THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST: A TAUCK TOUR, SEPT. 6-13, 2014
I had never been to the Pacific Northwest but it had long been on my wish list. Having led 150 tour groups to 20 destinations abroad hadn’t left me with lots of time for the USA. Having taken three previous tours with Tauck, I knew I wanted that quality for my first trip to the northwest. The itinerary included Portland OR, Seattle WA, Vancouver Island, and Vancouver BC with stops in between.
I flew into Portland a day before the tour began, always a smart precaution given the potential for airline delays and cancellations. Despite arriving ahead of the group, Tauck sent a representative to the airport who guided me to a limo from the airport to my hotel. I spent the first night in the Hilton Hotel since it was half the price of the Westin where Tauck reserved the group. Having awakened at 4 am I didn’t plan much in the city that day but enjoyed a stroll along the waterfront, a short walk from most downtown hotels, stopping for a great seafood platter at Newport Seafood, a delightful floating restaurant with views of a small marina and local boat traffic. (Unless otherwise noted, all photos in this essay were taken by the author. Click on the photos to enlarge).
Saturday Sept. 6: Portland
The tour began with a reception and dinner September 6 so I had most of the day to explore on my own. The Tauck agenda did not mention a visit to Washington Park and its Rose Garden and Japanese Garden, so I hailed a taxi and started there. The rose garden was unexpectedly spectacular since it was no longer summer. Thousands of blooms of every color perfumed the park.
The Japanese Garden lived up to expectations for tranquility, waterfalls, and liliponds, but the azaleas only bloom in the spring so there was virtually nothing flowering. Since there is no regular taxi traffic in the park, I was relieved that the ticket vendor there phoned a cab for me.
In addition to an excellent breakfast at the Hilton, reception was kind enough to grant me a 1 pm checkout so I wasn’t rushed in my move to the nearby Westin Portland where the tour started. Having walked in the park for hours, I enjoyed a restful catchup on my email and web news before meeting the 34 people in the Tauck group and our tour conductor Debbie Otto at a 5 pm reception with an open bar and canapés. We met our driver for the tour, Edmund, and went by motor coach to the Davis Street Tavern. Debbie said it was a former burlesque theater so I expected strip steak but that comment didn’t earn any belly laughs. There were several choices on the three-course menu and decent wines. We sat at long, wide tables making conversation very difficult since to talk to the person on your right you have to turn your back to the person on your left. In my own tours, I always requested round tables for 6 to 8 persons, although many restaurants have only square tables for the flexibility in arranging for small or large groups.
I liked Portland especially because we had such good weather, which might not be true for other times of the year. My impression based on seeing a small part of the city is that an enormous number of residents live in a 1960’s time warp wearing hippie garb and sporting pony tails with jeans and tee-shirts for dress occasions
Sunday Sept. 7: Portland City Tour and Mt. Hood
It’s so hard to workout due to limited time on a tour so I had to do pushups and situps in the hotel room before breakfast which I hate but I feel more virtuous attacking the large hotel breakfasts always included on Tauck tours. Our 8 am city tour started too early for my preference but was required for our long agenda that day. The city streets proved a challenge due to a marathon and many detours meant we arrived late at the Rose Garden, included in the tour albeit not on the agenda. We didn’t spend much time there so several of us who had done it the day before were glad we did.
Next we enjoyed a long but scenic drive to Mt. Hood volcano with lunch at the Timberline Lodge national monument, dedicated by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937, one of the most successful projects of the WPA and CCC and a striking testimony to the fact that government can do good work in a crisis.
We had a delightful lunch in the lodge with wine, views of the mountain (and round tables for a change), and time to stroll around the hotel and grounds for photo ops. Later in the afternoon we had a stop at Mt. Hood Winery for a tasting of five wines, palatable but not memorable.
On our route back to the hotel along the Columbia River gorge we stopped at the Multnomah Falls, at 620 feet, the tallest falls in Oregon.
Monday Sept. 8: Portland to Seattle
Our coach left the hotel at 8:30 am for the drive to Seattle with views of strip malls that could have been in virtually any state. At a rest stop for washrooms, Debbie produced decadent cookies to accompany the free coffee. We arrived about 11:30 am at our lunch spot at Alki Point in Seattle with a great view of the cityscape across the water, disappointed by a not-unexpected overcast sky and some mist which fortunately cleared up in the afternoon. (Actually the climate here suffers from many misconceptions and the city actually has less annual rainfall than Boston).
We had several choices from the menu of busy Salty’s restaurant, then divided into three groups in 12-passenger vans for our guided city tour of lovely neighborhoods, especially Queen Anne’s Hill in Kerry Park with great views.
We didn’t get to our Westin Hotel until 4:45 pm so there was just enough time to shower and change for our 5:30 drive to the Space Needle where we enjoyed a good dinner in the revolving restaurant with sensational night views of the city. Such places aren’t usually noted for their food but I can recommend this one. It was a great finish to a pleasant day.
Tuesday Sept. 9: Seattle’s Pike Place Market with the afternoon and evening at leisure.
Despite an enormous breakfast, I was not disappointed that we started the morning at the Pike Place Market for a walking-sampling tour of the local gastronomy in small groups with cheerful, humorous local guides. We must have noshed on about 15 samples and enjoyed the throwing of the fish from the fishmonger to the wrapper and cashier. Visiting a market like this always makes me wish I could spend more time in the area and cook for myself.
After the market tour, many of us enjoyed an optional drop-off at the Space Needle for the adjacent Chihuly Glass museum and I’m so glad I chose to do that. I had no idea the glass sculptures and chandeliers were so enormous and impressive, and the garden of glass flowers so captivating. This place is a must-see venue for visitors to Seattle, and it can be described only with photos.
For more professional photos of this sensational site, see its website http://www.chihulygardenandglass.com.
The afternoon allowed time for shopping, visiting other attractions on our list, perhaps a siesta (always for me) and time to post my photos online for family and friends. For our free evening I had scheduled dinner with Jason Feldman, a long-time friend, the son of my grad school house mate. He works in the noble profession of public health in the Puget Sound area. We met at Purple, the chic place dominating the local buzz at the moment, an impressive, modernized warehouse-style venue with high ceilings and steel columns, steel chairs and even steel napkin rings. The gourmet menu is pricey of course, but crowded always so one must reserve in advance. Jason pointed out that I was the only person in the place wearing a sport coat, but I don’t feel I need to succumb to the casual downgrading of dress everywhere. My meal was fine but not exceptional. I enjoyed a balmy evening on my walk back to the hotel. I had been advised that September is the best month in the northwest and the fabulous weather I enjoyed sure bore out the truth of that
Wednesday, Sept. 10: Seattle to Victoria BC.
Our motor coach departed the Westin at 8 am for a drive to the ferry that took us on a delightful crossing to Port Angeles where we had an early lunch at the Down Rigger restaurant with pleasant views of the water. We had an appointment for the bus and passengers for a 12:30 transit on another ferry to Vancouver Island and Victoria BC. Splendid weather again made the voyage a delight. On bussing off the ferry, Debbie collected all our passports and handed them out the window to the Canadian customs official who returned them surprisingly quickly and we were on our way two blocks to the Hotel Grand Pacific.
The hotel was just a block from the BC Parliament and two blocks from the Royal BC Museum with an excellent collection of artifacts illustrating the history of the First Nations (Canada’s term for the native peoples) and a temporary exhibit on the Vikings. Alas, there was no real time to explore the city and most of the group felt we needed another day in Victoria. Less than half a day in the provincial capital was less than satisfactory. We had dinner on our own and I chose to stay in the hotel after so much time on my feet in the museum. It was a good opportunity to enjoy more of the region’s tasty wild salmon.
Thursday, Sept. 11: Victoria to Vancouver & the Butchart Gardens.
The day started off inconspicuously but ended up being one of the really best travel days of my life. We departed the hotel at 9 am for a drive along the coast and a view of the stunning mansions of the rich in suburban Victoria. We stopped at Sea Cider for a sampling of locally produced apple wines with canapés. It was a pleasant stop but grape growers need not feel threatened by the competition. Many of us wished we had skipped this stop and arrived at the gardens earlier. We didn’t get started on our independent walk through Butchart Gardens until 11:30 am and Tea/Lunch in the dining room was scheduled for 1 pm, so many of us felt rushed. Ninety minutes really isn’t enough time for one of the premier attractions of British Columbia and one of the best-known gardens in the world.
The Butchart Gardens, (http://www.butchartgardens.com) a national historic site, boasts a huge 55 acres of plantings with seasonal variations. (The largest flower garden in the world is Jardines de México, a half hour south of Cuernavaca, covering 250 acres with 100 acres in bloom, even in the winter, www.jardinesdemexico.org). Only photographs can do justice to the beauty at Butchart. In September the tuberous begonias and dahlias seemed to be the most prolific and I would love to see it again in the spring with different blooms.
Our visit included a high-tea lunch in the dining room of what had been the owner’s home. For me it was a bit disappointing due to my low-carb lifestyle. Huge trays of sweets and pastries accompanied the excellent tea but I craved some absent protein. I was probably the exception since most of the group seemed quite pleased by the sweets.
The highlight of the day and of the entire tour was our transfer to Vancouver. Instead of taking the bus to the ferry, the boat ride, and then bus to the city and our hotel, we were ambled down flower-lined pathways to the cove below the gardens, a lovey inlet off the strait of Juan de Fuca. There we were enthralled as three float planes landed for us to board. The planes were a bit cramped but we flew mostly about 1000 feet on a picture-perfect day with incredible views of the islands, boat docks mansions, cabins, and ship traffic throughout the region.
Friday Sept. 12: Vancouver
After breakfast the group departed for a Vancouver city tour, including lovely Stanley Park, over a thousand acres of urban parkland, a third larger than New York’s Central Park, including beaches, lakes, a rose garden, hiking trails, children’s play areas, and the aquarium. Seeing it from a bus isn’t very satisfying but it allows one to pick an area to return to if time allows.
Next we stopped at the Capilano Suspension Bridge on a privately-owned forest reserve in North Vancouver. The 460 foot wire-cable bridge is suspended 230 feet above the Capilano River. Frankly, I could have done without the boring lecture on its history and I can’t handle heights so this was a bust for me. Just watching how the bridge swayed from side to side as dozens of tourists trampled across it kept me on the sidelines.
I also had to skip the recently-added Cliff Walk, a narrow steel walkway anchored to the granite cliffs that descend 300 feet into the canyon. It’s a marvel of engineering and construction for those who can handle the scary descent, described in an excellent photo-essay in Popular Mechanics magazine. (http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/engineering/gonzo/the-daring-engineering-behind-vancouvers-capilano-cliffwalk.) I would have preferred the aquarium and rose garden or a nice quiet cruise on Vancouver harbor, but hundreds of thousands of visitors a year attest to this venue’s popularity among the less cowardly.
We were on our own for lunch and I enjoyed a great seafood lunch at Cardero’s restaurant on Coal Harbor Quay, less than a block from the Westin Hotel. I was lucky to find a single table since so many diners come to enjoy the view of the harbor and yacht marina. The yachts sported a dozen or more for-sale signs with the smallest on offer for 1.2 million dollars.
At 4:30 the group departed again for the Granville Island Public Market where local guides divided us into small groups with “whispers” (audio headsets) and led us to numerous food stands for samples of local fare. My favorite was a popular charcuterie shop where we sampled a superb selection of sausages.
The market tour ended at Edible Canada restaurant which bills itself as an “unpretentious…150 seat bistro” for our farewell dinner. Unlike the usual extravagant Tauck farewells in deluxe venues, usually with music, this was a bit too casual for some of us who like an occasional dress-up event. Many women had brought party dresses expecting the usual Tauck finale, but here shorts and polo shirts were common. There was no open bar, just a watery, sweet cocktail, and beer or wine. We were seated at a long table where it was impossible to talk to more than a few people. The gazpacho and steak were excellent, with a salad or salmon alternatives, but the tour ended “not with a bang but a whimper.” Still, the program was named “a sample of the Pacific Northwest” and we certainly enjoyed an enormous sample of culinary and visual delights. While I quibble about things I might have done differently, I can highly recommend this tour as a superb introduction for first-timers to the region.
Fortunately I had two extra days in Vancouver which I enjoyed exploring on the hop on/hop off open-air bus. I had hoped Tauck would have a follow-up tour to either Alaska or the Canadian Rockies, but nothing coordinated in a timely way with the end of the Northwest tour, so I booked a rail tour to the Rockies, described in another post.