Flying overseas? Consider heading north to Vancouver for savings

Native art titled "Cedar Connection" at Vancouver International Airport 

"Where are you going?" the Canadian immigration officer asked me as we stepped off the Amtrak train at Vancouver B.C.'s Pacific Central Station.

When I told him we were headed to the airport, he flashed a knowing smile. "How much are you saving?''

Obviously we weren't the first ones to figure out we could take advantage of lower international airfares by flying out of Vancouver instead of Seattle. 

 "About $250 per ticket," I said, telling him of our plans to fly to Lima, Peru on AeroMexico via a connection through Mexico City.

It was the third time in the past few years that my husband and I have made the trip140 miles north to Vancouver by train or bus to take snag lower fares on overseas flights.

The savings this time was not as much as the $600 per ticket we netted a few years ago by flying Delta Airlines from Vancouver to Rome via Amsterdam and back from Berlin, but it was enough to justify the train fare ($75 for  two) and four-hour ride.

"Differences in supply and demand for individual cities," is likely one reason international fares are often lower, says Scott Mackenzie,  editor of Seattle's Travel Codex, an online site that offers advice on airline pricing and award travel. "There may be more demand to fly in/out of Seattle due to Seattle’s comparatively larger economy and (presumably) wealthy businesses and residents who can afford to pay more for travel."

He notes also that Vancouver has a larger international airport with more airlines competing on the same routes, and relatively relaxed customs procedures which make international connections easier.  

"If some passengers are already flying from Europe to Asia and stopping in Canada, then there is lots of supply for Americans (and Canadians) to take advantage of for at least half the journey."

Whatever the reasons, you'll want to add up the cost, time involved and relative hassle or ease of traveling to Vancouver before making a decision. 

Start by comparing fares to the same destination on the same airline with similar flight times and connections. Search fare quotes for the same type of service: ie: economy coach vs. basic economy (cheaper but with many restrictions). Keep in mind, not all fares will be lower (some could be higher), or the savings might be too little to make it worthwhile.

A few examples: 

A check on Delta Air Line's website for mid-March, round-trip travel between Seattle and Rome, with a connection in Amsterdam, showed a fare of $1,384 vs. $1,069  between Vancouver and Rome, a savings of $315 per ticket for a main cabin economy coach seat. The savings was even greater on a Delta flight to and from Madrid through Amsterdam -  $883 from Vancouver vs. $1,421 via Seattle. 

Lufthansa showed some of the biggest fare differences. Its website showed a fare of $2,295  for a round-trip Seattle-Berlin flight in March, with a connection in Frankfurt, on what it calls a "Basic Plus 1" fare (refundable with a fee) vs. $1,042 from Vancouver.  On the flip side, A Delta non-stop between Seattle and Paris for March travel was $760 on the airline's website vs. $824 in and out of Vancouver with a connection through Seattle on the way over and Amsterdam on the way back. 

Tip: If comparing and booking fares online, be aware that some airlines quote fares on flights from Canada in Canadian dollars, meaning you'll need to do the conversion to figure out how much the fare is in U.S. dollars. Currently, $1 U.S. is worth $1.30 Canadian. 

Next, consider timing. You'll want to make sure you can get to Vancouver at least three hours ahead of your flight. Calculate if the savings is enough to justify the cost of spending the night. Otherwise, book a late afternoon or evening flight so you can get to Vancouver in the same day.

If you are worried about being too tired to get back to Seattle from Vancouver after a long international flight, consider pricing what's known as an "open jaw," meaning you fly out of Vancouver but return directly to Seattle (We did this on our flight to Peru, opting to return directly from Mexico City to Seattle at a slightly higher cost than a Vancouver round-trip).

Getting to Vancouver

There are several options: 

* Amtrak offers operates two trains daily between Seattle and Vancouver and four Thruway buses. BoltBus makes 4-5 trips daily.  All arrive at Vancouver's Pacific Central Station, where there's a SkyTrain light rail stop across the street, convenient for reaching the airport in about 40 minutes with a change at Waterfront Station to the Canada line. Taxis are also available. Both take about four hours. 

The SkyTrain's Canada line has a stop at the airport

*QuickCoach Shuttle travels several times per day between downtown Seattle and Vancouver's River Rock Casino next to the Bridgeport SkyTrain station, three stops from the airport. Travel time is around three hours and fifteen minutes.

*Should you want to drive, Park'N Fly offers long-term parking and shuttle service.

Killing time before the flight

Vancouver International is in Richmond, a neighborhood with a large number of residents of Asian heritage. Many immigrated in the late 1980s from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Mainland China. Make the most of your time by taking advantage of the favorable exchange rate, and the shopping, dining and entertainment options along the SkyTrain's Canada Line. Buy a day pass for $10.25 Canadian ($8 U.S.), drop your bags at the airport, and go out and explore. 

A few suggestions: 

*Relax at the health club in the Fairmont Vancouver Airport hotel. A $20 Canadian ($15.50 U.S.) day pass buys access to the hotel's fitness center, pool, whirlpool, sauna, showers and changing area. For $50 Canadian ($38.50 U.S.), the hotel throws in workout clothing and a healthy snack. 

McArthurGlen Designer Outlet

*Shop and dine at the McArthurGlen Designer Outlet mall two stops away from the airport on the SkyTrain at Templeton station. You'll see signs in Chinese and hear jets soaring over the faux copper roofs of a shopping center designed to look as if it's in Paris or Italy. 
Vancouver's popular Japadog chain has an outlet here (Try the Yakisoba dog topped with Japanese noodles, red pickle, ginger and seaweed). The favorable exchange rate translates to extra discounts at chains such as Columbia Sportswear, J. Crew and Banana Republic. 

Japadog treats

* Try your hand at poker, black jack or play the slots at the River Rock Casino Resort, open 24 hours, three stops from the airport at the Bridgeport Skytrain station. Beer and wine is $5 Canadian ($3.80 U.S.) at Starbucks, Sunday-Thursday from 5 p.m. - 8 p.m. 

River Rock Casino

* Take a trip to Taipei without leaving Vancouver at the Richmond Night Market (Bridgeport station)  Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, starting at 7 p.m. The market is closed for winter, but reopens again next May.  

* Finally, reserve time to explore the airport itself. Try out the flight simulator in a public observation area, visit the Vancouver Aquarium's marine exhibits and view the airport's large collection of First Nations art.

This story appeared in The Seattle Times on Oct. 18, 2018

On the road to Machu Picchu: food, culture, art in Peru’s Sacred Valley

An hour after arriving in Lima, Peru on a flight via Vancouver, Canada and Mexico City, we check into a B and B a mile from the airport, convenient for a flight the next morning to begin our journey to the mountaintop Incan ruins of Machu Picchu. In search of a quick dinner along a busy street lined with car repair shops and mini-markets, we settle on a seafood restaurant with an English menu. It’s here we meet Louis, a recently-converted Morman waiter from Venezuela who serves me a shot glass filled with “Leche de Tigre,” Spanish for Tiger’s Milk, a liquid marriage of fresh fish, lime juice, hot pepper and Celantro leaves

Leche de Tigre

And so began our “back door” route to one of the world’s most visited destinations. For 95 percent of the people who visit Peru, Machu Picchu is the goal. The less time spent getting there the better. We decided to make the journey part of the trip, veering off the usual touring path, starting with nixing any of the overseas flights on U.S. airlines that arrive in Lima after midnight, leaving people cranky and tired at the start. Instead, we took the train from Seattle to Vancouver, and caught a red-eye with a connection in Mexico City, taking advantage of a fare that was not only $250 per ticket lower, but arrived in Lima in the mid-afternoon. 

Like almost everyone, we made plans to fly out the next morning to Cusco, the historic capital of the Incan empire and tourist gateway via train to Machu Picchu. That meant spending our first night in Lima. Looking for an alternative to the $250-per-night airport Holiday Inn, and found the family-owned Cursing Wasi bed and breakfast for $63 including airport pick-up and drop-off by friendly owner Julio. And instead of starting our trip in Cusco, 11,000 feet high in the Andes mountains, we pre-arranged to hop in a taxi straight away, and acclimate to the altitude gradually by descending to the less-visited Incan valley town of Ollantaytambo, surrounded by mountains at an elevation of 9,000 feet. 

Trying coca leaves for the first time

Free at the Cusco airport

Locals recommend chewing coca leaves (available at every hotel and in the Cusco airport above) to ward off altitude sickness. By saving Cusco until the end of our trip, and heading to Machu Picchu via the less-traveled train route via Ollantaytambo, we were able to adjust to the elevation gradually with no problems. The bonus: We arranged for our taxi driver to make several stops in the Sacred Valley- the area between Cusco and Machu Picchu- turning what’s normally a two-hour drive into a seven-hour tour filled with insights into the food, art and culture of the Quechua Indians, direct descendants of the Incas who populated the Andes from 1200 until the Spanish conquered the area in the mid-1500s.

A Quecha woman anther weavings in Chincheo

Our first stop was the mountain village of Chinchero where we had our first glimpse at the colorful textiles the women create using natural vegetable dyes and finely-woven alpaca wool, llama wool or cotton. Alpaca is in plentiful supply, both as a food source and for fiber to produce high-quality scarves, blankets, jackets and sweaters. I loved the color combinations, definitely brighter and more appealing than anything coming out of Mexico or Guatemala. Many of the men in the village carve gourd and pumpkins, using a tiny tool to etch intricate designs depicting Incan scenes. Chinchero at 13,000 feet is actually higher than Cusco, but apart from feeling a little out of breath from climbing a steep hill, we did fine.

Carving gourds in Chinchero

Quechua women always dress colorfully, paying special attention to their hats. Styles vary from village to village. Shaped like a shallow fruit bowl, the red felt hats worn by the women in Chinchero can be turned upside down and worn for sun protection. Women in the rural villages closer to Ollantaytambo decorate their hats with flowers, and attach them to their heads with straps made of beads.

Machu Picchu may be the most well-known of the Andean Incan sites, but scattered through the valley are other impressive ruins. We stopped along the way at Moray, a ruin that appears as a series of concentric terraces, perhaps used by the Incas to test experimental crops and conditions. It was our first experience hiking at altitude, so we took it slow while our taxi driver waited in the parking lot. It was interesting to know that there are usually alternative types of paths at sites like this one. You can walk straight up, or take a zig-zag trail. Some opt to walk trails at the top, while others stick to lower trails that involve fewer stairs. 

Staying hydrated and avoiding alcohol is one way to blunt the effects of walking or climbing at elevation. The Pisco Sour is Peru’s national drink, but we became fans of Chicha Morada, a refreshing non-alcoholic drink made by boiling purple corn with pineapple peels or pieces of quince, seasoned with cloves and cinnamon.

The mixture is boiled and strained, then served cold with sugar sometimes added. Almost every cafe and restaurant serves Chicha Morada, with the best made in-house once or twice a day, and served until it’s gone. Other popular beverages are Chicha itself, a homemade beer made with fermented corn which we didn’t try, and Inka Cola, a yellow soft drink created by a British immigrant in the 1930s, using lemon verbena. The taste is like slightly sweet version of cream soda. The Coca-Cola company co-owns the trademark in a joint venture with descendants of the original founding family.

Ollantaytambo’s grid of narrow, cobbled back streets date to Inca times, with canchas or blocks inhabited by several families during the 15th century, opening into a main courtyard. People get around by walking or via three-wheeled tuk-tuks that climb hills to steep to walk with suitcases or packages. Two main streets lead in and out of town, both patrolled by policeman who flip green and red signs like traffic lights, indicating that it’s OK to proceed one direction or the other. 

We checked into the $80-per-night Picaflor Tambo, a restored Ollantaytambo house with carved wooden doors and window frames over looking one of the canals that carry water down from the mountains into town. For some, Ollantaytambo is the start of a four-day trek along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Our plan was to go to Machu Picchu a few days later by train, and spend our time in Ollantaytambo exploring local sites, notably a massive terraced fortress, defended by the Incas against the Spanish in 1537.

Reaching the upper section meant climbing 200 steep steps, with no shade and few places to rest. Workers carrying bags of sand raced past us as we stepped aside on ledges to let them pass. Most amazing about Incan architecture is that the Incas had no horses or other work animals other than alpacas and llamas, no wheeled vehicles and no written language. They mined plenty of gold and silver, of course, and that’s what the Spanish were after. 

Views over the valley were stunning, but what we enjoyed most about Ollantaytambo just wandering through town, people-watching. Unlike in Cusco where local women sometimes dress up for tourists, the women in Ollantaytambo and surrounding villages wear traditional costumes in daily life. 

These women were participating in a “get out the vote” demonstration. The law requires all Peruvians to vote, or pay a fine, so most do.The women are especially photogenic in their colorful skirts and hats (men less so), and most are willing to be photographed if asked. Buying  something always a good idea. 

Hat fashions

Tom bought a hat band from this woman who sewed it to fit with thread and a needle pulled from her hat

Staying in Ollantaytambo also provided us with an early introduction into traditional foods beyond pizza which nearly every restaurant seems to offer hungry hikers. Alpaca appears on most menus as does guinea pig (cuy), both raised and eaten by the Incas, now considered delicacies reserved for special occasions. Pumpkin soup and quinoa are also staples along with potatoes (Peruvians cultivate 4,000 different types) and large-kernel corn, sold by street vendors with a side of soft, white cheese.

We ended our stay in Ollantaytambo at a pachamanca, which translates to “earth oven” in the Quechua language. Described as an “Andes BBQ,” a pachamanca is a traditional Incan meal of meats, vegetables and potatoes cooked underground on hot rocks heated to 800 degrees by a wood fire.

The "earth oven"

Ollantaytambo’s Hotel El Albergue, a historic hotel near the rail station, runs an organic farm that supplies its restaurant with meat and produce, and hosts a daily pachamanca lunch for $40 per person. Our afternoon there started with a quick tour of the farm. We watched as the crew first heated the red-hot stones, then laid in pieces of chicken, lamb, pork, purple potatoes, sweet potatoes and vegetables. They covered it all with a mound of fresh herbs, a cloth and finally shovels full of dirt, before leaving everything to cook for no more than 15 - 20 minutes.

Tables were set under thatched-roof outdoor huts with vases of flowers and pitchers of ruby-red Chicha Morada. A freshly-picked salad appeared along with platters of the roasted meats, potatoes, vegetables and a zucchini and cheese casserole in a clay pot the crew had buried in the “oven” along with the rest. I don’t normally eat much red meat, and I wish I could say I stuck to a vegetarian diet for the remainder of the trip, but this was Peru. Alpaca steak and guinea pig awaited in the days ahead.

Here’s a link to our complete photo gallery

Washington State's Own Stone Town Rocks with a Relaxed, Rural Vibe

The stone carvers of Tenino 

Zanzibar it's not, but Washington State's very own Stone Town rocks with a relaxed vibe sure to appeal to Seattleites tired of the   summer tourist crowds. No need to fly to Africa. Just head south on Interstate-5, past Olympia to find Tenino, a tiny town in rural Thurston County, once the sandstone capital of the West.

Pictures of John Wayne decorate the walls of the Sandstone Cafe where waiters serve $10 breakfast entrees and bottomless cups of coffee. Sip bacon whiskey at the Sandstone Distillery. Visit a group of stone carvers chiseling with hand tools in an old grain storage shed. Grab a free bike, and take a spin around town to spot historic stone buildings. 

Built up after sandstone deposits were discovered in the late 1800s, Tenino thrived as builders across the country looked for stronger construction materials following fires in Seattle and San Francisco. 
With bike trails, farms, parks and wineries nearby, this slice of small- town Western Washington makes for easy-on-the-wallet weekend getaway. Here's the plan:

The Sandstone Cafe 

9 a.m. 
Breakfast on a budget 

Get out of town early (even though it's the weekend, traffic can be heavy either direction on I-5), and join the locals for breakfast at the Sandstone Cafe. Go healthy with a breakfast salad (mushrooms, green peppers, onion and wilted spinach topped with feta and eggs) or splurge on the "Chunky Monkey," a waffle with bananas drizzled with peanut butter, maple sauce, whipped cream and bacon crumbles. 

Master carver Keith Phillips instructs Colby Russell

10 a.m. 
Visit the stone carvers 

Pick up a Tenino Sandstone Walking tour brochure at the Chamber of Commerce desk across from the cafe, and find The Shed, a workshop where master stone carver Keith Phillips, 71, and his protégés create one-of-a-kind works from sandstone mined from the last remaining local quarry (Of three, one is now a swimming pool and the other is gone). The carvers wear hats, ties and long aprons, just as they did long ago, and use hand tools to fashion decorative stone pieces.

The walking tour map points out various sculptures around town created by Phillips, a carver for 34 years, including a sandstone book in front of the library, a bag of groceries at the supermarket and a mortar and pestle in front of the pharmacy. 

Sipping vinegars
10:30 a.m.
To market 

A bountiful Thurston County agricultural area surrounds Tenino. Shop for local produce and crafts at the Tenino Farmers Market, Saturdays through September from 10 a.m.- 3 p.m. Find wooden toys, walking sticks and kitchen utensils made by Josh Wagner and his grandfather, Hap Newman, and sipping vinegars (shrubs) in flavors such as Blueberry Thyme and Pear Cardamon Rosemary crafted by Jenni Bourdon whose family owns the Sandstone Distillery.

11 a.m.  
Go for a bike ride

Antique and second-hand shops line Sussex Avenue. Stop by Joyce Worrell's Iron Works Boutique for vintage fashions, antiques and garden kitsch along with keys to free yellow bikes. Tenino was way ahead of big-city bike share programs when a community group started the Yellow Bike project in 2001. All you need is valid ID to borrow a bike for a few hours to tour the town, or ride part of the paved Yelm-Tenino rail trail.

Tenino's wooden scrip

All aboard

Visit the Tenino Depot Museum, a sandstone building that looks much the same as it did in 1914 when it was the Northern Pacific railway depot, and trains ran between Seattle and Portland. While the quarries, railroad and logging drove the economy of Tenino in the early 1900s, once concrete came along, the town's town’s fortunes waned. The Great Depression put Tenino on the map when the chamber of commerce began issuing wooden money printed on thin slices of spruce and cedar following a bank failure in 1931. 

The museum runs the same printing press used in the 1930s to print souvenir $1 wooden bills. Buy a few, and try using the scrip  around town. Many local businesses still accept it for purchases.

1 p.m.
Walk on the wildside

Time to head out of town into the rural backroads. Plan at least an hour, maybe more, to explore the peaceful Monarch Contemporary Art and Sculpture Park, a non-profit project begun in the 1990s by local artist Myrna Orsini and Doris Coonrod, a retired federal judge. The site reopened recently as a five-acre park free to the public.

Park nearby, then walk in or bike in via the Chehalis Western trail. Take a leisurely stroll past more than 100 modern sculptures made from granite, wood, steel and other materials. Some works, such as a giant croquet set with brightly colored balls the size of boulders, are immediately visible, while others are hidden among the trees.

Distiller John Bourdon

2:30 p.m.
Bacon whiskey 

Circling back towards Tenino, find the Sandstone Distillery and tasting room.  Distiller John Bourdon and his son, Justin, use Washington-grown grains to make spirits including a Stone Carver black gin, infused with star anise; a bacon whiskey flavored with help of pigs fed Sandstone’s spent grain; and an apple whiskey made with a neighbor's apples. Tours and tastings are $5. Expected to be up-and-running soon is a huge copper and oak still purchased from a Chehalis mint factory. 

Mill Lane's Deana Ferris

4 p.m.
Fruit of the vine 

Scatter Creek Winery and Brewing on Sussex Avenue offers a cozy place to sip and socialize in the afternoon and evenings. Drop in for a glass of Sandstone White, aged with Elderberry flowers, or a pint of Screamin' Rails IPA .

Tucked into a residential neighborhood three miles out of town is the Mill Lane Winery with a shady patio and tasting room decorated with twinkling lights.

Bring your sweet tooth. Proprietors Dan and Deana Ferris specialize in wines made with Washington state fruit. Deana comes up with the ideas and Dan makes the wine. There's blackberry truffle blended with dark chocolate and vanilla; pear wine made with fruit grown in Chehalis and a sparkling rose made from French grapes enhanced with strawberries and lime. 

If you go:

Getting there: Tenino is 75 miles south of Seattle via Interstate 5. Count on about 1.5 hours of driving time. Click here for visitor information.

This story was published in The Seattle Times on August 16, 2018

Suburban surprises await bikers in Vancouver's scenic countryside

Observation tower at Grant Narrows Provincial Park

I love Vancouver's city vibe, but on a recent visit to British Columbia, my husband and I decided to bypass the urban adventures for a weekend in the Canadian countryside. 

We didn't have to go far. Thirty miles east of Vancouver in the North Fraser River Valley are the suburbs of Pitt Meadows and Maple Ridge, at first glance a mish-mash of housing developments and strip malls, but for those in the know, a hidden corner of tranquility in metro Vancouver.

Nestled between the Pitt, Alouette and Fraser Rivers in the foothills of the Golden Ears mountains, are dairy farms, nurseries, cranberry and blueberry fields set on a giant floodplain protected by  dikes - long stretches of raised earthen mounds- surrounded by farmland. 

Built by Dutch settlers in the 1950s as a method of flood control, the dikes form an interconnected system of walking and bicycling trails. Making an overnight stay worthwhile are well-kept provincial and regional parks with river and canyon trails leading to waterfalls and wildlife habitats.

Airbnb in Maple Ridge

We used Airbnb to score a garden suite with a kitchen and private bath attached to a century-old Maple Ridge home once used by a Vancouver family as a summer retreat. it was a bargain at $65 a night, mainly because the U.S. dollar goes far in Canada, but also because it wasn't in downtown Vancouver.

With the better parts of two days to explore, it made sense to bookend a long bike ride around the dikes with hikes in nearby regional parks along with pit stops at a historic pub, a local cheesemaker and Peruvian and Taiwanese bistros. 

Grant Narrows Provincial Park 

The hike: This is a dog-friendly wilderness area and wildlife habitat on the banks of the Pitt River, with views of snow-capped  Golden Ears peaks and a dike system surrounded by wetland bog and marsh areas.

With a few hours of afternoon light left before sunset, we opted for a four-mile walk around the trail called the Katzie Marsh Loop, a hike that took us first along the Pitt River dike trail, a flat, wide trail of packed gravel, flanked on one side by the Pitt River, and the other by a marsh filled with watershields, rooted plants that float on the surface similar to water lilies, but smaller. Climbing a wooden observation tower, we looked for some of the 200-plus species of birds sighted in the park, and saw herons, ducks, geese and osprey.

A right turn led us to the Swan dike trail, a grassy path with water on both sides, and onto the Nature trail, a narrow, wooded path dotted with cattails, pond weeds and blackberry bushes. We were told that someone had spotted a bear here earlier, but we saw only a few lone kayakers. 

Pit stop Grab a stool on the front porch or a high-back upholstered chair near the wood stove at the Billy Miner Alehouse Café on the Fraser River, and step back to a time when train heists were common along the railroad tracks running past the front door.   
 Once a bank and shelter for war vets, the pub is named for gentleman bandit Billy Miner, a Robin Hood figure who targeted companies such as the Canadian Pacific Railway. 
Today, it's commuters riding the express trains from Vancouver who stop here after work. We paired pints of Three Bears Breakfast Stout brewed by Trading Post Brewing in Langley, B.C. with a wood-fired pizza piled with pulled pork, roasted sweet potatoes, mango chutney and pineapple.

Ridge Meadows Circle

The ride: With about 40 miles of interconnected trails, the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows dike system offers bikers many choices for rides along flat, mostly hard-packed gravel paths. 
Let's go Biking, a website dedicated to easy rides around metro Vancouver, outlines a variety of rides of varying lengths with access points, directions and sights marked on printable maps.  With most of the day to explore, we followed the Ridge Meadows Circle route for a 20-mile ride along all three rivers, mostly on dikes and and a few roads with dedicated bike lanes.  

Biking along the dikes in Pitt Meadows

Starting at Osprey Village, a planned community in Pitt Meadows across from a shoreline park, we peddled first along the   banks of the Fraser, then along a narrow path in the forested Pitt River Greenway. The trail widened again as left the woods, and road past a small airport, a cedar mill, blueberry farms, and cranberry bogs along the Fraser and Pitt Rivers. If I had time to do only part of this trail, it would be the last leg along the south side of the Alouette, the most peaceful of the three rivers, with views of Golden Ears in the late afternoon light. 

Pit stops:  Begin or end a dikes ride at Peruvian-owned Stomping Grounds cafe or Jia Plus, a Taiwanese cafe in Osprey Village. 

Stomping Grounds cafe

Stomping Grounds offers brunch on weekends. Other times, stop in for a breakfast sandwich, or a panini for a picnic lunch. Owner Anahi English's speciality is budin de pan, a Peruvian bread pudding made with raisins, cream, cranberries and eggs and drizzled with caramel.

Jia Plus offers cold Taiwanese milk teas, smoothies and non-dairy drinks plus a small menu of hot dishes such as wonton soup and ginger pork in a cozy cafe decorated with local art.

Kanaka Creek Regional Park

The hikes: Easy walks through a costal rainforest, waterfalls and sandstone cliffs await visitors to this wilderness park flanking the Kanaka Creek, just five miles from downtown Maple Ridge. 

With just a few hours left the morning we were headed back to Seattle, we decided to save larger Golden Ears Provincial Park for another time, and explore two short trails in this scenic regional park.

Interpretive signs along a 1.8 riverfront nature trail explain  how logs were once moved off rail cars and onto booms (rafts) for transport down the Fraser to local sawmills.  A wooden foot bridge crosses Kanaka Creek where the trail leads to picnic areas with peaceful water views.

Foot bridge across Kanaka Creek

An upper canyon trail in the Cliff Falls area follows sandstone canyons with wooden foot bridges crossing the creek with views of waterfalls. Wide paths and wooden steps in steeper areas make this a family-friendly trail popular with dog-walkers and mothers packing babies in front pouches.    

Homemade cheese and more at Cheesecrafters 

Pit stopStop by Golden Ears Cheescrafters to watch cheeses, curds and butter being made using milk from the dairy next door run by two Maple Ridge sisters.
"Everything you see in this case was made right here," a woman behind the counter told me, offering samples of smoked Gouda and Jersey blue. 

We came before our hike for coffee and a breakfast flatbread - eggs, cheese, tomatoes, bacon with a drizzle of balsamic - then returned later for cheese and a raspberry-apple pie.

If you go:

Where: Pitt Meadows and Maple Ridge lie 30 miles east of Vancouver in the North Fraser Valley. From Vancouver, head east on Highway 1 (the Trans Canada Highway) to Highway 7, which becomes the Lougheed Highway. From Seattle, plan on about 2.5 hours of driving, not including border wait times, for the 130-mile trip via Interstate 5, BC-15 North and Golden Ears Way.

Tourism information: See the Maple Ride & Pitt Meadows Community and Business Resource website. Also Destination British Columbia 

Trail maps: Let's Go Biking has suggested routes along the dike trails, along with maps and trail descriptions.  See also 

See Metro Vancouver's website for Parks information


Chain hotels along the Lougheed Highway (Highway 7). Airbnb offers the best option for bed and breakfast- style accommodations in private homes.

Golden Ears Provincial Park has three campgrounds. 

This story was published in the Seattle Times on June 17, 2018

Pure Bliss: Norwegian's newest ship begins Seattle/Alaska sailing season

The Norwegian Bliss docks in Victoria B.C.

The first ever cruise line to homeport in Seattle 18 years ago is now sailing the biggest ship to call in the Northwest. The popular week-long Seattle/ Alaska round trips, with port calls in British Columbia, has transformed the city into the largest cruise port on the West Coast. Norwegian Cruise Lines christened the Norwegian Bliss last week with travel writers,  travel agents and clients aboard for a three-day preview cruise between Seattle and Victoria, B.C.

Seattle's Pier 66: The Bliss' summer homeport

The Port of Seattle expects more than one million cruise passengers to pass through the city this year on 218 vessels, pumping more than $500 million into the local economy. Like many in Seattle, I have mixed feelings about this. While I don't like seeing my favorite downtown restaurants and the Pike Place Market crowded to capacity every weekend, I do appreciate that many businesses couldn't sustain the winter months without tourism. And who wouldn't want to visit this beautiful city? Just look at the view above of Pier 66, the Bell Street Cruise Terminal on the Seattle waterfront. This is where the Bliss will homeport this summer, bringing in more than 4,000 passengers and 1,800 crew members per week from now through September when it repositions for the Caribbean.   

Free-fall waterslides

So...what's it like to be on a mega-ship with 20 decks, 2,043 staterooms and more than 4,000 passengers? I can't tell you because there were only around 1,500 people and few children on our preview sailing, not counting many more on board just for the day of the christening on May 30. Once the day-trippers left, we easily found seating around the pools, in the observation lounge, and along the "waterfront," a open-air deck lined with comfortable couches and restaurants with outdoor tables. 

The "waterfront" deck

Bars, restaurants, nightclubs and a go-kart track on the top deck felt more crowded, even with fewer people on board, indicating passengers on regular sailings will be wise to reserve ahead for restaurants and popular activities. 

My husband and I tried to experience as much as we could in three nights. Here's an overview of some of our favorite finds:

Observation Lounge

Favorite public space: The huge wrap-around Observation Lounge on Deck 15 near the front of the ship. With floor-to-ceiling windows, comfortable chairs, tables and couches, a full-service bar and a  tasty and healthy complimentary breakfast buffet, the lounge was designed to maximize views of Alaska's mountain scenery. I loved this space for a quiet morning coffee and the New York Times downloaded onto my iPad. Kudos to Norwegian for limiting the noise level by banning music, lectures etc. and reserving such a large space for reading and relaxing. The downside is that the room's capacity is just 487, and even at half-full, it could feel like a much different experience. 

Observation Lounge bar

Favorite bars: I treasured my afternoon lattes from the Observation Lounge bar, and liked the Northwest touches in the Maltings Whiskey bar, with cocktails on tap designed by Seattle mixologist and chef Kathy Casey. I'm not a bourbon drinker, but I could have overindulged on her blackberry bourbon smash.

Kathy Casey

Other favorites were the District Brewhouse with 24 beers on tap including a Red Hook IPA and a Seattle Dry Cider, and the Sugarcane Mojito bar, mostly because of the bartender, below, Clarense Bennet from Honduras. Another advantage of being on an uncrowded ship was the relaxed crew. We met and talked with people from Philippines as many other parts of the world. Crew members work 7-day shifts for the most part while onboard, and were anxious to learn about inexpensive places to shop in Seattle near Pier 66 for whenever they can disembark for a few hours. 

Clarense Bennet

Favorite dining spots: Norwegian is known for its casual, "free-style" dining, meaning no formal dress code or assigned dining. Included in the cost of the cruise are meals in the Garden Cafe, a large buffet with tables positioned along the windows and outside; three main dining rooms and the Local Bar and Grill, open 24/7. There's a fee for dining in other restaurants, including a steak house, Italian restaurant, Japanese restaurant and Texas smokehouse (always filled on our cruise), which might make purchasing a dining package worthwhile. I'll leave the details on that to the experts. Here's a link to a good overview on We tried two of the fee restaurants, La Cucina and Cagney's Steakhouse, both with outdoor seating. Both were good, but noisy. I preferred the Manhattan main dining room (nice views of the sunset and mountains from the aft deck), both for ambience and food. We also found the Garden Cafe buffet relaxing for a light meal with lots of fresh and healthy choices. 

A lighted staircase and chandelier change colors

Favorite staterooms: The best values seem to be the balcony suites with couches and spacious bathrooms. Priciest is the Haven, a luxury "ship within a ship," within a ship on Decks 17, 18 and 19? Here there are penthouses, private family villas and connecting suites; a private restaurant; observation lounge; bar; pool; sauna; spa; and concierge desk. Oceanview and inside rooms cost less, of course, but considering that upgrades sometimes include a few free amenities (more dining options, free Wi-Fi, drinks etc.), passengers should look at all the options before booking. I was impressed by the studios designed and priced for solo travelers. There are 82 compact rooms furnished with full-sized beds and separate sinks and showers. 

Favorite activities: Entertainment in an 800-seat theater includes an excellent performance of the Broadway hit Jersey Boys about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. 

Two heated pools, several hot tubs, an inner tube slide and a high-speed double loop waterside provide plenty of water fun for adults and kids, but I predict the longest lines will be at the two-level race track on the top deck. Up to 10 drivers (no age limit but minimum and maximum height limits) race around the track in electric cars ($7 a ride). Kids shorter than four feet can go with a parent in a two-seater. Also on the top deck is an open-air laser tag course.

Costs: Don't be fooled by ads touting seemingly cheap prices for cruises aboard the Bliss.  Inside rooms on its Alaska Highlights cruise start at $1,049 per person for the last seven-day sailing in September, but go as high as $1,500 in July and August. Balcony rooms range from $1,600 in September to $2,300 in July. Staterooms in the Haven go from  $3,500 in September to $7,500 in late June. Add to these prices a daily service fee of $14.50 per person, extra charges for alcoholic drinks, laser tag, go-karts, fee restaurants and drinks plus an 18 percent gratuity on all bar purchase and services in the spa and salon. 

If you really want a bargain on the Bliss, consider the six-night Pacific Coastal Cruise from Vancouver to Los Angeles Sept. 30-Oct. 5, as the ship repositions for the winter. Prices range from $599 for an inside room to $2,399 in the Haven.