Portland the Go To Destination for Girls Weekend

On the flight to Auckland I watched a few episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. My bf Harriet, like Anthony, is willing to try any food and appreciates provocative taste combinations. A few weeks ago we met up for a  girl’s weekend in Portland, Oregon. Harriet drove up from Humboldt County in time for Friday night dinner. Portland is a haven for foodies and we did our best to eat our way through town.

Pickle platter at Kenny and Zuke's Deli
Pickle platter at Kenny and Zuke’s Deli

I arrived by plane earlier in the day and enjoyed the convenience of catching the light rail from the airport to downtown. Immediately I picked up on the Portland vibe where all the men have beards and even the women wear plaid.  We were seeking: the Portlandia experience with the hipster dialed down just a bit.

Hetta and I like to stay at the Mark Spencer Hotel in the Pearl District because of its close proximity to the places we love most.  It also allows pets and we keep promising ourselves to one day travel with Bill the cat or Radar the dog.  I checked in and appreciated the updates to the rooms; for the same value they are seriously spruced up! And the front desk honored my return visit discount card (though the website did not when I made my reservations).

It was mid-afternoon and I was feeling peckish so I went across the street to Kenny and Zuke’s Deli and ordered the plate of all things pickled.  It was tasty and a great way to wade into Portland cuisine—just up to my ankles.

While I may be a plodder when it comes to eating, I have a flair for shopping. I dropped in to a couple of my favorites in Portland. First Knit Purl, a yarn shop that has inspiring window displays and a terrific website. I found a Scandinavian knitting design book that will help me when I tackle my Norwegian pattern, and the most recent issue of Debbie Bliss’ magazine.  I was tempted by the Shibui Knits yarn, but resisted. The weekend was just starting and I had plans to buy a bike.  On the same block is Josephine’s Dry Goods fabric store. My stomach dropped when I saw the “We’re Closing” sale sign. The owner is retiring and she has every right to, but this was one of the few places I could count on finding terrific cotton prints, including Liberty of London. It is the anti-Joanne’s and next time in Portland it will not be there.   (heavy sigh)For the weeks prior to my Portland weekend I researched the Brompton foldable bike.  I fell in love with Brompton’s in a deluxe bike shop in Paris. On the website I discovered there were no dealers near where I live and there are two in Portland. Why not buy it in a place with no sales tax? The first shop on my list is across the street from our hotel.  The Westend bike shop has a great selection of bikes and a coffee bar (of course).  They only had a couple of Brompton’s in stock and I was able to take one for a test drive.  It was very comfortable to ride and I was convinced that this was going to be my next bike purchase.  I decided not to pull the trigger until Harriet arrived and we had a chance to go the second shop.

Westend Bikes in Portland
Westend Bikes in Portland

Hetta and I have been friends since second grade and we bonded over children’s books. Her mom would take us to the library each week and we would both check out the limit, read them quickly and then trade before the week was up.  We still share books, so of course part of the Pearl District’s allure is that it hosts the Powell’s Books flagship store. We always spent a considerable amount of time at Powell’s.

The plan for dinner on Friday was to drive to the Alberta neighborhood to meet up with my friend Lisa and her partner Meg and walk to Pok Pok Noi.  Added bonus, this is the neighborhood that inspired Beverly Cleary’s books (Henry Huggins, Ramona and Beezus).  I found Pok Pok on Urban Spoon and then Lisa and Meg confirmed that it was inspired Thai food.  The menu is not typical thai. We started with the amazing chicken wings and ate all kinds of other terrific dishes with sticky rice.  We walked back via Alberta Street and managed to work up enough appetite for Meg’s truly amazing blueberry and mascarpone tart.

Favorite bookstore on the West Coast
Favorite bookstore on the West

On Saturday we started our day with breakfast at Tasty n Alder. Harriet went for the Korean egg dish–it finished cooking at the table and had yummy, spicy, crunchy bits.

Lisa joined us later in the morning and we walked to Portland State University for the Saturday market. On the way we passed at least 3 parking lots full of food trucks. Portland embraced permissive zoning and as a result it is much easier for creative chefs to get a start.  Many of them have crossed over to brick and mortar restaurants.  The Saturday Market is also chock a block with food stalls.  Even though we were not hungry, we tried a delicious lamb dish.The walking helped, but while I was watching Anthony Bourdain, I had a flashback to the feeling in Portland—too much rich and wonderful food in too short a time.  My stomach felt queasy watching Anthony eat so much black truffle, cheesy and saucy dishes in Quebec.

We parted with Lisa after hugs all around, and continued the shopping adventure. We drove to Hawthorne Boulevard to Clever Cycles to complete my quest for a foldable bike. Eureka! This shop has a huge selection and a real Brompton enthusiast in Todd.  I purchased the bike that I now call “Black Beauty” with Harriet’s full approval.  We drove back via Reed College.

We decided to scale back with dinner and walked to Lardo, one of Portland’s food truck success stories.  I scaled back my order, but I still found room to try Ruby Jewel for a scoop of ice cream. The next morning we eased into the day with a walk to Mother’s Bistro and Bar for a full breakfast.  It was decadent and delicious. Oh boy, my tummy was reaching “tilt”.  

Harriet had a long drive ahead and left shortly after breakfast. I planned to write all day until my late evening flight.  It was raining on and off so I kept one eye for a break in the weather to test drive my new bike. Getting a little exercise helped to balance out a high calorie, high friendship weekend.


American as… pie

Pie Ranch on California Highway 1
Pie Ranch on California Highway 1

While driving from Capitola to Half Moon Bay on California Highway 1, I saw this sign and almost broke my axle turning off the road to check it out.

I love pie. I love pie more than cookies, or cake or any other sweet thing. So the idea of a ranch that produces pies sounded like heaven. And it was a little slice of.

I parked the car and entered a large barn. Pie Ranch is a combination of fruit and veggie stand, community center and pie bakery. They had hosted a barn dance the night before and they had lots of individual pies left over. I debated between ordering peach and walnut.  I chose peach pie. The filling was delicious but the crust was too dense. Still it tasted yummy.  And with a cup of coffee it made a great treat.

Pie Ranch is in Pescadero not far from the Ano Nuevo State Park famous for the colony of elephant seals that breed here in winter and an easy bike ride from the Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel.

The experience also inspired me to think about celebrating pie at least once a month. I come from a long line of pie baking women and I enjoy making pies. Yet I should not eat a whole pie alone, so I invited some friends to join me at the Wednesday Night Farmers market for “Pie Night.” And last night I made a peach pie with my friend Petrea using the recipe from Smitten Kitchen.

Tonight I took the peach pie, a blanket to sit on and a thermos of decaf coffee and shared my pie. It was delicious and just the right balance of fruit and crust.

Peaches grown in Hughson, pie made by American Julie
Peaches grown in Hughson, pie made by American Julie

Swatch: Debbie Bliss Tweed Sweater

Debbie Bliss cover sweater in black tweed wool
Debbie Bliss cover sweater in black tweed wool

I always travel with a knitting project for those long hours on the plane or delays in the airport. I started a new project for my New York adventure: the cover sweater on Debbie Bliss magazine (Fall/Winter 2013).

I want to join San Francisco Tweed on a ride this fall and I do not have a thing to wear!  As they describe their members on the website, “We at SF Tweed constitute a rare breed of cyclist — ladies and gents who refuse to endure anymore spandex! For us there is nothing better than a spin through our fair streets in the finest most dapper attire.” I love that they are more interested in socializing and enjoying the ride than exercise.

Debbie Bliss’ Peplum Jacket is straightforward knitting so it makes a good travel project.  Babetta, my yarn maven, steered me away from the Debbie Bliss yarn called for as it was very stiff and scratchy. I only knit in yarn that feels good, so I dove into elsebeth lavold’s Tweedy Wool in black. The flecks of color that make up the tweed do not show up in this photo. So far it has been a joy to knit. It will be my project in New Zealand too. I will look for buttons on my yarn crawls in Dunedin and Auckland.

Postcard from New York City

Before we stuffed our faces at Tacombi
Before we stuffed our faces at Tacombi

Never thought I would say this… especially on the east coast USA… best fish tacos I ever ate: Tacombi in Nolita, New York City.  Simply amazing. My friend Christie shared this place with me a year ago and I have been dreaming about it ever since.  I had to share it with my friend Ray and he agreed: delish!  We started with chips and guac (yum) then ordered a couple of different fish tacos. Even though I was full and satisfied after one terrific crispy fish taco, I kept eating. I felt so greedy, but who knows when I will be back.  And I will return!

The decor is also kitschy fun Baja California in a converted garage. We did not have to wait when we arrived at 8 on a Saturday. Previously had to wait 20 minutes for table.

Here is the review on Urban Spoon: http://www.urbanspoon.com/r/3/1551027/restaurant/Nolita/Tacombi-at-Fonda-Nolita-NYC

One of the world’s best: New York Botanical Garden

For years I have wanted to visit the New York Botanical Garden. On previous visits to New York City I have not been able to carve out enough time from my business commitments or I could not convince my friends that it was more interesting than say, the Statue of Liberty.  At last, I was able to spend about 3 hours in this world class botanical garden. I could have spent all day.

Largest Victorian glasshouse in USA
Largest Victorian glasshouse in USA

I entered at the Mosholu gate and proceeded to the nearest cafe. The view of the Conservatory from the terrace was breathtaking. I was overheated from my bike ride so I opted for the air-conditioned indoor dining. The chicken waldorf salad was satisfying and I poured over the garden map while I chewed.

The challenge of NYBG is choosing how to spend your time because there is so much to see and do. In an ideal visit, I would have time to just sit and relax by the soothing lily pond. (How do they grow pineapples in large pots?) And wander through the native plant garden.

Lily pond in Conservatory courtyard.
Lily pond in Conservatory courtyard.

A sure sign of the level of excellence of an institution is the quality of the staff and exhibits. NYBG manages to combine the best of both. I was lucky to visit on the last weekend of “Wild Medicine” in the Conservatory.  The exhibits packed a lot of fascinating information in a readable, entertaining way. I was torn between reading every word and pressing on to see more of the Garden.  Then they took it to another level and offered interactive booths with very knowledgeable docents giving demonstrations on tea and chocolate with samples!

Docent knew as much about tea as the best Napa winery pourer knows about wine!
Docent knew as much about tea as the best Napa winery pourer knows about wine!

I kept moving because I had only scratched the surface of the Garden and it closes at 6 pm.  I walked toward the visitor center and admired the mature plants. I have visited a number of botanical gardens and the younger gardens are at a disadvantage because a well cared for garden improves with age.  NYBG has the added advantage that due to the foresight of the founders, they even have original forest from pre-development Bronx.

Visitor Center has a second cafe and a terrific gift shop.
Visitor Center has a second cafe and a terrific gift shop.

Plus they take advantage of existing buildings like the Stone Mill. Even the more modern buildings are designed to complement the Garden. The impressive library, the gracious visitor center, and even the modern research center are all signs that the Garden is well supported by the community.

With still so much to see, I hopped on the tram and rode it through the rest of the Garden. You can hop on and off, or stay on and get a windshield tour in about 30 minutes.  I am glad I did this or I would have missed my favorite plant in the garden–the Turkey Oak.

Favorite tree in garden. Reminds me of the wonderful Moreton Bay Fig.
Favorite tree in garden. Reminds me of the wonderful Moreton Bay Fig.

My last stop before closing was at the Library. There are special films shown at designated times during the day along with special collections. My mouth dropped open at the beauty of the rotunda. I wished I had more time and promised myself that I would come back and spend the entire day. To think that at one point I thought I would visit both the Garden and the Bronx Zoo (nearby). Ha!

Beautiful library--they do not build them like this anymore.
Beautiful library–they do not build them like this anymore.

Since my visit I have been thinking about my favorite gardens. NYBG stands in a class above the rest with Kew and Missouri Botanical Garden. All the same I have enjoyed some other gardens, including:

1. Huntington Library (and gardens) in San Marino, California (near Los Angeles)

2. Filoli county estate and gardens in Woodside, California (south of San Francisco)

3. The interesting (although a little worn around edges) Cornerstone Gardens in Sonoma, California.

4. Chelsea Flower Show temporary, yet amazing gardens in London each May (May 20-24, 2014)

5. Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden at the White House and Martha Washington’s garden at Mount Vernon both in Washington, DC area.

6. Powerscourt Garden in Dublin, Ireland. Also has a tempting gift shop.

7. Bilbo Baggins’ garden at Hobbiton near Matamata, New Zealand.

8. Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top Farm in the Lake District, England.

Honorable mention: whimsical garden at Belfast Castle–lovely memories of searching for all of the “cats” and the cut flowers at the University of Portland Farmers Market.

And if I could go to any garden, real or imaginary I would go to Prince Charles’ garden at Highgrove, or the Secret Garden in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s imagination.  And my wanderlust will someday take me to Versailles, Amsterdam Flower Mart/Show, the Philadelphia Flower Show, Longwood, and Victoria, British Columbia.

What would you recommend?

Bicycling to the Botanical Gardens

Entry to Hudson River Greenway
Entry to Hudson River Greenway

After a late night on Saturday, I was not up bright and early. I pushed off about 11:30 a.m. on a 80 degree day. It was a little humid with a slight breeze along the Hudson River.

My goal was the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. Google Maps gave me a very direct route that would take 1 hour 16 minutes on a 12 mile route up 8th Avenue and along the west side of Central Park. My friend recommended using the Hudson River Parkway instead. So I pedaled North along the river until the far end of Riverside Park at 125th Street. The greenway was packed with cyclists, roller bladers, walkers with and without strollers. The cyclists ride like New Yorkers drive; that is, they abide by the rules of the road occasionally. It kept me on my toes and my thumb on Black Beauty’s bell.

Take a bite of the big apple on your bike.
Take a bite of the big apple on your bike.

I stopped along the way and bought a Aquafina and Diet Pepsi from a vending machine and enjoyed the view.

There are only a few opportunities to cross the westside highway to get back into Manhattan. I crossed under the highway at 125th Street and found myself in Harlem.

As to safety in NYC, it was broad daylight and I never felt truly unsafe. Riding in a very urban environment is a challenge for me as I ride mostly in Davis, California and environs. This is like training for a mountain ride at sea level on the flat. I was worried about getting lost because I was using my phone and Google Maps app and in the sunshine it was a challenge to read.

I read the book BikeNYC for advice and I was most worried about getting “doored”.  There is also a lot of different paving and a plethora of manhole covers and other kinds of metal covers on the street.

My original plan was to borrow my friend’s lock, but this went awry because he does not ever leave his bike away from home. So I knew that wherever I went I’d need to fold my bike and push it rather than leave it locked.

My Brompton bike attracts attention and at one point two guys in a tricked out Mercedes followed me slowly. It crossed my mind that someone might steal my bike out from under me, so I practiced defensive riding. I spotted a guy taking photos ahead on the sidewalk. I stopped by him, got off and walked in a new direction on the sidewalk for a block. It was enough to shake them.

Harlem is not scary
Harlem is not scary

Let’s face it, New York City is a far cry from the scary legends I heard when I was growing up. The real challenge was finding my way across the Macombs Dam Bridge.

By the time I crossed the bridge and entered the Bronx I had been riding Black Beauty for almost 2 hours with only short breaks. I was wearing jeans, not bike shorts, so it is official: my Brooks bike seat is fantastically comfortable.

The other good news: New York is almost as flat as Sacramento, California.  I was feeling pretty good and more mentally tired from watching for car doors opening and trying to find my way along.  My daughter rode across the USA with Bike and Build and I remembered how they navigated and realized why it was a great way to stay on course. They just typed out the directions on a small piece of paper and taped it to their handle bars. My route would look something like:

Turn right on Hudson River Greenway, ride 9 miles.

Turn right on 125th Street.

Turn left on St. Nicholas Street…

and so on. Good lesson for the next ride.

The new Yankee Stadium at game time.
The new Yankee Stadium at game time.

Crossing the bridge was far from intuitive, so I asked the policewoman who was directing traffic how to cross on a bicycle and she did not know. A lot of people bicycle in New York but I guess it still is a novelty to some.

I was rewarded with a great view of Yankee Stadium once I crossed the bridge. A game had just started and people were still pouring into the stadium. I love visiting ballparks and I was tempted to stop and try to buy a ticket. As a Giants fan and secondarily as a Red Sox fan I felt slightly guilty. Plus I have been trying to get to the New York Botanical Garden for years. I checked Google maps and pedaled on.

Riding along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx
Riding along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx

Again, the reputation of the Bronx is much worse than current reality. My main beef was with all of the drivers who viewed the beautiful bike lane as “reserved parking” and twice I had to brake hard as a cab darted in just in front of me to drop off a fare.

I was getting closer to the Garden and my mental focus was wearing down. Google Maps had me ride to Bedford Park Boulevard and enter the NY Botanical Garden from the Bedford Park Gate.

The New York Botanical Garden website encourages you to ride your bike and provides some guidance on how to arrive. It does say that you can not ride your bike in the grounds; however, I thought if I folded up my bike I could push it around like a stroller. I should have probably folded it up before approaching the ticket booth. The staff would not let me take my bike in and suggested I leave it in the parking garage a half block away.

Close to Botanical Garden train stop and parking garage
Close to Botanical Garden train stop and parking garage

I rode to the parking garage and discovered that instead of bike lockers there is just a classic s-shape bike rack. I was close to tears now as I was so close to the Garden but could not get inside.

I saw an official looking man driving a golf cart and I asked him if there was any other bike parking. My lucky day: it was Mark, the head of NYBG security. He listened as I told him my tale of woe and he came to my rescue. He asked me to fold up my bike and put it on his cart. He whisked me over to the Moshulu Gate and locked my bike in his security hut and assured me that the nearby security guard would help me retrieve it when I was ready to leave. What a stand up guy!  My day went from catastrophe to brilliant. With some parting advice from him on the best things to see, I started my garden adventure.

Pointer: Bring a bike lock! And there is a more visible bike rack at the Moshulu Gate right by the security guard station.

I rode the train to Grand Central Station and cabbed it to my friend’s house to make it back in time for dinner plans. My Black Beauty is easy to take on train, and folded she fits easily in the cab’s trunk.

It felt great to reach my goal of riding from Chelsea to the NYBG, although I wish I started earlier so I had most of the day at the Garden. And the next day when I went to the Bicycle Habitat shop in Chelsea the staff person said that the way I rode was probably 20 miles!

Chelsea, baby

High Line Hotel, Chelsea
High Line Hotel, Chelsea

I love Chelsea. Mainly because I love my friend Ray and he lives in and adores Chelsea and his laugh and loves are infectious.

Chelsea Market interior
Chelsea Market interioOn our way to the Chelsea Market one Saturday morning, Ray spied something new: the recently opened High Line Hotel on 10th Avenue.  

I have stayed in different hotels when Ray has family staying in his home already. I like the Gem Hotel but it does not always have rooms availalble. I was thrilled to discover a new (albeit more expensive alternative) in a former Seminary building. You have to love a hotel that offers bikes for loan and a view (for now) of The High Line garden walkway.

It is also just a block or so from the Chelsea Market and surrounded by great restaurants. And every morning you could roll out of bed, hit the exquisite looking coffee bar in the lobby and take a relaxing walk along the High Line.

The High Line is a wonderful reinvention of the elevated railroad.  It is listed in “New York’s 50 best places to find Peace and Quiet.” Not so much on a Saturday.

High Line

At times it was packed with people making it a great place to people watch. The art along the way is thought provoking. And there is an elevator if you have a stroller or need to avoid several flights of stairs. (Although the elevator on 23rd St. was out of order on the day we were there.) The views of Chelsea also give you a different perspective on living in this part of the City.

Colin Powell and his "proof" of WMD
Colin Powell and his “proof” of WMD

We ate later that night at The Park named for its interior that feels like an exterior. The food was adequate and the atmosphere was perfect for our group of 8. Our reservation was for 9:30, so by the time we finished our roast chicken, salmon, octopus salad, turkey burgers, gnocchi and lamb sausage pizza the pop music was pumping and there was a line to get into the dance club and bar. We retired to “Club Ray” where conversation was easier and the drinks are free.

Chelsea is also a great access point for the Hudson River Greenway, which runs the length of Manhattan on the westside.  If you need bike support, I recommend Bicycle Habitat (228 7th Avenue).