Micro loans fuel dreams of female entrepreneurs in Oaxaca, Mexico

Oaxacan weaver Guillermina Carreno Gutierrez, 85

It's Thanksgiving Day, 2019, and while most Americans are sitting town to turkey dinners, a dozen visitors to the city of Oaxaca in Southwestern Mexico are piling into a van for the 45-minute ride to the Zapotec village of Teotitlán del Valle. There awaits a lunch of tortillas filled with black beans, cheese and chicken; bowls of a fragrant green vegetable soup and chilled glasses of tamarind water.

We've happily traded away a holiday traditionally spent with family and friends to join a "microfinance tour" of rural villages sponsored by Foundation En Via. The non-profit funnels  the $50 each us paid for the meal and transportation into interest-free loans for self-employed female entrepreneurs. They weave rugs, raise sheep and make tortillas in rural communities where houses made of mud bricks and dirt roads contrast with the stylish cafes, hotels and boutiques in Oaxaca's tourist hub.

Microfinance lending is common in many underdeveloped parts of the world. What sets En Via's programs apart is that all the borrowers are women, based on the principal that women are the ones most likely to invest in their families and their communities.

“It’s not necessarily about fighting poverty as much as its about empowerment," En Via staffer Kendall Hitch told us. “Women (in these villages) historically have had very, very limited access to financial institutions."

En Via, started in 2010 by an Oaxacan and an American, changes up the game by lending to women in groups of three, using a "solidarity model" that requires women to support each other it comes to following through on required classes, goals and loan repayments. 

Borrowers must complete money and business management classes before receiving their first loan. As they move through the process they attend monthly classes on developing a small business, and finally present their businesses to a group of responsible tourists. That's where we come in.

En Via funds around 80 percent of its loans from the tours it offers, with another 20 percent coming from donations. The aim of its tours is to show travelers a different side of Mexico, while giving the women experience in presenting their products and business plans as they were pitching to bankers or investors.

Maria Sosa Luis and her daughter, Marcela,
cook tortillas on an outdoor comal

Our first stop is at the home of Maria Sosa Luis where she and her daughter, Marcela, have set up the large, communal table in front of an alter adorned with religious statues and pictures. She and Marcela cook tortillas on an outdoor grill while we start with a soup made with fresh greens, squash and herbs. Next to the cooking area are two sewing machines. Hanging nearby are beautiful woven rugs and jewelry, most with price tags, a tip they picked up in an En Via training class. Maria's goal (everyone in the program has one) is to start a small restaurant outside her home.

Loans start small, and can grow. The first - 1,500 pesos or the equivalent of $80 U.S. dollars   - must be paid back in 10-15 weeks. Subsequent loans can go as high as 7,000 pesos ($375). Only one in 100 defaults.

Maria Lazo Bautista grinding cochineal

Our next stop is the house of Maria Lazo Bautista who explains that as a child, she helped her mother wash wool, and began weaving when she was 15. She uses natural dyes made from plants, seeds and insects, demonstrating how she produces a bright red dye by pulverizinng dried cochineal, bugs that attach themselves to the pads of prickly pear cacti, then adding lime and salt to produce different shades. For now, she sells her textiles out of her home, but her goal is to open a shop. 

Yarn colored with natural dyes
Next door we meet another weaver. Adelaida Ruiz Carreno and her mother, Guillermina Carreno Gutierrez, 85. Skanes of colored yarn hang from a hook over looms in a mud brick work area. Adelaida, on her second En Via loan, says the training classes taught her how to calculate a profit and how to invest in her business to make it grow. She sells out of her home and at the village market on Sundays, but knows that if she had a shop with regular hours, she could sell more and more often.  As we're leaving, she goes to a tree to pick the pomegranates, (she uses the seeds for dyes) and gives us a few to take with us.

Adelaida Ruiz Carreno
We end the day at the home and farm of Isabel Lopez Mendez in San Sebastián Abasolo, an agricultural village where horse carts bump along the dirt streets. Isabel grows oats, garlic, runs a tortilla business in her garage and raises sheep. Before En Via, she had a bank loan, but it carried a 30 percent interest rate. 

A smiling Isabel Lopez Mendez

"The En Via loan is small, but I have more money now, and don’t have to think about paying back the interest. It helps," she tells us. She wants to use her next loan to buy a bull. In the meantime, she's learned how to make a savings plan, and recently took a class in customer service. There, she says, she learned the importance of smiling and engaging the people who come to buy her sheep.

Up Close and Personal in Mexico City

Global Greeter Oskar Sandoval

MEXICO CITY - Leaving our hotel on a busy Monday holiday, my husband, Tom and I, walk a few blocks to a museum where we look for a statue of a Spanish king on a horse. It's here where we are to meet Oskar Sandoval,  22, a volunteer with Mexico City Greeters.

We spend the next five hours together, walking, chatting about everything from immigration to homelessness, sampling ice cream, and marveling at the art deco architecture in a 19th century neighborhood of Tabacalera, named for a cigarette factory that now houses an art museum. 

Fast-forward to dinner later that evening. An Uber driver drops us off at the home of Roberto Escoto and Cristina Unna. They are members of eatwith.com, a website that follows the Airbnb model of connecting travelers with locals worldwide - not with a room but with a shared meal in their home.

Gathered for an eatwith dinner with Cristina, Luz and Roberto

We're together for the next three hours as we eat and talk about life in the United States and Mexico. The next morning, we become Facebook friends.

It would be easy to feel lost in a city the size of Mexico City. With more than 20 million people, the metropolitan area vies only with Sao Paulo, Brazil as the most populous in Latin America. You arrive as a stranger, but with a few well-planned local connections, you don't have to feel like one. 

Three suggestions for an up close and personal visit:   

Sign up with a Global Greeter

We found Oskar through the Global Greeters Network, an organization with volunteers in more than 200 destinations worldwide. The greeters aren't tour guides, and don't accept tips. Rather they focus on special places that have a personal meaning to them, often hidden treasures away from the usual tourist sites.

Oskar and I began e-mailing and texting on WhatsApp a week before we left Seattle.
When he mentioned that two of Mexico City's largest newspapers were headquartered in Tabacalera, and that an old-time ice cream shop still made tobacco-flavored ice cream, I was all in.

Oskar studied English in Vancouver, B.C., and earned his degree in history from a public university where tuition is free for those who qualify. In between his volunteer gig with Mexico City Greeters, he does research at a botanical gardens as part the mandatory public service the university requires of graduates.

Revolution monument in Tabacalera

Former cigarette factory, now an art museum

We walked by the newspaper offices, the old tobacco factory, and the Monument to the Revolution, an arched observation tower built around the remains of a palace planned for Porfirio Díaz, Mexico's president for 30 years until he was deposed.  

Oskar and me with tobacco-flavored ice cream

Over a dish of the tobacco-flavored ice cream (surprisingly tasty with maple syrup and strawberries) at La Especial de Paris, in business since 1921, Oskar explained his reason for volunteering his as a greeter.

"When people ask me if Mexico is a dangerous country, I say 'yes it is,' but it's not all of the country. Mexico City is one of the safest places to be. I want people to feel like they can walk around the city without any problems." 

Eat with a local

We've shared dinner and conversation with home cooks in France, Italy and Spain through the meal-sharing website eatwith.com. So I was delighted to come across good reviews for the "Celebrating Mexico" four-course dinner Roberto Escoto and Cristina Unna offer in their home, about a 40-minute Uber ride from the historical center.

With the fee arranged through Eatwith in advance ($48 per person), we felt more like friends invited over for the evening rather than paying guests. 

The couple welcomed us into a cozy living room filled with art, antiques and shelves lined with record albums, CDs and books. 

Roberto, 62, works in recycling and Cristina, 60, runs a cultural center. Both are devoted amateur cooks known to throw Paella dinners for 50, and stage pop-up dinners in Chicago when visiting their daughter.

Robert Escoto

Roberto mixed Margaritas as we chatted with Cristina and their friend Luz, visiting from Cuernavaca. After some get-to-know-you conversation, Cristina and Roberto went to the kitchen, put on aprons and reappeared a few minutes later with platters of quesadillas stuffed with zucchini flowers and mini tortillas filled with refried beans topped with pork and  salsa. 

Cristina Unna serves her tomatillo soup

Dinner began with a soup made from green tomatillos, followed by Chiles en Nogada, CQ a Mexican national dish featuring a Poblano pepper filled with minced pork and a mix of fruit and spices covered with a creamy walnut sauce.

In her spare time, Cristina makes fruitcakes - 100 every year which she sells around the holidays. We toasted our new friendship by sharing the first slices of the season. 
When it came time for us to go, she wrapped up a few pieces us to take home, along with a bag of her homemade granola.  

Sleep mindfully 

Many Americans head to hotels in the Zona Rosa, an area known for its shopping and nightlife. Scruffier but more authentically Mexican is the Centro Historico, a 34-block area, home to some of the city's most elaborate historic monuments, former palaces, traditional restaurants and museums. 

A few years ago, I might not have considered staying in Centro, but things have changed, thanks to young entrepreneurs such as David Marino.  He and his mother, Rosalie, own  Chillout Flats, an urban bed and breakfast in a residential building surrounded by bakeries, cafes and chic restaurants.

David Marino talks with guests at Chillout Flats

Over a breakfast of watermelon juice, fresh fruit and eggs, we met guests from Peru, France and other parts of Mexico. David and Rosalie shared tips for getting around, and pointed out their favorite spots for a meal.

Just around the corner was the 1912 Cafe de Tacuba where mariachis serenade diners enjoying traditional dishes in a dining room decorated with colorful tiles, stained glass and murals.Down the street was Rosalie's favorite, the Cafe La Pagoda where locals line up for bargain breakfasts such as the $3 plates of huevos divorciados -  eggs "separated" by their salsas, one a fiery red, the other a jealous green.  

If you go:


Apart from the metro system, Uber is the best way to get around the city. Fares are inexpensive, but vary with the time of day. Most locals use WhatsApp to communicate via text message. 

Making connections: 

*Book a lunch or dinner through eatwith.com Enter your destination, the dates you are available and the number of people in your party. Select from regularly-scheduled meals, or click on "show experiences available on request." This is how we found our hosts, Cristina and Roberto. Most reservations can be cancelled within 24-48 hours at no charge. Payment is made online through eatwith.com.

*Arrange for a volunteer greeter through the Global Greeter Network or Mexico City Greeters Greeters don't accept tips, but it's nice to offer to pay for coffee, lunch or a drink. The organization accepts donations through its website. 

*Sleep in a bed and breakfast, or an Airbnb, provided it's a room in someone's actual home as opposed to a commercial apartment. The family-run Chillout Flats, is an eight-room bed and breakfast run by David Marino and his mother, Rosalie, on the upper floors of a classic building in the historical center. We paid $65 per night for a large suite, with private bathroom and breakfast.  

*Ask your friends if they know anyone studying or working in Mexico City.  We had dinner our first night with an American friend of a friend who teaches English. He and his Mexican girlfriend met us for dinner, and introduced us to what became our favorite drink - pulque - made from the fermented sap of the Agave plant.

This story appeared in The Seattle Times on January 19, 2020

The colonial city of Puebla offers visitors a stylish taste of Mexico

Puebla's cathedral and fountain 

News reports of violence and immigration problems in Mexican boarder towns have again caused Americans to rethink  plans for travel south of the border.  If this is you, come along with us to the city of Puebla, the capital of the state of Puebla, a vibrant colonial town surrounded by mountains and volcanoes, two and a half hours southwest of Mexico City.

With a population of 1.5. million, the fourth-largest city in Mexico is filled with university students, artists and prosperous Poblanos, named the same as the plump pepper used in its signature moles. Families and street vendors pack its leafy Zocolo nightly, joined by stylish Mexican tourists on weekends. Like us, the only Americans we saw in three days, they come for the mild weather, artisan markets, outdoor cafes and white-table-cloth restaurants where two can dine well for under $30.

Hotel Casa de las Palms

Disappointed with the Airbnb (it happens) we rented for $45 a night above a noisy pizza parlor (the pizza at La Berenjena is fantastic, not so the music), we found the Hotel Casa de las Palmas, a 17-room hotel in an 18th century building that was once a rooming house for Spanish workers. For the same price, we got a huge room with high ceilings, a marble bathroom and breakfast served in the courtyard. The location was ideal, a few blocks walk to the Zocolo and cathedral, and at the edge of a pedestrian street where craft vendors set up a weekend market. 

One of Puebla's many parks

The Spanish arrived in the early 1500s, first in the nearby town of Cholula, where they raised Aztecs temples and replaced them with churches. But rather than modernizing the ancient city, they moved onto Puebla, about nine miles away, where they established the first Spanish-built city not founded on the ruins of a conquered settlement.

Chiles en Nogada represents the colors of the Mexican flag

With its elaborate stone mansions and many churches, Puebla has more of a city feel than smaller towns such as Oaxaca or San Miguel. Production of beer, soda, cars and textiles fuel its economy. Some of Mexico’s favorite foods have their origins here, notably the mole poblano and Chiles en Nogada, peppers stuffed with ground meat and fruit and nuts, covered in a creamy sauce traditionally eaten around Mexican Independence Day September 16.

Capilla del Rosario

Puebla and Cholula combined have 365 churches (think how it sounds to be here on a Sunday morning!), many of them built during the Baroque era when the Roman Catholic Church responded to Martin Luther’s reformation movement by filling churches with gold as a reminder its power. One of the most elaborate is the Capilla del Rosario, above, inside the Church of Santo Domingo, not far from “Candy Street,” a street lined with shops selling traditional sweets.

Santo Domingo wedding

Covered  in 24-karat gold leaf, the chapel is a popular venue for weddings for wealthy Poblanos. We stood outside one evening as a bride arrived in a vintage Packard. The chapel filled with guests all dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns. 

Japanese-designed International Museum of Baroque

Uber is the most efficient way to get around. Most rides cost no more than $5-$7. Many of the drivers are women, and most of the cars are new and well-maintained. We used Uber to get to the new International Museum of Baroque, a Japanese-designed  museum that traces the history of the Baroque era and its influences on architecture, art, design, clothing and music throughout Mexico. 

Ruins of Piramide Tepanapa and hilltop church

From there, it was a short Uber ride to Cholula, known for the ruins of the largest pyramid in Latin America, reached by walking through an underground tunnel. Much of it of the Piramide Tepanapa is obscured beneath a hill, topped by the bright yellow Church of Our Lady of the Remedies with over-the-top gold decorations inside and views of mountains and two volcanoes below.

Restaurante Milli
Besides the pyramid, our main reason for visiting Cholula was to find the restaurant Milli recently featured in Saveur magazine. Milli is a humble, six-table restaurant opened a year ago by five local friends, all of whom emigrated to Philadelphia at one time or another, and returned home, either voluntarily or because they were deported. Their goal, says Leo Tellez, who lived in Philly for two years, then returned home to be with is family, is to create culinary and agricultural opportunities for themselves and others.

Leo Tellez

Each meal starts with complementary chalupas, little handmade blue corn tortillas made fresh from heirloom corn, and cooked on a hot comal set up in the rear of the restaurant. Friends grow the corn in the owners’ hometown of San Mateo Ozolco, an agricultural community about an hour away. Nothing on the menu is more than $5. With Leo’s help, I chose a fresh, whole fish cooked in pulque, the fermented sap of the agave plant. Tom had chicken mole. Both were beautifully presented by chef Espiridion Hernandez and sous chef Bernardo Rincon, whom we were invited into the kitchen to meet. 

Chefs at work in the kitchen

With marigold ice cream and homemade flan for dessert, the bill came to $16 for the two of us. Just another example of safe, friendly, affordable travel in Mexico. If you’re rethinking plans, think again, and put Puebla and Cholula on your list. 

At home in Paris: Meal-sharing website connects travelers with amateur chefs around the world

Lunch in a Paris passage

Parisians love to eat. Food is art, whether it be a simple lunch served on the sidewalk terrace of a covered passage, or a display of delicate fruit tarts lined up in glass cases like colored jewels. So when you retire from a 46-year career with Air France and suddenly find yourself with time on your hands, what do you do? You invite strangers into your home for dinner, of course.

Florence serves appetizers 
Meet Florence Otte with whom two friends and I dined recently after signing on with Eatwith.com, a website that follows the Airbnb model of connecting travelers with locals worldwide - not with a room but with a shared meal in their home. As with Airbnb, no money changes hands. Hosts post their menus online, along with their prices. You pay on the website with a credit card at the time of booking, and agree to cancellation terms set by the hosts.

Like Florence, who charged a modest $34 per person, most hosts are amateur chefs who sign up with Eatwith mostly for the experience of meeting travelers. Florence, 67, retired two years ago from a busy job. Now she has time to exercise, travel (vintage Air France travel posters line the walls of her apartment) and cook homemade meals for visitors to Paris. The income helps pay the rent on a spacious flat in the 19th arrondissement where she raised her two grown children.

Various hosts offer different types of experiences. I enjoyed a dinner last year in Paris hosted by Thomas Obrador, a French news reporter. There were nine guests for a meal that began with lively chatter in his living room over wine and appetizers, and didn't end until almost 1 a.m. 

Florence's style was more low-key. She limits her guest list to four or five. Two others were expected to join us the night we booked, but cancelled at the last minute, leaving our group at three plus Florence who joined us at the table for wine and relaxed conversation. 

She advertised her meal as a "seasonal, homemade French dinner" of four courses, prepared with organic ingredients purchased from local markets. Her instructions included what Metro lines to use to take to reach her fourth-floor apartment in the Buttes Chaumont neighborhood, an area outside of the center of Paris most tourists would likely not discover.

The evening began at 7:30 p.m. with a Kir, a cocktail made with white wine and cassis, a sweet, dark red liqueur made from blackcurrants. We chatted in her living room while snacking on pate and an eggplant spread on toasts and cherry tomatoes filled with a green olive tapenade. 

Our dinner with Florence 
When we moved to the table, she presented a salad of fresh beets and greens, followed by rabbit served with potatoes and a sauce of mustard and thyme grown on her balcony. Then came three types of cheeses, all labeled, with a small piece cut and placed on top or on the side to show how each should be sliced.

Three cheeses

Fig tart
Dessert was a homemade fresh fig tart. We chatted about our travels, toured her little apartment, and were on our way back on the Metro to our hotel by 10 p.m. 

Florence hosts both lunches and dinners, and will cook a meal even for one person.  This year, with her children planning to spend the holidays elsewhere, she'll host a special feast to be shared with a group of travelers she'll meet for the first time when they knock on her door on Christmas Eve. 

Silver Falls Shimmers in Rural Oregon

South Falls

Hike behind rushing waterfalls hidden in a forest canyon. Spend the night in a Victorian mansion that doubles as a mini space museum. Munch on baked potatoes served from a converted school bus while sipping Northwest brews at a German-inspired tap room.

If scenic coastline, snow-covered mountains and vineyards producing award-winning wines come to mind when you think of Oregon, think again.

Surrounded by Christmas tree, hazelnut and grass seed farms 20 miles southeast of the capital of Salem are rural towns, peaceful monasteries, and the state's largest park, a gem so hidden it's remains a secret to many natives.

The chance to follow the "Trail of Ten Falls" at Silver Falls State Park led my husband and I to detour off the main highway on our way home to Seattle after visiting friends in Eugene.

Stayton's Gardner House Cafe and bed and breakfast

Just northeast of Stayton, a historical Willamette valley farming town known for its covered bridge, Silver Falls counts as its chief attraction a seven-mile loop trail passing a series of waterfalls, five more than 100 feet high. 

Silver Falls was a center for logging and homestead farming in the late 1800s. When the depression struck in 1929, Oregon's timber industry tanked. The private owner of South Falls charged admission to let people watch as he floated derelict cars over the falls. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt bought the land, and employed men in the Civilian Conservation Corps to develop park facilities. Still standing is a rustic day lodge that houses a cafe and rest area near the start of the South Falls trailhead.

Silver Falls Lodge

We took a recommended short cut that trims the hike to a 5.1 mlle loop. The trail starts at an overlook to the 177-foot South Falls. From here, a paved trail leads into the canyon where hikers can walk behind rushing walls of water.  The trail descends to a winding creek at the forest floor for an overall elevation change of 800 feet. It's not a hard hike, but it takes time due to the ups and downs and rocks to watch out for along the paths.

Behind the falls

The falls spill over 15-million-year-old Columbia River basalt. At that time the Columbia River flowed through this area to the sea at what is now Newport. Lava poured down the river channel from vents in Eastern Oregon, gradually pushing the river northward. As the lava slowly cooled, it fractured to form the honeycomb of columns visible on cliff edges. Circular indentations in the ceilings of the caverns behind the falls are tree wells, formed when the lava flows hardened around burning trees. 

The park offers year-round camping and heated cabins, but we were intrigued by the idea of staying at the 1898 Gardner House, a combination cafe, bed and breakfast and museum dedicated to early U.S. manned space missions.

James and Loni with her  award-winning chocolate cake

Loni Loftus, a former travel agent who always dreamed of owning a bed and breakfast, fills one of the cafe's wooden pastry cases with her ribbon-winning chocolate cake and lemon-lavender scones while her husband, James, fills another with memorabilia from the Mercury and Apollo space missions, part of the Joseph Philip Loftus Jr. Mobile Museum he created to honor the 47-year NASA career of his father.

The elder Loftus went through the astronaut training program "but was too tall to go to the moon," his son says. He worked on Project Mercury, the first U.S. manned space flight program, and the Apollo lunar missions. Among the items on display around the cafe is a Apollo spacecraft altitude control rocket engine, lunar fragments, a space shuttle tile and the skeletons of two monkeys sent into space.  

As part of the museum's mission, Loftus sponsors space-related educational programs for local schools.  His plans call for taking the museum on the road (thus the "mobile" in its name). Until the couple finds a buyer for the cafe and bed and breakfast, they plan to continue offering overnight accommodations, light meals and high tea in the house originally built by the owner of the town's flour mill. 

Covered bridge

Local attractions include Pioneer Park with the Stayton–Jordan Bridge, a covered bridge that is a copy of the Jordan Bridge that was moved to the park in 1988. Destroyed by fire in 1994, it was rebuilt and painted white. 

Yarnell's nursery and garden shop
Locals own most of the businesses in town, including Yarnell's nursery housed in a historic red barn where honey and eggs are for sale along with plants and garden supplies.

The Spud Bus

Small farming towns are not where you'd expect to find a good selection of Northwest microbrews. We gave the local Chinese and Mexican places a pass when we spotted the sign for Wolfgang's Thirst Parlor and Tap House, and the "Spud Bus" parked outside. Soon  we were sipping Oregon porters while helping Ken Carey, a former transportation director for the local school district, fulfill his dream of selling loaded baked potatoes from the window of a  retired school bus. 

If you go:

From Interstate 5 exit 253 in Salem, drive 10 miles east on North Santiam Highway 22, turn left at a sign for Silver Falls Park, and follow Highway 214 for 16 miles to the park entrance sign at South Falls. 

The surrounding area includes several other interesting attractions worth a stop. They include the 80-acre botanical Oregon Garden in Silverton; Mount Angel Abbey where the Benedictine monks brew beer and sell it from a tap room open to the public; and the Frank Lloyd Wright Gordon House Museum.

Rediscover Tacoma on a day-trip by leaving the car at home

A surrey ride along the Point Rustin Waterwalk

Sip tea or sample Indian curry inside a historic freighthouse. Ride free on light rail to museums. Stop for a beer in an old-time saloon, then hop on an electric scooter for a waterfront ride before making like a kid again, and zipping down a slide in a real-life game of Chutes and Ladders. 

Using four modes of public transportation plus some walking, my husband and I discovered there's more to Tacoma than the Dome on a recent car-free day trip. 

Instead of hassling with traffic and parking, we sat back taking in views of Mount Rainier from the top deck of a near-empty Sound Transit Sounder train on its reverse commute, leaving Seattle's King Street station at 7:55 a.m., and arriving in Tacoma just before nine. 

Our plan was to spend the next eight hours exploring on foot, by bus and light rail, falling back on Uber or Lyft if we ran out of time to catch the last train back at 5:15 p.m..
Three destinations, all in different parts of the city, were on our agenda for a sunny September weekday: 

* Museum Row, the downtown hub that houses three of Tacoma's major museums.

* Old Town Tacoma, a historic neighborhood fronting on the scenic Ruston Way waterfront walking and biking bath.

* The Dune Peninsula Park, opened in July on the former Asarco copper smelter Superfund site, along with the "Chutes and Ladders" staircase and slides linking Point Defiance Park with a waterfront marina.

Ride free on Tacoma Link light rail

Stepping off the Sounder, we took a quick look around  Freighthouse Square, a collection of vintage shops, art galleries and ethnic restaurants next to the Tacoma Dome station. The Olive Branch Cafe and Tea Room, decorated with antique furniture and crystal chandeliers, looked inviting, but didn't open until 11 a.m., so we made a mental note to return later, then crossed the street and stepped aboard the free Tacoma Link light rail for a five-minute ride downtown.

Tea at the Olive Branch next to the Tacoma Dome station

Museum Row

Within a short walk of the Union Station light rail stop on Pacific Avenue are the Tacoma Art Museum, the Washington State History Museum and the Museum of Glass.

Finding breakfast wasn't a problem. Open early is Anthem Coffee and Tea, next to the History Museum, with coffee, pastries and an outdoor patio. Across the street is Savor Creperie where we lingered over plump breakfast crepes filled with eggs and avocado until the museums opened at 10 a.m.

Unless you plan to spend the day museum-hopping and shopping downtown (a perfectly doable option), best advice is to pick one museum, spend an hour or two exploring, then move on, with the aim of getting back to the station by late afternoon. (No worries If you want to stay longer, or go on a weekend when the Sounder isn't running. Sound Transit also operates an express bus with frequent service between Seattle and Tacoma).   

We chose the Tacoma Art Museum, known for its collection of art glass, much of it donated by Tacoma-native Dale Chihuly, co-founder of the Pilchuck Glass School

The Simpsons at TAM
Open since January is the new Rebecca and Jack Benaroya wing, housing works from the Seattle couple's extensive collection of works by glass artists around the world. On display through Dec. 31 is “Bart at TAM: Animating America’s Favorite Family,” featuring more than 100 hand-drawn scenes, scripts and other drawings related to the the Simpsons television family’s first 13 seasons.

What's old and what's new

Tucked between Museum Row and Point Defiance Park is Old Town Tacoma, a historical neighborhood across from Commencement Bay  where Tacoma’s founder, Civil War veteran Job Carr, arrived in 1864.

Carr staked a claim on land he hoped would be the terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad, and became mayor of what then was called Tacoma City. But Carr missed the mark slightly, and the rail line ended two miles east in what became “New Tacoma.”

Reminiscent of days gone by is the Spar,  a friendly tavern and coffeehouse in a red brick building at 2121 N. 30th St. on the site of the Old Tacoma Saloon, opened in 1884. Getting there took about 20 minutes on Bus No. 13 which we caught on Dock Street by walking across the Chihuly Bridge of Glass, an art-filled pedestrian bridge leading from the History Museum to the Museum of Glass. 

The Spar in Old Town Tacoma 

Over espresso shakes a turkey sandwiches in the Spar's back room we could see Commencement Bay and the start of the long, paved Ruston Way shoreline trail, popular with walkers, bikers and rollerbladers.

One option was to take the No. 11 bus that would get us within a short walk of our final destination near Point Ruston, a residential, shopping and dining development built on the site of the former Asarco smelter, once one of the country's most polluted Superfund sites.

The sun was out, so we decided to walk the almost three miles instead, that is until we spotted two Lime e-scooters parked next to a fishing pier. 

Commencement Bay

Most of the waterfront path, as it turns out, is a designated  "low speed zone,"  meaning our scooters were programmed to go no more than 5 miles an hour. The ride was safer and more relaxing at this speed, but also  expensive, costing us about $11.50 each.

We ditched the scooters at the start of the mile-long Waterwalk at Point Ruston, a pedestrian and biking trail along the bay that connects to the new 11-acre Dune Peninsula Park

Named after a science fiction novel authored by the late Tacoma native Frank Herbert, the park opened this summer following years of work by Metro Parks Tacoma to convert the peninsula, created by toxic slag from the smelter, into a safe waterfront attraction. 

Also opened in July is the new Wilson Way pedestrian bridge, linking Point Defiance Park to the Ruston waterfront. Next to the bridge is what locals call the “Chutes and Ladders” experience, a series of six slides next to sets of stairs leading to the Port Defiance Marina below. 

Chutes and Ladders slide

"On weekends, this place is packed with kids," a woman said as she slithered down one of the slides. Today, it was mostly adults like us, alternating between sliding and walking until we reached the marina and the bus stop for the No. 11 back to town. 

If you go: 

Sounder trains run between Seattle and Tacoma Monday through Friday during peak hours, and sometimes on weekends for special events. Travel time between Seattle's King Street station and the Tacoma Dome station is one hour. Adult fares are $5.25 each way ($2.50 for seniors). .

Sound Transit also operates the 590/594 express bus between Seattle and the Tacoma Dome station on weekdays and weekends at times when the Sounder isn't running. The trip also takes an hour.  Adults fares are $3.75 ($1 for seniors).

Tacoma Link light rail serves downtown Tacoma, with six stops including the Tacoma Dome, South 25th Street, Union Station, the Convention Center, South 11th Street and the Theater District. The service is free. Details at www.traveltacoma.com/plan/link-light-rail/ 

Click here for Tacoma bus information. 

All the trains and buses accept the ORCA transit cards.

Bikes and four-wheeled surreys can be rented from Wheel Fun Rentals on the Waterwalk at Point Ruston. 

Click here for a map and information on the new Dune park, Wilson Way bridge and "Chutes and Ladder'' slides.

Go here for Tacoma and Pierce County tourism information.

This story appeared in the Seattle Times on Sept. 25, 2019

Summer escape: Plan a day trip to historic Port Townsend on Washington's Olympic Peninsula

Historic Port Townsend on Washington's Olympic Peninsula

Start the day with a ferry ride across the Puget Sound and a stop at a Parisian-style bakery. Finish with a glass of wine at an outdoor tasting room, or line-dancing and wood-fired pizza at a rural cidery.

The best day trips begin and end with the journey, making historic Port Townsend on Washington's Olympic Peninsula an outing worth the nearly two hours of travel time from Seattle.

Stately bed and breakfasts in Victorian mansions built by wealthy businessmen in the 1800s beckon overnight travelers, but by rising early on a Saturday to beat the summer crowds, you'll get a taste of why this historical seafaring town draws so many repeat visitors.

Once poised to become a major Northwest shipping port before Seattle and Tacoma took its place, Port Townsend has evolved into a destination known for its food, art, music and picturesque waterside setting. 

Here's the plan:

7:55 a.m.
Ferry and coffee

Catch an early ferry to either Winslow on Bainbridge Island or Kingston (your choice depending on where in the Seattle area you live). Crossing time is 30 minutes. Coffee is available on the ferries, but I recommend waiting until you get to the other side.

Exiting the ferry terminal in Kingston, find Aviator Coffee in a wooden shed called the Hanger. The Bainbridge Island roaster keeps mini-donuts sizzling in a pan near a walk-up window.

Coquette Bake Shop

Driving off the ferry in Winslow, detour at the second stop light onto Winslow Way East, and find the pocket-size Coquette Bake Shop. Filling a glass cases in a walk-up kiosk are Parisian-style pastries and breakfast sandwiches baked upstairs in the Winslow Mall. My current favorite is the "Zest for Life," a buttery morning bun spiked with orange zest and cardamom, best eaten at one of the outdoor tables along with a cup of Stumptown coffee.

10 a.m.
Farmers Market 

Port Townsend’s Uptown (hillside) and downtown (waterside) historic districts are compact and walkable. A high bluff separates the two neighborhoods, and although they’re close together, only a set of steps and two streets connect them.

Most visitors head directly downtown to Water Street, the location of most shops, art galleries and cafes, with views of the boat and ferry traffic on Port Townsend Bay. Parking is limited to two hours in most locations, but it's easy to find all-day spots in  Uptown, and that’s just one reason to make it your first stop.

Young musicians at the Saturday Farmers Market

Jefferson County is a rich agricultural area. More than 70 vendors, many young farmers and craftspeople, show up at the Saturday Farmers Market at Lawrence and Tyler Streets. Bring a cooler to take home small-batch cheeses or homemade kimchi. Samples teas infused with mushroom extracts or snack on vegan ice cream while listening to music supplied by local musicians such as a slide guitarist and fiddle band formed by a group of home-schooled girls.

11:00 a.m.

Leave the car parked, and check out a few of the vintage shops in Uptown, good sources for costume jewelry and Hawaiian shirts, then continue on foot downtown via the Fountain Steps at Taylor and Jefferson to the Haller Fountain and Washington Street.

The Haller Fountain and steps linking Uptown and Downtown

Here you'll find Bergstrom’s Antique & Classic Autos, 809 Washington St., inside a 1917 garage. For sale on the "showroom" floor is a 1955 blue Volkswagen Beetle and a 1929 bright yellow Ford Model A coupe. More affordable dozens of plastic model kits and vintage car and driver magazines.

Wandering Water Street 

Art and architecture define Water Street, downtown's main drag lined with historical buildings housing cafes, restaurants, antique shops and galleries. 

Art galleries and vintage shops line Water Street

Stop for tea at Pippa's Real Tea inside an 1886 home where the Australian owner stocks more than 100 teas and offers light lunches, served by a cozy fireplace, or in a dog-friendly courtyard garden.

For historical perspective, visit the Jefferson Museum of Art and History  inside the 1892 former city hall. The former medical examiner's room houses a display dedicated to some of the town's former madams and brothels. On display through August 25 in the old jail is an exhibit by artist Paula Stokes,CQ commemorating the 19th century Irish famine with 1,845 handblown glass potatoes. The Northwind Arts Center at 701 Water St. features a monthly rotating exhibit by a local artist in the front gallery, and the juried works of a selection of other artists in the back. 

2 p.m.
Walking the Chetzemoka Trail 

A newly-installed 26-foot Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe totem pole in front of the Northwest Maritime Center, 431 Water St., marks the start of the Chetzemoka CQ Trail, an interpretive trail winding through Port Townsend that commemorates the life of Chief Chetzemoka, CQ the tribal leader who befriended early European settlers.

26-foot Totem pole

Pick up a brochure, and follow either a three, six or 12-mile loop, passing through downtown historical sites, the Kah Tai Lagoon, a nature park and birding area; and Fort Worden, http://fortworden.org CQ a former U.S. Army installation on Admiralty Inlet, now a historical state park. 

The maritime center will host the annual Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival Sept. 6-8. CQ In the meantime, visitors can see the town from the water on 30-minute tours Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Labor Day aboard the Martha J, a 1984 motor launch. Tours are first-come, first-served, by donation.

4 p.m.
Local libations  

Rural backroads on the way out of town lead to family-owned cideries, wineries and breweries. Water views are best from the new Port Townsend Vineyards Vintage Wine Bar and Plaza on Water Street, but just a few miles out of town, the winery itself is worth a stop. Cornhole games and bocce ball courts invite lingering along with tables and chairs scattered around a rustic tasting room. 

Port Townsend Vineyard's waterside wine bar

Popular with cyclists is Discovery Bay Brewing, tucked into a business park a few miles from downtown. Board games and a a shady outdoor garden make this a family-friendly taproom, with local beers brewed on site; Kombucha; cider; and live music in the late afternoons.  Bike here on Sundays and get $1 off your pint. 

A final detour worth a stop on the way back to Seattle is Chimacum where you'll find a well-stocked farm store and the  Finnriver Farm & Cidery, 124 Center Road open year-round for tastings of European-style ciders made from organic cider apples grown on a former dairy farm up the road.

Family fun at Finn River cidery

Families flock to the outdoor cider garden for wood-fired pizzas, local Hama Hama oysters and Brittany-style crepes. They young owners keep on thinking of new ways to keep visitors coming back. There are yoga classes,  lectures on climate change,  lots of live music, and depending on the day, even the chance to learn line-dancing or the Lindy Hop.

If you go:

Port Townsend sits on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula at the entrance to the Puget Sound. From the Seattle area, take a ferry from the Seattle waterfront to Winslow on Bainbridge Island or to Kingston from Edmonds.   Cross the Hood Canal Bridge, and follow Highway 19 north. Travel time is around two  hours. 

Tourist information:

See www.enjoypt.com or stop at the visitor information center at 2409 Jefferson St. in Port Townsend.

This story appeared in The Seattle Times on Sept. 1, 2019