Puzzling Travel

This will be an unusual post for me, in that there won’t be as much writing as pictures. Pictures of our travel since the pandemic started…through jigsaw puzzles. Yup, like many of you, jigsaw puzzles became a big part of our lives. For most of the months since last March we have had a great big (500 or 1,000 pieces) under construction on our dining room table. We figured, why not use the table, it’s not like anyone was coming for dinner. We also have a big puzzle tray/box thingy that we could easily pack up the puzzle on the few and far between times the kids came to see us.

When we started we wanted to have a theme and I would say that other than one puzzle, I can at least remotely connect all of them to travel. And since the other one features the people we most like to travel to see, it kind of qualifies. So here, in order of our making them, are our puzzles. Hopefully in looking at them and reading my captions you will get the feeling of travel in your life.

Our first puzzle was this 1000 piece puzzle all about the Galapagos Islands. Santa had brought it to us on Christmas 2019 because our plans were to take a trip to the islands last August. We (of course) got cancelled out of that one and rebooked for this summer, thinking this would be all over. Now we are not so sure. But whenever we really get to go, we are going to do this puzzle again, just before we do.

Our second poster was full of vintage travel posters from around the world. I love it graphically and because it was a set of small blocks, it’s kind of a cheat. One thing we discovered with this puzzle was that different puzzle companies make better puzzles. Not so much the subject matter but how they hold together. Some fall apart if you breath on one piece. This one is from a company called Galison and it holds together so well, when we were done I could almost just pick it up. By far the BEST puzzle maker out there as far as quality of pieces and their cuts.

Another Galison puzzle. This one with scenes from New York City, a place we have visited quite a few times in our traveling years.

So we really have never traveled to get to a car show. But we do plan on attending the United States Grand Prix in Austin, TX one day. And when we do, we should see the greatest driver in the history of Formula One racing, Lewis Hamilton. That’s him in the white suit on the left (I know, it’s a stretch).

Now this is a place we have been—Key West, Florida. Both by land (driving the Overseas Highway to get there is way cool) and by ship (which the local populace is trying to ban) and we loved it both times. A very cool place. This puzzle is by a company called Dowdle. Their puzzles are on sale on Amazon a bunch but because they are paintings, I am not that big a fan. I prefer graphics. Easier to do 😀.

Ah beautiful Copenhagen, Denmark. Our only day in this very nice city was during a Baltic cruise we did with our friends Paul, Gail, Mike and Carol. Visited here and a BUNCH of other very interesting ports in Germany, Estonia, Sweden, Finland, Belgium and Russia.

One of the roads we drove on when we went to Albuquerque, New Mexico (had few meals at restaurants on it as well) was the famous Route 66. This road which stretches from Los Angeles to Chicago is widely known as “America’s Road.” This puzzle from Galison is of road signs, motels and more on the Route.

Keeping with that theme, our next puzzle was a diner that could have been on Route 66. It was a fun puzzle to do and this one was from a company called Ravensburger. Their puzzles are pretty good. Not as good as Galison (can you tell I liked those?) but not bad either. I would take them over a Dowdle.

Traveling a little closer to home, our ninth puzzle was another Dowdle, this time it was our home state of Washington. Kind of fun.

For our 10th puzzle we stayed in Washington State and did this Dowdle of Leavenworth, Washington’s Bavarian Village. This one was actually kind of special because when we first met I lived in Leavenworth and it’s where we got married as well.

Alright not really traveling but we have to drive at least 25 minutes to get to what used to be Safeco Field (it’s now T-Mobile Park), the home of the Seattle Mariners. This Dowdle (they have a LOT of puzzles) was fun to put together having been in this stadium so many times.

So this is the one I mentioned that isn’t really a travel puzzle but one with the people we most like to travel to see…our grandkids! My daughter gave me this puzzle for Father’s Day and she had it made by Shutterfly. I won’t even link it here because this was the WORST puzzle we did in terms of quality of pieces. If you sneezed, it fell apart. But we persevered and got it done because we loved the subject matter so much.

Back to Europe for number 13 as we explored one of our favorite cities, Barcelona. This one (a Dowdle) was fun to do because we had been to so many places that were pictured in it.

Another Galison (YEAH!) number 14 celebrates fifties style motel signs. Again, I love the graphics on this one—so retro.

Another place we have visited and loved, Sydney, Australia. I consider Sydney the most photogenic city we have been to. Everyplace you look there is something to shoot. We loved our stay.

Number 16 was awesome New Orleans. And it was very fresh in our minds since we had returned to Mardi Gras just a week before the pandemic really hit. We count ourselves VERY lucky to not have been part of their super-spreader event.

The Bay Area is where Kathleen grew up so this one of the Golden Gate Bridge is kind of like a trip home for her. We have been there together too many times to count and pretty much loved all our visits. It’s been a while since we have gone and we were supposed to meet our Brit friends Paul and Gail there last fall. Maybe someday.

It took us until puzzle 18 to find this puzzle manufacturer—Eurographics. We really like their graphics, especially on their travel puzzles. This one of lighthouses from around the USA featured many we have been to and one that we visited in December of last year when we went to the San Juan Islands for a short quarantine getaway. We really like the quality of these puzzles but especially love the edges which are always black with a red line. We liked these so much we bought a bunch more as you will see.

Number 19, also from Eurographics, is vintage travel posters from around the world. We find these much easier to work for a number of reasons. First, all the type makes them easier and the fact that they are individual posters also means we can separate pieces a lot faster.

Finally, this is number 20 (also from Eurographics) that we finished on Friday. It is very much like number 19 as it is vintage U.S. travel posters. Our next puzzle is much like this one but it is Canadian vintage travel posters. This one is still put together on the dining room table.

I hope you have liked my tour of the world through puzzles. They have been a constant companion during this pandemic and once one is put together and then taken apart, it heads to Olympia for the kids to do it (my daughter and her husband are MUCH faster than we are) and we used to just let her get rid of them on FB Marketplace but now we get them back and pass them on to our friends Elbert and Barry in Bellevue. I guess you could say that these puzzles really do some traveling themselves.

Every day is sort of a jigsaw puzzle. You have to make sure that you’re putting the most important things first. —Julia Hartz

Lunchtime…again. This time in Italy

It’s been a couple of weeks since our last installment of Jim & Kathleen’s Food Experiences. In case you forgot, I had promised a running bunch of posts on our best food experiences from our travel life. You can read about breakfast in Vancouver here or lunch in Barcelona here. For installment number three (this one will be all about the food) let’s travel to Pontone, Italy with the best tour guide in the known world, Marcello.

To set the stage we were sailing on Celebrity’s Galaxy on a 15 night cruise round trip from Rome that visited the usual Greek islands, Istanbul and even ventured into the Black Sea to stop in Romania and Ukraine. We were on our way back to Rome when we stopped for one last shore visit, in Naples. Pre-cruise we had contacted the “God of Shore Excursions” Mike Preisman who had recommended we contact one of his favorite tour guides, Marcello Maresca. He told us that Marcello was like no other tour guide. That if we let him pick us up in Naples and give us a tour of what he later called, “My Italy,” it would be a day well spent. Mike was right.

The amazing Marcello

We contacted Marcello (we’re still friends on FaceBook and I hear from him all the time) and luckily he was available on the day we were there. We told him that we were more interested in Pompeii, the Amalfi Coast and Sorrento than we were in Naples, so he got us set up.

He was there on time and we headed off in his van. As we drove out of Naples, Marcello proceeded to tell us his philosophy of touring. “If you want to shop, don’t tour with Marcello.  If you want to see ‘his’ Italy, the real Italy, tour with Marcello.” BTW: When I say we, there was Kathleen and I and four other friends we had met through our Cruise Critic roll call including Marybeth and Anne we have become friends with and cruised with in SE Asia.

We made stops on the way to lunch at lots of places where we saw incredible views, stopped in shops where only the Italians shopped and laughed at the other cruisers trying to navigate the Amalfi Coast in one of those huge busses. Oh, the places we could go that they couldn’t. Speaking of driving the Amalfi Coast, even though Marcello is the ultimate tour guide, he has this crazy habit of driving the coast road while looking back at us to talk. Scared the hell out of us but I guess he drives that road so much that he can do it blindfolded.

First stop was a tour through three villages surrounding Sorrento. These were towns that no one stops in because they don’t have the reputation that Sorrento has. But they show what Italian life is like now. I would tell you all of Marcello’s views of Italy today but it is best experienced firsthand from his mouth. So my advice? To see the real Italy and the real Amalfi coast, go to Naples and meet Marcello.

After driving the villages around Sorrento and then into Sorrento itself (where true to his word we saw a bunch of tourist trap shops) we headed down the Amalfi coast stopping whenever Marcello thought we could have great picture opportunities.

We did not stop in the tourist trap towns of Positano, Amalfi and Ravello but did stop on either side of them to take in the view and we drove through the multitude of tourist trap shops with goods from all over. The only semi-shopping stop we made was at an overlook outside of Positano where there was a fruit stand selling local fruit.

After we had driven through Ravello, Marcello announced that it was time to see the real Amalfi coast and we headed up into the hills to the village of Pontone. This village had not changed in more than 50 years. He told us we would have lunch in a wonderful outdoor restaurant where we would be the only patrons other than locals. A restaurant that grew all the food that they served, baked their own bread and everything was made to order.

After a quick tour around the village set high on a hillside we sat down to lunch. And “OH MY GOD, WHAT A LUNCH!” Those of you who know me, know how much I love Italian food. And I have to say without a doubt that this was the BEST Italian food I have had since my Italian grandmother passed away when I was a freshman in high school.

The meal started with an incredible antipasti. Bruschetta, zucchini squash blossoms and so much more. Check out the pictures above and make sure to click on one and watch the slideshow to see them in all their glory. Wonderful red and white house wines by the pitcherful were refilled every time we got near running out. Once we had gorged ourselves on the antipasti, out came the pasta. Three kinds. First a gnocchi that was wonderful, then a ravioli with cheese inside and cooked with arugala and finally a wonderful mixture of pasta shells, beans and pumpkin. We were in heaven. And a very full heaven by this point but wait, there was more. As if we had not had enough to eat on the cruise. Out came the desserts. On one plate we each had a piece of apple tart, a chestnut mousse and a incredible lemon dessert that was like lemon mousse and lemon pie combined. All this was accompanied by our choice of a melon liqueur, a fennel liqueur and our favorite (but not by much) lemoncello. It was wonderful. And this was lunch? What do they serve you for dinner?

The happy group just before we dug in. 45 minutes later we waddled back to the van to visit Pompeii.

After we had thoroughly gorged ourselves (did I already use that word? Gorged is the only word I can think of that describes how we felt), we were back on the road over the mountain to Piedmonte and then on to our tour of Pompeii.

To me, that’s what an incredible dining experience is all about. Awesome company, wonderful ambience and incredible food. We are hoping to go back there when we stop in Naples again in October 2022 and again see Marcello’s Italy.

People will travel anywhere for good food – it’s crazy. —Rene Redzepi

2020–well that sucked. But hope is around the corner.

Consider this my end of the year/start of the year post. This blog (I still hate that word) is two years old now and this will be my 160th post. I truly believe if this had been a normal year for us, I would easily have written more than 200 posts by now. But without being able to travel there just wasn’t that much to write about. I mean how many lists can you make?

What did we get to do? A quick look back at our year does include our February/March trip to Florida, our cruise from there to New Orleans for Mardi Gras and then on to Mexico so I guess I can’t say it was all bad.

What did we lose? We had to cancel our spring cruise from San Diego to Vancouver on HAL’s Konigsdam, our summer trip to the Galapagos and our European Christmas Market river cruise in December. By now we should have added at least another eight countries to the list of those we have visited and I would have had pictures to prove it.

What have we been doing since then? The same as so many of you. Ten months of mask wearing, ten months of social distancing, ten months of being at home. Too many friends gone. The last week of the year I actually had to buy three sympathy cards. I have probably bought at least 8 this year and that doesn’t even count the GoFundMes I have contributed to when friends have become ill or passed away.

But we did have a little fun. We did two short get-aways to AirBnBs in Washington. We did four days at the coast with the grandkids. We FaceTimed with them at least twice a week. We Zoomed, HousePartied and Teamed with friends. We changed travel agencies we represent (one of the smartest things we have ever done). We are working on our 19th jigsaw puzzle, we ate a ton of takeout, we drank some serious wine and cocktails (we are doing a dry January 😔) and we watched five years worth of streaming movies and TV (always looking for suggestions).

For me, one bright spot this year has been my photography. The quantity of travel photos may have been lacking but the quality was much improved (at least from my standpoint). I took the best photo I have ever taken, I started posting a daily photo on Instagram (and have done that every day for more than a year–follow me @jimbellomo13) and later started doing that on Facebook (JimBellomo) as well. I started selling my photos (had a little luck but hopefully the more I post, the better it will get) on SmugMug (JimBellomoPhotography). Check me out on those platforms. You can even see my Instagram feed at right.

It is both funny and sad that so many people were glad to see 2020 end thinking that there would be some great change…but let’s be honest folks. Here we are on the fourth of January and it still feels the same to me 😜. Maybe once the vaccine is in my arm and I am getting on an airplane to go someplace it will feel a lot better.

What’s coming in 2021? It is so important to us to have something to look forward to, so we are still booked for our Galapagos trip (June 30–fingers crossed), a week with our kids at the beach in August and almost a month in Europe in December including that Christmas Market river cruise we missed (we are hoping for stops pre-cruise in Lisbon and Amsterdam). And that’s just what we have planned as of today. We are sure that as soon as they open the border we will be off to Chilliwack or Point Roberts. Maybe a long weekend in Vancouver, one of our favorite cities. I am sure even more will come up once we have those two shots in our arms. We actually have travel friends who are getting their first shots this week—lucky bums.

Which brings me to…we hope you are safe, healthy, wearing a mask in public, social distancing, dreaming of travel, awaiting your injection and all the other good things that can happen to you this year. The first date we are particularly looking forward to is January 20…for obvious reasons.

And now we welcome the new year. Full of things that have never been. —Rainer Maria Rilke

Last Days on San Juan

As promised in my post yesterday, here’s a short and sweet synopsis of what we did on our last full day on San Juan Island. Mainly we drove around. I had woken up at 2:30 am (couldn’t shut my brain off) so I got up and wrote, addressed, stamped and sealed our Christmas cards. Kathleen got up at a normal time and we had breakfast. When we were done with breakfast (see I told you this was short and sweet) we went out to see the rest of the island we hadn’t seen yesterday.

Many of our drives and my walks/hikes are just about finding things to take pictures of so we headed out to find some subjects. First stop, an old resort named Roche Harbor. It’s on the far side of the island from Friday Harbor but it only took about 20 minutes to get there. Has an old photogenic hotel and a nice marina but nothing photographically that made me jump for joy.

Then it was off to English Camp. This is a national historic park that has two locations, this and American Camp at the opposite end of the island. We have been there before but it is a really pretty place and this was the first time we had ever been there when we were totally alone. Above are pics of Roche Harbor and below one of English Camp.

There was only one other place I wanted to see (plus I was scouting for a place to take an afternoon hike) and that was American Camp, the other half of the National Historic Park. It is at the completely other end of the island and is almost a different ecosystem. Where most of the island is heavily wooded, the American Camp section is pretty much a wind-swept plain and nothing but grass. Sadly, when we got to the park, it was closed. They were doing some kind of construction.

Since we had driven all that way, we decided to continue on to the very southern tip of the island, a place I had never driven down to before. We always used to stop at American Camp and then head back. We are very glad we did as the views were amazing.

But even better than the views were the three wildlife shots I was able to get. First, after I took the panoramic photo above, we drove all the way to the end of the island where there was a turn around and found ourselves surrounded on two sides by deer. As if that wasn’t enough as we drove back (not more than three minutes later) we saw what we thought was a dog running through a field. But it was an interesting dog. And as it got closer we could see that it was not a dog at all but a fox. Strangely enough, the fox came right at our car (we think someone in a red car must be feeding it), nonchalantly walked in front of the car and then calmly crossed the road. All the way it was as if he was posing for pictures. Kathleen identified it as a red fox.

Once we left our foxy friend behind and headed into some trees, we saw what we thought was a hawk fly down and land on the side of a tree. I slowed down as we passed the bird and it wasn’t a hawk (we see hawks in the NW all the time) but an owl. Kathleen later identified it as a Barred Owl. As you can see from the photo, if the owl had not flown in just as we were passing, we never would have seen it because it blends in so well with the tree. In my opinion, the owl is one of the best animal pics I have taken.

The next morning (yesterday) we had a 10:30 am ferry to catch back to Anacortes and we struck gold. If you remember, I mentioned yesterday that on our way to the island we had been stuck on the car deck between two large trucks so we could see nothing. This time we got the very front of the boat so we had a totally clear view of everything on our way back. I have two photos from that morning I want to share. The first I took while waiting for the ferry. The sun was so perfect over the marina, I couldn’t pass it up. The second I took through the windshield of our car of another ferry approaching us (it was too damn cold to get out of the car) but it came out just fine for me.

Off to the Islands…we go traveling again

Yes, we are traveling. Not far and certainly as safely as possible, we promise. We had planned a trip to the San Juan Islands with my brother Steve and his wonderful bride Jamie back in October to celebrate Kathleen’s birthday. Then Jamie had her unfortunate trip and fall and instead of spending four nights on San Juan Island, she ended up spending 10 nights in Evergreen Hospital (she is doing much better now).

But we had paid for the nights at the AirBnB-type suite we had reserved and it was non-refundable. My brother was able to get his money back from his credit card/travel insurer but since we had rented two separate suites and neither Kathleen nor I was an injured party, we could not. So it was either go when we had planned (and leave Steve alone at our place visiting Jamie during the days—we weren’t going to do that) or ask the owners of the suites to let us move our dates, which they did. So that’s why I find myself sitting here in front of the fireplace in Friday Harbor in one of the Web Suites, writing this post.

For those not familiar with the San Juan Islands, they are a beautiful archipelago of more than 100 islands located in the northern end of Puget Sound. Saying that there are more than 100 is kind of pushing it. In actuality I think there are less than 30 that are inhabitable, many that are just large rocks sticking out of the water, some only at low tide. There are only four large islands that have ferry service. For the rest you need a private boat.

I have been coming here since the mid-1980s (my first life) when the family used to drive up from Eugene and rent a place on Lopez Island, the most rural of the four with ferry service. Later the islands were part of my yearbook sales territory so I would come out on a regular basis. But when I started cutting back that part of my yearbook job, the islands were the first schools to go. Just too much time and expense (round trip ferry for two seniors and a car is more than $60) to get out here on a regular basis. Since I met Kathleen we have only been up here a couple of times and we can’t even remember when we were here last.

Getting to the San Juans from our place entails a drive of a little more than an hour and half and then a ferry ride of about the same amount of time. We drove up Tuesday and it just poured rain most of the way. The ferry leaves from a cute little town called Anacortes. We have a favorite deli in town where we have stopped for lunch before, so we thought we would grab take-out sandwiches and eat them in the ferry line.

Usually I love the ferry ride through the islands but with Covid, the ferry system is asking those who are driving to stay in their cars and not go up to the passenger deck except to use the restrooms. Sadly we were also stuck into a space on the car deck right between two big trucks so from our car we could not see out in any direction. Hopefully we will have a better view on the way home Friday.

We got in here around 3:30 and headed to our rental. It’s really nice with a few faults that I won’t mention here. We like it just fine, but it would not be our first choice on a return trip. Just little things.

As usual on our first morning I was out and about doing my pre-dawn walking with camera in hand. Here’s some of the pics I got on that walk. Don’t forget that clicking them in a web browser lets you see them enlarged. They look a lot better that way.

After my walk it was back for breakfast and then Kathleen and I headed out to tour some of the island we had not seen before. One of the things we wanted to see first was the Lime Kiln Lighthouse on the west side of the island. I had been by the state park where it is located but never stopped. This time we had a reason to go. Just last week we finished our 18th jigsaw puzzle since this all started in March. This one was a bunch of posters of lighthouses around the USA. One of them was Lime Kiln so we wanted to see it. 

We got really lucky that the weather had cleared and we had wonderful sunshine for most of the day. This led to pics of the lighthouse and the area around it that I am very happy with. 

After our visit to the lighthouse, we headed back to the suite for a quick bite of lunch and then I went back to Lime Kiln State Park to hike some of the more challenging trails that Kathleen would have had a problem with. I had a really great time and met lots of locals out for a hike on an unusually gorgeous late autumn day. I got to see the lime kiln and climb to the top of the highest hill and get an awesome view. A few pics so you can see what I mean.

That was it for the first full day. The weather was awesome. After my hike I headed back to the suite where we ordered takeout (I think we tried every decent place that had takeout that were open mid-week) and ate in. It is sad to see so many restaurants closed or operating on takeout only. We hope to come back soon after the pandemic is over to eat inside these places. One more post on Saturday after we get home will wind up this short trip.

I feel we are all islands – in a common sea. —Anne Morrow Lindbergh

 

Let’s do lunch…in Barcelona

Here’s the second of my posts about our most memorable food experiences during our travel together. Since we started with breakfast last time, I thought we might try lunch this time. And if there is a memorable lunch, it’s the one we had at a marvelous restaurant in Barcelona, Spain—La Rita.

Part of the reason this experience was so good was the contrast to what had happened the day before, during our first full day in Barcelona. We had done a lot of touring and after we finished touring Gaudi’s Casa Mila, Kathleen decided it was time to eat. We had previously decided that lunch would be our big meal of each day as Barcelonians don’t eat dinner until well after 9:00 pm and that is just too late for us. It also seems that on every trip we have one really bad food experience and this lunch was to be that experience.

Poor planning on my part had put us in a part of the city that I had not done my research on any restaurants (which I usually do). So we wandered looking for something on a menu that not only looked good but that we could fathom what it was. As most of you know, I am a pretty adventurous eater but my lovely bride isn’t as much. Especially when it comes to fish that we don’t know (she has shellfish allergies).

After turning down a number of places due to their limited menu we finally found a small Italian place who had items on their menu (pastas, etc.) that we recognized. But after we were seated we found that those items weren’t available at lunch when only a fixed-price menu (two course for 8 euro) was served. We had a choice of four appetizers and four entrees. We both went with the simple side salad as our appetizer and I had the calamari as my entree while Kathleen chose what the menu called “beef higado.” The waiter mimed to us that this was a part of the cow that came from somewhere near the flank. We kind of assumed (you know the saying) that it would be flank steak or something close.

After the waiter had brought our salad I suddenly realized that where he had been pointing on his body to indicate the part of the cow the meat came from was a little higher than the flank. So I got out my iPhone and did a quick Google search that revealed (just as the entrees arrived) that higado is LIVER. Now Kathleen likes most beef but not liver and since she doesn’t eat calamari, swapping was out of the question. Besides the liver problem, my calamari was awful–over-breaded with no sauces or even lemon and served over a bunch of poorly cooked french fries. Needless to say we got the check and got the heck out of there with most of our lunch consisting of our appetizer salad and a fairly decent roll. (Looking back on it, this was OK as we got PLENTY to eat for the rest of the week.) So that was our not-awesome lunch experience that brought us to the next day.

Since we had such a bad experience the day before, I tried really hard to wind up in a part of Barcelona that had one of my well-researched restaurants nearby. It is important to note (that I kind of mentioned above) that even though we had experienced late dinners in Italy and France on prior European trips, Spanish restaurants serve dinner latest of all. Many don’t open until 9:00 pm for dinner. That means we would be eating at 10:00 and that’s something we just can’t do. So we had previously decided that we would eat our main meal at lunch and just snack for dinner. Today we promised ourselves we would lunch in one of the restaurants we had previously found online—La Rita. Now, websites promise a bunch but seldom deliver on it. La Rita and it’s sister restaurant (where we ate lunch the next day) came through for us big time.

We arrived as they opened at 1:00 pm (lunch time in Barcelona is 1:00 to 3:30). If we had been even 10 minutes later we would have had to wait at least 20-30 minutes. The place filled up in minutes and mostly with what looked like locals. Lunch exceeded our expectations on every level. The food was outstanding. The service cordial and quick. The menu (available in English) excellent. 

Kathleen started with an appetizer vegetable pie with mushroom sauce. I got to taste and it was wonderful. I had a “vegetable stack” of red peppers, mushrooms and eggplant that was topped with melted manchego cheese. Ooooh la la!

For our main course, Kathleen had the a lamb tangine with couscous, raisins and pine nuts. I went for one of the best pieces of duck I have ever had in my life with mango and raspberry. I wish I had kept taking photos of the food but I just got too busy eating to shoot pics.

For dessert Kathleen can’t remember what she had but I struck it rich with one of the most outstanding desserts of my lifetime, the Catalunyan national dessert. I am still not sure what it is called but it consists of a coffee/nougat ice cream, floating in a wonderful dark chocolate sauce covered with custard. I did some Googling and found that it might be Mato de Peralbes.

People, believe me when I tell you, you have never had anything like this. A few years later we went to a San Francisco restaurant that had a similar dessert called “Slap Your Mama.” It was so named because if you ate it for the first time you wanted to “Slap your mama” for not every having served it to you before. This was the same kind of experience. If I was from Barcelona and had never eaten this dessert, I would have slapped my mama.

Can you tell Kathleen enjoyed her lunch?

So from a lunch of some of the worst calamari and liver to this one at La Rita it made a huge difference in our feelings about Catalan cuisine. I truly believe that this lunch ranks in the top ten meals I have eaten in my lifetime. It was scrumptious. Or maybe it was the contrast to the day before.

And I should mention that the service and the ambience were outstanding. And here’s the good news, unlike our breakfast place (The Elbow Room in Vancouver, BC) that has since closed, you can still eat at La Rita. We plan on going there again the next time we are in Barcelona (in 2022).

I should add that La Rita is part of a restaurant group. A group is different than a chain—a chain is a bunch of identical restaurants but a group is owned by one set of owners but they are all different. The next day we ate at another of their restaurants, La Fonda. Food was on the same par but the experience was better at La Rita.

Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.—Orson Welles

Let’s start with a sarcastic breakfast in Vancouver


If you saw my post from a few days ago you will know that I am going to start writing about our best food experiences over the 23 years that Kathleen and I have been together. Most of them have taken place all around the world so they kind of relate to travel.

To start organizing my memories, I made a list of my favorite dinner, lunch and breakfast experiences. So let’s start at the beginning of the day with breakfast. I love eating breakfast in a restaurant but we seldom do. Even on trips we often have breakfast someplace normal. For instance we spent five days in Barcelona and I am ashamed to say that we ate breakfast every day at a Starbucks a block from our hotel. I know, it’s sad. But in Barcelona there is so much great lunch and dinner food that we needed to watch our caloric intake.

Another reason we don’t have an amazing record with breakfast while on the road is that it is often hard to find a great breakfast place. If you Google “best breakfast in XXXXXX city” you really don’t get great places. I have actually seen Denny’s and IHOP show up as the best restaurant in random US cities. Now I have nothing against you grabbing a Moon over Mihami or a Rooti Tootie Fresh and Fruity, but that’s not for us.

To give you an idea of what I mean, my favorite thing to eat for breakfast is a dish called “Tom’s Favorite Breakfast” served at Lola, a Tom Douglas restaurant in downtown Seattle. The dish changes seasonally but always has octopus in it. So as you can see, I have strange taste when it comes to breakfast.

But this series is less about food than it is about eating experiences. And we have a doozy of a food and travel experience to start with. Sadly, this takes place in a restaurant that is no longer open, Vancouver BC’s Elbow Room. There is talk that it may be revived in another location someday but for now, it is closed.

Kathleen and I first discovered The Elbow Room on our second or third trip to Vancouver sometime in the late 90s. The restaurant first opened in 1983. I had read someplace that if you were looking for an unusual place to have breakfast in Vancouver  you had to try The Elbow Room. We went and we loved it. Not because of the food (which was PLENTIFUL and also delicious) but because of the experience.

The Elbow Room was a one-of-a-kind place because just going in the front door, you needed a very thick skin. Let me give you an example. On our first visit, we walked in and the server we encountered pointed at a table. Didn’t seat us, just pointed. A few minutes later he came by with water and asked if we had seen the specials on the chalkboard before we came in. We said we hadn’t and his response was, “Then go back out and read them!” Then he walked away without saying anything else. At this point (because we had heard about the place in advance) we knew we were in for a bumpy but fun ride.

Sure enough when he finally returned to the table, he brought us coffee and took our order. And along the way we had overheard him insulting or being snarky to pretty much everyone else in the place. He was the king of snark. It was truly fun to watch people who came in after us and had no clue what the place was about get insulted and mocked. Some were aghast and others got it in a few minutes.

When our waiter came back with our food we asked for more coffee. He pointed at the pot across the room (almost behind the counter) and said, “Get it yourself!” We had a good laugh over that one…after I got us more coffee. BTW: Not that it matters but every waiter working there has been flamboyantly gay except the one time when we were “served” by one of the owners (he’s the fellow on the left in the linked video below) who was just cantankerous even though he called himself a flaming queen.

The photo at the top of this article (taken during our best experience there ) is proof. The restaurant itself was a huge supporter of the LGBTQ community and even had a musical written about it. I have searched the web to find a copy of the “rules” of The Elbow Room which were printed on the back of the menu. They all pretty much came down to this: if you are thin-skinned and can’t take a joke, you are in the wrong place. You can kind of read them in this shot of their big blackboard. *8 always cracks me up.

If you would like to see what The Elbow Room was all about, Kathleen found this really cool short video. Warning, it has some salty language…but that’s The Elbow Room. You can click here to watch the short film from the National Screen Institute of Canada.

Besides the fun, the food was superb and this was our first of many visits to The Elbow Room. But the best experience didn’t come until June 2017. Our good friends Paul and Gail, from Leeds, England had flown in so that they, us and 14 other Martini Mates could take an Alaskan cruise together. P & G had flown in early and we had picked them up at YVR (airport designation for Vancouver) and went to tour Vancouver for a couple of days before doing the same in Seattle. On our second morning there we told them we had to have breakfast at The Elbow Room. Being the fun friends that they are, they loved it. Even when our waiter (you can see him in the photo above with Paul and I) started referring to Paul (who some may think of as vertically challenged) as Papa Smurf.

I cannot remember a single breakfast when the company has been so good, the service so snarky, funny and truly unique and the food so delicious. It’s one of those times I will remember. Especially since The Elbow Room is now gone. We will miss it.

There are different kinds of humor, some is sarcastic, some introspective. Introspective fit my personality better.—Rita Rudner

Rita would not have done well at The Elbow Room.

Writing about travel & food experiences

Herb Farm
One of our ten best dining experiences was when we took our (adult) kids to the world-famous Herb Farm.

While walking today I was listening to my favorite podcast, Armchair Expert. The interview I heard today was with author Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love). During the interview she talked about the fact that she loves to write. She loves writing more than doing just about anything else.

Well, I love to write. Not as much as Ms. Gilbert. Other things come before that for me: family, photography, cooking and travel. But since the pandemic started there has been nothing special to take photos of, only a few visits from the kids and of course no travel. I have been focusing on cooking. While cooking is fun, there are only so many dinners for two that stretch my creativity. And our freezer is BEYOND FULL of leftovers. I could stop cooking for three weeks and we would not go hungry.

So hearing Ms. Gilbert talk about writing with host Dax Shepherd (who is also a television/movie writer as well as an actor and host of one of the top podcasts) made me realize that I need to write more. But what to write about.

Then over on Instagram I met a fellow blogger who loves traveling and cruising as much as I do. He lives in Great Britain and we have been keeping up a correspondence on his blog, this blog and Instagram. He told me that I inspired him with my daily Instagram travel photo to start going back through his travel experiences and posting photos on Instagram. Which in turn has inspired me to think about how I could do the same thing with writing.

Stay with me here…I have a little bit further to go here…I am going to explain what you will see on this page in the weeks to come. Remember that podcast I mentioned? Well I listen to it every day. And two days before Ms. Gilbert was on, I heard an excellent interview with Samin Nosrat. She is a food columnist with The NY Times Magazine and the host of the Netflix show, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. She and Dax got into a discussion about dining experiences. Not just cooking or eating, but eating experiences.

I got that. I understand exactly what eating experiences are. How they are different than just food. They are about the entire experience which might include getting to the restaurant, why that particular restaurant, obviously the food and the service. Over the years so much of our travel has involved food. I spend more time researching restaurants than I do hotels. Maybe because on a city visit, you are in just one hotel, but you get to eat three times a day. In every one of those meals on the road and here in Seattle, we are always looking for great food but more than that we are looking for food experiences.

Octopus in Rhodes
One of my favorite lunch experiences was marinated octopus in a taverna after we got lost in Rhodes, Greece.

So here is what this is all about. As I finished my walk (where I had listened to Ms. Nostrat) I begin to make a list in my mind of the greatest food/dining/lunch experiences we have had both here and on the road. You know how much I love my lists and this one just kept growing and growing. So my new goal is to write about those experiences in a series of short posts over the next few weeks. I hope to post twice a week with a new one. If you love travel and you love food, I hope you will like the stories.

I always encourage people to get out there, travel the world, see new things, experience new people, experience new food, experience new culture. What happens is that helps you to grow and be your best self.
—Karamo Brown

No travel, but a new camera…sort of

Greetings all!

Dropping in with absolutely NO TRAVEL NEWS. Nothing. Nada.

As you may recall from my last post, our plan was to head to the San Juan Islands last week. If we had I would have posted at least two or three times from the islands. But my brother and sister-in-law arrived on Friday the 23rd. On Saturday the 24th, they joined me on a short walk to the local library (about four blocks away). On the way back, Redmond’s lousy, tree-pushed sidewalks took my sister-in-law down. A hard fall when she hooked her foot on an errant sidewalk, left her battered and bruised with two broken kneecaps.

This put her in a local hospital until yesterday when they left for the long ride home. The bad side was no traveling for us but the good side was I got to see my brother for almost two weeks. And I got to cook just about every night. We were not able to get our money back from The Web Suites in Friday Harbor but my brother declared his against his travel insurance (see why you need it) and we were able to move ours to another time. We are thinking about going in early December so watch for pics then.

But enough about our woes. On to my new camera…or my new phone, I can’t tell which. My old iPhone 7 was on its last legs. The battery was lasting just enough time to go from 100% to less than 10% on my two hour walk. So when Apple announced the iPhone 12 I decided it was time to move on…up!

Watching the Apple announcement I was impressed with the fact that the new phone was 5G (can’t get it here in the house but was able to try it out in downtown Redmond—FAST!) and the form factor and look of the phone. But since I am a DSLR Nikon shooter, I wasn’t that jazzed about the camera. I figured it wasn’t a whole lot better than my iPhone 7. Then I started doing some looking and realizing that so much of the excellent photography I was seeing on Instagram was from phones. I started having online discussions with other photographers using only their phones to get amazing shots and I was convinced.

So during the event I was chatting with my buddy Mike in Florida as we both watched in our respective living rooms. When they showed the iPhone 12 I was thrilled and figured I would save $150 and get the 12 and not the 12 pro. But Mike convinced me that I should really think about spending the extra $$$ to get the pro because the cameras were so much better. Plus he said the since I am now skipping a bunch of generations of phones, the pro would last me longer.

So now I have had the phone for almost two weeks and I have to say I am impressed. It did take me a while to get used it not having a home button and to get everything to work together (watch, AirPods, etc.) but now things are flying smoothly and I am trying to learn the camera. Speaking of learning, Apple now has a program that gives purchasers of new products 30-40 minutes of education on those products. They send you an e-mail in advance and tell you that a week after you have the product you can set up an appointment to ask questions or focus on a specific area you want to learn. By the time I scheduled my online meeting, I had pretty much figured out the phone so I just asked them to show me all the features of the phone for pictures and video. Had an outstanding session with a guy named Derrick. Then I went out on a couple of walks the next few days and shot some different kinds of things.

Of course it helped that Washington is seeing tremendous fall foliage this year so I had lots of color to work with. And I haven’t shot anything indoors yet nor have I shot any video, so I promise to post that when I have it. But suffice it to say, I am darned impressed. Below are six shots I took with the new iPhone. And they have never been in Photoshop. The camera just knows what to do. If you click one of the photos you will get a scrollable slide show so you can really see the incredible quality. 

Somehow this paragraph was dropped when I originally posted this. I had a quote from Steve Jobs below. Just last week while searching YouTube for videos comparing the different versions of the new iPhone I came across the original video of Steve Jobs introducing the first iPhone. That’s where the quote below came from. I just wanted to say that Steve messed this one up when he said the iPhone was only an iPod, a phone and an internet mobile communicator. What it has also become is a damn good camera. In fact the cameras on phones has pretty much killed an entire segment of the camera world, the point-and-shoot. 

An iPod, a phone, an internet mobile communicator… these are NOT three separate devices! And we are calling it iPhone! Today Apple is going to reinvent the phone. And here it is. —Steve Jobs

Random Stuff

Hi there! Not having posted since September, and then only to complain (about software upgrades), I thought I should come back around and say hello. This post may not be all about travel but just some random stuff. I will put a subhead on each subject so feel free to skip the ones you might not be interested in or that are too controversial for you.

Upcoming Travel

We actually have some travel coming up! YEAH! It won’t be far but we are going to Washington’s gorgeous San Juan Islands the last week of October to celebrate Kathleen’s birthday. We have rented a really cool condo right in downtown Friday Harbor on San Juan Island itself. We are staying at The Web Suites. The owners had commented on one of my photos on Instagram and I went to look at what the heck The Web Suites was and discovered they were in Friday Harbor. We haven’t been there in something like 10 years so we are really looking forward to it.

We are also thrilled that my brother and sister-in-law are going to join us. We were telling them about it and, as they have become our travel buddies on many of our cruises and they have as bad a case of cabin fever as we do they said, “Can we come too?” We were thrilled and would have asked them first but we never thought they would join us this far from home as they live in Southern Cal and not sure they wanted to fly. We were right about one thing; they don’t want to fly. They are driving all the way from beautiful San Juan Capistrano to our place here in Redmond. Then after the weekend of hanging out here we will head to the San Juans via a Washington State ferry leaving from Anacortes.

If you have never gone to the San Juans, you first drive (from our place about an hour and a half) to the city of Anacortes and board a ferry (so in a way, we are going on a cruise). The ferries stop at four of the islands. There are more than 400 San Juan Islands but many are just large rocks jutting out of Puget Sound but 128 of them are named and you can actually walk on them. If you want to go to any of them other than those four that have ferry stops you have to do it on a private boat. Lots of people do that to camp and a few of the smaller islands have vacation homes as well. One thing different for us (since the last time we were in the islands) is that it is advised to make reservations for the ferry sailing you want. I made sure to get up and be online on the day we could reserve for our dates. Snagged us exactly the times we wanted both coming and going. Our ferry trip is just about an hour and 15 minutes but it could have been much longer. We did our best to get the one ferry (both going and coming) that doesn’t stop at any of the other islands. So we get a straight shot from Anacortes to Friday Harbor.

Social Media

I have now been off all social media for more than a month other than Instagram where I post travel photos. It has really made me a lot less tense to not have to read all the election vitriol and the sniping. I will probably go back on Facebook after November 3rd and maybe a little more on Twitter but for now I need to stay off.

The Election

I know. I should stay away from politics on this blog but just a couple of quick things. First, everyone needs to vote. I can’t believe how low a percentage of people exercise their right to vote. But in some places it can be just too difficult. Right now I am reading a biography (not something I normally read) of Ulysses S. Grant, our 18th president, and it is really interesting the parallels between then and now. Grant followed an impeached president, there was a lot of voter suppression (much more violently) as the southerners tried to disenfranchise the freed slaves. From my viewpoint many states are still doing that.

The second thing I have not been able to do is to sit down with a true Trump supporter and have a discussion to find out how they can continue to support him after everything he has done and is. I don’t want to talk to someone who just blindly follows him and actually rejects science and believes the fake news stuff. I want to know what issue is so big that it outweighs (I guess I could have said trumps) all the bad. Someone intelligent so I can understand.

And I am scared to death what is going to happen if he loses and it’s close. After the kidnapping plot in Michigan, I can honestly see a huge rise in domestic terrorism. People who would never have considered it before are buying guns and ammo. This is sad.

Television

During this pandemic, so much of our time is spent either watching TV or planning on what to watch. We have been very lucky so far but our luck is starting to run out. Since this started we have been lucky enough to find some multi-year, multi-episode programs that somehow we hadn’t seen. Since March our favorite long term shows have included Younger, Damages and lately Friday Night Lights on Hulu, Parks and Rec on Netflix. There have been other things mixed in but these occupied us for quite a while. We are out of these now but some other shows are coming back. The new season of Fargo is outstanding, we have some favorites that have come back on PBS (Last Tango in Halifax, Endeavor) and some new ones on PBS (COBRA, Van Der Valk) and even a couple of network shows including a really good hospital drama out of Canada—Transplant.

This month promises to be much better in the coming weeks. Must-sees for us are the West Wing “reunion” on HBO Max, The Mandelorian on Disney+ and the only reality show we watch starts soon—Amazing Race…cause it’s all about travel.

By the way, best show of the whole summer? Hands down it was Yellowstone, Kevin Costner’s modern-day western. Those 10 shows were the best thing we saw and we can’t wait for the start of the 4th season next year. Sadly, it is on the Paramount network which our cable company does not carry so that means I have to purchase the season every year from Apple. But that’s OK because we get a bunch of outstanding and often hilarious extra films as background. If you haven’t seen Yellowstone, hopefully it will find its way to a streaming service you subscribe to. If not, you can always buy it from the iTunes Store. If you find a way to get it, watch it from the very beginning. There are three seasons of 10 shows each and they get better and better each year.

Walking

The one thing that has been my constant during our pandemic lockdown is walking. (I detailed one of my walks here.) Except for the 9 days of horrid smoke, I have been able to average just over 30 miles per week while walking six days a week. Now my problem isn’t smoke but rain, although I will usually grab an umbrella or put on my Gore-tex and go out anyway. My routes are getting a little boring and I do have a couple of alternatives but they take me through some fairly dense forested areas where all summer there have been wildcat, cougar and bear sightings—staying away from those. Since I am still working out an hour for six mornings as well, Kathleen’s daughter Michelle said, “You are exercising 18 hours a week? That’s a part-time job!”

One final (HORRIBLE) thought

The most amazing (and very sad) factoid I have heard in months is this: The number of people who have died from Covid-related illness in the USA since the day of the first death from Covid back in February is equivalent of 8 (yes EIGHT) Boeing 737s with 168 people on board each one, crashing every single day since then. Can you even imagine? I can’t. Please stay safe.