A Much Needed West
So last week we went west, all the way to Seattle to vacation and recharge from what has been a rough first half of 2012. We met up with Christina’s brother Stevie and mom Mrs. A, for a Northwest version of summer, mostly sunny at 68 degrees. The weather was extraordinary, especially considering what we left, 106 and muggy with temperatures beating down even the most adherent of sun worshipers. Regardless, like most of my ramblings what will follow consists of musings on tasty food we enjoyed, sights seen, and adventures not very venturesome, I hope you will enjoy…
Before I begin though I must make a small confession as to a weakness, perhaps more a temptation, that I succumbed to whilst I was away. The past couple of weeks I have made a decision to try, and a concerted effort to adhere to, a new regimen of daily exercise and a low glycemic index recommended diet, basically meaning low starch meals, consisting of more of greens, lean meats, fruits and vegetables. This diet which is quite tasty, rarely leaving me hungry, however is very difficult to maintain when traveling distant lands. This being said the tasty treats I will be sharing are not the foods of the new and improved JCM, rather an indulgent walk on the wild and heavy side ventured by the on vacation JCM. With that acknowledgment I am thankful to report that I only added a lb or so back during my hiatus from healthy living and the fridge has been restocked with all manners green and delicious, now on to the week away…
So the first step into debauchery began with a sip. We had just stepped off our misty morning ferry ride to the San Juan Islands when it was suggested I warm up with a taste of a latte dosed with real caramel, and as the Jerry Maguire character so aptly said it “had me at hello”. The taste was subtle, it transfixed me in my youth, when the height of rustic winter treats was that of a burning marsh mellow on the end of a stick. The charred sweetness that was instantly delicate and simultaneously complex filled my nose with its warm bouquet and for a moment I was 12 again. Of course as indicative of most truly special moments I spent the rest of the trip unsuccessfully trying to recapture that divine taste of childhood, but then again it was fun trying.
The next culinary delight was an attempt to adhere to my ambition of healthy eating. Located right off the water crouched the Cask and Schooner. A “pubeatery”, with a bar patroned by the locals and a decor and menu tempting hungry travelers fresh off the boat, the Cask and Schooner has a rare blend of being a tourist destination and local agreed exploit. The menu, which had the traditional prerequisites of clam chowder and fish and chips, surprisingly offered unanticipated dining opportunities such as sauteed kale with garbonzo beans. This dish, which ultimately would be my final attempt at “diet” adherence, consisted of an intriguing palette of flavors and textures. The earthiness of the kale was softened through its buttered abused preparation to an almost creaminess and then further offset and accentuated by a slightly firm and curried garbonzo bean centerpiece. The first surprise arrived as the food being offered up as a small plate in distinctly pub house setting with the additional pleasant surprise of it’s eastern feel and taste. The dish was truly fantastic. For those of you who are curious though as to how were the fish and chips, I mean the establishment does indeed have a ship in it’s name, and rests a mere 30 yards off the water, never fear, if you enjoy a fine plate of brown, the Cask and Schooner serves a fine traditional fried cod with tasty thin fries, with malt vinegar delivered without so much as a utterance needed, indeed, they have your pub food covered.
Another tasty restaurant, that we actually dined at for multiple meals, was Downriggers. Downriggers, which happened to be across the street from the earlier discussed Cask and Schooner, had unparalleled views of the harbor and marina, and a very nice menu as well. Where as Cask and Schooner easily accepted the traditional role of the local pub house, Downriggers strived to be more of the clubhouse. They too had fish and chips, clam chowder, and the other fine meals one might pair with a local pale ale, but they also had a touch of California nouveau, case in point the Shrimp Ceviche Starter. This was an excellently executed appetizer that Christina decided to order as we awaited the evenings fireworks display. The shrimp were bite size, perfectly charred on the grill, and maintained that plump taste that great shrimp are coveted for. They were served on house made tortilla chips with tomato, onion, mango, cilantro and silvers of jalapeno rings. The appetizer was fantastic in that it had enough heat in it to warm your head, but the cilantro kept it from becoming a mouth fire. Speaking of fire, I am happy to report that we had a lovely fireworks display after dinner that evening, during which I was to partake in another devilish delight, the Creme Brulee. This fire kissed dessert is one that I always have a hard time resisting, and the Downrigger’s version is one that I would happily have again.
As for other dining opportunities we enjoyed a few, with Vinny’s Italian restaurant winning the award for friendliest. Our hostess was one of the owners and she was kind enough to share all about the island and what would be the upcoming 4th of July’s town celebration. She went so far as to invite Christina to walk with Georgia in the pet parade, we deferred however citing the wild and unpredictable nature of our sweet but leash impaired pooch. Vinny’s was tucked away off the main city street but literally next door to where we were staying, so after a long day of walking the harbor (read window shopping) it was the perfect place to pick up a plate of Italian sausage penne.
Thinking back it was pretty impressive that there were so many fine dining options available in such a small community, even with the economy being more resort destination based. We also were told of a number of other places which due mostly to time and wallet ended up being prohibitive. That said for those who maybe considering a jaunt to the San Juan Islands bring an appetite for there is a lot to explore.
Mentioning exploring, I would be remiss if I didn’t share the beautiful accommodations that Christina arranged for us during our stay at Friday Harbor. The Island Inn at 123 West was a fantastic hotel that started life out as luxury condo units. Completed in 2009 at the height of the economy meltdown Island Inn’s management decided to re-envision the property as a upscale hotel, and they have done a fantastic job. The living spaces have been split into 2 styles of rooms, a Euro Suite which has small private rooms with a shared living space like you find in many of Europe’s historic hotels, or the Penthouse Suites, which are basically 1, 2, or 3 bedroom suites with full kitchens and private baths. The rooms were amazing, the views from the small deck extraordinary, and the guest services fantastic. At the end of every day after wandering all over Friday Harbor it was a blessing to return to 123 West where we could start up the fireplace and truly feel as if we were at home.
Speaking of doing as opposed to eating, Friday Harbor has a lot to offer on that front as well. Being a tourist hot spot you have your typical t-shirt boutiques with the local flair being discounted to 8 dollar steals. Additionally there are your specialty toy stores that offer as much in the way of learning as playing, always a mild disappointment when I was young and thought to be the target audience. Magnets, mugs, stickers and doodahs, if this is your idea of vacation bliss have no worries you are covered, Friday Harbor has a store for nearly every vacation vice. If treasure hunting for local arts is more your scene, your in luck, SJI with a standing population of no more than about 6000 residents had not 1 art gallery but 4 (at least that we saw). The first we visited was a lovely gallery that specialized in folk art of the Northwest named Arctic Raven Gallery. Raven, bear, wolf and orca were all found carved in the traditional motifs and woods used by the indigenous people of the West through British Columbia, Vancouver and beyond. The gallery which left no member of the buying public behind had everything from magnets and mugs available for a song to elaborately carved shaman headdresses that were available for many thousands of dollars. The gallery keepers quick with a hello were easily able to share with you the provenance of their wares often providing a bio of the artists they represented. Arctic Raven was a lovely shop that we found ourselves wandering into more than once.
The second gallery, Island Studios, was more of a one stop art collective that represented over 100 of the local artists that call SJI their home. Much of the work on view here fell into the category of Island living and representation. Island Studios was a fun store to peruse and it had some lovely oils at a very reasonable price but ultimately I was hard pressed to separate from the little cash left in my back pocket.
The final gallery we went to was the San Juan Islands Museum of Art. This little venue was off the main street and had a lovely little space that currently had a silent auction running on the photography exhibition of ocean life photographer Ernest H. Brooks II. The show was nice to check out and I am glad we were able to catch the museum open on our last day. Additionally if sculpture is more your thing on the other side of the island near Roche Harbor you can find the museum’s sculpture park. As I said at the beginning I was impressed to see the number of art venues in a community as small as SJI, with that, we only had time to find and explore so many, thus if you are thinking about heading to Friday Harbor and you are interested in checking out the local scene you may want to visit the Friday Harbor Gallery Association page for the latest on what’s happening in the Arts.
Now eating, shopping, and parade viewing are all fine ways to spend ones time when at Friday Harbor, but the experience Christina had set her sights on from day one, was the Whale watching expeditions. Every year around this time Orcas (Killer whales, Shamoo) can be found traversing the waters of the San Juan Islands. These 3 pods containing nearly 100 whales attract hundreds of hopeful sightseers daily. With that Christina turned to me on our second day there and said with steely determination “Darling, make this happen…” Now with task in hand I set off to do my research through the time tested method of looking at the brochure kiosk and asking the concierge “which is the good one?” Okay okay so I did in fact use both those methods but I did narrow my search parameters a bit to include which is the smallest hull but bigger than a rubber raft, and with that we settled in on Captain Hobbes. Captain Hobbes who has been taking people out to watch the whales for over twelve years now was the perfect choice for our porpoises (sorry I couldn’t help myself). Incidentally Captain Hobbes is also a professionally trained chef who during the off season picks up the kitchen knives to cook in some of SJI fine kitchens, additionally he has a food blog that you can check out here. His boat, which he just purchased so he could be his own boss, sits 6 and is a tight well kept vessel. He gave us a run down of the various sights we saw and presented us with topical lessons on the wildlife we saw, which include bay sea lions and the orcas. One tidbit that I found interesting was that the longer the sea lions are in the water the whiter they become due to loss of body heat, as they surface to sun bathe they return to the dark brown color as they warm. The water by the way is a chilly 55 degrees in the summer, not ideal for swimming. About 30 minutes into our 3 hour tour we had our first whale sighting. It was magnificent. The whales, which can grow up to 30 feet and weigh 1000s of pounds, are truly exquisite beasts. Captain Hobbes explained about the pods and the “easy” way to identify males from females by the shape of their dorsal fin. He also told us of “Granny” the matriarch of the bunch, who has been recorded seen in those waters for the last 101 years, making her the eldest in the group by far. The trip which left the marina around 10:30 was the perfect way to celebrate Christina’s Birthday. Captain Hobbes gave the right amount of information and ultimately showed us close to 50 whales that day, it was a great adventure. My only regret is that I didn’t have my long lens for my camera. Due to the endangered nature of the whales, boats are supposed to approach no closer than 200 yards of the animals and because of this the whales are often appear about the size of a penny held at arms distance. Captain Hobbes did have binoculars which we could use but honestly I have never been very good at viewing through them. Regardless the trip was a lot of fun and we couldn’t have been happier with our morning on the boat.
Needless to say our trip out West was a well needed break for Christina and a much deserved respite. After a week of sunny 60′s it may be difficult to face the heat but we both have been re-energized by the sights and smells, tastes and wonders that one can only seem to have while on vacation. The Pacific Northwest is a beautiful part of the country that is a joy to visit, my only hope is that it is not another 3 years before we get to travel there again. As always thank you for stopping by and checking in on my ramblings, I hope that this finds you well and you too are making wonderful summer memories…