On an April afternoon in the Anza-Borrego Desert, the light was white-hot and the temperature a scorching 91 degrees. When I got out of the car, my eyes, used to Portland gloom, could barely stay open. But after half an hour, they adjusted. Thank goodness. One of my sisters had helpfully warned me about rattlesnake season, so I had to keep a close watch for the desert’s coiled, rattling citizens.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is California’s biggest state park. Located on the east side of San Diego County, it includes 12 wilderness areas, 500 miles of dirt roads, and many hiking opportunities for desert lovers. It takes about two hours to drive to the park from San Diego. The name “Borrego” comes from the Spanish word for bighorn sheep, a species which dwells here.
My boyfriend and I had ventured into the desert to go on the park’s most popular hike, a three-mile round-trip to a palm oasis. It’s truly strange to walk through the dry desert – made even drier by the current Southern California drought – then come upon green palm trees and a little creek. It looks like a mirage. But the palm grove is for real. Palms grow along earthquake faults in the desert, where water seeps up and keeps the trees alive. And supposedly coyotes are the gardeners. They eat seeds in one place, then leave them elsewhere in their droppings, thus sprinkling the canyon with palm trees.
Back in the 1920s, the Borrego palm canyon inspired folks to plan a desert state park around it. Nowadays the palm canyon trail is the park’s most popular. But on our visit, we encountered only three other people. Like us, they wanted to hang out in the palm-shaded grotto and cool off. In one of those small world travel experiences, one of them had attended the same high school as my boyfriend. Go Pirates!
If you find yourself in the Anza-Borrego Desert, this is a fun trail. It’s short and easy, but the sun is bright and hot. Bring lots of water and wear your sunscreen and sun hat. Pack a lunch and plan to relax inside the grotto for a while.
At first glance, Omaha’s Candlewood Suites is just another airport hotel. Seen one, seen them all, right? But the Candlewood has some good things to offer health-conscious travelers like me. Here are five things I appreciated about this hotel.
- This room is spacious! Plenty of floor space for morning yoga, or a session with the resistance band and jump rope you packed. You didn’t forget your jump rope, did you?
2. You have your own kitchen. This means you can prepare your own health food. Or if you go out to eat, you’ll feel less inclined to stuff all that delicious restaurant meal down your gullet knowing you can stow leftovers in your hotel fridge.
3. Too tired to go out in search of food? Ready to hit the vending machines and dine on peanut butter crackers and Red Vines? Hold on. Down in the lobby gift store, you can get an actual vegetarian or vegan frozen dinner. I don’t know when I’ve ever seen Amy’s brand foods in a hotel gift shop. I was impressed.
4. The hotel gym is small but adequate. In addition to a couple of cardio machines, there’s a rack of free weights and a few of those intriguingly versatile hotel gym machines with lots of attachments. Best of all, you can try out The Bean. This as-seen-on-TV exercise product looks like a giant inflatable bean. The Candlewood Suites thoughtfully left a manila folder full of The Bean exercises. This was my first encounter with The Bean. While I don’t plan to buy one, it made for an entertaining workout.
5. Ready to go outside? Right across the street from the Candlewood, Carter Lake offers lovely flat paths for a walk or run. It’s also a popular place for urban birding. Watch for geese and ducks. If it’s a sunny early morning like the one during my recent stay, don’t be tricked into thinking that sunny means warm. You might need a hat and gloves.
Everybody has their travel bugaboos. Some folks pack a special pillow. Others can barely tolerate sitting on an airplane for 12 hours, or freak out about getting lost in a strange place. Me, I always worry about bad coffee and a lack of veg food. This fear is especially chilling in a state which prides itself on supplying one out of three of the country’s steaks and hamburgers.
But The Chocolate Bar in Grand Island, Nebraska, solved both these problems. And offers excellent chocolate, too.
Why does a café in this Nebraska town offer multiple vegan options? Chocolate Bar employee Danae McCoy, culinary artist, is their resident vegan. She’s been vegan for more than two years. In her quest for fertility, she sought the best diet. That brought her to the movie Vegucated. “I went vegan overnight,” she told me during a brief lull in the lunch rush. “There’s so much I didn’t know about the animal industry.” Grand Island has a local vegetarian organization called Veggienforcers, and quite a few vegans in town, Danae said.
When first entering The Chocolate Bar, it’s easy to mistake the long, narrow restaurant for a café. But while they offer excellent coffee – I had Black Cat espresso roasted by Intelligentsia in Chicago, by far the best caffeine I had all week, coupled with a rare soy milk sighting in central Nebraska – they also offer a full lunch menu. While there’s no dinner menu, lunch is offered till close, which is 10PM Monday through Thursday and “late,” according to their website, on Friday and Saturday. Avoid Grand Island on Sunday, when The Chocolate Bar is closed.
It took Danae a while to convince the powers-that-be, but they finally relented and tried out some dishes centered on Portobello mushrooms. They were a hit. Three dishes revolve around vegan pesto and Portobellos: a sandwich, a wrap and a salad. I got the salad, which featured hunks of bread grilled with olive oil then spread with pesto. Also, the salad featured fresh mixed greens, a marvelous oasis in an iceberg lettuce kind of state. Diners can also order a mushroom as a meat substitute in any wrap on the menu.
During my visit, owner Sharena Anson was out of the shop. But her mother/employee Lori Arriola and barista/barkeep Elizabeth Frady filled me in on The Chocolate Bar’s history. It opened 3 ½ years ago. Lori said Sharena had dreamed of opening the business for about four years before that. While Sharena likes coffee, her true love is baking. “She’s been baking for as long as I can remember,” Lori told me. But once she opened her restaurant, she got so busy she had to hire somebody else to bake.
The biggest sellers in the bakery department are an almond butter rainbow cake, with festive orange and pink polka dots in the frosting, and the old-fashioned chocolate cake.
On the way out, my local guide pointed at some old buildings which are getting a makeover. Sharena and her husband own them, too, and are hard at work revitalizing downtown Grand Island on a shoestring budget, he said. Okay. I’m a fan. Delicious desserts, perfect coffee drinks and multiple vegan options paired with deep commitment to the local community. All vegetarians and vegans passing through central Nebraska should stop by for a wrap and an espresso.
On a recent trip to Bend, Oregon, the best place I ate was Joolz. This Mediterranean restaurant has plenty of vegan food, but is also good for a mixed group of omnivores who want elk in their hummus and other such oddities. And it’s quite pretty, with multi-colored glass lamps and lots of draped fabrics that give it a tent-like feel.
For us veg people, the dukkah nuts ($6) are a perfect starter. Toasted hunks of house bread, olive oil and a big pile of ground pistachios, almonds, hazelnuts, and sesame seeds flavored with cumin, coriander and sea salt. The oil makes the nuts stick to the bread. Genius.
If I had endless appetite and funds, the marinated spiced olives with lemon and pepper also sounded good. Dairy fans have some interesting choices, including yogurt topped with zataar spices and a pan-seared cheese with pomegranate reduction.
I ordered the biggest veg entrée, the vegetarian plate ($22). This included arugula salad, a pile of tiny stuffed grape leaves, green garbanzo beans, cauliflower, three lemony falafels, tahini sauce and pita bread. The fresh, flash-fried cauliflower with lemon and parsley was extra good. Actually, everything was. I felt sort of guilty because I forgot to save anything for the dog.
I’ve always been superstitious about New Year’s Eve. I worry that a stupid start to the new year will lead to a stupid year. So I’m leery of loud and drunken parties full of people I don’t know or care about.
This year my boyfriend and I decided to take his dog to Mount Hood, where 2015 could start in a snowy, quiet way. I was hoping to find a cabin to stay in, but they all required a two-night minimum and we only had one day off together. Somebody recommended Resort at the Mountain as a place where we could stay a single night and bring a dog. I called and learned that the dog weight cutoff is 50 pounds. Fortunately, Rudy weighs 45.
The resort features a golf course and spa. It’s pretty large – people typically drive between reception and the steam room, at least when it’s snowing. The rooms where dogs can stay are down the road a half mile or so from reception in a one-story building that looks like an ordinary motel. The rooms share a large, fenced-in backyard for romping dogs. Inside was a nice, standard, comfortable room. This block of dog rooms feels cut off from the rest of the resort because, well, it is. So if you stay here when the temperature is in the 20s, mentally prepare for driving to the pool and other far-flung parts of the resort.
The pool area was disappointing. The area surrounding the pool was icy. Several of the gates weren’t working, so we shivered in our swimsuits and cover-ups, vainly trying our key cards until we found a gate that opened. We ventured toward the Jacuzzi twice. The first time we were put off by a screaming child, the second by a tub full of yelling young people and clinking bottles.
Altitude is the name of the resort’s restaurant. We ordered from the room service menu, which was a good value and featured several vegetarian dishes. The house salad ($9) is immense, full of mixed greens, candied nuts and champagne vinaigrette. You can get a hummus plate ($10), a black bean burger ($11) or a stuffed bell pepper ($15). I got the pepper, which was very good but different than described on the menu. What was advertised as a vegan item full of brown rice, lentils and marinara arrived stuffed with quinoa and covered in cheese. The dog appreciated the cheese, but vegans won’t be thrilled by this dairy surprise. Gluten-free folks can choose between four different entrees.
Overall, the resort was pleasant and comfortable but, at around $200 for one night, pretty pricey. I was willing to pay that much to start the new year at Mount Hood, but on an ordinary night I couldn’t justify the expense.
However, the location is great. We were only a mile or two from the Salmon River, which has a very easy, mostly flat trail. We drove up to Timberline Lodge and watched the last sunset of 2014 turn the snowy mountain pink. Trudging through snow, marveling at giant icicles, being with someone I love and watching a very happy dog were all great ways to end one year and start a new one.
Annemarie Maitri grew up in a family that loved food. During breakfast, they were already discussing what they’d eat for lunch and dinner. “While growing up, I thought James Beard was a relative because my dad talked about him so much,” Maitri told me as we sat in Bloom Bakeshop, her adorable bakery in Middleton, Wisconsin earlier this month.
Bloom Bakeshop is a must-visit for vegans with a sweet tooth living in or traveling through the Madison area. The store is painted a cheerful turquoise inside, and decorated with the sort of vintage knickknacks your grandmother might have had around her house, if she had really good taste. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a bakery anywhere with more vegan and gluten-free choices. Plus, the pastries are really, really pretty. And Maitri is totally sweet and charming, with lots of energy and sparkly eyes despite raising three kids and probably getting up before the crack of dawn to run her bakery. I don’t know how she does it!
Following her Bakery Dream
Bloom will celebrate its fifth anniversary in February. But Maitri’s route to baking success was not a straight shot. She has a BA in psychology and a masters in nursing home administration – not exactly what you’d expect from the person making your wedding cake. In her previous life, she worked in marketing for the American Cancer Society.
But always she heard the call of the cupcakes. “I’ve always been obsessed with dessert,” she said. In her family of cooks, “I was the dessert girl.”
Maitri was especially interested in good quality food that didn’t strain the planet or exploit the people who grew it. “I read every Michael Pollard book,” she said. She knew she wanted to open a sustainable organic bakery. But with three small kids at home, was that possible?
She found a company called Vocation Vacations – now PivotPlanet – that helps people test drive their dream jobs. She apprenticed at a bakery in Ohio during the wedding cake season. “I saw everything,” she said. “I saw the real deal of what can happen.”
Afterwards, the owners sat her down and said, “We have no doubt you can do this. But you really like your kids.” She realized she didn’t want to work all day every day. So she started out opening on only Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 11 to 7, and slowly grew from there.
Vegan and Gluten-free
Maitri isn’t vegan or gluten-free herself, but she loves a baking challenge. And there was definitely a demand. For the sake of efficiency and display space, all her gluten-free pastries are vegan and vice-versa. “My first vegan, gluten-free experiment was a pumpkin cupcake,” she said. “It turned out horrible. But my customers believed in me. I experimented. My customers helped me shape my recipes.”
In the early days of Bloom, she only offered a few choices every day. Now her staff of five makes 10 different traditional pastries, and 10 vegan and gluten-free, on weekdays. On Saturday, Bloom’s busiest day, customers can choose from 15 different treats. Some of Bloom’s most popular baked goods are raspberry buckles, mint chocolate ganache cupcakes and salted caramel cupcakes.
The pastries are ever-evolving as Maitri experiments with different ingredients. Right now she likes sorghum flour, coconut flour and chia seeds. “I’m pulling back from xanthan gum [frequently used in gluten-free baking] because it gives some people digestive problems,” she said.
Weddings have become a big part of Bloom’s business. This year, they baked cakes and pies for 95 weddings. Without a freezer. Everything is done fresh. Sometimes her small staff does five weddings in a single weekend.
Doing it Her Way
As Maitri’s business develops, she stays true to her ideals. Which is not always easy. When she initially opened for only three days a week, reviewers criticized her. She felt hurt, but stuck by her determination to acclimatize her family to the bakery before expanding its hours. “We live in a society where people want things to be open seven days per week,” she said. “But if we want small businesses to live, we have to change our expectations.” So with Bloom, Maitri models taking care of herself, her family and her employees.
Making everything from scratch, with top quality ingredients, is another of her inconvenient ideals. Bloom makes its own lemon curd, ganache and caramel. In fall, they roast all the pumpkins and sweet potatoes used in the bakery. Maitri carefully sources ingredients. Her locally grown, organic eggs cost $4 per dozen. Her organic butter costs $5 per pound. This results in excellent pastries but low profit margins.
The response from nearby businesses and their owners has been very satisfying. “The other restaurant owners are supportive and cooperative rather than competitive,” she said. Fortunately, Madison’s townspeople keep its best eateries afloat. “There’s a lot of dessert to go around and a lot of mouths to feed.”
At first I was skeptical of the Reykjavik Hotel Natura. During my recent trip to Iceland, I wanted to stay downtown, but wound up booked out in the boonies. However, my six nights there convinced me it was a great hotel for somebody with my interests: fitness, nature, running and vegetarian food. Here are eight attributes of the Natura that won me over.
Proximity to trails and paths. Right across the street from the Natura, a hill called Öskjuhlíð rises up. This is Reykjavik’s designated outdoor area, with paved and dirt trails crisscrossing woods planted in the ’50s. Since Iceland has a three-month growing season, the trees aren’t too tall, but there are a lot of them. You can walk, jog or rent a bike from the Natura.
Yoga room. The rooms at the Natura are on the small side, so it can be hard to fit your sun salutations between bed and chair. Not to worry. Downstairs has a spacious yoga room, complete with mats, candles and a switch for multiple lighting options. Lovely wood floor.
Fitness room. Next to the yoga room is a small gym. You’ll find two decent treadmills, jump ropes, a multi-purpose machine for doing about 40 different exercises, dumbbells and barbells. Plus, waterfall photo wallpaper to remind you that you’re in Iceland. I fell in love with the 3 kg weights, a perfect halfway point between the 5 pound and 8 pound dumbbells so prevalent in gyms back home.
Walk to cemetery and geothermal beach. I skipped the Natura’s pool and hot tub, which would have cost me an extra 12 bucks or so, opting to instead walk to the geothermal beach. This local spot features a lagoon where hot water is added to sea water to make it suitable for swimming. At least for tougher people than me. After a 30-second dip in the heated sea, I retired to the long hot tub instead. Very pleasant local hangout and only costs about $4. Also near the Natura, you can walk through a large cemetery. As a cemetery fan, I enjoyed poking around and noting local tombstone styles. A favorite was little birds perched atop stones gazing down at the names of the deceased.
Breakfast buffet. I feared I’d starve in Iceland, what with the love of eating sea creatures and sheep. But the Natura had tons of food for me. And they even stock soy milk! What bliss I felt adding it to my coffee, granola and porridge. I was also excited to find Tabasco for the potatoes and vegetarian baked beans. Choose from about 10 kinds of breads and pastries, fresh fruit, a few salad vegetables and, for dairy lovers, lots of yogurt.
Free bus tickets. You might be a 25-minute walk from town, but the Natura will loan you a bus pass during your stay. The number 19 bus stops right out front.
Stylish seating areas. Tired of inhabiting your hotel room? Come downstairs and lounge in the lounge, read in the library, people watch in the lobby. All very Nordic chic.
Elf rock. Iceland is known for its population of hidden people, elves and trolls. Some people claim they can see them, others lack that gift. Outside the Natura, you can sit on an elf rock – it’s marked with a sign – where supposedly some elves live. Unfortunately, I twice tried to commune with elves there, but seem to lack the gift.
Moss. Each room at the Natura has a theme. The basic rooms are all modeled on nature. I spent six nights in a moss-themed room, with large photos of mossy rocks on my walls. Sort of looked like my backyard. What could make a Pacific Northwesterner feel more at home than that?
While at a recent event promoting Maui tourism, I met Candy Aluli, president of Aluli Public Relations. Candy lives in Maui and promotes several hotels and resorts there. The properties looked lovely, but what really interested me was her animal advocacy work.
Candy told me about the Wings of Aloha program. This is an easy way for tourists to help with the overpopulation problem of stray dogs on Maui. I’d never really thought about it, but Maui is a small island. When dogs and cats keep breeding, where do all those puppies and kittens go?
Alaska Airlines, Air Canada, Aloha Air Cargo and Hawaiian Airlines partner with shelters on the mainland to give excess pets a chance to find a home. If you’re flying from Maui to Portland on Alaska or Hawaiian, you can add one of these strays to your reservation. The great thing about it is it’s an easy, even lazy, way to help.
Here’s how you do it:
- Contact Jamie Fitzpatrick email@example.com at the Maui Humane Society and give Jamie your name, phone number, email address, flight date and confirmation code. The MHS staff will contact their Portland rescue shelter partners – Pixie Project and Tender Care Animal Rescue across the border in Vancouver, Washington – and see if they can take the pet. If so, MHS contacts your airline and adds the pet to your reservation.
- MHS staff and the pet meet you at the airline check-in counter 2 hours before your flight. Staff checks in the pet, who will fly cargo.
- When you get to Portland, the rescue partner claims the pet in the baggage area.
Simple! And you’re a hero.
Spokane is only a one-hour plane trip from Portland, or a half-day drive, but has a way different feel. I recently took my second trip there and had a very fun weekend. Here are a few highlights for visiting this 210,000-population Eastern Washington city.
Visit the Falls
Spokane is known for having the second largest urban waterfall in the U.S. Indeed, Spokane Falls is big and pounding. I forked over $7 to take a skyride over the falls, which was well worth it if you like skyrides. You get an aerial view, and your gondola will stop and hang for a while so you can admire the falls from various angles.
Take a Bike Ride
Riding a cruiser bike by the river was a highlight of my Spokane trip. I stayed at Ruby2, a very economical motel that was recently converted from a Howard Johnson. Free bikes for visitors! You can ride all along the river paths and poke around the Gonzaga campus.
Look for Wildlife
While biking or walking by the river, you may encounter wildlife, such as these Canada geese and goslings. So fluffy! I also saw a wild-eyed orange cat with a snake hanging out of its mouth. Unfortunately, missed that photographic opportunity.
Eat at Spokane’s Best Vegan Restaurant
Boots Bakery is number one in Spokane, as far as I’m concerned. Fun, artsy place with excellent food. Enchilada pie! Curried lentils! Owner Alison Collins has been turning out delicious meals for Spokane’s vegans for two years now. And the city loves her for it. I hear there are a few other good places to get a vegan lunch or dinner in Spokane, but I mostly just ate Boots food during my stay.
See a Parade
This only works if you plan ahead, or luck out with your timing and stumble onto a parade like I did. And what a parade: the Lilac Parade, biggest of the year. This night parade goes on. And on. And on. After two or three hours, I was paraded out and retired before the end. The Lilac Parade is heavy on military, and every group of veterans got a standing ovation. Also, lots of marching bands and floats.
Ride the Old Carousel
While you’re downtown by the river, ride the 1909 carousel. Not only is it pretty and historic, it’s the fastest carousel I’ve ever been on. And even the outside animals go up and down.
Admire Old Neon
I looked up an old photographer friend I hadn’t seen for years who lives in Spokane. He took me to the Garland neighborhood at night, where we had fun photographing Spokane’s best old neon signs.
Get in Touch with Your Spiritual Side
Personally, I visited a lovely cathedral while in Spokane. But tweeting Jesus is an interesting idea.
These Dr. Scholl’s active series insoles are really nifty. The packaging claims to reduce shock by 40 %, helping folks with shin splints, runner’s knee and plantar fasciitis, and to relieve and prevent pain. Fortunately I don’t have those conditions, but I can definitely feel the difference. And while I have no reliable way to measure amount of impact, 40 % sounds reasonable.
The directions tell you to tear out your insole, then put it on top of the Dr. Scholl’s insole, trace along the toe area of your original insole and trim the excess. Well, I’m not much for reading directions so I didn’t until just now. And I would balk at tearing out the insoles of my favorite Nikes, anyway, to try out an unknown quantity. Instead, I crammed the Dr. Scholl’s insoles on top. At first my feet felt kind of cramped with the double insole. But running a few miles, a little jumping rope, a Bombay Jam and Zumba class later and the new insoles were thoroughly tamped down. I am enjoying the extra arch support and padding along the soles and have already recommended the insoles to my Bombay Jam classes several times.
They retail for around $30, but I’ve found them online for closer to $20. The box advises swapping them out every six months. I’ve only used mine for a couple of weeks now so am not yet sure how long they’ll really last.