The Elgin Opera House — a Gem in the Wilderness

travel-writers-conf-212The tiny town of Elgin, Oregon has an unlikely centerpiece: the beautifully restored classical Elgin Opera House. A rural town born of the timber industry, at the bend of the highway leading from La Grande to Joseph, Elgin is tucked in the scenic Indian Valley between the Eagle Cap wilderness and the lovely Blue Mountains. 

travel-writers-conf-222Built in 1911, this colonial revival brick theater was uniquely ahead of its time, designed and built for the dual purpose of housing city government offices and a theater.

travel-writers-conf-228Exterior architectural features include a decorative metal cornice and pilasters flanking the entrance, and the vintage restored interior boasts a soaring ceiling, great acoustics, plush draperies, box seats, an orchestra pit, elaborate backdrops and rococo decor. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

travel-writers-conf-223Honoring tradition, performers have signed the backstage brick walls for over a century. The former jail in the basement serves as costume storage, where barred doors protect suits, gowns and wigs.

travel-writers-conf-238After decades as Elgin’s central civic gathering place, it drifted into disrepair. Local forces converged to restore the building in the 1980s, and today the Elgin Opera House brings repeat visitors from as far as Hawaii, California and Idaho to enjoy professionally staged musicals ranging from Oklahoma to Grease to Footloose. This winter, shows include A Christmas Story–the Musical in December and Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat in February.

travel-writers-conf-241A four hour drive from Portland brings you to this charming town, where you can follow a night at the theater with fly fishing on the Grande Ronde River, a journey on the Eagle Cap Excursion Train, or a pedal-powered wilderness ride with the Joseph Branch Railriders–or just relax into the quiet pace of an Oregon back road weekend. You may also eat at the cutest Subway franchise this side of the Mississippi.

travel-writers-conf-217For a real taste of the vibrant Elgin arts community, plan a trip this month. On October 21 and 22, the Elgin Opera House presents cowboy poetry, followed by dinner and a dance at the Stampede Hall.    


Whale Magic at Bahia de San Ignacio, Baja California

The palapa at Kuyima: dining room and gathering place

Whale watching usually means jostling around on a big boat with 50 other people for a quick glimpse of a whale off in the distance. When I learned it could be different–when I saw pictures of people PETTING whales from little fishing boats–I knew I had to go.

Gray whales endure a 5,000 mile migration–one of the longest migrations of any mammal–to three enormous, tranquil lagoons on the Pacific side of the Baja California peninsula. Sheltered from the surging Pacific, they mate, give birth, and raise and nurse their calves to prepare them for the spring journey back to the Arctic feeding grounds.

Map of Baja’s gray whale nurseries

Bahia Magdalena, Bahia de San Ignacio  and Laguna Ojo de Liebre (formerly known as Scammon’s Lagoon) all serve as whale nurseries from December through April. A lively tourist industry, ranging from two-hour boat trips to multi-day packages, lures adventurers from around the globe.

Turtle shell on the beach. Because the sanctuary forbids taking souvenirs, the beach is carpeted with seashells, and there are whale bones too.

Bahia Magdalena, also known as Mag Bay, is the southernmost option and the easiest to access from the resort-friendly southern tip of Baja, Los Cabos.

Laguna Ojo de Liebre and Bahia de San Ignacio comprise the Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaino, within the enormous El Vizcaino Biosphere reserve. This wildlife refuge, the largest in Mexico, protects 9,625 square miles of unique desert landscape. The strict regulations in action since the sanctuary was established in 1993 merit credit for much of the tremendous recovery of the gray whale population in recent decades.

Many ospreys nest near the lagoon. Coyotes stole their eggs, so Kuyima built nesting towers. In Spanish, it’s aguila pescadora, “fish eagle.”

Some say Bahia de San Ignacio has the friendliest whales. Local outfitters include Kuyima Ecotourismo, Antonio’s Ecotours, Baja Ecotours, and Pachico’s Ecotours.

Most packages last between 4-6 days, and some include spendy direct flights to the lagoon. I’m on a budget, and I’m excited about whales, but I also had other ambitions for my 10-day Baja trip. We settled on Kuyima, where we could rent an outfitted tent for two for $40US a night, and get meals and whale watching trips a la carte. In the end, it was under $500US for two people for two nights, three whale watching trips each, and four meals each. Folks with their own camping gear can pitch tents right by the lagoon, cook their own meals, and save a few bucks. Kuyima also runs a neighboring camp where guests stay in small cabins. Both are right on the beach, steps from the lagoon.

Kuyima’s tent camp. We rented a tent, but other folks brought their own gear or RVs.

Kuyima was perfect for us. Off the grid and powered by solar, they have simple outhouses which were perfectly pleasant, a bathing room where one could take a bucket bath with solar heated water, and a spacious enclosed palapa, where we got meals and margaritas and enjoyed the small library of books about whales and Baja. The staff was helpful, devoted to whales, and spoke English. Our fellow visitors included tourists from Baja and elsewhere in Mexico, Italians, Germans and Americans.

Kuyima cabins, at the adjacent camp

Kuyima cabins, at the adjacent camp.

The sanctuary strictly limits whale watching, to ensure visitors don’t overwhelm the creatures. Only a fraction of the bay is accessible to the pangas (small outboard-powered fishing boats), and the number of pangas in that area at any time is limited. Regulations limit each boat to 90 minutes in the area. Some folks come out for a single boat ride, others stay many nights and take at least two boat rides a day.

But how to get there? The road to Kuyima from San Ignacio is only partly paved, and I had trouble verifying its condition. Kuyima could bring us by van, about 90 minutes, but at unpredictable cost. They charge a fixed price ($110US round trip), to be shared by an unknown number of passengers.

There’s plenty of time to wander the beach at San Ignacio Lagoon.

In the end, my friend and I flew into Loreto with Alaska Airlines. We had our rental car by about 2PM, and drove the 170 miles to the town of San Ignacio by 8PM. We lucked out–our little Chevy Aveo had no trouble navigating the mostly paved road to Kuyima Whale Camp. At $280 and one-and-a-half tanks of gas for nine days, we were happy we decided to rent.

Some call it a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I hope not! The thrill of touching whales, the magic of looking one in the eye, the joy of seeing a calf approach with the playful curiosity of a puppy–I’ll be back! And the bonus–Baja California beckons with its dramatic deserts, soaring mountains (as high as 10,000 feet!), 65 islands and 1900 miles of mostly undeveloped coastline. I intend to see a lot more of it.

Sunset with pelicans and pangas

Petting Whales (it’s true!!!) in Baja California

april 2016 1178A light breeze tickles my hair as sunlight dazzles on blue water. Arid mountains rise on the horizon, while the boat gently rolls to the husky hum of an outboard motor.

Deep inside me a thrill blossoms: A gray whale materializes just feet from our panga–a small open fishing boat.

At first it’s a glimmer of murky white speckles–a vague, mysterious hint of movement, barely detectable. As she ascends, she transforms: From shadowy indistinct suggestion to a grey-and-white mottled outline, then all dimension and details are revealed as she breaks the surface and takes a breath, water sheeting off her back.

We all gasp as she and her calf drift alongside our vessel and she emits a glittering blast from her blowhole. The spray drifts over us, pungent with a fishy fragrance reflecting her diet of tiny invertebrates–although here in the breeding grounds of Bahia de San Ignacio, she probably doesn’t eat at all. Instead, she nurses her young calf on 50 gallons of milk a day as she helps it master swimming, diving, and making friends with curious humans.

april 2016 1171

The pair parallel our boat as we motor slowly forward. My heart leaps as mama changes her angle and comes straight for us. She lingers alongside as a half dozen hands reach to pet her. Her skin’s slick and shiny, and has a little give–like a well-inflated wet inner tube. Individual short, bristly hairs emerge from dimples on her enormous lower jaw, and constellations of barnacles and lice are scattered over her body–all harmless.

She rolls over, offering her dappled belly for more stroking before abruptly dropping into roiling waters with a flip of fin and tail.

But they’re not done! Mama and baby hang out. The interest and curiosity are mutual–they approach one side of the panga, engage with us, drop and glide under to emerge on the other side for more caresses. We learn that their eyes are directed downwards, so when they roll away–or spyhop– they are just trying to get a good look at us. Human watching.

90 minutes of whale watching feels like a small miracle. I am forever changed.

Soaring Wyoming Skies Frame Craggy Peaks in the Grand Tetons

grand teton sun on lakeRough and rocky trails, alpine glaciers, star-scattered skies, views that take your imagination hostage and run for miles—that’s Grand Teton National Park.

grand teton glacierAs the day draws to a close, savvy animal spotters gather by the waterside and wait for elk, wolves, moose and bear to venture near and quench their thirst. Critters abound in this 484-square-mile park–herds of bison graze on the prairie, pronghorn antelope leap through the brush. Study the sky for soaring eagles and osprey, admire jagged peaks mirrored in still water and watch the sinking sun set snow-clad peaks ablaze.

grand teton chipmunkThe Grand Teton range is just south of Yellowstone, and suffers a bit from Yellowstone’s metaphorical shadow. Unjustly so—Grand Teton’s landscape has a rugged vertical drama that stands on its own. Peaks nearly 14,000 feet in altitude rise abruptly, improbably, astonishingly, from a wooded plain 7,000 feet below.

grand teton sun on riverThe wide Snake River runs calmly through, carrying rafts full of visitors, cameras blazing. Fly fishing is a religion in these parts. Jackson Lake, dotted with islands, extends for 15 miles. The smaller Jenny Lake has a shuttle across, making a hike into the mountains both shorter and sweeter.

grand teton trailWind the day down at Jackson Lake Lodge, where you can enjoy the view from the deck with a buffalo burger and a local microbrew.

Mount Rainier: A Cascade Paradise Year-Round

Fall is here. I struggle letting go of summer—I loathe the arrival of the Pumpkin Spice Latte simply for symbolic reasons. Autumn colors, while gorgeous, are a bittersweet reminder to me that summer is over. I know it’s silly—there’s plenty to do and see and enjoy throughout the fall and winter. And it’s a great time to avoid crowds and get some good deals.2015 125Last spring I visited Mount Rainier, lured by a great shoulder season two-nights-for-one offer. The National Park Inn, in the historic Longmire District at the southwest corner of the park, is open year-round. Completely renovated in recent decades, the lodge doesn’t have a rustic, rough-hewn log interior like the seasonal Paradise Inn higher up the mountain, but its long, inviting porch demands lingering as views of Rainier filter through the shifting clouds, and its massive stone fireplace makes the lounge a cozy spot to enjoy complimentary afternoon tea and scones.

2015 113Several hikes start right there. On the Trail of the Shadows, an easy 0.7 mile loop across from the Lodge, I admired the astonishing handiwork of the resident beavers—they do this with their TEETH??—along with a replica of an early homesteaders’ cabin and stately stands of tall, straight trees banked in ferns and shrouded with mist. 20150331_122327The Rampart Ridge trail ascends through steep forest, switch-backing over glittering creeks which tumble over gleaming rocks and amber logs.

20150329_162916My lodging package included a free snowshoe rental, so I drove a scenic 11 miles up to the end of the road, where the Paradise Inn stands on the snowy slopes of Mount Rainier just shy of the tree line. After a vigorous trudge up beyond the evergreens, I turned to a vast and glorious view of the nearby Tatoosh Range, south of Rainier, beyond which peeked Mount Adams and Mount Saint Helens on this extraordinarily clear day.

20150330_114834Back at the Lodge, where no cell service, Wi-Fi, or TV distracts (there is a payphone! It takes quarters, how retro!) I returned to the irresistible draw of the porch. With wine and cheese brought down from my room, I read, wrote and played with my camera in delectable solitude as the afternoon sun illuminated plumes of snow blowing off Rainier’s domed 14,000-foot peak.

2015 187I can’t wait to visit Rainier again—for the summer blaze of wild flowers, the fall colors, the winter snowscapes, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. And especially to linger on that porch…

2015 164

A Prix Fixe Feast in the Oregon Outback

Never in my life have I faced such a slab of beef all by myself! Between 28-32 boneless ounces, this is a steak to feed a family, maybe even a scout troop—but here it rests before me, a picture of fragrant, juicy glory. It dwarfs the foil-robed baked potato. I slice through the gleaming bark: pink perfection. sign and sky 1South of Bend by 90 minutes of pine forest, sage brush, and huge wide-open western skies, the Cowboy Dinner Tree is a carnivore’s dream journey into the Old West. A collection of weathered low-ceilinged shacks and log cabins encloses rustic wooden tables and benches. The walls are haphazardly appointed with cowboy gear—horse-tack, hats, tools of barn and chuck wagon—and dollar bills are everywhere, tucked into cracks or skillfully origami’d and placed on windowsills, to be gathered annually and donated to a veteran’s organization.

dining room no peopleThe wise diner brings a cooler, even a container or two, to get every ounce of goodness out of the family-style meals. After drink orders are placed—water, pink lemonade or coffee—salad arrives, in a humble plastic bowl with a squeeze bottle each of house-made honey mustard and ranch dressings. Nope, it’s not iceberg—it’s a blend of greens sparked with red cabbage, carrots and herbs. Then a choice of two soups—we got the rich, thick and creamy chicken chowder, studded with corn and potatoes. With this arrives a pie pan of steaming, tender, irresistible pull-apart rolls and a scoop of butter—bigger than an ice cream serving at some of those fancy-pants Portland scoop shops. Plenty of food already, and the main course is yet to come.rolls and butterWhen you place your reservation, you decide: steak or chicken. The close-to-two-pound monstrosity/delight of top sirloin, grilled to medium rare in an enormous lidded cooker out back, or a whole rotisserie chicken. Our steaks fed us each for three days! Along with the meat comes a baked potato of ordinary size, accompanied by a surprisingly modest—but adequate—spoonful of sour cream. Plastic bags are provided for leftovers. By happy accident we had an empty pint tub in the car, and enjoyed cold chicken chowder for breakfast. steak close upDessert was tasty, simple and comfortingly manageable in size: a small square of white cake scattered with berries and soaked in cream.dessert - CopyWhile the food is worth the trip, the real magic is in the ambience, the incredible remote setting, and the people. It’s friendly, down-home, and authentically rustic like I’ve never seen a restaurant in the United States. As a cook, I couldn’t resist a peek into the kitchen. Yup, rustic there, too! Another old-fashioned attribute—the Cowboy Dinner Tree is cash only, and in the middle of nowhere, so bring it!table close up

The lore is that the large juniper tree on the property used to shelter chuck wagons which fed cowboys on cattle drives from nearby Silver Lake to the Sycan Marsh. The buildings are a relic of a 19th century homestead, and became a restaurant in 1992. Current owners Angel and Jamie Roscoe took over the property from Angel’s mother in 2012.welcome log cabin

There’s a funky gift shop and benches to linger on outside while either salivating over the grilling meat or digesting, plenty of parking for RVs, and even a couple of guest cabins to spend the night. Or drive another hour and stay at the wonderful Summer Lake Hot Springs, where a long soak in hot mineral water will whet the appetite for a cowboy breakfast of hearty leftovers.


Peasant Arts: A Vendange in France

One September, I picked grapes in a tiny village in France. My brother and his wife have a house in Petit Bersac, in the Dordogne. When I heard there would be a vendange–a harvest–I knew I couldn’t miss it.

Copy of DSCN3452I’d met Serge and Paulette a few years earlier in Petit Bersac. The oldest couple in the village, they lived traditionally. Serge would bike down the road in his beret to tend to his fields, garden plots and vines dotted around the village. In the backyard they kept rabbits and chickens, and each autumn they made table wine, cognac and pineau to last the year, out of a truckload of assorted grapes. The harvest was celebrated by a feast in their yard for all the volunteers. It was a rare opportunity to be part of a dying tradition.

DSCN3420Sadly, Serge had passed away in the year before this vendange, so his son Guy was in charge of the harvest, the grapes and the crushing while Paulette was, as usual, in charge of the meal.

DSCN3419On harvest day we met at their house, at the table set up for the afternoon feast. 8:00 AM and the menu was red wine, coffee, bread, ham and blood sausage. And cigarettes. I learned that while women were welcome to join the harvest, they did not usually participate in this part of the festivities, but modern ideas prevailed, and I breakfasted there along with my sister-in-law and Guy’s wife and the menfolk.

We walked up the road to the vines in the morning mist. A variety of red and white grapes were planted in rows, strung along thick wires and heavy with fruit. Each picker was issued a pair of rustically rusty, but quite sharp and effective, clippers and a plastic basket or bucket. A few of the sturdier men served as mules, wearing a galvanized metal flat-sided backpack into which all the pickers tipped their bounty.

DSCN3463A democratic acceptance prevailed. When I was spotted trimming off the moldy grapes, I was admonished to just chuck the whole bunch in. Earwigs were ubiquitous and also not worthy of extracting. I did persist in removing slugs, though the veteran harvesters doubtless found that rather precious.

DSCN3490It was a beautiful foggy morning and the vines were a technicolor blaze of red, orange, green and yellow. A special perk was sampling the many varieties as I picked: some honey-sweet, some deep and complex. Eventually our crew of twenty or so pickers had stripped the vines of every grape, filling the tractor-trailer to the brim, so we ambled back into town to watch the grapes be sucked out of the trailer and crushed on their way into an enormous wooden barrel.DSCN3509DSCN3510DSCN3516

Primping and Pimping for Premium Pix

The art of enhancement.
The art of manipulation.
The art of deception—sometimes.
The art of turning something pedestrian into something irresistible.
No, I’m not talking about push-up bras. I’m talking about food styling.
I had the good fortune learn some food styling tips from one of the top names in the business, Delores Custer, thanks to a workshop offered by the Portland Culinary Alliance at The Art Institute of Portland’s Culinary School.
My wildly swinging appetite during her slide show attests to her skill. Oohhhh, I want a hamburger—char grilled, juicy, crispy with lettuce and onion. No, I want pancakes dripping with syrup and melted butter.  Wait, no, bread pudding swimming in chocolate sauce REALLY sounds good.
I am easily manipulated.
No longer an obscure behind-the-scene art, food styling is increasingly on everyone’s radar, not least because of the explosion of enthusiastic amateurs snapping tasty pix for their blogs, review sites like Yelp and food-obsessed websites like Chowhound
While a sumptuous dish viewed in person triggers all five hungry senses, a successful photograph utilizes every trick to appeal to our eyes alone, suggesting tempting scent, luscious texture, a hot sizzle or refreshing chill, and a transcendent deliciousness. Experts like Delores harness a variety of techniques, which she discusses in her new book–the absolute bible on the topic–Food Styling: The Art of Preparing Food for the Camera. After over 30 years as one of the top names in the business, she knows all the secrets, many of which she invented. A split-second with a heat-gun gives chocolate chip cookies that straight-out-of-the-oven look. An eyedropper—or even a tiny jot of soap—gives coffee that just-poured freshness.
I was inspired to put my little Canon digital point-and-shoot through its paces. Here are a couple shots in which I captured that tight depth of field so popular in food photography today. And now, armed with the methods Delores shared, my food pictures–my favorite souvenirs of any trip—will burst with sensory appeal.

Gallery of the sky, Martinique

Saint Anne, viewed across the bay of Marin–from a moving car!

What is it about the skies here?

The light is rapturous–perhaps that’s what lured Paul Gaugin here in 1887 to paint a dozen or so canvasses.

The clouds are enormous sculptures sailing over blue water.

Squalls sweep in over the Atlantic, giving way to rainbows of epic proportions. Look…..

Le Marin at sunset  
From the kitchen at sunset
Gold glow of sunset, off the porch
Clouds from the porch

Eight Things To Know About Rhum in Martinique:

 rhum-boxes-at-ed1.    It’s rhum, not rum.

2.    It’s actually rhum agricole–a different product from the usual Caribbean rums we imbibe. The difference? Instead of being distilled from a fermented brew of molasses (a by-product of sugar production) it is distilled directly from fermented cane juice. Unless it’s aged (old = vieux), it’s a white rhum. Aged rums pick up golden hues from the barrels.

3.    It’s available in boxes, just like cheap wine! Only it’s all the best rhum. Although cheap rum does come in a box as a supermarket generic.

4.    What’s the best? Some local brands of renown include Clement, Trois Rivières,   La Mauny, and Depaz.

5.    The traditional local drink is “ti punch,” a formidable blend of rhum, a little local coarse sugar, and a miniscule whisper of lime juice. Order it at a bar or restaurant and you’ll typically receive a glass, a sugar bowl, a wedge of lime the size of your thumbnail, and a large bottle of rhum agricole. DIY! And please, don’t expect any ice.


6.    Yes, it’s wicked strong at first, but you’ll be surprised at the smooth underbelly it displays after a few sips.

7.    Variations on ti punch? Supermarkets offer various flavored syrups to substitute for the sugar: vanilla, ginger and sirop batterie, which is much like molasses.

8.    The “ti” of ti punch comes from the French word petit, meaning small.