Singapore for business and pleasure

Singapore is one of my favorite cities to visit. Though I generally visit on business, there is always time for pleasure… and Singapore is a fine place to enjoy dining, night life, lush tropical parks, beaches, and shopping.

Singapore River Boat and bridge
Scene along the Singapore River

Singapore’s legendary efficiency is obvious from the first moments after arrival. You will breeze through customs in a matter of seconds, thanks to their embrace of modern technology.  On the way into town from the ultra modern airport, you may note that cars never go over the posted speed limit. The streets are immaculate as they wind through a veritable garden of paradise. Then the city appears ahead – pristine, luminous, shiny and new.

The Fullerton Hotel with River Kids sculpture
Sculpture surrounds The Fullerton Hotel (in the background)

My destination is The Fullerton Hotel in the downtown financial and arts district. The hotel’s Colonial style belies the cool modern interior, welcome in the tropical heat of Singapore. Built in 1928 on the Singapore river, the Fullerton Building was the centre of Singapore’s commercial, social and official life. It was home to three of the most important institutions of Singapore – The General Post Office, The Singapore Club, and The Chamber of Commerce. Even if you don’t stay here, it is worth a visit… there are several excellent restaurants, as well as a first rate international buffet, and a bar that is set amidst the lovely original ceiling and pillars of the old Post Office… and enjoy an evening stroll by the river to enjoy the various sculptures along the way.

Singapore Sculpture Business Men
Fantastic sculpture of business men near the hotel
Singapore Sculpture Three Men
Another fine bronze sculpture in the area

The legendary Raffles Hotel is a short walk away. Immortalized in the novels of Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling, the hotel exemplifies Singapore’s colonial-style architecture amid lush tropical gardens. Go there for tea, drinks, or fine dining – including the Long Bar – home of the world renowned Singapore Sling, and the Tiffin Room, which continues the tradition of Afternoon Tea. The Raffles Hotel Museum looks at the history of the Hotel largely in the context of the Golden Age of Travel. This period, spanning 1880 to 1939, saw the rise of popular tourism and coincided with the opening of the Hotel. This was the era when Singapore was known as the “Crossroads of the East“. Museum hours are 10 am to 7 pm daily. There is no admission charge.

Singapore River Tree
Strolling along the Singapore River

My favorite time to shop is at night, to see buildings adorned with garish signs, and people strolling down the streets, chatting with friends, looking for bargains. Though there are numerous places to shop around downtown, if you are shopping for electronics, cameras, and gadgets, consider heading over to “Little India” – a bustling earthy part of town, where you can let your hair down and haggle with the merchants for the big deal of the day. The various pictures on this blog were taken with a camera I bought in Little India – Nikon Coolpix 8400 8MP Digital Camera with 3.5x 24mm Wide Angle Optical Zoom Lensmy favorite camera, ever!

To fortify you for your evening of wheeling and dealing, follow your nose to one of the wonderful Indian restaurants that are everywhere in Little India. Hidden among the bustle of Little India is Race Course Road . On this tiny lane you will find Banana Leaf Apolohoused in three units of a two-storey shophouse it is most famous for its fish head curry. The restaurant has been open for 30 years, serving both North and South Indian cuisine to locals eager for a taste of great curry, and tourists, like us, who have heard about this a restaurant from an expat friend (thank you Pam!).

Singapore Indian Food
Our feast at the Banana Leaf Apolo

A recent article in the New York Times Travel section, 36 Hours in Singapore, offers up more ideas of things to do and places to stay…

“A long tradition of strong regional cuisine and strict hygiene laws makes for some of the world’s best — and safest — street food. Nowadays most of the hawkers are concentrated in covered food halls so that ingredients are kept cool, and preparation methods and cleanliness can be kept to a uniform standard. At the Maxwell Road Food Center near Chinatown, vendors sell everything from dumplings to onion pancakes to dessert: at Tian Tian (No. 11), try the chicken rice; at Hokee (No. 79), the soup dumplings, and at No. 848, fresh fruit and juice (one, a bitter gourd and honey mix, promises “to reduce heatiness (sic).” Prices are 1 to 8 Singapore dollars.”

Yahoo Travel offers 5 of Singapore’s best restaurants with a view

  • Sky on 57, Level 57 SkyPark Tower 1, Marina Bay Sands Hotel, 10 Bayfront Avenue
  • Level 33, #33-01 Marina Bay Financial Centre Tower 1, 8 Marina Boulevard
  • Barnacles, Rasa Sentosa Resort, 101 Siloso Road
  • Clifford, Fullerton Bay Hotel, 80 Collyer Quay
  • iL Cielo, Level 24, Hilton Singapore, 581 Orchard Road

And the Lonely Planet Singapore (City Travel Guide) gets good reviews as a handy paperback (200 pages) and written in conjunction with a Singapore resident. The expanded coverage of neighborhoods includes two new walking tours and three new excursions; plus helpful cultural insights & local secrets from a comedian, curator, theater director, writer and scholar. If you have access to a computer the content is updated daily at lonelyplanet.com.


Dining in Paris, France

Paris patisserie
A few years ago in Paris this whimsical lady (and the Patisserie) caught our eye.

From Mark Bittman, a favorite writer at the New York Times, four restaurants in Paris worth taking a Metro ride to…

“… as restaurants in the wealthy and most tourist-laden neighborhoods of Paris have become more crowded and expensive, the areas where one can find a great meal have expanded.

With this in mind, I set out to explore some of the farther-flung alternatives. I concentrated on the increasingly energetic northeast quadrant of the city, namely the 10th, 18th (generally speaking, Montmartre), 19th (around the park of Buttes Chaumont) and 20th (which contains the Belleville neighborhood) Arrondissements.”

Four Paris Restaurants Worth a Metro Ride

His description of Philou in the 10th Arrondissement…

“The food: wonderful, sometimes perfect. Like the marinated sardines with parsley gelée, apples and horseradish. Also wonderful were a dead-on pâté with a jug of cornichons, pork cheeks in a gorgeous dark sauce with celery root cooked in stock (my mouth is watering at the thought of that); a few chunks of insanely good calf’s liver and poularde de Bresse, with meat that was almost as good as the skin, served with Chinese cabbage.”


Astoria, Oregon

Sunday morning… hot tea, New York Times… good article in the travel section on the waterfront town of Astoria, Oregon. Good tips on dining, lodging, and things to do. Enjoy the read and maybe a visit sometime.

Astoria, Oregon, Discovers a Waterfront Chic

Astoria Oregon Waterfront
Cannery Pier Hotel, Astoria, OR (photo credit: Leah Nash for the NY Times)


Eat, drink and find provisions in Eugene, Oregon

eugene oregon restaurant notesHow fortunate are we to be in Eugene, Oregon with a list of food favorites from a friend who knows Eugene!

Restaurants

  • Cafe Soriah a Eugene favorite for almost twenty years, is defined by ancient Mediterranean world spices and the Northwest bounty of ingredients. We visit on a bustling Friday night and both dine on lamb – I have the Lamb Shank, braised in a caramelized onion au jus… it melts in my mouth. Jay chooses the Rack of Lamb, hickory smoked & served with herb aioli… no doubt a hit as Jay consults with the owner about how it is prepared. Good wines by the glass, great service. Lunch is served during the week and dinner is offered every night at 384 West 13th Avenue… check out Prose Dress right next door.
  • Marché takes it’s name from the French word for market — a word that describes not only the location in Eugene’s bustling 5th Street Market, but also their philosophy of cooking. The menu is based on the foods you would find at a farmers market — fresh, seasonal, and regional. Have not eaten here but our friend has heard great things about it and the menus (lunch, dinner and bar) would draw us in next time we are in town. The bar menu is appealing with small plates for the times when your appetite is light or time is tight… think handmade pizzettes, steak & frites, oysters, mussels…
  • The Vintage restaurant and dessert bar is the dream of two childhood girlfriends. Opening in January of 2006 it was voted Best New Restaurant later that year. Located in an old funky house with a great atmosphere it is famous for its cheese and chocolate fondues, sweet & savory crepes and seasonal cocktails. Open Tuesday – Sunday at 837 Lincoln Street.
  • Adam’s Sustainable Table is a casual and family friendly restaurant, serving an eclectic mix of culinary styles – from Northwest Regional to home cookin’ and affordable comfort foods. Farm to table, certified green restaurant that accommodates vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and dairy-free needs. Located at 30 East Broadway.
  • Pizza Research Institute eclectic pizzas in a funky warehouse setting at 530 Blair Boulevard… Granny smith apples, smoked gouda & roasted walnuts sounds delicious to me, or how about Chevre, marinated eggplant & carmelized onions.
  • Sushi Domo a favorite in Eugene… won Readers Choice for freshest sushi in 2009. They strive to perfect the art of making only the finest sushi and the most delicious delicacies in true Japanese fashion. Located in the Delta Oaks Shopping Mall at 1020 Green Acres Rd. #10.
  • Papas Soul Food Kitchen for BBQ, fried chicken, gumbo and and blues… at 400 Blair Boulevard.

Coffee Shops, Bakeries…

  • Hide Away Bakery as you can see in the note, this is our friends “favorite place to go in Eugene! It’s great for breakfast, coffee/tea, lunch, or a snack. They have a full bakery with organic, gluten-free & vegan options”. Their fabulous breads are sold at the farmers market if you don’t find them at 3377 E Amazon Drive behind Mazzi’s.
  • Wandering Goat is a cafe, coffee roaster, bakery, community, art, music and performance venue. All of their baked goods are vegan, made with organic ingredients, and baked fresh each day. Located at 268 Madison Street, downtown.
  • Sweet Life Patisserie our yoga teachers choice… known for their cakes, pies, cheesecakes and pastries, they also make a fine latte or a pot of organic tea to go with dessert. Expect a line on the weekend at 755 Monroe Street.
  • Vero Espresso House holds court in a big yellow house and as one reviewer said “is one of the most beautiful coffee houses I’ve ever been to”. Comfortable atmosphere to relax and enjoy your coffee from Stumptown Coffee Roasters… 205 East 14th Avenue.
Vero Espresso House Eugene
Vero Espresso House (photo by Brad C via Yelp)
  • Full City Coffee Roasters is a recommendation from yet another friend from Eugene. With over thirty years of roasting/brewing experience they roast their beans each day. Palace Bakery is now part of Full City and bakes all the muffins, scones and “best pumpkin cookie around”. Cafes at 842 Pearl Street and 295 E 13th Avenue.

Food Markets…

  • Sundance Natural Foods features certified organic and local produce. The Kitchen and Deli is all vegetarian, mostly vegan, and features many raw foods entrees. You will find a large selection of bulk, mostly-organic, culinary and medicinal herbs & spices and a bulk foods department. Sundance is affiliated with Sundance Wine Cellars and has a wide selection of Oregon and NW Pinot Noir, and other great NW wines. Single location at 748 E. 24th Avenue.
  • Capella is a neighborhood market with “world class variety” from a produce department stocked full of organic and local fruits & veggies to the meat department with hormone & antibiotic free choices… and Capella Market has a growing selection of gluten-free products. Located on the south side of town at 2489 Willamette.
  • The Kiva is a Eugene original and a few blocks from us so we stop by this small downtown grocery store for some nuts, crackers and snacks. Sandwiches, salads and soups are offered during the day and they have a good selection of local organic produce, meats, cheese and wine. 125 West 11th Avenue in the heart of downtown.
  • Provisions part of the Marché family located at the 5th Street Public Market is an upscale specialty food store with gift baskets, wine, chocolates and sweets. They have a full bakery with organic, gluten-free, and vegan options. Great place to get lunch or a snack!
  • Market of Choice has three locations in Eugene (think Whole Foods) and offers an extensive selection of conventional, natural, organic, and health conscious products at affordable prices. Find new recipes created by their chefs at the website – including a Flourless Chocolate Torte and Curried Apple-Stuffed Pork Loin and Indian Pulao (I substitute gluten-free bread for the challah).

Eugene is a town of neighborhoods with 21 neighborhood associations… In the 1970s, Eugene was packed with cooperative and community projects, and continues to have small natural food stores, cafes and coffee houses in many neighborhoods. According to Wikipedia, Eugene has a significant population of people in pursuit of alternative ideas, and a large original hippie population. Cool. Ready to return!

Eugene, Oregon

After a few hours in the car, the crisp cool wind that greets us as we walk to the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art is welcome. Eugene, Oregon is home to the University of Oregon and the museum is on the sprawling 295 acre campus. Many of the University’s buildings are planned around several major quadrangles and the more than 500 varieties of trees provide a natural beauty.

With its elegant exterior brickwork, decorative moldings and iron grillwork, the original museum building is one of the most distinctive architectural structures in Oregon. The museum opened in 1933 and is listed on the National Register for Historic Places.

Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art
Entrance to the University of Oregon's Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art
Sculpture outside the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene, OR
Sculpture outside the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art
Sculpture outside the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art on the University of Oregon campus
Sculpture outside the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art on the Univ of Oregon campus

There’s always something new to see at the museum. Selections from the permanent collections which number more than 13,000 works are on display throughout the second floor galleries on a rotating basis. The Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art also houses a number of galleries that feature changing exhibitions and we are here today to see one of those…

CHRIS JORDAN RUNNING THE NUMBERS: AN AMERICAN SELF-PORTRAIT

Running the Numbers by former corporate lawyer Chris Jordan follows his recent photographic documentation of natural disasters.  These large mural-size compositions are colorful versions of well-known paintings, like George Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, but made with recycled objects–in this case, 106,000 aluminum cans.  Another expansive landscape mimics Ansel Adams’s iconic imagery of the Alaskan wilderness but is actually a composite of thousands of GM stickers used for advertising their Yukon model vehicle.  The exhibition addresses such issues as sustainability and consumerism in seductively beautiful compositions.

Cans Seurat by artist Chris Jordan
"Cans Seurat" depicts 106,000 aluminum cans, the number used in the US every thirty seconds.

From the Chris Jordan website:

Running the Numbers looks at contemporary American culture through the austere lens of statistics. Each image portrays a specific quantity of something: fifteen million sheets of office paper (five minutes of paper use); 106,000 aluminum cans (thirty seconds of can consumption) and so on. My hope is that images representing these quantities might have a different effect than the raw numbers alone, such as we find daily in articles and books. Statistics can feel abstract and anesthetizing, making it difficult to connect with and make meaning of 3.6 million SUV sales in one year, for example, or 2.3 million Americans in prison, or 32,000 breast augmentation surgeries in the U.S. every month.

This project visually examines these vast and bizarre measures of our society, in large intricately detailed prints assembled from thousands of smaller photographs. Employing themes such as the near versus the far, and the one versus the many, I hope to raise some questions about the roles and responsibilities we each play as individuals in a collective that is increasingly enormous, incomprehensible, and overwhelming.

After taking in this amazing exhibit I check out the museum cafe. Eugene’s critically acclaimed Marché Restaurant has teamed with the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art to open the Marché Museum Café. Marché takes its name from the French word for market—a word that describes the restaurant’s philosophy of cooking. The café’s affordable menu of soups, salads, sandwiches, pastries, and coffees is based on the foods that can be found at a farmers market—fresh, seasonal and regional. They are closing so I make do with a lemonade.

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!

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

Osoyoos, British Columbia, in the Okanagan Valley

We are off to the Okanagan Valley. Driving through the North Cascades National Park on Route 20 in Washington State is a treat in the fall. This is Jays first time, so I drive to give him ample opportunity to take in everything. Near the summit we round a curve just as two bear cubs scurry over the far side of the road. We just glimpse their rears and cute furry tails.

Heading to Osoyoos, BC we pass through Winthrop, WA and stop in one of my favorite little towns – Twisp. The Cinnamon Twisp Bakery beckons like the sirens, and we head in for a hot cup of coffee and some lunch. After a delicious black bean/corn salad we are on the road again, nearing our intersection with Route 97, our path north to British Columbia. Only 85 miles to go.

Spirit Ridge Resort
Spirit Ridge Resort and NK' Mip Cellars appear beyond the grapevines and sagebrush.

Slowly the terrain turns to desert as we head north. We arrive in Osoyoos, British Columbia late afternoon. Just 5 minutes north of the US Border, the town of 5,000 is located on Osoyoos Lake, and surrounded by grasslands, highlands and mountains. As we make our way around the lake toward Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort & Spa, New Mexico and Santa Fe come to mind. Indeed, this region is Canada’s only desert and is dotted with sagebrush and cactus.

Drawn to autumn colors and quiet, we arrive in the Okanagan Valley just after the Fall Wine Festival. Still time to enjoy the warm October days and the benefit of lower rates at the Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort & Spa.

spirit ridge resort sculpture
Dynamic metal sculptures populate the resort.

Ready to stretch our legs after a day of driving, we check in, then walk over to the NK’Mip Cellars tasting room. Nk’Mip Cellars (pronounced in-ka-meep) is owned and operated by the Okanagan People, one of Canada’s First Nations. While enjoying their Pinot Noir and Merlot, we learn that the NK’Mip Cultural Center is located within the resort compound as well, and make a note to check it out in the morning.

Passatempo is Latin for “passing the time,” and this bistro-style restaurant at Spirit Ridge Resort is the perfect place to finish the day. Good food and good wine with my sweetie. Plus, a panoramic view of Lake Osoyoos, the vineyards, and the desert. We are offered seating on the patio or indoors, and choose an indoor table by the window. Our lovely waitress helps me choose a Filet entree with Juniper sauce, mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables that is gluten-free. Jay decides on the Rack of Lamb. Both are beautifully presented, delicious, and enjoyed with glasses of Merlot, chosen after a small tasting of red wines. Many of the ingredients are locally grown and organic. (We return the next day for lunch and share a fresh Seafood Caesar Salad and delectable Polenta with fresh local corn).

spirit ridge grapevine
We take a path through the vineyard on our walk up from the lake.

After coffee and tea at a carryout across the way, we begin the second day with a brisk walk down to the lake and back in the cool morning air. The Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre is just opening as we return from our walk. The state-of-the-art interpretive centre is an architectural marvel sensitively constructed into the hillside. Extensive indoor and outdoor exhibit galleries create a fun, interactive learning environment with hands-on displays, education stations and two multi-media theatre experiences.

Warrior sculpture at Spirit Ridge Resort
Warrior sculpture welcomes visitors to the NK'Mip Cultural Center

We take our time looking at the exhibits (inside & outside) and discovering the fascinating stories and rich living culture of the Okanagan people. The outdoor area exhibits are amazing – we marvel at the metal sculptures. Then we buy two cold bottles of water and head out to explore the two kilometers of walking trails they have created. Enjoying the smell of the sage grasslands and pine forests along the way.

NK'Mip cultural center at Spirit Ridge
Outdoor exhibit at the NK'Mip Cultural Center at Spirit Ridge
spirit ridge cultural center woman harvesting
Another fantastic metal sculpture of a woman harvesting
spirit ridge cultural center spirit animals
Spirit animal sculpture at the Cultural Centre

As you can tell, we are walkers… but you could also spend time at the Sonora Desert Spa, or golfing at Sonora Dunes Golf Course, both at here at Spirit Ridge. And we are wine lovers, so we have a late lunch and go wine tasting.

Our favorite vineyards, all about 10 km north of Osoyoos in the Black Sage Bench area:

  • Church and State
  • Hester Creek Estate Winery
  • Oliver Twist Estate Winery
  • Stoneboat Vineyards
  • Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, where we have a delicious and romantic dinner that night in the Sonora Room Restaurant. Jay dines on the special, a perfectly grilled pork chop served with a homemade pasta incorporating fresh squash and cabbage served with a cider, calvados, beef stock and butter sauce. Outrageous! I have the Fraser Valley Duck Breast, equally sublime, with roasted new potatoes and autumn vegetables. This night all diners receive a complimentary appetizer of Jingle Bell Red Peppers filled with cheese and a complimentary dessert – mini squash creme brulee. Good thing we walked a lot today. And yes, we savored a bottle of Burrowing Owl Merlot, I think it was a 2007, but not sure. Excellent.


Fresh from the Okanagan Valley and Joie Farms is an inspiring new cookbook ~  MENUS from an ORCHARD TABLE: Celebrating the Food and Wine of the Okanagan by Heidi Noblemenus from an orchard tableA collection of outstanding seasonal recipes from Joie Wines and Farm Cooking School’s renowned outdoor orchard dinners. Menus for an Orchard Table allows readers to re-create some of Joie’s most extraordinary dishes, with essays on the Okanagan’s wine country cuisine and superb photography. The recipes are divided into the courses served at Joie’s orchard dinners, which balance regional wines with the accompanying dishes. Among the selections are Chilled heirloom yellow tomato soup garnished with tomato confit and chive oil, Country lamb and olive terrine with Joie pear and shallot compote and brioche, and the Bittersweet Chocolate Tarte with port. Unfortunately, the cooking classes are no longer offered, but the spirit lives on in her cookbook.

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


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.

Akaroa, NZ

Akaroa Bay
Akaroa Bay

A scenic one hour drive from Christchurch, Akaroa is a quaint little fishing village located on the southern side of Bank Peninsula. Akaroa sits at the edge of a beautiful harbor inside the eroded crater of a huge extinct volcano. Originally a French settlement, the streets have French names and local restaurants focus on French cuisine. The French settlers who arrived to establish the town in 1840 thought they were the first colonists of a new French territory, however the Treaty of Waitangi was signed just days before they arrived, which gave Britain sovereignty over the whole of New Zealand.

Donkeys in Akaroa, NZ
Donkeys along the road outside Akaroa, NZ

We arrived in Akaroa amid a downpour, so Jay decided to keep driving beyond the town to give the clouds time to pass by. That’s when we came upon these two donkeys huddling in their shelter to avoid the rain. Later in town Jay learned that the larger donkey on the right had lost his good buddy – a goat, and had been despairing, so his family had gotten a second donkey to keep him company. Ahhh.

Due to the wet weather we did a quick walk around town, and began the trek back to Christchurch. Another recommendation was to stop at the Little River Art Gallery. This was easy as they are along the Main Road SH 75, the road to Akaroa, and their building stands out as a contemporary structure in a very rural setting.

Little River Cafe and Art Gallery, Little River, NZ
Little River Cafe and Art Gallery, Little River, NZ

The Little River Art Gallery was impressive, showing the work of top quality New Zealand artists. Sculpture, paintings, pottery, jewelry were on display. There is also a lovely cafe attached and there we discovered friands. Tasty little almond meal cakes originally from France. The server suggested we try the Blueberry Lemon Friand which was gluten-free. Here is a recipe:

Blueberry Lemon Friands

10 TBSP butter
2 cups confectionary sugar
1/4 cup gluten-free all purpose flour or regular
1 1/2 cups almond meal
6 egg whites
2/3 cup blueberries
2 tsp. lemon juice

Preheat oven to 425° with convection. Grease 12 1/2-cup capacity friand pans or muffin holes.

Melt butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Simmer, swirling pan occasionally, for 4 to 5 minutes or until light golden. Remove from heat. Set aside for 15 minutes to cool.

Sift confectionary sugar and flour into a large bowl. Stir in almond meal. Make a well in the centre. Gradually add lightly beaten eggwhites, folding in until combined. Add butter and fold in until well combined. Stir in berries. Fill friand pans with mixture, about 3/4 full.

Bake friands for 5 minutes. Reduce oven to 375° convection and bake for 8-10 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Allow to cool in pans for 10 minutes. Turn onto a wire rack to cool completely. Dust with icing sugar. Serve.