A Taste of Tofu in an old Sake Distillery / Tokyo

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In the shadow of the iconic Tokyo Tower, a former sake distillery transplanted from the countryside provided the setting for an unforgettable dining experience we enjoyed in Tokyo last fall.

When Larry and I stepped inside the gates of Tokyo Shiba Toufuya Ukai restaurant we were welcomed by a beautiful garden and kimono-clad staff and felt immediately transported back to the Edo period of Japan.

As we entered the restaurant beneath a traditional noren (curtain) hanging in the entryway we felt immersed in the history of this 200-year-old sake distillery which was relocated to this site in its entirety. As with the outdoor garden, the interior decor reflected the period of traditional Japan.

Toufuya Ukai is located in the Minato-ku Prefecture, home to many foreign embassies and headquarters for some of Japan’s largest companies including Honda, Mitsubishi, Sony, Fijitsu and Toshiba so it is a very popular spot for business meetings and receptions.

As we were escorted to our private dining area we proceeded through the reception area where the original sake barrels and press were on display.

We also passed by beautifully designed vignettes inspired by the autumn season before entering a winding hallway connected to quiet passages leading to private rooms. In all, there are 55 rooms, many furnished in the zashiki-style with tatami mats and sliding screens. We paused to remove our shoes before entering our dining room with a view of the traditional Japanese garden outside.

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We had made our reservations well in advance and opted for the last lunch seating at 2:30 so we could retire to the restaurant’s lounge after our meal for a drink at dusk. It happened to be a national holiday on the day of our lunch so the restaurant was only offering the 9-course Tsuki menu option which was about $120 per person. It was a little more than we had planned on spending but the upgraded menu included Wagyu beef which turned out to be one of the highlights of our meal. The menu changes throughout the year to highlight seasonal ingredients at the peak of their flavor but the main dish on any of the tasting menus is tofu, for which the restaurant is famous. The tofu here is crafted with high-quality soybeans and spring water and cooked with wood charcoal.

The courses were served on colorful and sculptural plates, bowls and cups or nestled in lacquered bento boxes because Japanese food is as much about the preparation and presentation as it is the food itself. Attention was also given to the seasonal garnishes which included rice stalks and pine needles, reflective of autumn.

Here’s a gallery of the nine courses we enjoyed.

After lunch we retired to the art-nouveau and Japanese style lounge (Kisshou-an), for a glass of sake an yet another view of the garden illuminated at dusk.

Tokyo Shiba Toufuya Ukai
4-4-13 Shiba-koen, Minato-ku, Tokyo 105-0011
International Call +81-3-3436-1028














12 Things to do in Busan, South Korea

Busan is a thriving metropolis situated between beautiful mountains and picturesque beaches.

During our Grand Japan Windstar cruise last fall we ended up spending two nights and three days in Busan, South Korea while we sought shelter from the impending Typhoon Trami which was heading toward our next two ports of call - Kagoshima and Nagasaki in southern Japan. Because of the storm, our captain headed north instead to find shelter in the Seto Inland Sea where we would make our way to the Sea of Japan and sail to Busan. Busan was always on our itinerary but only scheduled for one day. So, after skipping stops in Kagoshima and Nagasaki we found ourselves with plenty of time to get to know Busan, the second largest city in South Korea.

To Windstar’s credit, the crew and excursion team managed to take the unexpected detour in stride. The captain managed to secure a very convenient berth in the port of Busan even though we had arrived two days earlier than scheduled and the excursion team managed to add four additional excursions including a day trip by bullet train to the city of Seoul.

We opted not to sign up for the trip to Seoul because it would have made for a very long travel day (2-1/2 hours each way on the train). Instead, we used all three days in port to explore Busan and we were glad we did because we fell in love with the city’s vibrancy, friendliness and culture.

Below are our top 12 things to do in Busan.

1. Take a walk through the colorful Gamcheon Cultural Village

This village began as a refuge for Koreans from all regions of the country who fled their homes during the Korean War. The village, which is still occupied by residences and businesses, has been rejuvenated and now draws millions of visitors each year who come to admire the colorful buildings and street art nestled within the narrow, terraced streets. The area has earned the nickname, “Machu Picchu of Busan.”

2. Visit the Jagalchi Fish Market

Korea’s largest seafood market is located on the edge of Nampo Port and sells both live and dried fish. The massive market is a dizzying array of bright colored bins filled with every type of seafood imaginable, many of which I had never seen before. You can select a fish and have it sliced on the spot for you to eat sashimi style or head upstairs to the dining and cooking area of the market and have your fresh fish prepared at one of the many restaurants. It doesn’t get any fresher than that.

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3. Hang out in busy BIFF Square

This area is considered Busan’s movie theater district and is also home to the city’s version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Plaques displaying impressions of famous movie celebrities’ hands are on display along the street stretching from the Buyeong Theater in Nampo-dong to the overpass in Chungmu-dong. The Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) is held in the fall and is considered one of Asia’s most significant film festivals. It is a bustling street year-round with both tourists and locals shopping, eating and taking in the atmosphere. The most popular street food here is the ssiat hotteok, a pancake stuffed with seeds, brown sugar, honey and peanuts. There are many stands, side-by-side, selling the snack so look for the one with the longest line if you want the best.

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4. Grab a seat and have a snack on “Sit and Eat Street” at the Gukje Market.

This street is actually part of the Gukje Market which encompasses multiple streets set up like flea market. It dates back 60 years when Korean refugees fled to Busan and set up stalls in this area to sell food and household items in order to make a living. It operates roughly the same today but food seems to be the biggest draw among tourists and local alike. Take a seat on one of the small, plastic stools and enjoy the fresh cooked street food including one of the city’s famous local snacks - chungmu gimbap, made with dried seaweed stuffed with rice and served with spicy radish and boiled squid.

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5. Take in the views from the top of the Busan Tower in Yeongdusan Park

A trip to the top of the Busan Tower which towers 120 meters high provides great views, day or night. Enjoy the scenery inside the tower too as you walk through multi-media and interactive displays as well as plenty of photo ops.

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6.Enjoy a bowl of bibimbap while trying to master tricky Korean chopsticks.

As far as I know Korea is the only country that uses metal chopsticks. In early times, it’s said the King used silver chopsticks as a way of protecting himself from being poisoned by his enemies, as the metal would change color when it came in contact with a poisonous chemical. Not only are Korean chopsticks heavier, they are also flatter and square in shape. They definitely took some getting use to.

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7. Go shopping at the Lotte Department Store

To say Lotte is just a department store is a huge understatement. It’s basically its own town complete with a hotel, sports center, cinema, art gallery, giant food hall, restaurants and rooftop garden. The quality of the merchandise was first class as was the entire shopping experience. The highlights for us included perusing the food hall and upscale grocery store on the lower level, “car shopping” in the kids’ department which included a race track for the mini sports cars and exploring the outdoor garden and viewing platforms on the upper floors.

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8. Soar across the sea in a cable car

Catch a ride above the sea on the Busan Air Cruise from Songdo Beach to Songdo Sky Park. For an extra thrill, choose one of the “crystal” cabins with a totally transparent floor. There is plenty to do once you reach the Sky Park like trail hiking, having lunch, watching little ones enjoy the playground and taking in the view from the observation deck.

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9. Take a stroll along Gwangbok-ro Street

This street used to be a stream but was covered over around 1895 because the area had become overpopulated and the water polluted. Today, the street mimics the curvy shape of the meandering stream and is lined with vibrant flowers and bronze sculptures. The street means “independence,” so it’s also known as Independence Road. After the Korean War, refugees and returning locals set about establishing the street as a successful commercial area with cinemas, restaurants and shops. It is still a lively area filled with shops, boutiques and cafes. Bonus tip: You can catch an escalator from this street that will transport you up the hill to Yeongdusan Park and Busan Tower.

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10. See the spectacular light show of the Gwangandaegyo Bridge

The Gwangandaegyo Bridge is beautiful by day but at night it becomes absolutely dazzling. Equipped with the world’s largest LED lighting and sound system for bridges, Gwangandaegyo Bridge lights up and even treats viewers to an amazing 10-minute laser show at 8:30, 9:30 and 10:30 every night.

11. Spend an afternoon on Haeundae Beach

Haeundae is Busan’s most famous beach and is a popular vacation destination for many Koreans and tourists alike during the summer. This beautiful white sand beach with a shallow bay is the perfect spot for sunbathing, swimming and people watching.

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Visit a temple

There are as many as 30 temples in Busan, one of the most popular being Haedong Yongungsa Temple located right along the coast. We visited the Beomeosa Temple (pictured above) which is one of the oldest temples in the city. It’s about a 30-minute drive from downtown Busan to the mountainous area where you’ll find the temple nestled in amongst a beautiful forest.

The Art of Japanese Wagashi - Confections of the Seasons

Wagashi has always played a role in Japanese tea ceremonies albeit a supporting one. The purpose of these beautiful confections was not to stand out, but to enhance the taste and enjoyment of Japanese tea. These delicate confections are the work of artisans who have passed down their skills from one generation to the next and can be found in many sweet shops throughout Japan including one of the oldest, Toraya. Toraya was founded in the Muromachi Period (1336-1573) and has been a purveyor to the Imperial Palace since the reign of Emperor Go-Yozei from 1586-1611.

Founded in Kyoto, Toraya today now has 80 shops throughout Japan, a boutique in Paris and operates three factories. We visited Toraya’s Tokyo Midtown Shop and Tea Room in Roppongi for a sampling of these sweet treats during our visit last fall.

The ingredients in wagashi are simple - rice flour which is turned into a sticky, chewy dough known as mochi; bean paste; and agar-agar, a jelly-like substance. In the deft hands of a wagashi artisan these simple ingredients become a work of art as the dough is molded by hand and finished with traditional shaping tools to create delicate and intricate designs.

The Tokyo Midtown shop in Roppongi features a gallery and rotating exhibitions. During our visit, various forms of food preservation techniques were on display including canning, bottling and drying. The tea room is located behind the noren curtain in the back where patrons can enjoy items from the special seasonal menus.

Wagashi confections are not just pretty to look at, there is also a story behind every design. Birds, flowers, animals and scenery of the seasons provide inspiration while history, literature and architecture guide context and structure. Wagashi is also designed to stimulate all five senses, which it did!

Here are the stories behind the wagashi we enjoyed at Toraya. The fall Harvest Moon was the inspiration for the bunny bun. The design reflects a rabbit who stood up from the grass to admire the moon. Many artisans use rabbits as inspiration for their creations during moon viewing time. The tradition is based on an old Japanese legend about a mochi-making rabbit living on the moon.

The second, two-color wagashi is named “Pine.” The green represents the color of pine and the purple is reminiscent of a color found on costumes of the Heian noble society. A shade of purple now only worn by Shinto priests during religious ceremonies like the the Shinto wedding below. We came across this wedding party exiting the Hokoku Shrine in the Osaka Castle park. At the time, we didn’t know how rare it was to see an actual Shinto wedding and a priest wearing this color or that it was the inspiration for a sweet treat. Robes in this purple color are usually hanging in museums. Toraya first began making the Pine wagashi in 1834!

Another sweet treat we experienced during our time in Japan was the Umegae Mochi. Fukuoka Prefecture is famous for this beautiful, little confection and it is hard to find elsewhere in Japan. The town of Dazaifu is lined with dozens of umegae mochi vendors and store fronts. It’s a little dumpling filled with red bean paste and wrapped in mochi-rice cake. The buns are cooked on a griddle and embossed with an apricot flower motif. The name umegae mochi translates to plum rice dumpling but the confection is not made with plum. The name comes from a legend about a plum tree in Kyoto flying to Dazaifu to follow a scholar who moved away.

In ancient times, sugar was very rare in Japan and so fruits and nuts took the place of sweets. Even to this day, fruits and nuts are considered a delicacy and are often used as gifts which are wrapped and presented exquisitely. I experienced the custom first-hand when a beautiful cluster of red grapes was delivered to my hotel room at the Tokyo Grand Hyatt along with a note from the hotel manager wishing me a happy birthday. Fruit in Japan is considered a luxury item and is an important part of the country’s gift-giving ritual.

So when you visit Japan be sure to visit the department stores and sweet shops to see the beautiful array of wagashi, fruits and nuts. Toraya has a beautiful assortment of wagashi featured on its Instagram feed (toraya.wagashi) and is worth checking out to know the story behind various confections before you visit.

Toraya Tokyo Midtown Galleria

Address: D-B117, 9-7-4 Akasaka, Minato-ku,
Phone: +81-3-5413-3541 *Only in Japanese
Open hours: 11:00-21:00 (Every day)

Toraya Tea Room
11:00-21:00 (Every day) Last order: 20:30 *Pursuant to requirements by Tokyo Midtown

https://global.toraya-group.co.jp

Big Adventure on a Small Ship

A Pacific Northwest Cruise - Olympic Wilderness & San Juan Islands

Wilderness Discoverer 

Wilderness Discoverer 

We've been on a dozen or more cruises - everything from small luxury yachts and mega ships to clipper ships and chartered barges but this trip was our first experience on an Expedition ship. Our packing list for this voyage included things we had never taken on any other cruise - waterproof gloves, rain pants and jacket, waterproof hiking boots, trekking poles, multiple pairs of wool socks and layers of wicking, breathable clothes. We had always wanted to experience an UnCruise and this year we were able to do it and I don't think it will be our last.

UnCruise has been in business since 1996 and specializes in delivering big adventures to passengers on its fleet of small ships. Our voyage was aboard the Wilderness Discoverer - a sleek ship built for adventure and exploration at 176 feet in length and 39 feet wide. The ship was equipped with kayaks, paddle boards, inflatable skiffs, snorkel gear/wetsuits, two on-deck hot tubs, fitness equipment and yoga mats. The EZ Dock platform made launching kayaks a breeze.

The interior of the ship was casual but well designed and comfortable. Our cabin had two twin beds, a large picture window, small bedside table and in-room sink. The combo shower/toilet room was small but manageable. The closet had plenty of room and there were lots of hooks to hang gear. There were also hooks outside of each cabin for guests to leave wet rain gear and jackets in the hallway along with hiking boots and rubber shoes. The public spaces were located on the Main Deck (Deck 2) and included the dining room, bar and lounge which had bookshelves loaded with books and DVDs to borrow. There was also plenty of deck space to catch some fresh air outside although it was mostly cold and rainy during our time aboard. The two hot tubs got a lot of use though. 

The Wilderness Discoverer can accommodate up to 76 guest and 27 crew. Most of the ship's 38 passenger cabins are located on the Observation Deck (Deck 3) with a few scattered below on the Main Deck. Four "Explorer" cabins located on the Sun Deck (Deck 4) were larger and featured a sitting area as well as a private bath with shower. These cabins seemed to be reserved for repeat guests who received them as upgrades. One couple we talked to who got the upgrade said they really preferred the cabins on the 3rd deck because of the interior hallway and being closer to the public areas.  

April 7, 2018 – Embarkation:  Seattle, WA

On embarkation day, we met up with other passengers at a downtown hotel in Seattle and waited to be shuttled to our ship docked at Fishermen’s Terminal. Upon arrival, we were greeted at the dock by members of the crew, expedition and hospitality teams and our Captain, Keith Raisch, a retired US Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer. As we boarded the vessel we were welcomed with a glass of bubbly and then escorted to our cabin where our luggage had already been delivered. We quickly stowed our gear then went to explore the rest of the ship. Eventually we made our way back to the lounge and met some of our fellow passengers who were already bonding with perhaps the most popular crew member - the bartender, Jasmine. This particular cruise also had a craft beer theme so along for the voyage were Nate and Becca Schons, co-owners and brewers of Island Hoppin' Brewery. A selection of Nate's brews were available on tap at the bar and later in the week the Schons would be hosting us at their brewery on Orcas Island. Nate and Becca also made beer-pairing recommendations to go with each night's dinner menu. 

When all of the guests were settled in the lounge, we were introduced to the rest of the crew and guides along with our Expedition Leader, Sarah, who gave us a rundown of the next day's schedule and activity options. As Larry and I sipped on Nate's Bills Pills beer we listened to Sarah describe the list of skiff, kayak or hiking options we could sign up for the next day but she warned us, "There could always be changes based on the three W's - weather, whales and whims." At the time we didn't realize how foretelling those words would be. 

Shortly after the Captain and his crew set sail, dinner was served in the casual but well appointed dining room which served as the dining area for all meals onboard. Seating was open so each night we met new people from far and near - Brazil, Australia, Massachusetts, Texas and Seattle, to name of few places.

We transited the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks while dining on the first of many delicious meals we would enjoy throughout the week. The full-service, sit-down dinners always included a starter, choice of a meat, seafood or vegetarian entree, two side dishes and dessert prepared by a dedicated pastry chef. Breakfast was always served buffet style as was lunch, unless on-shore activities were planned in which case we would take a packed lunch.

It became the ritual each night, during happy hour guests would meet in the lounge to enjoy some appetizers while Sarah and the other guides would fill us in on the next day's plan and activities.

Sailing Through Deception Pass 

Sailing Through Deception Pass 

 

April 8, 2018 – Salish Sea / Deception Pass

On the first morning of the cruise we awoke anchored in the Salish Sea which is the intricate network of coastal waterways encompassing such major bodies of waters as the Strait of Georgia, Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound. Our morning consisted of a leisurely breakfast highlighted by fresh-baked Black Cherry & Hazelnut scones. Breakfast was followed by an orientation on how to properly wear a PFD (personal flotation device), procedures for boarding the skiffs that would shuttle us to shore for excursions and brief demos on kayak and SUP basics.

Not long after the orientation it was announced that kayaking would be cancelled for the day due to high winds. While guests convened in the dining room for lunch, the expedition team convened with the captain to see what other activities were still possible.

After lunch, we got word that the crew and expedition team would be able to launch skiffs and ferry us over to Whidbey Island for our originally planned afternoon hikes. The skiffs dropped us on shore at the point of the now defunct original ferry that back in the day had been operated by a cantankerous women named Berte Olson. As the story goes, patrons would summon the ferry by hitting a saw with mallet and Olson might come if she felt like it.

Many of the trails on the island were the result of work carried out by the Civilian Conservation Corps from 1933 through the early 1940's. Our trail took us from the shoreline where we watched two bald eagles soaring overhead and a few harbor seals swimming in the water to a meandering path surrounded by old-growth forests and commanding views of the surrounding islands.

Upon returning to the ship it was good news to hear the Captain had deemed it possible to sail through Deception Pass. Thankfully, Mother Nature was cooperating with us but she still had plans to throw us off course.

Paddling the Waters of Echo Bay

Paddling the Waters of Echo Bay

April 9, 2018 – Sucia Island

Due to high winds after leaving Deception Pass the Captain decided to skip our scheduled stop at Lopez Island and headed for the more-sheltered Sucia Island instead. In the morning we woke up to find our vessel anchored in a quiet bay surrounded by sandstone bluffs and towering trees. Sucia Island is considered the "crown jewel" of the state marine parks system and is only accessible by watercraft. After breakfast we suited up for our first chance at kayaking. We shimmied into our kayak while on the EZ Dock platform and then the crew and expedition team slid us effortlessly into the pristine waters of Echo Bay. On our 2-hour paddle our guide, Karl, led us in the direction of some rocky bluffs where seals were known to hang out but once we entered the open waters it was a little too rough to continue. Instead, we ventured back into the calmer bay waters and explored the island's unique sandstone formations, quiet inlets and wildlife.

After lunch we took a skiff from the ship to Fossil Bay and then hiked to the other side of this horseshoe-shaped island to Ewing Bay. We had great views of neighboring Orcas Island and its towering Mt. Constitution - the highest point in the San Juan Islands. The 3.5-mile hike took us along rocky shoreline, through old-growth forest and up bluffs overlooking emerald-green waters. It really was a breathtakingly beautiful island.

After dinner, Nate gave us preview of what we would see and taste at Island Hoppin' Brewery the next day. It was great to him and Becca with us all week as co-hosts so guests could chat one-on-one with them. There were a few true beer aficionados on board including a beer writer and a beer competition judge. When asked about his approach to making beer Nate explained,  "I have a vision of what I want a beer to be and then I work backwards into making it." Nate also piqued the interest of several beer enthusiasts when he told us about a beer we could try at his brewery the next day that is 8.3% ABV.

April 10, 2018 – Port: Friday Harbor, San Juan Island

Gale warnings again forced the captain to change course from our planned itinerary of visiting Orcas Island and instead we docked in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. Our visit to Nate's brewery would have to wait. While we were enjoying breakfast, the crew and expedition team had been hard at work putting together a new plan and Nate called a friend with a craft beer brewery on the island to see if he could host us in the afternoon. It is worth noting here how amazing the entire UnCruise team was. No matter what changes were presented to them the expedition team could seamlessly put a new plan in place with little disruption to the guests and the stewards of the hospitality team were always looking out for the comfort of guests. 

San Juan Island has an interesting history in that it was the last place of border dispute between the United States and Britain. The English Camp was on the forested north side of the island and the American Camp was on the south side. We were part of a group that shuttled to the south side to take a 3-mile hike on the Jakle's Lagoon Trail which at the start overlooked the Strait of Juan de Fuco and mainland Washington in the distance. It rained pretty good during our hike but we found some cover once we headed into the dense forest and miraculously the rain stopped and the sun peeked out just in time so we could enjoy our packed lunches sitting along the shore of a pretty cove.

Back in town we visited The Whale Museum which opened in 1979 and was the first museum in the country devoted to a species living in the wild. It was a really well done museum with a mix of low- and high-tech exhibits and plenty of hands-on exhibits that kids would enjoy too. The museum is well known for its work in tracking generations of whales since the 1970's.

The rest of our afternoon was spent at the San Juan Island Brewery housed in a new $4-million facility just a few blocks from Friday Harbor. There was a nice, big deck out front which is probably packed on summer days but on this cold and drizzly day we headed inside. UnCruise had arranged to pick up the tab for our first pint or tasting flight of beer. Nate and Becca and some of the other passengers from the ship were already there and chatting with Nate's friend who owned the brewery. Larry and I both had the tasting flight which included pours of Golden Ale, IPA, Porter, Pale Ale and a Lager. The tasting notes were quite creative like the one for the Yachter's Daughter Helles Lager - Like the annual fair-weather flotilla of incoming recreational boaters.

Dinner that night was "all-you-can-eat" crab and platters of it just kept coming as we cracked and picked our way through the tasty crustaceans. The beer pairing selected by Nate that night definitely added to the lively meal.

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April 11, 2018 – Stuart Island

We left Friday Harbor before sunrise and headed to Stuart Island (again, not on the original itinerary) where we dropped anchor. After breakfast we took a skiff tour where we saw some great bird life including cormorants, pigeon guillemots, belted kingfishers, bald eagles and harlequin ducks. Stuart Island is private so there were no hiking opportunities here. We could only admire the island from the skiff.

When we returned to the ship the captain had been monitoring weather reports and the already pesky winds were forecasted to increase so once again, Mother Nature had upset our plans so off we went in search of calmer seas. 

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We spent the rest of the day peering out the ship's large windows at the relentless white caps churning all around us as we headed for a protected cove. On the Wilderness Discoverer the bridge is always open to passengers so it was a popular spot to visit. The Captain and First Mate were very welcoming and generous with sharing their space and explaining the goings-on as they commanded the vessel against 44-knot winds. 

Eventually, the crew dropped anchor in West Sound off Orcas Island with a perfect view of Turtleback Mountain and that is where we remained for the rest of the day. The guides allowed some open-paddle kayaking for a few hours in the the vicinity of the ship but no other activities were planned for the rest of day so we played some cribbage and read in the lounge. This was a pretty restful day and we turned in early after dinner.

As I was putting things away in the cabin before going to sleep I came across the original itinerary UnCruise had sent with our cruise documents. I turned to Larry and said, "You know, this really isn't an itinerary at all. It's merely a list of ideas, suggestions and possibilities." We had a good laugh as I tossed it in the trash.

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April 12, 2018 – East Sound, Orcas island

The captain repositioned the ship during the night so that when we awoke we were in West Sound directly in front of the Rosario Resort and Spa. This grand estate was part of the original private property of shipbuilder and former Seattle mayor, Robert Moran who had it built in 1906 as a place to escape the stress of work and city life. In 1920 Moran gifted a large portion of his property to the state of Washington after being inspired by his good friend, John Muir. (The Rosario Resort and Spa is still privately owned.) We had the opportunity to walk through the former mansion and admire the fine craftsmanship before boarding shuttles to take us to the trail head for our hike.

Moran State Park has miles of hiking, biking and horseback riding trails but perhaps the most well known trail is to the summit of Mt. Constitution. In retrospect, Larry and I wished we had signed up for the summit hike but we opted for the shorter, 4-mile loop hike around a lake so we would have ample time to visit Nate and Becca's brewery later in the day. We ate lunch along the trail and then met up with our shuttle driver to take us to the summit of Mt. Constitution where we rendezvoused with the other hiking groups including the ones that hiked to the summit. I was disappointed because obviously there would have been plenty of time to hike the summit and visit the brewery. That was when I wished the guides would designate some hikes for faster walkers only. Sometimes it seemed like they made some hikes sound harder or longer than they were just to dissuade people from signing up and other hikes were set at very slow paces like our 4-mile loop. We were told during the orientation the summit hike could take up to 8 hours. That wasn't the case at all. 

In the afternoon we made our way to Island Hoppin' Brewery – Nate and Becca’s place, which is a little distance from the main part of town. UnCruise had arranged to have a shuttle make a loop to town, then the brewery and back to the dock so guests could come and go as they please. The brewery was located in an old metal shop in a little warehouse district. Nate built the interior of the brewery from the ground up. He initially wanted a smaller space but the owner of the building told him, "You're thinking too small." It was good advice because Nate already has plans to expand by knocking out some walls. 

When you enter the brewery you feel like you're walking into Nate and Becca's home. Island Hoppin' Brewery has much a different feel than the larger San Juan Brewery we had visited but that's what's great about craft brewing. The breweries are always a reflection of the owner/brewer. A group of locals were holding court at a corner table and behind them on the wall was one of Nate's guitars. I could just sense there had been some great impromptu nights in this place. Now in their sixth year of operation, Nate and Becca still enjoy a loyal following by locals who were there when they started. During the first two years Nate and Becca initiated a "Mug Club" for locals only. Members were vetted and had to be year-round residents in order to qualify for a coveted mug. The locals just grabbed their mug off the shelf when they entered and headed for the bar. They never had to wait.

The brewery has two interior rooms that are cozy, quaint and perfect for easy conversation with others and the opportunity to make new friends. We were able to grab two stools at the modest-sized bar and tried some of the beers that were not offered on the taps aboard our ship, like the 8.2 ABV Old Madrona Imperial Red. The bartender poured $5 pints, $2 tastes and $15 flights. We thought all of the beers were very good but we asked the opinion of the beer judge from our ship who was sitting next to us to get his professional opinion. He agreed. There were a few food options available for order and a help-yourself bucket of peanuts. Although somewhat tucked away and modest in size, this brewery was bursting with conversation and laughter and felt three times its size. Nate pointed to a stack of big boxes and said it was new furniture waiting to be unpacked and added to the outdoor area already decked out with picnic tables and a Ping-Pong table. The busy summer season would be starting in just a few weeks time. Island Hoppin' Brewery felt like the hub of the community. A place where everyone has to stop before heading home or back to the ship. 

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April 13, 2018 – Olympic National Park

We awoke this morning anchored off Port Townsend which is located on the northeast end of the Olympic Peninsula. A peek outside the window of our cabin revealed fog and rain. Not exactly ideal conditions for our planned hike.

At one time, Port Townsend was speculated to become the largest harbor on the west coast of the United States but when the depression hit the city lost much of its funding to continue building rail lines so its importance diminished greatly. It began to flourish in the 1970's as new residents moved to the port city, including many retirees. Today, original Victoria-style buildings from the late-19th century now share the waterfront with restaurants, shops and theatres. Port Townsend plays host to many festivals, artists' conferences and other cultural programs throughout the year making it a popular tourism spot.

At breakfast we sat with a couple from Seattle who said they planned to stay on the ship all day. "We see enough of this kind of weather in Seattle. I don't need to hike in it. " the woman told us. Several other guests were planning to skip the hike and just take the skiff into town for a little while or just stay on the ship. Hmmm, maybe they were right but, Larry and I are San Diegans who don't get to use our rain gear very often. So, off we went to our cabin to cram our day packs full of warm, waterproof gear. One thing we didn't have were backpack rain covers so we improvised with some garbage bags.

We joined the other guests willing to brave the weather and boarded shuttle buses to take us to the trail head for our 6-mile hike. As we neared the drop-off point it became clear the road was washed out and so was the foot trail to reach the trail head. Our nimble guides scouted for another trail and then radioed the expedition leader and and support team with the back-up plan. With only a slight delay, we were soon hiking a path named "Dry Creek Trail" which seemed like a misnomer considering the lush terrain and constant rainfall puddling all around us. 

After hiking in the rain for about an hour and a half and with no guarantee of a spectacular view or summit on this unfamiliar trail, a few of us opted to turn back with one of the guides and catch a shuttle to go explore the town of Hoodsport before heading back to the ship.

Nate and Becca had been on the hike and decided to turn back and head for Hoodsport too. We decided the best way to take the chill off was to visit the local distillery in town. The Hardware Distillery Company is located next to the Hood Canal in a quaint building constructed in 1930. The owners, Jan and Chuck, have occupied the space since 2012 and produce mead, vodka, gin, whiskey and Aquavit using honey, grains and fruit from the Washington area. The distillery's unique setting along the Hood Canal allows Chuck to age his barrels in the basement of the building and open up ventilation so the  barrels can breathe in fresh, salt air.

We tried at least dozen different blends as Chuck guided us through the tasting and explained the different distilling processes. The distillery was full of copper and stainless steel pots, stills, columns, etc. Chuck makes a variety of distilled meads under the "Bee's Knees" label. Distilled mead is made from 80% honey and 20% fruit. The liquid is aged in American Oak for about three months and then becomes a very unique spirit. His offerings include Peachy Keen, Raspberry, HWY 101, Merry Cherry with Coffee, Cat's Pajamas and Little Owl.

We also enjoyed tasting the unique blends of Aquavit. We tasted the liquor ice cold, the way it's enjoyed in Sweden and raised our glasses - "Let's toast to life - Sköl!"

April 14, 2018 - Disembarkation: Seattle, WA

We enjoyed one final breakfast with some of our new friends and exchanged contact information. Then is was time to catch a taxi to the airport for our early flight. UnCruise handled all transfers to the airport or city hotels. If passengers had early flights, the cruise was accommodating about setting up taxi or private shuttle service too.

We would definitely book another UnCruise. We loved the mix of scenery, activity and relaxation aboard the Wilderness Discoverer. The entire staff was first rate and meals were very good. If you are interested in booking a trip with UnCruise or would like to get more details about our trip, please contact us. 

When you book a cruise or tour through Putnam Travel you always receive a nice bon-voyage gift or shipboard credit.  Contact: Larry Clark at lctravel@san.rr.com
or 858-488-2569. Or click here.

 

Disclaimer: As a travel agent, Larry received a reduced rate for this cruise but there was no compensation provided in exchange for editorial coverage. All opinions are our own and all content on Putnam Travels Blog is for informational purposes only. We are not liable for any errors or omissions in this information and accept no responsibility for any damages or losses arising in connection with the use of this website. Links directing to third-party websites are for informational purposes only and serve as a resource to the reader. We do not accept responsibility for the content of these sites or liability from use of them.

Not sure what to pack? Click here for a Pacific Northwest Packing List.

 

 

12 THINGS TO DO ON THE BIG ISLAND OF HAWAII

Hawaii is called the big island for a reason - it's big, really big! We wish we had scheduled at least two more days to really enjoy everything this island has to offer. Five days was not long enough to see and do everything we wanted. 

Besides the variety of activities we also loved the vibe on this island. It felt like "old school" Hawaii. The pace was slower than what we'd experienced on some of the more popular Hawaiian islands like Maui, Kauai and Oahu. (Sometimes it was too slow, but more about driving on Hawaii later.) The beaches were less crowded, the restaurants and bars seemed less trendy and we never needed a reservation or had to wait 45 minutes for a table. The locals seemed to genuinely enjoy talking with us and every conversation was unhurried. One word kept coming to mind about this island - authentic.

Being described as "old school" can be a compliment but it can also imply outdated, like Hawaii's 2-lane Highway 19 that has been in the process of being widened for years and is subject to slow traffic on a regular basis. Also, there are strictly-enforced 35-55 MPH zones on much of the island so getting anywhere quickly is not an option. Give yourself plenty of time to get to where you're going especially if you're driving across or around the island.

Also, if you are going to visit both sides of the island, consider flying into Kona and flying out of Hilo or vice-a-versa. It will save you at least 1/2 a day of drive time just going back and forth. 

Below is our list of things to do in Hawaii. Have fun planning your trip and please share with us in the comments below any activities you would recommend for our next trip to the Big Island. Mahalo.

 

1. Visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park 

If you have the time, consider spending two nights near the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. We only planned on one night and wish we had seen more of what the park had to offer. The park rangers at the visitors' center can help you plan your visit based how much time you have. There are more than 150 miles of trails within the park, with hikes and walks for all ability levels, including paved walkways for strollers or wheelchairs. Elsewhere in the park visitors can explore a lava tube, walk on the hardened Kilauea Iki Crater lava lake or trek Devastation Trail. For the more adventurous, actual flowing lava can be viewed by hiking in from the parking lot at the end of Chain of Craters road. It's a about a 4-mile round trip hike. 

2. Take a dusk-to-dark hike along the Halema'uma'u Crater

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After talking with a park ranger about our limited volcano viewing options because of our late afternoon visit we decided to do a dusk-to-dark walk. We started our 4.4-mile walk from the Kilauea Visitor Center in Volcanoes National Park and headed towards the Sulphur Banks Trail to view the steam vents. We then crossed over to Crater Rim Trail to walk the 2.2 miles to the Jagger Museum and the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory where we could get a great view of the Kilauea Caldera. There were a couple of professional photographers setting up to take some night photos about 200 yards shy of the museum so we chatted with them for a while. They told us the viewing area at the museum would be packed with people once the tour buses rolled in so we hung out with the photographers. They were right.  About 10 minutes later at the peak viewing time at least five large buses arrived depositing eager tourists to see the glow of the caldera at its peak - about 7:45pm. We stayed near the photographers and took our photos without any crowds near us whatsoever. After the crowds boarded the buses and left we walked over to check out the museum. Darkness set in pretty quickly so we pulled out our flashlights and started our walk back to the Visitor Center. The wind had really picked up and the temperature had dropped considerably. We had jackets on but could have used another layer of clothing for warmth. Luckily, we had borrowed a large, golf umbrella from our B&B and used it to block the wind on our way back. Thank goodness for the gravel path because in the darkness it would have been easy to get lost without a easy trail to follow. 

3. Visit Punalu'u Beach - Black Sand Beach

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The morning after our night walk at the crater we headed to Punalu'u Beach. This beach, located in the southern part of the island, is known as Black Sand Beach for its gleaming black sand - the result of the island's history of volcanic activity. The sand formed over time as hot lava flowed into the ocean and exploded into tiny fragments and washed ashore. The beach is also home to endangered Hawksbill and green sea turtles. You can view them by walking along the volcanic rock or take a swim in the water for a closer look. Just don't bother the turtles - they are protected. 

4. Make the trek out to Papakolea Beach - Green Sand Beach

Another popular beach on the southern end of the island is Papakolea Beach. It is near the very southern tip of the island and is one of only four green sand beaches said to exist in the world. (The other three are in the Galapagos Islands, Guam and Norway.) The distinctive green color comes from eroded lava crystals. The beach is only accessible on foot and the approximately 3-mile trail is hot and dusty. Once you leave the parking lot at South Point there is no shade, amenities or restroom facilities along the trail. If you like a good walk and have the time, it's worth it but I would suggest doing it early in the day before it gets too hot. We enjoyed a very nice view of the beach on our approach from the trail and then navigated a moderately steep descent to the beach. The beach was in a nice cove and the current was gentle on the day we were there but locals said it can get a little rough on some days. If you're not up for the walk back there are a few guys with 4-WD vehicles who will drive you back for a fee (about $12 ea.). Just be forewarned that this is supposedly illegal but quite a few people were doing it.

5. Spend a day at Kauna'oa Beach - White Sand Beach

Later in the week we visited Kauna'oa Beach at Mauna Kea which has some of the softest, powdery sand our feet have ever walked on. Mauna Kea consistently appears on lists of prettiest beaches in the world. The beach stretches about half a mile and the waters are usually calm. This is the type of beach where you just want to hang out all day and you can. Mauna Kea is a public beach but access to the parking lot is only accessible by passing through the Mauna Kea Hotel property. The public is welcome to eat and drink at the poolside restaurant of the hotel however the Mauna Kea is a 5-star hotel and the prices reflect that.

6. Go chasing waterfalls

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There are so many waterfalls both big and small on the island of Hawaii. Some plunge straight down hundreds of feet while others gently tumble over rocky facades. Some can be seen in a drive-by, others during a hike. However you you view a waterfall, don't miss out. Here's a short list of some of the most popular waterfalls - 'Akaka falls, Rainbow falls, Pe'epe'e falls, Umauma falls, Hi'ilawe

7. Snorkel

The big island doesn't have as many powdery-soft beaches as some of the other Hawaiian islands but if you're willing to navigate the rocky shoreline you'll be rewarded with good snorkeling waters. Such is the case with Kahalu'u Beach Park in Kailua-Kona. The rocky shoreline at this beach made getting in and out of the water challenging but it was the best snorkeling we experienced all week. The coral was colorful and we spotted quite a few sea turtles and many varieties of fish.

8. Go Flumin' the Kohala Ditch

An architect friend of ours in San Diego told us about "Flumin' the Ditch" when we told him we were going to Hawaii. I'm so glad we did it. It was one of our most memorable experiences. The Kohala Ditch is a fascinating feat of engineering that was designed to bring water to the people of Kohala and provide fresh water to the sugar plantations more than a century ago. The Kohala Ditch is a 110-year-old system of hand-wrought tunnels, elevated flumes and concrete channels that provide a leisurely, 3-mile float on inflatable kayaks in a remote and lush setting - much of it on private land. Our amiable guides, Vern and Josh told us detailed history of the area as we gently floated through thousand-foot tunnels dripping overhead with spring water or crossed above rushing streams in elevated flumes. The ditch winds its way through dense forest in some areas where we had some great photo ops with waterfalls in the background. At the end of our float, our guide Josh taught us the Hawaiian cheer - Cheehoo! - which is a sound of celebration or the noise of happiness. Click here for Flumin' Kohola info.

 

9. Take a "Doors Off" Helicopter Tour

Hawaii is a big island and getting around to see everything can be a challenge. We didn't take a helicopter ride on this trip to Hawaii bet when we go back we will definitely take a doors-off helicopter ride. These trips aren't cheap but you get amazingly-close views of active volcanoes before cooling off above rainforests and waterfalls. 

10. Drink the local beer

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There are four breweries on the island - Kona Brewing Company (Kona), Ola Brew Co. (Kona), Mehana Brewing Company (Hilo) and Big Island Brewhaus (Waimea). We looked for the local brews on menus and drank local when available. 

11. Enjoy a Mai Tai 

Whether it's at a dive bar or a fancy resort be sure to imbibe in a classic Mai Tai while you visit Hawaii. 

13. Savor the sunsets

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We never got tired of watching the sunset every night. 

Cruisin' in Cuba

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UPDATE - 

Unfortunately, Celestyal Cruises has put its sailings on hold due to large U.S. Cruise Lines saturating the Cuba market. Celestyal will evaluate the situation and consider re-introducing sailings to Cuba in 2020. As an alternative, we recommend AZAMARA Cruise Line's "10-Night Circle Cuba Voyage" for a similar small ship experience. 

 

I have to admit, I felt a little trepidation before our trip to Cuba. Questions swirled in my mind about safety and whether we would be warmly received by the Cuban people. I also wasn't sure if we'd come away with a genuine feel for the country since we'd be touring as part of an escorted "education experience" program. Cuba is still under the U.S. embargo, meaning Americans can’t just go to Cuba to drink mojitos and drive in cool cars (although we did do that one day). Americans must travel under one of the 12 categories of the the Cuba Travel Affidavit and most casual travelers visit as part of a guided “People-to-People" immersion program.*

Our booking with Celestyal Cruises included a "Discover the Authentic Cuban Experience" Program which met the criteria of the Cuba Travel Affidavit and would provide us with a broad introduction to Cuba's rich history and culture. We also liked the itinerary which called on three ports and docked for two full days in Havana. Celestyal handled all of the excursions, programs and tours so all we had to do was show up at the correct time to meet our local tour guide or catch our assigned bus. Our immersion experience wasn't limited to just our time on land. Onboard, we had the option to attend lectures by Destination Expert, Dr. Jorge Arocha, (Professor of Contemporary Philosophy of the University of Havana) on topics ranging from history, cuisine and art to music, cigars and rum tasting. I attended a few of Dr. Arocha's presentations and found him to be engaging, energetic and entertaining. 

* It is possible to visit Cuba on a self-guided tour but there are strict requirements to document your trip. 

Nov. 10, 2017 - Embarkation: Montego Bay, Jamaica

We spent a couple of nights at the Holiday Inn Montego Bay before the start of the cruise because it's never a good idea to fly to a destination on the same day as embarkation. We always recommend arriving a day or two before your cruise in case you encounter any travel delays. The Holiday Inn was perfect for our group - it was all-inclusive, near the airport and had the amenities we needed for two days - beach, pool, bar, restaurant and a place to rest our heads. If you prefer something in the luxury category, there are plenty of 5-star, luxury resorts including Half Moon, Round Hill and Secrets Wild Orchid to name a few. 

Aboard the Celestyal Crystal

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We scheduled a shuttle for our group of ten from the Holiday Inn to the port. The drive took about 45 minutes due to bumper-to-bumper, rush hour traffic but we boarded well before embarkation so we had no worries. The check-in process was a little confusing with multiple lines and some in our group were charged a departure tax (even though we would be returning to Jamaica). 

Our ship, the Celestyal Crystal was easy to explore. At 162 meters long, it featured ten decks with accommodations for 1200 passengers and 406 crew and was the first ship to offer around-Cuba sailings. The Crystal had everything large cruise ships offer but on a more intimate scale. The public spaces, lounge and restaurants had touches of Art Deco design but other spaces like the Sports Bar/Card Room and tiny casino looked tired and in need of some updating.

Our cabin was decent-sized with two twin beds, sitting area, desk, ample closet and storage space and a large picture window. The furnishings were stylish but basic and the beds were very comfortable. 

The dining room looked chic and contemporary and felt welcoming in soothing turquoise and tan tones.  The cuisine in the dining room was okay with some hits and misses. Every fish entree I ordered was great, however the beef dishes always seemed to be overdone. There was a selection of entrees off the menu that were available for additional charge which included lobster tail, which was very good. Breakfast and lunch had a good variety of options served cafeteria/buffet style. The self-serve coffee machine always seemed to leave an oil slick on the top of my coffee so I opted to order a cappuccino from a bartender instead. I know a lot of ships have those automated coffee/espresso machines and some work great but others I question how often they are cleaned. The meals were fine, just don't set your expectations too high or you will be disappointed. If you are into 5-star fine dining then this ship would not be a great fit for you.

Thalassa, the terrace bar at the aft of the ship, was a popular spot. The seating arrangement can feel a little tight and one side of the deck is the smoking area but it was a great end-of-the-day gathering place for our group. 

Nov. 11, 2017 - Port: Santiago de Cuba

Our first morning in port we met in the lounge to be assigned buses and guides. On this cruise it's important to attend these gatherings so you know what bus to get on. There are several buses each designated for specific groups and independent travelers and itineraries may vary depending on nationalities. Seating is limited and everyone must check in as they board their bus.

Our first order of business after we disembarked and cleared Passport Control was to exchange money. There was a kiosk and small trailer with teller windows on the dock where we exchanged money before boarding the buses. In Cuba there are two forms of currency - the CUP and the CUC. The CUP (Cuban Peso) is what Cubans receive with a government salary. The CUC (called the "kook") is the convertible peso you receive when you exchange foreign currency. You'll need cash for all of your purchases (you cannot use US credit cards in Cuba) so it's good to plan ahead on what you want to buy and exchange just enough money so you're not stuck with CUCs and the end of the trip. 

We boarded our bus and began a tour of the old colonial city of Santiago, the 2nd largest city in Cuba and a major center for banking and commerce. There is also a lot of political history to be found in Santiago, including bullet-riddled buildings, monuments on former battle sites, statues celebrating revolutionaries and museums full of imagery and artifacts of the country's tumultuous beginning of the Cuban Revolution. One of our stops was at the Moncada Barracks, the site of the of the failed attack by revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro on July 26, 1953. Although this attack failed and led to dozens of injuries and some deaths, it is widely accepted as the beginning of the Cuban Revolution. Other stops included Plaza de la Revolucion, the El Morro, San Juan Hill and the African Cultural Center to watch a traditional dance performance. 

Before heading back to the ship our guide took us into one of the island's government-run stores where cigars, cigarettes and liquor are sold. We had planned to buy some cigars in Havana but since we were carrying quite a bit of cash we decided to buy in Santiago and reduce the amount of money we were carrying around. It turned out to be a good decision because when we checked the state-run stores in Havana some of the cigars that were on our list to buy were sold out and some of the prices were slightly higher. In these stores the prices marked are what you pay. There is no negotiating in the state-run stores.

Nov. 12, 2017 - Day at Sea

Our day at sea included many activities of a typical cruise - tour of the bridge, fruit carving demos, dance classes, towel folding, cooking lessons and Bingo. There was also a presentation by Dr. Jorge Arocha about "Cuban Cigars and The Story behind the Smoke." According to one of our local guides the top three Cuban cigars are 1. Cohiba, 2. Monte Christo and 3. Romeo & Juliet. 

Nov. 13, 2017 - Port: Havana, Cuba - Day 1

One of the reasons we selected Celestyal was because its itinerary gave us two full days in Havana. Some other cruise lines only have one stop on the island and some don't stop in Havana at all but dock in another city and bus passengers to the capital city for day trips or over-night trips which means you have to pack a bag and stay in a hotel. Our ship was docked right at the foot of Havana's old town and a just a short walk to San Francisco Plaza, one of the four major plazas in Old Havana where our walking tour began that morning. The tour took us through the "cobblestone core" of the colonial district with stops at some notable sites including some of Ernest Hemingway's haunts as well as the three other plazas -  San Viejo (New Square), Arms Square and Cathedral Square. Many of the buildings being restored in this area used to be homes of wealthy aristocrats in 18th century Cuba. The parks and squares were clean and well tended but it was here we could see the impact tourism was having on the city. Dozens of tour groups stood huddled around guides holding umbrellas or placards reminiscent of so many tours in European cities. After our walking tour we had the option of returning to the ship for lunch or staying in town for lunch. We had lunch at one of the seafood restaurants recommended by our guide. The service was good and the fresh fish plate lunch we had was great.  In the afternoon we boarded buses for a driving tour of the city. We cruised along the malecon past the new hotels, the American Embassy, and into the central district where many residents live. This area is "rent free" and is a little run down. Our final stop was at Revolution Plaza.

After dinner on the ship we boarded a bus to the world-renown Tropicana to see its famous cabaret show. Touristy? Sure, but it was definitely worth visiting this open-air nightclub to watch the dancers dressed in their over-the-top costumes. If you go, don't expect much in the way of comfort or service. We were seated at long tables arranged very tightly with the rest of the audience and then provided with a bottle of rum and a couple cans of mixer (cola or soda) to share. If you want something else, good luck. It's not likely you'll see your server again. We didn't. The show (weather permitting) is still performed outside under a gorgeous canopy of trees like it was during the casino's heyday in the 1950's.

Nov. 14, 2017 - Port: Havana, Cuba - Day 2

We began our second morning with a bus ride to the outskirts of western Havana to the mosaic wonderland of Fusterlandia. What started as a DIY project of Jose Rodriquez Fuster to liven up the facade of his house with mosaic embellishment has blossomed into a full-blown community project of converting almost every flat surface in the neighborhood into a canvas for shiny decorative shards. The whimsical and quirky designs stretch for blocks and can be found on walls, houses, flats, office buildings, schools and even the medical center. It all exemplifies the Cuban spirit through art and resourcefulness. On our way back to the ship the buses stopped at the Museo de la Revolucion which is a very well done museum full of photos and memorabilia from Cuba's revolution. Here, you will find all kinds of things on display including Che Guevara's beret, women's skirts lined with hidden pockets that were used to transport hidden guns and ammo and Granma, the small speedboat in which the Castro brothers traveled to Cuba from their exile in Mexico in 1956.

In the afternoon, we had a period of free time until our ship left at 9pm. This was really the only extended period of time we had to see Cuba unescorted. We hired three drivers in American vintage "taxis" to guide our group of ten around the city. The cars are referred to by the locals as almendrones (translation - almonds) because they think the cars resemble the shape of a giant almond. Most drivers pay a fee to rent cars from owners so they need to make enough money to clear a profit after covering the day's fee. Be sure to negotiate up front where you want to go and for how long you want to have the driver. Our first request was to stop at the Hotel Nacional, famed for its ties to the mafia and as a gathering place for Hollywood's elite in the 1930's, 40's and 50's. As it turned out, our drivers were also excellent guides who knew all about the history of the hotel and showed us all around the property. We gained entrance into the Hall of Fame bar after one of our drivers knocked on the locked glass door and made eye contact with one of the bartenders who let us in. We enjoyed a couple of "mafia mojitos" while we looked around at all of memorabilia, movie posters and photos of politicians, sports legends and celebrities who had been there. After leaving the hotel, our drivers suggested a trip to see the imposing sculpture of Christ of Havana on a hilltop overlooking the Bay of the Havana with fantastic views of the city. It provided great photo opps. Our last request before heading back to the ship was to stop at an authentic paladar - a restaurant/bar operated by a private citizen. Many of these privately-owned restaurants are quietly tucked into backyards, courtyards and spare rooms behind unassuming facades of private homes in modest neighborhoods and others look and operate openly on main streets. These are legal Our drivers parked on a normal-looking residential street and we followed them up the driveway and through a gate into the backyard of one of the small, single-story houses. Once inside, the entire place looked just like any tiki bar hangout with wooden tables, chairs and bar with a palm frond roof. There were some musical instruments in a alcove, a large Coca-Cola sign hung on a wall and a fountain in the center gurgling water. There were even a few ducks wandering around. We ordered a round of beers and some potato chips and enjoyed our last outing in Havana before sailing to Cienfuegos.

Nov. 15, 2017 - Day at Sea

Our last day at sea featured lots of activities including a bridge tournament, dance classes, cooking demos and a few quiz contests. Our Destination, Expert, Dr. Jorge Arocha also gave two presentations, one in the morning on "Cuban Culture" and another in the afternoon on "The Cuban Landscape in the 20th Century."

Nov. 16, 2017 - Port: Cienfuegos, Cuba

Our final port of call was Cienfuegos, a beautiful city in the south-central region of Cuba about 122 nautical miles from Havana. Upon entering Cienfuegos Bay we sailed past the impressive fortress of Nuestra Senora de los Angeles before docking at the pier. Known as the "Pearl of the South," Cienfuegos was originally settled by Taino indigenous people and later settled by French immigrants from Bordeaux and Louisiana so a French and European influence can been seen in the elegant architecture of many of the city's buildings. The views looking out to the bay were breathtaking as we drove in buses through the beautiful neighborhood of Punta Gorda on our way to tour some of these historic buildings. The most beautiful structure we saw in Cienfuegos was the Palacio de Valle, a spectacular example of Spanish-Moorish architecture with touches of Gothic, Romanesque and Baroque styles.

We also visited art galleries and were treated to a live street performance featuring dancers, artists, musicians and actors. Art was very prevalent in all the cities we visited, perhaps because it gives Cubans a way to somewhat express themselves in a country that still has many restrictions on free expression. Art collectives and cultural groups are sprouting up across the country to help new artists find their footing. The cost associated with having a studio make it nearly impossible for a new artist to get started so art collectives have been setting up spaces that provide multiple workspaces and art supplies. Tubes of paint, brushes and canvases can be very expensive and hard to find so these collectives offer a place where artists can share resources.

Our last day touring Cienfuegos embodied everything I had observed about the Cuban people during my time visiting their island. Despite the oppression they are under, I found Cubans to be optimistic, resourceful and proud. They seem to find happiness by expressing themselves through music, dance, art and conversing deeply with each other. I never once felt threatened or insecure; on the contrary, all the people we met seemed generally friendly. I have a feeling we will be visiting Cuba again in the future. 

Nov. 17, 2017 - Disembarkation: Montego Bay, Jamaica

After disembarkation, we headed straight to the airport for our flight home.

If you're interested in booking a own cruise to Cuba we recommend AZAMARA Cruise Line's "10-Night Circle Cuba Voyage."  We'd love to help with your travel plans. Contact us.

Disclaimer: As a travel agent, Larry received a reduced rate for this cruise but there was no compensation provided in exchange for editorial coverage. All opinions are our own and all content on Putnam Travels Blog is for informational purposes only. We are not liable for any errors or omissions in this information and accept no responsibility for any damages or losses arising in connection with the use of this website. Links directing to third-party websites are for informational purposes only and serve as a resource to the reader. We do not accept responsibility for the content of these sites or liability from use of them.

 

 

 

An American-Guided Tour of Normandy

Making the journey to visit Normandy and the battlefields of WWII is always an emotional experience and one that most people will make only once in a lifetime so when planning a trip you want to make sure you get it right. You can plan your own self-guided tour but hiring a local, expert guide will certainly enhance the experience and provide a much broader perspective.

On this Veterans Day, as we honor those who served our country and remember those who gave everything, we'd like to introduce you to Trevor Standefer, an exceptional guide who provides various tours in Normandy. We've been on Trevor's tours and booked dozens of clients with him and everyone has always returned with rave reviews. 

What makes Trevor's tours unique is his family's connection to the area. During WWII his grandmother was eight months pregnant and the family farm had become a strategic point for the Germans who took it over. As the liberation had begun, the family sought shelter in an abandoned farm in another town and it is here where American troops found them and sped Tervor's grandmother to a hospital where his mother, Danielle, was born on July 31, 1944. Danielle eventually met and married an American from Texas and that is where Trevor was born. He considers himself "Made in Texas, born in Normandy."  Trevor traveled with his mother to France frequently growing up and he eventually met and married a French woman. Trevor has lived in Normandy for seven years and operates his American D-Day Tours company from his home near Utah Beach. 

Trevor with his wife, Solange

Trevor with his wife, Solange

His tours range from 1-Day, 2-Day and VIP experiences to visit Sainte-Mere Eglise, Utah Beach, Pointe du Hoc, Omaha Beach, U.S. Military Cemetery, German Cemetery and military museums. Trevor is well versed in WWII history and his passion his evident as he recounts the events of D-Day on his tours. When we toured with him a few years ago I was impressed how he etched into the sand with a stick on Omaha Beach the entire troop landings and movements on D-Day. By the time he was done recounting the events of that day he had drawn a very large and detailed diagram of the troops and the obstacles they faced as they fought to overcome Hitler's defenses. It was poignant and left a lasting impression. He also meticulously planned each stop and timed our tour perfectly so we were at the American Cemetery at dusk when the flag was lowered while taps was played. 

We would definitely recommend staying at least two nights in Normandy when planning a visit. If you would like assistance planning a trip or have questions please feel free to contact us.  For information about Trevor's American D-Day Tours click here.

TOAD's (Not so Wild) Ride to Becoming Oxford's First Distillery

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On our trip to England last August we spent one night in Oxford which didn't give us a lot of time to explore but we did squeeze in a walking tour of the university and then ventured about 1.5 miles beyond the city to a new craft distillery where a talented team of visionaries was launching its first bottled spirits after years of building every aspect of the business from the ground up.

Five years is how long it took Tom Nicolson to lay the ground work and build the team that today is The Oxford Artisan Distillery (TOAD), the first legal distillery ever in Oxford. Nicolson, the founder and CEO of TOAD gave us a tour just days after the distillery released its first bottles of Oxford Dry Gin and Oxford Rye Vodka. TOAD is also in the process of crafting an absinthe made with more than twenty organic botanicals and a rye whiskey that has been laid down but needs to age.

Nicolson, donning a wheat straw pork pie hat, picked us up at our hotel in the center of Oxford to transport us to the distillery just a short drive away. The distillery van was easily recognizable as it pulled in front of our hotel with its TOAD logo and illustration of the distillery's dapper, amphibian mascot, George, wearing a boater hat.

The distillery sits on a site which dates back to the 18th century when it was owned by a local family and the property was known as Cheney Farm. An original threshing barn still stood on the property now known as the Old Depot in South Park and is under the control of the Oxford Preservation Trust which has leased it to TOAD. 

There were a couple of carpenters working on projects around the property and the distillery seemed to be in "soft opening" mode with shipment boxes stacked on the floor and marketing materials laying around. Behind a counter, Chief Operating Officer, Tagore Ramoutar, was unpacking boxes of glassware and stocking the tasting bar where we would later sip the new vodka and gin. Nicolson and Ramoutar met at a networking event for start-ups in 2014 and soon after began working together on detailed plans and a strategy for Oxford's first craft distillery. Unpacking boxes seemed a rather mundane task for an experienced entrepreneur and new venture expert who had already notched many business successes on the global stage but Ramoutar had a relaxed smile on his face and looked as though he was having a great time as part of this distillery venture. 

Nicolson too, came from an impressive business background. His career in the music industry and creating successful recording studios in London had fueled his passion for business and creativity but in 2012 he was ready for a new challenge. That's when the wheels for the inception of TOAD were put in motion. He had become interested in craft distilling and started to investigate the possibility of opening his own distillery. Nicolson had come from a family with a history of working in the wine and whiskey business in Scotland for generations, a tradition that ended when his father left the industry to pursue life as a vicar. Nicolson joked that his father gave up one kind of spirit for another. After talking to people in the industry and doing his own due diligence, Nicolson decided to fully commit himself to opening Oxford's first craft distillery. 

We made our way to the distilling building where two impressive and gleaming copper stills with towering distillation columns were housed. These were not run-of-the-mill stills, they were custom designed and hand made. As Nicolson proudly patted the larger of the two he told us these stills had been designed and built by a man named Paul Pridham, one of England's last great steam engine boiler makers of the South Devon Railway. Nicolson had reached out to Pridham who worked for two years to create these custom, hand-riveted stills. The large 2200-litre still is named Nautilus and the smaller, 500-litre still is named Nemo - a clever nod to the author Jules Verne and his novel, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

As Nicolson explained the distilling process he told us about the farmer who provides the grains TOAD uses in making its spirits - grains which distinguish TOAD's spirits from those of any other distiller in the world. The story of their origin was quite fascinating.

John Letts, an archaeo-botanist and well known organic farmer from Oxford discovered various ancient grains in the base layer of thatch removed from a medieval house from which he began to develop genetically diverse seed mixes of wheat, rye, oats and barley. Nicolson and Letts first met in 2013 at a farmers' market where the farmer was hoping to attract artisan bakers to buy his flour made from sustainably-grown, ancient and heritage grains. Nicolson was intrigued with Letts' approach to growing grains for this flour but saw another angle. "I think you're missing a trick," he told Letts, suggesting maybe these ancient grains could be used for distilling spirits. The two kept in touch and in 2015 TOAD signed an exclusive contract with Letts to use his populations of ancient heritage grains (in perpetuity) for distilling. All of the heritage grains come from fields within 50 miles of Oxford. TOAD claims to be the only distillery in the world to use populations of these types of grains in is distilling. 

Next, we took a peek inside the 18th century threshing barn where the rye whiskey would eventually be laid down to age after the distilling process. This is the only building from the original farm that is still on the site. Instead of seeing it as a preservation nuisance, Nicolson sees it as an enhancement to the story of TOAD and its historical connection to community of Oxford. 

We made our way to the lab where the work of Cory Mason takes place. It was a modest-sized room filled with beakers, scales, bottles, grain bags and other ingredients. Mason was not on site that day but he, like the other members of TOAD, comes from an impressive background. Nicolson and Mason met back in 2013 when opening a distillery was still just an idea but the two "clicked" and seemed to share the same vision. Mason, an award-winning Master Distiller who made a name for himself in New York City with management roles in bars and restaurants including "Employees Only," (once voted one of the best cocktail bars in the world). He honed his distilling skills at the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and his long list of accomplishments include developing more than 15 commercially released spirits. Today he is the Master Distiller of TOAD. 

There is room to grow on the property and Nicolson has plans to add a bar, restaurant and visitor center. He's been busy getting the word out about TOAD and in addition to the regularly scheduled distillery tours, Nicolson has been inviting the local community to a few "Open Days" at the distillery where folks can get a behind-the-scenes look at the operation. Nicolson invites local food purveyors, beer breweries and car clubs to help with the festivities all the while educating his local guests about TOAD. He wants very much for TOAD to be part of the community and he wants the community to be part of TOAD. To prove it, the distillery will open up its shares to the public in an attempt to raise £1million in a crowdfunding campaign some time this fall. We just might buy in too!

We finally made our way back to the tasting room where Ramoutar was waiting to treat us to tastings of the newly bottled Oxford Dry Gin and Oxford Rye Vodka. Both were so smooth and very easy to sip straight up. We could taste a very slight toffee flavor in the vodka which Ramoutar explained was from the ancient grains. We tasted the gin mixed with some tonic, lemon and lime and it really was the best gin and tonic I've ever had. We bought two bottles of gin to take with us to the Cotswolds where we planned to hike for the next few days.  

 

The name of the distillery provided a basis for the apt acronym, TOAD, a happenstance not lost on Nicolson. One of his favorite books as a child was The Wind in the Willows, the story of friendship and adventures of a band of anthropomorphized animals in the English wood including the frolicsome standout character, Toad, who may or may not have been a source of inspiration for the distillery mascot, George. Similar to the characters in the children's book, Nicolson and his colleagues seem to be enjoying their own adventures and camaraderie as they build their distillery business in the English countryside. Cheers to them!

 

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For information about The Oxford Artisan Distillery and tours click here

For information about our four-star accommodations at The Buttery Hotel click here

A Walk in the Cotswolds

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The Cotswolds is a vast area which covers nearly 800-square miles spanning six counties and has a  seemingly endless number of trails to choose from - some circular, some linear, but all offering beautiful pastoral scenery and sweeping views of the English countryside.

Perhaps the most famous trail is the 102-mile Cotswold Way which stretches from Bath to Chipping Campden and can take 7-10 days to complete, but there are many other shorter routes already mapped and waymarked that traverse many of the same quaint towns and villages that you can complete in 2-5 days. Determining which route to take really depends on what you want to see, how far you're willing to walk, what type of accommodations you prefer and your budget. 

The Cotswold Round

Our group of eight decided on the Cotswold Round - a five-night, 4-day circular route - designed to take in some of the most picturesque villages and towns in the Cotswold countryside with a few steep climbs to breathtaking panoramic views. Our walk started and ended in Moreton-in-Marsh, once an important staging area for horse-drawn carriages making their way to London and many of the inns, pubs and homes in this town today were once coaching inns. We walked an average of 12.8 miles each day which didn't leave much time for sightseeing. We started our walks at 9 a.m. everyday and usually finished between 3:30-5:00pm. By the time we showered and had a drink it was usually time for dinner and shops were closed. If you want to have more free time in the towns then consider walking fewer miles each day. We ran into several people who were only walking 6-7 miles per day. There are many tour operators that offer walks of various distances along many routes and will transfer your luggage to the next town as ours did.

Waymarkers

Along the way we visited more than a dozen villages and towns and connected onto other trails for brief stretches which included the Monarch's Way, Windrush Way, Wardens Way and sections of the Cotswolds Way. Our first day on the trail proved to be a challenge with seemingly convoluted directions and elusive waymarkings which slowed us down. However, by the second day we found the directions much easier to follow or our navigation skills had improved - not sure which. We had two people reading directions while the rest of us looked for landmarks, waymarkers, fingerposts, gates, hedges, fences, stiles or other vital signs that would keep us on track. 

Trails

The scenery on our walk was ever-changing as were the paths we walked on. We climbed grassy hills, followed cuts through farm fields, walked down country lanes, shared bridle paths with horses and riders, hiked a single-track path through a wood and occasionally plodded through mud or wet, sticky clay that required a good boot scrubbing at the end of the day. There were also trails fringed with stinging nettle that got our attention but caused no real harm. We noticed a few restaurants and pubs provided plastic bags to ramblers wearing muddy boots and some clientele just left their boots outside and enjoyed a pint while in their stockings. One path even skirted a golf course where we came upon a friendly foursome who didn't mind us watching them tee off.

Pub life

Stopping at a pub for lunch was a highlight each day and we always tried to find something at the halfway point of our walk but sometimes it was a bit of a challenge getting the timing just right. I recommend keeping some snacks like nuts, cheese and fruit in your day pack in case you need something to nibble on before you find a place to stop. The food was always good and we drank our fair share of beers along the way. A few pubs where we stopped displayed a "CAMRA" decal which recognized the pub as one listed in the CAMRA Best Beer Guide. CAMRA, which stands for Campaign for Real Ale, has been around since 1971 and in addition to publishing a beer guide, its mission is to promote quality ales and bolster support for local pubs in hopes they can thrive amidst ever-growing competition and higher taxes. CAMRA believes local pubs play a critical role in English culture as the hub of community life but in some areas, as wealthy residents move in, pubs are left behind as new fine dining establishments crop up. Real estate has been on a roll in the Cotswolds and demand in the area of Gloucestershire has driven up home prices more than 15% over last year. The Cotswolds have become a favored destination of the well-heeled and in the posh area of Chipping Norton, David and Victoria Beckham (See what I just did there?) just plunked down £6million ($8.079million) for a home they plan to remodel. A local couple in one town did try to direct us to a different pub, saying it would be three times cheaper than where we were headed.

I didn't take many pub or restaurant pics partly because I don't like taking photos during meals and also there was really no extra time during our breaks. I also didn't take pictures of the inns or B&Bs where we stayed but all were nice and had great hosts. The larger inns with restaurants worked out the best for us because at the end of the day after walking 12-14 miles we really didn't feel like walking another couple of miles back into town for dinner. Everywhere we stayed included full English breakfast. 

Historic Sites

There were lots of buildings and structures of historical note throughout the Cotswolds including Civil War ruins, towers, dovecotes, castles, memorial markers, abbeys and wool churches. Much of the affluence in the Cotswolds centuries ago is attributed to the wealthy farmers and merchants who benefited from the wool trade and built large estates and donated generously to the churches, many still standing. 

Towns and Villages

Our trails led us through some private land at times and provided up-close views at the daily work taking place on a farm or a glimpse into a perfectly-manicured English garden of a stately manor. The honey-colored stone cottages and thatched-roof houses reminded me of fairytale illustrations from books I'd read as a child. One of my favorite memories from this trip was when a farmer released his cows into the field where we were walking and we watched as his working dogs herded them to another field. While the farmer strolled along and talked with us, his two dogs worked together to move the cows the length of the long field and into an open gate waiting at the other end. 

Some Final Thoughts

Even though we spent all day, every day walking during this vacation Larry and I still felt like it was one of the most relaxing trips we've ever taken. Walking the trail was quiet and scenic and we felt a sense of satisfaction in reaching our goal at the end of each day. We had moments of walking alone and times when we all were bunched together - talking and laughing, and there may have been a few expletives expressed while going up a steep ascent but we all had a great time. A few of us were a little sad when the trek was over and might go back to walk the entire 102-mile Cotswold Way in the near future. Thank you to Megan, Randi, Sally, Vikki, Bill and George for joining us on this adventure.

The Itinerary

Day 1:    Moreton-in-Marsh

Day 2:    Moreton-in-Marsh to Bourton-on-the-Water (12 miles) 

Day 3:    Bourton-on-the-Water to Winchcombe (13 miles) 

Day 4:    Winchcombe to Broadway (12 miles) 

Day 5:    Broadway to Moreton-in-Marsh (14 miles)

Day 6:    Depart from Moreton-in-Marsh after breakfast.

Other towns and villages along the route included Broadwell, Stow-on-the-Wold, Longborough, Donnington, Upper Slaughter, Lower Slaughter, Naunton, Guiting Power, Broadway, Wood Stanway, Stanway, Stanton, Chipping Campden, Blockley, 

Some Tips

Dress in layers and bring rain gear 

A light day pack is essential and a walking stick or hiking poles is recommended

Wear sturdy trail shoes or hiking boots and make sure you have trained comparable distances wearing them before your trip.

Train. We walked at least 4-6 miles four or five times a week for at least a month prior to our trip. We also fit in a few longer walks of 7-8 miles. 

Pack light. Most tour operators allow only one piece of luggage to be transported to your next accommodation each day.  

If you're interested in taking a walk in the Cotswolds and would like help planning your trip, we'd love to assist you. Working with a travel agent will never increase the cost of a trip but it will usually enhance it.

Lift Your Spirits with a Trip to Alameda Island

Faction Brewery's 4,000 square-foot deck is kid and dog friendly.

Faction Brewery's 4,000 square-foot deck is kid and dog friendly.

Situated along an abandoned airstrip across the bay from San Francisco, a handful of craft distillers, brewers and wine makers have set their sights on reviving small-batch libations while offering tastings and tours out of WWII-era hangars on the site of Naval Air Station, Alameda which was closed in the 1990s. On a stretch of Monarch Street, dubbed "Spirits Alley," St. George Spirits, Hangar 1 Vodka, Faction Brewery, Building 43 Winery and Rock Wall Wine Company have created a convivial block where wine, beer and spirits enthusiasts can meet up to raise a glass and take in the sweeping view of the San Francisco skyline.

Coincidently, it was a sweeping ocean view in San Diego that had led us to this very spot. After tasting a cocktail made with Hangar 1 Vodka at a restaurant overlooking La Jolla Shores we were intrigued to find out more about the brand and learned about the tasting and tour facility in Alameda. We were already planning to be in the Bay Area for a family gathering and so we booked a tour to visit Hangar 1 for a tasting. We took a scenic 20-minute ferry ride from the Ferry Building in downtown San Francisco to Alameda and then made the 15- to 20-minute walk from the ferry landing to Monarch Street. It was then we realized there was a whole craft collaboration happening along Spirits Alley.

In 1982, St. George Spirits was the first small American distillery to open after Prohibition and it was first to occupy space on Monarch Street when it moved its operations in 2002 to the 65,000-square-foot hangar that is now its current location. Its artisanal spirits include gins, vodkas, absinthe, whiskeys, rum, brandies and liqueurs. Unfortunately, its tasting room was closed on the day we were there so we didn't get to have a look inside. We did have time to kill before our tour at Hangar 1 so we redirected our attention across the parking lot to the lively crowd drinking beer at Faction Brewing and made our way over to see what was on tap - we found 27 beers ranging from pale ales and IPAs to porters and stouts. 

The taproom of Faction Brewery.

The taproom of Faction Brewery.

Open since 2013, Faction Brewing began with just a 6-tap kegerator and a few seats but now boasts a 20-tap direct draw system, a 30-ft. redwood bar and plenty of seating inside and out. A variety of food trucks make appearances to supplement the modest menu of ready-made snacks available for order at the bar. Faction offers pints, tulips and tasters on site as well as 32 oz. and 64 oz. growlers and bottles to go. We found two seats at the end of a community table on Faction's 4,000 square-foot deck to enjoy our beer and made fast friends with others at the table. The brewery is owned by a husband-and-wife team and the place has a family-friendly vibe. Just beyond the deck, kids played games while adults imbibed and there were even a few baby strollers parked tableside. The majority of the crowd looked to be locals meeting up with friends, celebrating family birthdays or taking a day take trip out of the city to catch some sunshine in the East Bay.

The Faction Pilsner and Brixton Pale Ale we tried were very good but when we went inside to get another the line for the bar had grown long and now looked like a queue for an airline flight. So, we went across the street to take a look inside Building 43 Winery with its large metal door welcomingly open. The space was a former locker for military explosives but today it's a tasting room for handcrafted, small-batch wines primarily from the Sierra Foothills. We each ordered a glass of wine and took a seat at one of the high-top bar tables in the lounge area. In keeping with the history of the building, the winery interior is rustic yet refined with art and objects reminiscent of its military roots. You can order wine by the bottle, glass or tasting flight and enjoy it at the bar or in the various lounging areas - inside and outside. The winery was more suited toward couples with its intimate setting but there was also a party going on in a private room. We finished our wine and headed back across the street to Hangar 1 for our tasting tour.

We entered the hangar and checked in for the tour in the tasting room. The previous tour was just wrapping up so we browsed the bottle shop just off the bar. The bottle shop is a necessary adjunct for Hangar 1 to sell its vodka on premise. Due to post-Prohibition laws still in effect, sales of the liquor can only take place through a third-party distributor which they were smart to share hangar space with. We met up with Jacob, our witty and engaging guide and entered the lab to begin the tour. Jacob told us about the master distiller at Hangar 1 Vodka - a women named Caley Shoemaker who began her career in crafting spirits with a whiskey brand in Colorado before bringing her deft hand to Hangar 1 Vodka. She is a professed "spirits nerd" who loves to experiment with the fresh ingredients she sources from local farmers in the Bay Area. Jacob was a bit of a chemistry enthusiast which came through during his explanation of how the distilling process works while the alcohol rises through 18 chambers of two very large, gleaming, copper distilling columns. 

We moved on to my favorite part of the tour which was the "see, smell and taste" curio chest. The botanicals on the cabinet included fruit in jars, stems with fresh leaves, dried chipoltes, pink pepperberries, grains and even a jar of honey - all ingredients used in making Hangar 1 vodkas. . Jacob explained the process of Shoemaker's selection of fruit as he passed around a jar containing Budda's Hand used in making the Hangar 1 Citron vodka. The distiller chose Budda's Hand because it is not as acidic as regular lemons. The Makrut Lime vodka is infused with the leaves of the plant rather than the actual fruit because the leaves offer the most flavor and aroma. The story behind the flavor profile of every vodka was very interesting, especially the Distiller's Exclusives which are only available through the bottle shop at the distillery. Those included Pink Peppercorn, Chipolte and Honeycomb. Hangar 1 even has a vodka made from fog. Its Fog Point Vodka has a very limited run and won't be available again until the fall. It retails for a hefty $129 per bottle but 100% of the profits go back to water conservation efforts. If you don't want to buy the whole bottle you can order a Fog Point Martini for $43 at Epic Steak restaurant in San Francisco made with Hangar 1 Fog Point Vodka.

There is still a lot of available space for expansion and only the vodka bottled in Hangar 1's   signature graduated cylinder-style bottles are filled at the hangar. The bottling area was modest in size and was not in operation during our tour. With the knowledge we had gained we headed to the tasting room for the real reason we were all there - to drink some vodka.

We tasted six different vodkas including the Straight, Citron, Mandarin Blossom, Pink Peppercorn, Chipolte and Honeycomb. As Jacob poured our tastings he also offered ideas for drink recipes we could make with each of the infused vodkas. The tasting room is set up for walk-ins to have tastings at the four-sided, stylish industrial bar too but there are no cocktails available. And don't expect more than six small pours because there are strict laws governing how much alcohol can be served in distillery tasting rooms. However, Bonnie who manages the bottle shop said there are plans in the very near future to have a portable bar outside that would serve cocktails under the separate third-party license. 

At the conclusion of the tour we took a look around the tasting room which was fitted out with a vintage flight yoke, bomber jacket and a retail area with t-shirts, hats and accessories and also left our information so we'd know when the next batch of Fog Point Vodka was available. We ran out of time to visit Rock Wall Wine Company so we'll have to do that on our next visit.

And although Spirits Alley might seem like a great place for a nightcap the area does have a 7p.m. curfew due to a little, politically-connected neighbor named the California Least Tern. In the 1970's the birds decided the former airstrip on Alameda Island was an ideal location to hang out and it has become a very successful breeding site for the species. So much so, the government set aside 624 acres for the birds in 2014. This means the surrounding buildings cannot undergo any refurbishing that would disrupt the birds. So the structures and facades along Monarch Street will maintain their "authenticity" and you won't find electricity bringing light or music to this stretch of road.

Hangar 1 Vodka - 2505 Monarch Street, Alameda, CA 94501 - Ph. 510.871.4951

St. George Spirits - 2601 Monarch Street, Alameda, CA 94501 - Ph. 510.769.1601

Building 43 Winery - 2440 Monarch Street, Alameda, CA 94501 - Ph. 510.263.0399

Rock Wall Wine Company - 2301 Monarch Street, Alameda, CA 94501 - Ph. 510.522.5700