Sunday, June 14, 2009

Random Thoughts: On Taxis and Mating Rituals

Taking a brief break from the travel posting to share my thoughts on something that I've experienced a few times now. One thing that my journeys have allowed me to do is to experience all kinds of modes of transportation including taxis, which are not typical for me, but sometimes you just need to catch a cab somewhere when public transport isn't available or amenable. This seems to be one area where Atlanta falls behind other major cities.

For example, Hubby and I took a cab from the airport to our hotel in Seattle when we arrived on May 29. The shuttle we'd planned to take said "no reservations necessary," but their desk had closed before our arrival, and we didn't have the exact change required to pay the driver directly. Admittedly, finding the taxis in the Seattle airport is a challenge, and luckily it was just the two of us because about 80% of them are small hybrid cars. The driver knew exactly where we were going, and even if he hadn't, he had a GPS in the car.

Contrast this with last night. Hubby and I went to watch a work friend of his play in an amateur league hockey championship in Duluth/Norcross/way the heck up I-85. We really enjoyed hanging out with them, and we were invited to continue the celebration of his team winning the trophy, which looks like the Stanley Collander, at East Andrews Cafe and Bar in Buckhead. We don't typically hang out at Buckhead hot spots, but Hubby convinced me it would be a good place to people-watch and observe the mating rituals of the single Atlantan (more on that later). We both wanted to drink, so we opted to do the responsible thing and take a cab. Hubby, not sure which companies come to Decatur, called Decatur's Best Taxi in spite of two previous negative experiences:

1) First trip to the Pacific Northwest, called a cab to go to the airport: We were cutting it close, as usual. The taxi driver picked us up and then pulled into the corner gas station to fill up. Yeah, we ended up running on to the plane in sock feet.

2) Going to a conference, I called a cab because I'd thrown out my back and didn't want to have to haul my luggage on MARTA. Hubby had a work conflict and couldn't take me to the airport. I called Decatur's Best and explained my situation. They sent a driver with some severe back issue such that he could hardly walk, much less help me with my suitcase, although he did try.

So the cab driver picked us up last night at our house, and he seemed completely bewildered when we told him where we wanted to go. Hubby ended up pulling out his Blackberry and using Google maps to give the guy directions as he drove. Nope, no GPS, and the dispatcher was equally clueless. The driver was somewhat apologetic and justified his lack of even knowing how to get to Buckhead with "I'm not familiar with that area because we don't usually leave Decatur." WTF? I guess Decatur's "Best" cab drivers only know how to go to the airport and haul drunk people back to the surrounding areas from downtown Decatur.

We arrived at the club at around 11:45 and met up with Hubby's friends. One of the first things I noticed was that the ratio of women to men was about 2:3. I used this to justify to Hubby why I got hit on a few times (yes, I was wearing my wedding and engagement rings), and he didn't. The second was the Buckhead going out uniform: mostly cute dresses for the girls and untucked polo shirts with pants or shorts for guys. The women sat at tables or on benches, talked to each other, and waited for the men to approach them. So much for our liberated times! The bartenders were good, although the first one I asked gave me a vodka tonic when I ordered an Absolut Stress. The crowd got thick at around 1:00-1:30, then thinned out again, for which I was grateful because I couldn't seem to find a good place to stand and observe without being in the way of the flow of foot traffic. Alas, the end of the evening came without anyone having fallen or gotten dunked in the fountain, although a few particularly inebriated ones came close.

Overall, it was an enjoyable evening, and we did take a cab back, although not one of Decatur's Worst. We still had to give the guy directions because of lack of GPS and general knowledge of how the city is put together. Are my expectations of taxi drivers and/or companies too high?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Travelin' Oenophile: Part 3, Victoria, B.C.

So yes, I'm getting ready to leave Seattle tomorrow. It's strange to have been in a hotel room so long I actually unpacked my stuff. The weather took a turn for the warmer, and now I'm down to a tank top to wear on the plane because I ended up going through all my warm weather stuff here. Not that it's anywhere near Georgia hot/humid. Maybe there is something to my mother's fear that Hubby and I will move out here eventually...

The original purpose of the trip was for me to go to a conference in Seattle and get CEU's. I was also part of a panel discussion today and am proud to have a little "Speaker" ribbon on my badge. Between hanging out with friends, both conference and Seattle-ites, I haven't had time to do much more than briefly check email. So yes, I have a bit of catching up to do. How about we rewind to Monday, June 1, when Hubby and I got up ridiculously early to catch a ferry?

(cue flashback music and wavy visual effects)

Five-thirty a.m. still feels really early even when your internal clock is telling you it should be 8:30. That’s when the alarm went off last Monday morning so Hubby and I could make the 8:20 ferry to Victoria, B.C. We only stayed a couple of blocks away from the terminal, but since we have a car, we needed to check in and get in line an hour before the boat’s scheduled sailing. We made it with a few minutes to spare, and by 8:30 Pacific time, we were underway to Canada…

Expedia had allowed us to get into the Empress, Victoria’s flagship hotel, at a reasonable rate, and, even more impressive, our room was ready. We headed on a walking tour recommended by the Top Ten travel book, and I purchased a lovely amethyst ring in a little store in Fan Tan Alley in Victoria’s Chinatown. Then we went to the Maritime Museum, where we learned about B.C.’s seafaring history and – bonus! – Vikings.

Random bit of trivia: the Scandinavian Viking genes are thought to be associated with Restless Legs Syndrome, the highest rates of which are in Iceland. Maybe that's why they felt the need to travel so much?

After a bit of a trek to the other side of the waterfront to find the city’s oldest licensed brew pub, we gave up and ended up back in Victoria, where we ate lunch at a harborside restaurant and – shocker! – brewpub, Canoe. I had the lunch special, a half ham and cheese sandwich, tomato soup, and salad. Hubby had the salmon salad.

By that time, my feet were telling me they were done (I have plantar fasciitis), so we got the car and went wine tasting. You knew it was going to happen sooner or later. We had high hopes since we loved the wines from Okanagan Valley, but sadly, the island wines just weren't as good.

Our first stop was at Marley Farm, which really is a farm with chickens and sheep. We tasted a Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, and a couple of fruit wines, which were surprisingly dry, but Hubby said that the Rastaberry still tasted like Kool-Aid.

We had time for one more, so we chose Church & State, which looked to be a bit more of a higher-end production. We tried several of their wines, and while they were not bad, none really stood out. Saddened and disappointed, we headed back toward Victoria.

Fear not, however! We did have reservations for High Tea at the Empress, which my Canadian friend told me was the thing to do. I was excited to do something that seemed to elegant and girly, which, yes, is out of character, but I do have to indulge the girly side sometimes. It was as wonderful as promised with a variety of tea sandwiches, scones, and little desserts. The Empress Blend tea was also very good, and we even got to bring home a little souvenir tin.

We crashed for a bit after that, and after doing some light reading, went out for dinner.

Our reservations at Café Brio were for 8:30 since high tea had been so heavy, but even three hours later, I could only handle an appetizer-sized entrée. That meant I had to make it good. I got the Casarecchia Pasta, which had a ragout made of red wine and duck as well as mint and oranges. It sounds a little strange, but it tasted really good. I went with the suggested wine pairing, the 2005 Campofiorin “Ripasso,” a red blend of 70% Corvina, 25% Rondinella, and 5% Molinara from the Veneto region of Italy. An Italian big red with some earthiness, it did go well with the food.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Travelin' Oenophile: Part 2, Port_________

Spotty posting due to lack of free hotel internets. Yes, it’s quite annoying. At least when I’m back in Seattle, I can count it as a business expense.

I’d left off at Saturday morning, when we left Seattle for Portland. The drivers here in the Northwest bewilder me. Hubby says it’s because I have an inner Yankee who comes out when I get behind the wheel of the car. I think it’s because I’m used to driving in Atlanta, where the object is to get off the road as quickly as possible. But seriously, they drive the speed limit, or close to it. WTH? You'd think these people have never encountered coffee or the urgent need to "get a haircut," as the Car Talk guys say, as a result.

Due to a chaotic (the guy behind the desk described it as “disastrous”) scene at the car rental place, we were a little late getting to Portland, but still in time to meet the Smart Couple at Ringler’s for lunch. Ringler’s Pub is part of the McMenamin’s beer empire and could probably be described as “divey.” Yep, it was burger and beer time, at least for Hubby. I stuck with a burger and strawberry lemonade, which had real crushed strawberries in it, because if I start drinking too early and then don’t continue, I get grumpy. I had the “Dungeon Burger,” which has sautéed mushrooms and melted Swiss on top of it. He had the “Communication Failure,” which is topped with sautéed bell peppers and onions as well as cheddar cheese. Both came with fries and were really good. Hubby enjoyed his wheat beer, which he described as tasting “like toast.” This has been a theme for the wheat beers up here.

After lunch, Smart Female convinced me – yeah, it was tough – to accompany her to her favorite chocolate store and café, Cacao. The Smart Couple had the cinnamon drinking chocolate, and I opted for a less, though not by much, heavy dark hot chocolate. Hubby abstained since his mission for the afternoon was more beer. The dark hot chocolate was intense and creamy and perfect even without whipped cream.

A bit of background… I met the Smart Couple through an email list-serv that has nothing to do with food and wine, although the foodies on the list do sometimes wax eloquent on those topics. This couple moderates the list, and we met and became friends with them on our previous trip to this part of the country.

They know many many things about subjects I don’t know much about, so I took the opportunity to drag them (ha!) kicking and screaming to Powell’s, the world’s largest independent bookstore. It covers an entire city block and has books on every subject imaginable. One of the things that I most enjoy about it is that it has the used books shelved right with the new ones, so it’s easy to find good deals even beyond their usual mark-down.

We had originally planned to go to Caprial’s Bistro for dinner, but a little Portland thing changed that. Hubby got a room through Priceline at the elegant Benson Hotel, which was right along the route for the Starlight Parade, the kickoff event for the annual Rose Festival. They pretty much told us not to plan to come or go by car anywhere between 7:00 p.m. and midnight, so that killed the plan to go to Southwest Portland for dinner.

Instead, we ended up at Park Kitchen, which happened to be on one of the parks used as a staging area for the parade. Portland’s motto is “Keep Portland Weird,” and I am happy to report that they are doing a fantastic job of it. Between marching bands, a drum corps drilling without drums, people running through in togas, and crazy floats, it was a show even before the parade started. I felt sorry for the director for the band lining up by us who kept reminding the students to look at him, a difficult task when people are streaking by in togas (alas, no real streakers).

Oh, right, dinner… We decided to do the “Small Plate Tasting Menu,” which for a set price, gave us most of the small plates on the menu plus a couple that the chef made up plus dessert. We were astounded at the amount of food that just kept coming out of the kitchen! All of it was really good.

On Sunday morning, Hubby and I went to Ken’s Artisan Bakery for breakfast, where I continued my search for the perfect ham and cheese croissant, and Hubby had a slice of veggie quiche. Then we killed time before church in the International Rose Test Gardens, which are part of Washington Park and overlook the city. Some of the roses were only just budding, but most of them were in bloom, and there were every different color imaginable, even some “black” ones. I think Hubby was disturbed by my idea to put one of the black rosebushes in the back bed.

Sunday brunch was with Hubby’s great uncle and family at Shenanigans, the restaurant at the Red Lion at Jantzen Beach. The food was good with many different choices from omelettes to sushi, and the view of the Columbia River is spectacular. All of that paled in comparison to the company.

I took it easy on the champagne because I knew we’d have to say goodbye to delightfully weird Portland and head out to Port Angeles to catch the ferry to Victoria on Monday morning. The drive took us along the water and through the hills and, I think, a couple of different dimensions because although it was only about three and a half hours, it felt like forever. We arrived at twilight (the time of day, not the movie, which was, apparently, filmed there) to a chill and the smell of wood smoke in the air, which only heightened the odd feeling that we’d left summer and found fall again. Dinner was at a mediocre restaurant that doesn’t bear mention, and then it was off to bed.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Travelin' Oenophile: PAC-NW, Part One, Arrival in Seattle

Hubby and I are in Canada now, so I haven't been able to Tweet since this morning, infernal addictive application. If you're interested, you can follow me @RandomOenophile

Our journeys began Friday, when the day condensed to make it difficult for us to get out of the house in a comfortably early fashion. At least it wasn't like our last trip to the Pacific Northwest when, kid you not, we were running on to the plane in sock feet. In case you hadn't noticed, the flight from Atlanta to Seattle is long. Really long. Like, two more hours and I could've been in Europe long. The bratty eighteen-month-old whose parents somehow managed to ignore him didn't help.

But we made it and immediately attended to the pressing matter of finding late-night sushi. Okay, it wasn't really late night for them, but it felt late for us. We asked the trendy young man who had checked us in, and he sent us to Red Fin, where "Happy Hour" is from 10:00 to 11:00 p.m. How great is that??? We each had a glass of the 2006 Abbey Page Pinot Gris (Willamette Valley, OR) and shared a spicy crab roll and mixed sushi (four pieces of fish). The wine was a bit lighter bodied than I expected for this part of the world, but it went well with the food.

Saturday morning we popped awake at 6:30 and joined the rest of the jet-lagged East coasters at Pike Place for breakfast. We chose Le Panier, the "Very French Bakery," where we enjoyed coffee and ham and cheese croissants. Then it was off to Portland!