Travels in America: Denver and Seattle

My husband Joe and I have undertaken three trips to the United States, and have loved our travels there.  In the keeping with the holiday spirit as we all take a well earned break, I have brushed the dust off our blog written at the time (October 2014), removed excessive cussing and tidied up the grammar for Whaleoil readers.  This is part 7 of 7.

Day 26 – Denver

Time to ease off the gas a bit and hang out with our friends Craig and Kim and their two boys.  Tonight was Halloween and Trick or Treating was on the agenda.  It is such a big thing here and is much more than just about trick or treating.  We’ve seen some discussion on Stuff about it’s place in NZ and lots of arguments for and against, and some of the issues raised about it in NZ are just not an issue here in the US.  For example, there have been some negative comments about people having their door knocked when they don’t want to take part.  And kids being sent out to ask for candy from strangers, and is that really safe.  All of which are valid concerns.

Here, trick or treating is done as a community, a few families will join up with adults and kids in costume and walk together around the neighbourhood.   The kids have at least one adult with them all the time, and houses that are clearly not partaking (no decorations, no lights on) are never approached.  Some houses will offer warmed cider for the adults as well as candy for the kids.  Craig Joe and I had gone to the Halloween store to buy costumes (they have stores called Spirit that pop up in empty shops for a few months before Halloween, much like the Christmas pop-up stores we see) and came away equipped for scaring the neighbours.  Craig had bought a full Jesters outfit including mask, and I had got some creepy super-long-fingered gloves and had elected to use a scream mask that C & K already had in their costume basket.

Joe used some of Craig’s old shorts and t-shirt and bought latex “wounds” for his arm and face.

By about 9 pm the kids were getting tired and had accumulated an obscene amount of sugary candy in their goodie sacks, so we headed home, packed them off to bed and went downstairs to the basement to watch spooky Halloween movies until everyone started falling asleep.

Day Twenty Seven  – Denver

The day started with breakfast at Gunther Toody’s, which is a really cool 50’s diner,  that included a Corvette inside the restaurant.  A typically big breakfast that kept us going until late afternoon, which fit in well with a BBQ after watching the All Blacks play the US in a game of Rugby at Soldiers Field in Chicago.  We were really hoping the US would score a try against NZ, as it would have been the first ever.  But it was not to be, and typically, the AB’s romped away with a victory.  C & K’s friend CR joined us for the game, so there was much explaining of rules and what they were doing at scrum time etc.

Day twenty eight – Denver

Today we started with breakfast at Egg and I, after some confusion about the time as Denver had overnight switched back from Daylight Savings, and then headed to the Denver Botanical Garden to the Chihuly exhibition.  Dale Chihuly is a glass blowing artist and had created fabulous sculptures in glass that had been installed in ponds and gardens.  Kim and the boys had been to the exhibition the night we arrived, but we had been too slow to book tickets for the night event and it had sold out.  Based on what we saw during the day, the night time one would have been awesome.  As it was, seeing it in the daytime was amazing.

Chihuly glass

We spent a couple of hours wandering around the various sculptures snapping photos every few seconds and trying to keep tabs on everyone.

Chihuly glass

One of the boys had a birthday party to go to so we headed home and settled in to watch the Denver Broncos play the New England Patriots (representing in Maine).  This time it was CR’s turn to explain the rules to us, so we could hope to have some clue about what was happening and why.  Sadly the Broncos lost, much to the Coloradan’s disgust.   We had hot dogs at half time and figured that it didn’t get much more American than this.

Day twenty nine – Denver to Seattle

It was a miserable day in Denver when we bid farewell to Craig & Kim and headed off to Denver Airport for the next stage of our trip, Seattle & Portland.

We had an early start, flying out at 8:30 am, so had to have checked in by 7:30 am and so left Craig & Kim’s  at 6:30.  Craig very kindly cooked up some bacon & eggs to fortify us for the morning ahead (he alas had been up earlier as one of the lads was not well) and after bidding farewell to Kim, Craig took us to the airport. The drive was about 30 – 40 minutes in pretty steady rain, but the traffic was generally good and we arrived on time. Southwest has kerbside check in, where a number of podiums in front of a conveyor belt are setup right next to the drop off point, so all we had to do was wave Craig goodbye, turn 180 degrees and check our bags in!

Going through security at American airports, even domestic, is pretty horrendous, and while Denver was no exception, this time we did not need to take out laptops or remove lightweight jackets, so despite the volume of people we moved through pretty quickly.

It was another full flight (Southwest almost always fill their flights according to Craig) and this time Deb and I could not sit together, we both had to pick a middle seat a few rows apart.

We often hear of these flight attendants that do humorous announcements and to our delight we had one today! Imagine if you can an old southern man with that lovely twang (ya’ll come back now y’hear) and add a dose of humour and you have this guy. Here are a few of his quotes that had us laughing.

‘If you’re travelling with small children today …what were you thinking!”

(for the oxygen mask section) – ‘If you’re travelling with a child , secure your mask first before theirs. If you’re travelling with two children, pick your favourite’

On the taxy out to the takeoff point – ‘ OK this will be a no-whinin’ , no-complainin’, no botherin’ the attendants flight. In fact y’all should just sit back and sleep’ (and then in a very quiet voice) ‘you’re getting very sleepy …verrryyy sleeepy…’, and then he starts playing lullaby music over the Tannoy.

At the takeoff point – ‘Ok, give that belt a tug and yer sweetie a hug, this Boeing is going. If yer travelling alone in the middle seat, look to yer left & right, this could be the hookup of a lifetime’

And then just before we landed – “OK make sure yer rubbish is cleared away and yer have all yer electronics. There’s a guy in front of me here not listenin’ , there’s always one , and he’s gonna leave stuff behind coz he weren’t listenin’ Anything left behind will be handled by our lost and found department, and you can go to this website to get yer items back… www ebay com which had the whole plane laughing.

As we taxi in – ‘So we’re early and we sincerely apologise for this as yer ride won’t be here yet. If yer connectin’ to another airline…who cares ?’

After collecting our backs, we schlepped the luggage to the light rail connection, a 10-ish minute walk through the car parking building, where we got a ticket into Westlake station (only $2.75 for each ticket). The light rail takes you from SeaTac airport into the centre of town through some very nice suburbs , they are big on lots of trees here and the fall colours are in abundance. The ride only took about 20 minutes, and on exiting the station we oriented ourselves and hoofed the luggage a few block to our hotel, the Bell Town Inn.

This place is superbly located and allows an easy walk to either the Pike Market or Space Needle. Fortunately, our room was ready and we could drop our bags and start exploring.

We first went to the Pike Market, about 10-15 minute’s walk away (and in a steady drizzle) . This is an interesting place and has fish stalls as well as various other craft stalls, and lots of small boutique shops like second-hand shops and the like. We had lunch at a French type café and sat & watched the world go by before starting our exploration.

It wasn’t too crowded (another of the benefits going off season, I bet the place heaves and is jam packed in peak season) and we could have a good look around. I got a T-Shirt that has a Star Wars shop on it, made with Coffee and bleach, and we also picked up a Seattle picture for the travel wall, and I discovered a couple of 2nd hand bookshops (surprise!) where I made a couple of small and light! purchases.

One of the features of this market is a stall where all the guys yell out the orders in unison (eg one guy will yell ‘two pounds of Bass and then all the other will yell the same thing in unison) and then they throw the fish at each other and eventually pack it. Lots of fun to watch but hard to catch on camera!

After spending a few hours here it was starting to get late so we mooched back to the room, dropped some stuff and then headed off to the Space Needle. This was created in 1962 for the World’s fair , and is one of Seattle’s defining landmarks.  The building is pretty impressive up close, and getting in is quite straight forward (tickets for general admission are $21)

After a quick 43 second elevator ride we were at the top and boy what great views you get. You can go outside as well, and the wind was quite strong and cold (not at all like ground level) so we managed to get some good snaps of Seattle from there. The place has a small bar and snack area, so we stayed there for a couple of hours and had a couple of wines until it got dark when we were then treated to downtown Seattle at night – absolutely superb.

We eventually tore ourselves away and headed off to find a place for dinner near the hotel, and found a nice spot close by.

Day Thirty – Seattle

Seattle Day – Our only full day here so a plan was required.  First stop was the Seattle Glass blowing studio, which was near the motel.  Lots of fabulous glass works, and one in particular grabbed the attention of both of us.  So after some umming & ahhing, & currency calculations, we decided to buy (see my rant about tax later). It’s a sculpture of a woman’s torso, made in clear glass but with the murano style candy cane circles embedded, mostly on her back, to add colour.  A stunning piece.  And we were able to watch the guy who made it making a large Christmas tree out the back of the studio.  The one he was making was about 2 and a half feet tall, and we watched them attach one of the branches and shape it with scissors and tweezers.  A fascinating process, and it required a team of four helpers, plus the artist.  I also bought a couple of glass pumpkins, they have been such a feature of our trip and these ones at the studio were particularly nice and representative.  So we went straight back to the motel to leave our goodies, they are heavy !!!

We wanted to take the Ferry across to Bainbridge Island, Seattle is famous for its Ferry boats, particularly if you have watched Grey’s Anatomy.  So we started wandering our way from the motel to the pier where the ferry leaves, stopping at the French café again for breakfast and at a few shops along the way. We caught the ferry (only $8 return) and watched the cars load on and pretty much had the boat to ourselves.  Very nice after the mad crush of the busy cities we have been in.  It wasn’t too cold on the ferry, the weather has been grey and overcast and threatening rain but we only got a wee bit wet on the first night and have been lucky since.  It was a lovely trip over to Bainbridge Island, and there are some pretty stellar houses, for I’m sure stellar prices, on the waters edge.  It’s about a 30-minute trip and you end up feeling a world away from the bustle of the city, I can really see the appeal of living there.

Seattle, from Bainbridge Island

We disembarked and hung around the terminal kicking our heels for about 10 minutes to catch the return trip to Seattle.  You can hire bikes etc and there are taxi’s waiting to take you to the commercial area, but sadly we didn’t have time.  There’s never enough time !!  For the return trip, the sun had come out a little and was nicely lighting some of the buildings, but the wind seemed to have got up and it was too cold to stand at the front of the boat for very long.  We disembarked and began wandering back into the city.

Quite a large and noticeable number of homeless people here, and a large percentage with metal health issues.  One guy walking down the street with his trolley of stuff, screaming obscenities to all and sundry.  Another woman pacing back and forth bobbing her head from side to side.  Quite a few people with cardboard signs saying they are homeless and asking for money, but no one actively approaching you like there were in Chicago.  Scenes like this are unsettling and make me feel uncomfortable, but I still don’t know if there is a solution, or what that might be.

We’d had enough walking by now and time was ticking on, so we made our way to the monorail terminal and paid $2.25 to be taken to the Space Needle.  Joe wanted to visit the EMP Museum (which had a curious mix of rock and pop culture exhibits, for example, the suit worn by the actor in the movie Aliens) and I wanted to visit the Chihuly Museum.  The museum contained another stunning set of glass sculptures, mostly housed in rooms that were painted black to emphasise the colour.

One room only was painted white and had a ceiling of coloured sculptures, with the light shining through to colour the walls.

There was also a glass house, which contains a huge collection of flower type glass sculptures, all connected together to look like plants.  I was very cheesed off to find it was closed for a private function and I wasn’t allowed to go in.  It truly looked stunning but I had to be content from seeing it from the outside.

The day almost done, it was time to wander back to the motel and rest our feet for a bit before finding eats.  There was a whisky bar recommended in Seattle’s top 10 guide book, and it was only a couple of blocks away.  What’s a person to do?  We went there of course, and my what a stellar range they had.  Good food as well, AND they served sparkling wine by the glass, AND it was actually sparkling and not flat.  Believe me that’s rare in this country, I have some educating to do.  Joe was able to sample a few whisky’s he had never tried before and the wait staff were very affable and friendly, so it was a lovely last night in Seattle.  A nice place, I would quite happily come back here and spend more time.

The tax rant – I don’t think we’ve mentioned this before, and we keep meaning to.  Everything here has tax added, much like gst.  However it is never (or at least very rarely) included in the stated price, so if something says $100 on the label, by the time your card is swiped, the prices has been jacked up to $110.  This is intensely irritating, why would you just not include it in the stated price?  It’s not like it’s optional, or can be avoided in any way.  So we have been caught a few times, where we may have counted the right money to speed up the transaction and clear our wallet of the cursed $1 bill, only to find we don’t have enough once the tax is added.  This generates much gnashing of teeth.  You would think we had learned by now, but we are clearly pretty thick because we haven’t and still get that nasty surprise when we come to sign the credit card slip.

Day Thirty-one

Today was our last day in Seattle. We got up early and walked to the Avis place to get our car, as we were going to drive to the Portland area, specifically McMinnville where the Evergreen Air & Space museum is located , home of the famous Spruce Goose.

We collected the car from Avis, who’s attendant gave new meaning and definition to the word surly, and drove to the Belltown Inn to collect our stuff. Dora successfully and simply negotiated our way out of Seattle and we got on the I-5 to Portland. On the motorway we saw several traffic cops either monitoring or ticketing people, and it’s worthy of note mainly because we haven’t often seen cops on the road this trip so to see 4 or 5 on one journey is unusual. It also explains why most people were sticking to the speed limit (the usual allowed excess is about 8 mph above the posted limit according to various sources..i.e two people I spoke with!)

The drive to Portland was through some spectacular countryside, the trees still have much of their autumn colour and the surrounding countryside is beautiful. Sadly it was also raining heavily, so an intended detour to Mt St Helens was off the cards as we’d not have been able to see much through the rain.

So we decided to head straight to McMinnville and the Evergreen museum ( http://evergreenmuseum.org/the-museum/). The drive took about 4 hours, and while most of the trip was OK, the part where we drove through the southern outer suburbs was a bit turgid as we were going through several sets of lights so was stop / start for a few miles.

McMinnville seems a very out of the way place to have a museum, but the driver was an F-15 pilot Michael King Smith who, after completing his training, was keen to build and establish such a place, so together with his father they began the process of acquiring aircraft and building the site. However in 1995, Michael Smith died in an auto accident and so the planning and building continued with his goal in mind, and it’s certainly a spectacular place.

Set in a huge open space, the facility consists of three large buildings, two hangars and a theatre, and additionally another large building has a full size 747 perched on top that’s been converted to a water slide. Nice! The museum is easily spotted from the road as there’s also another full size 747 parked in front of the hangars.

The centrepiece of the museum is the Spruce Goose. This was built by Howard Hughes during WW2 initially as a large transport aircraft to try & avoid the U-Boat menace that was decimating allied shipping. However, the stipulation was that it could not use metal ( a strategic material) and so Birch wood was the primary material.

Hughes was a perfectionist and as a result of his continual interference, the aircraft never got completed until 1947, and in a famous event, it briefly flew for 1 mile at 70 feet before being put into storage and eventual move to Oregon.

The museum purchased the aircraft in 1993 and was moved by a very careful process to McMinnville. This meant the aircraft had to be dis-assembled, the larger sections moved by barge up the coast then inland on the Columbia river, and then transported by truck to it’s final site. Once there, teams of volunteers restored the aircraft to it’s present condition, and what a superb job they have done.

The Museum has many good exhibits and a great range of civilian and military aircraft. The Spruce Goose towers over everything in it’s hangar and it’s hard to convey just how big this is (while remembering it’s all made of wood!). The hall also contains a B-17 , DC-3 as well as several WW2 and WW1 fighters amongst other delights like a Gee Bee sportster. Some aircraft are originals while others are reproductions or replica’s but the standards are very high and the quality of the exhibits is superb. There are clusters of airliner seats dotted throughout so one can rest and take it all in.

The second hangar focuses on spaceflight but also has many aircraft exhibits, such as an F-15 , two MiG jet fighters and an SR-71 Blackbird & X-15 Research aircraft.

We spent a happy four hours here, and after exhausting myself (running around) and my camera battery, we departed just a few minutes before the museum closed.

Day Thirty-Two and Thirty-Three

The day after the Spruce Goose visit, we had a free day to spend in Portland, and had booked into an apartment hotel in SW King Street. We had stayed the previous night in Tigand after the museum visit, a suburb outside Portland, as it was getting too late to go into the city and find a place (nothing worse than driving in a strange city, not knowing where to go and not knowing the layout), so landed at a local Best Western and pre-booked some accommodation.

There had been two recommendations given by our friends CR and Jeanette in Denver – one was Powell’s Bookshop which is a huge second hand and new bookshop, and Portland grill which has stunning views of the city.

So we arrived at our Hotel and left the car & luggage there & went exploring. First stop was Powell’s Bookshop and oh my what a book lover’s dream! The Bookshop covers a whole city block and is three levels. Each level is colour coded to it’s subject matter so things are easy to find. Well needless to say I spent a few happy hours there and Deb also managed an hour before the Siren call of design shops lured her out.

Deb had booked us in to the Portland Grill at 6pm, so after partly sating myself at Powell’s, we headed back to the Hotel , checked in properly, freshened up and went out.

The Portland grill is a stunning place. It’s on level 30 of one of the city’s few high rises and as we had a clear night, the views of the city were amazing. The food was delicious, although I found out that 16oz of Steak is bigger than it sounds!

We were able to walk to both bookshop and restaurant as both are along one of the main streets, West Burnside, so both could be reached easily, however the surroundings we walked through were less than salubrious! The odd wino, some adult shops ( with risqué displays) mixed with some trendy cafe’s and the odd jaguar dealership gave the place an odd feel, almost like a certain amount of gentrification was going on.

Day 33 – Our last day in the U.S.A. We had a few hours to kill before needing to be at the Airport, so it was back to Powell’s for some really really last minute book buys before finally packing up and heading to the Airport, following the directions of our GPS who has provided sterling service this trip and never put a foot wrong…. if GPS can have feet.

We decided to arrive with plenty of time in hand, and so had a wine and meal at one of the local eateries and then waited for the plane to arrive.

Well, from there the wheels fell off. The plane was due to arrive at 3 pm, depart at 3:30 pm so we could catch our Air NZ Flight from Vancouver to Auckland, arriving Sunday morning (and then Auckland – Wellington). An announcement was made that due to a technical fault, the aircraft was not leaving Vancouver at all and had to be replaced. There were a dozen or so people that had connecting flights (London, Auckland) and naturally we all tried to get some information about what we could do.

Unfortunately, the staff were few and unable to help in any way. At one point only one staff member was available, and she got snaffled by some business class customer for about an hour, and when one other person turned up, they could offer no real information or assistance. We had even tried calling Air NZ direct and Deb (while on hold to a 1-888 number) was scanning webjet to see if we had any other options at all.

The only real option we had was to go to Vancouver anyway , then try to get a flight to Sydney directly, as that was ultimately our end goal ( I had to be in Sydney Monday morning for an implementation!), so when the plane finally turned up ( at 5pm) we got on and headed off to our unscheduled stop over in Canada. It was with a palpable ‘Hmph’ that as we landed at Vancouver airport, we taxied past the Air NZ plane on it’s way out to take off – missed by that much!

So after we landed,  we then had to figure out how to get to Sydney, as there was no way we were getting to Auckland at all. There were no Air Canada staff when we exited the plane, but we eventually ended up at the information desk where they were expecting us. We explained our predicament and they were able to get us allocated seats on an Air Canada flight direct to Sydney – leaving at 11 pm Saturday night and arriving late Monday morning !!

In the meantime, we have been given vouchers for a hotel right on the airport itself (and it’s very posh) and some meals, although the $15 per person allowance got swallowed up pretty quick, that would barely have paid for a soup!

So tomorrow we will be up at the crack of dawn to go down to the Air Canada desk, get booked and checked in, and then we have several long hours to kill until our flight boards at 10:30 pm.

Our American adventure has come to an end.


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