Tag Archives: food

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.

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.

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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Colonia: Uruguay’s many reasons why

“Better to marry a neighbor than a stranger.”
Uruguayan proverb

Perhaps that is why Buenos Aires (Argentina) is fond of calling this Uruguayan city their “48th barrio.” It’s not imperialism or condescension, it’s 300 years of history. Founded in 1680 by Portugal, Colonia del Sacramento is a mere 50 minute high-speed ferry trip across the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires. Colonia suffered a violent history for over a 140 years as it ping ponged between Portugal’s Brazil and Spain. Finally, with significant Argentine assistance, the former Brazilian province, known today as Uruguay, achieved it’s independence in 1828.

old town Colonia with lighthouse
oldest house in Colonia 1690

Colonia’s renowned historic quarter, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the finest districts of 17th and 18th century South American colonial architecture. It is a popular tourist attraction for visitors from Buenos Aires especially during the summer as its position on the northeastern side of the Rio de la Plata provides a cooling breeze. The Barrio Historico de Colonia, within walking distance of the ferry terminal, contains portions of its fortified wall and the City Gate with its  still functioning wooden drawbridge. Original cobblestone streets radiate from the tree-lined Plaza Mayor. Shops, restaurants and intimate inns are interspersed among residential 18th century houses.

original city gate, drawbridge and fortified walls
“300 years of struggle and love”

I was visiting in late June which is the beginning of winter in Uruguay. Because of the country’s long Atlantic and Rio de la Plata coast line, Colonia was pleasant in the breezy 60’s (F.) The entire historic core is closed to traffic except for business owners and residents. Many visitors rent bicycles and scooters – many residents use similar vehicles – but it is an easy town for walking. In the summer season Colonia is as crowded as any popular historic waterfront town, especially with Argentines.

Casa del Almirante Brown

Among notable attractions are the Lighthouse and convent ruins of the 17th century Convent of San Francisco. The Basilica del Sanctísimo Sacramento was  constructed in 1808. The 18th century Portuguese Museum has Portuguese furnishings, jewelry, uniforms and old maps of Portuguese naval expeditions. The Casa de Nacarello, is an 18th century upperclass house museum. The Casa del Almirante Brown houses artifacts and documents of the city’s different periods and cultures. Of note is that the Irish-born Admiral William Brown was instrumental in gaining Uruguay’s independence, is regarded as the “father of the Argentine navy” and a national hero in both Uruguay and Argentina! The oldest church in Uruguay, Iglesia Matriz, dating from 1695, is found in Colonia as well.

Basilica del Sanctísimo Sacramento, Plaza Major

There is a new town to Colonia that is commercial and conveniently seperated from the historic zone. It continues the city’s traditional base as a trading hub between Argentina and Uruguay.

Top: new maritime terminal, historic train station Bottom: Buquebus ferry

Buquebus ferries make 5 to 6 round trips between Buenos Aires and Colonia daily from its new modern and efficient terminal at the Northern Dock in Puerto Madero (Buenos Aires). The trip takes less than one hour. Same day excursion specials are also available. From both Colonia and Buenos Aires, Buquebus ferries sail to Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital.

Cafes in Colonia (yes… that is a former windmill & a dining table in an antique car)

There are dozens of restaurants in the Barrio Historico de Colonia. It has always been my experience to avoid any restaurant that has waiters outside overly eager to “capture” a tourist – of any nationality – and explain their menu. I’ll make a generalization based on hundreds of restaurant meals in dozens of countries – this tactic sends up the proverbial “red flag” that the food is mediocre and overpriced. Colonia, especially around the Plaza Major, has many such establishments. On the other hand, I am partial to restaurants that have water views, even if the menu is not extraordinary. Simple food, well cooked and presented, acquires a special aura when accompanied by a beautiful setting. Uruguay, like Argentina, is known for the excellent quality of its grass-fed cattle and natural farming methods.  In recent years there has been an increase in vineyards devoted to organic grapes and wine production.

a profusion of flowering plants even in winter

Restaurant Dos Puertos filled that criteria. Set one block from the waterfront, the outdoor seating had a clear view of the sun dappled Rio de la Plata. Even though it was winter, the temperatures in the 60’s were fine for an outdoor lunch. My first course was their interpretation of what the menu clearly said was Caprese Salad – thick slices of tomato, fresh basil with slabs of Gruyère cheese. If you are very fond of Gruyère you would be in heaven – personally, I would have liked the fresh mozzarella a Caprese Salad requires. My entrée was grilled fresh Sea Bass, simply seasoned, accompanied by a vegetable medley that had obviously come from a freezer bag, but at least they were not over cooked. It was not a memorable meal, but the service was friendly and the view relaxing.

Restaurant dos Puertos

Like most restaurants, Dos Puertos is primarily a parilla, and stacks of aromatic wood were piled on the side of the building. Pleasant folk music was piped outside. Restaurant prices are slightly higher in Uruguay than in Argentina.  If you are just making a day trip to Colonia, use a credit card rather than exchange money for Uruguayan currency. You can use Argentine pesos in Colonia, but you’ll get a better exchange rate on the dollar with your credit card, even with the bank fee. (Note: Uruguayan currency is not accepted in Argentina.)

at rest in Colonia’s harbor

With the pleasant waterfront surrounding three sides of the Barrio Historico, Colonia is well worth at least a day trip from Buenos Aires with its history, charm, cafes, sailing, shops and galleries. For a longer visit, it makes a good base to explore the beautiful countryside of southwestern Uruguay.

(Note: All photos and collages will enlarge when clicked and very large when double clicked)

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The Best Entertainment in Buenos Aires

And it’s free!

The western barrio (neighborhood) of Mataderos in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is host to the incomparable Feria de Mataderos.

Once the meat-packing district, this barrio on the edge of the Pampas rocks every weekend year round to the sounds of folkloric music and dancing, A-list performers, artisan foods, crafts and antiques. It is a must for any visitor especially since few guide books even mention this treasure!

The Puna – Produce Garden of Hawai’i

    

Top Left: Papaya, coffee beans, avocado. Bottom Left: unknown, Asian cucumber, Cacao pods

 

I was startled awake at 5:30 AM by a loud rapping on the bedroom window. It was the next door neighbor of our rented Hilo water view house telling my wife and I that we had to evacuate. A Pacific-wide tsunami warning, following Chile’s catastrophic earthquake in February 2010, had been issued. Not knowing if we’d see our beautiful Japanese beach house again, we drove the 30 minutes to Volcano National Park, 4,000 feet elevation. The Park is home to one of Earth’s most active volcanos – in an island chain born of volcanos. As we had breakfast in the tropical forest we were struck that we had fled to the sides of an active volcano to escape a tsunami. This is the fragility of paradise; an environment that allows for abundance yet it just may convulse and destroy it all. Fortunately, Hawai’i was spared this time, but that wasn’t the case in 1950.    

Hilo Market

 

Later that week we drove the ten miles into Hilo for a day at the already famous Hilo Market – founded in 1988. I was struck by the vaguely shabby feel of Hilo’s commercial waterfront. Some fine examples of Art Deco, tropical Victorian and Arts & Crafts architecture are in various states of repair or restoration. A substantial swath of land forms a buffer between the historic commercial center and the Pacific Ocean. It makes for attractive park land, athletic fields and water activities, but that’s not the reason for its existence.    

For nearly a century, prior to 1950, this land had been Japan Town, a warren of shanties and pan-Asian cooking. The legacy of Japan Town lives on in the Puna’s suburb Asian fusion cuisine. In a brief period of time one morning in 1950, Japan Town was swept into the sea by a tsunami created by one of history’s most catastrophic earthquakes centered in the same area of Chile as the 2010 event. The Hilo Market area occupies land that had been devastated by that tsunami.    

    

As we neared the market, the scents and sights pulled us quickly along.  The main stalls, flower vendors, clothing, crafts, jewelry and a seamstress radiated onto the surrounding sidewalks. The Hilo Market  is not really a building. The main stalls are under a permanent cover with no walls (fortunately or else it would feel like an oven). It’s a bustling place. Organic lettuce is sold next to carnivorous plants. Taro root’s for sale if you want to make your own poi or tapioca. Exotic fruits and vegetables from Asia and the Pacific are in abundance and require conversations with vendors and fellow market goers for preparation suggestions. It’s a riot of color, textures and sounds!    

Top pics: sweet potato cheese cake and "what is it?"

 

The fresh coconut “milk” vendor is a perennial favorite in the tropics. Fresh, iced green coconuts have their tops sliced off with a machete. A straw is all that’s needed to enjoy a truly refreshing drink. Often when finished, the soft green shell is cut in half exposing the pudding-like coconut that can be eaten with a spoon – a double treat !    

    

The multi-cultural quilt that is Hawai’i resulted in a fusion of comfort foods. During the Second World War, that marvel of canned foods, SPAM, hit Hawai’i like a rock star. Overnight, the refrigerator scarce islands of the 1940’s found a food of remarkable flexibility, even if it is lacking in other qualities.    

Tradition meets SPAM and Loco Moco: popular island breakfast

 

The macadamia nut is nearly synonymous with Hawai’i, even though it’s native to Australia. What processors do to this buttery treat is legendary, and for another blog post, but suffice to say, the nut also married SPAM.    

Macadamia: green from tree, dried and shelled

 

Farmers markets are in nearly all small towns, and even between them, on the island. The Sunday market near Hawaiian Paradise Park, south of Hilo, offers a large variety of local crafts, musical entertainment, fresh eggs, Kava (for a relaxing morning), candles and terrific poultry, beef and pork grilled over guava wood.    

    

The lush eastern half of the Big Island is a garden, and even if you are a visitor without a kitchen, the markets of Hawai’i provide not only the best and exotic but a terrific insight into cultural fusion, entertainment and certainly an opportunity to eat authentic prepared island foods.

Peas In A Pod – A love story

        

Susan and Kristen

2007 did not start well for Kristen Coyle, Susan Bailey and Karen Dooley. The three sisters faced a bitter-sweet crossroad. Their beloved parents passed away too soon to enjoy retirement and for these three daughters to share those years. Now the nest egg their parents had saved became an unexpected inheritance for the three sisters. It was the decision of the women to use the money in a way that would both benefit all three and, privately, memorialize their parents. They would open a business, a produce business. In my opinion after 30 plus years in the food industry, I’d say opening a small produce shop ranks very high on the risky scale in an industry that already is a big risk. It took brains, passion and a sense of humor to turn sorrow into Peas In A Pod.       

       

The sisters do not come from a food industry background. Kristen and Susan are both nurses and Karen is a teaching assistant. All were ready to try something different – but anyone can run a food business? Susan and Kristen freely admit that after three years they are still learning – a key ingredient for success. Their Dad, according to Kristen, had an adventurous spirit taking the family on roaming summer drives through the farms of south-eastern Pennsylvania – the famed Pennsylvania Dutch and Quaker farm counties: Lancaster, Chester, Berks, Montgomery and  Bucks. The object was to find, and eat,  the freshest in-season vegetables and fruits at local farms. “Eating a fresh tomato with salt…,” is a strong memory for Kristen. So is growing up in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia surrounded by the kitchen aromas of the many Italian households in the neighborhood and  sitting down to a freshly made family dinner every night – a tradition these three busy, multi-career women still uphold.       

       

I entered the small shop at the intersection of Keswick and Glenside Avenues in Glenside, PA – a leafy, older suburb a mere 10 miles from center city Philadelphia – through a plant framed door that sticks and agitates an old-fashioned bell announcing a customer. Peas In A Pod is in a typical nondescript twin house converted into mixed commercial/apartment space. Out in front of the shop is a covered stand with produce available on the honor system. Inside, Kristen was at the counter and Susan, with helper, niece Mary Kate, were in the kitchen. (Karen had the day off). Frequent customers, of which there are many, are greeted by name; perhaps they have a quart of soup reserved. Customers, now friends by association, linger and chat.  The interior space of the shop is small, simple and functional.       

       

80 South Keswick Avenue was chosen the end of March 2007, and the doors to the shop opened in June – record time for a food business…until the sisters tell me the space was the very small front room – maybe 8 x 10 –  of the three rooms.  From day one the object was to sell produce from local farms that used green-earth farming techniques from southeastern Pennsylvania counties.       

 For small shops, and any small food business to succeed, it’s necessary to build personal relationships with suppliers. Susan spent days driving through  the countryside and was attracted to the corn fields ofTruck Patch Farms in Bucks County and developed the trust necessary to ensure high quality fresh vegetables, fruits and eggs. Truck Patch is their largest supplier.  Heirloom tomatoes come from Herrcastle Farms and Jesse Hale of Everhart supplies the raw honey. Patterson Farm’s  maple syrup is a personal favorite, and Four Seasons Farm in Lancaster County, as well as orchards in Loyola, PA, supply fruit, especially Pennsylvania’s wide variety of apples. What you will not find at Peas In A Pod are strawberries in January.       

       

You also will not find most of their 21 soups during the months of June, July and August, but, fortunately, their incomparable Crab Bisque is available every Friday year round – otherwise there would be serious withdrawal issues. Susan’s responsible for the soup, according to Kristen. (Susan: “What were we going to sell in the winter? Soup!”) Susan wanted to bake breads, make soup and maybe expand into… (the curse of a new business – expand). Expansion is a decision often made too early. Sometimes bureaucracy is beneficial, especially considering the 2008 financial meltdown. Cheltenham Township made it clear that fire codes allowed a maximum of only two hot plates for cooking – no oven without excessive renovations –  in the compact kitchen (complete with walk in-refrigerator) that was being constructed in the second room.  A third small room became more produce and Cento brand packaged pastas and sauces. Susan had a stint, while being a nurse, at Flying Fish restaurant in Chestnut Hill and still has dreams of adding more in-house made products, but reality dictated that soups and salads were a marketable match. With the exception of crab bisque every Friday (300 quarts), the remaining 20 soups rotate with one or two  available daily – lemon chicken, bean and potato leek are all favorites. I was allowed only the briefest glance at one of their proprietary recipes, some from their Mother.  Fresh salads with in-house dressings are in a refrigerated section and range from garden to chicken to orzo. The two professional grade hot plates are doing just fine.       

       

Peas In A Pod celebrated a milestone anniversary this past June 2010: they’re still in business three years after opening – nearly 65% of all food businesses are bankrupt within the first three years. Not that mistakes haven’t been made – the worst was an early over reliance on expensive certified organic produce. Customers preferred the chemical-free products from many local farms that result in “same as organic” at less cost. An obvious suggestion that  future  marketing of their soups, salads and dressings may be a good idea was met with a look  in their eyes that it was already on the table.

The bell at the front door gently clanged as another customer entered the shop. Kristen said that sometimes the bell rings but no one enters. After a brief pause she adds, shyly, “We know its our parents. They would want to be here. I think they’d be proud.”                    

They certainly would.       

Peas In A Pod       

80 South Keswick Avenue
Glenside, PA 19038-4607
(215) 887-2719