Filling up on island time . . .

Note: A previous post, about a stopover in the Azores, was the first in a series of posts that chronicle a recent trip to Portugal, heavy on relaxation and good food, undertaken as a sort of “experiment” by two couples. As cousins, we have more than just family ties in common, but had no previous experience traveling together. It was a unique adventure.

We had embarked on the planning with gusto. We all agreed that daily schedules and strict timetables would not govern our trip. We would take the days as they came, giving in to whims, and choosing to explore both together and sometimes separately. We also agreed that picnics and snacking would be every bit as welcome as “reservations-only dinners,” and that off-the-beaten-path attractions held more appeal than guided tours or noted museums.

I hate to admit that our appetites guided our island activities, but that’s pretty much the truth of it. We heartily endorsed seaglass expeditions100_2530 on lonely beaches, long lunches with accompanying local beer or wine, and lazy afternoons with our books, sometimes interspersed with naps. Even though early dawn light was beautiful, we felt no compunction to be overly active early each morning.

We overindulged in fresh fish and seafood prepared in traditional ways, and we sampled sardines, octopus, local mussels, sheep’s cheese, and plenty of olives. We did, unfortunately, miss the experience of eating cozido, a meat or chicken dish slow-cooked underground in the hot volcanic soil. And we did not venture a soak in the mineral-laden volcanic pools, although they are a highlight of the visit for many tourists to Sao Miguel Island.

The marina drew us . . .

After spending a morning exploring the town, we were drawn by the water, and the prospect of having a view to accompany a light lunch. We were walking along the rocky shore in what will someday be a revamped marina district of Vila Franca do Campo. Deadlines seem both non-existent and unimportant on this island, so there are no signs proclaiming a targeted completion date. 100_2211

With a couple of eateries to choose from, we picked the one closer to the water, Atlantico Restaurante & Grill, and were ushered upstairs to a pleasant dining room with a stunning view. It was late by island standards, apparently; other diners were close to finishing their meals, but we were welcomed nonetheless by a server who smilingly said we had plenty of time. The kitchen would not close until 3 p.m.

And so our first encounter with Portuguese dining began:

First the obligatory sampling of bread, olives, cheese, and this time, paper-thin sliced ham and a tasty sweet jam. Our orders came and were consumed, along with a bottle of chilled white wine, and the minutes ticked by.

 

It was well after 3 p.m. when we finished, and we bade goodbye to Michael, our waiter, who had spent time in Chicago, as we recall, and spoke perfectly idiomatic English. He seemed not to mind being kept after “quitting time,” and actually invited us back for dinner, but then told us the restaurant would be closed for the next couple of days due to an annual — and, apparently, quite raucous — fisherman’s celebration. Indeed, while we ate, workers continued to decorate the street outside; we suspect it was quite a party!

Another day, we visited Mariserra, once again for a late lunch, in Sao Roque, nearer the large city of Ponta Delgada. We had yet another delicious taste of island life, this time highlighted by a shareable fish stew, served with pasta in a tomatoey sauce, as well as perfectly-prepared garlic shrimp (two orders) and flavorful mussels.

 

Crafting a memorable visit . . .

We kept busy, but we relaxed completely, interspersing long beach strolls and walks along cobblestone streets with short excursions to the market and a day trip to Sete Cidades at the far end of Sao Miquel Island. We drove winding switchbacks to the rim of the now quiet volcano, and marveled at the sight of twin pristine lakes, one blue, one green, that fill the caldera. There are numerous hiking trails, with plenty of scenic overlooks for photo ops. 100_2257

We acted as “traffic cops” when a mama duck and her brood strolled through a lakeside parking lot, and we stopped to gaze in awe at an abandoned structure. Now covered in graffiti and spreading greenery, it must have once been an architectural gem. We never learned its history.

 

Another day we visited another shore, thoroughly enjoying a leisurely excursion to Cha Gorreana in Ribeira Grande. Family-owned and operated since 1883, the only surviving tea plantation in all of Europe is still farmed and harvested by time-honored methods, completely organic and pesticide-free. The tour and tea samples were free of charge, and we lingered at the site.

 

The story of how tea farming came to the Azores is fascinating, affirming that a volcanic island in the North Atlantic was a well-known destination to voyagers from the Orient and India, and by dealers in exotic spices and fruit, long before any of us might have guessed. Tea plantations arrived later, however. The tea harvest and processing is still done by hand, labor-intensive and a labor of love, as well as a booming business. Both black and green teas are wonderful.

A simple question . . .

“Meat or fish?” the proprietor asked, after he had brought our wine to a table perfectly situated near balcony windows, open just enough to let a light breeze waft through. 100_2440

We chose fish, but the meat platter served to nearby diners looked equally tempting.

We had stumbled, quite by accident, upon Fim de Seculo Restaurante in the heart of Maia, a coastal village not far from the tea plantation. We had hoped for a quiet late lunch in a cafe along the shore, but instead we found this charming upstairs dining room, accessed via the outdoor patio and ground floor bar, complete with blue and white tile murals, white linen tablecloths and a dark wooden staircase that has borne its share of footsteps over the years.

 

This was to be a leisurely lunch, punctuated with laughter, good wine and interesting conversation with the proprietor and his daughter, who, we learned, had just graduated with a degree in hospitality management. It ended on a sweet note: a platter of freshly-sliced Azorean pineapple, perfect in its simplicity.

We will not soon forget the experience, and we did not eat again that day!

Three days on this island only whetted our appetite. A twist of scheduling became a highlight of our trip. We boarded our flight to Lisbon with a twinge of regret, at the same time looking forward to a planned cork forest tour and some highly-anticipated beach time on the mainland, in addition to more good food in faraway places.

It’s the people, not the places . . .

It’s good to get away, and sometimes it doesn’t seem to matter where the journey takes us; it’s the break from routine that’s important.

This time, though, it was all about the place. My husband and I, as those who know us (and those of you who read the previous post) know, spent the better part of a summer in Alaska 13 years ago. We traveled the Marine Highway of Southeast Alaska and numerous watery byways that led us to out-of-the-way villages and secluded coves. We went north to Skagway and Haines, west to Glacier Bay and Sitka, spent delightful days in Hoonah and Petersburg and bobbed gently “on the hook” with only stars and lapping waves for company. We visited Juneau, the capital, several times, and we had good times in Ketchikan, Alaska’s “first city.”

At the end of August we returned to the 49th state, arriving in Anchorage on a Friday evening to spend a few hours prior to embarking the next day on a seven-day voyage aboard Golden Princess. The trip would take us past impressive Hubbard Glacier and into Glacier Bay before visiting Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan on a journey slated to end in Vancouver, British Columbia, the following Saturday morning.

It was not a trip we spent a lot of time planning. It was, in fact, a snap decision, made with a “why not” attitude, but with low expectations. We sandwiched it in between short trips to other destinations during August.

Some initial observations:

What we experienced surprised us. We were less than enamored by Anchorage, home to fully 40 percent, if not more, of Alaska’s residents. But, to be fair, we spent only a few hours there and during our brief visit we encountered delightful people. The city, however, is not pretty, apart from its surroundings.

Our appreciation for the spectacular natural beauty of Alaska emerged fully intact. Looking down on the Anchorage area from our airplane and seeing snow-capped distant peaks towering above the clouds was duly impressive. The water and the coastal vistas are incredible and the vast land seems to extend forever.

And the flowers — before I visited Alaska, I would not have believed there were flowers in what I considered a cold and desolate place. How wrong I was. They were — and still are — everywhere. Wild flowers and flowers in public parks; flowers on window sills and in shops, flowers filling huge municipal planters; flowers in airports and on the docks. Wildflowers along the highway. Gorgeous, colorful flowers. Everywhere!

On Saturday, we boarded a bus for the short drive to Whittier, a year-round deep-water port at the head of Prince William Sound. The trip allowed us a glimpse of white Beluga whales in the waters of Turnagain Arm and a herd of Dall sheep navigating a craggy bluff on the other side of the highway.

It’s exciting, to be sure, to wear jackets and knit caps in August, even if we did have to don rain gear as well. We visited the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center to see wood bison and musk ox, wolves and porcupines, bear and moose, deer and foxes.

We continued on through the engineering marvel of a tunnel that gives the only land access to Whittier. It is shared (on a one-way basis) by passenger vehicles, buses, trucks and the train!

A floating city . . .

Once aboard, we began to settle in to the life of a floating city with 2,600 other people — not difficult, actually, with the wealth of activities and the pleasant mix of public and private spaces. Every day seems a celebration on board a modern cruise ship.

What we knew we would miss was the feeling of being close to the water — the sound of the waves, the experience of cold fingers and blasts of wind as we dropped anchor or secured the lines of our vessel to the metal cleats of well-worn wooden docks. We missed the camaraderie we felt with fishing boat captains as they put away their gear after a long day; and we missed the hot coffee and good conversation that was always available in cluttered dockmasters’ offices.

We also missed seeing whale spouts and fish jumping just above the swells, gulls and eagles trailing fishing boats and circling above small docks, the occasional family of sea otters looking for refuge in a marina, and eye-level contact with those splashing waves and floating chunks of ice. Looking down on the water from a deck 70 or more feet above it, or searching for native wildlife through binoculars and behind protective glass has nowhere near the same effect.

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What we enjoyed was the companionship of other passengers, especially our delightful dinner tablemates, talking with fellow travelers from not only other states, but from Australia and New Zealand, from Germany and England, from Mexico and from Asia. We appreciated the perfectly prepared fresh fish and seafood that was offered at every meal, the smiling service of bartenders and waiters, the helpfulness of the crew, the variety of outdoor deck space from which to view changing vistas of glaciers and icebergs, mountains and clouds.

We were blessed with sunshine for at least a part of every day, somewhat unusual for this part of Alaska.

We also appreciated having the assistance of other eyes to help spot whales and otters, eagles, bears, seals and porpoises. And, yes, we did spot some, although we yearned to see more! The ship reverberated with a chorus of delight for each occurrence. We were thrilled once again to visit Glacier Bay. The naturalists and Park Rangers who came aboard were interesting and knowledgeable. It was a learning experience, and it was good to have their input.

We heard the “thunder” of glaciers as they calved, and realized anew that listening to the natural sounds of Alaska is mesmerizing.

‘Tis the season . . .

We could have done without the proliferation of t-shirt and key chain shops, furriers and jewelry stores, harborside kiosks and lines of tour buses and waiting guides. But then we realized that they were very much a part of port life 13 years ago as well.

As Alaska residents acknowledge, the season is short and it’s tourism that turns the wheels of commerce in the ports of Southeast Alaska. Life after October settles back into familiar patterns and the majesty of the land becomes once again the personal domain of those who call Alaska home.

Travel is enlightening in many ways. But it’s not the places; it’s the people one meets.

We sought out those people on this trip. And we were rewarded tenfold! Friendly residents are more than willing to talk about their lives, their cities, their families and their experiences. As always, we were fascinated to learn about daily life as it is lived outside the pages of guidebooks.

We always asked for local recommendations for food. In Anchorage, we were directed to a popular local brew pub, and were immediately befriended by a local resident only too willing to share his views on everything from oil drilling to recreational cannabis, from the Northern Lights to politics. The next morning we had cafe au lait and warm croissants at the charming Paris Cafe, a short stroll from our hotel.

In Skagway, there was a wait at “the best place in town to eat,” but the wait was worth it — and we were notified by text message when our table was ready. Skagway may be small and remote, but there’s no shortage of technology! WP_20180821_12_44_28_ProWe were rewarded with perfectly prepared fish, crispy chips and superb local brew.

We took a short bus ride to White Pass, following the path traversed by miners with gold fever, and snapped photos at the border between the United States and Canada, “Gateway to the Klondike.” We walked around Skagway for just a short time before retreating back to our ship as it began to rain. Skagway has changed little, but with four cruise ships in town, it was crowded!

That afternoon, before slipping lines and heading south to Juneau, a program by “real Alaskan” Steve Hites, one of the 1,057 full-time Skagway residents, was a highlight of the trip. Accompanied by guitar and harmonica, the 64-year-old songwriter, storyteller and tour operator charmed listeners with a 40-minute history of “his” Alaska, and the small town he knows so well.

In Juneau and Ketchikan, once again we asked for local food tips and were given the names of two eateries slightly beyond the tourist mainstream. At both, The Flight Deck in Juneau, and again in Ketchikan at The Dirty Dungee, we devoured fresh-caught Dungeness crab, and couldn’t have been happier!

About traveling to Alaska . . .

My heartfelt advice to anyone considering an Alaska cruise?

GO!

My husband and I realize that we were privileged to be able to experience the state as we did — on our own — and that trip will remain in our hearts as a unique experience.

We remember how small we felt while on our boat, especially one morning in Juneau as we awoke to the presence of a massive cruise ship snuggled against the dock directly in front of our vessel.

101_0747As luck would have it, on this trip Golden Princess occupied that slip, and we wondered if the private yacht owners felt as dwarfed as we had that long ago morning.

The allure of Alaska has not diminished for us. We shared the excitement of first-time visitors on this cruise. And we understand clearly the sentiments of those who return again and again. There are many ways to travel to this unique state, from “big-ship” cruises to private vessels, land-sea combos, fly-in fishing or sightseeing trips and active expedition cruises. The Alaska State Ferry runs north from Bellingham, Wash., year round, the the Al-Can Highway provides an unparalleled opportunity for those who love road trips. There are summer work opportunities for college students, and the tourist industry brings part-time residents every season. There is no one-size-fits-all recipe for visiting Alaska.

Absolutely, go to experience the place — the stunning scenery with majestic peaks and pristine water, the wilderness, the waterfalls and the icy blue glaciers. Look for wildlife, of course, and marvel when you spot a whale or a group of bears on shore, eagles in the trees, or otters in the sea. Eat your fill of freshly-caught fish and seafood. Snap Selfies. Take tours. Buy trinkets.

But go especially to meet the people! Dinner companions often become lasting friends. At the very least, casual encounters with shopkeepers, restaurant servers, tour guides, ship’s staff, and the people you stop to talk with on the street linger as lasting reminders of the trip  even when memories of specific sights begin to fade.

Cruising is invariably a pleasure, no matter what the ports.  And Alaska still lives up to its moniker as the American “last frontier.” It’s a big adventure!

So, yes, go to Alaska!   

Will we return? Perhaps not. But we would not hesitate to do so. It’s that good!

 

Eating well in Puerto Limon . . .

High above the harbor, where the air is clear and the streets are filled with cars and people rather than warning signs and concertina wire, our cab driver pulled to the side and indicated a colorful sign and an open doorway. We had arrived at our destination, and a smiling waiter came out to greet us. 100_4759

Crew members on board our cruise ship had said this was the place to go for lunch in Puerto Limon. We were early but it was comfortable enough to just sit and “be.” The big-screen TV that hung from the ceiling, thankfully, was not blaring, and the hum of quiet conversation from two or three adjoining tables was pleasant “background music.” We ordered cool drinks. We did not expect to be alone for long.

The ‘back side’ of Costa Rica

This is not the tourist’s Costa Rica. Puerto Limon, the busiest port in the country, has the look and the feel of a “real” town. Bananas, grains and other goods leave here bound for destinations across the globe, but it has not yet become a prime cruise ship destination. It retains its working class flavor, refreshing in a time when glitzy storefronts and undistinguished trinkets welcome disembarking passengers in most other ports.

This Caribbean port has island roots and they stretch all the way back to 1502, when Christopher Columbus set foot on the land. Beaches stretch in both directions, and the sea is beautiful, but the city itself is a bit disheveled and has suffered the ravages of earthquakes, storms and economic blight. Like much of Latin America, it is defined by gates and barricades, and the ever-present concertina wire.

Limon is not postcard pretty, but the people we met were gracious and friendly, although busy with their own pursuits and not impressed by cruise ship crowds. We had no desire to shop in town, but the fruits and vegetables displayed at the market looked lush, ripe and inviting.

My journal note from the day:

“The Red Snapper (or Da Domenico; we were never quite certain exactly where we were!) is unassuming from the street, pleasant enough within; with a friendly local ambience not unlike bars and restaurants elsewhere in the tropics. Sea breezes circulate under a soaring ceiling, wafting through open-air rooms like invited guests. Dark wood interiors punctuated with spots of bright color keep it cool, but lively. And the good-natured banter emanating from the kitchen makes us smile. So, too, does the sleeping dog that patrons are careful to step over or around!”

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Views of the harbor — our glistening white cruise ship seemed far away and far below — were mesmerizing. We looked over the rooftops toward the horizon and were captivated. We drank in the beauty of the sea, ordered cool drinks, and knew we had been given good advice.

We also knew it was going to be a long and satisfying lunch! We were not disappointed.

Sampling the sea’s treasures

Because the best part of travel involves putting aside the familiar, we asked our waiter for lunch suggestions. We specified fish or seafood. Little did we know what a feast would be set before us, so we also decided to share a pizza marguerita “appetizer.” No way could we consider it a mistake in terms of flavor, but there is no way a starter course was necessary!

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Our surprise dishes were delightful — and the three of us happily shared two distinctly different orders. The first, a whole fish served with fried plantain and a fresh green salad, was not only impressive to behold, but would have offered sufficient food for three on its own! And it was presented as beautifully as cruise ship fare.

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The second house specialty included perfectly-prepared seafood steamed in a delicious sauce and served in its own foil pack hot from the oven. 100_4748Overloaded with shrimp and mussels swimming in flavored sauce atop a bed of pasta, it was Caribbean in character, boasting plump cherry tomatoes, fresh parsley and subtle exotic spice, perfectly executed, but too much for one person!

When our congenial cab driver returned to pick us up, he obliged by taking us on a short tour through his town — a request we always try to make. As we made our way back to the dock, we were happy to have shared a great meal in Puerto Limon, sorry that we had no more time to explore this back side of Costa Rica more fully.

We will savor the experience we had, and we will continue to wonder about our young waiter who dreamed someday of joining a cruise ship crew to see the rest of the world.

 

It’s not the Maine state food, but it should be!

Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather!

I was certain that the state food of Maine had to be lobster, but I was wrong! According to all sources, it’s the blueberry, as in “wild blueberry,” which was officially designated the101_3377state fruit in 1991. It is also the “state dessert,” so proclaimed in 2011, more specifically “Blueberry pie made with wild Maine blueberries.”

So, where does that leave the lobster?

Well, as much as I like blueberries and wild blueberry pie, I believe I’d opt for lobster any day. There are many ways and many places to enjoy lobster in Maine, some of them renowned, some far off the beaten track — all of them good!WP_20160716_020

This summer, during a much anticipated, multi-week sojourn in this seacoast state, I did my best to sample as many of those places and ways as possible, often with an ample measure of other seafood added in for variety.

I have to confess I turned down a spoonful of “lobstah ice cream,” but I may have to go back for a sample, just to say I did. (Somehow, I just can’t imagine it — in the same way that I cannot imagine fried clam, jalapeno or barbecued chicken ice cream!)

Keeping It Simple

In Maine, especially in the summer, it’s hard to escape lobster specials. There are 2 and 3-lobster dinners with all the trimmings served by uniformed waiters at fine restaurants. And there are lobster rolls at Red’s Eats in Wiscasset, with long lines and periodic traffic101_3355 jams at all hours, no matter what the weather. A person can buy lobsters from friendly vendors along the road who will steam them so you can take them home and add the sides yourself, your choice.

In Maine, McDonald’sWP_20160709_028 even serves lobster. For a quick bite, it’s not at all bad! Honest.

But the best way? Again, it’s personal choice, of course, but lobster fresh off the boat and straight from the tank, eaten at a picnic table on a pier overlooking a local working harbor is really about as close to “wonderful” as it gets. At most of the local lobster piers, it’s perfectly acceptable to pack a picnic basket with your own favorite appetizers, sides and beverages and make an afternoon or an evening of it.

In Midcoast Maine, locals have their own preferences; co-ops and waterside restaurants do a brisk business even when the tourist trade is off. Some of the local hangouts serve lobster, steamers (clams) and corn only. Others have a full menu that might include burgers, coleslaw and potato salad, grilled cheese sandwiches, clams, mussels, scallops, shrimp, crab and haddock. French fries and onion rings tempt adults and children alike. And then there’s dessert. Ice cream stands are at least as popular as lobster shacks!

All About Food

About that state food — there really is no officially designated “state food” in Maine. That would take an action by the state legislature, and we’ll just trust that these days they have better things to do!  101_3107However, just in case you’re interested, Moxie is the official state drink and the whoopie pie is the “state treat.” Don’t know about whoopie pies? Ask any Mainer!

There are other people, by the way, who think lobster should be Maine’s special food. There are at least several lists, and that crusty little crustacean is on every one I found, in one form or another.

Maybe we should start lobbying for that “official” designation after all! It’ll get my vote!