June 3rd, 2011


The land above

Groupon, a while back, had a deal for what amounted to a half-price round-trip ticket to Victoria on the Clipper. I'd wanted to take the Clipper, since it seemed the very definition of convenience: I could walk to the pier where it leaves from, and it drops you off right in the harbor in downtown Victoria. Indeed it was convenient; however, the trip itself was boring. I'd really been hoping for more, but 30 knots is just not that fast, subjectively on the water, and the weather was cloudy so there wasn't tons to look at. The ship itself was nice, but nothing really noteworthy. The coffee was good, and cheap, so that was a plus, and customs and immigration on both sides was the best I've been through. The trip was relatively fast, convenient, not crazy expensive, and it seems safe, so while I likely won't be deliberately seeing out another trip, I certainly wouldn't object to taking it again. Next time, though, I think I'll try Kenmore Air. It's faster and supposed to be picturesque, though significantly more expensive.

Victoria was nice! The weather on Saturday rebelled against the forecast of solid cloud cover and was actually sunny and fairly warm. I'd waited too long to get a cheap decent room, so I splurged on the hotel rather than settle for something mediocre. Checked in, walked around a bit to re-familiarize myself with the area, and tried to do some shopping. Several stores I'd planned on revisiting, however, have closed up in the intervening months; shops in Victoria seem to have lifespans more commonly associated with fruit flies than retail establishments. However, both the British candy shops were still there, so I bought many, many imported items. Best were Hula Hoops (vaguely in the potato-chip sphere of snacks, but ring-shaped), Irn Bru, a Double Decker candy bar, and Orange Kit-Kats. I was cruelly tricked by the "flying saucers" they had; they seemed to be these saucer-shaped wafer things from my childhood, but instead of the sprinkle-like hard candy I expected inside, there was a disgusting powder. Ugh.

Did more shopping and walking around, and went to go pick up the car I'd reserved. My main destination was the Merridale Cidery, where I previously had been with cow. I did another round of tastings, but decided to not walk away with any of their typical cider products. Instead, I went for their distilled stuff. I bought several bottles of their "Winter Apple Cider", which is what I describe as "apple pie in a glass". It was very, very good, although not quite the nigh-orgasmic experience that I recalled from last time. I also bought a few bottles of their "Pomme Oh!", which is an apple cider augmented with cider brandy. Not nearly as sweet as a usual dessert wine, but quite lovely; I suspect it would be best with some medium cheddar.

Sat at their patio a while, snacking, and enjoying the view. From there, it was down to the other cidery on Vancouver Island, Sea Cider. I'd read about them in some magazine or other, and have had the clipping on my fridge for nearly 2 years. They are a rather different operation than Merridale. While Merridale appears to be a more down-to-earth place, with actual operational equipment, and a clearly added-on dining area which is deliberately a little rough, Sea Cider looks like a converted farm house, with an expansive, well-tailored dining room, with 6 long communal tables taking up the majority of the public space. They have a decent selection of edibles to pair with their ciders, but since I was driving I couldn't really do a meal and drink, so I had to be content with some bread and local sausage, and small samples of less than half of their cider selection. The cider was good, but not really great, and I think that this points out another difference between them and Merridale: the latter is also a distillery, while Sea Cider isn't, so most of Merridale's ciders are the usual, classic styles, and their experimentation seems to be among their distilled products, but Sea Cider has many, many more esoteric styles of cider. Unfortunately, most did not live up to their billing; the English style was good, but nothing special, and the "rum-style" cider was overpowered by the additional flavors. I decided not to try to make another trip up the next day to try the rest of the menu, and only brought home two of their sweeter ciders.

Rested for quite a while to make sure it was OK to drive, and then headed back downtown to return the car. I wanted dinner, but when I went to the possible places I'd picked out, none seemed that appetizing; either it was too crowded/noisy, or the menu didn't have anything that looked good, or it was crazy expensive. So in the end I happened upon one of cow's recommendations, Siam Thai. Had a very, very good stir fry, and the super hot Thai boys a few tables over didn't hurt the experience any, either. Next up was Canoe: one of my favorite brewpubs in Victoria. They were sold out of their BBQ sliders, which was a big letdown, but the edamame was quite good, and (to continue the theme from earlier in the day) I had some Rock Creek Cider, which was better than I expected. The scenery at Canoe was nicer than usual, but the place was louder and more obnoxious than usual also, so I quickly headed out. From there, I made a stop at one of the small bits of LGBT nightlife in Victoria: The Ledge. This was actually a very interesting find. It's a hotel bar that's also a gay bar. Hello, Canada! It was nice! A medium-size space, tucked away at the back of the second floor mezzanine, with a bar, tables and chairs, TVs, a pool table, fair alcohol selection at (relative to the rest of the city) very reasonable prices, and some absolutely adorable bartenders (a cute, impossibly thin man, and a super-cute friendly little baby dyke woman). It was a wonderful little out-of-the-way place for people to gather, and there was certainly a good cross section present. My favorite were the group of people in essentially full leathers, who it turned out were in town and dressed up for a wedding! Squee!!!

Even though it was only 10:30pm, I was dead, so I walked back to the hotel for an early bedtime. Got up very early the next morning, as planned, and headed out for a long stroll around the harbor areas. Found a great little coffee shop by the docks for a quick bite to eat, and kept going along the edge of the island. The rain had really started up in earnest by this point, though, and my Seattle Sombrero could barely keep up. I walked out to the jetty they have which serves as a breakwater for the naval base there, and juts out a fair bit into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It's a popular place for the locals to walk and jog and fish, and there were several people doing each of those even that early and in that weather. Walked back to the hotel, about 2 hours after I'd left (it was a nice, long walk!) and was thoroughly drenched. Peeled off my clothes, put on my bathing suit and hotel robe, and put my clothing in the dryer while I took a soak in the hottub. *bliss* I need to get one of those installed in my apartment as soon as possible.

Gathered my belongings, headed back up to the room to shower and change, checked out, and left my bags behind while I checked out another spot that cow had mentioned to me: Three Mile Pub. The place was trivially easy to get to, a half-hour bus ride from downtown stops just down the road from the pub. (As an aside, the bus was a gorgeous double-decker bus that ran every fifteen minutes from downtown on a Sunday; why can't *we* have nice things?) The brunch buffet was.... decent. For C$16, it was good. Some things were missable, but the Eggs Benedict were actually quite tasty, and there was certainly enough variety to keep me sated. The beers may have helped in that regard as well. :) That said, while I certainly wouldn't hesitate to go back again, I won't be rushing there either. It was nice, but the place just had an underwhelming, everyday appearance about it; certainly nothing out of the ordinary, as I imagined "The Oldest Pub in BC" would merit. Glad I went, though.

When back in downtown, it was another long walk all throughout the streets, in a vain attempt to work off the feast. Stopped in a variety of shops, trying to support several neat comics/toys/gaming/geekery shops which have sprung up in a little cluster on the northwest part of the business district. Bought a copy of V for Vendetta, and a big black plush Angry Bird, which now graces my cubicle at work. (Even before purchasing it, I was wondering how long it would be before some coworker lobbed it at another. The correct answer of "less than 30 seconds" surprised even me.) Kept walking around, doing a careful east-west walk while slowly making my way south, back towards the hotel, exploring the little hidden corners and the striking architecture. Unfortunately, I once again missed the Tilley Endurables shop before they closed. I shall have to make a point of visiting the one in Vancouver when next I visit there.

Grabbed a sandwich to pack for dinner on the boat, and then headed off for a small to-go order at Tim Hortons. While I had carefully been keeping track of my Canadian money, down to just over a dollar at this point, Tim Hortons stymied me by not taking my VISA credit card, so I had to pay for my 6 donuts with a US $20, leaving me with nearly that much in a variety of CAD coins. *sigh* Well, it's not like I won't be back again soon, I suppose.

The trip back on the Clipper was just as uneventful as the trip in, and it puts me back in the US just blocks from home. Success!
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The land below

The day started off with a comedy of errors. Despite the busy days before, I had sufficiently packed, and was able to get up early enough for the train. The bus I wanted to take to the station ended up leaving 7 minutes early, but no big deal, another (involving a slightly longer walk) was supposed to be along shortly. It didn't show. As didn't several other buses that the arrival app said had come and gone. It turns out that due to the haze of insufficient sleep, I was waiting on 2nd Ave, not 3rd. Oops. OK, fine, walk to the bus tunnel, and just miss another bus. Ended up waiting several more minutes for another bus to take me down to King Street Station, only 15 minutes later than I wanted. However, between the holiday weekend and the fact that one of the two ticket machines was down, the station was 10x crazier than I'd ever seen it, and that was almost not enough time to get ticketed and on the train. Yay once again for booking business class. While pulling out of the station, we stopped to let more passengers on. I'm not completely convinced that some people weren't left there, what with the crazy lines, but I guess I'll never know.

The ride down was pleasant and uneventful, and despite the late departure we actually pulled into Portland early. And this is where the second round of break downs began to occur. I'd only had a flimsy breakfast on the train (not enough time to get a good one before boarding), and I was very much in the mood to complete the task. Walked down to the Bijou Cafe (one of my usual spots), and it was packed out the door. Walk a few blocks south down to Mother's, which is even busier. OK, well, Yelp recommends a particular brunch-oriented food truck; nope, it's closed for the holiday weekend. *sigh* Fine, Flavourspot now has a downtown location, so I'll take the MAX over that way. Whoops! Yelp's/Google's map is completely wrong (though the listed address is correct) and the actual location is 12 blocks in the other direction, within sight of the Bijou Cafe where I started. ARGH! Fine, they're open, and they're not out of sausage! But they are out of lemon curd! And they don't take credit cards anymore! DAMMIT. As it happens, I had $9 in cash (only because the tunnel bus in Seattle was free!) and another $1.25 in change, which was precisely enough for a sausage/maple waffle, a Black Forest (nutella and jam) waffle, and a small coffee. So, breakfast, finally, and only just barely*.

Things got a lot better from there. Checked in to the hotel, did a bit of relaxing and planning my days, and headed off for some shopping. I randomly ran across the store for Moonstruck Chocolates, which I had attempted to visit in the past, given their rave reviews. Thanks to a generous sample policy, I can say that their caramels were disappointing, but their alcohol-enhanced truffles are amazing! I bought a few of those (scotch, cognac, and port) and a hazelnut praline truffle to take home, as well as a small cup of their caramel malt hot chocolate. That last was good, but not great. If I go there again, I'll definitely try their dark hot chocolate.

From there, it was off to Clear Creek Distillery for another sort of tasting. As it happens, that was one of the two days a year they do a tour of the facility, which was a nice little bonus. It was especially interesting hearing the details of the distilling process, and all of the fun things that they use the "head" of each batch (which is mostly methanol) for. They mentioned that their "scotch" whiskey will be bottled in late June, which I made specific note of. Got to try another small portion of their offerings, and ended up buying some raspberry and loganberry liqueurs, as well as mini-bottles of some things to try later. Bussed it back to downtown, did some more shopping, and dropped all my acquisitions back at the hotel.

Dinner was, as planned, a multi-stage affair. First stop: Blueplate, an old-timey soda fountain place, which, in addition to phenomenal homemade sodas, also serves delicious, petite meals for cheap. I sat at the counter, and chose the beef stroganoff, which I got to see cooked up right in front of me (by the very attractive Chef Jeff). For a beverage, I went with the "Purple Haze", a sweet-tart number full of star anise, allspice, and hibiscus. Both are recommended! Second was Mother's, for their mac-and-cheese of the day. Sadly, though, that day's was ham, mushroom, and swiss cheese, which somehow wasn't working for me, so I headed right over to stop number three: Widmer Gastropub. Now, Portland has no shortage of brewpubs, each seemingly better than the last. Sadly, though not unexpectedly, they were sold out of the amazing, amazing mead I had last time, so I had to "settle" for a hot pretzel with cheese fondue and a pint of their Drop Top Ale. As good as Widmer is, it doesn't displace my current favorite of Deschutes; I like the beers at Widmer a bit better, but their food is that same litlle bit inferior. I'm sure I'll be back to both!

Since I wasn't able to indulge in some mead, there was enough time to head back downtown for another soda at Blueplate. This time, a Hawaiian Sunset: coconut cream and pineapple, with a strawberry sunset. Yum. Ended up having a huge conversation with Chef Jeff, keeping him a half hour past closing, comparing transit/rail politics between Seattle and Portland. Which... I don't think I have words for how awesome that was.

The last planned stop of the evening was Ground Kontrol, which have completed their renovations from the last time I was there. Their new place is clearly TRON-inspired (blue el-wire, glowing geometric shapes hung from the ceiling, white illuminated glass-top tables), but it's definitely not overdone; upon further inspection, for example, the shapes I mentioned resemble a collection of n-sided dice instead of Bit. It was also much more difficult to get around in than I ever remember (not that it was ever trivial), but that may have been due to the massive crowd. Glad to see them doing so well! Had a great time playing a bunch of Frogger, Pac-Man, Burgertime, and Mappy; Tempest wasn't working, though.

On the way back to the hotel, on a whim I stopped at another waffle food truck I'd spied earlier, which is where I got my apple/caramel/whipped cream concoction I posted about earlier. It was great! The waffle was a different style from Flavorspot, but no less delicious. I almost can't call them a competitor, their serving approaches are so different. After that, it was an early turn-in for me.

Sunday was a deliberately slower-paced day. Got up around 10, showered, packed, stored my bags, and headed for breakfast at the Bijou Cafe. Wait was not as bad as yesterday, and it only ended up being about 20 minutes. The food was just what I wanted: scrambled eggs, house-made sausage, salad, and whole-wheat toast with jam. Glorious. The sausage patty, though, had some stray bacon on the bottom, which was sufficiently tasty to get me to order a side of it separately. This was an error; it cost $6 for 4 pieces (my whole rest of my breakfast was $8.75), and took 23 minutes to arrive. Won't make that mistake again.

Headed off to the MAX station to check out the stop at the Zoo: it's North America's deepest underground train station, and the station itself is really neat! It has, encased in glass, one of the core samples they took to excavate the station, and it's all annotated with the layers of rock and different bits of art and scientific exposition and whatnot. Took the elevator to the surface (it shows your current height above sea level instead of floor numbers), walked around for a bit, and headed back downtown. Went to Powell's for some book hunting (came away with only 3 new books: The City & The City by China Miéville, and Pattern Recognition and Spook Country by William Gibson), and then headed over to the east side of the city for some sightseeing. I wanted to hunt down the location of the coffee shop from the Portlandia sketch "Harajuku Girls". I found it! :) It was closed. :( Ah, well, I still got a picture. The neighborhood was interesting. Cute, but much lower density than I was expecting, based both on my experience of things like the Pearl District and the listing of businesses that I saw. Also, I continue to be amazed at Portland's bike infrastructure.

Next was Voodoo Doughnut. As it happens, their downtown location is closed for remodeling, but their other Portland location was right in the neighborhood. And, man, was it popular: the line was out the door. It moved quickly, though, and it ended up being only about a 40 minute wait. Got a bunch of really good stuff! Dinner was at the nearby Fire on the Mountain, home of the best buffalo wings I've found on the west coast. The tater tots are a nice addition, too! Took another bus back downtown, got questioned 8 different times about the Voodoo Doughnuts box in my hands ("Yeah, it's about 20 blocks that way." "Oh, nevermind."), and gathered my belongings at the hotel.

As luck would have it, I was running a bit early, so time for a delightful little latte at Backspace, just to cap things off. While waiting in line, I spied a postcard with some very nice art of Spock looking into a mirror at Evil Spock, with the quote "Conquest is easy, control is not". Intrigued, I flipped it over.

O. M. G. They're doing a *live* performance of the ST:TOS episode "Mirror, Mirror". Apparently this is a thing. I'm told that these people put massive effort into it, and it's actually impressively good! Immediately, I decided I must see it, and given the Clear Creek bottling, the dates work out, so I'll likely be back in Portland the weekend of 7/9. Because how could I not?

Yay for Portland!

* First world problems of the now.