is eclectic but heavy on grilled meats, southwest and Mexican food. There are many decent restaurants, but only one outstanding establishment, Copley’s on Palm Canyon ( 621 North Palm Canyon Drive). It’s setting itself is historic, the restored 1930’s  adobe-style home of Cary Grant. The huge interior courtyard garden provides excellent outdoor seating for pleasant evenings. The interior space has been opened up, decorated with warm colors and western art. The cuisine is excellent: mini-sushi tacos with red & green roe, butter-tender filet with spicy grilled shrimp,  generous Neiman Ranch pork chop, rich chocolate pate with homemade mocha ice cream and lavender pound cake with homemade basil ice cream. Arrive before sunset and watch as the desert’s dusky sunlight plays with the mountains and the blue/black night emerges punctuated by candle light.     

Palm Springs can be magical.     

close-up of glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly at Palm Springs Art Museum

Palm Springs Living: Adobe to Mid-Century Modern

Top Right: Big Bear Lake, Bottom: Coachella Valley

(You can click all photos to expand)

The first snow birds were not from Hollywood. The  Cahuilla Native Americans  have been spending winters in the Coachella Valley for at least the past 500 years.  The Cahuilla summered nearby (30 minutes to an hour by car today) in the cool mountains surrounding the valley with its abundant wildlife and lakes – such as present day Lakes Arrowhead and Big Bear. By the late 19th century, white settlers had subdued and reduced the Cahuilla to a desert reservation on the Coachella Valley floor, while the settlers built a rough western town on its edge, on part of the site of the hot springs (aqua caliente), and named it Palm Springs.

America’s early film industry’s selection of Hollywood  was destined to turn the hot springs of the Coachella Valley into green dollars for the Agua Caliente Band of the Cahuilla.  Their  previously worthless Reservation occupies 50 square miles (127 km²) in the Palm Springs area, including parts of the cities of Palm Springs, Cathedral City and Rancho Mirage. This makes the tribe an important player in the local economy, operating an array of business enterprises, including land leasing, hotel/ casino operations and banking. The total population actually living on Reservation territory is over 25,000 although few of these are tribal members.

Top: Gloria Swanson’s home, Bottom: Charlie Chaplin’s adobe

By the early 1920’s, Hollywood had supplanted New York as the center of the film industry. Stars of the early silent screen seeking a rustic getaway from the bustle of Hollywood transported their dressing room trailers out to this oasis in the desert and camped. Soon vacation houses were being constructed.

Ironically, the start of the film industry’s Golden Age corresponded with the 1929 stock crash and the Great Depression. The all-powerful studios warned their stars not to build ostentatious vacation houses so as not to offend fans during this difficult time. Many of the early houses and commercial structures followed adobe designs, setting a modest sized low-rise style using natural materials that Palm Springs would adopt as a general code.

Top left: Mario Lanza house, right: Elvis Presley house, Bottom left: The Andalusian Court Inn, right: Liberace house (note piano mailbox lower right of pic)

The stars arrived in a steady stream over the next 50 years. Many of their homes are preserved within the Palm Springs Historic District and by conscientious owners. Although driving tours are available to view the homes, most are not open to the public. You will be looking through a gate just as if you had the self-guide map and a rental car.

One exception is the mid-1950’s  home of Elvis Presley.  In private ownership by a true Elvis fan, it is open for tours. The Andalusian Court has been operating as a luxury inn since the early 1920’s. It was the favorite retreat for Lucille Ball, Dezi Arnez and their kids to chill. In those pre-airconditioned days one simply did not go out in the daytime sun but took advantage of the cooling environment courtyards and pools provided.

Mid-century modern: Top left: Hotel Del Marcos (1947) Bottom left: the Chase Hotel (1948), Top right & bottom right: two former inns now condos.

  By the post-war 1940’s and 50’s Palm Springs architects and their clients,  now stars of both Hollywood and Wall Street, fully embraced international modernism championed by the Bauhaus school, Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright. Many homes and small low-rise hotels built within the historic district not only exist today but remain  in private hands,  such as the late 1940’s Chase Hotel and Hotel Del Marcos. Some  inns have been transformed into condos.

For forty-years, from the late 1940’s through the late 1980’s, Palm Springs became a mecca for low-rise houses. The clean lines and generous use of  glass, rock and steel blurred the line between interior and exterior space. Landscape design centered on the use of the great variety of sustainable native plant life in this oasis softening the house into the land. This blurring of in and out provided  a natural privacy for  interior courtyards and  pools. Vast lawns of the type found in Las Vegas are rare. The exception to water excess are the unnatural,  but welcome, abundance of  swimming pools.

The great names in architecture of Mid-century Modern designed for some of the great names in American business and entertainment:

Kaufmann Desert House, 1947

European born, Bauhaus educated refugee and architect Richard Neutra‘s Kaufmann Desert House, 1947, set the tone with a  dramatic yet natural glass, rock and steel residence overlooking Palm Springs. With the sandy rock the same color as the surroundings it seems the house has grown from the hillside. This was not the first time Edgar Kaufmann, Pittsburg department store tycoon, had championed modernism. A decade earlier he had commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build Fallingwaters in southwestern Pennsylvania – considered the greatest mid-century home in America.

Ohio-born architect William Cody did for small hotels what Neutra did for homes with his 1947 Del Marcos Hotel. The angular lines and large window walls on the ground floor allow views of the inner courtyard/pool creating an airy blend of both  inside and outside public space.

Palm Springs International Airport, 1965

One of the preeminent architects is Donald Wexler who worked for both Neutra and Cody before establishing his  firm. His own 1955 home is a testament to the influence of Neutra, and his use of steel framing allows his house to feel light and have a zen-like tranquility. Personally, I think his 1964 design for the Dinah Shore residence is the standard bearer for Mid-century Modern. His 1965  main terminal building for Palm Springs International Airport maintains the same low-rise open and airy motif for a commercial space that  well suits a  frequently windy desert.

Dinah Shore residence, 1964, Wexler residence, 1955

Architect John Lautner was an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright for six years before establishing his own practice in Los Angeles. Just south of Palm Springs proper, perched on an exclusive hillside, is the dramatic 30,000 square foot mansion he designed for Bob Hope in 1979 – nicknamed the “UFO” when it was built.

I do not know who designed the Maybach house (of the  Maybach-Motorenbau GmbH fortune), but you have to look for a while to distinguish its form from its hillside perch.

Top:Bob Hope House, 1979,  Bottom: Maybach House

E. Stewart Williams built some of Palm Spring’s most significant buildings during a long and prolific career including the beautiful 1946 Frank Sinatra house …

Frank Sinatra house, 1946

…. and the 1976 Palm Springs museum of Art.

Palm Springs Museum of Art, 1976

Swiss architect Albert Frey worked in France for Le Corbusier before moving to the United States. Among his numerous designs is the iconic Tramway Gas Station, 1963, which every visitor passes entering the city from the north and frequently stops  since it’s now the Palm Springs Visitors Bureau.

Tramway Gas Station, 1963

Fortunately, few buildings in Palm Springs assault the eye by being altered or replaced with cheap 21st century commercial materials. The city seems committed to preserving its status as a unique architectural oasis.

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A Street Fair in the land of the Bentley?

slight of hand still enthralls

That’s just the first surprise in Palm Springs.

Palm Springs in the Coachella Valley below

Nestled in the Coachella Valley, 110 miles east of Los Angeles, Palm Springs has been a favorite spot for winter living for at least 500 years. Sheltered by the  San Bernardino Mountains (11,500′ elevation) to the north, the  Santa Rosa Mountains to the south (8,700′ elevation), the  Little San Bernardino Mountains  (3,700′ elevation) to the east and the San Jacinto Mountains to the West (10,800′ elevation), the Coachella Valley sits on top of, for the time being, a still sustainable aquifer. Winter daytime temperatures (October through March) average 80 (F)/25 (C).

It’s true that day time temperatures April through September average over 100 (F)/33 (C), and I know it does little to mention that the humidity is near zero. Yet, like lizards in a desert, why would anyone want to go out in the mid-day sun? There are other hours of the day – the cool of a summer evening when a dry 80 (F) does feel wonderful, or the equally pleasant morning hours, and then there are always the mountains and lakes within 30 minutes to an hour drive where temperatures  average 20 to 30 (F) lower !

Life adapts and the weekly Thursday evening Village Fest on Palm Canyon Drive is proof that life in a summer desert can be quite enjoyable.

Bottom: caramel popcorn being prepared
center picture: Rainier Cherries (click to enlarge)

Village Fest is  any street fair anywhere – musicians, horse rides for the kids, activities such as the rock wall climb, street performers, shops open until 10:00 pm and food!! Naturally, the restaurants along Palm Canyon Drive are open, but remember this is a street fair in an agricultural region that has  abundant access to farms using natural methods (organic, chemical-free). Available at stalls is a wide variety of produce, flowers,  grains, fruits  (fresh and dried) along with fresh-baked products, arts and crafts.  Being a street fair, you’ll also find cotton candy, Philly cheese steaks (no, I didn’t have one…diet…), grilled brats and fresh caramel popcorn prepared in an improvised gas cooker made with a Hobart commercial dough mixer bowl ( resourceful). The fair stretches for blocks.

Unlike many street fairs, Village Fest is always in the evening which adds to the festive air as twilight colors the sky, the mountains darken in shadow and the lights of Palm Canyon Drive and Village Fest sparkle. Palm Springs may be the land of the Bentley (more per capita than Saudi Arabia) but it’s home to many average cars as well. All their owners seem to enjoy the timeless pleasure of a  simple village fair.

Palm Springs Part 2: architecture

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The Idyllic Life of a Sandwich – Jamon y Queso in Argentina

The inventor himself (1718-1792)

If John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, had been an Argentine he would have enjoyed slices of ham tucked between bread, not beef. The pig had been domesticated since 4900 BCE. The Romans had hams since at least 400 BCE. Backpacking in England (1971 ACE)  every British pub had ham and cheese sandwich – two paper-thin ham slices, one of cheese on white bread (no butter… well sometimes, rarely mustard…) I’d say it’s a good bet Montagu had ham tucked into that first sandwich.

Iberian hams were already famous when the Romans arrived on the peninsula.  Wild pigs lived an idyllic life roaming free in the woods  eating a natural diet of acorns, herbs, roots and legumes. Cured, air-dried and aged using centuries old methods, the paper-thin reddish slice’s intense flavors are released slowly as your mouth moistens the ham. This is not Oscar Mayer lunch meat, and I’m going to assume the Spanish slapped some Jamon Iberico between pan eons ago.

Hams for sale in Madrid, Spain

In Argentina the vast array of ham and cheese sandwiches seem odd only to tourists. In their local areas, these café standards reflect a cultural fusion that is the hallmark of the national cuisine. Spanish (Andalucía and Basque), French, Italian, and English hams all took their place in new Argentine settlements. Along with these cuisines’ love of cheeses and breads, the recipe for a ubiquitous national dish  arose  – tostado de jamon y queso. Yet as in any fusion, not all jamon y queso look-alike: grilled open-faced with blue cheese sauce, or with hard-boiled egg and anchovies, as a pizza topping, or a delectable gourmet creation on homemade bread are a few variations I’ve munched.

Cafe Hotel Touring Club, Trelew, Argentina

At Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s favorite  haunt in northeast Patagonia, the Café Hotel Touring Club, (Fontana 240, Trelew) they’ve been serving the granddaddy of all since the 1890’s: tostado de jamon y queso – toasted, buttered, thin sliced bread with a couple of slices of ham and cheese. It’s not quite an American grilled ham and cheese but more than just cold ingredients on dry toast. A tostado de jamon y queso is best if the buttered sandwich is grilled on a ridged pan, to create grill marks, while gently pressing. The cheese should be wilting, not melting and the ham warm. It is simplicity  itself and only as delicious as the quality of the ingredients. The Touring Club could use a better ham, but relaxing in its faded early 1900’s interior with a cold cerveca, or café, and a tostado, you know why Butch and the Kid felt safe here.

tostado de jamon & queso

For breakfast at Café Flora (Avenida Illia 1690, Rosario)  the carlitos de jamon is a popular item in the northeast Rio Parana  port city of Rosario. Two rectangles of crustless white bread with ham, fried egg, cheese and olives is grilled to a golden brown. That might not be a typical American breakfast, but it certainly satisfies a person who seeks out cuisine that is not ordinary. With espresso it was a very satisfying start to the day. (AR$13 – US$3.50)

ham, cheese, lettuce, tomato, hard boiled egg & anchovies

In Argentina’s dry, sparsely populated northwest, on San Juan City’s leafy, lively pedestrian mall,  Café Capalino, (Avenida Tucuman, San Juan) specializes in another classic: a double-decker made with 8”x 8” crustless sliced bread. The sandwich is cut into four equal squares and easily can serve two people, but it’s meant for one. Many fillings are used on the upper level, but the bottom half has ham and cheese and my upper layer was lettuce, tomato, chopped hard-boiled egg and anchovies. I know what you’re thinking, but I love anchovies on anything, and so do many Argentines. This huge sandwich and an espresso, set me back AR$22 (US$6.00)

Lomitos Martinica, Ushuaia, AR

Variations on the theme of the ham and cheese sandwich abound. In Ushuaia, 600 miles north of Antarctica, popular hole-in-the-wall café Lomitos Martinica  (San Martin 68, Ushuaia) makes a thin egg omelet, topped with a slice of ham & cheese and placed on a huge beef burger, or on a long roll filled with  skirt steak, grilled sausage or tender fried chicken fillets, along with lettuce, tomato and mayo.  I had both the skirt steak and the chicken. The combo was flavorful, satisfying and filling.  (AR$21 = US$5.75) A similar variation was had at Hostel Rancho Grande Restaurant (Avenida San Martin 493, El Chalten).  Their Rancho Grande Burger  is a large, hand-made wood grilled beef burger with ham, cheese, lettuce and tomato accompanied by French fries topped by two perfectly made sunny-side eggs. Satisfying and fresh makes good comfort food. (AR$28 = US$7.75)

Cafe Tortoni, Buenos Aires

In Buenos Aires’ Microcentro, elegant, 150-year old Café Tortoni (Ave. de Mayo 825, Buenos Aires) enwraps its clients in gleaming dark wood, stained glass, good china and silver. Famous for its coffee service, the café offers a menu of light fare, including, naturally, the  ubiquitous ham and cheese sandwich. Except this is Café Tortoni  which has served presidents, celebrities and royalty for a century and a half. A simple tostado de jamon y queso can be had, but arriving on a beautiful white china plate is an open-faced grilled ham sandwich smothered in a creamy blue cheese sauce. (AR$20 = US$5.25)

The oddest variations were on a pizza and the varieties served on Argentina’s long distance, inter-city busses. The central Andean city of Mendoza may be world-famous for its wine, but to Argentines, the city’s culinary fame is its thick, southern Italian style pizzas. Capri (Ave. San Lorenzo y San Juan) is a Mendoza institution that I was told I had to try. I did, twice, but I must admit I was not impressed with their “special” pizza –  a  thick layer of mozzarella cheese was covered by slices of boiled ham with sweet marinated red peppers and olives. I’m not quite sure what that has to do with southern Italy, especially since it lacked seasoning of any kind. But lots of Mendozans were ordering.

Left: ham & cheese pizza, Tight: ham & cheese stuffed bun

Argentina’s private, long distance, inter-city busses are spacious, comfortable, modern, inexpensive and efficient. Meals appropriate to the time of day are always included in the fare. Whereas the quality of the buses is high, the food looks like its been catered by a convenience store. The entrée at dinner might be some sort of chicken or pasta, at lunchtime it’s frequently variations on ham and cheese. Besides a cold jamon y queso on buttered white bread, appetizers and extras at any meal may include: a semi-sweet “cake roll” with ham, a packaged square of a sweet shortbread with ham and cheese and/or a warm bun with ham topped by melted mozzarella, an olive and oregano.

Modern life is replacing the jamon in sandwiches with unremarkable boiled commercial ham that lacks the rich flavor of a good baked, smoked or cured ham. But a variety of local smoked hams are available from any market in the country. Argentina’s Spanish-style cured hams, the best being the jamones serranos  from the Sierras de Córdoba in central Argentina, are not used in sandwiches but rather served thinly sliced accompanied by an assortment of  sausages, salami, cheeses and breads. Likewise, processed cheese has invaded the nation, but regional cheeses are abundant. For sandwiches, Argentine’s prefer mild cow’s milk varieties such as Patagonia’s Queso Chubut. When quality ingredients are utilized, this lowly sandwich reaches for the culinary stars.

 The modest La Cerveceria Brew Pub and Restaurant (Avenida San Martin 320, El Chalten) in an isolated Andean village in south-western Patagonia, can, in my opinion, justly claim Argentina’s Finest Sándwich de Jamón y Queso. La Cerveceria is an attractive timber and glass chalet in this enclave within the vast Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Owned and operated by three personable 60-something women (one is the brew master), they serve a stunning round, 8” grilled sandwich. The bread is a seeded homemade flat bread, like a panni but more tender (proprietary recipe). Inside are thick slices of smoked ham, ripe tomatoes and a local artisan white cheese with a grainy Dijon mustard. The yeasty bread’s texture, the smokiness of the hand-cut ham slices, the deep flavor of fresh Andean tomatoes, the rich creamy cheese and earthy mustard….. La Cerveceria  raised the lowly ham and cheese to the stars. (AR$20 = US$5.50)

La Cerveceria's incomparable Jamon y Queso

Valley Forge: A Reality Show

Reality #1:  The American Revolution was saved at Valley Forge

For over twenty years  I have driven through Valley Forge, site of the great winter encampment of 1777-78. Nearly every road was laid out over 300 years ago. The landscape is still lush with rolling hills. There are many more trees and deer than in 1777, but I can imagine that prior to December of that year, it was just as peaceful as now in the early morning mist – perhaps a few more farm animals would be awakening.

I park my car and walk down the silent lane towards the Issac Potts House. The gravel crunches under my shoes, birds chirp, Valley Creek gurgles on its way to the Schuylkill. The small stately house that Washington rented for six months, which served as the headquarters of the General Command, stands solitary.  The Potts grist mill  burned in the 1830’s, victim to sparks from one of the nation’s first rail lines – still in use in 2017.  Long-gone as well is the bustle of 1777 Valley Forge village.  Myth and reality float as mist on a land that  holds too many undiscovered stories.

1913 Reading RR train station now Washington’s HQ visitors center, Top Right: original ticket window, Bottom Right: rail line still used for freight

The 3,700 acres of Valley Forge National Historic Park are a small part of what was known in the 18th century as Pennsylvania’s Great Valley – one of the wealthiest agricultural regions in the thirteen colonies. Populated largely by Quakers, this industrious area had given rise by the 1750’s to the start of Pennsylvania’s iron industry – hence the village of Valley Forge along Valley Creek.  This small company town owned by a few intermarried families, along with farming and water powered mills on the Schuylkill River, was making the region an economic power house. Yet before the  autumn of 1777, the bucolic, hilly and peaceful countryside was hidden from the turmoil embroiling the colonies since 1775,  but Philadelphia was only 20 miles south.

 The crops were being harvested when the British advanced towards Philadelphia in the autumn of 1777.  Although there is evidence of British requisitioning of supplies, the population was equally nervous concerning any future involvement in war. The British did burn a Potts  forge warehouse because munitions were found. Being staunch Quakers, it’s unlikely the family gave the local colonial militia captain permission to use the facility.

One week before Christmas 1777, the first of what would fluctuate between 10,000 to 17,000 troops, women and children arrived. An area of 3,700 acres had been chosen months before as an alternate encampment should Philadelphia fall to the British.  On the Schuylkill River, at the highest elevation closest to the city and overlooking the  major routes from Philadelphia to the interior of northern and western Pennsylvania, the site at Valley Forge was ideal for both defense and reconnaissance

It wasn’t a demoralized, bedraggled rag of an army that marched into the encampment. The troops were rather pumped at the drubbing they’d given to some of the British Empire’s crack brigades while defending Philadelphia. True, the Battle of Brandywine was horrific in terms of casualties, but the pain was equally shared and the Continental brigades remained intact. Washington’s competition to house everyone in log cabins was a resounding success. Many diary entries speak of the relative comfort of these accommodations compared to other encampments.

Reality #2: Starvation or incompetence?

A severe lack of effective planning plagued the loose collection of brigades that constituted the Continental Army in 1777 with food supplies being the most obvious initial problem. No one was in charge. The troops had arrived at the start of winter, in the midst of the breadbasket of Pennsylvania and they had no one in charge of obtaining food. A canary in the coal mine?

Christopher Ludwick accepted the commission Baker General of the Continental Army. A prosperous German/Philadelphia baker, renowned for his gingerbread (General Washington’s favorite dessert) and a financial backer of the revolution, he was in his late 50’s – one of the oldest men in command.  (Ludwick would remain BG until the end of the war in 1782). Along with the appointment of General “Mad” Anthony Wayne as Quartermaster General, these two men created, within three weeks of the first troop arrivals, an efficient commissary system with 13 field kitchens and 22 bake ovens feeding 10,000 – 15,000 people a day soup/stews and baking nearly as many loaves of  bread. (Volunteers offer baking and cooking demos during the summer and special events. See park web site.)

  Reality #3: Snag the Golden Ring

Because the defense of Philadelphia had called for a total effort, nearly every important person involved in the Revolution (and most of the troops) were together at Valley Forge – in one encampment. Yet Valley Forge encampment history seems almost uneventful to all but diehard history buffs. No battles for one thing.

The British fail to venture out of Philadelphia by the end of January to engage Washington at Valley Forge (they were not having an easy time controlling the city). The consequences of such an encounter – before the onset of “mud season” –  would have been fatal for the Revolution.  A golden opportunity presented itself and the General Command seized the ring: six months to get organized, trained, equipped, deal with corrupt merchants and a cautious Congress, standardize training, revamp recruitment and establish a central commissary kitchen system that remained in place for the remainder of the War. In other words, create a unified Continental Army – in six months.

The French Alliance in the spring of 1778 sent the French navy and millions in gold to the Revolution. The army marched out in June and nearly crushed  British forces evacuating Philadelphia for New York at the Battle of Monmouth.  For all practical purposes (except New York City) the Revolution in the North was over – bitter fighting moved South for five more agonizing years.

Reality #4: Myths are easy; uncovering the human story is difficult.

Mrs. David Edwards Stephens inherited from her father, a prosperous Methodist farmer in this Quaker community, a comfortable stone house and 400 acres. The slave-owning Mrs Edwards, and her Quaker husband David  Stephens, rented the second floor of their house as an office and beds for the staff of 28 year-old  General James Varnum.  A wealthy, staunchly abolitionist Rhode Islander, General Varnum had successfully pressured Rhode Island to create a free-black regiment who billeted across the street.   To have been the fly on the wall…the dinner conversations…

Yet the family put up with half their small house being occupied and watched their prime farm land – the encampment’s Grand Parade – turn into a sea of mud by the boots of troops being trained under the Baron von Steuben. It would be four-years before any of the farms financially recovered.

Little is known of the family that rented rooms to the tall,  dashing 19 year-old Frenchman the Marquis de La Fayette. The Marquis rapidly gained Washington’s trust, entre into the General Command’s inner circle and, I can assume, was a favorite at dinners. The house is not open for tours and is said to be haunted.

Eight hundred fifty women and children lived at the winter encampment.  Blood relatives could share the 12-person cabins with others in the brigade. Women and children performed a number of necessary roles within the camp structure. An authoritative and insightful new book, Following the Drum, does much to end the myth of the disreputable woman camp follower.

The American born Scots aristocrat, General William Alexander, 6th Earl of Sterling, his wife, Lady Sarah Livingston Sterling, along with Martha Washington, were the center of the social calendar for officers and their wives during the encampment. The Sterlings leased a house that, unfortunately, is unstable today, but the Washingtons  leased what is presently the best preserved 1760’s house in America.

Issac Potts house – George Washington's Headquarters at Valley Forge
Issac Potts house – George Washington’s Headquarters at Valley Forge

Built in the 1760’s as one of thirteen rental properties owned by the wealthy Potts family, this fine example of 18th century craftsmanship was never meant to house 15 to 20 people. The staff of the General Command exceeded that number, but not all shared the house with the General and Mrs. Washington (it’s rumored Martha Washington  remarked, through cinched teeth, that the house was a “lovely little cottage.”)  There were strategic reasons for choosing this site even if it was cozy.

Only top aides had the comfort of beds. Most slept on the floor in bed rolls and the attic – including approximately five slaves. One slave, Hannah Till, earned enough money on the side as a seamstress (allowed in the 1700s) to purchase her freedom after the War.

 

 The kitchen hummed all day with a staff of five – majority slaves – cooking meals for the General Command staff as well as numerous VIP guests. The fare was not the bread and soups of the enlisted men. Officers were from a different class. They lived better, ate better, and many subsidized their own expenses. Martha surprised the General with what became the first official celebration of his birthday in February 1778 complete with cake and a band.

kitchen at George Washington’s HQ set with officers fare

Reality #5: This was the 18th century – before indoor plumbing…

That’s why 3,000 people died at Valley Forge. Sanitation, 18th century style, no matter how well thought out by the best science of the day, still left much to be desired. Mass inoculation for small pox was a resounding success – George and Martha led by example. Daily rations for all of beer and whiskey to prevent the consumption of tainted water helped. A daily dose of wine vinegar prevented scurvy. Yet by the end of March and through May 1778, as Spring arrived, fevers, dysentery, pneumonia and infections took the lives of nearly 3,000. None are buried at Valley Forge – considered bad for morale. Many lie in lost graves. Most were tended in hospitals as far away as 50 miles from the encampment by pacifist Amish/Mennonites and Quakers – Ephrata, PA, contains a rare grave yard.

P. C. Knox House (descendant of General Henry Knox) c.1900, with Mercer tiles, now VFNHP’s archives

I spent more hours than I can count roaming the fields and buildings of Valley Forge, leading tours as a volunteer and cooking in the outdoor kitchen. To a military history buff, the meaning of this site is obvious and the wealth of 18th century military information available is abundant.

For me, though, it’s the drama of the human stories of both camp and Valley residents that resonate: the failed attempt by influential locals to arrange a peace conference, dissension within the officers of the General Command,  the constant complaints concerning mud,  denuding  the landscape for over a 5-mile radius of the encampment,  the stench of thousands of barely washed bodies and animals, the smell of fresh-baked bread and dinners at the Sterling’s.

The detritus of war. It’s never myth; it’s only reality.

Maurice Stephens House, 1816

 

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