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The glass garden at (Dale) Chihuly’s Garden and Glass Museum in Seattle, WA. All photos by Karen Kuzsel

The glass garden at (Dale) Chihuly’s Garden and Glass Museum in Seattle, WA. All photos by Karen Kuzsel

The best of intentions can go awry.

Maybe that’s why restaurants over-complicate recipes or hotels focus on the décor and not on guest services. I had the best of intentions to immediately follow up my blog story HOLY C.O.W! (The Wines of California, Oregon and Washington), published in September, with reviews of where to go, where to eat, and where to stay in those same states. Time slipped past like the shadow of an eclipsing moon. So, come into the light with me as I finally shine a spotlight on what places and activities are worth doing, and which ones you may want to forego.

Here’s the itinerary we followed. Russ and I began our trip in Seattle, WA, then moved on to Portland, OR before connecting with friends and family in Bend OR, Jacksonville OR, and then Oakland CA.

SEATTLE, WA

Renaissance Hotel downtown Seattle: Great location. Easy walking distance to many of the city’s main attractions. First impressions: dreary dark colors of burnt orange and muddy brown, especially for a lobby that had just been refurbished. We stayed in room 2308. Musty odor. Called for maintenance to get the AC running or to at least get the air in the room circulating to eliminate the stuffiness. Bottle water in room part of amenity. We had just travelled many hours and needed that water, but there wasn’t any. Both times calls to housekeeping brought prompt service but it wasn’t an auspicious beginning. When Russ made the reservation months earlier, he’d requested a king sized bed. We received two doubles. Guestroom outdated. Towels and toilet paper were both rough. Not what you’d expect in a high-rated hotel. There was only one mirror and it was in the bathroom so both of us couldn’t get ready at same time. Nor was there a makeup mirror. There were comfy robes and slippers. I wish our impression of the hotel was as strong as we viewed their excellent staff and service.

Our first morning, we dined at the full service restaurant. Extensive buffet for $20. Perfectly-brewed Starbucks Café de Verona coffee. Only took one bite of the scrambled eggs to know they were egg beaters, an artificial taste I deplore. Mentioned it to a staff member and the cook made me real eggs. Was surprised and delighted at that service.

Restaurants

Rock Bottom. Our first visit to this chain, not knowing then it was a chain. Russ ate a huge handcrafted Angus beef juicy burger, fries and a flight of six beers. His favorite was the summer ale. I had two large (and stuffed) shrimp and lobster tacos with Cajun remoulade, cilantro lime rice and black beans. Glad I’d ordered a grapefruit margarita because the crisp tang of the sauza reposado tequila, St. Germaine elderflower and fresh grapefruit with lime juice cooled down my palate from the unexpected heat of the rice. Interesting way of serving the tacos. They had two shells atop one another; one dark and crunchy and one light and soft. Atmosphere casual and loud from piped-in music. Odd location for bathrooms. You have to leave the restaurant and walk down the second floor hallway. No signage and nothing or no one to tell you that you also need a key for entry. Try finding your server in a crowded restaurant when you’re in immediate need.

Pike Place Chowder Company is famed for its New England clam chowder. Russ eats no shellfish and little fish, but my man does love his New England clam chowder. After reading all the tourist guides and websites about Seattle, he’d highlighted this place in yellow as an absolute must. Good thing for them I wasn’t in charge of the ratings. It’s actually a teeny place serving fish roll sandwiches, various chowders in or outside of a bread bowl, and not much else. We stood in line for about half an hour before ordering two bread bowls of the clam chowder. I was going to order a mix of fish chowder, but Russ wasn’t going to share more than a spoonful of his, so I went with the reputed award winner. We snagged a couple of seats (not an easy task) and spooned our soup. Russ thought it had a “sweet” taste not to his liking. We both thought the chowder good, but certainly not worth the hype or half hour wait. We’ve had much better in many other restaurants.

Frolik in the Motif Hotel is a trendy rooftop bar that our server at Rock Bottom highly suggested we try for cocktails and tapas. The food was innovative and delicious. I had duck confit tacos. Three mini tacos were double-wrapped in soft shells (is double-wrapping a Seattle food trend?) and contained pickled shallot, lime crème fraiche, wasabi-nori crunch and cilantro. I also ate a lovely fig salad, with ½-cut figs, honey, ricotta, shaved roasted carrots, radish, greens and chamomile vinaigrette. Russ enjoyed braised pork belly plated like quesadillas. Came with a sesame-soy dipping sauce. We drank and shared two handcrafted cocktails, the retro recipes derived from former hotels’ mixologists. Seelbach Hotel’s 1917 cocktail contained bourbon, cointreau, angostura, peychauds bitters and a touch of the bubbly. I liked this one best. Russ preferred the Vieux Carre’ drink from Hotel Monteleleone. The 1930s era cocktail included rye, Hennessy, Benedictine, sweet vermouth, and bitters.

Prime Pizza was Russ’ idea of necessary comfort food. We stumbled upon the small neighborhood eatery surrounded by apartments by wandering 10 minutes away from The Renaissance, convinced there had to be a family-owned restaurant somewhere in the vicinity. Prime Pizza is set inside a former hotel lobby. The décor, preserved woods, moldings and a large chandelier are holdovers from that time. The pizza crust was a soft pillow supporting fresh ingredients. The taste and texture hit all the right notes.

We found Specialty’s Bakery on our return walk from Prime Pizza. The big sign promoting Peets’ coffee and fresh baked goods for breakfast was enticing. The fact that it was literally across the highway from our hotel was the motivation to get us going the next morning. I would recommend this chain bakery in a heartbeat. The coffee was Major Dickison (our favorite Peets label), the breakfast selections tasty, fresh and inexpensive. I had a Greek yogurt and fruit parfait and a small cheesy quiche. Russ’ sausage, cheese and real egg sandwich was so huge that even he couldn’t finish it.

Attractions

Rode the monorail to Seattle Center, home base for the famous Space Needle, multiple museums, and a park area. Cost for the monorail: $2 roundtrip for seniors; $4 for others. We didn’t buy a City Pass because we weren’t going to visit all the attractions. Seattle Center was awash that day in the festive air that only masses of school and camp groups of youths can provide against a backdrop of blue skies and breezy air. The Space Needle is a landmark and yes, you can gaze 360 across Seattle, but next to the views from the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building, it was a bit of a letdown.

Float boat in the Chihuly Garden & Glass Museum.

Float boat in the Chihuly Garden & Glass Museum.

(Dale) Chihuly’s Garden and Glass Museum is nothing less than a breathtaking explosion of colorful artistry. We had been at the opening of Chihuly’s glass museum in St. Petersburg, FL but the Seattle facility is larger, more diverse because it has indoor and outdoor components, and because many of the exhibits are interactive. Like the St. Petersburg gallery, this one features an Ikebana and Float Boats exhibit. The stunning contrast of vivid colors against the dark room is stunning. New is the Glasshouse, a 40-ft tall glass and steel structure resembling a conservatory. A 100-ft long suspended sculpture of bright orange and yellow glass flowers hang from twisted glass vines. Stepping into the garden is how I would imagine Dorothy felt when she first entered Oz. The vivid hues of flowers, sectioned by colors of bright red, blues, purples and others, were “embedded” in green grass and abutting oversized boulders of patterned glass. A giant tree of sun-rich yellow glass blooms offsets the peaked arch of the conservatory.

Next door, the intricately sloped, domed, and trademarked unpredictable rooftop that earmarks a Frank Gehry design, beckoned. Sunlight reflected from the purple walled coating that sparkled orchid next to sections of orange and chrome exterior walls of the EMP Museum. I grew up visiting museums thanks to parents who believed education was best learned when felt, but I have never been in a museum like this. This was hands-on to an unprecedented level.

There are three levels of experiences, ranging from animation to a sound lab to a floor featuring original costuming, film clips and props, and games from Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. Areas are as themed as the exhibits contained within, whether honoring sci-fi’s Star Wars or horror movies. In one fantasy area, a giant dragon’s body wrapped up and around the ceiling and jail cells niched into the walls, as if the dragon were imprisoned. The area is designed for kids to crawl through short tunnels to feel as if they are sneaking up on the scaly monster to peer into his beady red eyes.

One section was devoted to all-things Nirvana, the Seattle-based grunge band who skyrocketed to fame and created a new sound for rock music. I could have easily stayed in the Jimi Hendrix room, dancing and swaying to clips from his too-brief career. There he was on the oversized screen, with his stylized fringed and tie dyed outfits, head-banded afro, and dancing fingers blazing discordant riffs on his guitar. At least I got to watch his immortalized rendition of the Star Spangled Banner played like no one has since, from his concert at Woodstock. On the third level, there’s a large-scale video wall. The audience selectss the songs to play across the width of this massive hall.

We rode the monorail back to downtown Seattle and walked to Pike Place Market, home to the original Starbucks, which we could barely see from the outside for all the people taking photos of the exterior.

Place Market is a crossbreed of farmer, flea and boutique markets. Raucous. Crowded. Energized. Found the fish “store” regaled for the fish monger who tosses large whole fish at customers as part of their marketing gimmick. You could feel the anticipation from a crowd waiting for action we never saw occur. The market contains numerous restaurants, and many booths of tacky clothes, jewelry and cheap purses. Competition was especially heavy among the flower shops, which may be the reason gorgeous bouquets of varietals I’ve never before seen sold for only $10. I sampled six types of hazelnuts (who knew there were so many types?) and passed on candy or buying displayed produce. We browsed the entire market and bought nothing. I’d have bought a bouquet if I wasn’t in tourist transit.

Tired from all our walking, we decided riding the ferry to Bainbridge would be restorative. The half-hour journey was a mere $4 each, roundtrip. Our last ferry experience, going from Victoria Island back to Vancouver, had been such a negative one, that we thought this might be the cure to erase that memory. (If you didn’t read about that adventure and wish to, read my blog MISINFORMED BY THE VANCOUVER VISITORS CENTRE & CANADIAN GUIDEBOOKS NEARLY RUINED OUR LONG-AWAITED VACATION– AND HOW WHAT THEY DON’T TELL YOU CAN BE AS DAMAGING)

Noi in Bend, OR is one of the most decorative Thai Restaurants I've been in.

Noi in Bend, OR is one of the most decorative Thai Restaurants I’ve been in.

We settled onto our bench, set my wine and his beer on the table, and watched the glassy water ease by. Once ashore, we realized too late that Bainbridge is tinier and a farther walk than we’d been led to believe. When we stopped locals to ask if shops and restaurants would merit the walk, we were told there isn’t much there other than mediocre restaurants. Dejectedly, we returned to the ferry only to miss boarding by seconds. Literally, the gate was pulled shut in front of my face. Next ferry was 45 minutes later, so we sat around and waited, only to have it run then 35 minutes late. Our luck with ferries is on a downward spiral.

Hint: if walking to the ferry from Seattle downtown, walk down Marion. We took Madison, a mistake as it’s more circuitous. Marion is a direct overpass to the ferry, cutting down the walking and it takes you directly alongside the ferry terminal. Hint Two: don’t take the 5:30 pm ferry to Bainbridge on a work night. We watched it unload and I’ll bet there wasn’t a spare seat to be had, whereas the trip we took over and back had loads of room to sit.

PORTLAND, OR

Our three-night stay at the Portland Marriott Downtown Waterfront had only one thing in common with Seattle’s Renaissance; both hotels are centrally located to the city core. Our room offered a great view of the Willamette River. The colors, layout, and décor are warmly refined. A semi-natural theme of wood circles hangs on lobby walls and in guestrooms. Rich reds are mixed with earthen browns and greys in wall coverings and the modern but comfy furniture. A median of empty wine bottles buffers the dining area from a walkway. The bed in our room was super comfy. Towels were soft, as was the toilet paper. Both issues only important when neither is soft. The AC keeps the room comfortably cool.

Best of all was the breakfast buffet that was part of our package. A pot of hardy Starbucks Café de Verona sat on our table. The buffet included an oatmeal station with several kinds of nuts, chia seeds, goji berries, and dried fruits. There were at least six kinds of scones, plus many varieties of breads and muffins that looked bakery-fresh. Russ loved the taste and Italian-sausage texture of their fat breakfast sausage links. There was bin after bin of fresh fruits and a made-to-order omelet station. I have to applaud the hotel for retaining the frail, hard-of-hearing elderly man who cooked those omelet to perfection. I heard people in line saying his presence and omelets are the reasons they buy the buffet. There were make-your-own waffles and many unique mixtures of syrups and butters, including one rich with ground hazelnuts. Russ says the hotel’s city map is one of the best he’s seen and they kindly offer to highlight the places you want to visit.

Restaurants

We feasted at Karam, a Lebanese-Syrian restaurant whose enticing aromas and traditional menu drew us inside. I had a meat mezza (small plates) combo for $16 that could have easily fed both Russ and me. Everything was rich in spice and flavor, from the hummus, baba ghannouj, falafel to the grape leaves, kufta kabob and chicken schwarma. Russ had an enormous portion of kibbe and rice dish, the cream of the yogurt sauce savory and rich.

Tired from exploring the city on foot all day, we decided to take advantage of free beer and appetizer samples offered by the hotel’s Truss Lounge & Bistro as part of the incentive for staying there during Beer Fest. We munched on the Chef’s selections of crispy wings with cilantro garlic sauce; a beef slider with smoked blue cheese and roasted tomato; local cheese with blackberry; and house spiced chips with smoked paprika, accompanied by white bean roasted onion dip. The appetizers were so wonderful that we returned for dinner the next night. I enjoyed at least an 8-oz portion of Grilled Pacific Salmon, Oregon chick peas, kernel corn, roast cauliflower, wilted cress, pea tendrils, and hazelnut pesto. The entire plate of food was so delicious I had to make myself stop eating past the point of already feeling full. Russ ordered the PDX Street Tacos, with house guacamole, farmer’s salt cheese, cilantro, mojo onions, and jalapeno. The tacos could have been filled with either salmon or pulled pork.

Russ discovered a great fondness for Miller Pond, one of the beer samples, so when we saw a restaurant/bar called Deschutes Beer (which brews Miller Pond, we had to pop in. Crowded, energized and friendly restaurant. We asked to share a high top and ended up talking and laughing with the couple for the next four hours.

Attractions

Coincident to our visit, Portland’s Beer Fest was in full swing, just two blocks walk from our hotel. The weather was ideal for an outdoor event: blue skies, warm, with low humidity. I’m not a beer drinker, but even Russ balked at joining the hundreds of people queued in front of at least that many represented breweries for a sample-sized glass.

I’m in awe of Portland’s army of food trucks, many permanently affixed across city blocks. I’m not typically a fan of food truck fare, but Portland made me see things through different eyes. Though we only bought one empanada from a Columbian purveyor, we watched it being prepared and was delivered piping hot and stuffed with spicy beef. As we strolled the city, even past midnight (without any qualms for safety), we saw food truck vendors heaping plates of foods representing cultures from across the globe to eager customers.

Shopping is something we do little of when exploring new places. His idea, not mine. This time though, he had a destination in mind; to see in person a Padrino fountain pen he’d seen in magazines. The only place that carried it was Paradise Pen Store inside the Pioneer Place, a shopper’s mecca. The yellow-and-black swirly pen now resides with his growing collection of fountain pens.

Our one rainy morning didn’t detour us from browsing Powell’s Bookstore, billed as one of the largest book shops in the country. Ready for a snack, we walked to Voodoo Donut, another tourist recommended favorite. We looked at the curving line that would have done a theme park attraction proud, and decided that standing in a minimum half-hour line in the pouring rain even when umbrella-protected (unlike 99% of the crowd), did not seem worth it to buy a donut. Walked instead to the Portland Saturday market. Several of the vendors seemed puzzled by the rain, telling us it never rains this time of year.

Paintings adorn alley walkways throughout Bend, OR downtown

Paintings adorn alley walkways throughout Bend, OR downtown

Bend, OR

The drive to Bend, new home to Russ’ brother Randy and our dear sister-in-law Cher, is supposed to be 3-1/2 hours. Note: it might be 3-1/2 hours when you drive on major highways, but not when taking scenic mountain roads in order to hit a few tourist attractions during high tourist season, even if on a weekday. The trip grinded to eight hours.

RESTAURANTS

If the food at Thai restaurant Noi was half as good as the place was gorgeous, I’d still be salivating. We all enjoyed the delicate broth with a smattering of veggied that came with our lunch. I ordered Pad Thai, a dish I’ve eaten many times in many restaurants across this country. Far from the delicate layered balance of chicken, noodles, peanuts and veggies, this one looked and tasted like gooey red sauce saturating gooey noodles and miniscule bites of chicken. Maybe it was an off-day for the Chef. Aside from the food, this has to be one of the most ornate Thai restaurants I’ve ever seen. Low-hanging interesting lamps cast soft glows. Carved woods and paintings adorning the walls lends an aura of Asian mystery and drama.

ATTRACTIONS

We tried to break up the drive from Portland with stops at Multnomah Falls or any of the other landmarked six waterfalls that are supposed to be just a 30-minute drive away. Multnomah Falls is described in guidebooks as a breathtaking 611-foot tall roaring cascade of icy water. Limited parking along the two-lane road and traffic backed up as far as one could inch along, made stopping an impossibility. People tried parallel parking or waiting for someone to leave, and in their wake I could sense impending cases of road rage from the honking horns and pumped fists.

View from Vista Point in OR, on the highway from Portland to Bend

View from Vista Point in OR, on the highway from Portland to Bend

We did stop at a beautiful three-story marble building called Vista Point, dedicated to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s conservation efforts. Even with tourist buses, bicycling clubs and other tourists, there were still parking places and a real bathroom. Yay! The views from the top floor decking were spectacular and the free mini-museum of the area’s history were a bonus!

Randy suggested we visit The Lodge before reaching Bend. Although not just off the highway as we’d been told, the long and winding road brought us to a preserved lodge built in the early 1900’s. Suddenly, the shorts and top I’d been wearing on the drive from miid-80s weather in Portland didn’t seem like such a great idea. It was a brisk 40 degrees and breezy up that high. We encountered skiers and snowboarders bundled in parkas, face masks and carrying their gear from further up the mountain than we were traipsing. We were anxious to get to Bend, but I can picture the Lodge’s roaring fires, cozy bars, dark wooden furniture and mini-museum real pluses during the winter.

Ran and Cher escaped to Bend after two horrendous winters in Massachusetts. They’d only moved the week before, so they were getting acquainted with Bend along with us. They’d researched this city extensively through previous visits. Then, during, and even later, whenever Bend is brought up in conversation, none of us has heard anyone say a negative word. We’ve heard it’s one of the most friendly, progressive, and healthy environs in the country. We saw nothing to alter that impression.

Cher and I took an hour-plus walk around their new neighborhood. Jetties and boulders by the lakes seem almost deliberately places. The city has created areas created to encourage outdoor activities for families. We are greeted frequently with smilers from other strollers. When the guys left to take a free Deschutes Brewery tour (home base for the brewery), Cher and I browsed the quaint downtown. I found the pear-hazelnut jam that Chateau Ste. Michelle had been out of. There are sculptures placed in strategic areas and paintings from local artists hang from alley-styled walkways.

JACKSONVILLE, OR

We left Bend for Jacksonville, OR, a small city of 2.500 on the outskirts of Medford, where our friends Allison and Brooke live. Jacksonville looks like a preserved Western town created for TV and movies. Charming and walkable, with quaint boutiques and family-owned restaurants lining the sidewalks of downtown. As we walked 10 minutes into downtown, Allison pointed out the looping route that deer daily take through streets and backyards, including theirs. We actually saw a number of deer on our stroll.

RESTAURANTS

We landed at La Fiesta’s for margaritas, guacamole, chips, salsa and bean dip. The guys ordered large margaritas, not knowing the $25 glass is the size of a fishbowl. It was twice the size of the ones Allison and I ordered. Neither of us finished ours. They left not a drop. Everything is big and bold in this family owned restaurant. It’s crammed with Mexican tschakies, wooden parrots, hanging lanterns, and vibrant red and green accessories. Even the bean dip’s size astounded us. It arrived in a super-sized cereal bowl. We bet we’d never eat all of that, in addition to the yummy guacamole and chips and salsa we devoured as appetizers to the dinner waiting for us at Brooke and Allison’s home… but we did.

The city shops close at 5 during the week, but even at that time, it was still 106 out. Jacksonville hosts a three-week music festival each summer. We just missed being able to participate and didn’t make it to any of the area wineries, but maybe next year when we can plan a longer visit.

Walked into town for breakfast at what is called a sweet shop, but was more akin to a small café. They have the strangest looking, gigantic “bagels” I’ve ever seen. Hmmm. I seem to be finding many dishes that are unlike any I’ve had or seen. Always up for trying what’s new and locally sourced, thank goodness! Russ ordered biscuits & gravy. The plate was filled to brimming with four enormous biscuits smothered in gravy for $6. All of us snacked on it and we still didn’t wipe it out. I ordered a slice of apple-walnut bread. Good, but the most interesting part was that they charged 10 cents for a tab of butter and $1 for a single serving of cream cheese. I still had to warm it up in the microwave myself.

The weather was climbing to 108. Was glad we were heading to Oakland, CA where it would be cooler. Allison said the trip was about five to six hours drive. Maybe it would have been if we hadn’t been stuck on the freeway for a cop shooting that had occurred early that morning. All I can say is. we were grateful for packed snacks and bottles of water.

OAKLAND, CA

RESTAURANTS

Liberty duck Breast, duck leg confit and other yummies at Bellanico in downtown Oakland, CA

Liberty duck Breast, duck leg confit and other yummies at Bellanico in downtown Oakland, CA

My daughter, Gabrielle, lives in Oakland. Over the years, one thing has become quite apparent: we will always eat extremely well (whether cooking together or dining out) and we will always have great wine. This all-too-brief visit was no exception.

She took us to Bellanico, in downtown Oakland. We ordered many tapas dishes, beginning with Gabrielle’s strong recommendation of Swiss Chard Malfatti.The four dumplings were stuffed with chard and browned in butter, sage and Grana Padano. The $16 price tag seemed steep for four dumplings until we tasted them and realized how labor-intensive this delicate appetizer actually was. Gabrielle and I shared a couple dishes. Liberty Duck Breast included duck leg confit, Rogusa squash sformato, red endive, pear, baby fennel, and grilled red onions. We feasted on Chioggia beets, Taggiasca olives, figs and pumpkin gnocchi. All were fabulous. Russ had a grass-fed steak. He liked the preparation, just not the texture, which has always been the case when he has eaten California-requisite grass-fed meat. After all, he did grow up on Iowa beef.

Our last meal of this trip is at the San Francisco Airport. We choose Boudin’s after watching the food delivered to others. We each ordered the half-sandwich and soup combo. I had a wonderfully thick, chunky tomato bisque and sandwich of turkey, Havarti cheese and avocado. The flavors melded beautifully and went down easily. Russ said the New England clam chowder was better than what we had at Pike’s Place Chowder. Go figure.

And before you ask; no, I didn’t gain weight on this trip, though I was somewhat concerned about it. Guess all our walking worked it off.

Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries. She is a Contributing Editor-Writer for Prevue Magazine and is an active member of ISES and MPI and is now serving on the 2015 – 2016 MPI Global advisory Board for The Meeting Professional Magazine. Karen writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, she has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events. karenkuzsel@earthlink.net; www.ThePsychicLady.com; @karenkuzsel; @thepsychiclady.

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