Spirits of the Okanagan: Distilleries take off in Canada's orchard country

Michele Montgomery makes a lavender lemonade at Legend Distilling's tasting room overlooking Okanagan Lake

At Legend Distilling's tasting room overlooking Okanagan Lake, bartender Michele Montgomery fills a mason jar with lavender lemonade, a warm-weather refresher made with gin infused with locally-grown lavender, elderberries, mint and apples.

There's "Slowpoke" vodka made with cherries from the orchard down the road, and "Blasted Brew," a cold-brewed spiked coffee liqueur crafted with a roast from neighboring Backyard Beans.

Visitors driving through British Columbia's Thompson Okanagan - a dry, desert region, surrounded by mountains and lakes - mostly notice vineyards spilling down terraced hillsides. The area is best known for its more than 170 wineries, producing grapes that thrive in the sunny climate.

But before the vineyards came orchards, and it's still tree fruit- cherries, apples, pears, peaches, apricots - that drives the local agricultural economy. 

Enter a wave of small-town, farm-to-flask craft distilleries specializing, by law, in spirits fermented and distilled on site, using only 100 percent British Columbian-grown grains and fruit, much of which might otherwise go to waste.

 "When it drops to the ground, it stays there," says German-born Jorg Engel, owner of Maple Leaf Spirits, a Penticton distillery with a tasting room overlooking Okanagan Lake on the Naramata Wine Route. A cabinet maker from Southern Germany, he formed the distillery in 2005, after noticing how much fruit wasn't being used because it either fell to the ground before it was picked, or was too bruised, misshapen or overripe for the export market.

Maple Leaf liqueurs
 "In my part of the world, when apples drop to the ground, they end up being distilled or sent to a juice factory. To see them wasted, well, it just hurt."

The distilleries, many with tasting rooms doubling as cozy cocktail lounges, offer an alternative to wine-tasting, but finding them can fell like going on a scavenger hunt. Some are off-the-beaten-path, a throwback to when laws restricted their locations and direct sales.
During four days in the area, my husband and I put together a self-guided tour that took us to the towns of Vernon, a lake area in the North Okanagan; Kelowna, the region's tourist hub, known internationally for its fruit and produce; and Penticton and Naramata in the South, home to many of the wineries.

"People are still a bit uneasy about drinking straight vodka or gin (the reason most of tasting rooms offer cocktails), so we're not getting the huge parking lots filled with tour buses," says Graham Martens, owner of Old Order Distilling Co in downtown Penticton.

Most distilleries offer short tours as well as tastings either free or for a small charge, waived with a purchase. Best advice: Take it slow, and plan your visits around another activity such as a bike ride, lake walk, or visit to a farm or cider. 

Here's a sampling of what you'll find:

Urban Distilleries, Kelowna

Where: Tucked inside a red and black building in an industrial park near downtown Kelowna. Look for the red neon "Open'' sign on the tasting room door in Unit 5.
Why visit: Inspired by a visit to a Cognac distillery in France, owner Mike Urban obtained his craft distillers license in 2009, when liquor laws required distilleries to locate in industrial zones.   Moving now would be too expensive, but he's created a welcoming lounge inside a tasting room stacked with colorful bottles from his "Spirit Bear'' line and oak barrels filled with aging "Burban" whiskey.

Mike Urban of Urban Distilleries in Kelowna

What to try or buy: Spirit Bear gin, made with grains, flowers, roots, fruits, and seeds from local farms, and infused with lavender and apples; Vodka blended with espresso supplied by Kelowna's Cherry Hill Coffee;  Kirsch brandy made from Okanagan Cherries, and fermented with the pits for a slight bitter-almond taste. Urban gets most of his cherries free from an orchard that culls out all but the most perfect fruit for export to China.  

Next up: A whiskey liqueur and honey mead wine. Urban is also experimenting with a chili vodka.
Urban Distilleries, 325 Bay Ave., Kelowna.  Proceeds from tastings go to the Save a Spirit Bear Foundation helping to preserve a rare sub-species of bear living in British Columbia.

Suggested side trip: Take a bike ride along the Myra Canyon Trail that follows a section of the former Kettle Valley Railway (KVR). The ride takes bikers over 18 trestles and through two tunnels, with high-up views of  the 84-mile-long Okanagan Lake. Bike rentals at www.myracanyonrental.com

Okanagan Spirits, Kelowna and Vernon 

Where: Relax with a cocktail on the barrel room patio at the downtown Kelowna tasting room, or visit the new Vernon distillery that transports visitors back to prohibition times with a 1932 Plymouth parked in front of gleaming, 2,000-liter copper pot still.

Okanagan Spirits' Prohibition-era tasting room 

Why visit: Owner Tony Dyck or another family member are often around to explain the distilling process to visitors. Dyck joined a group of investors working with Frank Deiter, a German distiller from Vernon, generally credited with pioneering small-batch distilling in Western Canada in the early 2000s. Dyck, his son, Tyler, and other family members bought Okanagan Spirits in 2010, and grew the company to include a line of 25 products including gins, vodkas, whiskies, fruit brandies, liqueurs and absinthe.

Okanagan Spirit's Kelowna tasting room 

What to try/buy: Unique is its Haskap liqueur made from the kidney-shaped haskap berry, a cross between a raspberry, blueberry and blackcurrant, with high levels of Vitamin A and C, grown for Okanagan Spirits by two local farms. When a local woman walked in one day with a bucket of orange sea buckthorn berries, often used in skin and hair care products, Okanagan's distiller went to work and came up with an anti-oxident-packed Sea Buckthorn liqueur that pairs well with cheese or spicy ginger beer. 

Next up: The October release (around 2,000 bottles) of its Laird of Fintry single-malt whiskey, made from B.C. malted barley, and sold for $75 a bottle through an annual lottery.
Okanagan Spirits, 367 24th St., Vernon and 267 Bernard Ave., Vernon. 

Suggested side trip: Downtown Vernon has one of the largest collections of outdoor art in Canada. Vernon Murals, features 27 murals as large as five stories high and a block long that depict the city's history, culture and folklore. 

Old Order Distilling Co., Penticton

Where: Graham Martens' copper still sits behind a pane of explosion-proof glass behind his tasting room in downtown Penticton. Old photos of fruit-pickers line the walls. Ceiling fans spin above wooden tables and church pews, a reminder of his  Southern Russian ancestors, the Old Order Mennonites, known for traditional ways of living, including making their own beer and spirits.

A tasting at Old Order Distilling in Penticton
Why visit: Looking for for ways to diversify his family's cherry and apple orchards business, Martens, a fisheries biologist, and his wife, Naomi Gabriel, opened their distillery last year. The cozy  lounge makes for a refreshing stop on a hot day for cocktails such as the Okanagan Collins, made with Old Order's Heritage Vodka, Martens' homemade peach liqueur, lime juice and club soda.

What to try/buy: Martens is concentrating these days on making triple-distilled vodka and a lavender-free Dutch-style gin, infused with dried apples from the family farm. His newest product is Black Goat Vodka, a spirit with the same taste as regular vodka but black in color due to an infusion of plant-sourced minerals. When in stock (It was recently sold out), Martens suggests using it to mix a black Martini or "dark" Moscow Mule.

Next up: Genesis Whiskey, ready in 2018, following the rule that Canadian whiskey has to be aged at least three years and one day.
Old Order Distilling Co., 270 Martin St, Penticton 

Suggested side trip: Explore the galleries and cafes along Front Street, or explore Main Street, lined with historic buildings, shops and restaurants. Or take a drive south to Shaka Lake and the towns of Oliver and Osoyoos.

Maple Leaf Spirits, Penticton

Where: Perched on hill above Okanagan Lake and the terraced vineyards of the Naramata Wine Route.

Why visit: While parents do a tasting, kids can entertain themselves with the mini-zoo Jorg and Anette Engel maintain on their property. Greeting visitors are Senegal parrots, a Polish rooster, pheasants and chickens.   

Jörg Engel and his Polish rooster

What to try/buy: Engel uses apricots from a neighbor's orchard, locally-grown pears and Italian plums, and grapes from his own vineyards to produce a line of clear fruit brandies and liqueurs. Unique are his grape spirits  - a Gewürztraminer  and Syrah - similar to Italian Grappa, made from the skins and pits of grapes. His signature product is a Maple liqueur made from Kirsch and organic Canadian maple syrup, recommended in "Canadian" coffee or poured over creme brûlée.

Next up: Cognac, raspberry liqueur and a port wine. 
Maple Leaf Spirits, 948 Naramata Road, Penticton. 

Legend Distilling, Naramata 

Where:  Eight miles north of Maple Leaf Spirits, on the Naramatra Wine Route. Similar spectacular mountain,lake and vineyard views. 

Why visit: Legend is the only distillery to have a restaurant on site. Pull up a stool at the bar in the Legend Lounge for a tasting, or relax at one of the outdoor picnic tables over a Dirty Bee, made with Defender Island Smoked Rosemary gin, honey and lemon, served in a mason jar. When Doug and Dawn Lennie went shopping for a copper still, they found there was a two-year wait for German-made equipment, so they ordered a still made by a Canadian manufacturer. It sits in the glassed-in front of the former doctor's office they transformed into a distillery and tasting room

Mason jar cocktails at Legend Distilling

What to try/buy: Blasted Brew Spiked Coffee with hints of dark chocolate and vanilla; the Slowpoke strawberry-rhubarb, sour cherry and "farmberry'' vodkas; and the Doctor's Orders gin, if not for the gin, then for the inscription on the heavy, black bottle. "British Columbians did prohibition better than anyone else," says a story on the back. "No, you couldn’t buy alcohol, but if you were feeling under the weather your physician could prescribe you a cocktail."

Next up:  A new European-style liqueur and a whiskey to be released "whenever it tastes good,'' says Doug Lennie. 
Legend Distilling, 3005 Naramata Road, Naramata.  

Suggested side trip: If returning to or heading towards Kelowna, stop at Summerland Sweets, specializing in jams, syrups and wines made with Okanagan fruit. Locals recommend the ice cream. 

If you go:

Getting there: The Thompson Okanagan (Okanagan Valley) region is in southern British Columbia. The name comes from two major geographic features, the Thompson River and Okanagan Lake. 

Kelowna is about 300 miles from Seattle via Interstate 5 north, the Trans-Canada Highway and BC-97C. An alternate route (350 miles) is through Eastern Washington via I-5 North to WA-20 E, US-97 N. and the Okanagan Hwy/BC-97 N. Count on a 5-7 hour drive. 

Where to stay: Hello BC lists hotels, resorts, bed and breakfasts and other accommodations. We rented a two-bedroom suite with a kitchen in a private home in Kelowna through Airbnb for $104 (US) per night. 

Where to eat: The Smugglers Smoke House at Legend Distilling serves snacks, lunch and dinner. Many wineries have restaurants attached to their tasting rooms, some with outdoor patios and lake views. Locals recommend the Pecking Room Patio Grill at the Red Rooster Winery and the Kitchen at the Misconduct Wine Co.

Customs: Bringing alcohol into the U.S. Travelers can bring back one liter of alcohol per person duty-free, more if you declare it and pay the duty. Prices at craft distilleries range from $25- $50 or more (Canadian), plus taxes, depending on the spirit and size of the bottle. 

$99 Road Trip: Bacon whiskey and apple fritters along Washington state capital's back roads

Seed expert Maurrie Aukland at the Olympia Farmers Market

Free bikes, free parking, free samples. We found them all, along with $2 root beer floats and sips of bacon whiskey, on a self-guided tour along the backroads of our state capital.
Our roadmap: The Thurston Bountiful Byway, a 60-mile agritourism route pointing visitors to craft distillers, winemakers, farmers and family-owned businesses showcasing a literal bounty of locally-sourced and produced culinary treats.

More than 60,000 acres of farmland form the backdrop for a day of exploring, with opportunities to soak up bite-sized chunks of state history, and work off the calories on hiking trails or paved bike paths. 

Stretching from Mud Bay in Tumwater, just west of Olympia; skirting the Capitol State Forest; running east towards Yelm; and north to Lacey and the Nisqually Valley, the byway was created by the county several years ago to promote economic development. Thanks to the Olympia-Lacey-Tumwater Visitor and Convention Bureau which took over marketing last year, a new website and map make it easier for visitors to customize an outing based on their time and interests. 

The map includes listings for 21 businesses that paid a $200 membership fee for marketing, but there are many others worth a stop. Reporting recently for The Seattle Times, My husband, Tom, and I used the map as a guide, detouring off the prescribed route several times to take a short cut or make our own discoveries. 

Our day's budget: $99, including gas,food, souvenirs, parking and entry fees for two.

Breakfast with mission

We headed south on Interstate-5 at 7:30 a.m. on a sunny Saturday for the 67-mile drive to Olympia from our home in Magnolia. Our goal was to make it to the New Moon Cooperative Cafe,  113 4th Ave W. , before the weekend breakfast rush. Taking exit 105 towards City Center/Port of Olympia, we caught a glimpse of the Capitol dome before scoring our first bargain of the day. Just as Tom was about to plug the parking meter, a motorist rolled down her window, and shouted,"Hey sir. You don't have to pay on the weekend!''  

The worker-owned and managed New Moon includes in its mission statement the goal of "growing strong relationships with local farmers, producers and distributors." This meshed well with our mission.

Knowing we had lots of snacking, sampling and sipping ahead,  we split a veggie scramble with a biscuit and rosemary-garlic homefries ($9.85 plus $1 extra for the biscuit) along with coffee ($2.65) and a Chai tea ($3.50). With just 10 tables, the New Moon fills up fast. There was a line outside by the time we finished about 10 a.m. ($17.00 + $1.50 tax = $18.50).

Four blocks from the New Moon is the Olympia Farmers Market, 700 Capitol Way N.  open Thursday-Sunday 10 a.m.- 3p.m. 

Into my bag (and later into the cooler we brought along in the car) went a pound of Calliope CQ Farms yellow and green wax beans for a pickling project ($5, no tax). Into our mouths went a lemon macaroon ($2, no tax) and miniature  canelé ($2, no tax), a small pastry with a soft custard center sold by a stand called the Left Bank. 

Miniature canele from the Left Bank 

If all goes well, we'll be harvesting beats and radishes grown from seeds we bought from Maurrie Aukland, an English teacher from Elma, Wa. and a self-described "seed saver who loves to teach people how to garden." She cultivates dozens of varieties of veggie, bean and flower seeds, packaged in decorative paper envelopes for $2.50 each. We bought two for $5, tax covered in the price. 

Back to Nature

The byway map suggests several possibilities for short hikes, including two in the 100,000-acre Capitol State Forest. Leaving the market, we drove 7.7 miles to the McLane Creek Nature Trail off two-lane Delphi Road. The hike was an easy 1.5 loop on crushed gravel and wooden boardwalks around a lake dotted with cattails and pond lilies. Also worth a stop is nearby Mimi Mounds Natural Area Preserve , with trails and an interpretive center explaining various theories on how mound-shaped land formations in the area evolved. You'll need a state Discover Pass to visit both. If you don't have a $30 annual pass, buy a $10 day pass online or through a local vendor.

Mama Mounds Natural Area Preserve

Running total for the day so far: $42.50 including $10 Discover Pass

Bacon whiskey

Driving 10 miles along paved Highway 121, we arrived just as Jenni Bourdon CQ was opening the tasting room at Sandstone Distillery, 842 Wright Rd SE. 

John Bourdon of Sandstone Distillery
Named for the sandstone industry that flourished in the early 1900s in nearby Tenino, the distillery uses Washington-grown grains to make its gin, vodka and whiskey.  A tasting and tour for two ($10, no tax) included a look at John Bourdon's copper stills, and a sample of bacon whiskey flavored with help from a neighbor's pigs fed Sandstone's spent grain. At $35 a bottle, including tax, the whiskey was out of our price range. More suited to our budget were small bottles of basil or lime syrup ($3, no tax) to use as cocktail mixers.

Wooden money

Sandstone quarries and logging drove the economy of Tenino in the early 1900s. When concrete replaced sandstone, the town's fortunes waned. The Great Depression put the little town on the map when the chamber of commerce began issuing wooden money printed on thin slices of spruce and cedar as emergency script following a bank failure in 1931.

Town promoters still use an old printing press inside the Tenino Depot Museum to print souvenir copies of the "slicewood'' bills that can be spent like cash at participating local businesses. We bought two at face value for $1 each, and walked over to Aunt Kate's Chocolates, 296 Sussex Ave. W. , to see what we could buy. The chocolates were pricey, but the root beer float was a bargain and big enough to split ($2 worth of wooden script, no tax).

Stone carver Keith Phillips

Stone-carving may be dead as an industry, but locals keep it alive as an art form. A passer-by pointed us to the workshop of Keith Phillips, 147 Olympia Street. A carver for 32 years, Phillips makes decorative pieces and worked on the restoration of the Olympia Capitol dome. 

With several more stops on our list, we didn't have time to try out the free bikes available through the non-profit Tenino Yellow Bike Project, started by a community group in 2001. We'll bring helmets next time, and plan a ride along the paved, 14-mile Yelm-Tenino trail.
Running total: $57.50

Burgers, cider and wine

From Tenino, we drove north along Old Highway 99 to reach two destinations not listed on the byway map.

Carolyn Lattin, 84, and daughters, Debbie Lattin and Sherrie Kohlmann,  invite visitors to picnic and feed the goats, chickens, peacocks, and other animals at Lattin's Country Cider Mill and Farm, 9402 Rich Road.

The family has been pressing apples for cider every week for 40 years, churning out 6,000 gallons a week during the busiest four months, starting in September. If the sign out front says "Hot Apple Fritters Today," you're in luck. They often sell out before noon. We bought one to take home ($2, no tax). When I asked about the peacock feathers for sale next to the pie case, the clerk threw one in for an extra $1.  

Our choice for a late lunch was Van's Burger, 7811 Yelm Highway, a drive-up stand in a trailer that advertises itself as "The Place That's Never Open."  

Limited hours (Thursday, Friday, Saturday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. through October), and made-from-scratch shakes and burgers popular with locals, can mean long lines. "We usually have a lag time around 3 p.m.," says owner Erica Van Lierop. We pulled in around that time, and had our shakes (two fresh peach at $3.50 each + .50 tax = $7.50) and Washington beef burgers ($5 and $5.50 + .91 tax = $11.40) in a few minutes. Total for lunch: $18.90. 

Back on the byway route, with the option of visiting three wineries, another distillery and a brewery before heading home, we ended with a quick stop at Medicine Creek Winery, 947 Old Pacific Highway SE ,  owned by former pumpkin farmers, Jim and Liz Myers. Jim transformed an old barn into a New Orleans-style tasting room resembling an old-fashioned saloon. We arrived at 4 p.m., an hour before closing, plenty of time to do a shared tasting ($5, no tax), and relax a while in the garden furnished with comfy wicker chairs.

Running total: $84.40

Calculating our mileage at 176 miles round-trip from in Seattle, divided by 32 mpg (based on a Subaru Forester, one of Seattle’s best-selling cars), and gas at $2.70 per gallon, the metro area's average price on the day we traveled, our fuel cost was $14.85.

Grand total for the day’s outing for two = $99.25, plus tips where appropriate. 

If you go:


The Olympia area is 60 miles south of Downtown Seattle via I-5. The Bountiful Byway route is accessible from various points in Thurston County, or from I-5 via Nisqually Valley Exit 114 or from US-101 via the Mud Bay Exit. ​

Spending the night: Take in the views of Mount Rainier from the Prairie Hotel in Yelm. Weekend rates start at $109 per night

Alaska Airlines sets Seattle/LA/Havana, Cuba flight schedule


It's official. Seattle-based Alaska Airlines has been awarded the right to operate commercial service between Los Angeles and Havana, Cuba. The United States Department of Transportation (DOT) officially approved Alaska’s application to begin service to the Cuban capital, which still must be approved by the Cuban government before tickets can go on sale.

“We applaud Secretary Anthony Foxx and the team at DOT for their thoughtful and impartial approach toward opening U.S. commercial service to Cuba,” said John Kirby, Alaska’s vice president of capacity planning. “As the only carrier to be awarded daily nonstop service from the West Coast to Havana, we’re excited to be one of the first airlines to serve Cuba on a scheduled basis in more than 50 years.”

Once Alaska receives official approval from the Cuban government, the airline will determine when to begin service.

The Alaska Airlines flight will originate in Seattle with same plane service to Los Angeles and then Havana. No word yet on pricing. Another question: Will the flights qualify under the airline's rules for free companion fare flights earned when signing up for its credit card.?

Here's a  tentative schedule of the new daily service:

Seattle-Los Angeles
Departs 5 a.m.
Arrives: 7:40 a.m.

Los Angeles-Havana
Departs: 8:50 a.m.
Arrives: 4:55 p.m.

Havana-Los Angeles
Departs: 5:55 p.m.
Arrives: 9 p.m.

Los Angeles-Seattle
Departs: 10:50 p.m.
Arrives: 1:28 a.m.

Eight American carriers— most with flights departing from the Miami and New York metropolitan areas — earlier received tentative approval from the Transportation Department to operate direct flights to José Martí International Airport in Havana. Alaska is the only airline that plans to operate flights from the West Coast.

Berlin: Prenzlauer Berg's Village Vibe

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev
 and Erich Honecker, head of the former Communist
 German Democratic Republic

Most people don't realize it, but most of Berlin's famous monuments, museums and war memorials are in the former Communist-controlled Eastern part of the German capital. The photo above hangs in the DDR Museuma museum on the Spree River dedicated to depicting life in the German Democratic Republic when the East was controlled by the Soviets until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The East is also where you'll find some of Berlin's most interesting neighborhoods. Prenzlauer Berg is one of my favorites. A working-class neighborhood popular with dissidents, it was largely neglected by the GDR which never got around to replacing its elegant, 19th century buildings with concrete block structures. I first discovered Prenzlauer Berg on a trip to Berlin with a group of journalists in 1999, then rediscovered it again last April for a story in the current issue of Virtuoso Life Magazine.  


A sophisticated village vibe in a neglected part of the former Communist East, now a gentrified neighborhood of tree-lined streets and restored 19th century buildings, most of which survived bombing during World War II. 

"After the wall fell, a lot of people from West Berlin came to Prenzlauer Berg for cheap rent and artistic scene," a local travel guide author told me.  So many young couples sought out the neighborhood that it earned the nickname "Pregnant Hill." Today it houses some of the city's most expensive residential real estate. About 15 percent of residents are foreigners, the majority French. 

I recommend spending a day here. Come for brunch and combine a a walk around the neighborhood with a trip to the Thursday and Saturday organic farmers' market, or a visit to the Berlin Wall Memorial. Find local designers at the Mauerpark Sunday market, and learn about life under the Soviets at the Museum in the Kulturbrauerei, a free museum inside a brewery turned cultural center. Best are the streets fanning out from pretty Kollwitzplatz square. Follow the couples pushing strollers along wide sidewalks to cafes and restaurants, many with outdoor terraces facing traffic-free streets.

The Wasserturm Prenzlauer Berg is Berlin's
 oldest water tower, completed in 1877.
It now houses apartments


Berliners love a leisurely breakfast. Order it anytime on the terrace (blankets provided) at Cafe Anna Blume (Kollwitzstraße 83). Share the three-tier platter piled with fresh fruit, meats, cheeses, smoked salmon and veggies.  Anna Blume was named after a poem by Kurt Schwitters, and doubles as a flower shop.

Patissier Guido Fuhrmann creates edible works of art at  Werkstatt der Süße (Husemannstraße 25). Choose from 20 types of tarts made with seasonal ingredients such as lavender and wild blueberries. 

The refined Gugelhof (Knaackstraße 37) was President Clinton's choice for a traditional meal when he visited Berlin in 2000. Candles and roses decorate rustic wooden tables. Classical Alsatian specialities include asparagus cream soup and fresh trout braised in Riesling wine. The neighborhood has lots of ethnic options - Tibetan, Thai, Indian etc. - as well, along with a few vegan and vegetarian restaurants. 

Afternoon in the PraterGarten


Chestnut trees shade long, yellow tables at PraterGarten, (Kastanienallee 7 – 9), Berlin's oldest beer garden. Tourists mix with families and local workers relaxing with their Prater Pils. 

More intimate is Bryk Bar (Rykestraße 18; 49 -30 381-00-165). Ring the bell and enter a dark and cozy bar with a few tables looking out onto a street lined with pastel buildings and restored facades. Parsley-flecked popcorn accompanies cocktails spiked with fruit vinegars and fresh herbs. 

Bryk Bar 

Candles flicker atop marble tables at cozy Kaffeehaus SowohlAlsAuch  (Kollwitzstraße 88). Warm up with hot chocolate laced with rum or tea infused with whiskey and whipped cream.  Twelve types of espresso are on the menu along. It's not unusual to see reserved signs on the window tables. Locals meet friends here in the morning, or linger over a newspaper and glass of wine in the late evening. 

Kaffeehaus SowohlAlsAuch


Find silver and gold pendants, rings and bracelets hand-crafted by Matthias Frank at his Schmucklabor gallery and workshop (Husemannstraße 4). Sven Peter sells photos of more than 100 city scenes at his DulceMedia stall at the Sunday Mauerpark flea market (Bernauer Str. 6). Shop for limited edition dresses made by an in-house seamstress at Kleid and Schuh (Dress and Shoe), Sredzkistraße 34.


Two of Berlin's best hotels are in the former East. Overlooking the Brandenburg Gate,, the Hotel Adlon Kempinski first opened in 1907 as a luxury hotel. It was rebuilt in 1997 with 382 rooms and suites. Book a yoga lesson, borrow a bike for a ride in nearby Tiergarten park, or sample currywurst and champagne on the terrace facing the U.S. embassy rebuilt at its original location after the fall of the Berlin Wall. For more on what it's like to stay here, see my earlier blogpost

Adlon lobby 

With 195 rooms and suites, the 20-year-old Regent Berlin faces the domes of two historic churches and the Berlin concert hall on Gendarmenmarkt Square. In-room information includes suggestions by hotel doormen, chefs and housekeepers  on how to spend a perfect day in Berlin. Don't miss afternoon tea served fireside in the lounge.

The restored Gendarmenmarkt Square

How Safe is Travel to the U.S.?

New Zealand warns of U.S. travel risks

How safe is it to travel in the United States?

People ask this question about other countries all the time. Now the shoe seems to be on the other foot. 

Tourism promoters jump into action when it appears governments might have reason to warn their citizens to think twice about travel. In some cases, the lobbying works. In others, it doesn't.  The U.S., of course, usually receives kid-glove treatment from other countries. And besides, why would anyone feel unsafe about traveling in the U.S.?

As it turns out, there are plenty of reasons. Fear of police violence, Muslim hate crimes, firearm possession and anti-gay legislation are just a few. Last week, the Transportation Security Administration said it discovered a record breaking 78 firearms in carry-on bags around the nation. Sixty-eight were loaded.

Just as many U.S. citizens ask whether it's "safe'' to travel abroad, many foreigners are now asking the same about travel to the U.S.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's calls for a temporary travel ban on foreign Muslims and people from countries where terrorist groups operate has added to the woes of would-be visitors, USA Today reports.

In an advisory issued last July, the government of the Bahamas warned residents, nearly 91% of whom are black, to be aware of potentially volatile situations if they visit the U.S. 
"In particular young males are asked to exercise extreme caution in affected cities in their interactions with the police," the advisory said. 

Possible hate crimes against Muslims are causing concern in Middle Eastern countries. After a man from the United Arab Emirates who was in Ohio for medical treatment was falsely accused of being a terrorist because he was speaking Arabic on the phone, the U.A.E. cautioned its citizens to avoid traditional dress abroad "to ensure their safety."

Anti-LGBT legislation passed in Mississippi and North Carolina caused the United Kingdom to issue a travel alert warning gay Brits traveling to the United States to exercise caution. 

"The U.S. is an extremely diverse society and attitudes towards LGBT people differ hugely across the country," the British Foreign Office said in a statement issued in April. "LGBT travelers may be affected by legislation passed recently in the states of North Carolina and Mississippi. Before traveling please read our general travel advice for the LGBT community." 

The UK also warns visitors not to sleep in their cars by the roadside or in rest areas. "Try to stay on main roads and use well-lit car parks," it advises, and warns of gas stations near airports ripping people off with high prices, especially those "near the Orlando International Airport."

Australia reminds citizens that  "The United States has more violent crime than Australia, although it rarely involves tourists. Mass shootings continue to occur in public places in the U.S."

New Zealand advises caution when traveling to the U.S. due to the threat of terrorism.

"The United States remains a likely target for terrorist activity by domestic-based extremists and internationally-trained individuals and groups, and we continue to receive reports that terrorist groups are planning attacks against the United States," it says.

"Wherever you are, you should keep yourself informed about the latest alerts and stay aware of your surroundings in areas where large numbers of people congregate, such as shopping malls, markets, monuments, tourist destinations, demonstrations, public events and on any public transport. There is the potential for attacks to be conducted with the intention of targeting the general public."

When it comes to overall crime, New Zealand warns "there is a higher incidence of violent crime and firearm possession than in New Zealand."

Closer to home, even our Canadian neighbors find reasons to be cautious.

"The possession of firearms and the frequency of violent crime are generally more prevalent in the U.S. than in Canada," the government warns. "Within large metropolitan areas, violent crime more commonly occurs in economically disadvantaged neighbourhoods, particularly from dusk to dawn, and often involves alcohol and/or drug consumption."

Canadians living in holiday homes have been the victims of break-ins and burglary, the government says. "If you are staying in either private or commercial accommodations, ensure that windows and doors are securely locked at night and when you are away."

No travel alert for Thailand

The U.S. State Department, meanwhile, continues to add to a long list of countries it urges citizens to avoid. North Korea is the latest. Parts of Mexico, Israel, Turkey, Colombia, El Salvador, and most of the Middle East are the subjects of official travel warnings. Not on the list are France, Belgium or Germany, the sites of recent terrorist attacks. Neither is Thailand, where bombing incidents occurred last week. 

Washington's habit of assigning "risk" to some countries and not others (often important trading partners or friends who rely on tourism to sustain their economy) is one reason why it's a good idea to find out what other governments are telling their citizens.

Example: The Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade last week advised travelers to Thailand to exercise a "high degree of caution," following bombings on August 10 and 11, and to avoid travel to the areas of Narathiwat, Pattani, Songkhla and Yala. The Government of Canada published similar advice on its website. 

The U.S., on the other hand, did not add Thailand to the list of countries it warns citizens to think twice about visiting. Nor did it issue a travel alert "issued for short-term events we think you should know about when planning travel to a country." 

Thumbs up for Thailand

How did the State Department expect a traveler to learn what the U.S. had to to say about safety after the bombings? He or she would have had to type in "Thailand'' in a box called "Learn about your Destination,"  then click on "U.S. Embassy Bangkok." There, in a yellow bar, across the top of a photo of U.S. agricultural officials meeting with seafood importers, was a "security message," urging citizens to avoid affected areas.

Travel schemes designed to dupe

It seems easy enough to make money in the travel business, so why do companies exploit their trusted bands with schemes meant to confuse and mislead their customers?

A few of my pet peeves:

*Dynamic currency conversion: This scheme involves a hotel, rental car company or merchant taking a fee - usually around 3 percent - for converting a credit card charge made in a foreign currency into U.S. dollars. You have the right to refuse this "convenience'' and pay in euros, yen or any other currency IF you are aware this is happening. Visa and MasterCard say they require merchants to offer the option, but many get around this rule by using small print in a contract to dupe you into approving the conversion. Europcar did this with a rental contract my husband and I signed while in Italy. Another way merchants dupe their customers is by requiring them to actively change the "default'' currency from dollars to euros (in effect at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport) when inserting your card into the machine for a purchase. 

You might not even realize you are paying extra because the charge is hidden in the currency conversion rate used to calculate the final bill. 

Europcar's extra currency conversion charge

I didn't notice Europcar's charge until we arrived home, and saw that EuRopcar converted our bill from euros to dollars at a rate of $1.17 instead of the current rate of $1.13, reflecting a 3.25 percent "currency conversion" fee and a charge of$148.51 instead of $144.38. Best advice: Always verbally clarify that charges will be processed in the local currency. 

*Advertisements made to look like real content: Search hotel reviews on TripAdvisor.com, click on "Sort by ranking,'' and what pops up first is not the top-ranked hotel, but rather a hotel that paid to be go to the head of the line. The only indication of this is an orange label that says "Sponsored." Wouldn't "Paid advertisement" be more accurate? 

"Sponsored" ads make it to the top on TripAdvisor

Also annoying is TripAdvisor's habit of defaulting to a list of hotel choices based on your perceived preferences ("Just for You"), forcing you to actively take the extra step of clicking on "Ranking'' to see how they line up in overall popularity.

Airlines search sites have their own methods of steering customers off track. Search for an airfare on Kayak.com, and the result that appears at the top is not the lowest fare, but an airline ad designed to look like a search result complete with a "View Deal'' box to click. The word "Ad'' appears in small, faint, grey letters at the bottom. Forget to uncheck a box marked "Priceline,'' the company that owns Kayak, when you begin your search, and the results will bring you there for booking. 

A paid ad made to look like a fare deal on Kayak. 

*Hidden taxes and fees that hike room prices far beyond the quoted price. Airbnb is a big offender. Its own non-refundable service fee plus cleaning fees charged by some hosts, can boost an initially-quoted price by $100 or more. Example: A three-night stay in studio apartment in Honolulu high-rise, with pool and an ocean view, starts out at $122 a night, but climbs to $156 when you plug in dates, and see a new price reflecting a $52 Airbnb service charge and a $50 cleaning fee. 

Cruise companies and hotels do this all the time, of course. Why was I not surprised to see a $219 per night rate at the LA Hotel Downtown in Los Angeles jump to $253 when I hit "price breakdown" in small print to the left of the booking instructions.  No mention of the $35-per-day parking. 

Shopping for the best air fare deals requires savvy sleuthing

What if you could save several hundred dollars on a round-trip ticket to Paris, London or Rome by driving 150 miles north and flying out of Vancouver International Airport instead of Seattle?

Would it be worth it to take an extra vacation day during the Thanksgiving holidays to save $180 on air fare by returning on Tuesday instead of Sunday?

If CheapTickets.com is so cheap, why is a round-trip flight between Seattle and Honolulu on Hawaiian Airlines in October $10 more than the price quoted on the airline's website.  

Finding the best deal on air fares is more like shopping for a custom-made suit than a one-size-fits all wardrobe. Where and how you search, when you fly, which airports you use and when and how you book can all affect the bottom-line price. 

With the consolidation of online travel agencies (Expedia last year swallowed up Orbitz and Travelocity), and airline websites cluttered with confusing one-way fares and upgrade offers, shopping for the best summer and fall fares will take some savvy sleuthing. Here's my report which appeared recently in The Seattle Times.


As clunky and cluttered as some airline websites are, they are usually where you will find the best fare and flight combinations if you plan on flying exclusively on that airline. Otherwise, it pays to comparison shop on the online booking sites such as Expedia or Priceline and the metasearch sites such as Kayak (owned by Priceline) or Google Flights, which owns ITA Software, the company that powers most of the search sites. 

While online travel agencies such as Expedia and Priceline sell tickets directly, the metasearch sites direct buyers to the airlines for purchase, or in some cases, to online consolidators such as Vayama.com and Airfare.com. These agencies are sometimes able to negotiate discounted fares on international flights, but with more restrictions and higher change fees than the airlines impose.

Rarely will you find an online ticket seller able to offer a discounted a fare for domestic travel. What these sites allow you to do is see a wide range of possible options that would be hard to find on your own, including piecing together two one-way fares on different airlines - "hacker Fares'' - as Kayak calls them. 

"Sometimes there’s just one magic combination of dates that is hundreds less than all the others, " says George Hobica, founder of the airfare alert site Airfarewatchdog.com

If price is your priority, you'll need to filter for that, although to do so, you may have to manually switch from the default search, such as "best match'' used by Delta or "best flight" used by Google which automatically choses an itinerary that takes into account a combination of price, flight time, number of stops, etc.

A warning to Kayak users: Don't be tripped up by clicking on the listing that comes up at the very top of the search page. This is usually an ad designed to look like a search result. Hitting "view deal'' will link you to an airline or booking site which placed the ad, not necessarily the one offering the best deal. 


The price of an airline ticket can vary by the minute, based on computerized tracking of demand by the airlines and search sites, the day of the week you plan to fly (Tuesdays and Wednesdays are often the cheapest), whether or not you're flying non-stop and which airports you fly in and out of. 

Flights to and from some European cities can cost substantially less out of Vancouver, B.C. than Seattle. Speculation as to why ranges from more competition among airlines in Vancouver (There are fewer international flights out of Seattle than Vancouver) to demand or a willingness to simply pay more. I Seattle flights are in particular demand by business travelers for major companies headquartered here such as Boeing, Amazon, Starbucks and Microsoft.

"Airlines never price fares rationally from one national market to the next," says Joe Brancatelli, publisher of the business travel newsletter JoeSentMe.com

"It's all a calculation of perception and market forces. Most airlines judge that Canadians will pay less for travel then U.S. flyers, based on demographics and other economic factors."
The decline of Canada's currency against the U.S. dollar is also having an effect, Brancatelli says. "As the looney (Canadian dollar) declines, the fare gap increases in Vancouver's favor."

Whatever the reasons, Seattleites willing to make the trek to Vancouver will benefit, assuming the savings is worth the extra time and cost of getting there. 

Prices vary by the airline, with Delta showing some of the biggest fare differences. Checking the same August dates for flights to London, Delta's website showed a fare of $1,590 for a non-stop out of Seattle and a return through Amsterdam vs. $845 out of Vancouver with a stop in Seattle in both directions. A Seattle-Paris non-stop on Delta/Air France for October was $1,347 vs. $993 out of Vancouver. United Airlines' price on a round-trip Seattle-Rome flight for September was $1,251 vs. $998 from Vancouver.

No matter which airports you use, flexibility during busy periods will help, especially for holiday travel. Hit the "flexible date" key on any search site to see the difference in price for flying anywhere within six-day window of the dates you have in mind.

Example: A search for a United flight between between Seattle and Cincinnati, departing on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and returning on the Sunday after, turned up a price is $712 vs. $532 for returning on the following Tuesday.  

 here are other ways to save.  While most airlines now offer "premium economy'' seats with more legroom, priority boarding etc. for an extra fee, more are expected to follow Delta's move to offering "basic economy" fares on some routes. The savings is usually $40-$50 off the normal price, but comes with trade-offs. Seats are not assigned until after check-in, no changes or refunds are allowed after 24 hours from booking, and earn fewer frequent flyer miles.   

How likely is an airline or online travel agency likely to track your searches, and base the prices and/or itineraries you see on that information, generally tracked by "cookies,'' small files of data stored in your computer that can be accessed by web servers?

"There have been some documented cases of websites discriminating on price based on perceived preferences," says Brancatelli. "If you are concerned, start your fare searches with ITA (the software owned by Google Flights), or Kayak to see what prices really are. Once you know what prices are on offer, it's harder for an airline or an OTA (online travel agency) to upsell you."

 Finding the the best deal on air fares can feel like spinning a roulette wheel. Sometimes you get lucky and find a good fare, then wait a few days to book, and poof, it's gone. 
When it comes to when to buy, "There isn’t a magic day," says  Hobica. "Over the last 20 years I’ve been tracking airfares, the only thing that’s predictable is the unpredictability of airline pricing managers. A sale can pop up at any moment, and last for hours or days," the reason he recommends setting up e-mail fare alerts.

If you find a good fare, you can jump on it and cancel within 24 hours with no penalty. The Department of Transportation requires airlines to allow you to hold an airline reservation—at the quoted fare—for at least 24 hours.

Beyond that, some airlines will let you to lock in a fare for up to up to a week. American Airlines, for instance, charges $11.89 for a 7-day lock, $9.99 for five days and $7.99 for three days. Hawaiian Air charges $8.99 for a seven-day hold and $6.99 for three days. 


If you're thinking of flying in and out of Vancouver International Airport, check the transportation options before booking your flight. Make sure you have time to arrive at the airport three hours ahead. 

QuickCoach Shuttle , BoltBus and Amtrak travel between Seattle and Vancouver at varying times and prices. Park 'N Fly Vancouver offers long-term airport parking. 

If booking online, be aware of whether you're paying in Canadian or U.S. dollars. Airline websites quote Canadian fares in Canadian dollars. Search sites such as Kayak and Expedia will show prices in U.S. dollars. If you're paying in Canadian currency, avoid using a credit card that carries a high foreign currency transaction fee. 


*Use the online sites to comparison shop, but unless the fare is significantly lower than you'll find through the airline, you're better off purchasing your ticket directly.

"It makes it simpler to arrange seat assignments and upgrades,'' says Seattle-based Scott Mackenzie who blogs about the airline industry at Travel Codex.   "It’s also much, much easier to fix canceled or delayed flights when things go wrong. "

Cross-check your searches before buying to to make sure you're seeing all the possible fares and flight times available, and keep in mind that a few airlines, notably Southwest, post fares only on their own websites.

Google Flights, says Mackenzie, "is an excellent tool for most travelers. 

 "The main advantages are that you can quickly compare alternate dates and even alternate destinations,'' he notes. "If Maui is too expensive, look at the map to see if Oahu or Kauai — or even Cancun — might be cheaper."

*Beware of restrictions and higher change fees on discounted fares sold by third-party consolidators. Airlines exclude some discounted fares from earning frequent flyer miles, and making changes can cost more. Vayama.com, for instance, charges a processing fee of $100 to change a ticket, in addition to airline change fees.

* Just because an online ticket seller puts the word "cheap'' in its name doesn't mean it will have the lowest fares. Example: A search for a Hawaiian Air flight to Honolulu in October showed the fare at $508 on the airline's website vs. $518 quoted by CheapTickets.com, Priceline, JustFly and other third-party sites. 

*Consider using low-cost foreign airlines (EasyJet, Ryan Air, Air Asia etc.) for flights between cities in Europe or Asia, but keep in mind that most restrict the weight and size of carry-ons, and charge for checking bags and other services.