Far Rockaway (Oregon)

Rockaway Beach

Dogs have given us their absolute all. We are the center of their universe. We are the focus of their love and faith and trust. They serve us in return for scraps. It is without a doubt the best deal man has ever made. ~Roger Caras

When we started this process of closing up our company and moving to Seattle, there were so many setbacks and so much starting and stopping that I said to Matt we either needed to get me a dog or I was going to take off and go travelling for a while. In many ways, I think I should have done that – made my way slowly down the spine of the Andes or across India because now that we have a dog (and jobs, and soon a house) those kinds of trips have become even harder to fathom. But we did get a dog and there aren’t many days that go by where I don’t think that she is the absolute best thing ever.

Riley

She is never very far away from me, both in terms of love and an innate need to protect me; she is always happy to see me whether I’ve been away for a weekend or just to take out the trash, she curls up on my feet when we’re at home, and we have been on so many adventures together. It’s gotten to the point where her joy is so infectious that I want to get up early and spend my Saturdays taking her hiking, or camping, or swimming, or just for ice cream, because I have so much fun by proxy.

Oregon Coast

So when we were deciding where we should go for a weekend away, I suggested we go to the Oregon Coast so that Riley could run around on the beach. Because the beaches in Oregon are massive and they are all dog friendly.

Rockaway Beach

We armed ourselves with audiobooks and crossword puzzles for the drive to Rockaway, and Riley entertained herself by sticking her head out the window and letting her jowls flap around like laundry on a line and soon enough we were pulling into one of the hundreds of bare-bones seaside motels that road-trippers, parents, motorcyclists, and dog-owners adore.

Riley

The rest of the day was spent running up and down the beach, inspecting the bottle-blue jellies strewn across the coastline, finding all the best sticks and drinking Sofia Coppola minis until the sun set and our dog was drunk on adventure. So much fun! I can’t wait to go back.

Rockaway Beach

The Season to Be Sparkly

bokeh

Well, it’s been quite a year. The last time I wrote a holiday letter / year in review was at the end of 2011 and it started like this:

“Yowza, it has been a year. We travelled to Toronto, Montreal, Paris, San Francisco, Salmon Arm, Mexico, Whistler, Camrose Alberta, Lummi Island and a few more places I’m forgetting, we got married, we got matching Ducati motorcycles, we started working together full time at the technology company we started last year (Adience Solutions Inc.), and blew that out of the water. It’s been very busy but we’ve sure had a lot of adventures.”

2012 was quiet in comparison – the bit of calm sandwiched in between adventure and change – because in 2013 we travelled to the Bahamas, Kiev, Prague, Hawaii, Salmon Arm, Quadra Island, and Whistler. Matt got a job with Amazon and we went to Seattle a couple of times together but he’s been down at least a dozen more on his own too. Then we decided to move to Seattle and got all ready for that big change, only to postpone it until next June. I applied to, got accepted for, and then deferred my acceptance into the Masters in Digital Media program. We closed our company. We got a dog. I took the summer off to figure out what I was going to do and spent days hanging out in dog parks and hiking and diving and making art while Matt went to Seattle again and again.

Gastown

Together we rode curvy Highway 20 to Osoyoos on our motorcycles and learned to sail. I also earned PADI diving specialty certifications in wreck diving, deep diving, boat diving and shark conservation. Matt and I dove with manta rays, turtles, hammerheads and sharks in warm water and  I saw so many orcas that it almost became expected. I dove with friends in Nanaimo and Barkley Sound and Port Hardy – three corners of the Vancouver Island dive diamond – and unfortunately missed the fourth to Victoria / Race Rocks but I did dive the Skookumchuck rapids in Sechelt Inlet which was quite an experience.

Gastown

We’ve already been up to Whistler this winter – we made it for the opening day on 7th Heaven for the second year in a row – and in spite of all the dive trips I did this year, the local diving season is really just getting underway. In terms of creative endeavours, I attended an incredible art workshop with Nick Bantock as well as with my regular teacher and mentor Jeanne Krabbendam, and learned many new things in terms of both perspective and technique. I started writing a book – a sort of memoir with recipes – that may never be finished but that is fun to work on in any case, and have continued occasionally updating SmokySweet.com. I’ve been cooking and baking a lot too, as well as attempting many food-related projects. Sourdough and jam are currently back in rotation now that the Christmas baking is done.

There’s no other way to write it other than as an incredible list of adventures. We keep a Jar of Awesomeness on our counter that we put moments into as they happen to pull out and read on New Year’s Eve. I can’t believe how much we’ve done this year but I know there are lots in there that I’ve forgotten too.

jar of awesomeness

Now it’s winter and dark from 4 PM until 8 AM. The crows have started to fill the alley and the square around Gassy Jack when I’m walking the dog in the morning dark and their cawing fills an otherwise quiet Gastown. The year has turned in on itself, bookended by these immense blocks of night, but it is also getting close to the holidays and the city has picked up a bit of an anticipatory bustle. On Water Street the storefronts are all dressed up in their finest and people are rushing here and there, dipping in and out of the dark and light patches made by the windows and lights. I was looking outside just now as the streetlights came on and with the huge tree outside our window also decked out in white lights, the street feels sparkly and festive and a little bit magical. There are Christmas trees visible in several apartment windows across the street but those lights will come on a bit later when people get home from work.  It’s snowing today for the second time this month (unusual for us this early) and I love seeing the city (nevermind the mountains) covered.

Gastown

We’re not normally big on Christmas but we wanted a quiet one this year and ended up actually having no plans at all. Surprisingly, that has brought out the Christmas spirit in me. I’ve been cooking and baking and even listening to a little Christmas music. Next week is Matt’s birthday just before the holidays and we have plans to go to see the lights at the Capilano suspension bridge and VanDusen Botanical Gardens. Hopefully, we will also go to the German Christmas market tonight but in between, I will be quite content to curl up and enjoy the quiet. I will be bringing out the sparkles for New Year’s, but we’ll keep that pretty low-key too.

After any year like this, we have some work to do to bring things into balance – work on our budget, work on getting me a job, work on communication and balance, work on working out…but in spite of planning to keep 2014 low-key, I don’t see how it can be…I’ll have a new job, a new career, a new country, a new dive shop, a new set of friends…and I’m not sure if Matt will be more or less busy if he’s in Seattle full time. But if I set my sights only on accomplishing those with some kind of grace and not add in too many stretch goals then I just might be able to pull it off.

Happy holidays to you if you celebrate them. Enjoy the sparkle.

And here are some beautiful words to bring in 2014:

“May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and don’t forget to make some art — write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something. So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life. Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it. Make your mistakes, next year and forever.”

– Neil Gaiman

lights

What I’m Reading and Listening to this month:

Spain (Revisited)

Walterses

Travelling through Europe, taking photos of doors and writing in cafes has made me think a lot about our trip through Spain last year (May 2012). We had such a good time, hanging out in Barcelona for a week before heading up to Girona and eating the dinner of our lives at El Celler de Can Roca and then motorcycling around the country through France to Andorra, then Madrid, Cordoba, Seville, Jerez, Gibraltar, Ronda, Granada, Costa del Sol, Valencia and back to Barcelona again. That was before I had a place to keep travel notes and the like, so they’ve been floundering around in my phone and – for lack of a better idea – I’m just going to post them here, largely unedited.

Gaudi

12-05-03 – 12-05-09 (Barcelona)

Coming from the airport we passed a hillside graveyard and fields and the general unused land around airports, but then the landscape closed in tighter and tighter as we got into Barcelona and then into Barri Gòtic – the Gothic quarter or Old town where what used to be paths hundreds of years ago has now been cemented into streets by years and stone. The taxi driver tried to tell us where our hotel was (we were not in front of it) but not understanding any of his Catalan dialect, he shrugged and pulled the mirrors in and then drove us to it down an impossibly small street.

Barri Gothic

The lock was broken so we called the landlord and waited a while but then the locksmiths broke the spare lock that they brought with them so finally we left them to it and went out to dinner. We were tired so we choose poorly and ended up at something too touristy close to La Rambla (the main street, a wide promenade full of shops and tourists) but it gave us an idea of what to expect.

Sagrada Familia

I loved wandering the labyrinthian neighbourhood, navigating to our street using graffiti on closed security doors and public art in seemingly out of the way squares, and passing jamón shops with legs of ham hanging in windows every 50 metres. On the first day, we walked to see Gaudi’s masterpiece basilica, the Sagrada Familia (above) and passed three of his other works – Casa Mila, Casa Amatller, and Casa Batlló. On the way back we passed a restaurant I wanted to check out – Tapas 24 – and we ate pa amb tomate and jamón, croquettes and the best dessert I’ve had in a long time – rolls of chocolate ganache topped with sea salt and olive oil. 

We found a cava bar we liked in El Born (the trendy restaurant district near us) called Xampanyet and ended up going there 2 more times, we visited the Boqueria market twice and ate at the Bar Pinotxo. I had made both lunch and dinner reservations at Tickets, planning to cancel one of them, but we ate there twice too and tried everything on the menu.

And so our first week in Spain passed this way, feeling easy and comfortable, being amazed at how small and compact and beautiful it was but happy to already have favourites and a familiar routine.

Motorcycles

12-05-10 (Barcelona / Girona)

When I first told Matt I wanted to eat at El Celler de Can Roca I explained that it was in Girona, a couple of hours north of Barcelona and he said no problem, he would sort out how to get us there. I assumed there would be a bus or maybe a train but a couple of weeks later he had rented us some motorcycles – a BMW R1200GS for him and a BMW F800ST for me – and planned a little romp around the countryside. Because he likes driving and I like seeing things, it turned into the epic adventure that follows but our first leg was pretty short – we picked up the bikes and drove to Girona, checked into our hotel and ordered some surprise dishes off the entirely Catalan menu, and then I went to bed because we had spent a little too long at the mezcal bar the night before and I wanted to be in good shape for dinner.

El Cellar de Can Roca

The evening at El Celler de Can Roca was the best experience I have ever had in a restaurant. Everything was perfect. Afterwards, we met the chef and he thanked me for my sensitivity – what I had called “our gushing” about how good everything was.

Cadaques

12-05-11 (Girona/ Cadaques /France / Andorra)

The next day was a long one. We wanted to ride through the Pyrenees and we had seen on Google Maps that the road through Andorra was a good one. But to get there we first needed to go north along the coast and then through France. A small town (Orriol maybe?) smelled so fantastically like cheese it made me grin, and later a low-flying plane crossed over the road above us to land in a field which was delightful. It can be a bit lonely riding a motorcycle because even when you’re riding with someone you can’t be sure they’re sharing the same experiences, but on the other hand it makes you appreciate the moments a bit more and try to remember them for later.

Roses, the town where El Bulli used to be, was even more strange than Girona. It was tiny and felt somewhat like Osoyoos, with hills and windy roads and dry scrub and heat..not to mention the run-down go-carting place and crazy mini-golf parks. I guess a seaside town is a seaside town is a seaside town.

But that road! We laughed all the way to Cadaques, twisting in and our of beautiful corners, bright yellow broom all over the place (with that particular cellulose smell), catching our first glimpses of the Mediterranean and were still smiling over beers and bacon-cheese sandwiches oceanside when we stopped for lunch. Cadaques is all square white buildings and square blue windows reflecting light off the ocean and Gertrude Stein was right – this is a perfectly cubist village. Cubism was created by Cadaques.

Cadaques

And then we got to ride that road back out again! Aside from a small stretch of boring highway slab in France, the twisties continued all the way to Andorra. We passed a whole bunch of beach towns with intense azure water, a castle with a moat, the vineyards of the Languedoc-Rousillon wine region, several small medieval towns with towers and walls and meadows and orchards, and some beautiful horses grazing as we rode through a river valley. It’s neat to think that these towns would have been about a day’s journey on foot between each other and we just whipped by them.

Andorra

The approach to Andorra looks so much like Bavaria or BC – or like a mountainous region, I suppose – but with stone huts and more horses.  And then suddenly it was all snow and duty-free shops. As soon as we crossed the border, it felt like we were in a mall. But the scenery was pretty glorious, and the road up and down the summit was incredible – the switchbacks were so severe that Matt and I were almost facing each other a couple of times. Andorrans drive like assholes, though, and there were several tracks off into the air so I took it pretty slowly. It’s hard to believe that we went from sea level to glacier on the same day, through 3 countries. By far the best day riding of my life.

By then, I was ready to be off the bike – I was tired and thirsty and headachy, and my shoulders were quite sore from getting used to the ergonomics on the bike. Matt’s back had been bothering him for hours, but we were almost in Andorra la Vella and then there was another small town, and another, and another and then finally we had arrived in town, but there was a river and such a long, drawn-out town you never did see.  Finally, we arrived at the hotel after 14 hours of riding but in going around the block, got ourselves stranded at the top of an incredibly steep, narrow dead end. The road just ended at the top of a hill so steep that Matt had to back into a corner to turn around and I had to ride up on to and off of the sidewalk, through some bollards and around a car while Matt held my bike and I freaked out because I couldn’t touch the ground. It sucked so much, especially to be dealing with it when we were so exhausted, but we got back down the hill without issue, and then almost got into a fight with a horrible Italian man who told Matt, “traffic is not bad, you are stupid!!” after honking at us then driving around us and over the median and reversing through the intersection. We checked in, ate dinner across the street and threw ourselves into sleep.

Leaving the next day, Matt didn’t yield at a courtesy corner, braked too hard and came off his bike. He was ok but we were definitely ready to move on. 

Madrid

12-05-12 (Andorra / Madrid)

Nothing much to report on the journey down the super-slab highway from Andorra to Madrid. It was even more boring than we thought it would be, although there were some bits of interesting scenery (including an area that looked for all the world like Utah…except for the fields of windmills and huge toro silhouettes periodically placed on hillsides. I guess they don’t call it the Sierra Nevada in both counties for nothing). We met an excited truck driver at a gas station near Zaragosa and had quite a long conversation…while actually exchanging very little information. He was a motorcyclist too, and we watched some Moto GP videos of Rossi on his phone.

Arriving in Madrid was busy but sane. Drivers are assertive but logical and there is respect for motorcyclists. The city seems electric with energy. We were surprised that we felt so good after such a long ride and had some energy after a shower, beer and food, so we decided to walk up to the Reina Sofia museum to see Picasso’s Guernica. This is a painting I have been wanting to see for a very long time and so I was full of gratitude and appreciation to be able to see it in person. It’s one that really requires a visit to understand its utter immensity. It’s enormous and the effect of all those layers and textures of wood just does not come through in photos. His ability to convey emotion like that through form is sheer brilliance. I could have sat there for hours.

The museum has several other Dalis, Magrittes, Miros and other famous pieces, and we saw quite a few of them but Matt was getting tired so we didn’t stay too long. We left and found a nice spot overlooking the city where we could rest and have a beer before dinner. The light was amazing and the thing that I already love about this city is that there are almost no tourists. It was nice to hang out with Spaniards and watch the footy game that was happening in a field down below. Later we tried to go out for dinner on the Calle de la Cava Baja – Madrid’s tapas row and we were astounded at how many people were out milling and eating, streaming out of streets like water. We thought there was an event on but it turned out to just be just a regular Saturday night. This city is so alive! Every bar was packed to the gills and we could hear music and people out partying until almost morning. We were in bed early though – 700km and a museum and tapas was enough for one day.

Madrid

12-05-13 (Madrid)

We toured the Prado today. The whole thing. We were not as impressed with Velasquez’s portraits as I had expected, and I’m not a huge fan of Goya but it was good to see the original Las Meninas after seeing so many of Picasso’s studies in Barcelona. Also, I hadn’t realized that there were so many (or any, for that matter) of Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings in Madrid, so it was a real treat to see the Garden of Earthly Delights and 4 others up close… so much crazy detail in those.

We were tired afterwards but decided it would be better to press on and eat instead of napping, so we had a couple of beers and then headed back to the bottom of the Calle de la Cava Baja where we had been the night before, ready to tuck in.

The first place we went was a chain called Toma Jamón that (obviously) had jamóns hanging all over the place and one ready to be sliced sitting on a barrel in the doorway. Gin and tonics seem to be the drink of the moment in Madrid – every bar was promoting them, including our hotel – but I had vermuth again (Matt stuck with beer) and we ordered jamón, pulpo gallego (octopus), and gambas (prawns). I tried to order more but the proprietor waved me off with a laugh and then brought me to the counter to show me the prawns – there was a choice between ones the size of my hand or some that were even larger! He also brought out an order of tomato bread and small but meaty green olives so I worried that we were going to fill up on our first stop. Matt laughed at me for being up to my elbows in prawn but they were so delicious – meaty and flavourful and not like any prawn I’ve had in recent years. We were pretty full by the time we got to the octopus but we didn’t much care for it anyways – it was thinly sliced on top of thinly sliced potatoes and doused in smoky, meaty-tasting paprika. It was fine as a protein but not good enough to warrant eating my beloved octopuses.

Gulas

Bar #2 (TxoTolia Pinoteca Madrileño??) was packed but we squished in and Matt got a table while I ordered drinks and scoped out the tapas. I told Matt that there was one of the best looking ones I had seen so far (a fist-sized bomba with potatoes and mushrooms) and one of the grossest (a pile of tiny grey eels – “gulas” – on toast with a lone slice of red pepper for garnish). He told me to get one of each and I stared at him in disbelief for a moment before running to the counter and ordering before either of us changed our minds. Surprisingly, the eels were even better than the bomba that ended up coming warmed with mushroom gravy or the morcilla sausages wrapped in a fried egg on toast and even the Spaniards were shocked at us – most of them were eating tapas that looked like little cheeseburger sliders.

We were pretty satiated by this point but decided to try one more place, and unfortunately, the one we tried wasn’t great. But we had some anchovies (tasted as expected) and croquettes (tasted of oil), some hazelnut ice cream (delicious) and some terrible service before stumbling home.

Cordoba

12-05-14 (Madrid / Cordoba)

Madrid appears to be surrounded by farmland and the only ways in and out are via massive freeways. This leg to Cordoba was even more boring than the last freeway jaunt but we did see some vineyards and olive groves. It’s pretty cool to be able to smell olive oil in the air.

It is SO hot. I am melting in my leathers. Matt says him too but I look at his canvas jacket that unzips to practically nothing and think that he just has no idea.

We arrived in Cordoba and parked on the sidewalk, peeled the leathers off and left them in a damp pile on the sidewalk. The hotel was nice and we got settled in then decided to go out and see the mosque-cathedral.  Possibly it would have been better to wait until later because even in a summer dress, it was still so hot. We were cranky and sweating before we had even made it all the way across the river.

The mosque-cathedral (way more mosque than cathedral despite the altar in the middle and the various chapels around the perimeter) was stunningly beautiful with its rows of candy-cane arches and forest of pillars.

Seville

12-05-15 (Cordoba / Seville / Jerez)

The agriculture between towns is now predominantly olive groves, (with a few cattle ranches and garlic farms). The air was full of the smell of olives, and Matt smelled sherry too. Sevilla was bigger than we expected and apparently had hosted the Olympics at some point. It’s much cooler than we expected (32 degrees instead of 38, at least for now) and we’re so grateful, but also astounded to see guys walking around in the sun in black suits or a FUR shop! There are orange trees with fruit on the growing everywhere on the streets and beautiful purple flowering trees that I think must be jacarandas. We didn’t have much time in Sevilla, unfortunately, but we headed to Zelai for lunch where we had jamón and manchego cheese (both delicious, but possibly a poor choice to fill up on), patates ali-oli with saffron, tuna tataki and croquettes. For dessert, we had a PB & jam pudding with a chocolate top that was also delicious. Simply prepared, for the most part, but it was some of the best food we’ve had in Spain. Driving out of Sevilla I was so distracted by the incredibly beautiful architecture and wished we were able to stay longer to explore. Gorgeous palace after bull ring after manor houses…even the tourist information booth was in a beautiful building. I often say I want to return to places to see more but Sevilla is high on the list.

Andalusia

Back in the open countryside, we passed several castles. We seem to be in the part of Spain (mountainous but near enough to the coast) that has one on every hilltop. The heat was rising continuously and out in the open fields, bugs were sticking to the bikes.  We stopped in Arcos de la Frontera but we were cranky and couldn’t find anything other than a local town, so we pressed on, melting.

We had made reservations at the Sherry Park hotel which cracked me up for its Britishness, but it is apparently the best-rated hotel in Jerez. We must have looked sunburnt, sweaty and miserable (never how we must have smelled!) because the clerk, Kino (who turned out to be awesome) joked with us that riding a moto in this weather, with this gear, is more like riding a sauna with wheels. So true. I would have laughed but all I could manage was a weak smile. In the room we cranked the AC and drank 2 beers and 2 waters each before hopping in a cool shower. When we felt human again we went down the tho pool and I ordered some fino sherry (Tio Mateo). Our new friend, Kino, had recommended a little walk into town so we could get some photos and sample some Jerez cuisine – and sherry of course).

Jerez

We hadn’t expected much of Jerez, just a place to sleep and maybe some sherry but we ended up falling in love with it. It has such a character all its own and I can’t help but think that that’s what Barcelona was to be like before all the tourists arrived. The first place we stopped was called Tabanco Plateros and I ordered a palo cortado sherry (which Matt admitted to liking although he still ordered beer for himself) and some delicious fresh cheese – payoyo, I think it was called – with morcilla. The morcilla was hella oily but the flavour was excellent. Same with the plate of green olives that arrived with the sherry. The place was packed and full of excellent energy and an accordion player came by for a while. I could have stayed there for a week but I wanted to see some more of the town before dark.

Sherry

We had a lovely wander through town, took some photos of the cathedral and the square and the crazy swallows flying and chirping all over the place (feeding, I guess), and the sherry bodegas that are right in the middle of the old town. The restaurant Kino had recommended was a gastro bar called Reina something or other and was so adorable. It was still too hot to eat inside, so the staff brought a table out into the street for us, along with a bottle of wine. Lorenzo our waiter was so clumsy he kept tripping over Matt and stepping on his feet but we all laughed a lot and had a really lovely evening.

Gibraltar

12-05-16 (Jerez / Gibraltar / Ronda / Granada)

So much wind today! We were tilting at windmills for real as we got buffeted around. And it’s mercifully cool – down as low as 19 degrees today which is a shock after seeing almost 40 inland. The Rock of Gibraltar was significantly more impressive than we expected; coming down the hill into town we could see it shrouded in mist and all the ships in the harbour, but the “town” is pretty much nonexistent so we rode through.

Ronda

The roads from Marbella up to Ronda were SPECTACULAR; cold, warm, cold, warmer, hot, hotter / oceanside, foothills, pine tree scrub, shale, farmland, village / sea level to 3500 ft, etc. and us grinning the whole time. Ronda is a beautiful little village with the oldest and most beautiful bull ring in Spain and the Medieval bridge spanning the gorge. It seems like a popular spot for tours because there were a lot of tour buses in the parking lot, but we didn’t notice too many people as we walked around the town.

We rode through more crazy wind as we pressed on to Granada, and  then through some crazy traffic before we arrived, butwe were agog with the old town even before we got off the bikes.  We had reserved at a beautiful Moorish hotel but many of the reviews said that it was “tricky to get to”. We soon realized what was meant by this as we rode up and down and around – and also backtracked several times – on ancient, steep, slippery cobblestones. At one point I was watching to see which way Matt was going to turn and realized that the road only went one way – and the other way was stairs! Our hotel was amazing – a 600-year-old manor house on the hill overlooking the Alhambra. It had a decorative pool in the courtyard and lovely wood detailing everywhere with heavy ornate metal latches. To preserve the effect, the parking garage had an elevator that we just rode into, so that was pretty neat too.

Alhambra

We hadn’t bought our tickets to Alhambra in advance because we weren’t sure which day we would be arriving, but we also knew that passes sold out quickly, so as soon as we were settled, we walked down the hill that our hotel was on (in the Albayzín district) and up the hill that the Alhambra was on. We got the information that we needed – to come early the next morning – and so were able to enjoy the walk back and take in the beautiful gardens, imposing gate, and all of the shops and restaurants and urban details of the neighbourhoods. For dinner we made the mistake of asking the hotel for a recommendation, and the concierge sent us to a super touristy place whose patio looked out to the Alhambra. It was very lovely and romantic but the food was predictably mediocre.

Alhambra

12-05-19 (Granada / Calahonda)

The hours that we spent waiting in line disappeared pretty quickly once we got inside the grounds of the Alhambra. It was a fortress and a palace through several generations so there are different areas to visit that are interesting in different ways. We saw the beautiful rose gardens and fountains with the ancient water delivery systems (turned over roof tiles joined together to form a trough that takes water all over the hill) and the old dungeons and watchtower and then we had a bit of a wait before we could get into the gorgeous Nazarene palaces. I sat Matt in the shade and got him a beer and a jamón sandwich, most of which he ended up feeding to the feral cats (who figured out pretty quickly that we were a good mark).

Alhambra

The palaces are incredibly gorgeous. It’s hard to imagine the work that must have gone into the detailing, where every surface in some of the rooms had been covered. In others, the focal point was a beautiful fountain and pools or a quiet garden that looked out onto the town. I’ve been in love with this aesthetic most of my life and to see it in person was almost overwhelming. I could have spent days in there.

Calahonda

We decided not to stay another night in Granada but instead head out to the coast where we expected it to be cooler, so we got packed up and put the bikes in the elevator. It turned out to be one of our less good ideas because we were hot and tired from walking around Alhambra all day but also because the ancient cobblestones had become slick with oil and heat during the day and were at their absolute worst by mid-afternoon. As the parking garage was at the top of a steep hill, this made it something akin to riding a motorcycle down a ski hill – with cars on it. Matt did okay but my boot slipped while I was balancing on a slick part of the street and I dropped my bike. That made me cranky but even worse was that we changed our plans and just ate at a tourist shop facing Alhambra at the bottom of the hill and for the second time in two days we had a bad meal in Spain.

But once we got out of the old town, the drive to the coast was not long and it did mercifully get cooler as we got towards the water. Apparently, Spain (and us) had been in some kind of heatwave that was almost over but it seemed like maybe poor timing now that we were finally at the beach. We stopped in the first hotel in the first town (Calahonda), happy to be off the bikes and out of the heat, then went down to the bar on the beach. We just sat there until the restaurant opened (right where we were sitting – in the same space as the bar) and thought that we would see a menu but the waiter just brought me more wine and then started bringing us food. There was a lovely salad with smoked salmon followed by a fish casserole (caught right in front of where we were sitting) and some toro (bull) meat. When we were full, we told him and he brought us some fruit and an after-dinner drink. It was so easy and unpretentious and lovely. Also one of the best meals we had the whole trip.

Peniscola

12-05-20 (Calahonda / Benisanó) 

As we started riding up the Costa del Sol, two things happened – the “sol” disappeared into rain and we arrived at the part of Spain that is familiar to German, French and British holiday-makers. We started to see tri-lingual picture menus and huge billboards advertising patio furniture rentals, etc. We had thought that we would just ride up the coast until we found another cute little town to stay in but the roads have been expertly designed to get traffic in and out of these small towns quickly and so there isn’t really a coastal road – you turn off of the superhighway onto a smaller one and then onto the road that leads to your town. To get out or even to get to the next town you do the same in reverse. That sucks for motorcycling and the rain isn’t great either so we just kept going until we got to Valencia – the next town that I knew I for sure wanted to visit.

Valencia is the home of paella. There are several types of paellas and each region does theirs a little bit differently (and also claims that it is the best), but Levante, in the suburb of Benisanó is widely heralded as the best, so that’s where we went. There’s only one hotel in Benisanó (a classy joint that has a potted plant in front of the  2-Star plaque), and so that is where we stayed – in a room that felt like the spare room at an estate museum or something. There was a dresser that looked like it had been acquired at a garage sale and although I think we and the people next to us were probably the only four people staying in the whole place, they had put us right next to each other. The walls were so thin that we could hear the guy yelling at his wife from the shower. But we were excited about having paella for dinner and left to check out the rest of the town.

We arrived at the restaurant in time for dinner, but it was closed so we found a bar a few doors down and ordered some beers. A little while later I went to check but it was still closed. We had learned that the Spanish eat much later than we are accustomed to, but after being in the country for weeks we were pretty on-schedule but every time I checked, it remained stubbornly closed.  Finally, we asked the hotel proprietor and he said in very limited English that he thought it wasn’t open. That was disheartening but tried to order some from the hotel restaurant, which frankly also seemed closed.  Later we learned that paella is usually cooked outside over fires made with orange wood and that it’s traditionally made by men who were out working in the fields. For this reason, it’s usually a lunch dish rather than eaten for dinner. Try again tomorrow.

12-05-21 (Benisanó / Peníscola / Barcelona)

We checked out of the hotel and parked ourselves at the cafe next door to Levante. We tried not to get cranky or fill up on snacks while considering that it might not be open at all. Not this weekend, or not this month, or something else altogether.  Eventually, we hopped on the bikes and headed out.

As we rode out of town, we passed orange grove after orange grove and the smell was intoxicating. I always tell people that motorcycles are the best way to travel because you are so connected to the land – the terrain, the climate, the smells – and travelling from Barcelona through Madrid and then Andalusia we passed through the countryside experiencing the things that we would eat at the next town; fields of garlic, olive orchards, orange groves, etc.  Some of these things weren’t pleasant (the pig farms in particular) and when we crested a hill outside Valencia and saw a fire filling the sky with black smoke, we prepared to ride fast through it and hold our breaths against the acridness. The opposite thing happened though. It turned out to be a fire in an orange grove and it was the smell of smoky perfume, spicy potpourri…the smell of our denied paellas cooking on an open fire of orange wood…If it weren’t for the ERT vehicles we may have turned around and ridden through it again and again. It didn’t quite make up for not eating paella but that was a pretty amazing experience.

We stopped in Peníscola (another poor Spanish town about to be overrun by sun-seeking tourists) for lunch and had a lovely meal of cuttlefish, cheese and Albariño on the beach before pressing on to Barcelona. We were so tired and achy and just desperately wanted to be off the bikes but as we were riding through Penedès (cava wine country), I couldn’t help but signal to Matt that I wanted to pull over and buy some. He looked pretty incredulous – we’d been travelling around Spain for weeks with strangely-shaped, un-flexible luggage the size of overnight bags and in every town I had found something that I wanted to buy. Matt would hold it up against his hard case (he had a bigger bike so therefor bigger bags) and tell me I could get the smaller one. About 2/3rds of the way through the trip he threw out some of his underwear to make room for some regional delicacy I couldn’t live without. So in Penedès he told me I could have ONE bottle of wine and that was it. The proprietor showed me around his operation, through the cellar and the storeroom and finally told me about each of the different wines. He was doing it in Catalan though, and so when he said that the bottles were €60, €70 and €90 each and I just about died because it was the most expensive cava I had ever seen in my life, he actually meant €6 – €9. I wish I had a truck.

Matt had rented us a nice hotel on the water in Barcelona so we just cruised up to the door and parked our filthy, bug-encrusted bikes on the sidewalk beside the luxury cars and went inside to drink our wine. I had been trying to get to Cal Pep for tapas but it hadn’t worked out and here it was closed again, so we ducked out of the rain around the corner in a super cute tapas place that we hadn’t seen yet called Bastaix. We had fava beans with jamón iberico and mint, piquillo peppers with goat cheese and honey, morcilla sausage on toast with roasted apple and cheese, a plate of manchego, and some nice Albariño. For dessert there was that gorgeous chocolate ganache / EVOO / sea salt dessert that we had had earlier in the trip and more PX (from Alvarez this time) which  Matt enjoyed. He seems to be a convert.

We had an unexpected couple of days in Barcelona that we thought were were going to spend along the coast but we were tired and the  jamón iberico at the hotel was excellent so we laid low and feasted, shopped, and started planning our next trip…to Northern Spain.

Hawai’i: Maui and Kona

Flying

Hawaii was nice. How can Hawaii not be nice?! Unlike Kiev and Prague, this trip has been on the books for a while – it was Matt’s pick after we got back from the Bahamas last winter and he has especially been looking forward to going somewhere beachy and warm so a quick trip to paradise to get in some sunshine, downtime and great diving was just so nice.

Hawaii

It had been a long time since I was last in Hawaii last and probably a decade for the time before that, but my grandmother used to live in Makaha on Oahu part-time and so we went what seemed like often when we were kids. I remember falling asleep and waking up to the sound of the ocean, crawling the beach to collect little knobs of coral and digging big pits (instead of castles) in the sand. When we were still too small to swim in the surf my grandmother used to hold us and body surf us through the waves until our homemade swimsuits were full of sand. When we came inside, she would cut up fresh papaya for a snack and these things must have made an impact because I have never lost my love of the sea and fresh fruit.

Honoloa Beach

Matt had never been to Hawaii so we split the difference between Maui (which I thought he would like best) and Kona (where I wanted to go on the manta ray night dive) and that worked out well except that we both wanted to spend more time in both places. Ah well, next time.

Honokowai

MAUI

I was pleasantly surprised to find Lahaina less horribly touristy than I remembered but we were happy to be staying in quiet, tiny Honokowai, with a lush garden in front of our condo and the ocean working its endless magic steps away from our door. The first night after we got settled into the condo we went and sat by the ocean until we lost all the light and could only hear the waves lapping at the seawall beneath our feet. And then we went to bed because we had a 4 AM wake up call to go and see the sunrise on Haleakala. Diving and flying gets complicated on an archipelago with 10,000 ft peaks so we needed to do the high stuff first.

Haleakala

HALEAKALA VOLCANO

Thankfully we had the time change on our side because the early morning wake-up call didn’t seem that bad when we were stumbling around getting dressed. The summit is a polar region and we hadn’t packed accordingly so I just wore all the warm things I had; a t-shirt, my rash-guard, a paper-thin windbreaker…and flip flops. Matt had said so many times leading up to the trip that he just wanted to sit under a tree and read that I hadn’t even bothered to bring shoes or socks. That’ll be my lesson learned.

Haleakala

The last time I climbed Haleakala I made it about an hour’s hike into the valley before I was overcome by altitude sickness. I didn’t know what it was, just that I felt like I was moving through toothpaste and my boyfriend was getting farther and farther away no matter how hard I tried to keep up. Finally, I just sat down next to an alien-looking tree and cried. Eventually, we figured out what was going on but we still had to climb all the way back up to the visitor’s centre. It wasn’t fun and I wasn’t anxious to repeat it so this time we went super slowly and stopped often. By the time we got to the summit, the morning light had illuminated the clouds and brought some definition into the crater. Several people had assembled, wearing whatever warm things they could collect from their rooms – what a motley crew we looked like to greet the rising sun!

Haleakala means “House of the Sun” and in Hawaiian history, the summit was only accessible to priests. It’s easy to see why it was considered a sacred space. We were on top of the world, high above the clouds and the light reflecting off of them and into the moon-like crater was incredible. Through the occasional break we could see all the way to the sea and in the distance far below us the West Maui mountains that had seemed so large when we drove past that morning.

I’m not normally one for sunrises but when there is in fact something magical in watching the first ray of sunshine break into the day and even more so when a park ranger chants a mele oli” (chanted poem) in honour of it:

Haleakala sunrise mele oli

Dolphins

DIVING

The next few days we spent diving the Cathedrals – beautifully formed lava caves – off the coast of Lana’i,  diving with hammerhead sharks dive off the coast of Moloka’i, and some exploring some local dive sites on Maui. On our way out to our first dive site, we were joined by a pod of 40-50 dolphins. They surrounded the boat when it slowed but as soon as the captain resumed speed they sped up excitedly to ride our bow waves then dropping back to leap through and do flips in the wake. I laughed out loud at the sight of such pure and obvious joy – they are truly the puppies of the ocean.

Cathedral

The Cathedrals were as beautiful as I remembered and we got to see the rare albino black coral “chandelier” that hangs from the ceiling. It’s a testament to the dive shops in the area educating divers that it’s still intact…we saw much coral-kicking on this trip but at least the stony reef-building corals are a little heartier.

Fish

We enjoyed the chill diving so much that we decided to just stay on the boat for the afternoon dives too. That turned out to be an excellent idea because our last dive at Mala Pier was one to remember!  It’s a collapsed pier so it has the air of a shipwreck with all the beams and boards piled on each other and provides some great swim-throughs for divers and/or hide-outs for turtles, sharks and schools of fish – we saw all of them as well as a squadron of spotted eagle rays.

Urchin

Perhaps because it’s a busy site also accessible from the shore, or perhaps because there were so many places to hide, the creatures didn’t seem to be bothered by us in the slightest. One giant turtle kept a baleful eye on me while he surfaced for a breath but a moment later I turned around to see him swimming by right behind me. And I hurriedly snapped a photo of the eagle rays on the first pass, expecting them to bolt but they cruised by so many times that I got tired of pointing them out. Even the sharks were chill.

Matt

It’s a stunning dive site and I look forward to diving it again someday – hopefully at night.

Walterses

Mokuho’oniki Rock off the coast of Molokai to dive with hammerhead sharks was a life-list item for me, so I was really happy that we were able to go. They considered it an advanced dive so Matt had some detailed questions about depths and current, etc. but it turned out to be me who needed to be nervous because getting there involved crossing the dreaded Pailolo channel – Hawaiian for “crazy water.” In the briefing, the captain warned that any people prone to seasickness should take precautions.

Hammerhead

The waves turned out to be not too bad. The first sight of these majestic creatures made it all worthwhile anyway, and we were lucky enough to see three hammerheads and a Galapagos shark gliding through the blue water on each dive, with two of them swimming along together on the last one. It was just so beautiful to watch and I only wish that we were a little bit closer or that the photos had turned out a little better.

Degan

One drawback of all the sun and salt is that my hair had almost no red in it by the end of the trip (more like a pinky coral colour) so I love this photo that Matt got of me underwater where I look like some kind of tropical fish.

Honoloa Beach

We also spent a fair amount of time in the Jeep driving around the island. One day there was an accident on the road so we decided to just take the long way around the West Maui mountains and see what we could see. As we drove north from Honokowai we came up to stunning Honolua Beach where there is good surfing, snorkelling and diving. Then the road narrowed and as we got into some seriously lush countryside. It was great to see the rugged coastline and rural communities up there.

Driving

KONA

We only had two days on the big island so we had to choose between climbing Mauna Kea and diving with the manta rays at night. The manta rays were the clear winner but I would like to come back to see the observatory, as well as the lava fields on Mount Kilauea, and I would also like to do the ‘pelagic magic’ night dive where creatures come up from the deep ocean to feed at night.

manta ray

The boat was full of both divers and snorkelers and no one seemed to have any idea what was going on but they were all doing it with a lot of enthusiasm. We were one of several boats at the site, all decked out with lights. It seemed like chaos, but then we were in the water, trying to keep one eye out for manta rays and another on our guide. The idea is that the divers stay low to the ground and shine their lights up while the snorkelers hang on to the surfboards and shine their lights down. Plankton is attracted to the light and then the rays come to feed on it. We only saw one manta ray on our dive – Eli, a juvenile – but it was cool to see him swimming around and eating, and it was such a spectacular dive with an octopus and several trumpet fish and eels hunting off our lights.

Degan Walters

On our last day in Hawaii, we didn’t have a lot of options. We couldn’t dive or go above 2000 feet (so no horseback riding or ziplining or summiting volcanoes), we didn’t have a car (so no plantation tours) and we needed our gear to dry (so no snorkelling) but as a pretty awesome last resort we walked into town and hung out at the Kona Brewing Company patio for a while. Great selection of beers, and good food too.

Kiev (Kyiv)

Nesting dolls

Things I knew about Ukraine before this trip included: the painstakingly decorated Easter eggs,  that the traditional women’s dress is a heavily embroidered white tunic with garlands of flowers (sadly, it occurs to me that I probably know this because of the Olympics), that it is a former Soviet republic and that it is the land of perogies, borscht, vodka and Chicken Kiev.

I had wanted to travel somewhere I had never been this fall. And more than that, I wanted to travel somewhere I didn’t know much about. I had narrowed it down to Japan, India and Israel when Matt proposed another option: Kyiv and Prague. He was going on a business trip and invited me to come along. Obviously, I jumped at the chance.

Kiev

ARCHITECTURE & CHURCHES

After being in Kyiv for a week I feel like I know a lot more but I’m still not entirely sure where to start. It’s a strange town. Alongside the easter eggs, flowers and Soviet stuff is some incredible architecture. I’ve been going for a run every morning that it’s not been raining and even on the side streets outside of town there are enormous, beautifully decorated and colourful buildings (some recently revived, some in need of repair and some in progress) with printed scaffolding over top to show what the building is meant to look like. Probably there are modern buildings somewhere in the city but I haven’t seen many.

Lavra

The next thing of note is all the churches. The beautiful golden domes of the Russian Orthodox churches peek out from the colourful buildings at every turn, or at least it seems so from our hotel, which is positioned right between St. Sophia’s cathedral (an almost 1000-year-old cathedral with its wedding-cake bell tower) and St. Michael’s Golden-domed monastery. St. Andrew’s is a short walk away and looks like it should be some giantess’ jewelry box but the inside felt too red and ornate to me and came off looking a bit gaudy. My favourite is St. Volodymyr’s which is a pretty standard-issue Neo-Byzantine cathedral on the outside but inside is all black and gold and candlelight, making it hard not to feel the glow.

Icon

Kyiv Pechersk Lavra monastery / Kiev Monastery of the Caves is HQ for Russian Orthodox churches in Ukraine. They believe it is one of four places in the world where the Virgin Mary lives and there are also 73 “imperishable relics” – the bodies of saints who were buried in the caves and who have been deemed uncorrupted. That belongs firmly on the list of things I didn’t know about Ukraine before this week. The top part of the complex is maintained by the church but feels fairly secular – there are many churches but also souvenir stands and a series of museums. I wandered around there for a bit and then went to the lower part, it was obvious that something very different was happening…by now I had noticed that women cover their heads when they’re in the church and so I had been trying to do the same on my visits but here all the women’s heads were covered and everyone bowed and crossed themselves coming through the gate. But there were no tourists, no English words anywhere and I had no idea what was going on, so I went back up to the gate and bought a tour.

Church

First we got dressed to go underground. Women have to have covered arms, a covered head and wear a long skirt and there are wraps to be bought or borrowed for this purpose. My tour guide was lovely and patient with all of my questions but as she explained all the mysteries of the saints to me and how they died and how to pray to them, I couldn’t help but feel awkward. It was unbearably hot in the catacombs with all the people and my jeans / skirt / shirt / wrap / headscarf combo, carrying a candle and trying not to get beeswax all over the place as we all jostled against each other in the narrow corridors. I was the only tourist in a place packed with pilgrims waiting patiently for me to get out of the way so they could access the relics and I felt badly. I’m so glad I went but I will be processing it for a while….what it means to be a tourist and what a privilege it is.

Dumplings

FOOD

In terms of food, there are PLENTY of perogies, borscht and vodka. Actually, they are not perogies but varenyky (or vareniki) – the difference being that perogies seem to be baked or fried after they’re cooked and varenyky are simply boiled or steamed. They are all over the place, in all kinds of flavours, as well as pelmeni – which are dumplings filled with raw meat and then cooked whole. So far I’ve had mushroom (both pelmeni and varenyky), and cabbage, potato, meat, sour cherry and blueberry varenyky, and you would think that I would be getting tired of them by now but I assure you that I have a very high dumpling threshold. My favourite (by a long shot) is the sour cherry and I want to try the poppyseed ones before we leave but I’ve already had sour cherry three times and I’m not sure I’m going to be able to come away from it.

Borscht, traditional beet soup, is predictably delicious and slightly different everywhere but it always comes with a side of garlic brioche and sour cream. Actually, everything comes with sour cream and you always get a basket of bread with a meal (including with the borscht and brioche).

Chicken Kyiv is apparently a Russian dish in origin but Ukrainians have either adopted it or they share a common love of cutlets because there are plenty of similar items on the menus under different names. All of the fried things I’ve had in Kyiv thus far have just tasted like oil though, so I am not a fan.

And of course, there is vodka. We have had lots of local beer and been happy with it (Stare Misto and Bitburger are the favourites), and there is wine from the area as well, but vodka is everywhere. So far we’ve tried regular and organic, and honey-pepper, cranberry and horseradish flavours. The horseradish smelled like it came out of a barn but on the palate it was beautiful – infused with horseradish for certain, but also honey and raisins and some other things. I’ve been told that no one drinks vodka for the taste but I might have to argue for this one because it was amazing. The honey-pepper was infused with honey and a bird’s eye pepper and is so perfectly balanced between sweet and spicy.

What else? There is so much bread that I’m beside myself – piles for breakfast, along with cold cuts, sausage, cheeses and two kinds of smoked herring. There is also kasha, a mushy Russian granola / porridge which is interesting. For lunch I’ve mostly been having beer and dumplings and in between there are amazing pastries – favourites are raspberry or the new-to-me combination of pineapple and ricotta or cottage cheese.

Almost every restaurant has shashlik – barbecued shish kebabs – cooked over an open fire and salo (lard) shows up on a lot of menus too. Basically, it is just pork fat so that takes some getting used to, but it does help with all the vodka.

Embroidery

The season is turning and the weather is getting a bit cooler, but there has been a beautiful fall breeze rustling the chestnut trees. I’ve been happy to be outside and I’ve spent a lot of time reading and taking it all in. I wish I had had more time to explore farther afield, outside of the city.

Art market

Sail Away, Salty Dog!

Sailing

I have wanted to learn how to sail for a really long time. I have always had such a powerful love of the sea that I knew I was going to learn how to sail at some point. Having this time off work and no real direction seemed like the perfect time to start checking things off my life list so we signed up for the Crew course at Cooper Boating on Granville Island.

Matt & Degan

This is us about to go out, pretty sure we’re going to like it.

Sailing

And we did like it, in spite of the grey days and having to be rescued on the way back in because the engine had run out of oil. Of course, sailing through the Bahamas didn’t do anything to dissuade us either so we rode our bikes down and prepared to learn the ropes.

Vancouver

Most of what we learned in the crew classroom sessions was what was required for the PCoC (Pleasure Craft Operator’s Card) exam but we also learned some of the language of sailing. There is a different name for every single thing on a sailboat and many parts of that language have made it into this (current, daily use) one. I find the crossover words delightful and love knowing the history of them. Some are obviously nautical  (knowing the ropes, loose cannon), but many are more obscure; slush fund, bitter end, taken aback, hand over fist, high and dry, by and large, hard and fast, make my way home, etc… I don’t think I’ve ever used between the devil and the deep blue sea but I love it so I’m going to have to rig a conversation where I can work it in.

We also learned how to sail, in spite of being out in 21-knot winds (a storm warning) on our first day and almost ramming another boat. We got through it though and brought our bruises and rope burns to Day 2 where our instructor filled in all the knowledge gaps and we got to know our points of sail, how to recover an object (man overboard) from the water, and how to tack and how to dock.

Bowline

Then I took the Skipper class – to learn to make the decisions and call out to the crew to get things done. This involves knowing your points of sail, knowing your plan, knowing your boat and keeping a close watch on the sail, sheets, lines and tell-tales to make sure everything is ship-shape. I have no trouble giving orders but I discovered quickly (with the help of the instructor yelling at me) that I am tiller challenged. Tillers work in the opposite way that steering wheels do and being tiller challenged means that I invariably move the tiller in the opposite way that I want to go. On a tight turn with the sails hardened, this can be pretty dramatic and by the end of the day, I was exhausted and embarrassed. But a day sailing has got to be better than a day at home on the couch, so I practiced my bowlines and studied up on my theory, and now I have my Day Skipper certification too.

the Bahamas

8482769222_79b2c0a9ad_h (1)

Boaters have a saying that if you’re lucky, you go to the Exumas when you die. Not only had I not heard that saying before we booked our trip, I hadn’t even heard of the Exumas. But after spending a week onboard Blackbeard’s MV Morningstar, a 65″ sloop sailed by Captain Red and an excellent crew, I feel like there may be something to it. There are  365 cays and islands in the Exumas chain alone with any number of coves and reefs to explore – and yes, the water really is that colour.

photo

It was my first liveaboard experience so we were a little startled when we saw that 29 people (23 guests – and all their gear – plus 6 crew) were going to be sharing such a small space but we soon got into the routine of getting up early, getting in the water, and exploring. By evening we were so spent from exercise, heat, fresh air and the early hour of darkness that it only took a beer or two to send us off to bed.

db

I would have liked to see some more and bigger sharks but it was a great trip and we had so much fun with our friends. It was an excellent intro into what it can be like at sea and on a liveaboard, as well as some more diving experience for Matt.

mw

It set the stage for some exciting trips that we’re already planning for next year but I’d also like to make it an annual thing where we travel somewhere warm with some awesome people and without any internet access. walterses