Seattle’s First Thursday Art Walk

This morning as I glance through email news headlines, one catches my attention. This Thursday evening, for the first time, Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission will open a gallery during  Seattle’s First Thursday art walk, an event drawing thousands each month to view art in galleries, studios, coffee shops and other venues. The mission’s display, “Art from the Streets,” will include more than 100 pieces created by about 30 mission “guests” since these sessions started in September. “I’d like to begin a conversation,” said Knox Burnett, the mission’s guest-relations supervisor. “We’d like the community to know more about a population that is often misunderstood.”

Seattle First Thursday is a cool way to check out the Seattle art scene. The official source of information is firstthursdayseattle.com which contains a wealth of information about the art galleries, venues, exhibits and events happening in Pioneer Square every day of the month.

Since the early 1960s, Pioneer Square’s Victorian storefronts and dusty upper floors have provided a haven for gallery owners and artists alike. Today this artistic community is the center of Seattle’s art scene.

First Thursday in Pioneer Square is the first Art Walk in the USA. In 1981 a group of Pioneer Square art dealers printed handout maps, did small-scale promotions, and on the first Thursday of the month painted footprints on the sidewalk outside their galleries. First Thursday soon evolved into a beloved fixture on the local arts calendar.

Today, First Thursday takes place each month in Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square neighborhood, from noon to 8PM, when leading art galleries throw open their doors to introduce their new exhibitions and artists. For more information about opening events at specific galleries, refer to our venue search feature.

The Art Walk in Pioneer Square is enhanced by the dozens of public art installations that can be found when walking between galleries. From the historic Native American Totem Poles in Occidental and Pioneer Square parks to the bright red “Sentinels” on guard outside the new Fire Station 10. A complete list can be found at www.seattle.gov.

Visitors with questions should drop by our information kiosk in Occidental Park.

Many cities have similar events… Portland, Oregon has a thriving artist scene and hosts a First Thursday Gallery Walk (see my post Portland, Oregon for Thanksgiving for general information on the city).

What to do when your flight is canceled

Earlier this month Alaska Airlines canceled our flight from Boston to Seattle after de-icing fumes filled the cabin. First we deplaned, leaving our luggage on board. Soon snacks and drinks arrived to keep us all fat & happy. I was optimistic that once the fumes had been circulated out we would re-board… but that was not to be.

When the announcement was made canceling the flight, Jay was immediately up and heading to the gate to get our luggage off the plane. He was in the first group of 10 to enter the plane (over 200 people were on board). As soon as Jay came out with our luggage we headed to the hotel. Alaska Airlines had arranged to put everyone up at the Hilton Hotel connected to the airport. If we had a cell phone we would have been calling Alaska reservations to reschedule our flight as we walked to the hotel, but we did not.

Arriving second at the Hilton we were immediately checked into a room. The reservation clerk asked for our boarding passes and we gave them to him. Up in our room, Jay was on the phone to Alaska Air. After a reasonable time on hold, an agent booked us on a flight leaving two days later – ouch!

Frustrated, but still thinking strategically, Jay decided we should have our boarding passes and went down to the hotel reception desk to retrieve them. On the trip back up in the elevator, two women from our flight were comparing notes on the flights they had been re-routed on. One was leaving the next day via Washington DC, the other had been booked on a flight three days later via LA. Long story short, another call to Alaska Air had us leaving the next day via DC. And the next day when we checked in at Delta for the commuter flight to DC they definitely wanted to see our boarding passes from the cancelled flight.

All things considered we feel Alaska Airlines handled the situation well once we were off the plane (they delayed getting us off the plane and out of the fumes). Once the flight was canceled, agents gave everyone cards to fill out asking what form of compensation they would like – miles or a coupon for another ticket for a set dollar amount. We are frequent fliers with Alaska Air and chose the miles (no one year expiration date like the coupon).

Lessons learned:

Hold onto your boarding pass

Be persistent about what you want

A recent article in the New York Times – How to Fight Back When Your Flight Is Canceledhas further suggestions:

Use Twitter for help

Increasingly airlines, including JetBlue, Southwest and Delta, are using Twitter to notify passengers of major flight cancellations and assist in rebooking.

Read the fine print

Each carrier spells out how it handles canceled flights in a “contract of carriage,” which can be found on the airline’s Web site. Print this out before you head to the airport, so when issues arise you will have the pertinent pages on hand for reference and even show to an airline employee who may not be familiar with the details.

Avoid Being Bumped

The last passengers to check in for a flight are often the first to be bumped when a flight is oversold. So be sure to check in before you head to the airport. Many airlines allow customers to check in online, as much as 24 hours in advance.

Report Lost Bags Immediately

If your bags don’t make it off the plane, report the lost luggage to airline personnel before you leave the airport.

Travel yoga

Bring your yoga practice along when you travel. I asked Djuna Mascall, our yoga teacher, for a travel yoga sequence. Something that would allow us to continue our practice while we are on the road. Here is Djuna’s travel yoga sequence with her thoughts on each pose. I have provided relevant links to the Yoga Journal, if more information or a visual is desired. So, take a deep breath and begin.

  • Sun Salutations as a way of warming up, or as a practice in and of itself. Consider practicing the B Series which includes low lunges to open up the front of the hip, as well as the simple A series.
  • Bharadvajasana, simple seated twist that can be done on the floor or in a chair. Emphasize the length of the spine, lift of the chest (sternum bone), relaxing shoulder blades. Hold the twist for several breaths to gain the full benefit to the organs.
  • Adho Mukha Svanasana – Downward Dog pose. This pose is great to practice with your hands on a chair or low bench, so you can really lengthen the spine and ground the heels.
  • travel yoga
    Triangle Pose

    Trikonasana – Triangle Pose. Focus on the feet, grounding the inner edge of the front foot and the outer edge of the back foot. This pose is one to do everyday to keep the hips open, spine long. It tones the legs and core. Consider practicing this pose against a wall, if you have one, to preserve good alignment.

  • Padottanasana – Standing wide legged forward bend with feet parallel, slightly pigeon toed. Consider practicing this pose with support under the hands, especially if you have been sitting a lot, to really emphasize the length of the spine.
  • Setu Bandha – the bridge pose, a back arch with the chest open. We often practice this pose with a block under the pelvis/sacrum. A wonderful pose to open the chest and front body, allows for deeper breathing, counteracts the forward slump of sitting, energizing pose if your energy is low, great for kidneys.
  • Supta Padangusthasana – supine stretch, one leg up with a strap around the foot, the other leg straight along the floor. Emphasize relaxing the back body against the floor, pressing up through the inner edge of the top foot, grounding the down leg and pushing out through the down heel. You can also take the leg to the side or across the body to open up the outer hip and lateral leg. Great for sciatic pain that can be a result of sitting for long periods. A wonderful back release for the lumbar spine.
  • Viparita Karani – legs up the wall with support under the pelvis (a folded blanket). Hold this pose for 5-10 minutes (or longer). Wonderful for the entire body, brain, spirit! Great for insomnia and for sciatic pain. Also good digestion pose.

Note from Djuna:

You can practice these poses as a series as written. You may decide to start with Supta Padangusthasana before doing any standing poses. It’s nice to get a twist in at the beginning of practice, definitely before back arch. I wouldn’t practice the back arch on it’s own (without the unwinding poses following), but any of the other poses can be done on their own.

Namaste.

Portland, Oregon for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving in Portland – what a great idea. Jay, his mom and I drive down while Jay’s brother and his family fly up. Time to relax, visit, and play for a few days in a friendly, welcoming city.

We all stay at the Hotel Vintage Plaza and take advantage of one of their AAA packages that is $140/night and includes free valet parking, a $25 gas card and a gift certificate for the mini bar. Our rooms are double queens (many of the hotels had full size beds), very spacious, and newly renovated. This is a pet friendly hotel and we all marvel at the good mannered hounds in the lobby.

Portland Hotel Vintage Plaza
Hotel Vintage Park occupies a lovely old stone & brick building

Soon after check-in we head back down to the lobby for wine hour. Oregon wines are poured while Italian bread & pizza is provided by Pazzo, the restaurant connected to the hotel. This takes the edge off our hunger but we are still weary from a long drive south so we decide to eat a light meal in the Pazzo bar. A nice trend with boutique hotels is having a restaurant connected to the hotel that is independently owned and operated. Pazzo is a gem. Comfortable with delicious Italian cuisine. We find a cozy corner in the bar and share a light meal of mushroom risotto, salad, and a pate and cheese plate. Over the next few days we dine at Pazzo for breakfast and lunch, finding their selections and quality very good. Breakfast favorites are the french toast, spinach/pancetta omelette and scramble of the day.

Daily we are out walking… on one of his solo adventures to Powell’s Bookstore, Jay comes across this bronze elephant sculpture…

Portland Bronze Elephant Sculpture
Bronze elephant sculpture in the park between Burnside and Couch Streets

A little research reveals that in October 2002, a 12-foot bronze sculpture titled Da Tung (Universal Peace), a replica of a Chinese antique dating from the late Shang Dynasty (1200-1100 BC), was installed in the park between Burnside and Couch streets. The elephant is embellished with figures from ancient Chinese mythology, and carries a baby elephant, Xiang bao bao (Baby Elephant), symbolizing that offspring shall be safe and prosperous.

Portland’s street food has a reputation and unlike other cities the vendors are out and open during the cold weather. Out taking photos we come across a block of vendors downtown, various types of buildings, carts, trailers… giving off a deliciously international blend of smells.

portland street food stand
Street food stands are quiet the day before Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving morning Pazzo is closed so we step next door to Typhoon for a Thai breakfast. The fried rice with an over easy egg on top is the breakfast favorite, and a very yummy change for a gluten-free eater! As you might imagine the tea menu is huge. I settle on a pot of green tea with peppermint. Perfect for a chilly morning. Typhoon is connected to another boutique hotel, Hotel Lucia. The restrooms are in the hotel, so after breakfast we stroll over to check out the scene… the lobby is like a museum. Filled with sculpture, paintings and Photographer David Hume Kennerly’s work we spend some time looking around. A very cool sculpture made of silver crayola crayons captures our attention… but unfortunately didn’t make it into a photo!

portland hotel lucia
Art filled lobby at Portland's Hotel Lucia

After breakfast the family convenes and decides a movie is in order. It just happens that the latest Harry Potter is playing a few blocks away… so the seven of us (ages 12 to 87) take in a matinee. Turns out there are several movie theaters within walking distance of our hotel. Yippee.

We arrive on time for our 4:30 Thanksgiving dinner reservation at Heathman Restaurant in the Heathman Hotel (another easy walk). Seated within minutes of our arrival we peruse the three course fixed-price menu. Each course has several choices – some of the first course options are pumpkin soup, poached pear salad and caesar salad. The main course offerings are traditional turkey with dressing, prime rib with yorkshire pudding, stuffed pork loin, and a vegetarian option. Desserts include pumpkin napolean, flourless chocolate cake and apple cake. I choose prime rib and flourless chocolate cake – both are amazing. We learn from a staff member that they have 1300 reservations for Thanksgiving, including the buffet upstairs… we are even more impressed with the prompt service and delicious meal!

Thanksgiving Day we watch the Macy’s Day Parade in New York City on the television… the next day, Friday, at 9am we watch the Portland Macy’s Holiday Parade seated in front of our hotel (chair provided by the hotel). Great local marching bands, horses, lhamas, costumed characters, and of course … floats.

Macy's Holiday Parade Portland, OR
Macy's Holiday Parade in Portland, OR
macy's holiday parade portland OR
Raggedy Ann leads the way in the Macy's Holiday parade

Location, location, location… ours allows us to walk everywhere but there is a very cool modern streetcar system in Portland that we see constantly as we do a little Christmas shopping at Macy’s, Nordstrom’s, Portland Outdoor Store, Moonstruck Chocolates…

portland, oregon, streetcar
Portland Streetcar began operations July 20, 2001 as the first modern streetcar system in the country
portland oregon outdoor store
Portland Outdoor Store - a great retreat on a rainy afternoon
portland hotel christmas tree
Christmas season begins at the Hotel Vintage Plaza

Needless to say, we are not too hungry the day after our fabulous Thanksgiving dinner, and since we have no leftovers to snack on we checkout a sushi restaurant that we have noticed on our walks… and right after dinner we head to Pioneer Courthouse Square, the place to be, starting at 5:30 pm for the annual Christmas Tree Lighting. After some musical performances and caroling a 75-foot tree lights up the square. Well you can imagine how much energy holding yourself up in a crowd takes… so as the crowd disperses some of us head to Baskin Robbins across the street for ice cream cones! And since this is our last night we go back to the hotel, check out the movie schedule and head to a movie… something fun – RED (Retired and Extremely Dangerous). As my favorite movie critic Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times concludes: “Red is neither a good movie nor a bad one. It features actors we like doing things we wish were more interesting.” Those actors being Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and others. All day Friday staff at the Hotel Vintage Plaza have been decorating the live tree in the atrium of the lobby… when we return after the movie the tree is resplendent. We have officially moved from Thanksgiving to Christmas!

Book gifts for travelers & food lovers

Today I read about two interesting books – one for the travel lover and the other for the food lover on your gift list (or to add to your own wish list, as I have).

Seattle folks know Nancy Pearl as their librarian until 2004… now many of us know her as a book reviewer for National Public Radio (NPR) where she travels the world talking about books and writes. Book Lust to Go: Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds, and Dreamers is her latest offering. Whether you are up for an adventure or looking for a good armchair read, Pearl recommends fiction and nonfiction titles for over 120 destinations around the globe.

In an interview with the Seattle Times, Nancy talks about her favorite reads:

Michael Mewshaw and his book Between Terror and Tourism: An Overland Journey Across North Africa. I had given up reading Paul Theroux because he’s so cranky, but Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town was great. Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (ironically titled — the walk is not short). Colin Thubron (Shadow of the Silk Road; In Siberia). Peter Fleming (Brazilian Adventure), who was the brother of Ian Fleming.

My next find of the day is Food Heroes: 16 Culinary Artisans Preserving Tradition by Georgia Pellegrini. Browsing the first chapter I learn that Pellegrini is a supporter of local growers and authentic flavors. Her chapter titles disclose the nature of her heroes: The Potato Breeder, Fighting for Salami, Butter Poetry, The Persimmon Masseuse… and each chapter closes with a couple recipes using those foods.

Pellegrini is a professional chef who attended the French Culinary Institute in NYC and worked at the renowned Gramercy Tavern. She now travels the world tasting good food and meeting the people who make it.

Springtime in Kyoto, Japan

April 2007 found us in Tokyo and Kyoto for 10 days… I tagged along on a business trip of Jay’s. Here are some notes and impressions I jotted down at the time… this blog covers Kyoto.

Sketch with watercolor of a shrine in Kyoto, Japan
Watercolor of a shrine in Kyoto, Japan

Springtime in Kyoto… showers of cherry blossoms. There is a happiness, a festive feeling associated with the blossoms as they fly through the air, some attaching to our jackets… a sense of the seasons… time passing.

Our overnight visit to Kyoto begins with the Shinkansen – the bullet train. Japan is where regular, high-speed railways began, and in 140 minutes we are transported from Tokyo, the bustling capitol of Japan, to the relatively quiet, historic city of Kyoto. At the recommendation of a friend, we stay at the Hotel Granvia Kyoto –  a beautiful 15 story hotel above Kyoto station – centrally located and convenient for our one night stay.

Hotel Granvia Kyoto is an integral part of the architecturally striking masterpiece, the JR Kyoto Station Building, which also includes a department store, museum, musical theater, and a vast underground shopping mall. For art lovers, the elegant Hotel Granvia is home to over 1000 pieces of stunning art based on the theme of “The Contrast of Modern and Traditional Art”. The artwork of Kyoto-based artists, some of the most famous in Japan, is prominently featured among the paintings, sculptures, and industrial art on display and accentuated by photographs adorning the guest rooms.

Hotel Granvia Kyoto, JR Kyoto Station
The Hotel Granvia is an integral part of the architecturally striking JR Kyoto Station Building

Our treasured guide for this first whirlwind experience of Kyoto is Old Kyoto – A Guide to Traditional Shops, Restaurants and Inns by Diane Durston. The author lived in Kyoto for 18 years and has compiled a very personal guide to Kyoto’s elegant past that can still be found if you are interested and willing to explore the city’s narrow, quiet side streets.

One of the pages I have turned down in Durston’s book is for the restaurant Takasebune whose lunch special is tempura. Located near the Takasegawa Canal and named after the flat boats that used to carry merchandise up the canal, Takasebune is a small family restaurant. Our “tempura teishoku” includes a generous bowl of miso soup, rice, pickles, and a basket of crisply batter-fried tempura shrimp, fish and vegetables. As recommended by Durston we dine at the tiny counter in front where we can watch all the culinary activity. Feeling like giants in this small historical space we are served a delicious, inexpensive lunch.

Takasebune known for crispy tempura and fine fish dishes
Traditional Takasebune is known for it's crispy tempura and fresh fish dishes
Cherry blossoms along a canal in Kyoto, Japan
Cherry blossoms along a canal in Kyoto, Japan

After lunch we continue our walk to Ippodo Tea which Durston says” has been perfuming the neighborhood for 140 years with the finest green tea from Uji, the most famous tea producing region in Japan, just south of Kyoto”. The smell draws us in as do the old timbers and old tea jars lining the wall. Helpful clerks will steep a sample cup of tea and guide you in your purchase.

Asahi-do Ceramics is easy to find, housed in a modern building on a main street. They offer the widest selection of Kiyomizu ceramics in Kyoto (ceramics made in the area below Kyoto’s famous Kiyomizu Temple). There are two types of Kiyomizu ceramics: porcelain and earthenware. Both types are thrown by hand on the potter’s wheel and decorated by hand. Lovely selection of ceramics displayed in a gallery setting.

Our final destination requires a cab to find and is well worth it. Aizen Kobo Indigo Textiles is on a narrow backstreet in the textile district of Kyoto. Master dyer Kenichi Utsuki still works in this 120-year-old building, where he was born and raised and where his father and grandfather worked as textile artisans as well. Today his shop is one of the only places in Kyoto where handwoven, hand-dyed, and hand-embroidered garments of hon-ai or real indigo are attainable.

The key to the rich blue that Japanese indigo and Aizen Kobo are famous for is in the microorganisms produced when the indigo plant is fermented. To keep these bacteria healthy and the dye potent, Kenichi must maintain it at an optimal temperature, and feed it a carefully calculated mixture of wheat-bran powder, limestone powder, ash lye and sake.

Getting the fermentation right takes about two weeks, after which the vat of indigo can be used to dye for a few months. Depending on the kind of material being dyed and the depth of color desired, an item must be dipped and then sun-dried between 20 and 50 times, a process that often takes months. This makes the appeal of chemical indigo dye pretty obvious: with chemical-based indigo, preparation takes less than an hour and one dipping usually does the trick.

Indigo textile dyeing at Aizen Kobo in Kyoto, Japan
Indigo textile dyeing at Aizen Kobo in Kyoto, Japan

Stimulated by the days experiences we arrive back at the hotel exhausted. I can’t walk another step. The hotel offers an array of dining possibilities and we choose a restaurant on the top floor with sweeping views of the city. After dinner, a great bath and lights out.

Modern technology meets traditional beauty in front of a Kyoto guesthouse
Modern technology meets traditional beauty in front of a Kyoto guesthouse

Our second and last day in Kyoto. We head out early, walking a route that takes us down the narrow and quiet side streets for a glimpse of Kyoto neighborhoods and daily life. For us walking is key… bringing all the senses to bear. We delight in seeing the vacuum sitting on the perfectly clean carpet in front of the idyllic garden area of a guesthouse, as we take in the pleasant aromas of tea brewing and cakes baking.

Cake making machine at a bakery in Kyoto, Japan
Cake making machine at a bakery in Kyoto, Japan

Nestled in the mountains of Western Honshu, Kyoto is known as Japan’s most beautiful city and is often called “the city of a thousand temples”. Kyoto was the capital of Japan and the residence of the emperor from 794 to 1868, when the capital was moved to Tokyo. Kyoto thus spent a millennium as the center of Japanese power, culture, tradition, and religion. During this time Kyoto accumulated an unparalleled collection of palaces, temples and shrines – built for emperors, shoguns, geishas and monks. And Kyoto was one of the very few Japanese cities to escape Allied bombings during World War II.

Springtime colors in the countryside of Kyoto, Japan
Springtime colors in the countryside of Kyoto, Japan
Temples in Kyoto, Japan
Temples in Kyoto, Japan
Buddhist monk begging in Kyoto, Japan
Buddhist monk begging in Kyoto, Japan

After a morning of walking around the famous temples and beautiful gardens surrounding them, we find ourselves back on the Shinkansen, headed back to Tokyo and our flight back home.

Recommended Reading

Old Kyoto: The Updated Guide to Traditional Shops, Restaurants, and Inns by Diana Durston

Exploring Kyoto: On Foot in the Ancient Capital by Judith Clancy

36 Hours in Kyoto, Japan a travel article by Jaime Gross at The New York TImes

How “Playing For Change” is changing the world

Bill Moyers calls it a remarkable example of “the simple yet transformative power of music… to touch something in each of us.” As we sit down to watch the DVD Songs from Around the World by the nonprofit group Playing For Change, our friends, Noel & Steve, can’t contain how amazing and emotional this film is to them – goosebumps, tears… check it out…

Here’s one of the most viewed songs from the film – Stand By Me.

Here is the story in their words:

Several years ago, a small group of filmmakers set out with a dream to make a documentary film about street musicians from around the world. Using innovative mobile audio/video techniques, Playing for Change (PFC) records musicians outdoors in cities and townships worldwide. They’ve traveled from post-Katrina New Orleans to post-apartheid South Africa, from the remote beauty of the Himalayas to the religious diversity of Jerusalem. Their talents are captured in myriad environments: under the sun and beneath the streetlights… in public parks, plazas and promenades… in doorways, on cobblestone streets, amid hilly pueblos. Their performances are subsequently combined in allowing them to collaborate – albeit separated by hundreds, or even thousands, of miles.

While traveling to around the world to film and record these musicians, the crew became intimately involved with the music and people of each community they visited. Many of these people lived very modestly in communities with limited resources; nevertheless, they were full of generosity, warmth, and above all they were connected to each other by a common thread: music.

In an effort to ensure that anyone with the desire to receive a music education would have the opportunity to do so, the Playing For Change Foundation was born. The Playing For Change Foundation (PFCF) is dedicated to the fundamental idea that peace and change are possible through the universal language of music.

By providing a safe place to learn and flourish, PFCF schools offer a positive alternative to the struggles that many children face daily. The mentorship and guidance the students receive from musicians and teachers provides a strong foundation for them to grow and thrive. In an effort to preserve history and cultural traditions, each school’s curriculum is focused on regional music and instruments.  The global role of music is also explored via interaction with other schools, students, teachers and musical cultures. In addition to building music schools, we provide resources and opportunities to communities in need, thereby empowering these communities with the ability to establish thriving and sustainable economies.

These are not our schools; each school belongs to the people in the community. The community is invested in the school and its success.  The people create the energy that the schools – and the community – need to succeed.

The Playing For Change Foundation is committed to creating positive change through music education. You can contribute directly to the foundation or support the cause by purchasing the DVD/CD: Songs from Around the World.

Traveling without a plan

Opening ourselves up to new experiences is part of the intrigue of travel. Our best travel stories are of the unexpected surprises along the way… positive and even seemingly negative at the time. Things that happen which give us a jolt, put us on a different trajectory, let us see a situation in a different light.

My first trip to Europe in the summer of 1976 with Jay was this way… as backpackers we alternated between camping, hosteling and our favorite – pensions – small inexpensive European hotels that often included a home cooked breakfast. Our parameters were certain cities or towns we wanted to visit and our airline tickets back to the states at summer’s end. I think we had one guide book, otherwise we would get tips from other travelers and check in at the tourist centers at the train stations.

This past February when we decided to escape the NW grey and spend the month in New Zealand I found myself fretting about how to plan a month away. How to know exactly where we wanted to go, how long we would want to stay in an area… not to mention feeling the responsibility of having to make those decisions and then implement them by doing all the research and reservation making.

So, we decided to pack our guidebooks, bring my laptop, book a hotel for our arrival in Auckland… and leave. What freedom and what fun. We found some towns we wanted to linger in and other areas where we just kept on driving. The flexibility allowed us to totally change our plans on the South island in order to spend time with our niece in Queenstown – a city we had not planned on visiting.

An offshoot of this attitude is that last minute travel can translate into last minute flight deals or other last minute savings. Emailing a day ahead for lodging in Nelson, NZ for 5 days, the reply came saying the cottages were booked but we could have the villa for the same rate. If you have access to the internet simply search on “last minute travel” and the city or area you are heading to.

This Sunday reading the New York Times travel section, I learned that the Frugal Traveler has just begun a new series “Getting Lost“. Taking it even a step further than we did, his intention is to show up in a place, and figure it out… with the goal of getting lost (literally). Here is an excerpt:

“Which is why I’ve lately been wondering, how does it feel truly not to know where you are? Are the guidebooks, GPS devices and Internet forums pointing us in the wrong direction? In our efforts to figure out where we’re going, have we lost something more important?

Hence this new series, “Getting Lost,” in which every few months I will try to lose my way all over the globe, from developing-world megalopolises to European capitals, from American sprawl to Asian archipelagos. (For the moment, I’ll avoid deep wilderness and deserts; I want to survive.) It’s a challenge that requires special preparation — that is, nonpreparation. In the past, I’ve researched destinations to death, zooming deep into Google Maps and uncovering unusual restaurants in the darkest corners of the Web. Now I am avoiding maps. I am shying away from Chowhound and Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum; I will not ask my Facebook friends who they know in Moscow or Addis Ababa.

I am, in short, trying to break free of the constraints of modern travel, of a culture in which every minute is rigorously planned, and we grade destinations based on how they live up to our expectations. I want to have no expectations. I plan to show up with neither hotel reservation nor guidebook; instead of devising my own itinerary, I will let the place itself guide me, and in doing so, I will, I hope, find myself caught up in moments I never could have imagined.”

Isn’t part of the reason we travel to get out of our known environment? Embrace the mystery? We all have our own comfort level around how much to let go, but what might happen if we challenge ourselves to embrace some, if not all, of the void?


Notes from our travels to Tokyo

April 2007 found us in Tokyo and Kyoto for 10 days… I tagged along on a business trip of Jay’s. Here are some notes and impressions I jotted down at the time… this blog covers Tokyo… Kyoto will follow.

Arriving in a foreign land is surreal. We board a plane that climbs to 35,000 feet, cruises for hours and then the door opens and we are half way across the globe. Amazing. Tokyo is amazing. Spreading for miles – seemingly never-ending, populated in numbers beyond conception, yet mostly experienced as orderly and clean.

The train station is where the vast sums of people are apparent. We experience Shinagawa Station during morning rush hour when thousands of Japanese head to the office clad in dark suits and white shirts. A low buzz of sound like an active beehive filled the air as orderly masses approached the precision run trains. Shinagawa, one of the oldest stations in Tokyo, opened on June 12, 1872. It is very near the hotel we are in. Mastery of the train system is useful as taxis are very expensive.

This is my first visit to Japan and the toilet in our hotel room is a main source of interest: heated toilet seat, button on toilet for bidet, we think, one button with male symbol and another for female – pushed female lots of action in bowl but nothing interacted with me. We are impressed with their energy efficiency, as you enter the room you insert your key/card into a slot that activates electricity – everything turns off when you leave and remove your key.

The hotel includes breakfast – extensive buffet options – very international with familiar western options of eggs, bacon and an extensive Japanese buffet with miso soup, fish, rice…

Easter Sunday we take the JR train to the Imperial Palace and Gardens, a large park area surrounded by moats and massive stone walls in the center of Tokyo, a short walk from Tokyo Station. It is the residence of Japan’s Imperial Family. Cherry blossoms, blooming azaleas and rhododendrons fill the gardens.

Tokyo Imperial Palace Garden with cityscape in the background
Tokyo Imperial Palace Gardens with cityscape in the background
Tokyo Imperial Palace Garden
Idyllic pond in the Tokyo Imperial Palace Garden
View of Tokyo Imperial Palace
View of the moated Tokyo Imperial Palace

Lunch is fun. We find a noodle soup place in the lower level of an office building with customers coming and going. We select and pay for our soup at a machine, then give the token/receipt we receive to someone at the counter. We can see the cooks in action behind her. A few minutes later a big bowl of steaming broth with rice noodles and chicken arrives. Tasty and cheap.

Full and satisfied we walk to the Ginza area. We are drawn to the elegant and historic Mitsukoshi department store. I read up on the history and learn it was founded in 1673 as a kimono shop, ten years later in 1683, the owners took a new approach to marketing, and instead of selling by going door-to-door, they set up a store where buyers could purchase goods on the spot with cash. My favorite floor is the  food department on the lower level – a wow! A bazaar of food with Harrod’s and many other Japanese food specialists.

Tokyo Street Scene
Tokyo street scene a la Beatles Abbey Road Album

Monday – Jay is working and I take a cab to Shinjuku – this is the area Lost in Translation was filmed. High energy, Times Square like. I walk through Tokyo Hands – our friend David’s favorite store – with everything from stationery to nails. I buy some lovely rice paper and a bag of tiny shells. Shinjuku is divided – the east side is constant chaos – shopping, eating, lots of young people. While the west side is high rises, luxury hotels and government buildings. With an estimated population of over 300,000 Shinjuku is a city in it’s own right.

Tuesday on my own, I take a cab back to the Ginza area. Mostly walk around, people watch and window shop. I check out Matsuya department store where I find an area devoted to Japanese artisans – many are present to talk about their work – paintings, prints, textiles, pottery.

Later I head to the Okura Museum of Art on the grounds of the lovely, historic Okura Hotel. The museum has an austere atmosphere, only a few people are present – offering a calm respite from the downtown energy.

Tokyo Okura Museum Sculpture
Ancient stone sculpture at the Okura Museum in Tokyo

From the hotel website I read the museum’s history: Back in 1917, an avid collector of Buddhist artwork by the name of Kihachiro Okura established, on his own land, a museum in which to hold and display his treasures. Over the years, this collection was added to by his son, the founder of Hotel Okura, Baron Kishichiro Okura, whose interests included modern Japanese painting, or Nihonga. Today, the Okura Shukokan Museum of Fine Arts houses some 2,000 items and 35,000 volumes — a collection that contains a number of officially registered National Treasures, Important Cultural Objects, and Important Art Objects.

Evening energy levels rise in Tokyo. Apartments are small and utilitarian, so many seek camaraderie with friends and co-workers in the bars after a long day at the office. Nightly we witness the packed tables, shrouded in cigarette smoke, everyone animatedly talking and drinking. It’s worth enduring the smoke to experience the high energy.

As often happens after a trip my antennae are tuned to that country. So when I come across a positive review for The Haiku Apprentice – a memoir by an American diplomat who joins a haiku group in Japan – I am on it. The book is not written to teach haiku yet I find myself dabbling in the medium as I read along during my commute and learning more about the country and people I have just visited.


Yokohama, Japan, with kids

Last night an email came in from our sister-in-law, Janet. She and the kids (our nieces – ages 13 & 11) are traveling in Asia with Andy on a business trip. Happy Father’s Day Andy!

Hello Jay and Sue,

We are having a great time in Yokohama. We were fortunate enough to get upgraded from SFO to Narita into business class and had a great flight. Gabrielle was so busy watching Avatar that she didn’t even know that we had landed. She saw everyone standing up and wondered what was going on. Now that’s a great 10 hour flight.

After landing in Narita we had to catch a bus to our hotel – Yokohama is an hour away from the Airport. We were all pretty jet lagged by now and the bus ride felt longer than the flight. From the bus terminal we caught a taxi to our hotel (planes, trains and automobiles). The taxis in Japan are so clean and I love the white seat covers and the gloved drivers. The cabs play 30-40s hits from America while using GPS. A bit of the old and the new and it works. We are taking taxis all over Yokohama (the kids love the automatic doors).

We are staying at the Intercontinental Yokohama Hotel. It is an easy landmark in Yokohama. The hotel is shaped like the sail of a ship. It is so distinct – you just can’t miss it. Andy and I stayed here 8 years ago when we were last here. I love being back. I really like this hotel. The staff is really helpful and all speak English. They are so polite and friendly. The restaurants in the hotel are great, Chinese, Italian, French and Japanese. Our maitre ‘d was from Lausanne, Switzerland in the French restaurant and he and Andy spoke French together. The French food was rich and delicious – I had a pumpkin soup that was out of this world. It’s a great experience. The girls said that after Italy this is their favorite country.

SOGO Department Store, Yokohama, Japan
SOGO Department Store, Yokohama, Japan

Day 1 – we go to one of my favorite stores – SOGO. It is next to the Yokohama Train Station. It is an amazing store on par with Harrods in London. It is 12 stories and one of the floors has a museum on it. The  sixth floor is home to the first in-store museum, the SOGO Museum of Art in Japan. We go through the exhibit and unfortunately none of the items had English subtitles. Danielle recognized an ink block and the tea brush used in the tea ceremony which she studied this year at school. She is excited to share some info with us. There is an exhibit of three handbags – we know they are hundreds of years old ( if not thousand since we can’t read any of the literature) but one of the handbags could have been in fashion today. You forget you’re inside a department store and it’s just a small portion of the sixth floor. But my favorite floor is the basement – it has foods from around the world. Every display case is more beautiful than the next. The food and pastry look like works of art. The staff is friendly and eager to serve you and they speak English. One young woman looks distressed when Gabrielle tried to order three truffles and finally she said “alcohol” so we knew not to pick those. We oohed and ahhed over the confections and went back two days in a row to sample the cream puffs. They cost about $2.50 each and the packaging is so elaborate. They pack them in a travel box, wet naps, napkins, utensils for us to take with a mini ice pack to keep them cool. We love it and came back a second day to do some shopping at SOGO.

Cosmoworld, Yokohama, Japan
Cosmoworld with the Intercontinental Hotel in the background - Yokohama, Japan

Next is Cosmoworld which is near our hotel. It is an amusement park with one of the world’s largest ferris wheels, 1125 meters high and can carry 480 people. We go on it and it takes about 15 minutes to complete the revolution. We have a great view of our hotel and Yokohama in general. After the ferris wheel Andy and Danielle ride the roller coaster. It goes underground during the ride and they are the only two people on it. We can hear them screaming as they fly underground.

Red Panda at the Nogeyama Zoo, Yokohama, Japan
Red Panda at the Nogeyama Zoo, Yokohama, Japan

Day 2 – Andy is working and we are off to the Nogeyama Zoo. It is a small zoo built in 1950 and the admission is free. I don’t know how they pay for the animals? We want to see a red panda and we do. It is the second exhibit at the zoo and we squeal with delight at this charming fellow. It is the first time we have seen a red panda close up. The first creature we see is a scarlet ibis – something else we had never seen before. They are truly scarlet and very beautiful birds. Another animal that is new to us is the colobus – this primate is amazing. Long black and white hair and a tail that must be three feet long. It was a wonderful sight to see. They have a petting zoo so different from the States. It has boxes of mice, then another box of baby chicks, then guinea pigs called “marmots” and then rats. You can pet the animals and they had slatted ropes all along the enclosure for the mice and rats to travel on. These are hung on poles across the exhibit so if you look up mice and rats are traveling on the mini slatted bridges over your head. The kids love it. The rest of the animals are the standard zoo variety but as we turn the corner on the cat house after being inside and seeing a tiger and lioness – a male lion is lying on top of a shed. We go “whoa’ because he is enormous. I had never been that close to a male lion. He is huge and I just hadn’t realize how huge. He is amazing and he has this intense stare so we all turn to see what he was looking at. We don’t see what he sees. It is hot and humid. I would say in the 80s and I hope we will be able to find a taxi to take us back our hotel. We step out of the zoo and here comes a taxi. What luck!

Nogeyama Zoo Peacock, Yokohama, Japan
Nogeyama Zoo Peacock, Yokohama, Japan

For dinner Andy and his client, Toshi, take us to an authentic Soba noodle dinner in Old Tokyo. The restaurant is over 100 years old. The outside is lovely – screens and well manicured entrance. We sit on tatami mats and are the only caucasians in the place. It is quite an experience. Toshi orders for us and Gabrielle’s udon noodles arrive in a beautiful black box with a lid on it. She loves the noodles. This is a dinner we will never forget.

We take the train and subway into Tokyo and back. It’s the girls first time on a subway and they don’t really like the crowded conditions. As a New Yorker it was pretty typical of a subway ride.

Day 3 – we go to the Yokohama Museum of Art. It is closed but as we take photos on the grounds, this business man approaches and without asking politely takes the camera from Gabrielle and takes our picture. Then he turns the camera, takes another shot, picks up his briefcase and continues on his way. We love the culture and politeness of the people. We cross over to the Landmark Tower. This is the highest observation tower in Japan. It is on the 69th story and the panoramic views are fantastic. The elevator is the fastest in Japan and in the Guinness Book of Records. It travels the 69 stores in 40 seconds. We love it. It is so fun.

Last night which was our 16th anniversary and our last night in Japan so we met Andy in Shin-Yokohama to go to the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum. We had seen Ramen Girl – starring Brittany Murphy several months ago and knew we were heading to Yokohama where this film takes place. So we said we would go and visit this Raumen Museum. We made good on our word and went. The basement of the museum is supposed to be a replica of what downtown noodle shops looked liked in 1958. It is very bizarre. Totally unexpected and hard to describe. We took some pictures which we’ll have to send but even that may not do it justice. It was a strange experience.

Umbrellas in Yokohama, Japan
The girls with their umbrellas in Yokohama, Japan

The girls purchased umbrellas at SOGO earlier in the week. They are hoping to get to use their new umbrellas. They are clear with colored polka dots. The clear umbrellas make it so easy to see where you’re going. Last night as we walked to the Raumen it was raining hard. It was an anniversary we won’t forget. Andy and I are under one of the polka-dotted umbrellas and the girls each walked with a new umbrella in the pouring rain. We are all happy.

Today we head to Singapore. The girls and I are excited about seeing a new country.


Artsy, groovy downtown Twisp, WA

Twisp River Pub, Twisp, WA

Driving into town of Twisp, I immediately see the bold blue, green and black sign for the Twist River Pub on the right. This seems to be the local favorite – all suggestions for a place to eat lead here. Located on the Twisp River, the Pub’s patio is the perfect spot on this warm May evening. The sun is warming, the river below has a steady moving flow – a sound of life – at once calming and invigorating. Breathing the fresh air I feel healthy and alive like the river. Time to indulge in the fresh brews, local wines, and yummy pub food, and on the weekends – live music!

Twisp River Pub, Twisp, WA
Twisp River Pub patio overlooks the Twisp River

Curious about the word “Twisp”, I googled… one author claims it is a modification of the local tribal word, “T-wapsp”, which meant yellow jacket.  Another says the name was derived from Chinook jargon, but countered that the original spelling was “Twistsp” to imitate the sound of a buzzing wasp. Either way the name captures the energy of this little Methow Valley colony.

Glover Street is the main drag of groovy downtown Twisp and home to the very cool studio + gallery Peligro. Dedicated to the modern metal format, this contemporary space is the working studio of Nancy Daniels Hubert. Her collection of metal and/or  stone jewelry and art set the tone for Grover Street where one is visually treated to imaginative metal objects – steel & stone garbage receptacles, metal banners, and cool large steel sphere sculptures.

Peligro Jewelry Studio + Gallery, Twisp, WA
Peligro Jewelry Studio + Gallery, Twisp, WA
Stone/Ironwork in Twisp, WA
Cool steel & river stone trash receptacle

Twisp is located at the confluence of the Twisp and Methow Rivers. Confluence Gallery is the meeting place for local and regional artists from North Central Washington, and is a thoughtful combination of gallery space, gift shop and studio area. Today a quilting workshop is starting, the gallery features local painters, and the gift shop is full of artful jewelry, locally made pottery, books, and cards.

Confluence Gallery, Twisp, WA
The Confluence Gallery on Glover St.
Confluence Gallery, Twisp, WA
Steel and Stone landscaping in front of the Confluence Gallery

Getting hungry? The Cinnamon Twisp Bakery will lure you in with the smells of fresh baked bread, pastries,cookies, and if it is lunchtime – sandwiches, pizza, homemade soup… While I am ordering my Americano coffee, a group of women arrive, pulling off their bicycle helmets as they check out the goodies – clearly ready for a treat. And a local woman ordering an almond raspberry cookie confides that she has an account here.

Just up from the bakery is the Glover Street Market, a natural foods store. I go in looking for a snack and find organic apples, gluten-free crackers, a delicious array of cheeses… I also pick up a beautiful locally handmade bar of soap, Goan Fish Curry spice mix, and a bright green kitchen towel.

Strolling around the Glover Street area the contemporary art theme continues… sometimes grand, sometimes whimsical…

Street art, Twisp, WA
Street art - steel sphere and metal bike sculptures
Twisp, WA Ironwork Art Sphere
Close up of another steel art sphere

The Merc Playhouse opened for its’ first season of professional theater in the summer of 1999. Since then it has become a community treasure, providing space not only for theater productions, but also music, lectures, and other performances. The evening I was there Tappi, another Twisp restaurant that was recommended to me,  was hosting a wine tasting event/fundraiser for the playhouse.

Merc Playhouse, Twisp, WA
Merc Playhouse with old barn next door that serves as community bulletin board

The sunflower capital of the state and the eastern gateway to the North Cascades National Park, Twisp was largely dependent upon logging until the mid-1980s. Today, the principle industries include lumber, cattle ranching, and agriculture. For visitors to the Methow Valley there is hiking, swimming, bicycling, cross-country skiing in the winter, rock climbing… summer brings the farmer’s markets and an eclectic array of art, music and wine festivals.

Twisp is a small town with personality… growing and emerging with a local style rather than being shaped for the tourist. I find it refreshing.

Walrus DDS sign, Twisp, WA


New Zealand Travel Books

Good travel books can be an essential ingredient for trip preparation as well as a ready reference while on the road. Though there are other travel books on New Zealand, the three below were the ones we used for planning our trip. We ended up packing them all, and used them almost every day as we roamed around the country.

You may click on the book images or titles below for more product information and reviews at Amazon.com.

Eyewitness Travel Guide: New Zealand

This guide presents a visual tour of New Zealand. Every page has multiple color photographs so I recommend it to the visually inclined, like myself. The images got me psyched for the adventure ahead. This book is packed with information. As most guide books do, it begins with an overview of NZ including the landscape, flora & fauna but also featuring architecture, National parks & reserves, Maori culture & art, NZ artists & writers, wines, and sporting events. The bulk of the book divides NZ into seven areas with excellent street maps of the major downtown areas and roads maps of interesting areas with suggestions of what to see and do. Geared toward culture more so than off the beaten path adventure. A small guide that easily fits in a purse or day pack.

National Geographic Traveler: New Zealand

Our first time using a National Geographic guide book. The author devotes a good 50 pages to the history of NZ and the Maori culture with perspectives of the two islands in terms of the arts & literature, food & drink, and land & landscape. He then divides the two islands into nine areas and interweaves history, interesting facts and tips throughout the book in sidebars. This is a medium size book that’s easy to pop in a day pack. There are color photographs but they are small and fewer than might be expected from National Geographic.

Fodor’s: New Zealand

Fodor’s was a gift from a good friend. Due to it’s size we were not planning to bring it along. Once in hand we appreciated all the detail and information it contained so we packed it as well, knowing that traveling by car made it a little easier to have extra stuff.

Other New Zealand Travel Books

Other guide books for New Zealand worth checking out include: New Zealand Driving HolidaysFootprint New Zealand, Frommers New ZealandLonely Planet’s New Zealand (Country Guide) or Lonely Planet’s New Zealand’s South Island (Regional Guide).


Queenstown, NZ

We arrive in Queenstown in the evening about 7 hours after leaving Dunedin. The Taieri Gorge train takes us part of the way and then a bus completes the trip. Our niece, Jaime, is in Queenstown visiting from Maryland and we are very excited to see her, so we quickly settle in our hotel and rendezvous with her for dinner. A bit groggy from travel and the late hour we walk around the town, checking menus and finally decide on Flame Bar & Grill. Jay is ready for ribs and they have a table free on the second floor balcony with an expansive view of the waterfront. Our server suggests an Australian red to go with the ribs, add a greek salad and we are good to go. Great wine, good food and wonderful conversation catching up with Jaime!

Arriving in the dark to a new destination always adds an element of intrigue. Waking in the morning to a sunny day we are ready to see the stunning setting that we have read about. Queenstown sits on the shore of Lake Wakatipu framed by jagged mountains called The Remarkables. These days tourism is the new gold, and it is a very popular destination for adventure seekers. Jaime has an exciting tandem paraglide, and there is bungee jumping, jet boating, white-water rafting and skiing in the winter.

Waterfront, Queenstown, NZ
Waterfront in Queenstown, NZ
Boats on Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown, NZ
Boats on Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown, NZ

Downtown, The Mall, is an outside area with many restaurants and shops. Even in late February the place is humming with people – sitting in the cafes we hear languages from all over the world. In the afternoon we stroll through the Queenstown Gardens. A nice respite from the downtown area.

Beautiful old tree in the Queenstown Gardens, Queenstown, NZ
Beautiful old tree in the Queenstown Gardens, Queenstown, NZ
Pond in the Queenstown Gardens, Queenstown, NZ
Pond in the Queenstown Gardens, Queenstown, NZ
Rose in the Queenstown Gardens, Queenstown, NZ
Rose in the Queenstown Gardens, Queenstown, NZ
Sculpture "Fleur" in the Queenstown Gardens, NZ
Sculpture "Fleur" in the Queenstown Gardens, NZ

Our stay in Queenstown is a brief one as is our visit with Jaime who will leave in the morning. On a recommendation from a shop owner, we book reservations at The Bunker for dinner. As the reviews stated it is a hard to find gem, hidden away down a back alley in the middle of the town. But the search is worth it… once inside the intimate dining room I feel removed from the world and ready for the incredible dining experience that is to come. Our server is a pro who guides us well through the wine list and menu. Jay choses the pork belly, Jaime steak and for me, duck. All our entrees are artful presentations featuring heavenly meats that melt in ours mouths. Unable to imagine dessert, Jay orders two dessert drinks for our amusement – a Tiramisu and a Toblerone. They taste divine but the lasting image is of our server preparing them. For movie fans think “Love Actually”, and picture the scene where Mr. Bean takes his time artistically wrapping the bracelet for  Alan Rickman with seemingly endless flourishes.

Jaime has one experience left on her Queenstown list, so our last morning together we shuttle up the peak on the Skyline Gondola. A grey sky mutes the image but the view of The Remarkables, the lake and the town below is incredible.

Skyline Gondola, Queenstown, NZ
Skyline Gondola, Queenstown, NZ
View from the top of the Skyline Gondola, Queenstown, NZ
View from the top of the Skyline Gondola, Queenstown, NZ

Later in the day storm clouds began collecting over Lake Wakatipu…

Storm brewing over the lake in Queenstown, NZ
Storm brewing over the lake in Queenstown, NZ

Walking back to the hotel from dinner we stopped to watch a local dance class…

Dance lessons in Queenstown, NZ
Dance lessons in Queenstown, NZ

Our last morning we have a few hours before the airport shuttle picks us up, so we take a walk along the lake into town. Jay craves one last treat from Patagonia Chocolates – they might be known for their chocolates but Jay will remember the ice cream (dulce de leche, chocolate with hazelnut, white chocolate with hazelnut) and I will long for the hot chocolate with fresh ginger. Their teeshirts catch my eye, and being a chocoholic I especially like the tee our server has on, “Save the planet – it’s the only one with chocolate”.

Feeding the ducks, Queenstown, NZ
Feeding the ducks, Queenstown, NZ

Dunedin, NZ

Our first stop on the 226 mile drive from Christchurch to Dunedin is Oamaru. An historic seaport town nestled on the South Island’s east coast. While Oamaru’s early wealth was founded on gold, it was agriculture that provided the driving force for a thriving commercial port and harbor area. Although commercial usage has steadily declined over time, the original structures remain intact and the area is undergoing a revival. The Woolstore Cafe is in a restored building and there we enjoyed the day’s special – lamb burgers with fries. Once again I was delighted to find gluten-free “slices” – wonderfully moist, cake-like treats: chocolate hazelnut and a pear honey (my waistline is not in decline!).

Oamaru Bay

During our stay in Christchurch we were advised to stop and see the Moeraki Boulders on our trip south. The boulders are situated some 40km south of Oamaru at Moeraki on State Highway One. It is a five minute walk along the beach to the boulders. From a distance they are not impressive in size, but up close the details become apparent. A little research revealed there incredible history… the boulders were embedded in the soft mudstone cliff at the beach and the forces of the sea have eroded the cliff away, exposing the round formation of the boulders. The boulders were formed by the crystallization of calcium and carbonates around charged particles, as one website described it – “a process similar to the way pearls are formed”. Although this process took four million years.

Moeraki Boulders

Originally we had planned to end our journey in Christchurch, but our friends, Sally & Bruce, encouraged us to continue south to Dunedin and the Otago peninsula. Dunedin is home to the University of Otago, New Zealand’s first university and the Otago Polytechnic. The University accounts for about 20 percent of the city’s population and this weekend was the start of the semester so lodging was booked downtown. Online we found a room at the newly opened St. Clair Beach Resort and after driving through the city found ourselves at the oceanfront where surfers were rallying and practicing for the next day’s Asia Pacific Long Board Championship. An excited Jay was soon talking to his buddy, Mark (surfer dude), via Skype – holding up the MacBook (see Jay’s  review of the Ultimate Travel Computer) so Mark could see the surfers. Enjoying the sound of the surf and tired from a long day of driving, that night we dined nearby at Salt – a great little restaurant about two blocks from the hotel.

Surfers at St Clair Beach in Dunedin

Waking the next morning to the sounds of loud speakers announcing the surfers we check it out for awhile from our balcony, then jump in the car and head out to the Otago Peninsula. Our destination is the Royal Albatross Colony at Taiaroa Head, on the tip of the Otago Peninsula. We drive out on Portobello Road along the edge of the harbor, then return on Highcliff Road along the top of the Peninsula enjoying the spectacular views of both routes.

Taiaroa Head is unique for the diversity of wildlife which abounds on this small headland. The albatross is one of eleven bird species which breed in the area and this is the only mainland breeding colony for any albatross species found in the southern hemisphere. The first Taiaroa-reared albatross chick flew in 1938 and this now protected nature reserve has grown into an established colony with a population of around 140 birds.

The breeding birds arrive at Taiaroa Head in September. The nest, built during early November, is formed by a bird sitting down and pulling vegetation and earth around itself with its bill. The white egg, weighing up to 500 grams, is laid during the first three weeks of November. The parents share incubation duty in spells of two to eight days over a period of 11 weeks – one of the longest incubation periods of any bird. The incubating bird sleeps much of the time its mate is away

Albatross with chick

When the chick has hatched, the parents take turns at guarding it for the first 30 to 40 days, and the feeding of the chick is also shared by both parents. Nearly 12 months after their arrival at Taiaroa Head, having cared for egg and chick over a period of some 300 days, the parents will leave the colony to spend a year at sea before returning to breed again. The chicks hatch during late January and early February; it takes about three to six days to finally emerge from the egg after making a hole in the shell. Albatross Breading Cycle For the first 20 days the chick is fed on demand, then meals decrease to three or four times a week. At 100 days the chick’s down reaches a maximum length of 12 centimetres. At this age the chick is fed larger meals, up to two kilograms at a time, of more solid substance. From early August the chick is fed lighter meals and in September, when fully fledged, it wanders from the nest testing its outstretched wings and eventually takes off with the aid of a strong wind. The young albatross will spend the next three to six years at sea; many then return to this unique headland to start another generation of Royals of Taiaroa.

Stomach contents of a deceased albatross

While away at sea the albatross swallows plastic debris – in the North Pacific debris is concentrated in two huge eddies – in these areas the surface water contains six times more plastic than plankton by weight. Adult albatrosses breeding on Hawaiian atolls ingest the plastic, probably mistaking it for food, and then feed it to their chicks. As a result, thousands of chicks die yearly in Hawaii because their stomachs fill with plastic leaving no room for real food.

Rare Stewart Island Shag mud nests

From the nature reserve viewing area we saw the rare Stewart Island Shag mud nests.

Lighthouse on the Otago Peninsula

The lighthouse is a short walk from the reserve with views of the ocean and seals camouflaged among the dark stones.

Sheep, Dunedin, NZ
Shade loving sheep along the roadside

Driving back on the Highcliff Road we came upon these wool laden sheep enjoying the shade; below is a view of the lush Otago Peninsula.

Otago Peninsula, Dunedin, NZ
View of the Otaga Peninsula

After a full day out on the Otago Peninsula we make reservations to dine in downtown Dunedin at Bacchus. Set in the heart of Dunedin in one of Dunedin’s historic buildings, Bacchus overlooks the Octagon (city center of Dunedin), and is known for it’s quality lamb and beef dishes and a first rate wine selection. We enjoyed a first class meal and good wine recommendations.

The following morning we check out at 10am (the standard time in NZ), return our rental car, check our luggage at train station and head to Plato for brunch. Plato is a relaxed eatery located on the harborfront of Dunedin and was recommended by our waitress at Bacchus last night. Hands down one of the best brunch dishes ever – Basque Eggs – free-range eggs broken over pan-fried potatoes, mushrooms, chorizo, tomatoes, feta and spinach, grilled with grated parmesan.

Walking into town we make a visit to the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. As we made our way through the galleries the exhibit that stood out was Taryn Simon: An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar.  Described as  “A collection of photographs that document the inaccessible places that exit below the surface of American identity.” The two images that stood out for me and contrasted each other were both in Washington State – a nuclear waste shot and the Olympic National Temperate Rainforest. The museum is worth checking out and this exhibit is there until May 9, 2010.

We eventually make it back to the Octogon to check out the South Island Bagpipe competition… here are Jay’s photos…

Bagpipers Practicing, Dunedin, NZ
Bagpipers practicing for the South Island Competition
Bagpipers, Dunedin, NZ
Bagpipers present themselves to the Competition Official
Young bagpipers, Dunedin, NZ
The tradition continues with these young bagpipers
Bagpipe Competition Judge, Dunedin, NZ
Bagpipe Competition Judges chat with an onlooker

Our train leaves mid-afternoon… we are taking The Taieri Gorge Limited train, Dunedin’s prestige tourist train operating from the historic Railway Station. This scenic train & bus tour will eventually land us in Queenstown, NZ. This historic train travels through the rugged and spectacular Taieri River Gorge, across wrought iron viaducts and through tunnels carved by hand more than 100 years ago.

Dunedin Train Station, NZ
Dunedin Train Station
Dunedin Train Station, Dunedin, NZ
Platform at the Dunedin Train Station
Historic Taieri Gorge Train, Dunedin, NZ
Interior of the historic Taieri Gorge train
Taieri Gorge Train, Dunedin to Queenstown, NZ
Gramma's traveling bears on Taieri Gorge Train

At one of our stops along the way, a grandma sets her bears out and photographs them. She tells Jay she will email the pictures to her grandchildren later as a fun way for them to follow her travels.