72hours in Seattle

We are back after a quick 72 hour trip to Seattle. There was just one agenda – meet our friends. And we over achieved on that front. It was so nice to meet all of them, and plan our days around them.

Somehow every year, we end up having one such trip. Agam and I were reminded of our trip to NY in 2016 when all we did was meet friends, and eat delicious NY food. We need to go back to NY. Perhaps next year. Last year, it was  Singapore, and this year, Seattle.

There was also a side agenda for this trip – for Agam to see the Twin Peaks sites – the lodge, the diner and the falls. So we checked that box too. Saturday itinerary was crowd sourced from my ex-team. I don’t even recall why we ended up on a day long Hangout channel, but it was a riot. They recommended Rattlesnake Ridge and Lake, which was fun, and a tacos place called Taco Chuki’s which was quite awesome. We could not fit Vivaces on the itinerary 😦

On Friday, Tara met her first friend, M, whom she met at the day care when she was 4 months old. M and Tara grew up together, learning from each other, and running around each other. He has grown taller, and has turned out to be a fine young boy who runs around the field looking for wild flowers for his Mom. And then brings them to her, and then runs back in the field.  Tara also got a wild flower from him. M has lost touch with English since he goes to a Russian day care. But these two did not need a common language to communicate. They hit off, as if they had never parted. It was such a joy to watch them play, and also to meet M’s Mum and Dad. I wish they still lived in Bay Area.

Then we drove to D’s lovely house in North Seattle, and met her cat and a handsome dog, Winston. Over wine, and Ethiopian food, we talked about a broad range of topics. Such are conversations with D. We can talk about a wide variety of topics, with equal passion and plenty of dry humor sprinkled all over them. D was my first buddy at Google. She interviewed me and I finally ended up taking on her role. I was very sad for myself when she decided to move to Seattle. But I was super happy for her. She was doing the right thing. And within two years of moving to Seattle, she is a proud owner of a beautiful house 🙂 Well done D! You are the wise one.

And then we met N, Agam’s friend from IITD. We had such an amazing time in the company of his wife, whom we were meeting for the first time, and an adorable six month old daughter. I met N almost six years back when he and Agam put together our bed, in ours first house. He is a small town guy. Like me. We small town people are very similar – simple, joyful, content, and affectionate. Over Pav Bhaji and Chai, we enjoyed the gorgeous views of the lake, and spent an afternoon in their warm company. I wish we stayed closer to this lovely family.

And finally, after an AWESOME trip to Elliott Bay Book company, we met M for dinner at Soi, a pretty cool Thai place in Capitol Hill. I had only met M once before. But we know a lot about each other through a common friend. Dinner was delicious, and the company even better. M trumped me at paying the bill. Now that’s a first. I’ve never had that happen to me before 🙂

Now about the “Awesome” trip to the book shop. There are usual book shops, and there is Elliott Bay. I felt like the entire shop was curated to my taste. In every section, every aisle, I found an interesting book. Something that I was not expecting. Like a book on East Indian recipes in the cooking section, and most surprisingly, Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto in the staff recommendations sections. Who on earth reads Banana Yoshimoto in the US? The staff at Elliott Bay, and me 😀 I bought a copy. And I am half way done. I am sorry Murakami, Killing Commendatore is just tooooo fat of a book for me to take on a flight, or even hold and read in bed. I need to buy the kindle version for this one 😦

Moshi Moshi on the other hand, is written for me. What’s with these Japanese writers and me. I think I have some shape or form of a Japanese soul. Or a better explanation is that I share a certain value system with the Japanese. For example this phrase from the book is how I felt, walking on a road in Hari Nagar, less than five days after I lost my father.

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Elliott Bay Book company reminded me of my dream of Books by the bay. A dream that will most likely never come true. But if it did. I will definitely try to make it as warm and personal as EBB was.

Of course Rupi Kaur was also there, to rub salt on my wounds. I have no idea what I have against her. Just that what she publishes is not poetry.  You may ask, who am I to judge? But I am a reader and thus a critic, and I don’t approve of her genre. I don’t think anyone should pay $18 for her books. And no I will not keep that opinion just to myself. Because I want to understand where she gets the courage from, to publish her raw scribbles. And, where the hell do I fetch that courage from?! Enough said.

I also ran into a book that seemed cliched enough for me to pick it up. How to love by Thicht Nhat Hanh is a short book, with very short snippets on different forms of love. I ended up reading the entire book in one sitting. And there was this chapter that resonated with me a lot. Here’s a snippet –

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M recommended Storyville Coffee last night and we went there for breakfast this morning. I fell in love with the store at first sight. Something about drinking a cup of single origin coffee, and watching fall leaves dance their way to the ground. I bought some beans and I am looking forward to grinding them on the weekend.

Seattle is beautiful in fall. I fell in love with the city, all over again, for so many reasons. But then the weather this morning with 8 degrees celsius just put me off. I was delighted to land in 19 degrees celsius San Jose this afternoon. And although those houses on Magnolia Bluff looked beautiful and right in the Mountain View price range. I don’t think I am willing to wear a parka and gloves in October.

I love you Bay Area. You are as close to home as it can ever get. I just wish you were not this expensive, and we had not lost our friends to Seattle.

Travelogue – Tokyo and Kyoto

Japan had been on my list of must-visit countries for a very long time. I am so happy to have hit this item on my bucket list.

 

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Sakura

 

There are really two seasons to visit Japan – Spring, and Autumn. Summers are too hot and humid and winters are cold. If you visit in Spring, you should try to plan your trip around the cherry blossom season (aka Sakura). Sakura dates vary every year but usually range from late March to early April. Sakura is the busiest season for Japan in terms of tourism. You should try to book air tickets and hotels a few months in advance. In our case, I booked this trip in September 2016.

How to get there?

Bay area offers quite a few direct flight options into Narita and Haneda airports. ANA flies into Narita, and American/JAL flies into Haneda. I preferred to fly into Haneda since it is much closer to downtown Tokyo. The commute from Narita to Tokyo can take up to two hours. I was able to get our tickets for under $1000 per person on JAL. But again, I booked a lot in advance. I recommend Haneda airport to anyone considering a trip to Japan. I also recommend JAL for its on-time departures, arrivals, comfortable seats, in-flight entertainment and staff courtesy. I am not a fan of their meal options. But they offer a choice between Japanese and Western meals.

 

Where to stay?

We started off with Airbnb bookings but I had a panic attack on the weekend before our flight and I ended up getting slick deals at four-star hotels, at some of the best locations in the city. It worked out well for us. But I don’t recommend doing it. If you are traveling with a kid, book a hotel. If you are traveling solo, go with AirBnB.

IMG_1841We stayed in Shinjuku and Ginza, two very different neighborhoods, but very well connected to different parts of the city. Both hotels in Tokyo were under $200.

It was fairly easy to book hotels in Tokyo, but Kyoto was a different story. Hotels in Kyoto were sold out back in September, in anticipation of Sakura. I booked a relatively new boutique hotel at quite an exuberant price of little under $300. Book early if you want a good location and good hotel. For Kyoto, I recommend staying close to Kyoto Station, something I overlooked for our trip. The station is in close proximity to the heart of the city and offers all-day dining options and the best transportation options.

 

How long of a trip?

It really depends. If you want to cover Tokyo in depth, I’d say 5 days in Tokyo will be great. If you want to cover more ground, 3 days in Tokyo and 3 in Kyoto can be sufficient to cover the major attractions in these areas. We had 5 days in Tokyo and 4 days in Kyoto, including the travel days to Kyoto. It was a leisurely trip where we did not feel rushed, and we saw and did way more than we had originally expected. (Note: we travel with a 2 yr old).

 

Food?

Tokyo is a metropolis and Kyoto exists to serve its tourists. So food is not a problem in either of these cities. We did not want to eat Indian and hence I don’t have many recommendations for that category. But I will (try to) list all the restaurants we enjoyed. 7Eleven chain is BIG in Japan. And even though I have not sampled enough of them in the US, I was very impressed by them in Japan. There is also Family Mart and Lawson that serve similar needs as 7Eleven.

Packaged food in Japan is relatively cheap but fresh and reliable. The sandwiches at 7Eleven were my staple breakfast when we did not have better options. My daughter loved their pancakes filled with custard, and strawberry and cream sandwiches. They also have hot food options.

It is relatively difficult to use Yelp or Tabelog in Japan. Yelp is not used much by the locals, and Tabelog app does not work there if you have downloaded it from the US Appstore. I used TripAdvisor for the most part and they were quite spot on.

IMG_1807Vending machines are awesome and everywhere. They also spit out hot packaged coffee cans that are AWESOME! We tried to stay away from Starbucks, but Tully’s was hard to skip.

Beware of all the confectionery, baked goods that Japan has to offer. But I like their taste in sweets: mildly sweet, but boldly buttery 😉

There are a lot of styles of Japanese food, and if you are into food, you will love this cuisine for its diversity. There is Yakitori – meat on a stick, Kobe beef, Teppanyaki, Ramen, Udon, Soba, Okonomiyaki, Yakitori, Izakaya and on and on. Don’t come back without trying the conveyor belt sushi!

Eat as much sushi as you can on your trip. Most of our sushi meals in Tokyo were under $50 and we ate large quantities. A similar meal in the US will easily cost upwards of $80.

If you are traveling with kids a few call outs. My daughter has still not developed a taste for raw fish, so at most restaurants, we asked for a bowl of rice with cooked sunny side egg on top. I added some salt, pepper and soy sauce or ketchup on it, and my daughter loved it. Japanese omelets are very delicious and fluffy. So they are a good meal for kids. I kept packed sandwiches from 7Eleven with me all the time so she has snacks readily available. They do have string cheese in Japan, so don’t carry with you. 7Eleven sells Meiji 100% cream milk which tastes exactly like Clovers, so there you go. When traveling with kids it is easier if they are stuffed before you leave the room for the day. I always fed Milk and a banana to my daughter before we left the room. She ate a bit of whatever we ordered at restaurants, but egg and rice were her primary meals.

Language

Not an issue. Train stations have English signage and announcements, and mostly everyone except cab drivers and restaurant staff at authentic restaurants can understand key English phrases. All policemen and train conductors spoke and understood English.

 

Getting Around

Trains, Trains, Trains!!! So many of them and they are so awesome. Buy a PASMO/SUICA IC Card when you arrive at the airport. Load it with 10000 Yen and get going. These cards are also used at stores, restaurants, train stations, and vending machines. Tokyo is 100% accessible by trains. In fact, we took a train from Haneda to Ginza on an express train, just a few hours after arriving into Tokyo. It was a smooth ride without any hiccups.

If you don’t want to use an international data plan, a cheaper option is to buy a pocket wifi device that keeps you connected.You will need it to access apps like Google Translate, Google Maps, Hyperdia, and TripAdvisor. (Download the offline maps for the cities you are visiting). You can rent one from the airport itself.

There are also limousine buses that run to and from the airport that has pick up/drop off points across the city, and at various hotels as well. Look them up here.

Kyoto’s transportation system is a bit incoherent. There is a little bit of everything and hence getting around the city is a little challenging. Keep an open mind and get used to the crowds.The IC cards work in Kyoto as well.

Hyperdia is a good app to use when in Japan to find best commute options.

 

Tokyo – Major Attractions

Here’s what I love about Tokyo – it has something for everyone, just like any other metropolis. And here’s what I don’t like about Tokyo – it has a LOT OF PEOPLE, just like any other metropolis. It is very crowded for its size.

Be prepared to walk a lot. And to be a part of a large crowd, no matter where you go, especially if you go to see Sakura. Japanese people are as obsessed about this season as the tourists, and selfie sticks and posers are all around you, all the time.

I divided Tokyo into a few sections that made it easier to plan our days there.

Ginza/Tsukiji/Imperial Gardens (0.5 days)

Ginza is like the 5th Ave of Tokyo. High-end stores and lots of shopping. Nestled in this area is a fabulous store that must be visited – Itoya. It is like an Ikea of Tokyo, but so much better. They have a whole floor dedicated to just pens. Imagine that!

Tsukiji is the centuries-old fish market. You don’t have to go at 5 am to see the first auction with thousands of other tourists. Just go around 9 am and enjoy fresh sushi.

Imperial Gardens made a nice walk. I particularly enjoyed how this area was well preserved in the middle of a very urban neighborhood.

Roppongi/Minato (0.5 Days)

I wanted to go to Roppongi because Google has an office there. But it was a cool mid-town type neighborhood where there were great food and a certain Western vibe. It is the area where the expats hang out. Lots of amazing food, drinking and clubbing options in Roppongi.

The Snoopy Museum of Tokyo is also in Roppongi and only a short walk from the station. I particularly enjoyed it since it offered me insights into the evolution of the character and how it has kept up with the times. If you take your kid there, order the Snoopy pancake meal.

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Asakusa/Sumida Park/Kappabashi/Tokyo Skytree (1 Day)

Lots to see here. Get there early and enjoy breakfast at Denny’s, right at the entrance of Senso-ji. Enjoy the temple, and then walk towards Kappabashi. It is the biggest kitchenware market in Tokyo. Walk to Soi Cafe and enjoy their delicious coffees with delectable pastries. When finished, walk over to the store behind the cafe and spend a fortune on pretty dainty Japanese pottery and earthenware.

Sumida Park is right across the bridge from Asakusa and also famous for Sakura. We spotted our first Hanami parties there. People sat in groups under Sakura and enjoyed snacks and Sake. We ate sandwiches and drank apple juice.

Tokyo Skytree is the second tallest tower in the world, standing tall at 450m. The observatory deck offers panoramic views of Tokyo that allow you to see this dense metropolis from above. Great for architects and urban planners. There is a separate (and shorter) line for International tourists that is highly recommended.

Ueno Park/Akihabara (1 Day)

This is like Balboa Park of Tokyo. All major museums are housed in this complex. Ueno is very beautiful during Sakura. And hence it is also very crowded. My favorite Sakura shots are from Ueno.

Yoyogi Park/Meiji Shrine/Shinjuku(Golden Gai)/Shibuya(1 Day)

Take the train to Harajuku station to enjoy Meiji Shrine. Harajuku is the fashion street of Tokyo. Just observe all the women here, you will notice their unique dressing styles. Even more Sakura spotting can be enjoyed at Yoyogi Park.

I personally found the Meiji Shrine to be over-hyped. But the walk to the shrine compound is beautiful and lush green. Also, Harajuku is great for fashion, but not food. I ended up eating a mediocre katsu sandwich since I could not find a better place.

Shibuya crossing is a traffic circus that is a must see.

Kyoto in detail

There are a lot of temples and shrines in Kyoto. And they all are very beautiful. But to me, they are all the same. So for me, temples were not a big focus. I liked walking the streets and markets of Kyoto.

We took the Shinkansen in the morning and arrived in Kyoto right around noon. It is a 2hr ride from Tokyo station. You can also take the Shinkansen (Hikari bound) from Shinagawa and Yokohama IMG_1810stations. Shinkansen tickets can be purchased from Tokyo Station and you have a choice of a reserved ticket or unreserved. Reserved guarantees you a seat and unreserved means that you will have to find a seat for yourself in the few unreserved coaches on the train you are riding. We did unreserved on the way in and reserved on the way back. It really did not matter. If a train is too crowded, just take the next one. This is Japan. There are trains every 15 minutes.
You can see Fuji-san on your way to, and back from Kyoto. But it is a rare sight in winter and spring. We got lucky and the majestic volcano was shining brightly under the sun on our way back to Kyoto.

Kiyomizu Dera Temple/Chion In/Maruyama Park/Yasaka Shrine (1 Day)

This temple is a bit of a hike through the crowds but offers beautiful views of Kyoto. You can walk from Kiyomizu Dera to Chion In and see Maruyama Park on the way. When returning from Chion-In, walk through the park and see the Yasaka shrine.

Most of the temples are surrounded by rows of street food vendors. Street food is good in Japan. Definitely worth a try. It won’t trouble your tummies. It did not trouble ours for sure.

Arashiyama (0.5 Day)

We covered Arashiyama on the day we arrived in Kyoto. It is a cute little area which has some temples and garden that lead to the Bamboo forest/grove. The walk is beautiful, and something you cannot erase from your memory. On your walk back to the town you can walk a little further and cross the Katsura river and enjoy the scenery.

Gion-Shijo Dori/Pontocho Alley (0.25 Day)

We did not spot any Geishas during our trip, but if you want to, you must visit Gion in the evening or late at night. Right at the side entrance of Yasaka Shrine, a short walk from Maruyama Park is my favorite cafe in this big world – Gion Cafe. Go there and get lost in its simplicity.

Pontocho Alley is a street full of Japanese restaurants. Most of them open only in the evening, so you should time it around dinner. It is a beautiful street lined with traditional Japanese buildings and tea houses. Nishiki Market is only a short walk from here.

Nishiki Market/Nijo Castle/Kyoto Manga Museum (0.5 Day)

From Pontocho Alley, make your way towards Gion-Shijo Dori and walk to Nishiki Market. It is a lively marketplace selling all sorts of Japanese delicacies, fermented vegetables, boiled octopus on a stick, and kitchenware. It is also home to Aritsugu, a famous knife shop.

From Nishiki to Kyoto Manga Museum is a 30min walk, but it takes you through the heart of Kyoto. I love street walking and I really enjoyed people-watching on this route. Kyoto Manga Museum is a one-of-its-kind with a minimal entry fee and a large reading area for kids and adults. I was shocked to see so many people from different age groups reading Manga together under one roof. It is quite a national obsession. I still don’t get the charm.

Nijo Castle is another 15min walk from the museum and is quite majestic. We did not go inside because the line to enter it was very long. But if you want to cover all Sakura laden areas in Kyoto, Nijo is high up on the list. There is a nice family owned Sushi place right around the corner from the castle. Kikyo Sushi is run by a lovely family that has been in the trade for a long time. The son speaks English and is a fun guy to chat with. He made a special egg and rice dish for my daughter, she loved it 🙂

Fushimi Inari (0.5 Day)

Fushimi Inari is a bit out of the way, and we could not find a direct train/bus/tram that could get us there, so we chickened out and took a cab. Fushimi Inari is known for its thousands and thousands of vermillion colored Torii gates. The hike up Mt Inari is quite doable but without a toddler. We went almost half way up there and then returned since it was not possible to do it without a baby carrier. There are plenty of resting stops along the way, so take your time and do it at your own pace. On your way back, stop by at Vermillion Cafe overlooking the lake and enjoy a nice cup of coffee.

Summary

In short, Japan is a dream. I can move there in a heartbeat. I love it for its clean streets, efficient railways, warm yet disciplined people, kid-friendly attractions, delicious street food, Shinkansen, and varied cuisine. But Japan is crowded. I am Indian, and crowds are OK with me, but I am not sure how comfortable Westerners are with that many people.

This was definitely not our last trip to Japan. We plan to go back, hike Fuji-san, and complete our trek to Mt Inari. We also want to learn a little bit of Japanese before we go back. I am still dreaming about the soft and fresh fish I ate there every day. Can’t wait to pile up plates of Sushi again.As a side note, since the taste of fresh Japanese sushi was fresh in our minds, we ate sushi the weekend we arrived back in the US. We had one reaction – WTF!

Go visit Japan. It is all that a country should be, in terms of infrastructure, and planning. And that makes it very tourist friendly.

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Sakura

(Mini) Travelogue – Alaska

Alaska – the Great Land. No that is not my compliment to Alaska. It is the literal translation of the word itself. And very seldom does one find the name of state as befitting as this one. Alaska is a great land of wonderful people, breathtaking landscapes, awe-inspiring peaks and of course amazing wild life.

 

My interest in Alaska spiked way back in 2009 when I moved to California. I was an avid Kayak.com user and the website had come up with a brand new way to explore travel destinations. They even called it Explore. The feature prompts you to set a base airport and then shows you travel fares to destinations across the United States. It was then that I realized that I was now much closer to the northernmost frontier of the US — both in miles and the $$ required to get there.

 

I don’t like long flights. And hence I like my vacations to be at most five hours away. Anything longer than that is not worth it, unless I plan to spend over a week there. Yeah I am much older now and hence my travel tastes have changed. It was only in 2009 that Agam and I did a 21 day trip to 6 countries in Europe. I don’t think I can do that type of travel anymore. In fact it was during our Paris trip that we realized that to really enjoy and dive deep into a city you need at least four days there, and that is excluding the travel days. And ever since Paris we have reduced the number of vacations, but increased the duration of our stay. But there are exceptions. London was too big to cover in the six days we were there. So there will always be some place that won’t fit the pattern. But in general we are now older and need some time to settle in. We like to go deeper than just touching the surface and we like at least one day when each of us just does our own thing. With all these criteria in mind I planned our Alaskan trip in 2013. It was a twenty day itinerary that was going to take us to Anchorage, Denali, Seward and Homer. All tickets were booked by February and we were all set for our adventure. But, in April my Mum’s travel plans to the US got finalized and we decided to drop our Alaskan odyssey. Instead, we decided to go to Maui with her.

 

But when I set my mind to something, I just have to make it happen (just like everyone else), and hence I decided that we again plan Alaska for 2014. This time around I changed the itinerary a bit, something was telling me that it would be a while before I would be able to come back and do a similar trip again, and so I charted the following itinerary. Note that this is a shorter version of a longer travelogue that I do intend to write very soon.

 

On Friday night we flew into Anchorage, rented a car and spent a night close to the airport. The next day we drove to Denali with frequent stops and made it there by early evening. It is a four hour drive. You can stop by at the Denali State Park and you must stop at Talkeetna and enjoy the cute little town. That night we walked in the area, settled in, enjoyed our cabin and explored local eateries. We stayed at Denali Cabins that were nine miles from the park entrance. There are a lot of options even close to the park, but we were on a budget and hence picked these cabins. For the next day, I had booked the National Park shuttle bus that took us to the Eielson Visitor Center with ample stops in between to enjoy wildlife and the landscapes of Denali National Park. There are multiple options to choose from for this tour. I picked this one because I did not want to sit on a rickety bus for an entire day and have my daughter yell at me later.

 

Oh this is a good time for a disclaimer. When we booked the itinerary we had no clue about our missy’s plans. And hence we had to tweak our agenda just a lil bit to make sure we don’t exhaust her.

 

..And so we spent the entire day in the Denali National Park and then the next day we started early for Seward, a good six hour drive from Denali. We stopped in Anchorage for lunch on the way and continued the beautiful Seward Highway drive along the water, to our cute little lodge in a town called Moose Pass. Moose Pass is midway between Seward and Anchorage. After enjoying quiet walks along the Summit Lake and a nearby State Park, we retired for the night. You can always choose to stay in Seward. I just like being far away from crowds when I am on a vacation. I deal with them enough in my professional life.

 

The next morning we drove another thirty miles south to get to Seward where our boat tour awaited us. Seward is the gateway to Kenai Fjord National Park. We took the boat tour to the glaciers and enjoyed the day aboard a beautiful catamaran. Again, there are many tours to pick from, but definitely go with KFT since they had the most modern boats and their crew was excellent. The next day on our drive back to Anchorage we took a 17-mile detour to a small town called Hope. If you like small towns, you will enjoy this one too. When I say small town I literally mean one coffee shop and one restaurant with a library and a church. That evening we flew to Juneau.

 

Our primary point of interest near Juneau was the Glacier Bay National Park. You can fly directly into Gustavus, or you can fly into Juneau and then take a four hour ferry to Gustavus. We chose the ferry. I love ferries and I did not want to spend $150 for a flight from Juneau to Gustavus. The legend is that some airlines do fly to Gustavus at a little extra cost. I discovered the legend a little late. Be careful with the ferry though. It does not run every day of the week, so plan in advance.

 

In Gustavus we spent two nights and enjoyed the National Park and the little town itself. We skipped the boat tour to FairPass Glacier since we decided it was too similar in nature to the Kenai Fjord Tour and we figured that our daughter would not like to spend another day on a boat. We were just cautious. And so we simply enjoyed the small town and the hospitality of our Bed and Breakfast hosts.

 

The next day we returned to Juneau and stayed two nights at the Westmark Baranof before heading back to San Jose. While in Juneau you can drive over to Douglas Island for nice hikes or go to Mendenhall Glacier.

 

So in short that was our itinerary for those who want to book their Alaskan adventure and are looking for a sample.  Of course more details and pictures to follow in the real travelogue 🙂

 

In a nutshell I highly recommend that you explore Alaska on your own and avoid the cruises. I understand that cruises work great for some demographics, but if you have the will and you really want to enjoy Alaska, then rent a car and enjoy your drive along the foothills of some of the tallest peaks you will ever witness. Don’t be afraid. The roads are well-maintained and as an added perk, they bring you in close proximity to the natural wonders of Alaska.

 

Alaska is more than just glaciers and if you want to connect with the natives, enjoy the local cuisines (including reindeer meat) and soak in the spirit of this great land – then accept the challenge and put on your planner hat today!

Trace Back – San Juan Islands

I have often been asked, “How do you pick your vacation destinations?” My first reaction to the question is that if I tell you, you will crowd those places too. And hence there is a conflict of interest here. But since I cannot really say that to someone, I tell them that I look for places where fewer people go. Places that offer more than just an opportunity to take a hundred or so pictures. And most importantly, I like going to places that challenge me. I don’t go for vacations to relax as the urban myth goes. I travel to explore new challenges. It does not bother me if my travels exhaust me, as long as they are stimulating.

One of the most challenging trips I have ever planned was a ten day, action packed trip to Alaska. A trip I will no longer be taking this year. It was the toughest itinerary to build and included a dozen or so reservations all over Anchorage, Homer, Seward, Sitka and Denali. It was also very challenging to cancel this trip. But now that I have done it once, I can reuse my recipe whenever the time is right.

The second most challenging trip to plan was San Juan Islands. I got to know about San Juan Islands from the NY Times 41 places to go in 2011 list. Eversince I read about it, this trip was on my radar. I just did not know where to start. This travelogue is my attempt to simplify San Juans for the uninitiated. Are you up for the challenge?

Some quick facts before we get started. San Juan Islands is a name given to an archipelago of 700 + Islands in the state of Washington. Three of these islands have recently emerged on the tourist scene and are attracting a lot of tourists year after year. These islands are – Orcas Island, Lopez Island and San Juan Island. There is no road that connects these islands to the mainland and your only option is to take the ferries run by the Washington State Department of Transportation.

To get to these islands, you fly into Seattle, rent a car from SeaTac and drive to Anacortes Ferry terminal. From Anacortes you can take ferries to different parts of Washington and Canada. The drive from SeaTac to Anacortes is  ninety minutes at its best. You can board ferries to any of the three San Juan Islands from Anacortes ferry terminal. Note that you only pay for trips that are eastbound. Westbound trips are free. As an example you will buy a ticket from Anacortes to Orcas Island. But the trip from Orcas back to Anacortes is free. These rules apply to the inter island ferries too. So be careful when you buy tickets. It is possible you don’t really need one for the trip you are about to take. The ferry schedules are published here.

Orcas Island is the biggest of the Islands and Lopez is the smallest. San Juan is between Orcas and Lopez, but is most inhabited (in other words crowded). There are several bed and breakfasts serving these islands. You will not find a Marriott or Sheraton here (thank god). Follow my advice and book a B&B or an inn. Most of the attractions on these islands are along the coastline. So you don’t really need a map. But if you insist on getting one, you can find one at all the ferry terminals. It is advisable to take your car along with you to the Orcas and Lopez Island, unless you are planning to bike. San Juan Island has shuttle tours that take you to all the major attractions, but that is only  available in summers, so plan accordingly and look up their schedule in the internet before you go.

But before you board that ferry, you have a few decisions to make. You need to pick an Island where you will begin your journey. Also you need to pick which island you want to stay on. You can also do some island hopping and come up with an itinerary based on your flight times. I can tell you what I did. But find your own.. explore your options. On the day of arrival into Seattle, we took out first ferry from Anacortes to Lopez Island. We spent a day in Lopez and took a late evening ferry to Orcas Island. The second day we explored Orcas, and the third day we took a ferry from Orcas to San Juan. After spending a gorgeous day in Friday Harbor, we took a ferry back to Orcas. The next day took a ferry from Orcas, back to Anacortes. So we stayed at Orcas for the three nights we were on these islands.

Now let us focus on each of the Islands. Beginning with Lopez since it is the smallest of them all. Lopez Island is a forty minute ride from Anacortes. Once you board the ferry, look for the tables with the big jigsaw puzzles. It is a great way to spend your time. As you leave Seattle behind, on a clear day you start seeing Mt Baker, Mt Rainier and other snow peaked glaciers in the backdrop. The gorgeous water way that takes you to these islands is a national scenic byway, and a great opportunity for photographers to capture the waters and the beautiful islands from up close.

You can cover the entire Lopez island within hours. That’s how small it is. But the beauty of the island is not to be measured by its size. The rolling fields in Lopez Island and the secluded beaches contribute to its charm and appeal. There are a couple of state and county parks that you can visit or plan a picnic at : Odlin County Park is a good place to just sit and relax and watch sun’s shadows play games with the ocean. Spencer Spit Park was another very interesting park where a short trail led us to a vast marsh that has been clogged with chips of wood over the years. There is a lot of open space to explore and hike around. There is a narrow stretch of land jutting out of this park that will one day connect this island to its neighboring island. It is quite a sight. There is also the Otis Perkins Day Park that fell on our way and was a cute stretch of land that separated the ocean from a small lake. You can walk this stretch or drive over it. The views are beautiful on both the sides.

After speaking to some locals we were directed to the Iceberg point. It is the tip of this Island and offers beautiful views of the archipelago. At this point, our cell phones alerted us to the fact that we were in Canadian territories and were to be charged roaming charges. That actually made us realize how close to Canada we were at that point.
After some sightseeing, we yelped the best place to eat on the island and locked in The Bay Cafe. We had an hour before our reservation time and we loitered around the small streets and grabbed a delicious cup of espresso from Isabella’s cafe. There is a book shop right next to Bay Cafe called the Lopez Bookshop. It was good to see some locals ruminating over books and authors. We finally arrived at the restaurant and picked  the fresh fish of the day. The fish was good, but the sides were just ok. Overall I was not very impressed by this place. In the same area as the Bay Cafe, you will find a string of other restaurants by the road, so look around and take a pick.

Lopez Island also hosts the Tour de Lopez every year in spring. It is a small and content island with some beautiful vistas and very warm and affectionate people. I won’t mind visiting this Island again and bike the green paths and alleys.

Orcas Island is the biggest island amongst the three and has a little bit of everything. it has lakes, mountains, oceans views, bays, good food and lovely people. The major attraction of this island is Moran State Park, that also has an observation tower perched upon Mt Constitution, that looks down upon all the tiny islands in the area. The state park is quite big and you can do a couple of different hikes. We did a 4 mile mountain lake trail. It was a great way to start our morning. There is also the Cascade Lake trail and Summit Lake in this state park.  

After our hike, we drove  to eastsound for a meal. There are plenty of food options in this area. To name a few, there is Madrona Bar and Grill, that serves a good variety of beer, and fresh fish and chips and burgers and grilled sandwiches, Their sweet potato fries are just awesome. There is also the New Leaf Cafe, which is my favorite place to eat on the island. Beautiful views and delicious food. I would keep this one for an evening meal, simply because it makes a very cozy date place. There is also the Rosario resort if you fancy a little splurge. For coffee, there is Darville’s books store. Yup, these guys get it. Books and coffee together make a great evening.

Whenever I am close the water, I get a little bit (ok thats an
understatement) excited about sunsets. I chase them like that dog who runs behind a car. Just that in my case I catch them, and capture them in my camera and never let them go from my memory. There are a couple of places you can catch a beautiful sunset on the Orcas Island. We found one by chance and one by choice. West Beach Resort, at the West Beach is a good place to grab some coffees and watch the sun drop and splash a gamut of colors in the sky upon its descent. Since this was the “west” beach, it made sense that we would find a good spot to enjoy sunset. But with our next spot, we got lucky. YMCA has Camp Orkila on the north western tip of the island. The hostel was not in session and we had the entire beachfront property to trespass. There was not another soul on a mile long stretch of the beach, except for us. I loved how chance played its cards on us and we enjoyed a beautiful sunset sitting on the benches of an open air amphitheater overlooking the ocean. It will be hard to erase that evening from my memories. You can also enjoy the drive to Doe Bay, Deer Bay and Obstruction Pass State Park while you are on the island.



We stayed at Otters Pond Bed and Breakfast. This warm and cozy B&B is huddled right next to the Moran State Park and a short distance from Eastsound. Orcas Island was like the Big Island in Hawaii. It has something for everyone. It is impossible to not enjoy the charm of this Island.

The last of the trinity is San Juan Island. As the ferry approaches Friday Harbor, you can distinctly notice the swarms of tourists and activity on the island. Given its proximity to the mainland and the number of food options available, this island attracts a lot of day trip visitors. There is lots to enjoy on this island. Including the English and American camps. History of the islands lists to its credit an almost war caused by a pig on the island. The camps are now deserted, but there are reenactments and other ceremonies still carried out in remembrance. There are also a couple of lighthouses, namely Lime Kiln Point and Cattle Point. Both of them are situated across from Canada and offer a great picnic spot. On your way to the Cattle Point Lighthouse, you can stop by Blue Lagoon area and enjoy a short and shaded hike to the blue lagoon and enjoy the backwaters.

If you drive to the northern tip of the island, you reach Roche Harbor area. The marina is a great place to enjoy watching the boats come in and out of the island. There is also a Sculpture Park close to the harbor that has some interesting art forms that can be enjoyed alongside a leisurely walk to the harbor. Food options on this island are plenty. But believe me just directly go to Cask and Schooner. Their food was the best I have had in a very long time. Their lamb burger and the Stout Spiked Chicken Sandwich were mouth watering. We enjoyed our meal and a few beers and some dessert and were almost tempted to pack more for the ferry ride. This meal was simply the best meal of our entire trip.

While you wait for the ferry, there are a lot of small nooks and corners to enjoy on the Friday Harbor. One of them being the Serendipity Book Store. A cozy bookstore with a unique collection of books. Right across the street from the bookstore I saw a lot of people enjoy clam chowder and crab cakes at a hole in the wall shop. And right at the ferry banks is the San Juan Coffee Roaster Co. where you can grab your joe for the ride. Overall San Juan is a perfect tourist destination that attracts a lot of crowds and charms them with its small town feel.
After visiting all the three islands, I was quite inspired by nature’s creation and the ways of the world. Ideally if I could take Cask and Schooner’s food and vibrant energy from San Juan and blend it with the serene rolling fields of Lopez and add to that a dash of the Moran State Park and the french onion soup from the New Leaf Cafe in Orcas Island, that would be the most perfect destination for any tourist. But the world has its ways.  And just like – not all of us are created equal and each of us have to play to our strengths, these islands that are all but a stretch of land in the ocean, are still not the same. They too offer their distinct flavors to their patrons and play to their strengths.

Trace Back – Kauai.. the garden island

How do you take three days and pack enough of Kauai in them? Well you begin with a little chat with the concierge.

After years of planning for vacations and coming up with the best itineraries, I finally enjoyed a vacation that I did not plan much in advance for. And even though we did not cover even a third of Kauai in our four day itinerary, we definitely explored it enough to fall in love with it and look forward to going back and exploring the rest of the island sometime soon. 

Kauai is one of the oldest and the furthest island amongst the inhabited Hawaiian islands. We landed at Lihue Airport (a direct flight from San Jose) at around ten in the morning and headed straight to our hotel on the Coconut coast, along the east shore of Kauai. After enjoying our Mai Tais and soaking some sun on the beach right in front of this fine Marriott resort, we decided to ask the concierge for some help with our planning. Realistically we had four days on the Island, including the day we had arrived. But the concierge helped us plan our short trip and packed it with the best of the highlights in Kauai. So here is a summary if you need a quickie –


Day 1 – South Shore up until Spouting Horn, and Poipu

Day 2 – Na Pali Coast Tour, Waimea Canyon and Kokee State Park
Day 3 – North Shore – Along Hwy 50 towards Hanalei Valley up till Ke’ee Beach

Day 4 – Kick back, enjoy a light breakfast in Kapaa, write, sip Mai Tais and pack for your trip back home.

Kauai is a much smaller island, as compared to Big Island. From the south shore to the north shore is a two hour drive at best. This makes it easier to cover more attractions in a few days. As we are becoming older and more busy in our professional lives, we have started looking out for vacations that are more quiet and away from the crowds. Initially I was skeptical about visiting Kauai during the Memorial Day weekend, but I was pleasantly surprised. Most of the main roads and highways in Hawaii are single lane and that adds to the traffic, but the attractions and the vistas were lacking crowds with cameras clicking away. 

For the sake of convenience let us cover Kauai in four segments: North shore, East shore, West shore and South shore. After experiencing all the shores, I can confidently say that you will very easily be able to classify yourself as one of the two. You are either a north shore person or a south shore person. The east connects the two and the west is almost inaccessible.

Each of the shores lends its own color to your Kauai experience. The south shore is more lively and high in energy and spirit. Excellent food options and proximity to the locals makes south shore quite charming. Poipu is definitely the heart of the south shore and offers a wide variety of cuisines. The north shore on the other hand is more tranquil. It is more beautiful, has more beaches and is a little upscale. Most of the high end resorts are on the north shore. I am not sure about the food options on the north shore. Hanalei has some food options but definitely not enough. I can easily say that if I was staying on the north shore, I’d drive south for better food choices. What can I say, I am a foodie after all.

East shore primarily includes Wailua and Kapaa, both of which are pretty upbeat. You drive by this stretch to get from the north to south shore and vice versa. So you can enjoy it regardless of where you stay. The west shore of Kauai is pretty much inaccessible by road and can be enjoyed by either boat tours, long and tiresome hikes across the Waimea Canyon, or helicopter tours. 

Let us begin with my favorite attraction in Kauai – the Na Pali coast. This beautiful stretch of coastline between Polihale Beach on the south and Ke’ee Beach on the north, has attracted visitors on foot, by boat and by air over several years. If I had to pick one word to describe Na Pali’s beauty, it would be ‘untouched’. The long stretches of white and golden sand leave you breathless. To summarize my thoughts on Na Pali can take a few pages, so I will spare you the pain. But I felt it was almost unfair for so much beauty to be present all in one place. 

The cascades and valleys of Na Pali are untouched. They say there are still tribals living in these valleys. The steep cliffs and temple-like peaks are a sight to watch and capture in your memories forever. There are some corals along the way too. The best sight while you are exploring Na Pali are the dolphins that come along and swim adjacent to your boat. These attention-hogging mammals also perform some impromptu spins in the air. You can also spot several sea turtles along the way.

We explored the Na Pali coast in a Catamaran tour by Holo Holo Charters. The tour starts from Port Allen at eight in the morning. Our tour was five hours long and came with breakfast, lunch, unlimited alcoholic and non alcoholic beverages, an hour of snorkeling at the Nu’alolo Kai Beach and some fond conversations with the other passengers on board. It was a perfect way to start our first morning on the Island. Usually the first morning on the Island is always early since you are still jet lagged and hence such tours are a perfect way to use that as an advantage.

A few notes about this tour. You cannot get into the water if you don’t know swimming. They claim to have a lot of flotation devices on board, but if you don’t know swimming, you cannot snorkel. You can stay by the boat, hold the ladder, put on your snorkeling gear and look down into the ocean and a few fish or may be some sea turtles will come by and say a hello. The water is extremely clear and you can see schools of fish swimming with a naked eye. It is quite a sight. If you can swim, you are free to roam the waters and enjoy your swim up to the reef close to the shore. It is an exhilarating experience to say the least.

The catamaran tour is one of the many options of cruising through the Na Pali coast. For the brave hearted, you can rent kayaks from Ke’ee beach and explore the tunnels of the Na Pali coast. You can also take Zodiac tours that are a little better than Kayaks but still pretty adventurous. For the faint hearted there are catamarans, like the one we took. And for the weaker souls, old or pregnant – Sorry no Na Pali for you. At least not by water. The catamaran we were on was quite smooth but you cannot leave the railing for a single second. You have to keep holding on to something on the boat to ensure safety. Also make sure you are dressed for water when going for these tours. You are guaranteed to be soaked wet with the water splashes, especially on your way back to Port Allen. 

Once we docked back at Port Allen, we needed a fresh water shower and a change. The boat crew recommended the Salt Pond Beach right next to the Port which has enough showers and restrooms to change. This beach is also a great spot to catch sunsets. After our fresh water bath, we drove to Waimea Canyon. A short forty-five minute drive leads to the Waimea Canyon lookout. Commonly referred to as the Grand Canyon of the West, Waimea Canyon is quite a sight. There are several look outs along the way that you can stop at and enjoy the views. Most of these lookouts also offer a distant view of Ni’ihau, the forbidden island.

When you come out of the canyon, head towards the Kokee State Park. The Kokee road takes you all the way to the tip of the Na Pali State Park. Two of the most amazing and breathtaking view points in Kokee State Park are the Kalalau Lookout and Pu’u O kila . The Kalalau valley is quite an attraction when exploring Na Pali Coast. From the Kalalau lookout, you can look down into the valley. It is the most beautiful place on earth. Nothing more needs to be said. You can drive further up on Kokee road, where it finally ends into Pu’u O kila  lookout.  Once back in Waimea, if you have some time left, visit the Kalaheo Coffee Company.

The Na Pali boat tour and Waimea Canyon can take up almost an entire day. Enjoy them at your pace but make sure you take out the time to absorb the beauty of the island along the way; Kauai cannot be rushed. On the South shore, you must also visit Poipu. The Poipu beach is very crowded but you can always drive along the coast and find a nook that suits you best. Shipwreck beach, also famous for its sunsets is also in the area. Some of the famous restaurants and resorts in Poipu can be found around the Poipu Village Shopping area. There is Merrimans with its usual American fair on the first floor and high end sea food dining on the second floor. We picked Josselins for dinner one night and absolutely loved our meal. The Lychee sangria was delicious and so were the Ahi and Rock Shrimp poke, lamb meatballs and Asparagus with apple wood smoked bacon and egg, sunny-side up. Their duck and shrimp tacos were mouth watering. It was a perfect place to enjoy the local Hawaiian flavors of hibiscus and lilikois. The ambiance was very soothing and the service was impeccable. I would rate this meal as my best on the trip. There is also the famous Puka Dog in the same shopping center.

While in the Poipu area, you can also drive up south to Spouting Horn. The lava rock formations in this area result in a fountain of water that erupts like a spout and makes a loud noise, as a strong wave hits the shore. What makes it even more thrilling is that there are several such spouting horns across the shore and the timing and sequence of them is quite a marvel. It is like the fountains at Bellagios in Vegas, minus the lights, with a dash of nature’s awe. 

Since we were staying on the east shore, we got an opportunity to explore the food scene there more deeply. In my opinion, the east shore is the mecca for some authentic Hawaiian food options. I recommend the Kountry Kitchen for a sumptuous Hawaiian breakfast and Java Kai for an excellent selection of coffee and breakfast sandwiches (try the Surfer Girl’s Sandwich!). There is also Shrimp Station on Hwy 50 and Fish Hut in the Coconut Marketplace, for conventional Hawaiian fried seafood. Some other restaurants I wanted to try but could not make it to are the Art Cafe of Hemingway for good Italian coffee and Ono Family Restaurant for a Hawaiian breakfast with fresh local fish. A few other restaurants in Kapaa, close the coconut plantations are Tiki Takos, Eastside and Mermaids Cafe.

We kept aside a full day to enjoy the north shore. After an early breakfast in Kapaa we drove north on Hwy 50 with Ke’ee beach as our final destination in mind. The terrain and landscape on the north shore is drastically different from the other parts of the island. You will see a lot of green meadows, streams, taro farms and lush green mountains in the background. Out first stop on this drive was the Kilaleau Point National Wildlife Refuge and Light house. Apart from an old light house, this place is home to several species of birds that are only found in this area. We saw a plenty of Nenes and Laysan Albatross and enjoyed the sounds of the humpback whales that were nesting not so far away. The population of pelicans on a hill diagonally across from the lighthouse was quite shocking. Use your zoom lens or the binoculars available on-site to see the birds enjoying their natural habitat. The lighthouse offered beautiful views of Kauai’s shoreline. It was a refreshing, short, thirty minute detour on our drive to Hanalei. On the way keep an eye out for some beautiful valley views, especially the Hanalei Valley lookout.

As you drive to Hanalei, you come across several one lane bridges where the traffic movement is controlled by one simple thing – human trust. If you see some cars coming from the opposite direction, stop. Five to seven cars at a time can make it across the bridges. The system works flawlessly and you are left to wonder if it is the same human species that runs red lights that comes to enjoy Kauai on its terms. Hanalei town is small and spread over just a few blocks. As you drive further north, the hustle bustle of the town of Hanalei fades away and you approach a string of beaches. There is the Hanalei Beach park which offers the horseshoe view of the Hanalei bay. It is a beautiful beach with a pier that extends into the bay. Along this route you will see some wet and dry caves along the highway, Tunnels beach and Haena beach. These two are pretty popular amongst surfers and the turquoise colored water makes them a great place for a picnic or for day camping.
Our final destination, just a few miles from Haena Beach, was Ke’ee beach. We originally planned the 2 mile stretch of the Kalalau trail that offers breathtaking views of the Na Pali coast, but the shallow and turquoise waters of Ke’ee beach tempted us and we quickly changed and took a plunge in the beautiful, warm and shallow waters of the Ke’ee beach. Minutes became hours and we enjoyed floating in the waters of the most beautiful beach in Kauai. Walk south on the Ke’ee beach for five minutes and look back … and you see the Na Pali Coastline. Ke’ee beach can be very crowded. But once we were in water, it was just us, the green palm trees looking down upon us from the hovering cliffs, and the waves. Although I can barely swim, the beach was safe enough for me to float and practice backstrokes. Ke’ee beach also offers good snorkeling sites if you want to get your own gear and enjoy the ocean underwater. 

After a good swim, we wanted to explore north shore food options. There are a few gems in the small town of Hanalei. The first is the old and famous Postcards Cafe, where people line up an hour before it opens at six pm every day. It is a small cafe and cannot seat more than 25 people at a time. The cute courtyard leads to a beautiful little room. There are also some tables on the deck and some in the courtyard. This is quite a cute little nook to spend a romantic evening. Their fish is fresh and delicious. It comes with an option of herb citrus, pineapple sage or macadamia butter sauce. The appetizer platter (serves two) is quite good. Unfortunately it only comes with one crab cake. And that is to fight for 🙂 The second mention is reserved for Hanalei Coffee Roasters. The Ice Thai Coffee and Coco Mocha there is amazing. Pick between a home baked blueberry or apple pie to pair with your coffee. 

Kauai also has some beautiful waterfalls that have featured in movies over the years. Unfortunately we could only take out time for the Opaekaa Falls in the Wailua River State Park. We missed the Wailua Falls and some others famous waterfalls, but in hindsight, those are the things that will motivate us to plan our next Kauai trip soon! 
Over all we had a lovely trip. The highlight will be the views of Na Pali coast, both from the boat and Kokee State Park. I wonder if one day in our lifetime, there will be roads built across the Kalalau valley to get to Na Pali’s hidden and unexplored beaches. Part of me wishes that day does not come in this lifetime. Some thing are better left untouched, unexplored, uninhabited. 

Mahalo Kauai! Until next time.. stay pure


B&B – a charming retreat

Ever since I quit my ‘glamorous’ job as a management consultant, I have had to downsize on my vacation budget and double my efforts in finding places to stay. My strenuous travel job came with the joys of free airline miles and hotel reward points. Up until 2011 I had never looked up places to stay for my vacations. I pretty much used my reward points to book stays at Marriott’s and Sheraton’s based on what was available. But those joys are long gone and I have exhausted all my airline miles and seventy percent of my hotel reward points already. Just like the most of you, I also look up “the best deal” for my vacations on the various travel sites that have bloomed in the last few years.
This brings me to the topic I have been craving to write about for so long: the endless joys of bed & breakfasts. Before I proceed, let me mention a few disclaimers. B&Bs are only suitable for adults. I have not yet met a family staying at a bed and breakfast, in the dozen or so stays that we have enjoyed in the last couple of years. Also most B&Bs are not located in the heart of the city. If you are a city dweller, then look up Airbnb. So be prepared to stay a good 15-30 minute drive outside the city, tucked inside a forest or nestled next to a beach. And lastly, you must love people to enjoy this experience. If your idea of a vacation is to stay away from people, then make that Marriott reservation now and sip your Mai Tai by the pool, by yourself. There is nothing wrong with that. I am heading for one of those in about a month from now.
Disclaimers set aside, let us now learn a little bit about B&Bs. Typically, B&Bs are private homes with 4-8 rooms, each decorated aesthetically, along a certain theme and usually come with an attached bath. The highlight of these homes, away from home, is their warmth and welcoming environment. The B&Bs are generally run by elderly couples, who are delighted to serve their customers and attend to their needs and sometimes even their desires. The nightly rate includes a delicious multi course breakfast, hors d’oeuvres in the evening, occasional glass of wine or sherry, along with assorted chocolates, fresh fruits, coffee and tea during the day. The B&B owners are almost always quite knowledgeable about the local scene and offer helpful suggestions on how to best plan your stay in the area. They also have coupons for local activities in the area, which may include wine passes, kayak tours, whale watching tours, restaurant dining discounts and more, depending on the area.
My favorite part about staying at a bed and breakfast is the breakfast. Well of course I am a foodie at heart, and breakfast is actually my favorite meal of the day. But there is something more that makes these breakfasts special. It is the people. Usually breakfast is served at 9:00 and all the guests convene in the dining area and take their seats around the dining table(s). The hosts serve breakfast and along with that stir up some light-hearted conversations to get the guests comfortable and acquainted with each other. These conversations chart their own course eventually and lead to some healthy debates, interesting learning and exchange of contrasting viewpoints. I love B&Bs because of this very reason. I live in Mountain View, CA, a bubble in the Silicon Valley. All the people I meet, work with and dine with are like me. There is diversity in color, race and sex, but no diversity in viewpoints. I work in a tech firm and my friends do too. We all have similar viewpoints, issues and ideas of the world. And I love to step out of the bubble to see other flavors more ideas, thoughts, opinions, lifestyles and choices. That is the joy in travel that I seek, and I find that at these breakfasts, at B&Bs.
The richness of these conversations has to be experienced firsthand. At a B&B in Mt Shasta area, one of the guests we met were foster parents, who had adopted seven children along with having a few of their own. They run a catering business in Redding, CA, and the family lives on a farm that is enough to house that many people. I was left to imagine the patience and grit of the lady sitting across the table from me, as she narrated the stories of her adopted children. Last weekend in Orcas Island, four out of the six people seated at the dining table were government employees. It is through them that I learnt about the true impact of the sequester and furloughs on these employees. At another B&B in Sonoma last fall, I met a couple who had a seven month old daughter, and their parents had offered to baby sit their daughter and let the couple get some quiet time to themselves. I ended up giving the husband a sales pitch on one of my company’s products that we offer to non profits. He loved the idea and followed up with my suggestion the very next week. The sheer presence of people from different walks of life, makes these breakfasts a delight.
If you stay longer than one night, you also end up sharing your plans for the next day, and what you did the previous day with your new found friends. Restaurants, pubs, cafes, bookshops and state parks are evaluated and pros and cons are listed out for everyone’s consumption. Since we have people from all age groups represented on the table, there is always a lot of reflection on how things used to be in the past and how things have changed now. There is also some free advice to be gathered. One of the most interesting one I picked up was how to drive in snow, especially when it snows in Portland. So there is this and much more that gets discussed and shared over breakfasts. And with that everyone leaves for their respective plans for the day. If you are in a small town, you also end up running into your inn mates at local cafes and on trails, and that is always a delight.
Let us move on to some of the cons of staying at a bed and breakfast. The first in my opinion is that you cannot stay there with kids. While there may not be strict rules for this, unlike a hotel where you can ask for extra bedding and towels, it is difficult to accommodate them in a B&B type setting. Secondly, you have to keep your noise levels down to a minimum to be courteous to guests staying next door. Since the rooms are all located close by, you cannot really listen to Led Zeppelin at 3:00 am at a loud volume. I don’t see that as an issue, but I can imagine that being a vacation feature that some folks want to enjoy. Thirdly, the B&B only serve breakfast. So you have to step out to get your remaining meals. Usually you have to drive a little further to get a meal, and that could be a little inconvenient for some. And finally, not all B&Bs are the same. They all follow the same format, but each set of B&B owner lends their own character to your experience. Some owners are very engaged and love to chat with you over a glass of wine. While some might not be as engaged and seem a little distant. So be prepared for the extremes. You can always read up reviews on Yelp. Trip Advisor and Google reviews and get to know your B&B hosts before you get there. But just a word of caution is probably helpful.

In addition to the above mentioned cautions, keep in mind that a B&B is a private home, and hence you have to be careful of not misusing and tampering with the hosts’ belongings. Most of the B&Bs are very tastefully done and you don’t want to dirty the property unnecessarily. Also the sheets are not changed every day, neither are they changed in hotels these days at that frequency. Towels are refreshed daily and all the basic toiletries are provided for. Do make sure you mention your dietary requirement to your hosts before you arrive so they can plan their breakfasts accordingly.
By now you know what to expect from a typical B&B. Now let’s talk about how to find these B&Bs. As much as Yelp and Google reviews can help in finding out more about these places, they are not as helpful when you are searching for one. Your best bets in that case are Trip Advisor, visitor information sites for the destination you are going to and finally, bedandbreakfast.com. These sites provide a list and map view of the B&Bs in the area you are visiting and can help you pick your best bet. Also, if you are a planner like me, then start looking for deals on Groupon and LivingSocial before your trip, so you can get some good deals. Make sure you read the fine print on these coupons and assume that the best rate is only available during weekdays. From a budget perspective, B&Bs are not necessarily cheaper than a hotel stay. But they do come with great breakfasts; ones that hotel cannot compete with. Also what you pay for is the experience and not just a king size bed. You know what I mean.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed telling you about Bed and Breakfasts and hope that you will pick one for your next vacation and enjoy the experience as much as I do! Bon Voyage!
Some of the B&Bs that I recommend in the greater Northwest US are listed below. You can start your foray into B&B experience with any one of these.
Tiffany House Bed and Breakfast, Redding, California
The Inn at Schoolhouse Creek, Mendocino, California
Mt Hood Bed and Breakfast, Mt Hood, Oregon
Otters Pond Bed and Breakfast, San Juan Islands, Washington
Brannan Cottage Inn, Napa, California
Santa Nella House, Sonoma, California

Trace Back : London

London … a city of many possibilities..

I am a person of whims and wishes. And in 2012 I wished to celebrate Christmas  in London. There are many that will shiver at the thought of winter in Europe. I am not one of them. I rather enjoy Europe in winter, especially during the holiday season. The glitter and glamor of Christmas markets allured me to Europe in winter of 2009. Agam and I traveled through Germany, Italy and Austria, and experienced a magical winter vacation that left us wanting more of Europe. We visited Paris in 2011 and finally landed in London for Christmas in 2012.

I grew up in India where the British rule cast a rather permanent shadow on the country’s culture. Several of the glorious architectural splendors were built during the British Raj and were inevitably inspired by the British style of architecture. Also, the British royal family has always been of much interest to people around the world. My mother, for example, grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, which was also a British colony at the time, and distinctly remembers the day when she wore a yellow dress and welcomed the Queen to her primary school. And she actually got to shake hands with the Queen herself! The Cambridge and Oxford universities, home to several Nobel laureates, have also been a reason for my interest in Britain. Furthermore, ever since I moved to the United States, I have fancied the idea of living in London for a few years, just to taste the difference between the two countries. My fancies are far from being true at this point, but that’s besides the point. What I am really trying to say is that I have always been very curious about Great Britain and was very excited about my trip. To serve my above mentioned interests and satisfy my ever ignited curiosities, we booked a five day trip to London.


What I love about London is that it is a city for everyone. Whether you are a foodie or a history buff, a lover of art or architecture, London has lots to offer you. The compulsive planner that I am, I made a list of key attractions prior to our trip. But once we were in London, we let chance play its cards. If you still insist on planning, buy the Frommers guide for London. But this article should give you just enough information to mix and match serendipity with a little bit of planning.


We knew from the onset that five days were not going to be enough for this mecca of art, science, fashion, culture and architecture. One of the best decisions we made to make sure we get to enjoy London and the beyond, was to book a full day tour of Windsor Castle, Bath and Stonehenge with Evan Evans Tour upon our arrival. For the remaining four days we decided to visit the museums, the churches, do some shopping and some leisurely galavanting.


The all-day tour starts early in the morning from Victoria Coach terminal and heads to Windsor Castle, the official residence of Her Majesty. We had four hours to explore the main attractions at the castle including the magnificent State Apartments (all 21 of them), St George’s Chapel, the burial place of ten monarchs of England and Queen Mary’s dolls house, a miniature masterpiece. After Windsor, the tour travels to Stonehenge. It is a bit of a drive to Stonehenge, but a rather beautiful one. Stonehenge happens to have its own micro climate, so be prepared. You might wonder what is so puzzling about a few rocks standing in the middle of a large green field. But I suggest you take the trip and stand close to these structures and see if the question beckons you again. I could not stop my mind from racing in all directions as I stood in front of these rocks, trying to find a reason or a purpose for their existence. Of course I could not come up with a substantive answer, and neither has anyone else been able to.



After a rather mystical trip to Stonehenge the tour then proceeds to the beautiful city of Bath. Bath attracts millions of visitors every year who come from all over the world to witness the site of the original Roman Baths. The site is also home to the first temple of Sulis, the Roman goddess often identified with Minerva. You can tour the ruins and admire the plumbing infrastructure that existed ages ago. After Bath, the tour returns to London at around 8:00pm.  

There are 240 museums in London.  So if you are a museum buff, please set aside an entire day and may be even more to visit at least a few of these. Some of the most visited museums in London are the British Museum, Imperial War Museum, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Natural History Museum and Tate Modern. There is a lot of information about these museums on their websites, so I will spare you the details. But two things I highly recommend while you are out exploring the museums are: the Portrait Restaurant at the National Portrait Gallery, that offers beautiful views of the Trafalgar Square area and the British Library. This library has no parallels. The most intriguing highlight of this library is the “Treasures of the British Library,” exhibit, where some of the library’s most precious possessions are displayed, including a copy of Magna Carta (1215), a Gutenberg Bible, and manuscripts and journals of several authors including Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, Jane Austen, Robert Browning and Oscar Wilde, to name a few. As you exit this exhibition, turn left and you can explore the Philatelic exhibition. Continue left and look up. You will see yourself standing under a tall glass tower full of books. The glass tower holds over 65,000 books that formed the collection of George III. The cafe under this mammoth tower is a great place to grab a quick espresso before moving on to your next destination. If you have some time on hand and are fond of Shakespeare, I recommend that you also add the Shakespeare Globe Theater tour to your list. The Globe Theater is a replica of the original Globe Theater from the shakespearean era. There are open air plays staged here all through the year and tickets are available ahead of time.
The Tower of London is another historic landmark that must be seen when you are visiting London. This castle was built in 1078 and has been well preserved over the years of British rule. There is lots to see and enjoy here so plan your time wisely. You can take the audio tour guide that walks you through the attractions at the Tower. Some of the main attractions are the White Tower (an iconic symbol of London), an exhibition of the King’s armour over the years, the Crown Jewels — including the Kohinoor diamond, Yeoman Warder tours and Prisoner’s exhibition. The site of the Tower also offers views of Tower Bridge.

After you have spent a day indoors marvelling at the exhibits at the museums, you might want to spend a day outside enjoying the fresh air in London. You can begin by renting a bike by the hour. Renting bikes is really convenient and on a clear day can be a great way to explore London along the Thames. You can start your day at St Paul’s Cathedral. A beautiful and iconic church that attracts a lot of visitors and locals. You can climb up to the dome of the cathedral and capture some great views of London from its observatory. Bike along the Thames to enjoy the views of this beautiful city. On your way you can take a detour to visit Temple Church. As you reach the Embankment Tube station, take a right and walk towards Trafalgar Square. You can park your bikes by St Martin at the Fields and enjoy the square on foot. There are some nice restaurants in this area if you are up for lunch.

Come back to the Thames and bike along the Victoria Embankment Gardens, towards Parliament Square. It can be tricky to find bike parking in this area. Park a little further away to avoid the crowds. Parliament Square is home to some key landmarks in London. Westminster Abbey is located in this square, and so are the Houses of Parliament. Not to forget the over looming Big Ben. Take enough time to explore this area. Sit in the park in the middle of the square and marvel at the fine architectural splendors, that were each built at different points of time in history. As the sun begins to set, bike towards Lambeth Bridge and cross the Thames to go on to the other side. This side of the river offers beautiful views of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament that light up as the sun goes down. Bike along the Thames and soon you will see the London Eye glittering in blue, right after Westminster Bridge. The London Eye experience is much talked about but it takes up quite a lot of time due to the long queues of people. You can skip it if you are in a hurry. Bike along the river until you see the Millenium Bridge. This is a steel suspension bridge that offers a beautiful view of St Paul’s Cathedral on the other end. After crossing the bridge, you would have arrived to where you started from, St Paul’s Cathedral.


After a day of biking in London, perhaps it’s time for some shopping. There are several mega stores in London that offer the latest in fashion. Of course there is Harrods and Harvey Nichols in Kensington, House of Frasier, John Lewis and Selfridges on Oxford Street. Another interesting place to shop at is Covent Garden. The Apple Market, East Colonnade and Jubilee Markets in Covent Garden offer unique and distinct shopping experiences. There are also some entertainment shows in the evening when the markets close down. There are a lot of restaurants in the area if you are looking for a fancy place for date night. Another interesting place to shop in London is the Portobello Market in Notting Hill. I loved the movie and hence made it a point that I visit the house with the blue door and the book shop that features in the movie, Notting Hill. The market here is basically full of street vendors selling fresh produce, junk jewelry and old books. I enjoyed galavanting through these streets and will definitely go back there when I visit London. If you want a focussed shopping experience, go to Oxford Street and you will find everything under the sun there. Oxford Street actually ends in Hyde Park. A lovely destination to rest your legs and soak in some London charm.

London is home to some fancy boutique hotels and charming restaurants. The pub culture in London is one to be envied. The bar food has evolved with time and includes Indian items like chicken tikka masala on the menu. I could not have asked for more — good beer and spicy indian curry were readily available in every restaurant. I cannot point to one particular cuisine that is delectable but I do have a recommendation for some authentic Indian fare. Dishoom is a fusion restaurant located in Shoreditch that has a nostalgic menu. Nostalgic you might ask? Yes, this restaurant has recreated the old bombay cafe scene with Pav Bhaji’s, Chilli Cheese Toast and Frankies. You have to try this place to believe it. Delicious food and a charming ambience make this place my London favorite.

As I mentioned before, London has something for everyone. It is a charming melting pot of people with diverse ethnicities, interests and vocations. To be in London was like being in a Delhi that could have been, if we had kept up with the trends and needs of the times. The architecture, food, markets, and energy in London was much like that I experience in India, just a little bit better. In a city of many possibilities, London, I experienced some amazing moments that included biking in rain, getting lost in the city, drinking beer for breakfast, lunch and dinner and last but not the least, standing under Big Ben and saying, “Yay! I finally made it! Merry Christmas!”



More pictures posted here