In winter, Seattle is mine again.

November, December, Seattle. Typically, it’s raining and the temperatures hover around 40ºF. The sky is a dull, even gray that mutes all light and color. It’s miserable, by most measures, not cold enough to snow, but too cold to enjoy being outside without performance attire. Perhaps it’s the worst at the bus stop; cars roll by throwing water and wind, there is not enough protection in those shallow three sided shelters.

I am a California girl by birth. My childhood was spent up in a new suburb on the edge of an agricultural region that is now sprawling housing developments and shopping malls. But it used to be cornfields and fruit trees; the not quite relentless daylight was ideal for sunshine crops. During my junior and senior years at San Jose State University, I went swimming most days Afterward, I dried myself in the sun on the concrete pool deck. I rode my bike year round, sometimes climbing the coastal range before rolling back down into the fog banks of the San Gregorio coast. I have limited memory of California winter. There was — is — more sunshine in California than in Seattle. This is a fact.

In summer, Seattle is a hub for cruise ships heading to Alaska in summer. We’re a foodie destination and even though grunge is dead, we still get pilgrims seeking out the Crocodile and Sub Pop records — those who have done their homework know where to find the Black Hole Sun and the Sound Garden. Throngs of people choke the entrance to the flagship Starbuck’s. They block traffic at First and Pike as they photograph themselves with the neon over the entrance of Pike Place Market. Seattle is nothing short of stunning in summer, an ecotopia on the edge of Puget Sound. The long hours of daylight, the weather that is never too hot, the easiness of this city in the northwest corner of the US makes for an irresistibly appealing place to be — for three months out of the year.Making peace with Seattle’s winter does not come easy to me, even with over a decade of residency in the Emerald City, as one marketing campaign branded us. The darkness wears on me. A morning person, I have trouble getting out of bed, trouble staying up late. I own a “happy light” — one of those high wattage devices that’s supposed to help with Seasonal Affected Disorder. I now understand the value of a sun-break vacation, something I never even considered when I lived in California. My wardrobe is replete with Goretex and polar fleece and stocky footwear suitable for navigating puddles. And I have the cliched Seattle-ite’s relationship with coffee.

Still, there’s something slow and quiet about this city in winter, something cozy and inclusive about Seattle. When the cruise ships move to ports south, Pike Place Market opens up and is easy to walk through. The tone of the market vendors shifts, the “Where are you from?” conversation takes a completely different turn when the answer is “Here. I’m from here.” There’s a camaraderie, a “We’re all in this together” sort of feeling as we shake out our damp coats and shed the rain from our wooly sweaters.

Mid-morning at Alki Beach, in Pioneer Coffee, there are no strays from the water taxi, it’s just us locals. If it’s dry, we sit on the concrete steps of the beach promenade, watching the ferries slide back and forth between Bainbridge Island and Bremerton and downtown. Evenings, we sparkle in candlelight. We reflect our weird northwest brand of outdoorsy bookishness in glasses that hold bourbon cocktails, whiskey. We plan our escape while wrapped in the cognitive dissonance of being in this city that we love. Places that were promoted in Sunset Magazine and the AAA Journeys west coast edition belong to us again.

This last weekend, the husband and I joined a friend at the Seattle Art Museum to see Luminous, a stunning selection of work from the museum’s Asian collection. First we ate passable Mexican food in an nearly empty restaurant on the Harbor Steps, a stair climb that runs from First Avenue down to the waterfront. In summertime, the top of the steps is a popular spot for protestors and I have photos of my family standing in the fountain. On the Sunday, the wind flew up the slope from the Sound, hurling sharp rain into our faces.

After spending a few hours in the museum — where we did not have to jostle for space in order to view the artwork, we went back out to a nearby coffee bar. A football game was on the television but the volume was turned all the way down. Instead of sports commentators, we got Death Cab for Cutie as our soundtrack. We lolled for an hour, more, maybe, over mochas, mine with cinnamon and black pepper. We unraveled things, as people do in cafes. Where to go next (us, Vancouver, my friend to China for work), the user interface on a popular new video game, the mediocre writing on this season’s The Simpsons.

The rain had stopped. We walked back to the car, a block away, past a bundled up couple who were clearly not from Seattle in their stylish wool overcoats and scarves. “Chicago,” I said out loud — my husband had spotted them too. They looked cold but they were smiling, he had her arm tucked in his. “They’re lucky,” I thought. “They are seeing my city at its very best.” The late afternoon sky had turned the color of ripe mango and fire and the blue of a baroque palace ceiling. To the south, there was a tower of black clouds, another storm front coming in. I was irrationally pleased about this. I knew what would happen. The Chicago visitors would go back to their hotel. I would tuck into a bowl of pho at my favorite local place and the city, Seattle, would be all mine once again.

Photos courtesy of the author by UJ Sommer and Pam Mandel.

Seattle taxi accident hits famous Pike Place Market pig statue

An accident this weekend involving a Seattle taxi has left the city’s iconic Rachel the Pig statue and local residents squealing in protest. Seattle’s KING-TV reports that a collision between the taxi and another driver at the famous Pike Place Market knocked the famous 550 pound statue off its base.

The statue, which serves as the Market’s unofficial mascot, was installed in 1986. “Rachel” functions as real piggy bank, collecting loose change from tourists and locals visiting the famous market. The $6,000-9,000 earned from donations each year are used to support social services programs in Seattle.

Though the statue sustained minor scratch damage in the crash, it should be repaired within the next few days. Here’s hoping for a speedy recovery for one of Seattle’s most famous pigs.

[Flickr photo courtesy of Loren Javier]

Top ten overrated U.S. travel destinations/attractions

Whether or not you’re an American, there are certain places that are on almost everyone’s must-visit list. Some tourist traps, like the Grand Canyon or Disneyland, are worth joining the masses and ponying up the entrance fee (although I just checked the Magic Kingdom’s website, and Mickey and friends are bilking the parents of children under nine for $68 a pop).

Other much-lauded, highly anticipated hot-spots are simply not worth the time and expense. This is, of course, highly subjective: one man’s Las Vegas dream vacation is another’s Third Circle of Hell. It can also be fun to visit certain craptacular or iconic landmarks.

The below list is a compilation of my picks, as well as those of other Gadling contributors, in no particular order. You may be offended, but don’t say you weren’t warned.

1. Hollywood
Unless you love freaks, junkies, hookers, crappy chain restaurants and stores, and stepping over human feces on the star-inlaid sidewalks, give it a miss.

2. Las Vegas
I understand the appeal of a lost weekend in Sin City, really. And I will not dispute the utter coolness of the Rat Pack, Vegas of yore. But in the name of all that is sacred and holy, why does the current incarnation of glorified excess and wasted natural resources exist, especially as a so-called family destination?

[Photo credit: Flickr user Douglas Carter Cole]3. Times Square
A dash of Hollywood Boulevard with a splash of Vegas and Orlando.

4. South Beach, Miami
At what point does silicone become redundant?

5. Atlantic City, New Jersey
The poor man’s Vegas

6. Orlando
Toll roads, herds of tourists, shrieking children, an abundance of nursing homes, and tacky corporate America, all in one tidy package.

7. Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco
It’s hard to hate on San Francisco, but the once-glorious Wharf is a shadow of its former self. Hooter’s, Pier 39, seafood stands hawking overpriced, previously-frozen Dungeness crab cocktail, aggressive panhandling, and vulgar souvenir shops kill the mood.

8. The Washington Monument
The nation’s preeminent phallic symbol is admittedly an impressive piece of architecture. It’s also possible to get a great view from the car en route to other, more interesting historic sites and tourist attractions.

9. Waikiki
There is so much more to Hawaii, including beaches that aren’t man-made.

10. Mt. Rushmore
Faces carved into rock. Moving on…

[Photo credits: Times Square, Flickr user Falling Heavens; Waikiki, Flickr user DiazWerks]

Top ten U.S. spots for photography

As full-time traveling photographers, my husband and I have traveled all over the U.S. in search of the most beautiful cities and sites to photograph. From the vast open desert to towering urban skylines and raging river canyons, we’ve compiled the top 10 best places to visit for photographers. You’ll find a few well-known favorites along with some unique photography hot spots where you’ll find new inspiration. Grab your camera and let’s get clicking!

10. Seattle, WA
From gorgeous harbor views to the dramatic Mount Rainier, Seattle is city with plenty of photographic appeal. Wake up early and head down to Pike Place Market as the vendors stand claim their booths for the day. From photos of vibrant street life to stunning views of the waterway, Pike Place Market is the place to start your photo adventure in Seattle. If you are lucky enough to be in Seattle during the month of June, the Freemont Summer Solstice Parade is a photographer’s dream come true! Watch as thousands of people parade down one of Seattle’s most eclectic streets, leaving little to the imagination with colorful painted bodies and wild parade floats. It’s a blizzard of color and activity not to be missed.

Of course no trip to Seattle is complete without a trip to the Space Needle. We highly recommend shooting this famous structure at night. Behind the Space Needle is a museum designed by Frank Gehry, another beautiful structure to photograph. If you’re into architecture, continue on to Seattle’s Public Library for a few more shots. Walk along the waterfront for more camera opportunities, visit the Sculpture Gardens and if you have time, and be sure to venture out on one of the giant Ferry Boats to enjoy a ride to one of the Port cities, taking in Seattle’s majestic harbor along the way.
9. Outer Banks, NC
Sand dunes and peaceful shores await you on a photographing adventure to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Travel north past Whale Head Bay and walk along the oceanfront, if you’re lucky, you can photograph wild horses as they run through the sand and splash in the water.

Travel along Corolla Blvd. to the Currtick Beach Lighthouse for the most beautiful sunset over the still waterways. Photograph pelicans landing on the gazebo and the lighthouse just as the sun drops below the horizon. Travel south and take a ferry to Ocracoke, a quaint town offering a diverse photographing experience and beautiful views of the ocean.

8. Las Vegas, NV and Red Rock Canyon, NV
The lights! The glitz! The shine! From the bizarre to the beautiful, Las Vegas has it all for photo hunters. Schedule a trip to the Neon Graveyard to photograph the old neon signs of Las Vegas. Then head down the strip to the New York, NY hotel, The Venetian, Caesars Palace and Paris for some impressive neon-lit hotel shots. Every night starting at 8:00 pm make your way to the famous Bellagio water fountain show. The lights, the water and the amazing formations will have you clicking a mile-a-minute to keep up with this amazing display.

When the neon of Vegas is too much, head out to Red Rock Canyon Park. The park is about 15 minutes away from the strip, and boasts a 10-mile loop through some of Nevada’s most beautiful landscapes. Be sure to get there for sunset and watch the mountains change colors as the sun goes down. Beautiful rock formations, wildlife and scenic overlooks will delight any shutterbug.

7. Asheville, NC
Asheville, NC offers a wealth of options for camera-toting visitors, from historic sights and natural wonders. Start with a drive on the Blue Ridge Mountain Parkway and stop at amazing vista points. Travel the nearby hiking paths to see wildlife, waterfalls, and beautiful pines. Visit Chimney Rock Park and the Carolina Mountain trail for more leisurely hikes and photo experiences. For the more rigorous hikes, try the Dupont State Forrest and an unforgettable photography experience. Of course, no trip to Asheville is complete with out a trip to the Biltmore Estate. The luxurious gardens and historic mansion offer an abundance of great scenes to be snapped.

6. New York, NY

New York City is an urban photographer’s dream come true. From the lights of Broadway to the Bakeries of Little Italy, the “picture perfect” photo opportunities are everywhere. Our favorite spot to shoot in New York City is Central Park. Nestled amongst thousands of skyscrapers, this urban sanctuary offers countless photography opportunities. Head to the Central Park Zoo in the Northern end of the park, or photograph the beautiful lake as boaters enjoy the city skyline. Then move to the famous historic carousel, and hop on! The views are beautiful as you take your camera and steady it on a the ride’s colorful circus animals.

In the winter visit Central Park’s ice skating rink, where hundreds of children stumble on the slippery ice with their parents. Take a stroll in the fall through tree lined paths, and in the spring enjoy the blooming spring flowers. Central Park can be enjoyed during any season, and offers the perfect picture taking experience.

5. San Francisco, CA

For photography lovers, San Francisco is the perfect mix of natural and urban. Start your day below the Golden Gate bridge to capture this amazing structure in the early morning light. Then head for Fisherman’s Wharf for the street life and views of Alcatraz. The Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park is another photographic must, with beautiful gardens surrounded by the dramatic city views. End your day by heading across the Golden Gate Bridge for the Marin Headlands. Head to the water surrounded by rocks and grassy hills and if you are lucky enough, see wildlife grazing in open fields.

4. Joshua Tree, CA
This extraordinary National Park in Southern California is one of the most spectacular natural wonders in the United States. Located about an hour East of Palm Springs, Joshua Tree has no shortage of amazing wildlife, scenery and fascinating rock formations to photograph. Of course, the park’s Joshua Trees are the main attraction, their odd silhouettes outlining the skyline at dusk.. Be sure to head to the vista point over the San Andreas Fault to stand this amazing geological oddity. Make sure to stick around for the picture-perfect sunset.

3. San Diego, CA
There is not a bad time of year to photograph sunny San Diego! One of the most beautiful spots in San Diego is Torrey Pines State Park. Dramatic cliffs lead to the spectacular ocean and shore line. Between January and March head to the park’s cliffs, overlooking the ocean. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of the whale migration from Alaska to Baja, Mexico, perfect for some dramatic photos.

Next head to Balboa Park for beautiful photography opportunities of gorgeous buildings, and complex landscapes. Then make your way North to La Jolla to check out seal beach, where hundreds of seals bask in the sunny shores. And of course no photography trip to San Diego is complete without going to Mission Beach. Walk the two mile boardwalk for spectacular views and a gorgeous sunset, and of course Belmont Amusement park, at the end of the boardwalk.

2. Grand Canyon, AZ
The Grand Canyon, one of the natural wonders of the world, lives up to its reputation in every way. There’s no shortage of photographic experiences in the Grand Canyon either. A photo-taker could spend days in one single spot and never get the same image twice. Wake up early to see the brilliant sunrises or stay late for sunset and watch as the mountains change colors. Stop at all the scenic overlooks as you drive from one end of the park to the other. Be sure to find a hike that is comfortable for you to really get into the depths of the canyon.

1. Jerome, AZ

A hidden gem located between Sedona and Cottonwood, Jerome, Arizona is a town of 500 people embedded into the surrounding mountains. Situated on the beautiful switchbacks, Jerome offers photographers an amazing view of the valley and mountains below.

Once a fading mining town, Jerome has been revived in recent years by a growing community of artists. Every thing about Jerome is an artistic photograph waiting to happen, from the old doors to quirky light fixtures. The beauty of Jerome can be seen any time of day, but sunset is an experience you won’t soon forget. Jerome might be small, but its beauty is big, making it our favorite spot to take our cameras.

From coast to coast, America is packed with great photos waiting to happen. So, head out with your camera, find a new place, and be sure to snap a few shots along the way!

* 10 great cities (around the world) for photography
* 24 greatest cities in the world for drinking beer
* 15 more great cities for drinking beer
* The 25 greatest cities in the world for drinking wine
* The 20 greatest cities in the world for foodies

Before you go, be sure to check out Travel Talk, in which the guys visit a highly photogenic spot: the top of Manhattan.

Ten places to eat in Seattle

I lived in Seattle for two years, and I’d venture a guess that if the 16,000 or so hours I spent there were broken down, a good 10,000 of them would have been spent eating my way around the city. Based on my highly scientific research (aka, trying nearly every restaurant in town), here are my picks for the top places in Seattle every food-loving tourist should try.

Piroshky Piroshky
Had a little much to drink the night before? Hightail it straight to Pike Place Market and follow the sweet smell of dough to Piroshky Piroshky. This little storefront was my savior on many a hungover morning. There’s often a line but it moves fast, so make your selections before you get to the front. Go for my usual – the chewy, doughy, cheese and green onion – or try a traditional onion and potato or smoked salmon and cream cheese. Most piroshkies are under $5 and will keep you full for several hours.

Cafe Campagne
The closest thing you’ll find to Paris in Seattle,Cafe Campagne is the place to go when you want a decadent meal. Little sister to Campagne Restaurant, it’s a bit more casual and less expensive, while still offering plenty of French ambiance.The food is here rich – think poached eggs with pearl onions and bacon in a red wine foie gras sauce or Burgundy snails in parsley, garlic, and shallot butter – but the prices are not. Lunch and brunch plates average $15 each with dinner entrees not much more. Happy hour bites are all under $5.

La Buona Tavola
Another Pike Place favorite, La Buona Tavola is part Italian deli, part gourmet grocer. They specialize in all things Italian, including pasta, sauces, olive oils and small vineyard wines. The main draw though, are the truffle goods. You can buy jars of white or black truffle cream, truffle oil, truffle salt, truffle-infused sauces, and even (very expensive) whole truffles when available. Sit down for a $5 wine tasting, and order a truffle, prosciutto and cheese panini, or just sample liberally from the jars out for tastings.

Tom Douglas’ Lola
Actually any Tom Douglas joint will do (the city’s celebrity chef owns four restaurants, a pizza parlor and a bakery), but Lola gets my vote for the smooth, garlicky skordalia spread with pita dip for $3.50, and the tender chicken or lamb skewers ($6 at happy hour, along with $3 Greek beers). I preferred to come snack on small plates, but even if you settle in for a full dinner, you can still enjoy a wide variety of Mediterranean-influenced food on a small budget. Small plates range from $8-12, entrees are $22-28. Lola also serves breakfast, brunch, lunch, and a late-night menu. Be sure to try the cinnamon and sugar dusted made-to-order donuts for dessert.

Beecher’s Handmade Cheese
Beecher’s is Seattle’s best known cheese shop, and with good reason. Their Flagship Cheddar regularly wins awards from groups like the American Cheese Society and Wine Spectator. They sell wedges of their delicious cheese, and offer cheesy meals like grilled cheese (with tomato soup, natch) and macaroni and cheese. While you wait, watch fresh cheese being made in the production room or nibble on some fresh cheese curds.

Some things, like the sandwiches at Salumi, are worth waiting for. Owned by Mario Batali’s father, Armandino Batali, Salumi is a cured meat emporium and sandwich shop. There’s always a line, there are few seats inside (so plan on taking your grub to go) and they often run out of ingredients so you’ll need to plan on a back-up choice. But once you bite into a hearty muffuletta or fig, goat cheese and salami sandwich, all will be forgiven. Come just before they open or wait for the afternoon lull for your best chance at a short wait. Sandwiches are around $9 each.

Farestart isn’t your typical restaurant. The menu is always changing and the food isn’t exactly consistent, but that’s because the people preparing and serving it aren’t your typical restaurant workers with years, or even months of experience preparing familiar dishes. The servers and kitchen staff are “homeless and disadvantaged individuals” learning a new skill – one that will hopefully get them back on their feet and on a path to self-sufficiency. The restaurant is open for lunch Monday through Friday and only serves dinner on Thursday nights, when a guest chef from a local restaurant takes control of the kitchen. The three-course dinner is $24.95 and 100% of the proceeds go back into the program to help educate other students.

Elemental @Gasworks
The sign on the door at Elemental says “There are 1500 ‘normal’ restaurants in Seattle. This is not one of them.” And it’s true. Dining at Elemental requires a bit of effort. The restaurant doesn’t take reservations and has only five tables. Dinner service begins at 6pm, but if you want to snag a table, come for cocktails at 5pm to be the first in line (conversely, come around 10pm and you might get a table; the kitchen stays open until midnight). The tasting menu changes weekly but offers multiple courses of seasonally-based dishes each paired with wine. The price is usually around $75-$80 per person so it’s a little more expensive, but well worth it for the experience that the husband (server and sommelier) and wife (chef) team provide. If you can’t get in at Elemental, or if you aren’t up for a 3-4 hour culinary tour, check out Elemental Next Door, where you can get half bottles of wine for $15 and appetizers like artichoke dip.

Pike Place Chowder
Tucked away in Pike Place Market (just look for the long line and you’ll find it), Pike Place Chowder is one of the few places local Seattleites on their lunch break will actually wait for food – especially on a cold, rainy, winter’s day. The clam chowder here has won numerous awards on both coasts. In addition to New England and Manhattan clam chowders, they also serve a smoked salmon chowder, seafood bisque, and (my favorite) the Dungeness crab roll – a huge baguette piled high while heaping scoops of Dungeness crab. It’s $12 but easily feeds two when paired with a $6 bowl of soup.

I’m probably biased when it comes to McMenamins. My husband was a manager at this location (one of dozens of pubs in the Pacific Northwest chain that also includes hotels located in renovated historic buildings) and I spent many an evening at the bar, sipping one of the brewed-onsite beers like Hammerhead and Terminator Stout. It’s where I began to comprehend that there was a whole world of beer outside of Bud Light. Before that, my idea of a “craft beer” was Blue Moon. The food is your average pub grub: burgers, tater tots, salads. But the beer – oh the beer – is fantastic. Pints are discounted during happy hour (3pm – 6pm daily) and the staff is always willing to give you a sample or two to help you decide on your beer.

These ten restaurants are by no means the definitive list of great places to eat in Seattle. For a fancy meal overlooking Puget Sound, try the Waterfront at Pier 70 (yes, the same one those crazy Real World kids lived on); for New-American fusion, head to Restaurant Zoe (which was recently named one of the best in the country by Open Table); looking for romantic Italian, Il Bistro fits the bill; for a hearty breakfast, order a crumpet topped with egg and pesto at The Crumpet Shop . . . I could go on and on. The bottom line is: Seattle is a foodie town, so if you’re coming for a visit, come hungry.