Photo Of The Day: Victoria Pier

victoria pier

This Victoria pier, the Ogden Point Breakwater Pier in James Bay, Victoria, British Columbia, is today’s Photo of the Day. Piers are strange metaphors for travel, as they function both as cul-de-sacs and tethers to the familiar, but there can be no question they are great for centering images. This photo was taken by Flickr user `James Wheeler on Christmas Eve. He observes in his image notes that this pier has been deemed dangerous. As a consequence, it will soon feature handrails.

Upload your favorite images to the Gadling Group Pool on Flickr. We choose our favorites from the pool as Photos of the Day.

Victoria International Chalk Festival Debuts In British Columbia

victoria chalk festival We can now add another quirky festival to the already long list of creative events. Visitors and locals can go back in time to their childhoods, when playing with chalk was an everyday occasion. These sidewalk drawings, however, contain a bit more talent than your average 5-year-old-drawn stick figure and house.

The Victoria Chalk Festival will debut from September 12 to September 16, 2012, in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, and will continue on in years to come. The event is being led by famous international 3D chalk artist, Tracy Lee Stum, who will create a 20ft x 20ft 3D chalk art drawing at The Bay Centre’s lower level. Then on the 15th and 16th, local and international artists will join in by creating chalk masterpieces on Government Street, which will close to traffic.

“It’s a beautiful City with amazing people, architecture, culture and potential. Still, if we don’t keep working to create excitement and vibrancy, Victoria’s downtown can, and almost certainly will, fall into the sort of decline that other major cities have experienced,” says John Vickers, creator of the festival. “We need to keep downtown relevant.”

This event is free to the public.

For a more visual ideal of Tracy Less Stum’s chalk art, check out the gallery below.

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[All images via Tracy Lee Stum]

Orcas, sea kayaking, and sea planes: a day trip to Washington’s San Juan Island

san juan islandsI woke up early one morning last week and realized that August 15th would mark two years since I arrived in Seattle. Normally I wouldn’t take note of such a thing, given that I tend to move with the frequency of a fugitive. Staying in one place just isn’t in my nature.

But here I was, 24 months into life in Seattle, and of the many things I’d yet to do, I hadn’t: been to the San Juan Islands (blame a longterm illness, an anemic bank account, and overwhelmingly crappy weather, in that order), seen an orca, nor flown on a sea plane despite living two blocks from the Lake Union terminal. As a travel writer, there’s really no excuse.

So I decided to celebrate my anniversary by knocking out all of those goals in one day, with a sea kayaking trip to San Juan Island. There are few things I love more than paddling, but I don’t have my own boat, so it’s tough to make trips happen. That’s where EverGreen Escapes comes in.

Last summer, I did an overnight paddle off of Whidbey Island with Evergreen, and was very impressed by the professionalism and knowledge possessed by my guide. The four-year-old “nature, adventure, and epicurean tour” company has a green ethos not uncommon in Seattle. What sets Evergreen apart from most of the other outfitters I’ve used is a staff who know their stuff and possess great people skills, diverse tours, and an emphasis on quality and comfort. Owners Jake Haupert and Dan Moore are actively involved in every aspect of their business, and it shows.

EverGreen just launched a partnership with Kenmore Air–the “seaplane airline”–this summer. The “Soar & Explore” upgrade allows you to fly one-way or round-trip on various EverGreen trips (see end of story for details). Kenmore has been around since 1946; I’ve enviously watched their little yellow-and-white planes buzz over my apartment hundreds of times, and I was jonesing to fly in one.

%Gallery-130546%san juan islandsI signed up for EverGreen’s full-day “Quest for Orcas, Pigs, and Wine” trip. In no way does that accurately describe the outing (it sounds more like a cross between Dungeons & Dragons and Tolkien), but I admit it begs further investigation.

The name actually refers to San Juan Island’s post-Civil War land dispute between America and England. The so-called “Pig War” began as a result of a farmer shooting a neighbor’s pig that was on his property. Said property became the subject of controversy as to where the U.S./current Canadian border was actually located, and for the next 13 years, American and English troops lived in “Pig War” camps where they primarily got together, drank too much beer, and waited for their respective governments to figure things out. I had hoped this part of the trip referred to sausage, but a little history never hurt anyone.

The “Wine” portion of the trip is a nod to Washington State’s burgeoning boutique wine industry, and the small selection of varietals to be served with lunch. San Juan Island also has its own vineyard and a Tasting Room in the main town of Friday Harbor.

Our day began at the crack of 6:45, when Evergreen’s luxury Mercedes van picked up my eight fellow whale, wine, and pig-lovers at their hotels. Our young guide, Tyler, is a naturalist and native Seattleite; before we’d even left the city limits, I’d learned more about Seattle’s history than I’ve gleaned on my own. An hour and a half later, we arrived at the ferry terminal in Anacortes. The weather was unfortunately behaving as it has for most of the summer: gray and dreary, but we could still catch glimpses of the Olympic Mountains across the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

An hour later, we docked at Friday Harbor. While crowded with visitors, it’s a cute town that manages to remain delightfully free of tackiness. Despite its popularity as a tourist destination, San Juan–at 55 square miles, the second-largest in the 172-island archipelago–is all about enjoying the moment. With a year-round population of just 8,000, the island is mostly rural; uncrowded roads wind past forest, prairie, deserted beaches, and pasture. Agriculture is still a big part of the island’s economy, and you’ll see everything from cattle ranches and alpaca farms to a hops plantation. There’s even a camel named Mona on one property; she’s become emblematic of San Juan’s quirky nature.
san juan islands
Our launch spot was Roche Harbor, a pretty, historic village/resort/ marina on San Juan’s northwest tip built in 1886. San Juan Outfitters provided us with tandem boats and gear, and Tyler gave us a brief tutorial on paddling basics (most of our group were newbies). We embarked on a two-hour paddle around Nelson Bay, encountering curious harbor seals whose heads popped up like corks around our boats. Bald eagles soared overhead, and beneath us, giant Purple Sea Stars and crimson rock crabs hid amongst the eel grass. Tyler stopped us in the midst of a bull kelp bed (encouraging us to snack on it), and talked about the ecosystem it supported.

Our first post-paddling stop was Lime Kiln State Park on San Juan’s west side, ten miles east of Vancouver Island–you can actually see the back side of the city of Victoria. Lime Kiln is the only dedicated, land-based orca viewing spot in the world. Most days, besa juan islandstween 3 and 4pm, the local Southern Resident Orca community (also known as the Salish Sea Orcas) pass by, following their main food source, Chinook salmon.

Tyler explained that there are three types of orcas (whether or not they are different species is a subject of scientific debate): offshore, transient, and resident. Orcas, actually a species of toothed whale in the dolphin family, are found worldwide. They’re opportunistic feeders (hence their erroneous name, “killer” whales), meaning they’ll eat a variety of prey species. In addition to salmon, harbor seals and rockfish make up the Southern Resident’s diet; they forage between the San Juan islands and southern Vancouver Island from April to September.

The Southern Resident community is federally listed as an endangered species due to a variety of factors that include a decline in their food supply, toxic exposure to industrial waste and human-related pollution, surface impacts (think boat exhaust, etc.), and low population. Orcas generally travel in pods and are very family-oriented. The Southern Resident community is comprised of three different groups: the J, K, and L pods (the oldest is a 100-year-old female named “Granny”). These pods are subjected to some of the highest boat traffic in the world, which is a good reason to try and view them via kayak. Unlike a whale-watching boat (which must still abide by strict regulations to protect the animals) however, kayaking doesn’t guarantee a show.san juan islands

Despite arriving at Lime Kiln around 3pm, we’d apparently missed the orcas. No matter–we saw dolphins, and enjoyed the views. Meanwhile, Tyler and intern Maggie set up a beautiful lunch on a picnic bench. Despite the cold (the hot tea Maggie offered was much appreciated), we enjoyed a meal of couscous salad, grilled chicken breasts, and the aforementioned Washington wines. Tyler noted the whale boats heading south, so we decamped to South Beach, where binoculars enabled us to see some orca action far offshore. We took some time to walk the driftwood-strewn beach before departing for Pelindaba Lavender Farm. Despite not getting any up-close views of the orcas, it had been a fun, interesting, relaxing day, and no one seemed put-out that the animals had been a no-show.

Back at Friday Harbor that evening, everyone else went to do some exploring on their own, but I had a sea plane to catch. The terminal is two minute’s walk from the ferry, and I climbed aboard the seven-seater to find my fellow passengers included a boxer wearing a pink, rhinestone-studded harness. The dog lolled across her owner’s laps, evidently a veteran of float plane travel. Unlike me. I was childishly thrilled to be onboard, and within minutes of taking off, I was fantasizing about a second career as a seaplane pilot. The sun had finally emerged, and the water was dazzling. Waterfront cabins sat amidst the lush undergrowth and evergreens, sailboats bobbed in emerald coves.

And then, just as we banked and headed south toward Seattle, I saw them. Two pods of orcas–about 20 in all–leaping and splashing no more than 200 feet below us. I pressed my face against the window in awe, watching them until they were lost in the expanse of blue. Happy anniversary, to me.

Travel tips
Wear layers (including one waterproof), and lots of ‘em. The weather is unpredictable and changes rapidly this far north. Although the islands are in the “banana belt,” sea breezes can be chilly.

Bring sunglasses, a hat, and broad spectrum, high SPF sunblock, and use it–frequently.

If you’re paddling, it’s easy to get dehydrated. Drink small sips throughout to keep your bladder from getting full. And don’t forget to eat a small, high protein/complex carb snack to keep your blood sugar up (Evergreen provides snacks and water, FYI).

Kayaking attire should include a swimsuit, board shorts or waterproof pants, watersport shoes or sandals, and a long-sleeved nylon shirt (preferably one made with UPF fabric) or lightweight spray jacket. Your arms, and possibly your butt will get wet (if your boat’s spray skirt isn’t tight enough).
san juan islands
Soar & Explore

Evergreen Escapes offers a wide variety of summer and winter multi-day/activity packages, as well as customized tours for individuals or groups. San Juan excursions are offered year-round, with sea-kayaking April through October.

If you want the ultimate San Juan scenery experience, you can fly up in the morning, or go round-trip: there are terminals at Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor. Another option is to overnight/take two nights at Friday Harbor House, Earthbox Motel, or Island Inn, or add-on another island (including Vancouver Island, BC) or Olympic National Park. Kenmore Air has terminals throughout Puget Sound, the Olympic Peninsula, Vancouver Island, and British Columbia’s Gulf Islands (Canada’s name for their part of the San Juan archipelago). They also offer flightseeing excursions and have four wheeled aircraft in their fleet.

Want to support the Southern Resident Orcas? Click here for details on the Friday Harbor Whale Museum’s Adopt-an-Orca program.


Visit San Juan Islands in Washington

Take a cycling holiday through Australia’s state of Victoria

Cycling across the state of Victoria in AustraliaFollowing the big win by Aussie Cadel Evans in the Tour de France this year, it is safe to say that cycling fever has hit Down Under. But Australia has had a long tradition of cycling that dates back to well before Evans’ breakout performance at Le Tour. For example, the RACV Great Victorian Bike Ride, is a nine-day biking holiday that is entering its 28th year.

This November, Victoria is expected to play host to more than 4000 riders when the event gets underway. The ride begins in the town of Swan Hill on the 26th of that month and continues along the Murry River, passing through historic gold towns, before eventually finishing in Castlemaine. With eight days of riding, plus one rest day, the riders will cover a total of 590km (367 miles) as they pass through some of the most scenic landscapes that Victoria has to offer. Along the way, they’ll get a true taste of Australian culture and a healthy sampling of Aussie hospitality.

Riding an average of 73km (45 miles) per day, the cyclists will have plenty of time to take in the sights and enjoy a leisurely pedal through the countryside. And at the end of the day, they’ll stay in comfortable campsites, where the fun and camaraderie continues over good meals and great conversations about the day’s events.

The entry fee for the nine days of riding and camping is just $935 AUD for adults, $699 AUD for children under 18, and $399 AUD for children under 13. Kids five and under ride for free. That fee gets you a fully catered, tent-based cycling adventure that will allow you to see Australia like you never thought possible. Support services include luggage transportation, massage services, a full medical team and bike repair crew, as well as a licensed cafe that will keep you well fed.

I can’t imagine how much fun the Great Victorian Bike Ride must be. As an avid cyclists, I think it would be a lot of fun to hit the road with more than 4000 other riders on a nice long ride. One of these days I need to get back down to Australia and take part in this event.

[Photo credit: Brien Cohn/Great Victorian Bike Ride]

Round-the-world: Why Melbourne is the best city in the world, part two

There are lots of other arguments for Melbourne as the world’s best city: museums, parks, open spaces; good bookstores. Add all these things to the list I began on Sunday, and soon these posts on Melbourne will begin to look like explicit promotional material. As much as I dig the city, this is certainly not my intention. So let me acknowledge that there are downsides to Melbourne. There is a tendency among Melburnians to undervalue their city and, more disturbingly altogether, there is an unhealthy obsession with Australian rules football, a completely inexplicable sport. So there you have it. Not perfect at all.

Missing from my list on Sunday is one of Melbourne’s signature strengths, namely, its culinary scene. Melbourne is a remarkable place to eat at both ends of the budget scale. And while it may not be a cheap place to dine by US big city standards, it is far more wallet-friendly than Sydney.

I’d eaten very well in Melbourne on my last visit, and I made sure to do some pre-visit research. I emailed Melbourne-based chef Tony Tan for restaurant suggestions, and he responded quickly. Many of Tony’s tipped restaurants are pretty high-end: Cumulus Inc, Attica, Cutler & Co., Vue de Monde, among others.

We ended up sampling a few top restaurants: The Press Club, Cutler & Co, and Bistro Vue.

The Press Club’s “symposium degustation” menu is quite strong. Highlights include the starting snack of cold seafood skewers and an incredible rose-focused dessert course (titled “Aphrodite”) with berries, rose petals, and a fragrance component. This was a very good meal in a buzzing location with delightful servers.

At Cutler & Co, the degustation menu is even more extraordinary. Every course is deeply satisfying, though if I had to point to a single favorite course I’d name the crab, abalone and sweet corn soup. The palate-cleansing course of carrot granita includes puffed rice and sheep’s milk yogurt. It is like a heady, deeply considered breakfast. Dessert stars violet ice cream and provides a very pleasant shock to the senses. This meal is seriously amazing, studiously well-considered. It is, all things considered, a decidedly intellectual meal, though it is also fun and spirited.

Our third high-end meal is at Bistro Vue, an offshoot of the popular Vue de Monde. I eat oysters, house-smoked salmon with toast, and the day’s special, a hearty, rustic Toulouse-style cassoulet. It’s solid all the way through. The crowd is very upscale and very well-dressed, which that makes me regret momentarily my choice to wear my New Balances to dinner.

On the cheap side we are also completely pleased. We take advantage of the local Asian cuisine scene. Wandering around Footscray in the late morning, we spot a Vietnamese restaurant, Hung Vuong Saigon, packed at noon. We decided on the spot to eat an early lunch. The clientele is mostly Vietnamese. The offerings (vermicelli noodles for me and pho for Matt) are amazing.

We also visit Victoria Street in Richmond, a strip packed with Asian restaurants, and have a decidedly mediocre Thai meal. We have better luck in search of laksa, which has become a major local food favorite in Melbourne. We have ours at Chinta Blues in St. Kilda. It is delicious, though I note with a mixture of excitement and disappointment that some of Melbourne’s top laksa lists exclude it. Check out the entertaining delaksa for reviews of laksa at restaurants in Victoria, elsewhere in Australia, and beyond.

Tourism Victoria provided media support in the form of three meals in Melbourne. All opinions expressed are my own.

Check out other posts in the round-the-world Capricorn Route series here.