Happy New Year from I Ate the State! I’m quite certain it’s going to be a good one – and chock full of Washington State adventure. To start the year off in coastal style, I’d like to share my recent adventures to the beautiful shores of Island County. Comprised primarily of Whidbey and Camano Islands … Read more I Ate the State – Island County
As I’m sure many of you are doing, I’ve been embarking upon a bit of armchair traveling these past few months. In addition to the many hours of travel and foodie shows I’ve been binge-watching, I’ve been doing a bit of traveling in my mind. Memories from past travels, amazing meals with family and friends, foodie adventures and misadventures – you name it, I’ve been dreaming of it. With these wonderful memories have come thoughts of places I’ve yet to visit and even ideas for future projects. It was that very inspiration which brings me to this special edition of I Ate the State.
I’ve been very lucky in my life to meet a handful of extraordinary people with whom I’ve been sharing adventures for many, many years. They are not only my dearest friends, but have become my family. They are people I love, respect and admire; people who have helped mold me into the person I am today. To imagine my life without this group of friends paints a sad and lackluster picture.
An important member of this cherished cast of characters is my dear friend, Erica Kees. One of the most interesting, talented and fearless people I’ve ever met, Erica is the true definition of a global citizen. Though we met growing up in the Tri-Cities, she has led a fascinating global life both before and after our desert adventures. Born in California, she spent her first few years in the Berkeley area. When her dad, Martin, graduated from Berkeley, the family moved to Nigeria where he taught Optometry and assisted in clinics in Benin City. After two years, they returned to the states and found their way to Washington State for a spell. Since then, Erica has added many more locations to her travel and homestead passports over the years. The United States, the Cayman Islands, Guatemala, France and Italy are some of the places she’s called home and her travel roster is larger still. To say she has countless, enthralling adventures to share is indeed an understatement.
Erica and I met while studying classical voice with Annabelle Wall in the Tri-Cities. We went to various vocal competitions, studied with the Maestro of the Mid-Columbia Symphony and spent hours talking about music and art. We also spent countless hours discussing the places we were excited to visit and the adventures we were dreaming of experiencing. (As there weren’t many artistic opportunities in the Tri-Cities at the time, this was an absolute necessity.) Additionally, her brilliant parents, Martin and Rena, were hugely influential to me in the areas of music, travel, creative thinking and much more. I owe my love of opera, Frank Zappa, Philip Glass and many other artists directly to Erica and her parents. I have the fondest memories of the Kees family, including randomly stopping by their home where I ended up talking with Erica’s dad, Martin, on the front porch about music for at least an hour. (Erica left her dad’s original Yamaha DX7 with me when she moved to the Cayman Islands and I still have it set up!)
During our college years, Erica and I studied together at both Columbia Basin College and Cornish College of the Arts and even lived in the same apartment building on Capitol Hill in Seattle. Unfortunately, our time together in Seattle was relatively short-lived as Erica made the decision to join her parents who had recently moved to the Cayman Islands. After enjoying life in the Caymans and fitting in various adventures and studies around the globe, she returned stateside to study Computer Science at the University of Chicago and Loyola University. While attending, she met her future husband, Enrico, who was a visiting Research Associate, based out of Milan, Italy. After finishing her degree, she continued to live and work in Chicago before leaving the States to embark upon an adventurous new chapter with Enrico in Monza, Italy.
And that is where we find Erica today; leading a beautiful life with Enrico and their two children, just outside of Milan in the lovely town of Monza. (I’m looking forward to visiting the beautiful Villa Reale and the Cathedral of Monza – circa 600 CE – on my future visit, not to mention MANY tasty restaurants.) Enrico is an Associate Professor at Politecnico di Milano and Erica is an adjunct teacher at the public high school for language learning and tourism, Mosè Bianchì. They still regularly visit the US, but spend the majority of their time in and around Italy. Food, family, travel, the Arts – All the things Erica and I dreamed of growing up are now an integral part of her daily life. I know she’ll never stop exploring or learning about the world around us and it’s one of my greatest wishes to at last get to join her on a few of her Italian adventures. After reading her article below, I’m pretty sure you’ll feel the same.
And without further ado, I present to you the lovely, Erica Kees to bring us a little slice of her Italian bliss. Take it away, Erica!
Summer on a Plate– by Erica Kees
Firstly, I’d like to shout out to Dayna, my dear pal from our Tri-Cities days. Grazie Mille (thanks a thousand! Yes, we do say thousand instead of a million!) for inviting me to add some Italian flavor to your highly entertaining, “I Ate the State” blog. I can’t wait to follow Dayna’s further adventures in the Pacific Northwest and beyond (hopefully here, gosh darn it!) once we all somehow escape our own version of this Covid-19 nightmare. In the meantime, I hope I can give you a glimpse, as an American living in northern Italy for the past 14 years, of our majestic and celebrated “summertime” menu.
Italians tend to eat lighter and brighter in the summer. They actually refuse, completely turn up noses, to dishes they had devoured just a season ago. At first, as an American, I could not understand the clear protocol about “stagionalità” or seasonality. For example, polenta, stews, hot soups, fried food and other generally heavy dishes are considered strictly winter/autumn dishes. However, chestnuts and pumpkin are only eaten in the fall. Most Italians never enjoy a gelato in the winter! They say that gelato is made for the summer. In fact, my mother-in-law never had gelato in either the autumn or winter! In fact, all restaurants completely change their menus each season, well, unless they are created specifically to cater for tourists. Why? Well, usually tourists ask for the dishes they personally feel are typical even if it is in the wrong season. So the restaurants do make exceptions and look on with a sense of pity, no doubt.
My dear friend, Erica and a delicious plate of Insalata Caprese
Our vegetable garden: solo i pomodori più freschi
Let’s talk about the centerpiece of the Italian summer cuisine, the tomato. It’s certainly true that the tomato is a native fruit, born to the New World, but when you ponder the dishes of the Americas, the tomato does not leap to mind as the star ingredient. There is no country, no group of people more united in their love and affection for the tomato, our “pomodoro”, than Italy. Italians enjoy them in every way, not just as a way to dress up pasta or pizza – but also savory sun-dried and packed under oil, alongside beans, in soups, dotted on focaccia, or as the protagonist of the most famous of summer salads: La Insalata Caprese. The name means “Salad of Capri,” the famous island just a 2-hour ferry ride from Naples. (All Anglophones pronounce “Capri” incorrectly, leading to confusion. I learnt very quickly that the accent is on the first syllable.) The Caprese represents the colors of the Italian flag; it feels like summer on a plate. Why do you need a recipe to make it? Well, you don’t really – surely we can remember the 3 essential ingredients: tomatoes, basil, and the best mozzarella you can find. Good luck there. For sure, the summer sun and a green thumb can help. Every Italian nonna (grandma) will tell you it’s all about the quality of the ingredients that you use. First of all, if the pomodori (tomatoes) are picked immediately from your garden, you will guarantee to have a showstopper on your plate. If you find them at a local farm or market, your Caprese won’t win the four stars you’d get by growing them yourself but that’s clearly better than the supermarket, hands down. Same goes for basil. Why don’t you grow your own basilico on your balcony? (If you already do, scusami!) The leaves will be long and fragrant, just picked before dressing your Caprese.
Does anything close to real Mozzarella actually exist in America? I’ve never found it. Well, I’m guessing there must be some incredibly savvy farmer out there raising grass-fed animals, creating some fantastic cheese in maybe California? You’ve got to find it! By all means, write me about it if you do. Americans, for the most part, are agnostics when considering real Mozzarella! If you don’t know it actually exists, well, it isn’t a big problem until you actually try the real deal. Problem is, you will be converted once you’ve tried it. In Italy, the most prized form of Mozzarella is called “Mozzarella di latte di bufala” because only the Italian Water Buffalo’s milk, extremely rich and creamy, is used in all regions where the cheese is made. This heavenly cheese came from the region of Campana, in the south. Scientists are still unsure of where and when the Water Buffalo actually arrived in Italy. We do know that the word “mozzarella” is from “mozzare”, meaning “cutting by hand,” as each piece is separated from the curd and formed into balls or “pearls of the table.”
What about additions to increase the savory flavors on your plate? Freshly ground sea salt (but on the tomato not the cheese, please), pepper (optional), and a drizzling of an excellent Extra-Virgin Olive Oil (essential EVOO!) are key to dress or condire your Caprese. You might feel inspired to add other flavors that complement the dish perfectly: fragrant oregano, finely chopped red onion, or even a handful of assorted olives and capers. I’ve even broken the rules by adding a small 1/2 teaspoon of chopped chiles (just not done in Italy) but, that my friends, is an addition simply due to my Mexican roots. Others like to add balsamic vinegar, but I personally believe it pairs better with melon (for example, cantaloupe) and prosciutto crudo (raw cured ham), yet another summer delight.
Here in Monza, a northern suburb of Milan in the region of Lombardy, we have a number of open air markets that we frequent a few times a week. They wouldn’t be considered “farmers’ markets” like in the States – they sell everything, from fruits & vegetables to fresh fish, cleaning supplies, and even underwear. I never miss the fresh ravioli maker’s stall (when I’m not searching for stylish new drawers) which has at least 30 different types on offer. Some popular fillings in the summer time are: shrimp and zucchini, fig and prosciutto ham, and ricotta cheese and lemon. If you don’t have time to make your own ravioli (well only during a pandemic!) it’s the place to stop. Just add to salted boiling water and serve with a sage-butter sauce and top with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, the real deal.
The open air markets are hardly ever closed. The only time we’ve ever seen them closed was during our cruel spring Coronavirus lock-down from March to May. Even when it is raining or freezing, the hundreds of vendors are selling, like I mentioned, everything from linens to sotto olio (which is anything packed in olive oil in glass jars meant to accompany your dishes, like artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, fish, and the like). Most Italians do not like to cook during the unbearably hot summers, so picking up an already baked focaccia, some pizzette (little pizzas only sold at the bakeries or panifici), or ciabatte (loaves of bread in the shape of slippers, hence the name) is part of the “fast-food” tradition of summer that allows us to avoid turning on our ovens most of the time.
Wonderful goods at an open-air Italian market
Fresh herbs, produce and more at open-air Italian markets
Sun-dried tomatoes (cherry tomatoes of the real ‘pachino’ variety, and Sicilian)
I wouldn’t actually call them recipes, per se, but here are two lovely summer salad ideas that are simple to assemble. I’d love to see your versions of summer on a plate! Drop me a jpeg! Contact me on Twitter @ericaamy
Buon appetito! E buone vacanze!
3 fist sized tomatoes, sliced. As ripe and fresh as possible, please (obviously, add more if you are hungry).
1 ball of mozzarella di bufala (or facsimile)
A sprinkling of basil leaves (8-10)
Freshly ground sea salt and pepper
A drizzling of your best Italian EVOO
Minced red onion
Capers and olives
Balsamic vinegar from Modena
Serve with crusty bread and more EVOO
Melon and “Burrata” (yet another type of Mozzarella) or with prosciutto
3 or more slices of ripe cantaloupe melon
A ripe fig or two
Mozzarella (in this case “burrata”)
A sprig of basil
Drizzles of EVOO and balsalmic vinegar
A handful of walnuts
Freshly ground salt and pepper
Some crazy Californian folks even add sliced avocado, but this is really not Italian!
Schiacciatine al rosmarino (a type of crunchy flatbread topped with sea salt and rosemary)
In the spirit of Dayna’s blog and our deep love and connection to music, I’ve added a YouTube playlist so your mood becomes all the more Italiano-charged! For a non-video version, you can also check it out on SPOTIFY
Famiglia on the road. Erica and Enrico with their two children, Gianluca (8) and Emma (11) in Abruzzo
Snorkeling in the Abruzzo coastal town of Torino di Sangro
And now, back to my armchair…
Molte grazie, Erica, for the beautiful glimpse into your life in Italy. I truly can’t wait to visit and enjoy everything in person. While I’m waiting, I’ll just have to live vicariously through your words, recipes and lovely pictures… And perhaps share a few resources for Seattle-area readers should they be also be inspired to travel virtually.
Erica wrote of the glory of local buffalo mozzarella and featured burrata in one of her recipes. However, until I’m able to visit the Rodeo di Sapori Market in person, I will have to make do with local offerings. Though I’m certain shopping for Italian ingredients in a lovely Italian marketplace is definitely the way to go, there are also some pretty delicious resources in the Seattle area. Should you be looking for ingredients for your next Italian-inspired meal, consider these local options:
*Be sure to check online for updated Covid-19 guidelines and opening/closing times for the businesses featured below.
Check out De Laurenti Food & Wine for a dreamy treasure-trove of Italian specialty foods. Located in Pike Place Market since 1946, they feature fresh deli meats, cheeses, wines and more. This place is amazing and has been charming, daring and taunting me into trying delicious foods since my first childhood visit. I’m fairly certain they are wholly responsible for my long obsession with Italian nougat… (Open Mon-Sat, 10am – 5pm and Sun, 11am – 4pm)
PRO TIP:Do not miss a trip to world-renowned Pike Place Market, overlooking the waterfront in downtown Seattle. This is the place of my foodie and Art dreams and it has been fueling my stomach and artistic endeavors throughout my entire life. Check online for hours, but produce stands are generally open 9am – 5pm and the fish market, from 9am – 3pm. This place is a GOLD MINE.
While they don’t have mozzarella, Beecher’s Handmade Cheese in Pike Place Market does make some pretty amazing cheese. Their Flagship, New woman and cheese curd varieties are fantastic – and don’t miss out on their house-made Mac & Cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches and the ongoing cheese curd show! (Watch them churn the cheese curds in a huge vat in the corner window) Order online for pick-up, 10am – 5pm daily.
Found in several local-area farmer’s markets, King’s Mozzarella features some pretty rockin’ and much sought after fresh mozzarella varieties. Check their Facebook page to see where they’ll be next!
For the most delectable, house-made cured meats, head to Salumi, located in Pioneer Square. Pick up everything needed for an epic charcuterie spread or fall in love with one of their amazing house sandwiches. (I would marry their Porchetta sandwich if it were legal.) They do also make delicious mozzarella and other cheeses in house – call ahead to place a takeout or delivery order. (Wed – Sat, 11am – 2pm and 4pm – 6pm)
In addition to meats and cheeses, you might find yourself in need of fresh baked goods, vegetables and important items such as extra-virgin olive oil. You’re in great luck as Seattle and the surrounding areas have an excellent selection of farmer’s markets and local stores to hit up. Check out these great options for future recipe needs:
Located in the same location on Rainier Avenue South since 1922, Remo Borracchini’s is a local favorite for fresh baked goods, deli, groceries and more. There are so many tasty items packed onto its shelves, it’s always hard to walk away with just the item I came in to find… Oh well! Open 7am – 5pm, Tuesday thru Saturday.
Fresh out of the oven – Tuscan Pie! (Though I’m not really sure how Tuscan it actually is… Erica?)
Tuscan Pie and mixed greens with Gorgonzola and vinaigrette
Should you be more in the market for a professional chef preparing your favorite Italian dishes, Seattle has a great offering in the way of restaurants. Would I prefer to be eating my meal and sipping a glass of wine at an outdoor table in, say, Monza, where I hope to soon be visiting my pal, Erica? ABSOLUTELY! However, since that might not be until (hopefully) next summer, I’ll live vicariously through the great local spots while I wait…
Focusing on Northern Italian cuisine, Café Juantia in Kirkland is absolutely wonderful. James Beard Award winner, Holly Smith, has been welcoming guests to this tucked away location since 2000. It is without a doubt, one of my favorite places to dine in the Northwest. They’re currently doing At Home with Café Juanita take-away orders where you can find full dinners, antipasti, burrata dishes, fresh heirloom tomatoes and much more. Tuesday – Friday, 2:30 – 4pm for pickup. (Order 24 hours in advance)
Opened in 1991, the year before I officially moved to Seattle, Serafina features delicious Italian fare in a charming, neighborhood setting. The burrata salad, Agnolotti dal Plin and a selection from their great wine list makes for quite a delicious evening. And don’t forget the panna cotta! I have many fond memories of listening to local Jazz artists at Serafina while enjoying a glass of wine. I even worked on a film shoot there during my short-lived film crew days. Very good times… Take-out and dine-in for dinner, Thursday through Sunday, 5-9pm.
For great pizza made in a handmade, wood-fired brick oven imported from Naples, head to Cornuto on Phinney Ridge. (Part of the Via Tribunali family of restaurants) Their Bufalina D.O.C. pizza and Mezza Luna Nutella dessert (Nutella filled calzone with powdered sugar – SO good!) are two of my very favorite things. Open for take-out from 4-9pm.
I love the DERU Market, located in Kirkland’s North Rose Hill neighborhood. They serve fantastic sandwiches on house-made focaccia bread, featuring house-roasted turkey and country ham, seasonal veggies, artisan cheeses and more. In addition, their wood-fired pizzas, farm salads, and baked goods are amazing. (I’m addicted to their salted peanut butter cookies and insanely large slices of cake.) They also feature giant meatballs, fig & pistachio meatloaf, veggie sides and a great offering of hot beverages and wine. Open daily, 8am – 9pm for take-out and limited delivery. (Pro tip: If you’re in need of great catering, look no further – DERU Market is awesome!)
Wallingford’s Bizzarro Italian Café is quirky, quaint, cozy and most importantly, delicious. Their house-made pasta – the Puttanesca and Sugar Snap Pea Carbonara are both delicious – meatballs and desserts are fabulous. They’re currently offering take-out and have opened an Outdoor Wine Corral for drinks while you wait for your take-away. Open 5pm – 8pm-ish.
Located in downtown Seattle and the Ballard neighborhood, Serious Pie is a great place to enjoy a pizza pie. They feature the classics, but I’m particularly fond of the Prosser Farm Potato, Rosemary and Pecorino Romano For dessert, DO NOT miss the Triple Coconut Cream Pie. Get it and don’t look back… Open for take-away, 11am – 7pm. Ballard Bonus: You can also order weekend brunch from Serious Biscuit. Check out the delicious breakfast biscuits like The Zack. YUM! They also feature Bloody Mary and Mimosa kits to-go! (Sat/Sun, 9am – 12pm for brunch) 11:30a – 8pm, for Serious Pie take-away.
Found in the Queen Anne neighborhood, How to Cook A Wolf features rustic, Italian-inspired food in a modern, yet cozy atmosphere. Their Prawn Tagliatelle and Heirloom Cucumber Salad (with huckleberries!) are excellent. Open daily for takeout from 4pm – 8pm. I’m also looking forward to another Ethan Stowell, Italian-inspired spot, Staple & Fancy re-opening. Their pasta and seafood dishes are delicious and trying their Chef’s Menu has long been on my to-do list.
While not necessarily a go-to for fine dining, Vito’s on Capitol Hill has been wooing patrons with their classic, darkened-booth Italian scene since 1953. Great drinks, classic fare, nightly music and who doesn’t love some private dining action in the Cougar Room? Currently open for take-away and delivery, Wed-Sun, 5-9pm.
Should you be perusing Pike Place Market for all the fresh goods, check out the delicious fare at longtime Market staple, The Pink Door. Classic, with a refined flair, their menu is very enjoyable and the ambiance is always lovely. I’m particularly fond of the lasagna and meatballs. Deck seating available and lunch and dinner takeout. Wednesday – Sunday, 11:30am – 4pm (lunch) and 5pm – 9pm (dinner)
Delicious Tuna Crudo from Cafe Juanita
This polenta and ragu dish was amazing! (Cafe Juanita)
Soooooo good! Focaccia sandwich from DERU Market
The ladies room at Vito’s is very welcoming
Piano accompaniment, dark booths, great drinks… Vito’s!
About those great drinks at Vito’s! (Dirty Martini and Old Fashioned, anyone?)
As I bring this collaborative edition of I Ate the State to an end, I hope it finds you as inspired as I am to dive into a giant bowl of pasta and pour a large glass of vino. I’m very happy you had the opportunity to meet my dear friend, Erica, and hope you enjoyed your look into the beauty of the Italian summer. She has always been my hero when it comes going out and exploring the world; to venturing out and making her dreams become reality. This newest snapshot of her adventures only solidifies my feelings and I’m so excited to see more. I also have it on great authority that Erica and her family have recently returned from traipsing about the Italian countryside, further enjoying the summer bounty. (Abruzzo and all of its bounty looks amazing!) I can’t wait to see more of her pictures and start planning my future visit.
Welcome to Canada, our lovely neighbor to the north. Sweeping mountain ranges, rugged coastlines, raw wilderness and a lot of snow make Canada a veritable wonderland of adventure. Living in Washington, I feel incredibly lucky to be just a quick drive away from the border and have taken advantage of this convenience many times over the years. One of North America’s premier cosmopolitan cities, Vancouver B.C. is but a *two-hour drive from Seattle and one of the most amazing places to ski in the world, Whistler-Blackcomb, is a couple of hours beyond Vancouver. (*Depending on border waits) As neighbors, we have so much in common and so many similarities to keep us close. However, whenever I cross the border and the traffic signs suddenly go metric – or I pull into the gas station and the prices are by liter (or litre, in Canada) – I feel as if I’ve been magically transported to the other side of the world.
Canada is a powerhouse all on its own – and a sprawling one, at that. It is the second largest country in the world by total area (land and water) and the fourth largest country in the world by land alone. I will never forget the first time I drove past Vancouver B.C. towards Whistler. Well-accustomed to the lofty mountain ranges and open spaces of Washington, I was still not prepared for the epic majesty of the Coast Mountains and the spectacular Sea-to-Sky Highway (BC Highway 99) which guides you closely along Pacific Ocean inlets and into the vast wilds of the Canadian wilderness. I was simply put, slack-jawed and amazed. The first time I saw the monolithic face of The Stawamus Chief (second-largest granite monolith in the world) or the soaring panorama of endless peaks from atop Blackcomb are visions which shall live forever glorious in my mind’s eye.
For this particular Canadian adventure, we kept it closer to the shoreline and fairly close to home. My Scotophile friends, Kristen, Tori and I were in need of whisky, bagpipes and kilts – and maybe a bit of haggis and the tossing of heavy objects. In short, we wanted to find a good Highland games event to attend. There are several great Highland games during the summer in Washington State, but given Canada’s close ties to England, Ireland and Scotland, there are many to be found in Canada as well. Since Victoria, B.C. is just a quick ferry ride away and they’ve been hosting a Highland games for the past 156 years, we figured it would be a great spot to fulfill all of our Scottish dreams. (And my pal Kristen and I are still financially recovering from our recent adventures to the actual Highlands of Scotland)
Combine the welcoming, good nature of Canada with the beautiful wilds of the Pacific Northwest and the pomp and grandeur of Britain and you come close to concocting the unique setting that is Victoria, B.C. Situated on the southern tip of Vancouver Island and named for Queen Victoria, Victoria is not only an amazing place to visit, it is also the capital of the province of British Columbia. Many important goings-on take place in this quaint city along with the regular flow of tourism.
Head to the Waterfront in downtown Seattle and sail to Victoria via the passenger-only Victoria Clipper. The journey is a little under three hours and it’s likely you’ll see marine life along the way. They also offer a bevy of hotel, car and sightseeing package deals which are very worth checking out. On a recent trip, just as we were getting close to the Victoria harbor, a pod of orcas was swimming not too far off the port side. To add to the majesty, there was a rainbow perfectly situated over the harbor as we pulled into dock. WOW!
If you’re up for a gorgeous bird’s-eye view of the Puget Sound, hop aboard a seaplane flight with Kenmore Air. Many friends have made the journey, but it is still on my travel bucket-list. SOON!
If you’re coming from mainland B.C., head through Vancouver and cross to Victoria on the Tsawwassen – Swartz Bay (The ferry accommodates both foot passengers and vehicles) The crossing time to Swartz Bay is 1 hour and 35 minutes.
You can also utilize the Washington State Ferry out of Anacortes in Skagit County. (The ferry accommodates both foot passengers and vehicles) They offer a 3-hour cruise to Sidney B.C. which is a 20-minute drive outside of Victoria. (Pro Tip: If you are driving, reservations are strongly recommended.)
View of the Port Townsend Dock from aboard the MV Coho
looking out from Port Townsend on the MV Coho
Checking out the MV Coho display inside the ferry terminal
Cool exhibits to be found inside the ferry terminal
The MV Coho can move the big rigs!
Looking back towards the US as we sailed on to Canada
In order to make the most of our few days in Victoria, we had made reservations for the first sailing out of Port Angeles. The morning was crisp and the water smooth; the makings of a beautiful journey! Once aboard, we got the lay of the vintage ship and staked out a few seats with a view out over the bow. (The MV Coho has been in operation since 1959 and they’ve largely kept the vintage décor.) Since it was early and I’d only gotten a few hours of sleep, caffeine was high on the list of things to do. We found our way to the cafeteria, which is adjacent to the tiny, but well-stocked gift shop, and loaded up on breakfast goodies and strong coffee. There’s something great to be said about warming your hands with a steaming cup of coffee while looking out over the bow of a ship. Ahhhh….
I loved all of the vintage signage aboard the ship
I felt like I was stepping back in time aboard the MV Coho
More great vintage signage
Not much has changed in the past 50 years
Time to go drink some coffee on the deck…
A lovely scene out on the deck…
Tiny, but packed with cool gifts!
You can bring your bike!
Looking out over the bow of the ship, towards Victoria
After fully perusing the ship and refueling with caffeine, we hit up the on-board Tour Desk to find out about special deals for various tours in the Victoria area. It’s definitely worth checking out and not only will you save a few dollars, but you’ll be able to skip the sometimes long ticket lines at the given attraction. We opted for tickets to Butchart Gardens, the Butterfly Gardens and the Royal B.C. Museum. We were all set for our first two days of touring and we hadn’t even docked yet!
The Pursers Office, just across from the Tour Desk
That’s some expertly coiled rope, to be sure…
What a beautiful morning!
As we sailed into Victoria’s Inner Harbour, we were met with the beautiful skyline of downtown Victoria. The vibrant Causeway Marina, the glorious Parliament Building and the stunning Empress Hotel were all there to greet us. The scene was bustling with boats coming and going, tourists renting scooters and tour buses shuttling visitors off to neighboring attractions. (There are many bus tours available through the MV Coho and Victoria Clipper tour desks) The area near the stately Steamship Grill & Bar (the old Heritage Steamship Terminal building, c. 1924) is a great pick-up/drop-off point with many excursions taking off from the general vicinity. Not too far from the Inner Harbour, especially if you happen to be entering the area via cruise ship, is Fisherman’s Wharf. Colorful float homes, restaurants, shops, live music and more make this another great waterfront area to explore.
The MV Coho in the Inner Harbour
Sailing into the Inner Harbour – along with a sea plane!
Turning the corner into the Inner Harbour
As we’d arrived fairly early on a Thursday morning, we had time to fit in some of the more popular tourist destinations. Since we were only visiting for a few days and it was the very busy Victoria Day 3-day weekend, we wanted to get ahead of the crowds. (Victoria Day celebrates Queen Victoria’s birthday and is the unofficial start of summer in Canada. It falls on the last Monday in May, preceding the 25th.)
After switching my GPS over to accommodate the metric system and Canadian byways, we struck out towards the spectacular Butchart Gardens, located about 30 minutes outside of Victoria. It was a grey morning and threatening rain, but we maintained our hope for things to clear up. That said, we’re from the Pacific Northwest and are typically prepared for any type of weather. Most of the time…
To say that the Butchart Gardens are a marvel in horticultural design would be an absurd understatement. They are an amazing display of design, cultivation, whimsy, passion and vision. Originally masterminded by Jennie Butchart beginning in the early 1900s, utilizing the old limestone quarry in her backyard, it has grown (literally) into an absolute national treasure. After being gifted The Gardens in 1939, Jennie’s grandson, Ian Ross has continued to enhance and expand the garden experience into what greets modern-day visitors.
Once we’d gotten past our initial ooo’s and ahhh’s, we formed a strategy to help us both enjoy and see all of the grounds during our brief stay. There is so much to take in and so many garden themes and landscapes to enjoy – we didn’t want to miss anything! As we wound around beautifully manicured trails and flower-filled alcoves, we popped out at the fantastical view overlooking the famous Sunken Gardens. Words can’t fully express the breathtakingly beautiful scene, so please enjoy some pictures!
Looking down into the famous Sunken Gardens
The artistry is mind-boggling!
Waterfalls, native plants and more grace the Sunken Gardens
A sneaky view of the Sunken Gardens from a little cabin above
The most lovely of picture frames…
To be honest, I would’ve probably been fine having only seen the Sunken Gardens. My mind was swimming in a glorious flower explosion and I couldn’t imagine anything could compare. However, since I knew, based on long-ago visits, the rest of the grounds absolutely could compare, off we went to the next amazing scene. (I do wish we could’ve been there on a summer Saturday night to see the excellent fireworks show from the Sunken Gardens, but that will have to wait for another visit.)
There are faeries in the fountain…
A fountain faerie dance!
Over the course of the next couple of hours, we visited Italy, Japan, the Mediterranean and England, not to mention the beauty of the native Pacific Northwest landscape which brings it all together. It seemed around each corner was a new, mind-boggling panorama to leave us speechless. Again, since words fail me when attempting to fully describe the beauty, here are a few more pictures!
Beautiful dragon fountain
Dragon in the Japanese Gardens
A hidden portal looking out to the water
The beautiful Japanese Gardens
The exotic hanging lamp tree
Manicured lawns and beautiful rose gardens
What a sight for a wedding!
Beautiful pagoda in the Japanese Gardens
Beautiful pond near the Mediterranean Gardens
Sea Serpent fountain
Total zen in the Japanese Gardens
After all of our gallivanting around the flowers, it’s fair to say we’d become a little peckish. Since there are several dining spots on the garden grounds, it wasn’t hard to find something to fulfill our needs. We’d considered afternoon tea at The Dining Room, but since it’s a more leisurely affair, we opted for a less formal and more expedited lunch at the Blue Poppy Restaurant. It was just what we needed and soon enough, we were back to exploring the grounds and finishing it off with a stop into their lovely gift shop. (Because of course we did! Several dainty tea cups were chanting my name and I’d be a monster to not heed their call…) There are also several quick snack spots dotted around grounds for on-the-go occasions. Coffee and ice cream accompaniments for your flower viewing pleasure!
A lovely lantern to light your way
One of the cafes on the garden grounds
Right out of a Monet!
I love pansies!
Follow the purple path!
We were there for tulip season
Gorgeous NW favorites!
So very lovely!
After getting our fill of flowers and teacups, we drove back up the road a few miles to get our fill of butterflies and wine. (As one does…) Since Kristen and Tori were more excited about the Butterfly Gardens and I was more excited about doing some wine tasting, we decided to divide and conquer. Conveniently, since the beautiful vineyards of Church & State Wines were basically next door to the Butterfly Gardens, it all worked out quite nicely. I hear-tell Kristen and Tori very much enjoyed communing with the butterflies. I, too, enjoyed my communing…
I’m not a fan of bananas, but apparently butterflies love them! (Photo credit: K. Spoor)
Beautiful butterfly action! (Photo credit: K. Spoor)
Flamingos and Koi fish at the Butterfly Gardens (Photo credit: K. Spoor)
Flamingos and butterflies living together in harmony (Photo credit: K. Spoor)
Butterflies AND parrots! (Photo credit: K. Spoor)
Church & State Wine sits overlooking their vineyard and rolling grounds. The main tasting room and restaurant is spacious and there is an outdoor, covered seating area with a great view of the vineyards. Since it was a Thursday afternoon, they weren’t super crowded and I easily found a seat at the tasting bar. Upon learning more about their wine from the well-informed Sommelier, I sampled a few and enjoyed a lovely locally-sourced cheese selection alongside. I very much enjoyed their Trebella and Viognier and opted to bring home a couple bottles of the Trebella. (One of which actually made it home – We enjoyed one that evening at our Airbnb) I guess I’ll have to return to pick up a few more bottles. Oh no!!
Located a few minutes away from Church and State Wines is De Vine Wines & Spirits. They’re not only a winery and vineyard, but also a distillery! I was hoping to visit on this trip, but the afternoon had gotten away from us and it was time to locate our Airbnb. No worries – I’ll be back soon!
Beautiful vineyards at Church & State
Sit out on the deck and enjoy a glass
Welcome to Church & State!
The tasting bar was alllllll mine!
Cool decor at Church & State
A lovely wine list for tasting!
What a fabulous afternoon respite…
I’ll them all!
After we pulled ourselves away from the butterflies and viognier (sounds like a Hallmark movie), we plotted our course to the Airbnb. It turned out to be the lower-half of a cute home in a Victoria suburb with a private entrance in the back. Sweet! The hosts were a very kind family who had just begun to open their home to Airbnb guests. If you have a car, staying at an Airbnb a little outside of town can save a good chunk of change. We were about 20-minutes away from downtown Victoria and the drive into town was main thoroughfare most of the way. Additionally, we were more centrally located for visiting the surrounding towns. Win-win!
Once we’d settled in at the Airbnb, we took a little bit of time to relax and recharge for a night on the town. (But not too late a night as I’d been up and driving since 4am. We were all a bit tired, suffice to say.) Since we were in town for the Highland games, we decided to look for something along the lines of Shepherd’s Pie and Guinness Stew for dinner… Yes, please! And if I could find a place with a good Scotch egg, all the better!
Enter Irish Times, a traditional Irish pub in the heart of downtown Victoria. Both Kristen and I had been there before and knew they could fulfill at least two of our culinary needs. But did they win the trifecta with an entry of the Scotch egg? Why, YES – yes, they did! If you’ve never had a Scotch egg and you happen to see it on a menu – order it! It’s a soft-boiled egg rolled in crumbled sausage, breaded and fried. How can you go wrong?? Ohhh, delicious Scotch egg, how I love thee so… The only thing I found vaguely off about our Irish Times experience was their inclusion of ice in the cider pints. Why?? I’ve seen it a couple of other times on past Victoria visits. I need to get to the bottom of these icy cider shenanigans…
The stately Irish Times pub in downtown Victoria
Outdoor seating at the Irish Times
Traditional pub decor at the Irish Times
What’s with the ice in the cider???
A room with a view at the Irish Times
Tasty burgers at the Irish Times
Delicious lobster bisque at the Irish Times
Tasty Guinness Stew!
SCOTCH EGG FOR THE WIN!!
After our delicious dinner, we were completely full and positively spent. We didn’t have much left to give, but we figured it best to at least walk off a few of the calories we’d just consumed. (Hello there, Scotch egg…) We hit up the fantastic Munro’s Books and found a few great books and generally wandered around the area for a little while. We didn’t have it in us to make it over to nearby Russell Books, but that’s also a great spot for the bookworm. Next time!
Inside the lovely Munro’s Books
A very important book I picked up at Munro’s (Seattle author!)
So many great titles to choose from!
If you’re like us and always on the hunt for good pub food and a well-pulled pint, Victoria has so much to offer. It’s like walking down a street in London or Edinburgh – great pubs everywhere! A few of the places we didn’t get to on this visit, but have enjoyed on past stays:
The Churchill, located in the downtown area, hosts a modern pub menu and a rather large taps list. Cozy, low-key atmosphere and ‘lots of good beer – Sounds good!
The Sticky Wicket is located in downtown and features a modern pub menu, a good drink selection, a games room and hotel lodging.
Garrick’s Head Pub has been serving hungry and thirsty Canadians since 1867. They serve classics like shepherd’s pie and bangers and mash, but they also feature a more modern side with nods to Pacific Northwest favorites and seafood. They also have a pretty impressive taps selection.
Whether it’s poutine, fish & chips or perhaps a duck burger, Swan’s Brewery & Pub has you covered. They also feature an onsite brewery, a liquor store and a hotel. All the things!
Spinnakers is Canada’s oldest craft brewpub and a great place to relax out of the downtown hub. They’re located across the Johnson Street Bridge, past Chinatown and also feature guest house lodging. And they have a tea-infused beer – so terribly British!
Should you want to venture further north on Vancouver Island, Merridale Cidery & Distillery is about a 45-minute drive out of town. Located in the tiny town of Cobble Hill, they feature cider, spirits and a restaurant and if you get too tired to drive back to Victoria, they have yurts! Keep an eye out for their new location coming to the Victoria Dockside area.
And for a few great festival and tour options to compliment your pub quests:
Great Canadian Beer Festival – Check out Canada’s oldest/longest running Brewfest! Happening every Labour Day (First Monday in September in Canada) 90+ craft breweries, cideries and food trucks. Yes, please!
West Coast Brewery Tours offers 3-hour tours of many of the local breweries. (Brewery tour lists often changes from day to day – collect them all!) They also offer tours of local distilleries, wineries cideries and food options. What a great way to spend the afternoon!
Canadian Craft Tours offer fabulous food, wine, beer, distillery tours and more! Operating out of both British Columbia and Alberta, they cover a lot of amazing territory and delicious treats.
The Churchill Pub – right next door to Murchie’s Tea!
Great pubs around every corner!
I’m fairly certain none of us had any issues with insomnia that night. After we made it back to the Airbnb, we all promptly retired to our rooms and if Kristen and Tori were anything like me, they were out within minutes of hitting the pillow. Even though we were on vacation, we’d planned a pretty packed itinerary and needed to get up early the next day to fit it all in. There are so many amazing things to see and do in Victoria! Dreams of morning coffee and afternoon tea filled my head as I drifted off to a well-earned sleep…
The next morning came much earlier than felt reasonable, but our itinerary was raring to go. We’d planned to get in some early morning hiking outside of town and what better way to fuel our morning adventure than with some Canadian morning fuel. Enter the Canadian breakfast of champions, Tim Hortons! (Dear Tim Hortons, Please open stores on the US west coast. Thank you! Your Pal, Dayna)
Donuts, great coffee, breakfast sandwiches, donuts, tea, pastries, donuts, donuts, DONUTS!! They’re now also serving delicious Cold Stone Creamery ice cream. You can’t go wrong at Tim Horton’s. I stop at the Squamish location on every Whistler trip and pretty much any other time I see one. That morning, we all enjoyed tasty breakfast sandwiches and I’m fairly certain a few donuts were also involved. Did I mention they have great donuts?
With bellies full of coffee and donuts, we made our way north on Highway 17 towards Island View Beach Regional Park. Only 20 minutes out of town, it’s a great place to stroll along the beach and take in the views of Haro Strait, James Island and our own San Juan Island and Mt. Baker. It was a somewhat hazy morning, but things were starting to clear a little as we walked along the water and enjoyed the scene. The park also offers RV and tent camping should you want to get closer to nature and still be close to the city. It was a lovely way to work off a few of those donut calories…
I’d also hoped to visit Coles Bay Regional Park that morning as it’s only about a 20-minute drive from Island View Beach and affords a great view of the water on the Saanich Inlet side of the peninsula. As it’s also located on Inverness Road, I thought it seemed rather appropriate given the purpose of our Victoria visit! But alas, we realized we’d have to cut a few things off the itinerary in order to make it to the places for which we’d already purchased tickets. (The small drawback to purchasing in advance – you need to actually make it to the places to get your money’s worth. Heh.)
So much cool driftwood!
A lovely morning looking out towards the Strait of Juan de Fuca
A lovely beach stroll to get the day started
‘Lots of uses for driftwood along the beach
Beautiful beach-side finds…
Looking over to James Island
As Vancouver Island is a wonderland of outdoor opportunities, I still have many places on my bucket list left to visit. Here are but a few of the spots I’m hoping to soon check off my list:
The West Coast Trail is at the top of my ‘Canadian Hikes’ bucket list. It’s an epic 47-mile coastal trail used by the First Nations for hundreds of years before any explorers arrived. From their website: Hikers climb more than 100 ladders with a heavy pack, trudge through deep mud, wade through mountain-fed rivers in fast-flowing hip-deep waters, and push through whatever weather the wild West Coast delivers — often driving wind and rain. YES!! I’m IN!!! (Note: A reservation is needed to make this trek.)
Check out Jordan Falls Regional Park for beautiful trails through cedar-filled rainforest. The trails lead down to beaches along the Strait of Juan de Fuca with views of the Olympic Peninsula. Don’t miss the gorgeous Sandcut Beach Waterfalls which fall directly onto the pebbled beach. Camping available.
Goldstream Provincial Park is located close to Victoria, but offers all the deep-forest features. BIG trees, hiking trails, waterfalls and camping – All just a 30-minute drive from downtown!
The Juan de Fuca Provincial Trail is yet another epic Vancouver Island trail. Roughly 27-miles along the west coast of the island, it provides great shoreline access and stunning views. China Beach and Mystic Beach are two of the areas I’m really looking forward to checking out.
One part of Vancouver Island I’m very excited to investigate is the Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park and Central Walbran Valley. Beautiful rainforest and some of the world’s largest spruce trees make it one of the more stunning spots on the island – and the grandest, old-growth rainforest in Canada. Also in the area is the Gonzales Hill Observatory at Walbran Park. A perfect spot to check out the night skies.
For beautiful rainforest trails close to town, head to Francis King Regional Park. The Centennial Trail basically circles around the park and hooks up with the High Ridge Trail. It begins at the Nature Centre, which is open on weekends until 4pm.
Since we’d worked off a bit of our Tim Horton’s donut feast, it seemed reasonable to consider where we’d be eating lunch; Or at least some sort of tasty snack and maybe a pint of… Cider! Since I’d put nearby Sea Cider on my list of hopefuls for the trip, we struck out to see what kind of sustenance they could provide.
Open daily from 11am to 4pm, Sea Cider, located in the Saanichton community (situated on the Sannich Peninsula), is a quick 25-minute drive from downtown Victoria. The tasting room offers both indoor and outdoor deck seating and is a lovely place to spend a sunny afternoon. They offer tasty small plates as complement to their delicious ciders and I was particularly impressed with their Rum Runner cider. (Of which I’ve been hoarding at home. One of these days I’m going to give in… Or return for more!)
Welcome to lovely Sea Cider!
Lovely view from the deck seating
Tasty snacks at Sea Cider
Cider and snacks!
Sigh… A lovely place to enjoy the afternoon
Inside at Sea Cider
I’m still hoarding it!
Other spots in the Saanichton and North Saanich area for tasty food and beverage:
On the way to Sea Cider, Victoria Caledonian Distillery and Twa Dogs Brewery offers all the best in beer AND whisky! Run by native Scotsman, Graeme Macaloney, he brings a wee bit of the tasty Highlands to Victoria. Slàinte mhath! (Open daily. Check website for hours.)
Symphony Vineyard, located in the Saanichton area, features delicious wine in a beautiful setting. (Open Saturdays and Sundays from 11am – 5pm.)
Also located in North Saanich, the Roost Bistro & Farm Bakery has a bit of all things good. Great wine, a tasty bistro menu, a farm-style bakery and beautiful grounds. Additionally, they offer several cool tours around the grounds. (Open daily. Check out the website for hours.)
After enjoying our reasonable fill of delicious cider, we were ready to take on some hard-core, downtown Victoria sightseeing. As we’d already purchased tickets for the Royal B.C. Museum, it was first on our list. Along with their stellar, permanent collections, the museum was featuring an exhibit of ancient Mayan artifacts and we were excited to check it out.
Welcome to the Royal BC Museum!
Maya: The Great Jaguar Rises
Artifacts from the Maya exhibit
This guy’s just kickin’ back…
Artifacts from the Maya exhibit
Amazing detail from the Maya exhibit
Very unique displays at the Maya exhibit
This guy looks like he’s seen better days
Who knew Nicolas Cage was around in Mayan times??
I’ve been to the Royal B.C. in the past and I’ve always been impressed with their exhibits. This visit was no exception and the range of the Mayan exhibit was well-curated and fascinating. I particularly love their permanent Indigenous Peoples and Modern History exhibits. They feature full-scale exhibit areas where one is free to walk amongst the artifacts and displays. It’s very easy to get lost in the feeling of the era when visiting the museum and I highly recommend it to anyone visiting the area.
Real? Or museum exhibit? Hmmm…
Beautiful First Nations exhibits
Permanent First Nations exhibit at the Royal BC Museum
These guys are big!
Great exhibits demonstrating the lives of indigenous peoples
Step back in time!
Well-done, full-scale exhibits take you back to early Victoria
Let’s get cookin’!
Looking down onto old Victoria’s streets
I’d sure love to take a drive in this one!
Part of the WWII display…
Located just across the street from the museum is the majestic Parliament Building. (c. 1897) It’s impossible to miss and it regally dominates that end of downtown and the Inner Harbour. It’s regularly in use during the week for official goings-on of the British Columbia parliament, but is also open for public tours. Additionally, they offer breakfast and lunch in the Parliamentary Dining Room. (Open Monday thru Friday, 11am – 1pm – when Legislature is not in session.) If you happen to be in the area at dusk, it is quite a sight to see the outlining lights of the Parliament building turn on. It’s a beautiful scene and not to be missed. (Note: As it is a government building, official ID such as passports are required for security checks upon entrance.)
View of Parliament from the Royal BC Museum
Taking a break on the steps of the Parliament Building
War monument in front of Parliament Building
Dusk at the Parliament Building
Just kitty-corner to the Parliament Building sits another icon of the downtown Victoria skyline, the ever-grand, Empress Hotel. (c. 1908) It is truly one of my favorite spots in Victoria and while on the more expensive side, well worth visiting for at least one of your Victoria stays. If anything, book a spot for one of famous, daily high-tea services. Befitting the opulence and grandeur of The Empress, the high tea is an extravagant affair to make Queen Victoria proud. Another alternative to actually staying at The Empress is to visit one of their dining rooms. On one of my last visits, I enjoyed an excellent dinner in the Q at The Empress dining room. (Pro tip: It’s possible to get some fairly decent lodging/travel packages for The Empress via the Victoria Clipper.)
The grand lady herself, The Empress Hotel
A great lounge area inside the Empress
Dine at Q at the Empress – Delicious!
Peaking in on high tea at the Empress
A fabulous wine selection!
Beautiful art installations in the lobby of the Empress
Beautiful grounds of the Empress
Since we’d done a fair share of walking and perusing, our Sea Cider affair was close to wearing off. One of the areas we really wanted to visit was the famous Fan Tan Alley, located in Chinatown. As the shops in Fan Tan Alley close between 5pm and 6pm, we needed to get moving. There are also several great restaurants in the area, so it just seemed to make sense to head in that direction.
Fan Tan Alley, the narrowest commercial street in North America, is a quirky and mysterious marvel. Once home to gambling parlors and opium dens in the late 1800s, it has gone through several stages of growth and decline over the years. It is now restored, minus the gambling and opium, and is on Canada’s National Historic Register. It hosts an eclectic collection of shops and services and is well worth a visit. It truly did remind me of exploring the winding alleyways and hidden nooks and crannies of Beijing and Shanghai. On your next Victoria visit, be sure to check out Kid Sister Ice Cream for delicious treats and Saltspring Soapworks for some very luxurious soaps and bath products. (I love their Rosemary Mint shampoo!)
Step on into Fan Tan Alley!
Ooooo – mysterious!
‘Lots of great nooks and crannies to explore in Fan Tan Alley
Many shops are tucked into this tiny alley
I wonder where it leads…
Where does it lead??
On the other side of Fan Tan Alley
Exiting out of the alley onto Fisgard Street brings you into the heart of Victoria’s historic Chinatown district. The oldest of its kind in Canada, there are a lot of stories packed into its establishments. Restaurants, shops, grocers, galleries and even a Buddhist Temple are just a few of the places you’ll find tucked into this small, but vibrant part of town.
Great scenes around Chinatown
So much to see and do in Chinatown
I love this sign!
Welcome to Chinatown!
A very cool dragon near the entrance to Chinatown on Fisgard Street
There were a few restaurants that caught our eye, but we opted to grab dinner at the aptly-named, Fan Tan Café. (Closed Wednesdays) Classic Chinese-Canadian favorites in a cozy, late-night friendly café and bar. We were all very happy with our orders and leisurely washed everything down with well-steeped pots of tea and quirky drinks featuring grenadine. While we were there during the respectable, early-dinner hours, I could easily imagine enjoying some late-night Beef Chow Funn and a grenadine-laced Tequila Sunrise…
I love the classic neon!
This combination plate with wonton soup was very tasty!
Tasty pan-fried pot stickers!
Looking out onto Fisgard Street
Since we’d gotten up fairly early and had packed in quite a bit of action into our day, we were ready to head back towards the Airbnb. Along the way to the car, we enjoyed the bustling Friday night scene and wandered into a few shops. We contemplated buying lovely sweaters at Out of Ireland, stopped in at Rogers’ Chocolates and grabbed some of their famous candies and I stocked up on my favorites at the local Lushshop. (I’m a longtime addict of their Rockstar soap and I Love Juicy shampoo.) We also thought it prudent to stop at a local grocery store on the way back to stock up on Canadian treats such as Lays Ketchup Potato Chips, dreamy Mackintosh Toffee and Ruby Kit-Kat bars. (It’s possible to get these treats online, but they’re definitely pricier when ordering from within the US.)
Since there are only so many hours in the day and we had definitely overloaded our itinerary, a few amazing spots will have to be saved for our next visit. If you make it there before us, here are a few very cool options to consider:
I have visited Craigdarroch Castle on past trips, but never get tired of taking in its majestic and storied scenery. Built by local coal baron, Robert Dunsmuir during the late 1800s, it’s now on the Canadian National Register of Historic Places and is quite a look into the luxurious life of the Victorian-era, Victoria elite.
In keeping with the castle theme, Hatley Castle is high on my list for the next visit. Built in 1908 and now a part of the Royal Roads University grounds, it is a beautiful turn-of-last-century example of design and opulence. Additionally, it has been the setting for many movies and television shows such as Deadpool, Arrow, X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men 2, Smallville, Masterminds (Patrick Stewart) and MACGYVER. (Nerd Alert: These are all some of my favorites! I can’t believe I haven’t visited yet…)
Learn about the secrets and shady past of Victoria’s bygone days with the Discover the Past Ghostly Walks I love these type of tours and Victoria definitely has some good tales to tell. The tour starts at 9:30pm from in front of the Empress.
Another walking tour outfit, Off the Eaten Track, offers culinary tours featuring adventures such as Gourmet Victoria Dinner & Drinks and Eat Like a Canadian. Sounds good, eh?
Located in the downtown area, Axe and Grind features…AXE THROWING! They even have a league. It’s $21.23 CAD for 1 hour session and sounds AWESOME. What could possibly go wrong?? I have to admit to being pretty bummed we didn’t get to check this out. NEXT TIME.
If throwing axes isn’t your thing, how about flying through the air on a zipline? Or mastering an aerial obstacle course? Wildplay Element Park is located outside of Victoria and is about a 30-minute drive from downtown.
I’ve visited the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria on past trips and have always enjoyed their featured exhibits as well as their permanent collections. With so much beautiful artwork in a beautiful gallery space, it’s definitely worth a visit.
After another well-earned sleep, we were up early to take in the highlight of our trip, the 156th annual Victoria Highland Games & Celtic Festival at Topaz Park. As one of longest running Highland games in Canada, it is quite an affair and we were very excited to enjoy it – Haggis and all! We’d initially thought of stopping in at the Moss Street Farmer’s Market or the Victoria Public Market at the Hudson on our way to the games, but decided to make a beeline for the bagpipes. I love a good farmers market, but I’ll have to save it for next visit.
With events occurring for a week prior to the actual games, you can enjoy several days of Scottish and Celtic celebration. Kicking off with the Tartan Parade through downtown Victoria on the Saturday prior and including the Tilted Kilt Pubcrawl, there are many ways to get excited for the weekend festivities.
As we’d gotten an early start, we were among the first to head through the gates. (Which also allowed for some great parking!) Things were just getting started and as we entered the grounds and we were greeted with a morning fanfare of traditional bagpipe melodies. Everywhere we looked, people were dressed in full kilt regalia, period costume and all things plaid. The morning was brilliantly sunny and it had the makings of a glorious, Scots-filled day. Now to find some tasty Scottish treats!
Words of wisdom from Master Yoda (A festival jewelry vendor kindly gave me this from her display!)
ALL of these treats were soooo delicious. Och aye!
Pick out your own!
Plaid and kilts!
Walking around the grounds, it was no trouble finding an abundance of Scottish goodies; Not to mention kilts, Scottish clan information, accessories and more. However, since we wanted to catch the opening of the ceremony and the massing of the bands, we temporarily curbed our shopping and found a good viewing spot on the main parade grounds.
You either love bagpipes – or you hate ‘em. I absolutely love them and they never fail to inspire me. Seeing and hearing hundreds of pipers and drummers massing together and marching in time is truly a glorious thing. (Again, I love the bagpipes. I can see how this might not appeal to someone who doesn’t…) The musicians did not disappoint and it was a great start to a sunny, Victoria morning. And even though it was spring in the Pacific Northwest, I was wishing I’d applied more sunscreen…
The massing of the bands kicking off the day
They made quite a majestic sound!
After enjoying the bands, we did a bit of shopping and browsing. We all found things we couldn’t live without and stocked up on various Scottish treats. While shortbread and toffee can certainly be enjoyed as a meal, it seemed like a good time to check out the more hearty offerings of the food vendors. (And the beer tent!) Kristen and Tori opted for traditional fish & chips, but since there was an actual haggisstand, that’s where I lined up. I know it doesn’t sound immediately appealing and I was skeptical the first time I tried it, but I’ve grown to love haggis; especially when served with whisky gravy, tatties and neeps. (Mashed potatoes and mashed turnips/rutabagas) I’d liken haggis to a cross between sausage and corned beef hash.
The Company Lager was great!
Haggis and tatties with whisky gravy!
They made a pretty tasty haggis!
Some Scottish step dancers performing while we enjoyed lunch
In addition to our tasty lunches, we enjoyed a beer along with a demonstration of Scottish dancing on the nearby stage. It’s similar to Irish step dancing and always seems very merry. It was a great accompaniment to our meal and provided a great excuse to sit down and rest for a spell. After we got our fill of the dance, we grabbed another beer and went off to locate what would be a very cool falconry demonstration and then onto the tossing of heavy objects! (And more beer!)
Taking a rest from his falconry duties
A beautiful falcon close up!
The actual ‘games’ of the Scottish games celebrations involve the tossing of items such as enormous wooden poles called ‘cabers’ and ridiculously heavy weights, shot-puts and hammers. The items are tossed for height or distance and typically involve a lot of grunting and are referred to as the ‘heavy events.’ Both men and women compete and it’s never a dull display. There is also an epic tug-of-war event that blows away any schoolyard completion I could ever recall from grade school. The athletes that participate in these events are incredibly strong and incredibly fun to watch. We were absolutely entertained and it was a great way to wrap up the afternoon.
Getting ready to toss the caber
Caber tossing underway!
The Weight for Height competition – Women’s division
The Weight for Height competition – Men’s division
After all of that traditional Scottish pageantry, we were ready for a traditional dinner at one of Victoria’s coolest pubs, Bard & Banker Public House in the heart of downtown Victoria. I’ve visited on several occasions and I’m never disappointed. This time was no exception and everything we ordered was quite tasty. It’s an expansive pub full of traditional decor and can get quite boisterous on a weekend night – perfect for celebrating after the Highland games! I always try to make it in for at least a pint on any visit. They also have a great whisky, beer and wine list.
A great idea anytime!
Outdoor seating at The Bard & Banker
A great local BC brewery!
The water of life…
Delicious seafood chowder and grilled cheese
Classic pub vibe at The Bard & Banker
Tasty burgers at The Bard & Banker
Classic roast chicken and potatoes
It’s the cupboard under the stairs of wine!
Even though we were pretty full after dinner, we were on vacation and decided we needed dessert. Not too far from the Bard & Banker, we ran across one of the most glorious purveyors of dessert glory to be found, Chocolats Flavoris. Bottom line, they serve CHOCOLATE POUTINE. Good lord. Chocolate poutine, I say!
Poutine, a traditional Canadian dish featuring French fries, cheese curds and gravy, is a heart-stopping mound of deliciousness. Their version of poutine, featuring French fry sized pastries, ice cream, marshmallows (for the cheese curds) and chocolate sauce can officially stop my heart anytime! They also serve amazing fondue, chocolate bars, customizable sundaes with one-of-a-kind sauces and more. WOW! I’d be in SO much trouble if there were one of these close to home…
Kooky up your cone or your POUTINE!
OMG – Soooooooo delicious!!! Chocolate poutine!
Their lava cake was pretty delicious, too!
If you’re not in the mood for traditional pub food, there are many options in the downtown area to suit any tastes. A few places to consider:
The 10 Acres Bistro and Kitchen are two, separate spots, directly next to each other. Featuring farm-to-table fare made with goods grown on their own farm, they’re a great place to enjoy the fresh flavors of Vancouver Island. Located in downtown Victoria, near the Inner Harbour.
Bin 4 Burger Lounge features delicious gourmet burgers and more, made with local ingredients. There are a few locations on Vancouver Island with two being in downtown Victoria and the Westwood areas.
For classic Pacific Northwest fare and classic Jazz, check out Herman’s Jazz Club in the downtown area for a great night out. (Note: Reservations for dinner and shows are recommended.)
Hoping to catch the lights turning on…
There they go!
On the way back to the car, we timed it perfectly and were able to catch the Clan torchlight parade in front of the Parliament building. The lights popped on and the bagpipes began to play. It truly was a lovely way to end the day. The weather was sublime and the sunset over the Inner Harbour in addition to the music was absolutely enchanting. We all agreed it was a pretty fitting end to our first visit to the Victoria Highland Games and definitely plan on returning for future games.
Beautiful sunset at the Inner Harbour
All the lights are turning on near the Inner Harbour
Dusk at the Inner Harbour
As we’d gotten back to the Airbnb at a fairly reasonable hour the night before, we were feeling relatively refreshed the next morning. We packed up all our things at the Airbnb and resigned ourselves to enjoy one last morning in Victoria. The weather was great and the skies clear; it was going to be a beautiful trip home on the ferry.
But first, we wanted to get in one last jaunt around downtown Victoria. I’d been wanting to locate Mile 0, the genesis of the iconic, near 5000-mile Trans-Canada Highway, so off we went in search of it. (It spans the entire length of Canada!) Located on the hills just past downtown and the Inner Harbour, it’s well worth a visit and the views looking out over the water are beautiful. There are also great trails leading down to the shore and a nice park where you can pull up some grass and enjoy a picnic. (But maybe don’t actually pull up any grass…)
The beginning of the epic Trans-Canada Highway
Plaque commemorating the area from 1958
Plaque celebrating Stephen Fonyo, who ran the entire Trans-Canada Highway for the Canadian Cancer Society
Beautiful views of the beach from Mile 0
Watching the Victoria Clipper sail towards the Inner Harbour
After checking out the highway majesty of Mile-0, we hit up the funky and very delicious, Frankie’s Modern Diner near the Inner Harbour for breakfast. While enjoying our meals, we contemplated what we could possibly fit into the few hours we had left. Since we’d missed seeing the Saturday farmers market, we all agreed the Bastion Square Sunday Market sounded like a great idea.
I don’t know how I feel about a breakfast cheesecake pizza, but I might give it a whirl…
Hanging out at Frankie’s
Delicious breakfast at Frankie’s
Chicken and waffles!
Kristen got her egg white omelette
Turns out it was indeed a good idea and we much enjoyed the artisan scene of the market. Set along the walkways of Bastion Square in downtown Victoria, the market features all sorts of wonderful local arts and crafts. Each of us found several great items and chatted with a few of the artists. It was a great way to bid adieu to the city and all of its artful charms.
A great morning at Bastion Square Sunday Market
Vendors lining the walkways of Bastion Square
So many great artists to check out!
Right across from Irish Times!
I picked up this beautiful piece by local artist, Big Bear and the Wolf
Since we needed to get in line for the ferry at 1pm, it was time to head back towards the car. Along the way, however, we made a stop at one of Victoria’s most famous shops, Murchie’s Tea. (Murchie’s founder and Scotsman, John Murchie, learned his trade by delivering tea to Queen Victoria while she was in residence at Balmoral Castle and learned to blend the teas she enjoyed.) Since Victoria is known as the “tea capital of Canada”, it goes without saying this shop helped cultivate that title. (It’s been around since 1894) I go there every time I’m in town and always stock up on their delicious tea blends, my favorites being their Black Currant and Scottish Breakfast teas. (Okay, maybe I often pick up a tea cup or two. This trip was no exception.) They also serve a lovely afternoon tea and feature a deli and sandwich counter I’d compare to my beloved Fortnum & Mason in London. (Same goes for their large tea selection!)
Just a small section of Murchie’s tea service offerings
So much to check out!
In addition to the excellent scene at Murchie’s, there are many other spots to enjoy tea in the area. A few more places to celebrate with your “pinkies out”:
If you’re looking for a lovely guest house and delicious high tea, Pendray Inn & Tea House has you covered. Located just up from the Inner Harbour, they are a beautiful place to rest your head and sip your tea.
Located just outside the downtown area, White Heather Tea Room serves traditional high teas as well as light lunch fare. They get great reviews and are high on my list for future visits.
Located in Chinatown, La Roux Patisserie is also high on my list for my next visit. Serving French pastries, cakes, coffee and tea, they are well known for their delicious treats.
Also in Chinatown, Silk Road Tea features not only delicious teas, but also a skincare line and a day-spa. I am completely on board with spending the afternoon sipping tea and enjoying spa services. Completely.
Serving delicious breakfast, lunch and high tea since 1956, Dutch Bakery does not disappoint. They also offer wonderful looking wedding cakes and delicious pastries.
Venus Sophia Tea Room & Vegetarian Eatery bill themselves as a ‘modern tearoom’ and feature traditional high tea fare with a twist. Located in downtown Victoria, they are nice respite from the hubbub of the city. Reservations are recommended.
Located outside of Victoria, Westholme Tea Company and farm hosts a tea shop, gallery, tours and tearoom. I haven’t visited yet, but it looks like a lovely spot to spend a few peaceful hours. It’s high on my list for my next visit.
And with that, it was time to board the ferry and return to Washington State. A couple of hours back on the MV Coho and we arrived safely on the shores of home. I love Victoria – and I love Canada. To know I can get a shot of Canadian goodness along with a proper spot of tea just a couple of hours from my home is a wonderful thing, indeed. We do have so much in common with our Canadian neighbors, but it is also nice to celebrate what makes us both unique. I think we have a pretty cool partnership. Until next time, Victoria. Take good care, eh?
I Ate the State – Special Edition: Victoria B.C. – Click HERE to check out my custom Spotify playlist
~A celebration of Canadian Musicians and Song~
Dance Me to the End of Love – Madeline Peyroux (from Careless Love)
Harvest Moon – Cassandra Wilson (from New Moon Daughter)
Yvette in English – Joni Mitchell (from Turbulent Indigo)
The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines – Joni Mitchell (from Mingus)
About a year ago, I visited sunny Puerto Vallarta and it was amazing. The landscapes, the culture, the food – everything was spectacular and I was looking forward to returning someday. I wasn’t planning on returning quite this soon, but when the opportunity arose, who was I to ignore it? My friend had been planning on visiting the area with her sister, but since she was unable to get away, I joined the adventure in her place. Sun-soaked beaches, art-packed streets and delicious margaritas? Bring it on!
~ For a look at last year’s Puerto Vallarta trip – my first ever to Mexico – check out the adventures HERE. ~
Getting an incredibly early start on our day of departure (5:45am!) put us in Puerto Vallarta around 2:30pm. It was perfect as it allowed for a solid amount of time to check into our condo and take care of the necessary “errands” for the week. (i.e. Purchasing tequila, snacks, ice, coffee, etc. You know – The necessities.) That said, getting to the airport in time for a 5:45am flight wasn’t conducive to any sort of worthwhile, preparatory rest. I was fighting off yet another cold (still lingering from my recent Scottish holiday adventures) and my two hours of sleep didn’t really cut the mustard. To say I arrived in Puerto Vallarta a little out of sorts was an understatement.
Lack of sleep is detrimental to many things; cognitive skills and memory being two such items. These abilities are required for activities such as filling out important immigration forms, carrying on intelligible conversations with foreign officials and remembering ATM pin numbers. Luckily, I was able to successfully navigate the first two obstacles, lack of sleep be damned. The swift recollection of my ATM pin, however, was an entirely different and sad matter…
As was the case with our last adventure, we waited to procure our Mexican pesos until arrival in Puerto Vallarta. While waiting in line to use the ATM, patting myself on the back for appearing mostly composed while entering the country, a thought suddenly struck; like a bolt of lightning, in fact. OMG – WHAT IS MY PIN NUMBER??
For the record, I have never forgotten my pin number. Additionally, I know my debit card and several credit card numbers by heart. The card I’d planned on using was the one I use every day – with my pin number. EVERY. DAY. Yet, as I stood there, mind blank and fuzzy, I couldn’t be exactly sure of the precise collection of pin numbers or their order. I totally panicked.
Still panicking, it was my turn at the ATM. I approached, palms sweating (which could’ve just been the crazy, afternoon heat) and pulled out my debit card. My mind was racing with possible number combinations and my hand was attempting to auto-recall the pattern on the number pad. While I was fairly certain I remembered the numbers, I couldn’t be entirely sure. To quote Pee-Wee Herman in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, “The mind plays tricks on you – You play tricks back…”
After two failed attempts, I stepped away from the ATM. I knew I only had a limited number of tries before the bank blocked my card, so I thought I’d let things settle for a while. Perhaps a bit of rest, reflection and beach gazing would do the trick. Thankfully, my friend knew I was good for it and since she had apparently remembered her pin number, we were able to pay for the taxi to our condo. We were both convinced I’d be able to sort this out later in the afternoon and off to enjoy the day we went.
I could get used to this…
Beautiful flowers on the deck with the Los Muertos Pier in the background
After a fairly short cab ride to our condo, La Palapa, in the heart of Old Town Puerto Vallarta (aka: the Romantic Zone), we checked in and surveyed the scene. Last year, we stayed a little closer to the main part of the Malecon, but this time we were more in the center of the Old Town and directly on the expansive Los Muertos Beach. I loved where we stayed last year and would probably choose it for my next stay, but being directly on the beach and all of its activity was really quite lovely. (In all fairness, last year’s spot was also close to the beach, but you had to walk all the way across a 10-foot wide walkway (the Malecon) to get there. The horror.)
Scene of many margarita mixings…
A lovely rooftop pool
The condo living room – complete with a very firm, concrete-base sofa!
My spacious room overlooking the beach
A very roomy deck to hang out on…
Dolphins playing in the rooftop pool!
After we each claimed our respective rooms in the condo and got the lay of things, we set out to take care of important errands. Since I wasn’t feeling quite up to “adventure mode,” my main plans were to spend time resting and relaxing, living out my foodie dreams and maybe getting in a bit of writing. I’d been envisioning myself, ala Hemingway, enjoying the tranquil grace of the Old Town and soaking up the Arts scene. Throw in a spa treatment or two, some good tequila and a few beautiful sunsets and my time in Puerto Vallarta would be perfect. (All of which gloriously transpired.)
Procuring the essentials is of the utmost importance for a well-enjoyed holiday. A few places to help pave the way towards a relaxing and rejuvenating stay in Puerto Vallarta:
First things, first. Tequila is important. Good tequila is even more important. Don’t get caught in the tourist-trap tequila shops on and around the Malecon. Instead, head to Vinos América where the prices and selection are much better – and there’s air-conditioning! We visited the location in the Old Town area. A few times… We also found a pre-mixed tamarind margarita mix which was fantastic! I’ve always loved the flavor of tamarind, but had never tried it in a margarita. I’ve been unable to find it at home, but will be buying some tamarind concentrate in the near future to try and recreate the magic.
Just as good tequila is important, good coffee holds equal status. (In my world, anyway.) There are several coffee shops in the Old Town area, but being able to make a great cup of coffee first thing in the morning is an absolute requirement. Sitting out on the deck, watching the ocean, contemplating life… what a way to start the day. Vallarta Factory not only has delicious food, but they carry a great selection of ground and whole bean coffee, sourced from the local mountains. And if that weren’t enough, the adjacent chocolate shop also carries one of the most delicious creations known to the planet: Caramel-coated, roasted cacao beans. I became hooked on them after my last trip and have been dreaming about them ever since. Suffice to say, I brought back SEVERAL bags…
Many delicious chocolates to enjoy!
So close to my dream…
Cigars aren’t my thing, but they roll them right in the store!
The holy grail. Caramel coated roasted cacao beans… One of the most delicious things EVER created.
The Farmacia Guadalajara in the Old Town is a large drug store and has everything you need in the way of snacks, sundries and more. I’m still excited about my Frida Kahlo Aqua Net score from last year’s trip…
Keeping a bag of ice in the freezer is important for so many hot-weather reasons. OXXO mini-marts are virtually everywhere in Puerto Vallarta and it’s likely one will be located close to wherever you’re staying. Stop by for bagged ice, sodas, chips, ice cream bars and more!
Pedicures are good for what ails the tired, airport-dashing feet and a fine addition to any restful vacation. The staff at the Wow! Facial Bar, just up from our condo, was very accommodating and gave me an excellent pedicure. (They had a very interesting facial masque treatment I might try next time…) I did have to return the next day for a touch-up, buy they very graciously took care of everything. They didn’t even want me to pay for the touch-up!
If you were stuck with someone reclining their seat in front of you for the entire flight, work out your stress at Spa Holistic. Located directly on the beach/Malecon, their staff is excellent and the prices were amazing. You could also go the cheaper route and hit up the roaming foot massage troop working the beach, but an actual spa massage seemed like a better idea to me…
After stocking up on essentials and enjoying a couple of very tasty tamarind margaritas on the deck, it was time to think about dinner. Located downstairs in our condo and directly on the beach was the famous La Palapa restaurant and bar. Built in 1957 and the first restaurant on the beach, La Palapa is still owned by the same family and remains an icon in the Romantic Zone. If you’re looking for fancier dining, directly on the beach, check out the scene at La Palapa. They offer breakfast, lunch and dinner in their dining room or directly on the beach in their private seating area. They also host weddings and events and we watched them set up at least two beach weddings during our stay. Granted, there were only a few nights with sunsets, but the weather cooperated during the ceremonies and no one was rained out. Dreamy.
Dinner service at the private La Palapa beach area
One of the beach weddings we saw during our visit
They had to put up the umbrellas for this one…
Since we weren’t feeling terribly fancy after our long travel day and running of errands, we decided to keep it casual that first night. (And most nights thereafter) Since it was Restaurant Week during our visit, we’d put together a list of potential eateries to investigate. (Note: Restaurant week is always longer than a week and this year ran from May 15th thru June 10th) Many cities feature restaurant weeks, but if you haven’t had the opportunity to participate, they’re a great way to enjoy pricier restaurants for more a reasonable cost. They usually feature a few prix fixe meals which offer a good overview of their full menu. On the list was Joe Jack’s Fish Shack, located a few blocks from our condo. Their menu looked tasty and it was a short walk for weary travelers… Perfect combo! The even bigger bonus was just how tasty the menu was. Everything we tried was delicious. The passion fruit margaritas were amazing and I would eat the Shrimp and Avocado Tostadas Louie every day of my life. Every day! We definitely returned for more during our stay…
The well-appointed bar at Joe Jack’s
A city view from the open-terrace upstairs seating area
Chile dusted veggies – Delicious!
One of the most delicious drinks I’ve ever had – The passion fruit margarita!
Shrimp & Avocado Shrimp Louie FOR LIFE!
Mmmm… Fish tacos…
‘Lots of cool vintage Mexican movie posters at Joe Jack’s
Lovely dining at Joe Jack’s
Delicious cod fritters
There are so many stellar restaurants to try in Puerto Vallarta. The list is impressive and you’d need a very long stay to make your way through it, but it sure would be a delicious journey. We didn’t visit nearly as many spots as I’d hoped, but we made a noble effort. I guess the eyes of vacation planning are sometimes bigger than the stomach of time…
Here’s a short list of the places we visited and hoped to visit on this adventure. I suppose the good thing about not hitting every spot is having something to look forward to on the next trip! Because there will definitely be another trip…
We visited renowned chef, Thierry Blouet’s Café des Artistes during our stay and it was spectacular. The atmosphere and service were excellent – minus a small banana allergy mix-up – and the food was truly delicious. Their famous Cream of Prawn and Pumpkin soup (ladled from a carved out pumpkin) was fantastic and the ‘Catch of the Day’ was wonderful. (And I am kicking myself for not writing down the fish. It was delicate, white, flaky… Sigh…) And the desserts – Yowsa!
At least one of us wasn’t allergic to bananas…
Delicious lavender macrons
A deconstructed fig and berry cheesecake. WOW!
This fish was amazing! WHY didn’t I write it down??
Their famous cream of pumpkin and prawn soup. Delicious!
Classy dining at Cafe des Artistes
Directly next door to La Palapa, you’ll find Si Senor Beach. Quite handy to have great dining options just downstairs. The regular menu was somewhat pricey, but we opted for the Restaurant Week selections and weren’t disappointed. Interestingly, the margaritas we ordered ending up being the same price as our entire meal! (Pro tip: Don’t worry about getting the fancy tequila unless you’re going to sip it. Mid-shelf tequila for margaritas is absolutely acceptable.)
This tres leches cake was fantastic!
A very expensive, but very tasty margarita…
Delicious tortilla soup with fresh chicharrones
A very delicious shrimp dish
Looking out towards the pier from Si Senor’s dining room
We had a very earnest guest…
Situated on the Cuale River and featuring regular Jazz shows, Le Bistro has been high on my list on both visits – and it remains! They serve breakfast, lunch and dinner and feature fresh seafood along with pasta and pizza on their dinner menu.
Appropriately perched on a cliff overlooking the ocean,Le Kliff features an amazing menu and is one of Puerto Vallarta’s most exclusive dining locales. While we didn’t get to visit on this excursion, my friend has dined there on past visits and speaks very highly of the experience.
Di Vino Dante features local cuisine with Mexican wine pairings. Born and raised in Puerto Vallarta, the owner was studying Fine Art in Vancouver B.C. when she also began studying wine. She returned home to showcase her knowledge and has been featuring Mexican and Latin American wines and cuisine at her intimate wine bar in the Old Town.
Nicksan features the very cool fusion of Mexican and Japanese cuisine. Sashimi tostadas? They’ve got ‘em! Chiles stuffed with spicy crab and sesame sauce? Bring it on!!
Renowned local chef, Joel Ornelas, whose resume includes apprenticeships at Café des Artistes and Le Bistro as well as several well-reviewed European restaurants, puts his own touch on the classics at Tintoque. Their “Creative Menu” features fresh seafood and local produce and changes daily. Located at Vallarta Marina, near the Hotel Zone.
Tucked in along a side street near the Malecon, Florios specializes in a tasty blend of Italian and Argentinian inspired cuisines. Pasta and meat – together forever!
La Bodeguita del Medio was very crowded when we stopped by, but we stood outside and listened to the live Cuban music and I promised myself to try again next time. The Puerto Vallarta location is an offshoot of the same club Hemingway spent so much time at in Havana. (Which is still there!) Located at the heart of the Malecon.
Barcelona Tapas was on our list as my friend had visited before and raved about it. I love a good tapas. Who doesn’t?? We didn’t make it there together, but I will definitely be stopping in on my next visit.
Jorge’s Hideaway Shrimp Shack is as advertised, most definitely “hidden.” Tucked back into an Old Town neighborhood, you could easily mistake it for a small home. (Which it used to be!) My friend was on a quest for the best coconut shrimp and Jorge’s did not disappoint. Everything we had was fresh and delicious and I’ll definitely return on my next visit.
Delicious coconut shrimp
A homey setting at Jorge’s
Sometimes you just need an ice cold cerveza…
This shrimp dish was SO fresh and tasty!
We were feeling peckish after a hot day of walking around and arrived a little early for dinner hours at The Swedes Bar & Bistro. They were very accommodating, however, and we ended up with the whole place to ourselves for dinner! Featuring local ingredients prepared with a European flare, everything we tried was delicious. The lobster bisque was a standout highlight for me. YUM!
The most delicious lobster bisque
Chicken breast stuffed with provolone, artichoke and sun-dried tomato – with mushroom risotto and a tarragon cream sauce. Yum!
Tucked into a tiny spot in the Old Town, Tacos Revolucion serves delicious tacos of all varieties and absolutely delicious tortas. They also have “Volcanoes” and “Cakes” – both savory dishes – which I will absolutely be trying on my next visit. I also didn’t get to try the “Meat in Your Juice,” which is described as Beef cooked in its juice with bacon, green sauce, scallion, beans from the pot and handmade tortillas. Guadalajara style. WHAT??? #Heavenly
And just a few more places that will remain on my list until next visit:
El Arrayan – Traditional and contemporary Mexican cuisine in the heart of the Malecon scene.
El Dorado – Located directly on the beach in the Old Town/Romantic Zone area, featuring modern Mexican cuisine.
Located at the Grand Miramar resort with a striking, panoramic view of the city, Eugeniafeatures local seafood and produce in an upscale presentation.
Perched high in the hills above the Old Town, Hacienda San Angel Gourmet features elevated Mexican cuisine and an amazing view. It is also high on my list to actually stay in one of the dreamy suites at Hacienda San Angel, once owned by Richard Burton. (Note: Due to kitchen maintenance, there is no dinner service for August and September, 2019)
Meridia Grill features contemporary Mexican cuisine in the heart of traditional Old Town. Duck tacos!
I attempted to visit the trendy La Romantica Churros & Café Bar a couple of times during my visit. It was right around the corner from the condo and featured delicious churros, Mexican hot chocolate and coffee. What more could a girl need? Sadly, on the first attempt, they weren’t opening for another hour and on the second try, they were closed for a two-week vacation! Alas, it just wasn’t in the cards and I’ll have to hit them up next time. If I have to camp out in front, I will…
And not to be forgotten, here are a few favorites from my last Puerto Vallarta visit:
Featuring family recipes, El Mole de Jovita is a must-stop if you’re looking for the rich, addictive flavors of authentic mole. My favorites were the Mole Jovita, pumpkin and green moles. I’ll be back!
Pancho’s Takos is amazing. Serving slow-roasted meats, prepared on flame-licked spits, Pancho’s is a must for any taco lover. And don’t forget to add their spectacular sauces and accompaniments to your meal. (Pro tip: Get there early. The line at Pancho’s gets crazy long in the evening!)
For the record, I still can’t believe I didn’t make it to Mariscos Cisneros on this trip. This place is delicious and I can’t count the number of times I’ve daydreamed of their fish tacos and deep-fried, cheese-stuffed jalapenos. Whhhyyyyy???
In keeping with one of my major vacation objectives, alarm clocks had NO place in my morning and getting up when I felt like getting up was paramount. Enjoying coffee on the deck, watching the day come alive at the Pier at Los Muertos and knowing I had many more days of this was a completely sublime feeling. Most of the mornings during our stay were overcast, but as I make my home in Seattle, what’s a little cloud cover? Good coffee and knowing I have no commitments for the day is more than enough to make me shout a very happy GOOD MORNING to the world. To make things even more enjoyable, my wackylovely friend decided she didn’t want the room with the amazing ocean view – complete with the soothing sound of waves. I guess the waves don’t lull everyone to sleep like they do me… I’ll take that ocean view room – no problem! Add in that I was able to eventually work out the forgotten PIN situation and my vacation mode officially set in. (Granted, it required a few long phone calls to my bank and a bit of logistical finagling, but whatever – cold hard cash was mine to spend! And a hearty thanks to my travel buddy for humoring the situation and helping out…)
I don’t often have the chance to enjoy a leisurely breakfast, but vacation is the perfect time to live out such fantasies. There are so many fabulous breakfast and brunch spots in Puerto Vallarta, it was hard to decide where to start the day. It’s a rough job, but someone’s gotta do it. You’re welcome. A few of the delicious early morning (more like noonish) spots we hit up:
The aforementioned Vallarta Factory was our first stop on the vacation breakfast train. I was excited to return and had vowed to try something new on this visit, but I failed. The menu is great, but the Poblano omelet I had on the last trip was loudly calling my name – and I listened. SO good!
I got this poblano omelet last time – and I will likely get it next time! SO delicious.
The Pancake House is pretty spectacular and they do indeed serve delicious pancakes and French toast. That said, their Chilaquiles with Verde sauce was out of this world! We came back a couple times during our stay.
The wilds of the Pancake House
Delicious breakfast starters
They’ve got waffles, too!
Eggs Benedict at the Pancake House
Amazing chilaquiles in the dappled sunlight of the Pancake House
Barra Light offers delicious breakfast and lunch dishes featuring organic and locally sourced ingredients – and some pretty great cappuccinos. As they were located just around the corner from our condo, we stopped in quite a few times for both breakfast and lunch.
I *needed* this delicious cappuccino…
I also needed this delicious salmon lox bagel sandwich.. with jalapenos and chipotle creme. NEEDED IT.
Salud Superfood is a standout in the area for organic and vegetarian dishes. We visited on our last trip and the food was excellent. I will be back on my next visit as well!
The Green Eggs and Bacon sandwich is delicious!
Words of wisdom on the walls of Salud Superfood…
Café San Angel was also a feature of my last visit, but as their migas were so delicious, there was no way I was missing a repeat engagement. They didn’t fail to impress and maybe next time I’ll branch out and try something new. Maybe.
Delicious iced coffee. Yes, please!
The room for the ladies….
Migas at last!!
Located a block off the Malecon, the Coexist Bistro was the last stop on our vacation breakfast train and positively delicious – And air-conditioned! Set on the ground floor of the very cool Hotel Rio, the dishes were imaginative and well-prepared. I’ll definitely be hitting them up on my next visit. Also, did I mention they have air-conditioning?? #Luxurious
Modern dining with a pool
This egg dish was sweet and savory all at once and very tasty!
Mimosas and daisies = Lovely!
On my last visit, I was so impressed and inspired by the amazing artwork and music all around the city and vowed to more deeply experience the scene during this stay. Every day, after fortifying ourselves with a delicious breakfast, we wandered around, taking it all in, experiencing the vibrancy of the city. Everywhere we looked were beautifully handcrafted arts and crafts and everywhere we listened, strains of live music. It was a feast for the eyes, ears and soul, to be sure. I can’t imagine the creative spirit ever at a loss for inspiration in this city.
The iconic seahorse statue at the end of the beach
That’s quite a chair! Amazing art up and down the Malecon.
Puerto Vallarta loves their seahorses
There are beautiful murals all around town
Shhhhhh – they can hear you!
Beautiful displays of culture and tradition on the Malecon
Saturday evening concert in the public square
Beautiful mosaics around town
The list of artistic possibilities in Puerto Vallarta is expansive and full of variety. What I’ve experienced thus far is just a small cross-section of what can be found. I look forward to continuing my artistic adventures on future trips. In the meantime, a few of the spots we were able to enjoy on this visit:
My friend introduced me to Enrique on our last visit and I was happy to again visit him at the shop he manages, Muy Guapo. Located in the Old Town, Muy Guapo features unique antiques and quirky, funky art and jewelry from around Mexico. Enrique is also a fantastic artist and occasionally has some of his own work at the shop.
Enrique’s sister, Marisa, is also an artist and regularly displays her paintings at the Cuale Island Flea Market. She features lovely scenes of local life and I was happy to return home with a couple of her miniatures featuring nearby Yelapa. (Marisa’s stall is located in the shade of the Insurgentes Street Bridge pedestrian underpass) Walking along the peaceful Cuale River and winding in and out of the artist stalls and banyan trees is an excellent way to spend the afternoon.
Scenes from Yelapa
Marisa’s artwork in the Cuale Island Flea Market
The artist herself! (Photo credit: P. Pudinski)
My friend was trying to track down a local marionette artist while we were in town, but was sadly unsuccessful. We were, however, able to successfully add to our glassware collections with a stop at Mundo de Cristal in the Old Town. They only had a few pieces left of the pattern I’d brought back on my last trip, but I snatched them up and my collection grows. I can now serve even more tamarind margaritas at my next party!
We also returned to spectacular tile and ceramics shop, Mundo de Azulejosin the Old Town. My friend wanted to custom order an address plaque for her home. Since her home is blue, she decided on “La Casa Azul” with lettering appropriately in blue. Unfortunately, after they fired the plaque, the paint looked green. Something on the list for her next visit to Puerto Vallarta, I guess…
On my last visit, I brought back a beautiful hand-blown glass miniature of my bass guitar. On this visit, we again hit up Carlos Rosas with a few more requests. Additionally, due to a freak dusting accident, the neck of my bass broke! (Broken bass necks are actually a bit of a personal curse. Two actual bass necks and now a glass one… Eeesh.) Through our email communications and pictures being sent, Carlos came up with amazing renditions of both mine and my friend’s dogs as well as a new rendition of my bass and the most spectacular Hammond organ piece for my friend, Joe’s birthday. And he very kindly fixed my broken bass, which I’d brought along just in case it was repairable… Now I have a backup! Carlos is no longer located in the Old Town and now sets up shop on Wednesdays near the cruise ship harbor with many of the local artists. (Our friend, Marisa included.) Definitely make the effort to find his booth!
Finley the Beagle, Joe’s Hammond Organ and my Bass – Mi familia!
The real deal and the replica – can’t even tell them apart!
On my last visit, I found a couple of musical notes created in the Huichol tradition. I love them and was hoping to find a couple more, but none of the shops I investigated had them. Luckily, my friend happened upon Colores Magicos in her own shopping excursions and got their email for me. Through a series of emails and a visit to the shop, they graciously arranged for a local artist to make me a couple of notes during my stay. Cool!! I left it up to the artist to come up with the designs and I picked them up on my last day in town. (After the artist raced into town to get them to me before I left!) I love them! If you stop by, ask for Carlos or Olga and tell them the lady with the musical notes sent you – they’re awesome!
I have a weakness for chunky rings and found the most beautiful larimar ring at the Cassandra Shaw gallery in the Old Town. She is also a painter and animal lover and features many of her paintings in the shop. I love the llama!
I love this guy!
My beautiful new ring from Cassandra Shaw
As my friends are aware (especially those who’ve helped me pack to move), I have a nerdy weakness for glassware, mugs, teacups, shot glasses, etc. If you can drink out of it, I probably have one. On a related note, I’m particularly fond of the You Are Here and Been There series from Starbucks. I have several from around the world and now I have one from Puerto Vallarta. Hooray!
There is much music to be found around the city. Live music in restaurants and theatres, dance music in the Malecon and Old Town night clubs and scores of roaming musicians around town and on the Malecon. Stop and listen, go inside and enjoy a set – Take in all the amazing sounds the city has to offer. And keep an eye out for seasoned bassists roaming the beach, waiting to play you a tune…
Bass parking only! This is by far one of my favorite shots ever…
I found the owner! Major props to this guy for schlepping that bass around the beach in long sleeves and pants. That’s one hot gig!
You never know what you’re going to find or what amazing piece of art will call to you as you wander the cobblestone streets and artist stalls along the Cuale. Allow plenty of time to investigate the shops and talk to the artists – and be sure to stay hydrated. There’s nothing wrong with soaking in the sun for a couple hours and returning to the comfort of an air-conditioned hotel room to cool off and get rejuvenated. Of course, it’s also a good idea to throw in a couple of margaritas on the deck and maybe a bit of homemade guacamole, pico de gallo and chips… That’s just good sense. And then resume your meandering, refueled and ready to explore!
So many amazing colors in Puerto Vallarta
Not your average shop decor
The banyan trees on Cuale River Island are truly amazing
If these trees could talk… And it seems like they should be able to!
The foot bridge on Cuale Island
Sometimes you just can’t be bothered to take the stairs…
When not wandering aimlessly around town, there are many places to add to your sightseeing list. Stick around Puerto Vallarta proper or hop on a tour bus or water taxi to the outlying areas of the city. There are so many amazing places to see and things to do. A mere week or so isn’t nearly enough, but you’ll have an excellent excuse to come back soon. Perhaps the following year! Some of my favorite places to visit so far:
Last visit, we took a water taxi from the Pier at Los Muertos to visit the neighboring village of Yelapa. We’d planned on making another trip, but as the weather was sometimes a bit grey and misty, we decided against a choppy boat ride. I fell in love with Yelapa and would love to return for a stay in the sleepy coastal burb, but will have to wait until next time. The water taxis also stop at other villages along the way and I plan to investigate those on my next journey as well.
All aboard for Yelapa!
These guys are getting a free ride…
A few of the fishing boats bobbing in the water next to the pier
An integral part of the beach scene for tourists, fishermen and pelicans alike!
On the way to Yelapa, look out for the rocky arches at Los Arcos Marine Park. I’d love to do some snorkeling in the area and get closer to the arches. Next time!
If you’d like to admire the beautiful architecture of Puerto Vallarta’s local parishes, two beautiful examples to seek out while walking around the Malecon are the Parish of Our Lady of Guadalupeand a little further down, the Church of Our Lady of the Refuge. Both hold regular services and are open to visit during the day.
Rising above the Malecon, Our Lady of Guadalupe
The sun breaking through on a beautiful afternoon
Inside the parish
A little further down the Malecon is Our Lady of the Refuge
Along the way to the Saturday Market…
While wandering around the banyan lined banks of the Cuale, we happened upon the Cuale Cultural Center. A beautiful group of buildings with lovely landscaping and scenery, it serves as a center for all manner of Arts workshops and hosts showings and performances. There was nothing going on the day we visited, but I look forward to checking out the scene on future visits. (Note: When we visited the area, it looked like they were still in operation, but their website doesn’t look current. I hope they’re still holding events…)
Tribute to Night of the Iguana on Cuale Island
Mural on Cuale Island
Tribute to director John Huston on Cuale Island
Center for the performing arts on Cuale Island
Homes perched above Cuale Island
Looking out on Puerto Vallarta from La Iguana Bridge
Sculpture found on Cuale Island
The steps of La Iguana Bridge on Cuale Island
Heading down to Cuale Island from the Malecon
The banyans of Cuale Island
There are many outdoor markets selling a variety of food and goods running throughout the year and all around town. As we did last year, one of the first places we hit up was the Mercado Emiliano Zapata produce stand were we bought fresh vegetables, dried hibiscus flowers, hot sauces and more. (Pro tip: Wash all of the produce off as soon as you bring it back to wherever you’re staying. If you don’t, you’re likely to wake up to an army of tiny gnats marching around your counter-tops. Very common, but easily addressed by a thorough washing.)
Tamarind margaritas with fresh pico and guacamole. Made by hand with the ingredients we picked up at the market.
And excellent place to stock up on veggies and more!
Well, I had to get them… They made me laugh every day…
All this for just under $10!!
There are a couple other outdoor markets we attempted to visit, but were sad to learn were closed for the season. The Olas Atlas Farmers Market, also known as the Old Farmers Market is open on Saturdays from November through April and is very worth getting up early to investigate. (9:30am to 2pm)
Since we were unable to visit the Saturday market in the Old Town, we decide to walk over to the Saturday Market. Maybe walking on a sweltering hot day wasn’t the greatest of plans as it ended up being closer to the Hotel Zone and what felt like 327 miles away. At least. That said, it was a very interesting walk through the local neighborhoods and we ended up getting to experience a very local market scene. Clothing, both new and used, tools, produce, baked goods, little taco stands – you name it, it was at the market. However, as interesting as it was to walk through the neighborhoods, it was just as interesting to take an air-conditioned cab ride back to the Old Town. But for the record, I got in A LOT of steps that day on the ol’ Fitbit – and probably sweated out a few pounds on top of it. SCORE!
One of the things we’d been planning on checking out were the local foodie tours and maybe a tequila tour or two. However, since we were both feeling pretty exhausted from all that wandering around town and walking on the beaches… and making deck margaritas… it never really worked out. Oops. That said, I am confident I’ll be returning soon and it gives me more foodie adventures to look forward to in the future. Some of the tours that intrigued me:
Vallarta Eats offers several tours that piqued my interest. Led by local food enthusiasts, each tour lasts a few hours and showcases the best of Puerto Vallarta cuisine. I was most interested in the Untouristed, Tasting Vallarta and Craft Brew & Bites A couple of friends we made on last year’s trip went on the Signature Taco Tour and raved about it. Next time, Puerto Vallarta… Next time.
We only got a couple of these, but this one was spectacular…
There is no one way to visit or enjoy Puerto Vallarta. Lounge on the beach every day and make homemade guacamole and pico de gallo to enjoy with scratch margaritas on your deck. Eat at all the amazing restaurants and imbibe on elaborate craft cocktails. Hit up the night clubs and late-night Malecon scene and dance into the night. Take a water taxi to the tiny inlets outside of the city and enjoy a burro ride around the village. Get daring and go diving – either in the sea or sky! (Well, parasailing anyway…) Write, dream, contemplate the world and what you can do to make it better… There are so many amazing adventures to be experienced in this beautiful city.
Catch your own fish…
Take to the sky!
Whenever I think of Puerto Vallarta, I recall the spectacular sunsets, the leisurely walks on the beach, the charm of watching the nightly dinner service under the lantern-lit beach umbrellas and the absolute come-as-you-are ease of the Old Town. (Unless it’s Café Des Artistes or one of the upscale hotels, where I recommend kicking it up a fancy notch…) In the years to come, I will always keep a bit of Puerto Vallarta warmth and sunshine tucked away to pull out on those grey Seattle days. This city is now a part of my soul and I hope to experience many more beautiful moments within its borders, whether experienced a year from now or ten.
In closing, if you’re thinking of visiting Mexico, I highly recommend checking out this absolutely lovely city. It’s full of beauty, the locals are welcoming, the Arts scene is rich and vibrant – and there are an unbelievable bounty of tastes, sounds and experiences to sample. It’s a paradise on so many levels! Hey, and no one got pooped on by a Magnificent Frigatebird this time, so that was an extra vacation win!
Until next time – Eat the state!
A room with QUITE a view…
A beautiful night…
I Ate the State SPECIAL EDITION: Puerto Vallarta – The Return! Click HERE to check out the Spotify playlist.
Escape (The Pina Colada Song) – Rupert Holmes (from Partners in Crime)
Steal Away – Robbie Dupree (from Robbie Dupree)
Tequila Sunrise – Eagles (from Desperado)
Batida Diferente – Herbie Mann (from Latin Forever)
A Horse with No Name – America (from America)
Do It Again – Steely Dan (from Can’t Buy A Thrill)
Coconut – Harry Nilsson (from Nilsson Schmilsson)
Mambo Sangria – Caj Tjader (from Too Late Now)
Sicily – Chick Corea (from Friends)
Biggest Part of Me – Ambrosia (from One Eighty)
The Boys of Summer – Don Henley (from Building the Perfect Beast)
Hold the Line – Toto (from Toto)
Love Will Find A Way – Pablo Cruise (from Worlds Away)
Danza de Gardenias – Natalia Lafourcade (from Danza de Gardenias)
Dreamers – Judy Collins (from Dreamers)
Águas de Março – Antônio Carlos Jobim (from Antônio Carlos Jobim: Finest Hour)
Come Sail Away – Styx (from The Grand Illusion)
Still the One – Orleans (from Waking and Dreaming)
Sailing – Christopher Cross (from Christopher Cross)
Corcovado – Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars – Stan Getz, João Gilberto (from Getz/Gilberto)
Drift Away – Dobie Gray (from Dobie Gray – His Very Best)
Babylon Sisters – Steely Dan (from Gaucho)
Samba De Orfeu – Cal Tjader (from Soul Sauce)
Ride Like the Wind – Christopher Cross (from Christopher Cross)
Reelin’ in the Years – Steely Dan (from Can’t Buy A Thrill)