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The Cascades Loop

Cooling cows using a water truck, WA

What is striking if you drive the Cascades Loop, the 400 miles loop that crosses the western side of North Washington State is the variety of its landscape. You enter, like we did, through North Cascades on Route 20, an area of deep and verdant forests, with green lakes and waterfalls, with passes patched with snow and you abruptly descend in a barren landscape close to Winthrop and Twist. The hills are burned, no vegetation whatsoever and barely any water around. It looks that you are in the desert.

A Bavarian village in America, Leavenworth, WA

The southern part of the loop that start right after Twisp is surrounded by large apple orchards. The road is aligned with walls of apple boxes ready to be filled and shipped all over America. The road makes a right turn to Route 2 and just a little bit further is Leavenworth, a Bavarian village teleported, like in Startrek, in the middle of Washington State where you can eat several authentic “wurst” and have “ein mass” of Hofbrauhaus beer in a real German beer garden. And you should try the “bretzen”, the really fresh and soft pretzel, not even a resemblance to the handcuffs we eat in New York.

Leavenworth Main Street, WA

In spite of the mighty Columbia River that is parallel with Route 2, the landscape keeps being dry and barren and people are cooling in its shallow waters or paragliding above its amazing valleys.

Chilling in the mighty Columbia River, WA

Paragliding on top of Columbia River, WA

Before reaching the highway, Route 2 makes another try for the heights reaching over 4000 feet in Stevens Pass where is a ski resort. Here we encountered an entire caravan of Volkswagen vans from the 1950s, all retrofitted in Germany, together with some other famous German cars of the same time, like parachuted from another dimension on top of this mountain pass. There are way more interesting stops on the way, attractive hikes or cool places to hang out but unfortunately we had only two, almost, full days for this great drive.

Volkswagen caravan in the Stevens Pass at 4061 feet, WA

 
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Posted by on July 15, 2017 in Blog, USA

 

Falling waters

North Cascades National Park, WA

As his Canadian counterpart stated, the American border control officer did not care about our son’s expired passport. We waited about one hour in a long line to cross back the border into US. He jovially asked us several routine questions and at the end after he gave us back the passports reminded us to renew his passport “whenever you have some time”. He was definitely way friendlier that his colleagues at the JFK Airport. But we understand latter that this easiness comes exclusively when you cross the border on land from Canada. On any airport it would not be such a friendly experience, however as a US citizen they are obliged to let you in.

North Cascades National Park, WA

We drove by Bellingham flanked by the amazing view of the snow capped Mount Baker and turned left at Burlington, WA to Route 20 that goes to North Cascades National Park. The park is not the usual self contained park and is peppered by communities that alternate with spectacular cascades and green lakes hidden in the creases of mountains. It is no entry park fee because Route 20 is actually the road that crosses the state to its barren interior.

North Cascades National Park, WA

Route 20 is actually a part of the Cascades Loop, an about 400 miles loop that returns to the I-5 and crosses also to the aquatic parts of Washington state. The views inside the park are spectacular but to get a better sense of its great landscape you have to get out on trails.

Winthrop, WA

Unfortunately, we were pressed by time and drove through stopping in many places and arriving in the evening in Winthrop, a Western movie look-alike town filled by parked pick-up trucks, the modern horse of America. The music was flowing and dance was in full swing on the terrace by the river at the Old School House Brewery. There were some hotels in Winthrop but we could not find any rooms available in the last moment so we drove in the night to Omak, about half an hour away.

Old School House Brewery, Winthrop, WA

 
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Posted by on July 14, 2017 in Blog, USA

 

Vancouver

Skimboarding on the Spanish Banks, Vancouver, Canada

Is this city part of the fast pacing world of North America? The downtown streets are quiet in the morning. People walk slowly going to their business, some go to restaurants for breakfast or maybe a brunch. The atmosphere of a hectic Vancouver downtown looks more like a weekend morning in the New York’s West Village that a midtown affair.

Granville Island, Vancouver, Canada

We took the car and drove its streets just to find NO traffic. Everywhere we went, and we crossed several parts of town, from downtown, to Queen Elisabeth Gardens, to Spanish Banks to Kitsilano Beach and Granville and back to downtown we did not encounter any trace of the hectic traffic we are used in all our American cities. Besides, to add insult to injury we could easily find free parking on the streets around all these places we visited. And it’s Thursday…. Something must be amiss would think any New Yorker who cannot sleep thinking about his parking spot.

The waterfront, Vancouver

However we found the entire city packed exclusively by Chinese tourists. It feels that you are surrounded only by Chinese, groups after groups are strolling with umbrella signs going to and fro. Anywhere you go, maybe except the beaches, you’ll encounter this rush. You meet so many Chinese tourists, that you, as a tourist, start asking yourself if you are not Chinese also… After Hong Kong was handed over to the Chinese twenty years ago, lots of HK residents moved to Vancouver afraid of the Chinese Commies. That changed Vancouver social fabric coining also its nickname of Hongcouver. Lots of money were poured in its real estate market, many apartments were bought and left unoccupied by the Chinese investors that determined the Vancouver mayor to consider a special tax for unoccupied properties.

Gastown after the bike race

But still Vancouver makes for an extremely livable place, with its extended waterfront aligned with restaurants where we had an excellent dinner by the water in the sunset at TAP and a stroll again in the night through the stores of the old Gastown.

 
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Posted by on July 13, 2017 in Blog, Canada

 

Across the border

Stanley Park, Vancouver, Canada

The first impression when you walk in Vancouver is of a relaxed and airy space. Trees are aligning the streets and people stroll peacefully its sidewalks. Entire families are biking in Stanley Park that is full to the brim with people enjoying its shores and the lawns.

The totem poles from Stanley Park, Vancouver

We drove to Vancouver directly from the Seattle airport where we came overnight from Anchorage. A sleepless night…in Seattle. Just when to cross the border we noticed that our son’s passport was expired since March. With the new rules of Homeland security in the US we freaked out and started to call to figure out if we would not have problems entering Canada or coming back. The phone line from Border Control services had an extremely long automated message that was hard to apply to our situation and all forums were buzzing with similar situations and convoluted solutions that would cost lots of money and time. So we decided to go to the border and told straight the Canadian border agent the situation just to be waived through with no concern:”Don’t worry about. Have a nice time in Vancouver!”. “Yeah, but the Americans? What would they say when we get back?” “They won’t bother you. Don’t worry.” So we crossed and soon we drove in downtown Vancouver where our hotel was.

The girl in the wet suit, Stanley Park, Vancouver

After a sleepless night the best place to go was Stanley Park, an expanse of green and water right on top of the downtown where a long walk on the promenade by the bay woke us up. On the other side of town, in its oldest area, the Gastown, a short circuit bike race was zipping through its cobblestone streets.

Gastown annual bike race, Vancouver

 
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Posted by on July 12, 2017 in Blog, Canada

 

Humpbacks and halibut

On the road to Seward

If Homer is the place to do your fishing, Seward, on the other side of the Kenai Peninsula, is the main destination for cruises on Prince William Sound. The weather was spectacular so we decided to take a cruise in Seward in Resurrection Bay and, no matter that it was a great experience overall, it was way more choppy and not as close to the animals than the one in Valdez. I read a lot of forum chats in regards to where is the best to take a cruise and in the end, if you have to make only one cruise, I would still choose the cruise in Valdez.

Seward Harbor, AK

In the bay there were seals and some otters, puffin and lots of birds and it happened that we bumped into several humpback whales that were feeding by the shore putting an entire show of puffing water through their blow holes. As usual this gathered the entire attention, like we did in Valdez but there the humpbacks were swimming away from us pretty fast. Also, there are several glaciers in the bay close by, some tumbling into the bay and others hanging on top of it. Seward is also the terminal for the large cruises that come in Alaska from Seattle through Juneau terminating here.

Humpback whales and birds in Resurrection Bay

In Seward, the fish stalls in the harbor are always full. After a day on the boat the fishermen come here to clean and pack their catch. The main catch right now was the halibut that may go quite large and it makes for a perfect fishing picture.

Catch of the day, Seward, AK

Right outside of Seward is Exit Glacier, a very accessible glacier that can be visited all the way to its rim. The glacier is in rapid retreat and the path going towards its terminal is marked by labels of where the glacier’s terminal was, starting in 1917.

Exit Glacier, a very accessible glacier right outside of Seward

We drove back to Anchorage, 2.5 beautiful hours, looking back longingly to the Turnagain Mountains and the glaciers across the bay. A world of beauty and of friendly people that we had to leave behind. Our flight to Seattle was sometimes after midnight and for the first time, in Anchorage airport, we saw how night was engulfing everything around us.

A last view of the Alaskan Turnagain range

 
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Posted by on July 11, 2017 in Blog, USA

 

All about fishing

The small boat harbor, Homer, AK

Homer is all about fishing. Fake fish hang from its entry sign, fish freezing and packaging shops are all around town and fish shipped by FEDEX signs abound. The small boat harbor does not resemble our harbors of the North East; the boats are not fancy, but are made out of strong metal, built to withstand forceful waves and harsh conditions. If tourists go in other places for cruises to see glaciers or marine animals, here in Homer all trips are fishing trips, all day outings where you can fish a huge halibut that would fill your fridge for months. There are specific rules about how many fish you can take with you, that you can clean and packaged after the fact and find them frozen on the conveyor belt of your arrival airport terminal ready for your well deserved dinner.

“The Spit” seen from top of Homer, AK

We arrived late in Homer, after a long ride. On GPS there are about 4.5 hours from Anchorage but the road is one of the most beautiful in the area and deserves lots of stops. We took a reservation in the last moment at “King’s Landing”, a hotel that recently changed its management and it proved a great choice and we were told to go to the Spit. “What is the Spit?”, “Well, you’ll see but there are all the activities in Homer”. The Spit is a 4.5 miles long stretch of land inside the bay on which are the harbors, the trips and all restaurants in town, all surrounded by water on both sides. At its end is the coast guard and the industrial fishing enterprises.

The Salty Dawg Saloon, Homer, AK

One of the cool spots on the Spit is the Salty Dawg Saloon, an old affair of Homer, Alaska, whose interior is covered in dollar bills stuck by customers from all over the world, similar with the one we just recently have seen in Oatman, AZ. Other businesses align the main road where you can park at leisure and stroll leisurely the shore or grab a crepe with a cappuccino like in a any world village. The results of globalization….In Homer the road ends, like many roads in Alaska, and from there you can take a ferry that may bring you to Kodiak and further to all the Aleutian Islands archipelago, a chain of island that go all the way towards Kamchatka Peninsula, in Russia.

…and the boat cemetery in Homer just at he beginning of the Spit

Also Homer is the closest point to Katmai National Park, a park full of volcanoes and brown bears standing in the river ready to catch salmon directly in their mouth. You need a little bit more time to get there than what we planned to spend in Homer, thou.

Russian Orthodox Church, Ninilchik, AK

Not far outside of Homer is the small village of Ninilchik where is the headquarter of the Russian Orthodox Church of Alaska, the head church for the one we saw in Anchorage. The tiny church with its discreet golden onions on top in the unassuming cemetery brings the perfume of the discreet charm of the orthodox churches of an old Russian tradition that somehow got meshed into the more pragmatical Anglo culture. But if you happen to be there do not miss the spectacular view over the Ninilchik bay, just steps away from the front of the church.

Ninilchik Bay

 
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Posted by on July 10, 2017 in Blog, USA

 

Kenai

Anchorage-Seward Road, AK

Anchorage-Seward road has by far the most traffic we encountered in Alaska. Cars are zipping under the spectacular scenery of the snow capped peaks of Turnagain Mountains, the road and the railroad being just a sliver of flat land between the mountain and the Turnagain Arm Bay. We were told that the highway is prone to accidents and right when we pulled over to admire the view the traffic stalled for miles, just to find out of another head-on collision, similar with another that happened several days ago.

A black bear on the ridge right on top of a packed parking place off the highway

The parking was full with lots of people milling around and the highway was stalled, bumper to bumper but just on the ridge, on top of the road, a black bear was pacing peacefully oblivious to the commotion underneath. It paced, appearing and disappearing behind rocks and bushes, for about 30 minutes to the delight of the onlookers who all wanted to take his picture as long as was keeping his distance.

Byron Glacier by Portage Glacier Road

On the way there are lots of hiking places, with some waterfalls and beautiful views and we stopped close to Portage Glacier in a spectacular place from where you have a amazing view over Byron Glacier and several other peaks covered in snow. If you cross the tunnel going to Whittier, right after it is a short hike to the Portage Glacier that cannot be seen from where we stopped.

Hope, AK

A side road takes you for 16 miles to Hope, AK, an old mining town established around the end of the 19th century that preserves a whole lot of traditional houses from the beginning of the 20th century. It has a social hall and an old post office that started to operate also in the 19th century. Its museum collects all sort of old artifacts stored in several barns, on which door a sign of caution stated that a local was mauled recently by a bear on one of the town’s streets.

Fishing with Dad in Homer, AK

 
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Posted by on July 9, 2017 in Blog, USA