Friday, May 2, 2014

The Netherlands

Often, WHEN you visit a place is as important as WHERE you visit. Statues, fountains, buildings, and landmarks take on a different tone, and context during different seasons, or even times of day for that matter. Never was this so true as seeing Holland in the Spring. I had always thought that I had seen enough Springs to have a pretty good handle on what Spring was all about, but our recent trip to the Netherlands proved that I had ridiculously underestimated the potential of my favorite season.
This is not my first trip to the Netherlands but in the past we have stayed pretty much around Amsterdam, so this was an exciting opportunity to see some of the other areas that are as fascinating as they are beautiful.

The Sites

The first place that I need to mention is the town of Eersel, where we called home for our stay in the Netherlands. Eersel is a quaint little town in the Dutch countryside, with a cute downtown filled with really great restaurants. It is located in the southern part of the country, lying on the border with Belgium. Geographically it made an ideal spot because of it's central location we could find ourselves almost anywhere in Belgium or the Netherlands within a couple hour drive.
Abdij Postel
Another convenient spot just a short, 10 minute drive across the Belgian border is the town of Postel, where there is an amazing abbey that dates back to 1140 ad. The monks at Abdij Postel have learned a great deal about brewing beer over the last 900 years!

Taking a break in Breda
One of our first excursions in the Netherlands was to the city of Breda which was an excellent place to start. Unlike many of the other towns that we would visit that had very quaint, traditional marketplaces, Breda's Grote Market is a bustling shopping district filled with a wonderful array of boutiques and contemporary styles. Then, to take a break from shopping you can sit down in one of the fantastic cafés in their main square for a coffee, or a Belgian beer. At the edge of the square is Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady). Breda's lovely cathedral was built in 1547 and has recently undergone a 5 year renovation process and was reopened to the public in 2003. Because of these renovations, it does not exhibit the grit and grime that you would expect to see on a building that's nearing its 500th birthday, and instead looks clean and modern even (as modern as any cathedral can look) which really fits with the feel of the rest of Breda.

On the outskirts of Amsterdam, lost amidst the spectacular, multicolored tulip fields, lies a botanical garden like nothing else in the world. The Keukenhof Gardens are only open for two months out of the year and attract visitors from around the world.
All across the sprawling gardens are a menagerie of eye popping arrangements, generally featuring the world famous Dutch tulips. The colors are so vibrant that I half expected that the visual cortices in my brain would fry out and leave me living the remainder of my days in a world of black and white.
Aside from the stunning gardens there are four large facilities stuffed to overflowing astonishing flowers. A person can get lost for days browsing through the seemingly endless parade of color. And then there are the smells. The intoxicating bouquet of the Keukenhof is simply otherworldly.
Nothing that I have ever experienced gave me a fuller and more complete understanding of the arrival of Spring. If the Keukenhof is not on your life's "bucket list" put it there STAT.

Paleis het Loo
Another must see national garden is at the 16th Century palace, Paleis het Loo. Until the modern era Paleis het Loo served as the Royal Palace of House Van Oranje, the Dutch Royal Family. It is a spectacular reminder of the economic might of the Dutch merchant fleet going back hundreds of years.
Coffee and King Willem pasteries
The gardens of Paleis het Loo were resplendent with gloriously colored tulips and daisies. The garden's perfectly manicured hedges are the quintessential image of a European Palace.
It is also a good reminder of the recent change in the Royal Family. The beloved Queen Beatrix (Queen Bea) recently abdicated her throne to her son, King Willem and his wife, Queen Maxima. Long live the King!

Oude Kerk in Delft
One of the things that the Netherlands, for centuries, has been famous for is its fine porcelain called Delftware,  (with the distinctive blue markings) crafted by the artisans in the city Delft.
Sepulchral monument of Prince William of Orange
As you pass through Delft's central market, the narrow lanes of stores eventually open into the city's main square. The square's centerpiece is Nieuwe Kerk (New Church). Built between 1383 and 1510, the Nieuwe Kerk serves as the family vault of the Dutch Royal Family, the Van Oranje Nassau family. Beyond the vault lies the Royal Family's Sepulchral monument of Prince William of Orange.
The more adventurous travelers may want to climb the very narrow and steep spiraling staircase to the top of the Nieuwe Kerk's massive bell tower which was built over the course of a century between 1396 and 1496 and offers extraordinary views of the city... And one hell of a workout.
From Nieuwe Kerk and the main square, it's a short winding walk through more antique shops and cafés to reach the Oude Kerk (Old Church). While the Nieuwe Kerk is more for special occasions, the Oude Kerk is more of the everyday cathedral (if indeed there is such a thing). The places of honor in Oude Kerk are reserved for famous Dutch Mariners such as Petrus Heinius, and Marten Harpertzen Tromp.
Put all together, Delft is a photogenic, walkable, shoppers paradise, and has an amazing amount to offer tourists.

The Food

Part of the fun of exploring a city in Europe is walking around a major site, or through a museum, then sitting down at a café and having a snack plus a strong coffee or beer or wine. I would be remiss if I passed up any chance to order some bitterballen and a Belgian beer. If I had to describe the flavor of a bitterballen to someone I would say that the deep fried crust dipped in mustard might remind you of a corn dog, while the soft meat paste filling has a taste comparable to cream of mushroom soup.The combination is out of this world. Particularly when paired with one of the many outstanding beers from arguably the world's greatest brewing region.
The Abbeys throughout Belgium are nearing their first millennium of brewing and the craftsmanship if their beer shows. Here is a short list of some of our favorites:
1) Grimbergen blonde
2) Affligem
3) Postel tripel
4) La Trappe Tripel
5) Duvel

As far as dinner items go, spring is the season for the white asparagus that is farmed in this area. Not as strongly flavored as the common green asparagus that I'm used to seeing, the white is also much thicker, roughly the width of a wine cork and when covered with hard cooked egg and hollandaise sauce is capable of being a meal unto itself.
The other entree that I couldn't get enough of was the pork with satay sauce. The thick peanut sauce is a decadent compliment to the meat and a recipe that I have sworn to master this summer.

The Wheels

As that we rent a car everywhere we travel, I thought that it might be fun to include a review of each car. Mercedes CDI
Mercedes-Benz CDI
As Americans when we think of a Mercedes we the thought we conjure is of the uber elegant luxury imports for sale in the States. But Mercedes makes mid ranged cars as well, and are rather common in Europe. Far from a luxury sedan, the CDI was a fuel efficient station wagon with a diesel motor. It had a high MPG which saved us a lot when it came to the expensive cost of fuel in Europe. The diesel was not underpowered either, and ran at a pretty good clip down the Autobahn in Germany, with not a lot of torque but held good speed. But the car itself left quite a bit to be desired. One feature that took some getting used to was the motor turning off whenever the vehicle came to a stop, even though this was to conserve fuel, it was still kind of annoying. The stereo and navigation system were over complicated and poorly laid out, even once we got the language set to English (which was no small feat). And it was loud, not as in road noise but in all the little bings and boops of the warning lights and bells, including warnings for driving to long suggesting that you take a break. Adding to this effect was the periodic traffic updates that would cut in even if you were listening to something other than the radio, like a cd or iPod, the traffic updates would blare out (I realize that has nothing to do with Mercedes but it added to the overall feeling of the vehicle). Overall if say that it was a dependable enough vehicle that got good fuel economy but was filled with lots of annoying quirks in the cab.


I was so happy to get a chance to see more of the countryside in the Netherlands, I have spent time in Amsterdam before but could never say that I knew the country well as a whole. So this was an amazing experience for me.

Prince William of Orange

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Napa Valley, California

(photo by Ursa Davis)
Ah, California's legendary wine country had been on our to-do list for far too long, and we were excited to get it checked off. We had paired this trip with our trip to San Francisco, which gave us a week in the city to run run run, and followed it with a week in the more relaxing and tranquil country pace of Napa Valley.
We had rented a place just south of Sonoma, which was a cute little 2 bedroom cottage placed on a working farm. There were lambs, and baby doll sheep, and pygmy goats just outside our door. There was also a spice garden for visitors to use, but unfortunately we could not take advantage of that as that we traveled during the winter. One thing that made the farm setting so interesting was that it was a constant reminder of the fresh, quality ingredients that were being served at all the restaurants that we ate at on the trip, and I'll get more into that later, but suffice to say that the farm was a wonderful backdrop for the trip.

The Sites

Let's face it, I know myself. As a person, I have a strong tendency to gorge my on whatever ideas, or experiences are the order of my day. When I need some new music I will schedule a trip to a 3 day music festival and watch twenty consecutive concerts. When I found the joy of birding, it became an all consuming passion for about a year and a half. That is my nature, so while my love of wine never really goes away, I do, from time to time, feel the need to taste, try, and explore new wines. And so it was time for Ursa and I to head to wine country.
(photo by Ursa Davis)
We have been to southern California's wine country around Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo which was nice with it's quaint atmosphere, and it's farmhouse style wineries. But that was a shadow of the Napa Valley's huge estate style wineries. Without comparing wines, I will say that Napa does the high end, ostentatious estate wineries better than anyone else.
Over the week that we were in Napa Valley we visited so many wineries that it would not do to try and review them all here. I will instead just pick a few of my favorites.
(photo by Ursa Davis)
Most of the wineries featured tunnels dug into the rolling hills,to store their wines in a temperature controlled environment. Jarvis Winery took that idea one step further and built their entire winery underground. They had a lovely facility and absolutely exquisite wines. One of the signature features of the Jarvis tunnels was created as a result of a design flaw in the tunnels themselves, and that is the waterfall. When underground water breached the wall of the facility, there was no reasonable way to fix the problem, so they embraced it and designed a cosmetic waterfall in the tunnels to deal with the stream of water while beautifying their facility. As for their wines: The wine that struck me the most was their 2008 Cabernet Franc, a varietal that I typically don't enjoy because of the strong tannens but that Jarvis was able to craft a Cab Franc that was actually mellow which I found extraordinary. Amazingly the Cab Franc wasn't even my favorite of their wines, it was just so much better than any other of it's kind that I had to mention it. Though the wines were a little out of our price range, this was definitely the best tour and tasting that we went on.
(photo by Ursa Davis)
When it comes to wine, I think that our best stop was at Cliff Lede Vineyards. The signature grape of the Napa Valley is the Cabernet Sauvignon. This variety grows exceptionally well in this environment, consequently every winery in the area produces a Cab, and they are all worth a try. But Cliff Lede's 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon is the single best that we found on this trip and perhaps the best that I've ever had. We also picked up a bottle of their FEL 2012 Chardonnay which was very dry for a Chard, which I prefer over the buttery ones that are more common. I would also like to say that our host, Art, was one of our favorite hosts that we met on this trip. We first met up with him at Casa Nuestra Winery and he gave us several great recommendations, then we made a point to visit him where he worked at Cliff Lede for the tasting there. Good people, and great wines, that's what a tasting room is all about.
(photo by Ursa Davis)
We expected to find some great Cabs on our trip, but when we did our final bottle count we were surprised by the number of white wines that we came away with. To be fair, Cabernet Sauvignon is the most expensive varietal, partly because of the process used to make it, so we got priced out from buying too many of those. But also there was the fact that there were just lots of great whites around that caught us by surprise. One example was at Charles Krug Winery with their 2012 Sauvignon Blanc which was an absolutely stellar wine.
We also found a disproportionate number of dessert wines. Based on how often we use them we had only planned to pick up maybe one, but found ourselves hauling three home. One such find was at Orin Swift who had a Port that we simply could not resist and another was at James Cole who had made a Merlot Ice Wine that was very unique. Merlot is a very bold grape and they had used it in their ice wine to deaden some of the overwhelming sweetness, it was delicious.

The Food

What makes California such a fantastic place to visit is the food. When a chef has the absolute freshest, high quality ingredients, it does not take much to produce a great meal. Napa Valley is a foodie Disneyland that I compare, somewhat, to Paris' cafes in that you don't really need to plan your day around where to eat as that virtually everywhere you stop will have outstanding food.
On the advice from a friend we had dinner at Tra Vigne which I am glad that we did. It did, however, become a good news/bad news situation. The good news was that we started with the Mozzarella Cheese "al Minuto" and the bad news was that it was so good that I vaguely remember the rest of the meal. It was such a simple dish of fresh mozzarella, made in house, on a grilled bruschetta, drizzled with a locally made olive oil and some decorative salt.It was the very picture of elegant simplicity, and was so unspeakably delicious that it caused me to forget parts my childhood. Yes, it was THAT god damned good.


Napa Valley turned out to be just what we hoped for and what we needed, a great place to relax, and recharge. A place where wine and food are viewed as a form of rt, and the mesmerizing landscape is dotted with elegant vineyard estates, and country farms alike. It is a lovely place to visit. But I will say this: when compared to southern California's wine country, Napa has the edge in high end, budget busting luxury and better restaurants, and Paso Robles has the edge in laid back atmosphere and being less presumptuous. For my money, while I preferred the pace in the south.

(photo by Ursa Davis)

Thursday, March 6, 2014

San Francisco, California

(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
After a small hiatus from traveling, and a challenging winter in Alaska, I was really looking forward to this trip to San Francisco. And our patience was well rewarded, because the only thing about this trip that wasn't completely amazing was the weather.
(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
In the week leading up to this trip, Prudhoe Bay had been hit by a cold snap and the temperature dropped to -46 F and with the wind chill factor it was more like -72 F. So Ursa and I had been keeping a close eye on what the weather in California was doing. It stayed in the 70's and beautiful until we finally arrived, then the skies clouded up and it got drab and rainy for the whole week we were in town, which was really unfortunate. But short of the weather not cooperating, San Francisco was everything we had hoped it would be.
The other thing that struck me was the look of San Francisco's residential areas. It very much reminded me of Paris in that all the homes are of a similar row house style, but also they are so very unique from one another. Each home is interesting and different and has so much character that it really gives the entire city, not just the touristy spots, a really beautiful look and feel.

The Sites

The Neighborhoods: We were fortunate to rent an apartment for the week which was located on top of a hill in between two of San Francisco's most iconic neighborhoods: the Castro district and Haight-Ashbury. The house was on the bottom floor of the cutest, historic cottage all done in brick. It was a lovely place, in a fantastic location, and perfectly set the tone for our week in the city.
In 1967's Summer of Love, more than 100,000 hippies descended upon one small neighborhood of San Francisco near the corner of Haight and Ashbury Streets and began a social movement that changed America. As I walked around the neighborhood, and got a feel for it's size, it really started to sink in what a cultural crucible this must have become. All within the same 2 blocks of Ashbury Street you had Janis Joplin, Country Joe McDonald, the Hell's Angels, and The Grateful Dead. Just up the hill was Graham Nash, and a few blocks further down lived Big Brother and the Holding Company, just around the corner from the punk band Flipper.
(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
Today, hippie culture is alive and well and the street is dotted with tie dye couture, head shops, vintage clothing, curiosity shops, and record stores like the well known Amoeba Records.
A short walk down the hill in the other direction from our place one found a very different vibe in the Castro district. While in the Haight, Ursa and I were playing a game we called "Hipster or Homeless?" there was less ambiguity of style sense in the Castro. The residents of San Francisco's famous gay neighborhood took a great deal more pride in their appearance clad in clean white tee shirts, brightly colored skinny jeans, and the most unbelievably awesome coiffed hair ever. The Castro was the friendliest, most accepting, laid back neighborhood that I've ever been in. Everybody treated you like an old friend. It was really wonderful.
(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
The third iconic neighborhood in San Francisco, that is a must see on everybody's list is Chinatown. Lots of cities have A Chinatown, but this is THE Chinatown.
(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
San Francisco's Chinatown is the largest Chinatown outside of Asia. I've been in several other Chinatowns in cities like Vancouver, Toronto, and Portland but those all comprised only a few blocks while this one just kept going on and on. And the souvenir shops in those other cities were really kitsch with junk that looked like it was falling apart while it was still on the store shelves. As we shopped around San Francisco's Chinatown we were surprised at how much really nice stuff there was to buy. The most fun we had was buying tea at Vital Tea Leaf where we sat with a really charming and fun couple and talked with the store's owner Ming while sampling sips of dozens of flavorful, nuanced teas.

(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
Golden Gate Park: Far more than just a walk in the park, this park offers a lot to do for the city. First and foremost is the famous deYoung Museum of Art.
(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
I love seeing museums with bold architecture like the Denver Art Museum, or the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton, and the striking tower of San Francisco's deYoung reminds me of those other landmark museums. Inside the museum there were the choices of exhibits that you would expect of a major metropolitan museum, some of which we gravitated towards like the American Paintings, or Decorative Arts exhibits, others such as the African Art, or Art of the Americas exhibits were not to our taste and we skipped over. One artist that we never skip over is Dale Chihuly, whose blown glass pieces have become ubiquitous in most museums across the country, and, increasingly, around the world.
(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
Across from the deYoung Museum is the California Academy of Sciences which hosts an exciting evening event for adults only called Night Life. We booked the VIP tour which was well worth the extra money considering that not only do you get preferred seating for the planetarium show, a guided tour, and an open bar 'cause who wants to be sober while getting scienced up.
(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
The high points of the Academy of Sciences are it's completely green roof, the planetarium, it's rainforest dome, and downstairs it has it's aquarium exhibit. But all of that cool stuff belies that fact that the Academy is first and foremost about science, and those things are really just the outreach programs to educate and get the public involved in science. A part of the VIP tour was to go into the labs and ask questions of the scientists on staff. The ones that we talked to were going through the tedious work of skinning, stuffing and categorizing bird species. Not stuffing and mounting the birds like a taxidermist might for a display, but putting them on a pegboard for easy storage.
(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
The other public destinations that Golden Gate Park has to offer are it's many botanical gardens. We went to two: The Conservatory of Flowers and the San Francisco Botanical Gardens. The Botanical Gardens were laid out nicely, and you could tell that the plants were healthy but, unfortunately, because of the time of year that we were there, there was very little flowering and the gardens were not as impressive. Fortunately the Conservatory of Flowers would be doing as much flowering as you can stand. Their collection of orchids were really impressive.

The Events

A lot of times I focus on just the music scene in a city, but in the case of San Francisco I felt like there was so much culturally to do that to limit the discussion to just music would be a disservice.
One of the great cultural experiences that we had in the city was to attend the ballet. I wish that had some photos of the performance but cameras were not only against the rules, but, frankly would be dangerous for the performers onstage. The program that we saw was separate pieces from three different ballets. The first was from Act II of La Bayadere called "The Kingdom of the Shades", it was followed by a piece written by 80's hair-metal veteran Kip Winger and was really lovely, although maybe a little discordant (which I actually liked the sound of but thought it was a little out of place). The final piece was from Firebird and was very likely the best, most visually beautiful, and most moving dance piece that I've ever seen.
That is not to say that we did not attend any musical events. Our favorite was at SFJAZZ which is a beautiful venue. We saw the Amina Figarova Sextet perform a fantastic set in a beautiful room. The Joe Henderson Lab is a great room for a jazz show. It is surrounded on two sides with windows so as the show is going on you can watch the cityscape drift past. Jazz is like any art, it effects people in different ways. While I like the type of wandering, impressionistic jazz that Amina Figarova plays, it is Ursa's least favorite style of jazz. But even so the skill and artistry of the Amina Figarova Sextet was apparent and even Ursa enjoyed the performance.

(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
The final cultural event that we attended was to go across the Oakland Bay Bridge all the way over to the UC Berkeley campus to attend a lecture by the renowned theoretical physicist Dr. Michio Kaku. A large part of what makes Dr. Kaku such a great lecturer, educator, and writer is his sense of humor, and his ability to bring complex ideas back to popular culture references that his audience can understand. His new book, that he is touring to promote, is titled "The Future of the Mind" and discusses how technology has, and will continue to, unlock the abilities of the human mind. From chips implanted in the brain that can help people write on computers or move robotic appendages (and eventually control exoskeletons) to help the physically handicapped, to the BRAIN initiative which will map all of the neuropathways of the human brain and unlock the mysteries of mental illness. Imagine a world where you surf the internet using your mind, or dangerous jobs like firefighting or astronauts being done by surrogate robots controlled by people's minds far from danger. The future will unlock an exciting new frontier for the human mind.

The Food

(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
San Francisco has a well deserved reputation as a foodie city, and we did our level best to put it through it's paces. But frankly, I got the distinct impression that it didn't really matter so much where you went, because around every corner was another place just as good if not better. I would have had better luck listing places that were not delicious, but unfortunately I never found any. Here are a few choice gastronomic delights from around San Francisco.
For breakfast I was a big fan of walking down to the Castro to a great little cafe called Squat and Gobble which had great omelettes, and breakfast sandwiches. They also were a crepery which I am usually a sucker for, but all of their other offerings were so good that in my several trips there, I never once tried the crepes. Which says a lot.
For lunch, our first choice was the most memorable. It's tough to get good middle-eastern food in Alaska, and both of us were looking forward to a taste of some. And we couldn't have made a better choice than Le Mediterranee Noe. I'm not going to bore you with the details about how great their great combination plate that I ate or the delicious babaganouj that Ursa ate... I'm going to bore you with their coffee. Their coffee was served in the Turkish style by boiling the extremely finely ground coffee grounds with sugar and cardomom and a little water in a small brass container called a cezve. The coffee ends up extremely thick and strong, but not in any way bitter like one might expect. It was spectacular.
(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
For dinner we had an amazing French culinary experience at Bisou Bistro. Yet one more place in the Castro, it's funny that all of our favorite food experiences were in this same neighborhood. We had the escargot appetizer which stole the show for the rest of the meal, though everything was delicious and the wines that the waiter suggested were spot on. Also there is a great deal to be said for presentation, and Bisou really does plate their food wonderfully. A great choice for dinner.
For dessert we found a place that specializes in a variety of bread puddings called Schulzies. They served their bread puddings like scoops of ice cream, and even had their store set up in an ice cream parlor style. A very cool idea, and delicious.


There is a reason why San Francisco is on the short list of America's great cities. It really has everything; culture, food, sights, history. We enjoyed our time there immensely. At the end of any trip Ursa and I always have a conversation about "I really liked that town, maybe we can get back there some day," or "I wasn't such a fan of that place," but for San Francisco we were in the camp of, "We are TOTALLY coming back here!" This town jumped right to the top of the list of favorite cities we've visited.