October 28, 2015: With the arrival of fall our thoughts turn to vacation and a chance for a couple weeks of R&R before the crush of the holiday season descends, but unlike so many autumn vacations in recent years, we were determined to spend this one doing something other than hanging around town for two weeks working on "home improvement" projects or the like. A staycation has its merits, but when that's all you've done for the past seven years, it's time to shake things up. With Ben finally working a regular schedule and Roni coming off a hectic six months of projects with the sanitary district, we decided the time was right to take our first real extended trip since 2008. The only questions were where to and how were we getting there?
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It's almost a 2-hour ride between Anacortes and Sidney, B.C. Photo by Glenn
Roni set the ground rules early: she wanted to go somewhere within three hours of home that didn't require lots of time in the car. That limited our options to places like Monterey, Lake Tahoe or the Napa wine country — all lovely areas (when they aren't otherwise in flames) but nowhere we hadn't seen a dozen times. Then we got to thinking: there was nothing in the three-hour rule that said we had to drive there. We could board a train or a plane and leave the driving to others. New Orleans sure sounded appealing, but that would take a bit longer than three hours to get there except by space shuttle. How about Seattle? Just a couple hours from us by plane, and the tickets were relatively cheap.
We searched the online travel sites and found some great deals leaving out of Sacramento. We could rent a car when we got there and spend four or five days seeing the sights in the city, hang out at Pike Place Market, perhaps head out to the coast and look for lighthouses. It all sounded great, but we couldn't quite bring ourselves to make the purchase. There's something about buying plane tickets that makes you feel committed to your plans, and given that it had been so long since our last serious vacation by air, to New England in 2007, we weren't sure how ambitious we wanted to be. We hesitated on buying the plane tickets to research our options some more, which proved to be a huge mistake. The fare deals were based on 14 days advance purchase, and by the time we were ready to commit we had missed out on most of the good flights and cheapest prices. The hope of traveling early in our two-week vacation window was dashed if we wanted to fly.
Disappointed, we started resigning ourselves to the original idea of Roni's three-hour drive to somewhere closer to home. Perhaps it was fate that we shouldn't make such lofty travel plans on our first big trip in so many years. Ben, although now 21, had never been on his own for as long as we were thinking of going. Four or five days to us seemed manageable, but how would he take to having the empty house to himself, having to care for the cats and arrange his meals and get himself off to work each day? We didn't want him to feel alone and that he was being left out of our vacation, even though he expressed no interest in the travel thing. The planning for our trip was becoming so stressful that we needed a vacation to recover from the vacation we hadn't even taken yet.
Then one afternoon Roni had a change of heart. She came home from work and announced, "I've decided, we're going to Seattle." But, Glenn reminded her, we had missed the good airfares there. It would now cost nearly $800 for the two of us to fly. Never mind, she said, we'd just get in our own car and drive there. "What happened to not wanting to spend days in the car and sticking to within three hours of home?" Glenn asked. It was then Roni admitted to something we have both come to realize over the years, which is that we love road trips. Getting there is half the fun, not to mention that you can change plans on a whim if and when you need to. We set ourselves a budget and decided to leave early the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 22.
* * * * *
EATTLE MAY HAVE been the general direction we decided on, but it was far from our intended destination. Roni was intrigued by the San Juan Islands, which are located just north of Washington's Puget Sound and accessible only by boat or seaplane. The most populous of them, San Juan Island, boasts roughly 56 miles of highways that connect to historical parks, hiking trails, quaint harbor villages and other tourist attractions. Another of the islands, Orcas Island, is much more rural, but as its name implies, it is considered a prime location for whale watching. Being the whale lover that Roni is, she made sure to book some time there when planning our trip. Finding a place to stay on the islands and scheduling a ferry ride there proved the biggest challenge of our vacation, as you will discover later.
We decided on a 7-day, 6-night trip and packed accordingly. A large duffel bag for clothes and a couple of smaller bags for toiletries were all we needed, and of course we had a collection of battery chargers and cables for our various cameras, computers and electronic gadgets. We bought a case of bottled water and a huge bag of trail mix from Costco to help tide us over at times when we got hungry and weren't prepared for a full meal somewhere. We awoke at 5 a.m. the day of our trip, hugged Ben and gave him some last-minute house-sitting instructions, and we were on the road under cover of darkness at 6:02.
We'd set an ambitious agenda for our first day. We allowed ourselves two days to reach Anacortes, Washington, but Roni wanted us to get as far as we could by nightfall on Tuesday, so she booked a room in Salem, Oregon, a mere 589-mile drive from Oakley that would take 9 hours without stops. Of course we knew there would be stops, and the first one came a little more than an hour into the drive when we pulled into a CVS pharmacy in Sacramento to purchase Windex just as the sun was poking up on the eastern horizon. We had done an OK job preparing for our trip, but we forgot to wash the car and as a result had filthy windows that made for poor photos. Glenn gave all the windows a good rubdown, which delayed us by about 20 minutes.
We hit traffic getting onto Interstate 5, just as we expected we would. The good news was that Sacramento's rush hour isn't as congested as that of the Bay Area, and once we were past the downtown it was smooth sailing up the interstate toward… our next distraction.
Roni made the tour of the FM radio dial in search of a good country station while Glenn updated his Twitter feed and kept watch on the Google Maps app on the iPad to check for upcoming landmarks and other attractions. "We'll be passing the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge in a few minutes," he noted. Roni's eyes lit up. "I've heard a lot about it and I always wanted to check it out," she said. A couple of miles later we were rolling down the off ramp in search of the wildlife refuge. No, it wasn't on our original itinerary, but it was still early in the day and we were making great time, so we could afford a few minutes here.
The wildlife refuge near the town of Willows proved to be more interesting than we'd expected, and much larger. So large, in fact, that our decision to take the loop road around its 35,000 acres added more than an hour to our visit. The drought that has affected so much of California was in evidence, although there was still enough water to attract thousands of ducks, geese, egrets, hawks and other birds. We saw a raccoon lumbering along the side of the road. A jackrabbit posed for us long enough to grab some decent photos, and there were observation decks where we could gaze across the marsh. Being that it was a Tuesday, we had the entire place mostly to ourselves. We were reveling in the fact that we were on vacation and could choose to visit whatever we wanted, for as long as we liked.
Well, almost as long. Although we had planned on making a couple of stops en route to Salem, we had also made plans to drop in on Glenn's aunt and uncle, Marie and Dave, at their new home in Grants Pass, Oregon. Glenn had told them we'd be there about 1 p.m., figuring about 7 hours to travel from home. Now we were a little behind schedule, although we could easily compensate by not stopping for lunch in Redding as we had planned to do. We checked out the visitor center at the wildlife refuge before getting back on the road, only to stop again minutes later when we reached Willows because Roni needed to gas up the car. That involved another half hour driving around town and making wrong turns while looking for the gas station.
We made good progress north on I-5 after that, until we stopped again when we crossed Shasta Lake and wanted to get photos to show how badly the drought had affected it. We wound up getting off the freeway and driving down a mountainous gravel road that brought us to a better view. Nothing drives home the seriousness of the California drought like seeing one of the state's largest watersheds drained to less than half its capacity. It was very sad. Speaking of drained, so was our energy from having not eaten a substantial meal since the muffins we'd had for breakfast. We broke into the bag of Costco trail mix and happily munched away on salty peanuts, raisins and M&M's while we debated what to do about lunch.
We drove on until we came to Dunsmuir, an historic railroad town with a few restaurants to choose from. It was just a quick jog off the interstate. We stopped at a place called the Burger Barn to grab a sandwich, use the facilities and just get out of the car for a while. Roni had been doing all the driving until now and was well ready for a break. We swapped drivers for the next leg of the journey, and by the time we got back on the road it was already well after 1:30. Needless to say, we wouldn't be making it to Grants Pass by 1! We still had a couple of hours of driving ahead of us to get there.
Glenn called his uncle once we reached Ashland, Oregon, to let them know we were about 50 minutes away. We followed our GPS directions to reach their house, which took us all through Grants Pass and into the semi-rural area beyond. We punched in the code of their gate keypad and drove onto their 2-acre property just about 4 p.m. We were quite late, but at least we'd arrived in one piece and could enjoy a nice visit for a few minutes while we rested up for the remainder of the day's drive.
Glenn's aunt and uncle, longtime residents of Alaska and Massachusetts, had traded in those snowy climes for the more temperate environment of southern Oregon to be nearer to their family, and had only been in their new home for a few weeks. The former owner kept horses, and the property still very much has the feel of a small horse ranch, complete with a hitching post near the house and a covered paddock out front that Uncle Dave refers to as the "mare motel." We especially liked the waterfall and pond feature out back, and the creek that rambles through one side of the property. Dave and Marie gave us the grand tour, then it was inside their living room to escape the heat while we sipped our bottled water and swapped stories.
The time seemed to fly by, and eventually we had to say our farewells and get back on the road because the sun was already starting to set and we still had another nearly three hours of driving ahead of us. Aunt Marie tried to encourage us to go out for dinner with them and spend the night in their guest bedroom — both very tempting offers, but we had made reservations in Salem and needed to end our day there to avoid another long drive the next day. We apologized for having to turn down their gracious offer and were on our way.
With Roni at the wheel, we continued north on an increasingly lonely I-5, the shadows growing longer until soon we were in total darkness with the tree-covered mountains to either side of us. By the time we reached Eugene we were both ready for another break, so we stopped in at a Shari's restaurant for soup and salad. The car was running low on gas and there was a cheap Arco station right across from the restaurant — actually, they all seemed cheap to us, coming from expensive California — but Roni decided we had enough to get us the remaining 60 miles to Salem because she didn't want to spend even an additional 10 minutes at the gas station, seeing as how it was already 10 p.m.
We talked ourselves through the next hour until we rolled up to the Comfort Suites in Salem, exhausted. After 17 hours on the road, a motel never looked as inviting — until we discovered there was no place to park. We stopped outside the office to check in. The front door was covered in yellow caution tape and inside a Salem police officer was talking with a couple seated in the lobby. This had the outward appearance of a disastrous stay in the making. It turned out that the caution tape and the presence of the policeman were unrelated — much to our relief — and that the cop was there because a woman alleged that one of the hotel staff had stolen her belongings from her room. Oh yay. "Don't leave your luggage unguarded," Roni said as we drove across the street to the motel's overflow parking area. "We won't be here long enough to do that," Glenn said. Since we planned to be on the road early the next day, we really only had about 10 hours to appreciate the accommodations.
* * * * *
AY 2 OF our journey was much easier. The decision to cram in most of our driving on Tuesday allowed us to take our time getting out of Salem and on the road to Anacortes, Washington, about 300 miles away. We took advantage of the free continental breakfast at the motel while CNN brought us the details of Pope Francis' visit to America. No doubt his itinerary was less grueling than ours.
The first order of business was to buy the gas we had avoided purchasing the night before. We took a wrong exit from I-5 and found not a gas station, but the Keizer Station shopping mall. If you've seen one Target, Ross, Lowe's or Starbucks you've seen them all, and we were about to head out of there when Glenn caught sight of the OSU Beaver store. Glenn had fond teenage memories of listening to Oregon State University football games on an AM radio station he was able to tune in while living in Hayward, so he wanted to check the store out. He came away with a souvenir T-shirt while Roni got directions from the clerk to the nearest gas station.
Once back on the highway it was a 45-minute drive into Portland. We hadn't planned to spend any time there, perhaps just long enough to scout out one of the many cool eateries the city is known for and grab a sandwich or something for the road. Glenn had long wanted to check out Voodoo Doughnut, which has been featured in shows on the Food Network. You might call it a gimmicky doughnut shop, but to satisfy our curiosity we had to find it. Portland isn't huge by American city standards, sort of a cross between Sacramento and Oakland — the modernness of the former with the urban culture and a few of the social ills of the latter. Voodoo Doughnut is located in the downtown core, and we had to skirt our way around the panhandlers and homeless people sleeping on the sidewalk to reach it.
Voodoo Doughnut turns the creation of sugary pastries into a form of art, with toppings piled so high that it is often difficult to find the doughnut that lurks underneath. Roni bought an iced one with a wrapped piece of bubblegum in the center, while Glenn got one covered in crumbled Oreo cookies with peanut butter and chocolate drizzled on top. We ate them on a bench in the adjacent alley, which is shared by several restaurants in the area, and took in the crazy artwork and graffiti in the neighborhood. A huge sign painted on a building across from the doughnut shop proclaims "KEEP PORTLAND WEIRD." It seems that, if nothing else.
We'd spent so little time in Portland that we could justify another side trip, so when we came across the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Washington about an hour later, we decided to stop in. Not unlike the refuge we'd visited the previous day near Willows, this one was huge and offered visitors a driving tour through the area. We appreciated the fact that they made an audio CD available at the refuge entrance that could be played during the drive to explain the things we were looking at. Unlike the Sacramento refuge, this one had a lot more water, and as the tour promised, we saw critters including river otters, muskrats, turtles and many birds. We even saw sandhill cranes, which normally don't arrive in our area until November. They were too far away for good photos, but that didn't stop us from trying to take them. Being that we were now in Washington, Roni started keeping an eye out for bald eagles. We did see a bunch of hawks and vultures on our Ridgefield tour, but no eagles of any kind. No worries, we'd just have to keep looking.
After pausing long enough for a late lunch at Lacey Rha's Café in the town of Castle Rock, we let Glenn get behind the wheel and decided we'd better make time if we wanted to avoid a repeat of Tuesday's late arrival at our hotel. We still had to get through rush hour traffic near Seattle and our visit to the wildlife refuge took a couple of hours. Once we had finished navigating the concrete maze below the Emerald City and gone a few miles out of town, Glenn pulled over in a mall parking lot so Roni could get us the rest of the way to Anacortes. It was late in the afternoon and storm clouds were moving in as we headed further north. We'd been watching the weather forecast all week, and we expected to see some rain while we were out on the islands. We hoped any bad storms would pass us by.
Despite our hopes of reaching Anacortes early, it was already dark by the time we pulled into town close to 9 p.m. Roni had booked a room for us at the Ship Harbor Inn, which is about a mile from the ferry terminal. With our ship scheduled to depart early Thursday morning, we didn't want to have a long trek to reach the vehicle loading area, so this was purely a choice of convenience rather than for any rustic splendor it may have offered. In truth, the inn looked like it might have been a nice place to stay a few days for its great view of the ferry boats and the Rosario Strait, but we never got to see it in daylight so we can't really review it. What we do know is that our room was very small, just barely large enough for a bed, and that the driveway to reach the inn was incredibly steep. In the dark, Roni was afraid of running off the road because she couldn't see it in front of her on the incline.
The young desk clerk was very helpful when we asked him to recommend a place in town to eat that would still be open at this hour. He told us his personal favorite was the Brown Lantern, a bar and grill located downtown. We were skeptical when we first saw it, but we decided to trust the advice of the natives and ventured inside. The place was a hopping little pub with a live guitar player and soccer on TV. We grabbed menus and perused the offerings, eventually deciding that we didn't have huge appetites so would stick with soup and salad. The house specialty was a spicy seafood gumbo, and as much as Roni thought a spicy meal wouldn't be a good idea so late at night, she couldn't resist the temptation to try it. We both ordered the same thing, and it turned out to be perhaps the best meal we ate the entire trip. The gumbo was excellent, and because Roni's version of it came as an all-you-can-eat deal, she accepted the refill when the waiter came back around. She only asked for a small scoop, but the waiter returned with a full bowl for her, saying how they were at the end of the pot for the day and it would just go to waste otherwise. Glenn helped her finish it.
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HURSDAY MORNING WAS another early one for us. In planning our visit to the San Juan Islands, the major hurdle we encountered was scheduling a ferry ride there from Anacortes. The Washington State Department of Transportation operates the ferry system, and we had great difficulty figuring out their schedules — so much so that Roni wound up calling them from home to make sure we were doing the right thing when we made our travel plans. What we wanted to do was hop the ferry to Orcas Island, spend most of the day there, then catch another ferry in the evening to take us to Friday Harbor on nearby San Juan Island, where our hotel was located. Because we wanted the car with us and fares are based on a round-trip between Anacortes and the farthest island you plan to travel to, we wanted to arrange the route so that we wouldn't have to double back and incur additional charges. Well, it made sense to us, anyway.
The WSDOT has a reservation system for its ferries, with one third of a boat's space made available the day of departure for passengers who arrive at the last minute. Another third is released a few days before departure. Priority is given on some trips to passengers going to Sidney, B.C., so on a busy day you might not be able to use that boat to take your car to Friday Harbor. And not all the boats follow the same route; some bypass San Juan Island while others bypass Orcas Island. Others only run on weekends. And the schedule was just changing from summer hours to fall. It was all enough to make an uninitiated traveler's head spin.
To make things more challenging, the WSDOT asks passengers taking their vehicles on the boat to arrive 90 minutes early. The ferry we wanted to take to Orcas Island was a late-morning departure, leaving around 11 a.m. We thought that would be a good idea in the event we couldn't book a nearby motel, seeing as we would have to awake early enough to drive to the terminal to be there 90 minutes early. But that plan fell through when we discovered we couldn't get a reservation for that time. We could either chance it and try to secure a spot the morning of departure or play it safe and book another boat in advance. We chose the latter approach and booked passage on the 7:30 a.m. ferry.
So we were up, packed and out the door of the Ship Harbor Inn shortly after 6 a.m., still in total darkness, hoping we wouldn't be stuck in traffic for our spot in line at the ferry terminal just a mile up the road. We needn't have worried. We were alone in the queue and had our choice of toll booths when we reached the loading area. The attendant asked where we were going and Roni told her to Orcas Island and that we had reservations. The woman found our reservation and informed us that we were going to Friday Harbor. Um, well, yes, we explained, we were planning on going there eventually, but first we were stopping on Orcas and then would catch the ferry from there later in the day to Friday Harbor. "Why do you want to do that?" she said, and proceeded to explain to us that our plan would wind up costing another $26 because we would have to backtrack on the route to get to Friday Harbor. Huh??? But Roni told her she had spoken to a live person on the phone who had assured her that this wasn't the case, that so long as we continued traveling west to east it was considered part of the same trip. The ferry attendant acted like we were speaking a foreign language. Since our goal was to reach Friday Harbor today, it made more sense to take the boat there first, then hop an inter-island ferry to Orcas if we wanted to see that before returning to Anacortes on Saturday.
Man, we were completely befuddled at this point. It wasn't even 6:30 in the morning and our food-deprived critical faculties weren't completely functional yet. Rather than continuing an argument we wouldn't win, we followed the attendant's guidance and let her change our reservation to the 8:30 boat bound for Friday Harbor. We forked over the $74 to get ourselves and the car aboard, then queued up at the front of the line at the staging area for the long wait ahead, still trying to process what had happened and where we screwed up.
We got out to stretch our legs, take photos of the sunrise, and when the café in the passenger terminal opened around 7, we went over to grab bagels for breakfast. There, Roni talked to an attendant at the information kiosk and explained her whole reservation odyssey again, deciding perhaps that a third opinion would settle the score. The way it was explained to us this time around, our original idea had been the correct one: we would have saved money going to Orcas first, then Friday Harbor. Score one for the Californians, but it was a moral victory only; we were too late to change the reservation now and would have to miss Orcas Island on this trip. We didn't know it then, but the ferry attendant had done us a huge favor.
* * * * *
HE FERRY CHELAN slipped out of Anacortes right on time at 8:30. The trip took about an hour, but we were both too excited to spend our time sitting indoors at one of the tables or in the passenger seats. We moved from deck to deck to take photos and embrace the cool sea breeze on this cloudy Thursday morning. We were disappointed about having to miss Orcas Island, but we were more disappointed with the weather, and we hoped the weather report was right that the rain would hold off at least until the evening. Roni had heard that it is possible to spot Orca whales from the ferry ride, so she scanned the strait intently with the hope of seeing one. We didn't.
Our boat docked at Friday Harbor a bit before 10 a.m., and we were the second car off — the benefit to having arrived so early and being at the front of the line. We couldn't check into our bed and breakfast inn, the Harrison House Suites, until 4 p.m., so there was plenty of time to get in some sightseeing. We pointed ourselves onto San Juan Valley Road and followed it to wherever it led. We could have left the car at Anacortes and gotten by just fine on foot in Friday Harbor, but we were quickly glad to have the car with us when we saw all the places we wanted to check out and realized how truly vast San Juan Island is.
We'd gone 9 miles down the road before we came across the Krystal Acres Alpaca Farm and stopped in for a visit. It's not that we had any great need to see alpacas, but it was a "thing to do" in the San Juan Island tour guide, and because Ben for whatever reason does like alpacas, we thought we'd get some photos of the place or a postcard and humor him. It turned out to be interesting. We got there right after 10 a.m., the gift shop's advertised opening time, and were disappointed to find it closed. However, there were people tending to the alpacas in the field nearby, so we waited around in the hope that they might come our way and we could ask them when the store really opened. The first person to happen by on an ATV was the farm's co-owner, Kris Olson, who said she was just getting around to opening the store after feeding 61 hungry alpacas. We checked out the gift shop featuring products made from the wool of her own alpacas as well as some imported merchandise, all of which was very lovely and quite pricey. Being tourists and trinket collectors, we were happy they also had a few postcards, which we did buy. Not your casual ranchers, the owners have won numerous competitions with their animals, the awards for which are proudly displayed on the walls in their store.
Kris offered to let us take photos of her herd if we wanted to walk along the path to the pasture where the animals were relaxing after their breakfast. We did so, lingering a few minutes to enjoy the serenity of the ranch's 80 acres nestled amid the forest of San Juan Island. This, we told ourselves, is why people buy ranches in the middle of nowhere.
A little further up the road we came upon the turnoff for English Camp, a historical park preserving the remnants of a British military outpost that was established on the island in 1859 while the Brits and the Americans tried to work out the water boundaries between the two nations. The camp was abandoned in 1872, but some of the original buildings remain, including the commissary and a guardhouse. We weren't able to go inside them, but it was interesting reading the interpretive placards and imagining what it might have been like to be here 150 years ago.
Our next stop was the San Juan Islands Sculpture Park, a 20-acre site upon which visitors can walk several trails to view various works of public art designed by the island's artists. Some of the pieces are quite impressive, both in size and complexity, and most are for sale. But with prices ranging from a few thousand dollars or so up to one we saw for more than $68,000, these weren't the sorts of items casual tourists would be inclined to stuff in the back of the car for the trip home. Not that we wouldn't have wanted to on a couple of pieces we saw.
The park has a very eclectic feel to it. Admission is based on a suggested donation and although there was a small "visitor center" at the entrance, it wasn't staffed. There you can get a map of the park's trails and pick up a brochure about the park's featured poet, D.M. Jenkins, whose poetry appears along the trails. Among the favorite attractions the day we went were five spinning urns in which visitors can deposit prayers written down on provided slips of paper. Each urn was supposed to represent something different: health, wealth, love, etc. Yes, these were also for sale. Roni, always the whale watcher, liked the sculpture of an orca that was crafted from gears and other machine parts. The interactive sculptures were definitely the best, including a giant teaspoon that could be pivoted on its stand, and large artworks that were supposed to move on a gentle breeze (but more likely received a helping hand from guests.)
It was about 1:30 p.m. by the time our meanderings finally took us to Roche Harbor, which is the only other major town on San Juan Island besides Friday Harbor. Definitely more of a working marina and resort, the town offers a few small shops and a restaurant or two, including the Lime Kiln Café, where we stopped for lunch at the end of the public wharf. We strolled along the docks admiring all the pleasure boats and laughing at their fanciful names. Before we left town, Roni mailed a postcard to Ben from the small post office we found on the wharf. She thought he would enjoy getting to read about our trip and would offer him reassurance that we were all right while we were away, even though we both knew that we'd probably be home before the card reached him.
It was still too early to check in to our B&B by the time we got back to Friday Harbor, so we killed time by visiting the gift shops that line Spring Street and taking note of our restaurant choices. Despite the fact that it takes a ferry ride just to reach Friday Harbor, we were amazed at how much traffic there was in the downtown. The nice thing about it was that we could leave the car parked in one place and walk it easily.
A little after 4 p.m. we drove over to the Harrison House to check in. It was our first time in a bed and breakfast inn, so we weren't quite sure what to expect. Roni had chosen one of the suites for us because we wanted the convenience of having our own bathroom, which wouldn't have been the case had we stayed at the Tucker House next door. Originally we had thought we would be arriving late in the evening from Orcas Island, so they already had our keys and information packet ready to go when we surprised them by showing up on time. The woman who checked us in walked us over to our suite while pointing out the amenities we could make use of during our stay — free bicycles that we could ride around town, and kayaks for an embracing trip in whatever water we could find to launch them in. If only we'd planned it that way and the weather was nicer.
Our suite was on the bottom floor of the Harrison House and was decorated in a nautical theme. It included a gas stove fireplace, fold-up day bed, and galley kitchen with windows that opened out to a courtyard where a small pond with an egret statue in it burbled happily away. The kitchen came fully stocked with cooking utensils and even a few snacks we could take with us on that kayaking adventure we weren't going on. Our hostess explained that breakfast service started at 9, but because we had our own suite with private kitchen, breakfast would be delivered to our door about 9:30. Yay, we had to plan to receive guests instead of sleeping in. How was this a good thing?
It had been a fun but tiring three days of traveling and sightseeing, so Glenn decided to crash on the queen-sized bed for a bit while Roni read a book on her laptop. Eventually we accepted that we may be at a place that serves breakfast, but it we wanted dinner we would have to go find it ourselves, so we decided to walk downtown to eat at one of the restaurants we'd scoped out earlier.
Our inn was only a couple of blocks away from Spring Street, which was good because it was starting to sprinkle. We hoped the rain would hold off until we were back for the night, but even if it didn't, we wouldn't get too soaked. Problem was, we didn't decide on a place to eat right away. Being a tourist town, most of the restaurants were pricey. Not that we were opposed to a fancy feast somewhere, but if we were going to spend big bucks for a night on the town, we didn't want to eat at a place with a mediocre reputation or menu, and there were more than a few of both. We got our exercise walking the entire downtown more than once before we finally chose Blue Water Bar & Grill with its windows overlooking the ferry slip. We enjoyed our simple meal of soup and salad and even ordered drinks to go with it, which knocked our bill up quite a lot. But we figured this might be the only major dining experience we'd have on our vacation, so Glenn pretended to look the other way while Roni signed off on the receipt.
Not only did the rain not wait for us to get back to the inn, we also managed to take the long way back because Roni wanted to avoid walking up the steep hill that would have gotten us there the shorter way. But it was all good once we were warm and cozy in our room for the night. We hoped to get good and rested for another day of sightseeing on Friday.
* * * * *
HE FOURTH DAY of our trip was the first that didn't require us to be out the door by a specific time or drive far to reach our destination. We'd seen roughly half of San Juan Island's attractions the day before, so Friday would be spent hitting the rest of them at a leisurely pace. Our breakfast did arrive promptly at 9:30, which encouraged us to be showered and dressed before then. It was some sort of breakfast pizza served with a side of granola and yogurt, milk and orange juice. Okay, but underwhelming. We laughed that we had to wash the dishes afterward, but they tell you it is the guests' responsibility when you have a kitchen with provided dishware. So far this B&B thing was a lot of work.
We started our day by driving downtown to San Juan Island Cheese, thinking it would be fun to bring along a picnic lunch for wherever we wound up. Roni had scoped this place out online and had read many good things about it, so we had high expectations. They bill themselves as a "cheese and wine bistro," and like the other restaurants in town, the shop caters to gourmet diners who don't mind paying dearly for the experience. We ordered the "World Board" sampler box which comes with three types of cheeses, some bread, crackers, fig and grapes. For a few dollars extra we added prosciutto and an extra order of bread (after we asked them how much came with the basic box and they said not much.) We spent roughly $36 on a cup of clam chowder, a tiny box of tiny cheeses and a few things to eat with them. It would have been a huge meal for a hamster. It was a good thing we still had our bag of Costco trail mix for when we got hungry later after lunch.
We lingered a bit in the gift shops before setting out along Cattle Point Road to discover the south side of the island. The clouds we had brought over with us from Anacortes the day before were still with us, although at least there was no rain. We ventured along the coastal road, stopping to take pictures of Strait of Juan de Fuca from a scenic overlook. No orcas, but we glanced down the slope to see a trio of red foxes foraging in the brush, ignoring us and the two other people who had stopped to admire the view also. The foxes weren't the least bit shy. One of them walked up the hill to where the four of us were, and proceeded to walk along the guard rail. It came within inches of Glenn as he photographed it, curious to see if we had anything to offer it. Seeing that we didn't, the fox continued on its way.
A bit further we came to the southern end of San Juan Island, which is home to a small state park that includes the Cattle Point Lighthouse. We didn't have the required day-use pass and didn't know how to obtain one at that moment, so rather than risk getting busted by a passing patrol, we didn't stay long at the official parking lot where there was little to see anyhow. We used Google Maps to locate the "unofficial" entrance about a half mile back up the road, where parking was not specifically regulated. We weren't the only ones to do this either, as several other visitors arrived after we did to check out the sandy trail that leads to the lighthouse overlooking the strait. As far as Pacific Coast lighthouses go, Cattle Point is unspectacular. Built in 1935, it sits on a bluff and is actually quite small — and of course off limits to visitors, even though you can get close to it. It's basically a big white hunk of concrete with a door and a window and a light sitting on a pole atop the tower. You do get some spectacular views of the strait from the bluff, and had there been any whales passing through we would have been certain to see them. There were none. But it's hard to take bad pictures with a lighthouse in them, even on a very cloudy day, and so we took many before moving on.
We still hadn't found a spot for our cheese and cracker picnic and were getting hungry, so when we made our next stop at San Juan Island National Historical Park, we took a chance on the wooden table we found there to enjoy our small spread. The benches were mostly dry, despite the recent rains. The park is the home of American Camp, which was the counterpart to English Camp we saw the day before on the north side of the island. Like the other, American Camp has a few of the original buildings preserved that visitors can walk to. We weren't up to doing a lot of walking, having just climbed the bluff at Cattle Point, so we didn't explore the place thoroughly. There is an interpretive center on site where we were able to chat with a docent who filled us in on the camp's history. In a nutshell, the Americans didn't feel safe with the Brits around, so they built a military camp along the water's edge to keep the peace. When some genius in the military realized that guarding one side of the strait left the other side completely vulnerable to attack, the camp was relocated to the center of the peninsula, which offered a good vantage point for both sides.
As usual, we were lingering longer than we had planned and the day was getting away from us. We had one more attraction to check off our list, and that was Lime Kiln Point State Park on the west side of the island. The Sun was already making its slow descent when we arrived. Unlike Cattle Point, this place actually had a self-serve kiosk available to purchase day-use passes, so we paid our $10 and felt much less guilty for having not done so earlier — not to mention the fact that there were park rangers present to actually check for them.
It was a short walk from the parking lot to the vista point, which already had several people there when we arrived with our cameras and the binoculars Roni brought just in case there happened to be orcas nearby. The park is considered one of the best spots in the world to view orcas in the wild, so we hoped the hype was true. One of the other tourists told us on their way out that there had been whale sightings earlier in the day, but they were far out in the water. This was the sort of news that keeps the whale-watching tour guides and their chartered boats in business. We wanted to see whales, but didn't feel like spending $100 per person to look for them. We parked ourselves in the observation area and cast our gaze to the sea along with the other folks. A couple of small fishing and pleasure boats passed by a few hundred yards off the coast. We kept an eye on their wakes to see if anything popped up, and eventually something did. Glenn happened to get a photo of a black-and-white creature that looked very orca-like. Others quickly homed in on the spot where he first saw it and saw something too. No one could confirm that's what it was because there are porpoises that also look like orcas, and Glenn's photo of it — the only one we got — is far away and grainy in a Loch Ness monster-ish sort of way. We choose to believe it was an orca. End of debate.
Lime Kiln Point State Park, so named for the lime kilns that once were in use there, also is home to a pretty nifty lighthouse that was built in 1919 and is much more picturesque than the one at Cattle Point. A small cliffside trail from the vista point takes you through woods of madrone trees and up to the lighthouse. Had we been there at another time, it appeared to have a visitor center inside. Alas, it was closed. We got some breathtaking photos of the sun setting over Haro Bay with the lighthouse in the foreground. After that, it was time to call it a day and return to town. We were satisfied that we had seen most of the major sights on the island and realized how much we would have had to skip had we tried to tackle Orcas Island too.
Hoping to avoid a repeat of Thursday night's dinner trek, we arrived back at Friday Harbor early enough to hit the Hungry Clam just down the street from our B&B. It wasn't that there was anything special about it, other than the prices were somewhat more reasonable and it is a basic American diner/hamburger joint that also serves fish meals. People raved about it on Yelp, but as far as we can tell, this is because it is a convenient place to grab a fast meal next to the ferry terminal. They close earlier than the other restaurants, and when we got there for dinner it was pretty quiet. We ate our burgers and fries and shakes and then retired to the inn, looking for a good night's sleep before getting back on the road in the morning. Hard to believe our vacation was halfway over and it was already time to start heading home.
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Y SATURDAY MORNING we were ready for the next leg of our journey, starting with a ferry ride from Friday Harbor back to Anacortes. This time there would be no haggling with the attendants over schedules; we'd pre-booked passage on the 11:05 a.m. boat and were just a block from the staging area. You only pay when you are westbound, and because we already had our round-trip fare, all we had to do was check in at the loading dock at the prescribed 60-minutes-in-advance arrival time.
We awoke by 8:30 so we would have time to shower and pack before breakfast was served at 9:30. At least, we assumed it would be at 9:30; the schedule we received only covered the first day. We counted on having about 20 minutes to eat before we had to depart for the ferry terminal, or else we might have to dig into that bag of trail mix again. Ugh. Fortunately the server showed up at our already open door just a few minutes late with our meal — an eggs benedict dish with the side of yogurt and granola and two tiny cheesecakes with a raspberry topping. Sort of an odd item to serve at breakfast, but it was good. Better than the dish they'd served the previous day. Roni, not being a fan of cheesecake, was more than willing to let Glenn have her portion.
We were out the door a few minutes later. Our hope was to check in at the ferry terminal and perhaps have a few minutes to run back to Spring Street to make one last pass at the gift shops. The attendant located us in his handheld computer and told us which lane to line up in. Roni asked if it would be OK to leave the car once we were parked. "No," he teased, "and you have to leave the heater running the whole time." He said we'd be fine as long as we were back at the car by 10:50, so that gave us about 45 minutes to do our shopping. We stopped first at Gourmet's Galley on Spring Street where we had seen several souvenir items we liked. The place specializes in kitchen items and health food, but Glenn was attracted to a series of postcards and greeting cards designed in a 1930s retro style. The images are created by a Seattle company called Lantern Press, and their talented artists have done work for tourist sites throughout the country. We only had a handful of postcards from Friday Harbor, so these would be a nice addition to the collection.
Roni, meanwhile, was in search of a T-shirt to remember her island visit, but she hadn't found any she liked, so far. We were in a hurry because of our limited time before the ferry loaded, but we still managed to squeeze in a little more shopping. We had made our way back to Front Street, right across from the ferry, when we passed the booth of a glass blower who was busily making trinkets to sell. We had only stopped to admire his work, but he chatted us up long enough to convince us to purchase one of his glass whale tales made up into a necklace. We were just about back to the car when we saw yet another gift shop we had missed across the dock from the ferry. Turned out that it had a good selection of T-shirts, so Roni finally found one she liked. We added a few more postcards and magnets to the collection, as well. By the time we finally reached the car, we'd dropped close to $100 on trinkets in less than an hour. Having time to kill at the ferry slip in a tourist town can be an expensive proposition.
As it turned out, we needn't have worried about racing back to the car. As the clerk at the last gift shop told us, "Everyone comes here in a hurry to buy things before their boat leaves, but those boats take at least 15 minutes to unload, then another 15 minutes to board." Not only was this true, but the ferry Samish also arrived late from Sidney, so by the time we set sail for Anacortes we were running close to an hour behind schedule. At least we had decent weather. The rain clouds had departed and now we had mostly sunny skies and temperatures in the upper 50s. Still just sweater weather, even when the boat was speeding along Rosario Strait with the wind lashing us on the mostly deserted observation deck. Perhaps it was old hat to most of the other passengers who had seen the islands on their trip from Anacortes, but we were excited to finally have some good light in which to take photos. Roni pulled out her iPhone to check the weather: 57 degrees and light clouds where we were, 90 degrees with sun and getting hotter back home in Oakley. We sure didn't mind needing our sweaters.
We docked at Anacortes around 1 p.m., the first time we had really been able to see it in good light. The first order of business was to find lunch. Although we liked the Brown Lantern our first night in town, we opted to try someplace different this time. None of the restaurants downtown appealed to us, given that we were running later than planned and wanted someplace quick. It was as we were heading out of town on Route 20 that we passed a place called Bob's Chowder Bar & BBQ Salmon and knew we had to check it out. It was pretty much a dive, but they served decent New England-style clam chowder and salmon burgers. We couldn't decide what to try, so we each got a cup of chowder and split a salmon burger and a salmon wrap.
Our goal was to get back to Seattle in time to visit Pike Place Market before it closed for the evening. We hadn't originally planned to spend any time there, but Roni wanted to see it badly enough that she added a night to our trip, booking us into a Comfort Suites near Sea-Tac Airport in Tukwila so that we wouldn't be too far away from the city in case we wanted to stay later. It seemed like a reasonable plan, except that we had lost an hour with the late ferry and were about to lose some more time. Not far from where we ate lunch on Route 20 was a huge garden statuary business that we had seen on our trip into Anacortes three days ago, and we both wanted to check it out. The place is called Barone Garden in Mt. Vernon and it is right off the highway in front of a huge lumber mill. We never tire of looking for unique concrete statuary for our yard, and these guys had a vast collection on hand. We found several smaller items including a gargoyle and a pair of painted birds, but the one that grabbed our attention was a 3-foot-tall heron statue that we had never seen anywhere else. The heron happens to be the bird depicted in the logo we designed for the Delta Science Center, of which Roni is the executive director, so we thought the statue would be perfect for our yard.
"Will we have enough room in the car for it?" Roni wondered. "Just clear off the back seat and it should fit fine for the ride home," Glenn said. The lady who rang up our purchase helped us load the sturdy bird onto the back seat, placing it sideways on a couple of sheets of cardboard to protect the upholstery. We don't know how much the piece weighs, but Glenn dubbed it the Hundred Pound Heron after he lifted it to help get it into the car. The lady who helped us was shocked when we said we were taking it back to California. Just like us to leave on vacation with two passengers and return home with three.
We got serious about the driving after that. Even though it was Saturday, Pike Place starts shutting down for the night around 5 p.m. It was already after 3 and we had close to two hours on the road ahead of us. "We're not going to make it in time," Roni said disappointedly as we hit traffic coming into Seattle. Glenn offered that we could come back Sunday morning if she really wanted to see it, but we shouldn't give up on trying tonight.
With Google Maps showing the way, Roni got us into downtown Seattle right around 5 p.m. We worried it would be hard to find a parking place near the market, so when we saw the parking garage for the Target store on Union Street, we found our way inside and parked. We didn't realize we were just a block from the market and wound up walking down a flight of stairs to the waterfront where the city's aquarium and the Great Wheel are located. It might have been an interesting place to visit if we hadn't been pressed for time. Roni wasn't thrilled about the idea of having to walk back up the tall stairway to reach the market, all the walking on our trip putting a strain on her sore foot, so we were excited to find an elevator on a nearby parking garage that we could use.
The elevator lets passengers off at a skyway that crosses Western Avenue and leads right into Pike Place Market. We were well after 5 p.m., but the flower stalls and seafood peddlers were still doing brisk business as they tried to squeeze in a few final sales. We squeezed our way through the crowd and eventually stopped at one of the seafood stalls where fish mongers were tossing whole fish for the crowd's entertainment. We were more interested in the smoked salmon they were selling, and Roni picked out a $40 fillet to take on the road. She worried about getting it home without it spoiling, and the guy who sold it to us reassured her that it was sealed well and usually there weren't any problems. All the same, he supplied a freezer pack he said would keep it on ice for a day or so, although he said that if we did things "right" it probably would be gone before we ever reached home. Yes, we were tempted to break it open right there.
It was a good thing we bought the fish when we did, because right after that, most of the shops were shutting down. What a difference 20 minutes made. There was a news stand near the end of the market that was still open, so we bought a calendar and some postcards there, including one to send to Ben. After Roni wrote a message and popped it in a nearby mailbox, we browsed the other shops outside the marketplace and eventually found our way into a T-shirt store where we picked up our Seattle imprinted wearables. The Seattle Seahawks were scheduled to play their season home opening game against Chicago the next day, and everywhere we turned was a sea of blue and green, the Seahawks' team colors. The fans here really love their team. Glenn isn't a Seahawks fan, but all the team's merchandise for sale at the T-shirt place was nonetheless tempting. He successfully refrained from buying.
It was getting dark when we decided we'd had our taste of Seattle and were ready to head home. Earlier we had lingered on the skyway near sunset long enough to grab some photos of the Great Wheel all lit up with Mount Rainier in the distance and the ferry boats coming and going. Seattle truly is a beautiful city. We drove south another dozen miles until we reached Tukwila and located our Comfort Inn. Roni hadn't wanted to stay next to the Sea-Tac Airport because of the plane noise, but she didn't know that the place she'd picked for us was next to the Family Fun Center amusement park, which was open late on Saturday night. We went out to dinner at the Old Spaghetti Factory, which was amazingly busy for almost 9 o'clock at night. Our appetites being what they were (or weren't) at the end of another long day, we filled up on salad and spaghetti pretty quickly before turning in for the night back at the hotel.
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E HADN'T INTENDED to stay in Tukwila on Saturday night. Our original plan was to go to Astoria, Oregon, then take the coastal road back toward home. But we were entering the sixth day of our vacation and playing road warriors was starting to wear on us. We had seen the things in Washington we'd come for, so now it was a question of whether we wanted to be home by Monday night or Tuesday night. We no longer had an itinerary. We poked our way out of the hotel after eating their continental breakfast and sat in the car for nearly half an hour trying to decide whether to go north or south. Why north, when we had just come from there? The answer was that Roni wanted to check out Port Orchard, which is the home of one of her favorite authors, Debbie Macomber. We had talked before about making this stop, but until we added a day to the trip it didn't seem feasible. Now here we were, less than an hour's drive from it with no other plans, so why not?
We hooked up with Route 16, which curves around the southern end of the Puget Sound through Tacoma and then heads north up the western peninsula across from Seattle. We never do things the easy way, so instead of heading right into town when we got off the highway, we took a side road that led us to the community of Southworth, which is one of the places where you can catch the ferry to Seattle. We were thinking that perhaps we'd find a good spot to see the city from the shoreline, but the ferry slip wasn't it. We then proceeded to follow SE Southworth Drive, which roughly follows the contours of Yukon Bay, until we encountered some beaches that weren't otherwise privately owned. The further we drove, the more of Seattle came into view, looking like an architect's model far on the other side of Elliott Bay. Our definitive view of the city skyline came when we reached the town of Manchester and stopped at a public boat launch adjoining Pomeroy County Park. We lingered long enough to get the photos we were after. One mission accomplished, but we still hadn't reached Port Orchard.
A bit of backtracking finally got us to the place we'd come to see, and our first stop was in the downtown area where Roni began comparing the buildings we saw to the descriptions Debbie Macomber gives of the community in her popular "Cedar Cove" series of novels, which are based on life in Port Orchard. The books serve as the inspiration for the "Cedar Cove" series on the Hallmark cable television channel. It was just our guess, after seeing the antiquated downtown area, that the community portrayed in the books and TV series was a highly romanticized version of the real Port Orchard. What the downtown does have going for it is its marina with a commanding view of the naval shipyards across Sinclair Inlet in nearby Bremerton. It also has a lot of old public murals that have been painted on the walls of the library and some of the local businesses.
Debbie Macomber is a revered figure in the community and also owns a yarn shop and restaurant that Roni wanted to see. They weren't to be found in the downtown area, though. We had to head the opposite direction on Bethel Avenue. We found the yarn shop at one corner of a strip mall made up to look like a Victorian era house. Why a yarn shop? Macomber has a whole knitting series of novels that she has done, so there you go. We didn't venture inside because Roni is not that into the knitting thing, but she was very interested in checking out the restaurant on the other side of the parking lot.
The Victorian Tea Room is painted in a pleasant pink. It didn't look very open, the parking lot devoid of any vehicles, but upon closer inspection we found that it was. We were seated near a window in a spacious dining area across from a gift shop that featured, among other things, copies of many of Macomber's recent novels. Roni already has most of them. It is said that the author herself often makes appearances at the restaurant she owns, although our server informed us that she was out of town at a conference for the weekend, and so seeing her on this Sunday seemed highly unlikely. No matter. We ordered salad and sandwiches and very much enjoyed the ambience.
Our waitress was attentive — hard not to be when there was only one other party in the restaurant — and at the end of our meal she started chatting us up. It turned out that she is involved in roller derby, a sport few people know a lot about, but when Glenn expressed some knowledge of it, having sat in on bouts of the local Undead Bettys team based in Antioch, her eyes lit up and for the next several minutes we were discussing the finer points of flat versus banked tracks and the World Flat Track Derby Association championships, which she once participated in. What were the odds we'd be talking roller derby in the middle of a Victorian-style tea room? It was hard to top that moment, but we tried by browsing the gift shop afterward and came away with a Cedar Cove coffee mug Roni liked, which she said was large enough for two cups of coffee. The tea room was a fun find among several we'd made on our trip.
Had we not spent the extra night in Tukwila, our original plan would have taken us to Astoria. We nearly decided to pass on that idea because it would add another night to the trip, but the thought of skipping it was disappointing because it is one of the favorite towns we have discovered on our several trips to the Northwest. We finally decided to make the visit, getting back to I-5 after our Port Orchard stop and then crossing over the Columbia River at Kelso and back into Oregon to follow Highway 30 along the south shore to Astoria. We had never been this way in our previous trips, always coming into town from Highway 101 on the Astoria Bridge.
All along the late afternoon drive we kept looking up on the chance we might spot a bald eagle. They are supposed to live in abundance along the Columbia River and there is even a wildlife refuge which is billed as one of the best sites in the world to see them in the wild. Yeah, yeah, yeah… just like the whales at Orcas Island or Lime Kiln Point. We didn't spot a single eagle swooping through the forest. We did, however, easily find a hotel room in Astoria — yet another Comfort Suites, as we were now interested in building up points toward an eventual free night on some future vacation. Our room promised a view of the river, and true enough we could see the water through our grimy window, even if the view was partially blocked by one wall of the hotel and a huge row of trees lining the waterfront across from the railroad tracks. It was tough to see the bridge to the west, although we could look at the couple of cargo ships anchored for the evening mid-channel, their decks lit up like tiny cities. We could also hear the barking of sea lions not far away and wondered how many there were. It sounded like a small army.
We went in search of dinner, both remembering the lobster bisque we'd eaten at a restaurant here one rainy night many years ago. That restaurant is long gone, and apparently not many places do bisque. We looked it up online and came up with a short list of recommended restaurants, including one that claimed to do seafood bisque. We went there — the Bridgewater Bistro, located on the western side of the Astoria Bridge. We liked the idea that it had a nice view of the Columbia River. Amazingly it was pretty busy for a Sunday night. We were told there would be a 45-minute wait, as we didn't come with reservations. Ah well, we were hungry and didn't want to search all over town for a dining spot, as we'd become quite skilled at doing. We went to wait in the lounge next to a roaring faux fireplace near which a pianist played extremely mellow versions of pop hits from the '70s. She seemed to have a thing for ABBA. The restaurant is inside a restored 1890s wharf building, and beneath our feet was a pane of glass so guests can see the underside of the pier. Unless you look carefully you might miss the human skeleton suspended by a rope from one of the rafters, a sign attached to it reading: "The last customer who didn't leave a tip."
It didn't take us quite the full 45 minutes to be seated, fortunately. It did, however, take about another 15 minutes for our waitress to finally come around to take our orders. More soup and salad, although this time only Roni got the seafood bisque while Glenn decided to try a different soup with a house salad and a side pasta dish. Rather than deliver all our food at the same time, the waitress brought out each course individually over a period of about half an hour. At least we had some dainty loaves of bread to keep our mouths and stomachs busy in the interim. It took another 15 minutes after we had finished eating to get the check. We were puzzled by all of it, given that crowd had mostly gone and a few other diners who had come in the same time we did were also still working on their dinners. Apparently this isn't unusual, as we discovered later when we read the Yelp reviews. Somewhat expensive and fairly mediocre food wasn't helped by appallingly slothful service. At least Roni liked her bisque.
We caught the tail end of the lunar eclipse after leaving the restaurant. We'd been at our table so long that we'd missed most of it. We retired to the hotel, listening to the sea lion serenade as we prepared for bed.
* * * * *
HOSE SEA LIONS proved to be quite the attraction. The next morning after our continental breakfast, we strolled down to the municipal pier where we could hear them barking up a storm on the boat docks. This was not just a couple dozen animals, but more like 400 or more. Their furry brown bodies lay sprawled out across the entire length of two docks, making passage impossible for anyone who might have wished to get by. Not that anyone would be trying. The city had placed signs at the entrances to the dock ramps warning of the presence of the pinnipeds and that they could be dangerous if approached. From our vantage point on the pier they looked mostly harmless and lazy, sunning themselves and occasionally rolling into the water for a swim or getting into barking contests with their bunk mates.
We packed the last of our bags back at the hotel and checked out to begin the next segment of our trip, a brief coastal jaunt down Highway 101 before we cut back inland to I-5 for the remainder of the drive home. It was a compromise we settled on, knowing the coastal route would be more picturesque but the interstate would be much faster, and seeing as how we were into our seventh day with one more to come, we were ready to make faster progress home.
One of the things we had looked forward to about visiting Astoria is that there is a fresh fish market there where you can buy sturgeon, among other things. Roni has long wanted to try sturgeon meat, but it is pretty difficult to find in our area, even though we live less than 2 miles from one of the premier sturgeon fishing locations in the Delta. We knew from our Web surfing that Northwest Wild Products was a place we needed to check out. Roni, still concerned about keeping the salmon we'd bought in Seattle cold for the duration of our trip, wondered if we should have stocked up on extra ice, because if we wound up buying sturgeon we'd want to get it home safely too. She needn't have worried. The owner of the fish market said he didn't have any sturgeon in stock and that it would be a few days before any likely came in. He was kind enough to direct us to a competitor, Josephson's Smokehouse, adding somewhat derisively that they carried farm-raised fish.
Josephson's turned out not to have any sturgeon either, but they did have a nice little deli and restaurant as well as a few souvenir items. We bought another postcard to send home to Ben, and also picked up a small package of salmon jerky to take with us on the road. It was like biting into heaven when we had some a few hours later, and we were reminded of what the fish monger in Seattle had told us about not needing to worry about preserving our fish if we "did things right." That small package of jerky vanished rather quickly.
After stopping off at the post office to mail Ben's postcard, we departed Astoria by way of Highway 101, heading south along the Pacific coastline. It had been 12 years since our last visit here, and although we'd seen it more than once, it's hard to grow tired of that coastal splendor. Years ago we had been into photographing all the lighthouses as we traveled this road heading south, but we had missed a few of them including the Tillamook Rock Light near Cannon Beach. The decommissioned lighthouse has an interesting history. Built in 1881, it was the most expensive lighthouse ever constructed in the United States and earned the nickname "Terrible Tilly" because of its remote location and difficulty for construction crews and lighthouse tenders to reach it. It is located more than a mile off shore, on a small rock jutting up from the ocean. Decommissioned in 1957, it is now privately owned and inaccessible. Viewing it is not easy, unless you happen to visit Ecola State Park, as we did.
The park is about 7 miles off the highway through a forest in the city of Cannon Beach, more widely known for its long strip of sand that offers views of Haystack Rock and similar formations along the rugged coastline. There is hiking and other activities available at Ecola Park, but most of those who stop there — us included — come to view the seascape. There is a trail that leads down from the parking lot to an overlook above the beach. Roni had had enough hikes for one vacation, so we took a pass on the trail, instead focusing on looking for the lighthouse. It wasn't too difficult to spot from the picnic area, and despite the fact that it was too far away to photograph well with our short camera lenses, we nevertheless managed to get our digitally enhanced pictures. Meh. Roni, ever on her quest to see a bald eagle, was disappointed yet again that there were none to be found among the towering treetops, although we did encounter plenty of seagulls bravely strutting around the picnic grounds in hopes of a handout.
Several miles later we reached the town of Tillamook, which if you know anything about Tillamook is home to the world famous cheese factory that bears its name. Once just a fun little place to drop in and take the tour of the processing plant, the cheese factory has expanded over the years to include two gift shops, an ice cream counter and a restaurant that carries a variety of menu items featuring Tillamook Cheese products. Being close to lunchtime, the restaurant was an ideal find for us. Glenn can attest that they make a pretty mean three-cheese grilled sandwich, but he was also drawn to the slices of cheesecake placed temptingly in a display case near the cashier's stand. Dessert, anyone?
After our meal it was time to check out the gift shop and the deli offering every type of product the cheese factory makes. We can get many of their common varieties of cheeses — Colby, Monterey Jack, mild and sharp cheddar — from Raley's back home, but there were some we hadn't seen before. We picked up three small blocks of smoked sharp cheddar, aged sharp white cheddar, and habañero jack, eager to try out the different flavors. Then it was over to the ice cream counter for a couple scoops of Tillamook ice cream. All good stuff.
Back on the road, it was time to think about heading away from the coast. We had enjoyed our taste of it, much like the free samples we enjoyed at the cheese factory, but we had also decided we needed to make progress toward home, which meant a return to I-5 and a stop in whatever major town we felt we could make it to before nightfall. We picked up Highway 22 at Hebo and followed it east until we reached Salem, then found I-5. We pulled off at a rest area long enough to freshen up and change drivers; Roni had been at it since the start of the day and was getting uncomfortable because her foot was cramping on her. We needed to get her home so she could rest it. Besides, we still had at least another two or three hours of driving to do. We talked about going as far as Medford or Grants Pass, but by the time we reached Roseburg it was already 7 p.m. and still 120 miles more to reach those distant outposts. Add a stop somewhere for dinner and we'd be looking at 10 p.m. by the time we dragged into town. We both remembered what fun that was on the first night of our trip, so we did the wise thing this time and found a hotel in Roseburg. Comfort Inn, of course.
Our dinner choices were pretty limited if we didn't plan to get back in the car, so we stuck with the Elmer's Restaurant right across the street. The service wasn't all that, but at least the food was pretty good for a chain restaurant. We'd never heard of Elmer's before. Apparently they are a Washington and Oregon chain, but they do have one location in California: Palm Springs. Looks like we won't be dining there too often.
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HE FINAL DAY of our trip we expected to be uneventful; a lot of driving to get us from Roseburg back to home. But we did manage to squeeze in one more activity. A few miles south of Roseburg there is a Wildlife Safari in the town of Winston. We had read some good things about it and it sounded interesting, so we decided to stop there first.
The Wildlife Safari is a 600-acre park nestled amid hills where visitors can drive through and see exotic animals roaming free, sort of like being on the plains of Africa except for the manmade structures that populate the park sections. The park is divided into themes, with one section representing Africa, another Southeast Asia, one North America and so on. Naturally the star attraction is the big cats, the lions and tigers that can be viewed doing whatever it is they do, which on the day we went appeared to be not much. While on the safari you drive straight through and aren't allowed to get out of your vehicle, although they say it's OK to leave your windows rolled down unless approached by the animals — especially the rhinos. This, however, severely limits one's ability to take good photos. We did our best with what we were given to work with.
For the most part, the animals are free to roam and occasionally cross paths with the tourists. Soon after we started the safari we paused for a herd of Watusi cattle that strolled onto the gravel road and decided to linger there. Their huge horns are reminiscent of Texas longhorns. While we waited for them to pass, we glimpsed the rhinos sleeping on a hill several dozen yards away. Not particularly threatening in that state. Giraffes grazed nearby. Once we got by the cattle herd we passed the pond where the hippopotamuses were kept. There is a road that takes you close to the pond, but it was undergoing maintenance the day we visited and so the closest we got to the animals was a view of their backsides as they wallowed in their bog.
It's easy to be forgiving of animals that don't want to put on a show for the tourists, especially on a warm day and when it is normally their time to sleep. What was more disappointing was the lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) that not only were doing nothing, but were kept behind huge fences or in pens monitored by watch towers. True, they technically were given room to roam, but it wasn't like you could drive right up to them. For obvious safety reasons those animals were kept at a distance, so seeing them at the Wildlife Safari was ultimately no different than if we had seen them at a conventional zoo. The good thing is that they all appeared well cared for. The Wildlife Safari is also engaged in animal rescue work, and boasts that it has successfully raised hundreds of tiger cubs over the years. In the lion pen we got to watch a couple of the young ones romping with their siblings while mom and dad lounged in the shade.
Our tour of the park took place in late morning, right around feeding time, so we got to see a number of animals gathering for their meals at the covered kiosks and troughs where their food was delivered. One of the highlights was passing a herd of American bison that had gathered around to eat. Their trough was right next to the road, and while people were able to drive by as the feeding session was in progress, it wasn't like the bison were paying attention to traffic. This provided for some comical and concerning moments as drivers slowly worked their way through the herd. Comical, because when a thousand-pound bison stands in the middle of the road and blocks your way, you don't argue with him. Concerning, because the bison jockeying for position at the food trough were crashing into each other and were oblivious to everything else around them. They could probably do some damage if they happened to fling themselves into a car door or hood. We waited for our turn in line, and when we finally got up to where the herd was, we inched our way through — with the widows rolled up — until we emerged on the opposite side unscathed.
The safari road took us up into the hills past grazing llamas, deer and turkeys. We also saw hawks and vultures that were not part of the safari but added to the ambience. When the road descended we found ourselves across from the monkey island and near a pavilion where more animals were being fed. We paused to watch them and were approached by a curious emu that strolled up first to Roni's window, then crossed over to the passenger side while Glenn was taking pictures of it, forgetting that the window was still rolled down. The big bird was about to stick its neck into the car when Glenn quickly put the window back up, leaving it to peck at the glass. It was our closest encounter of the tour.
After taking an uneventful swing through the tiger cages, we emerged back at the park entrance, feeling slightly underwhelmed. There wasn't anything wrong with the tour, but we thought it was too much like a zoo with fewer opportunities to take decent photos. We strolled into where the safari's shops are located and there are a few more animal exhibits, including a children's petting zoo with miniature horses and pygmy goats. A pond near the center featured a large flock of pink flamingos, and in one cage we discovered a bald eagle. It wasn't the wild eagle Roni had hoped to see on our trip, but at least now she could say she had seen one. We made a swing through the gift shop, then it was time to get on the road as it was already noon.
In another two hours, we were in Medford and in need of fuel — both for the car and ourselves. Gas had been gradually getting more expensive as we got closer to California, but at $2.30 a gallon it was still a huge bargain, and we of course were happy to let the station attendant do all the work of filling our tank while we considered what we wanted to do about lunch. Roni had spotted a Deli Delight in a strip mall as we came into town, and seeing as how our other options included fast food places or chain restaurants, we were ready for something that served good food without taking a lot of time to order and eat there.
Deli Delight filled the bill perfectly. It wasn't busy at all, given the midafternoon hour, and the sandwiches we ordered were very good. We decided to eat them in the store because it was cooler there than outdoors, and we knew we'd have the rest of the day to bake in the car. While we ate our meal, we stayed entertained looking at the play slips for the half-dozen lottery games Oregon runs. They of course have Powerball and Mega Millions and variations of scratcher games like we are used to in California, but they also have a keno-style game with draws every four minutes, much like a Nevada casino. That was new to us. We also were intrigued that Oregon has what it calls "Video Lottery," which are essentially video poker and slot machine reel games in which players can wager and win (or lose) various prizes. At Deli Delight, these video games were tucked away in a separate room off the restaurant so as to shield them from minors. Even on a Tuesday afternoon there were people hovered over the consoles chasing dreams.
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HE GOOD THING about Medford was that it left us less than an hour from the California border. The bad thing was that we still hadn't reached California and still had hours of driving ahead of us. We started calculating the remaining miles and our average pace and figured we'd reach Oakley sometime around 9 p.m. At least now we had fewer incentives to stop for tourist attractions; that's the nice thing about living in a state for most of your life, is that you've been there and done that enough times that you don't need to do it every time. We did stop at a rest area a few miles south of the border and checked out the California Welcome Center that was there so we could stretch our legs and pick up some brochures, but that was the last stop. Roni was comfortable handling the driving, so once we got past Mount Shasta and began descending into the San Joaquin Valley, Glenn snoozed his way through Redding. He awoke somewhere near Red Bluff.
We had a long debate about the best route to take for the remainder of the trip. Roni wanted to avoid Sacramento, concerned about evening traffic. Glenn was in favor of the shortest route. Both goals took us off of I-5 when we reached I-505 near the town of Dunnigan. But from there we disagreed. Glenn's choice — and the one recommended by Google Maps — was to take Highway 113, which crosses the desolate prairies of Solano County between Dixon and Fairfield before connecting with Highway 12 and taking us back to Highway 160 at Rio Vista, a short and mostly direct drive to home. Roni didn't like that idea at all, given that Highway 113 is a rural two-lane that barely feels safe in daylight, let alone at night when we'd be on it. She preferred to connect with I-80 at Fairfield and then head west a bit to connect with I-680 and eventually Highway 4 at Martinez, which would then take us home. Her route was 12 miles longer, but added just two minutes to the route Glenn wanted. In the end, the person behind the wheel won the argument. We followed Roni's route, and despite hitting road construction is a couple of places along the way, we managed to arrive in Oakley just a few minutes before 9 p.m.
We had been in communication with Ben for the last hour, keeping him updated on our progress and assessing what he wanted to do about dinner. He decided to wait for us, having had his fill of eating Subway sandwiches the rest of the week. We stopped at Raley's for a few minutes once we got back to town and picked up some salads, soup and French bread. We weren't sure how hungry we were, but at least we'd have fresh bread tomorrow to eat with our Oregon cheeses and Washington smoked salmon. We pulled into our own driveway about a quarter after 9, thoroughly exhausted but happy to be home and to have had the opportunity to take a real vacation. Our initial worries about how Ben might handle our absence had mostly been for naught. He had done fine without us, spending time with his friends when he wasn't at work. They had even slept over a couple of nights, but the house was still standing and he had actually cleaned it for us, so if had been worse than its usual messy state we'll never know. Perhaps that's for the best.
Well, if you're still with us at this point, thanks for reading. This month's newsletter has been long in the works, taking nearly a month to compose and select all the photos presented here. We don't usually like to run so long, but it's tough to describe an adventure like this one in just a few hundred words. We'll probably make up for it next month. Time now to finish our Halloween decorating and prepare for Thanksgiving. We'll see you again in November.