Saturday, April 30, 2011

Norway in a Nutshell

I have no idea why I think it's so fun to schlep around on multiple forms of transportation but I do! Similar to the loop in Hakone Norway is quite famous for their "Norway in a Nutshell" tour which cuts across the country and showcases spectacular views.
Snowy Countryside Outside of Voss

We left Bergen at 8am and took a pretty standard train to the small ski town of Voss. Here we boarded a bus for a scenic drive to Gudvangen. Since we were traveling on very snowy winter roads we bypassed the 22 some odd hairpin turns that the old highway has and arrived at the mouth of the Nærøyfjord in just under an hour. We passed our first of many frozen waterfalls we would see that day, they amazed me! And then we pulled up to this:


Everything was still and quiet and sooooo beautiful! There is pretty much nothing in Gudvangen except for the small ferry that comes a few times a day. The captain told me there wasn't much on board as far as food goes so we walked a short way to the gas station and loaded up on hotdogs, chips and chocolate! Arriving back in time to board the boat we grabbed a table and settled in for the ride.

For 2 hours we cruised through the Nærøyfjord, an arm of the Sognefjord. It's one of the narrowest fjords in all of Europe, at one point it's only about 820 feet wide, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And it is stunning! The water was so cold it looked viscous.

At one point the ferry pulled up to a small town and a family disembarked. They had told us that they were vacationing there for the week and had to bring everything they would need as there was no store, phone, tv, etc. Their kids did not look happy but the adults were excited to ski and relax.
We continued on to the town of Flåm which boasts all of 400 people and left our tiny ship, grabbing $25 beers (for 2!) to wait for our next mode of transportation.
The Flåm Railway has pretty old style wood walled cars and is one of the steepest railway lines on normal tracks in the world. For the next hour we climbed up the mountain, peered down on tiny villages, went through 18 tunnels and saw the Kjosfossen waterfall, normally falling over 305 feet down and now frozen solid.

We arrived in Myrdal which isn't really a town but rather a train station in the middle of no where, around 4pm. It's used by most to change from the Flam rail to the Bergen rail which goes into Oslo. There was a small group of us at first but quickly a train came headed for Bergen which they all got on. And then there was just us & one other couple, a completely closed and locked up train station, a hot chocolate machine, Scrabble on the iPad and a few flasks of rum- waiting 2 hours for our train to Oslo.
Scrabble Competition
Outside the Myrdal Station

Our train finally came, a 4 hour ride to Oslo allowed us all to doze after the busy day. We had sent our luggage ahead so it was waiting for us when we arrived at the Hotel Bristol where we had stayed our first night in Norway. It was 11pm.

Official mode of transportation count, 3 - 3 trains, 1 bus, 1 ferry (if only they would have had a funicular or a pirate ship!!)

Full set of photos here

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Rest of Walla Walla

Even though Walla Walla is such a great wine region you still have to sleep, see, eat and even (try) to partake in other libations. Here's the rest of what we did and what I thought of it during our wine weekend:

Sleep-

Holiday Inn Express - B
Because of the Cayuse Release it was a very busy weekend in Walla Walla, meaning slim pickings on hotels at expensive rates. After many ideas and recommendations from friends we booked at the Holiday Inn Express for about $130 a night. Clean and very well located, free parking & internet this was a fine location for us. The hotel has a large breakfast room which is seriously stocked in the morning: pancake machine, cereal, hard boiled eggs, yogurt, bacon, eggs, biscuits, gravy, etc. Early evening they offer cookies and milk. It doesn't have a lot of ambiance but if you are out and about and really just sleeping here I'd book it again. Right next door our friends booked the Comfort Inn which they were also happy with.

See-

Monteillet Fromagerie- B (only for price of tasting)
If you love cheese this is a great little destination just north east of Walla Walla toward Waitsburg. The adorable farm boasts dairy flocks of fuzzy lambs and curious goats as well as 2 Great Pyrenees, a Boarder Collie, ducks, chickens, cats, etc.
The cheese tasting is $10 per person but the cheeses really are delicious. We all purchased different styles; in our case a soft goat cheese divided by a layer of vegetable ash & deliciously stinky as well as firm goat cheese marinated in olive oil, garlic and herbs.
You can go into the pens with the animals and generally frolic around the grounds. Warning- this cheese will make you think you put a goat in your car ;)

Eat (besides the cheese)-

T. Maccarones- B
There are only a few restaurants in town so when TMacs (as the locals call it) said they could get our table of 6 in on a Friday night I jumped. And it was fine. The restaurant is actually quite small, located on the ground floor of a office type building. A tiny bar was offered to us to wait in (which served not very good drinks- pass) until we were finally sat at our table- upstairs in a private dining area. We all felt happy to be out of the crush of noise in the main room below but couldn't help but feel a bit in Siberia in this room.
Food was all fine, some even quite tasty. Portions huge (easily should have shared a few things) and service frazzled but nice.

Brasserie 4- A
On very cute Main Street Brasserie 4 is casual & fun. You can choose your wine from a rack a la retail style. The menu is bistro style French (yummy escargot) and uses local/seasonal ingredients a lot. Sauces were plate lick able. Salad portions were huge, easily sharable. All was good and we had a great time here.

Clarette's- B+
Everyone told us this was the place to go for a greasy spoon breakfast and they weren't kidding. I expected Alice to pour our coffee while mentioning something about grits and that's just about what we got. Although the service was sloooowwwww the food was good in that diner type of way. They offer crispy hashbrowns either covered (melted cheddar and bacon) or smothered (sausage gravy) 'nough said. And our part time vegetarians found lots of options too. And it's cheap!

Colville Street Patisserie- A
Dayne and I had been before but got there too late and were left with not much to choose from in the case. This time we arrived around 10am on Sunday and the cases were loaded with delicious bakery items. Cinnamon rolls, Pan au Chocolate, Croissants, Financiers, Quiches, even gelato. All was absolutely scrumptious!

Miner Burger (Union Gap/Yakima)- B (only because it feels guilty to love it)
Matt had fond memories of eating at Miner Burger in Union Gap as a kid so we headed in for a burger on our drive home. Holy hell! Burgers are smash patties and thin but as round as a damn dinner plate! Crispy onion rings! Huge thick milkshakes! And about 20+ different condiments. We ate and then we all swore we wouldn't eat again for a week, and then maybe just a salad!


Cocktails-

Marcy's- B
We tried to go to the bar at Whitehouse Crawford but they were packed to the gills. The hostess suggested Marcy's and gave us directions. As soon as we pulled up I recognized it from the (now defunct) Luscious by Nature restaurant.
Super friendly staff, serviceable cocktails. Most had the life shaken out of them but turned out fine (even a super shaken Manhattan!) You might want to stay away from the Old Fashion however, it was "Nicole Brown Simpson'd to death" (insert wildly stabbing/muddling movements here).
Jen was thirsty!

The Marcus Whitman- B
After a tough day of wine tasting and driving around trying to get a damn cocktail (see next entry) we finally were welcomed to the Vineyard Lounge at this very pretty historic hotel. We grabbed a table by the fireplace, moved chairs around and ordered a bunch of things not on the menu. Our waitress smiled and returned quickly with our drinks. Ahhhhhh! Again, shaking seems to be a thing in Walla Walla but the drinks were fine and it was nice to be able to sit in the comfortable room and order as many as we wanted...

Jimgermanbar -D (only because I know others who have enjoyed it, & it stands for "Dead to me")
Not in Walla Walla but in cute Waitsburg, this bar had been recommended by many friends. So after a nice day of wine and then cheese we made our way to Waitsburg for promised delicious cocktails. I had even called, said we'd be in around 5- a party of 6. We arrived at 5:30 with confusion to if we had a reservation or not (I had not been offered one). Finally we were seated at the communal table in the next door private room. It was gorgeous! And we were happy with the menu and our first round of cocktails.
And then... we ordered round two. Nothing crazy. Martini's, Manhattan's, Smoky Vesper. We were told that shots and beers would be up first as it was getting busy. One person changed to a beer. Server leaves. Comes back 5 mins later with a beer. Leaves again. And then...
Appears with our tab and informs us that they are busy, they have a group of 20 who just called and are on their way in. They won't be able to make our drinks and in fact need us to pay and leave. Oh, but they comped us some olives and almonds.
Holy Hell!!! I'm not going to continue to report on what we discussed all evening...

When we were happy...


And something else...

Imbibe Wine Tours - We didn't do this but we saw them at Longshadows set up with a picnic table and having a nice lunch in the sun. How cool is this stretch Checker Aerobus? Turns out they are friends of Elisabeth, check out their site if you are interested in a tour.
Great weekend! Photos here

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Walla Walla Wine Report

Last weekend we headed east to Walla Walla with friends Jen, Matt, Elisabeth and Gary to relax and do a little wine tasting. The catalyst of the excursion was the Cayuse Spring Release Party. I had been on the Cayuse wait list (the only way to buy their wines) for about 5 years before finally being allocated a very small parcel of 3 bottles of futures in 2009. Purchase made I then had to wait until just last weekend to pick them up.


The party was good fun and a chance to taste all the 09's which I'll have a chance to pick up next year. Elisabeth went to school in the area and introduced us to Trevor Dorland the GM of Cayuse who was nice enough to explain the interesting rocky vineyards, very similar to those in Chateauneuf de Pape.Then she introduced us to owner and winemaker Christophe Baron who, while we all sipped on the 09 Bionic Frog, told us about the name and generally charmed us as the French are known to do.

Cayuse Spring Release Party- A+ (based on wine and my years of waiting to attend!)

Here's where else we tasted at in Walla Walla:

Longshadows - A
Although a bit on the pricey side the collection of wines at Longshadows is gorgeous. The lineup here is actually a partnership of a group of amazing winemakers, each doing the style they love the most. On this tasting I really loved the Bordeaux Blends- Pirouette and Pedestal. The tasting room has a stunning collection of Chihuly glass and beautiful views of the neighboring farm land. The entire building is very modern and is built part way into a hillside. Everyone left with a bottle or 2 from here.


Gramercy Cellars - A (group fav of the weekend)
I've loved Gramercy wines since our last trip to Walla Walla. This visit found them in their brand new tasting room, the old location of Amavi. The space is super casual and comfy with HUGE leather couches, a friendly dog and of course amazing wines from Greg. Everyone loved the Tempernillo, the Syrahs, the Grenache, the Cabs. It's tough deciding what to buy (or rather what not to buy) at Gramercy.


K Vitners - A
Can you even go to Walla Walla without a stop at K? I know that most of the wines are easily found around town but this tasting room is rocking, literally! No tasting fee, gorgeous syrahs, fun tasting room and beautiful grounds. Everyone loves K!


Waters Winery - A
Another place we've visited before and continue to love the wines. They had just released a pretty rose that we all snatched up along with their Syrah- the Forgotten Hills is always my favorite.
Basel Cellars- B
This winery is on crack. As you drive up the massive winding driveway, finally spotting the grandiose estate which is also a resort (only for wine club members). It's part Hansel & Gretel, part Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and a little Leavenworth thrown in. Confused? So were we.

The wines were fine, mostly underwhelming and simple. But not bad and actually most at really good prices. It was just the crazy over the top setting that had us all going WTF??
An eagle swoops from the sky as we hold onto our ponies...


L'Ecole No 41 - A-
I love l'Ecole wines, as do most. The only reason I gave them an A- was that I felt very rushed going thru the tasting. Maybe it was just me, and they were busy, but I don't like feeling rushed through things. Having said that the wines are all so good it's another tough decision on which of the many wines to buy. This is a great first or last stop as it is right on the edge of Walla Walla.


Alexandria Nicole Cellars- A
Not in Walla Walla but in Prosser, we stopped here to break up the long drive. The wines were all quite lovely, lots of Rhone styles and even a wonderful Merlot! Super friendly tasting room staff and good prices.

more photos...

Monday, April 4, 2011

Beautiful Bergen

Have you ever been someplace that was so pretty it just took your breath away? I felt like that as we exited the funicular car at the top of Fløyen mountain and took in the stunning beauty of Bergen and the fjords laid out below us. It was freezing cold, but I wanted to stand there with the light of dusk showing off this pretty little city for as long as possible. 
Bergen, Norway is one of Seattle's (many) sister cities. In fact we live right by Bergen Place here in Ballard. It's Norway's second largest and was one of the most important Hanseatic League cities. We stayed at the First Hotel Marin which was the perfect central location for our sightseeing. 
Along the waterfront is Bryggen, the oldest part of the city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The funny row of merchant buildings date back to 1360. Also near by is the Fish Market, much smaller in the winter but still a great place to check out all the different live fish, smoked fish, dried fish, lobsters, caviar, etc.


In the center of Bergen is a lovely lake, frozen solid in the winter and used as a pathway across. Small sections are cleared by the city for ice skating and one area is kept from freezing over by swimming flocks of birds. A Christmas tree stands in the middle. Although our hotel manager told us she thinks it's crazy that everyone walks across it! But still, if this doesn't look like a Christmas card I don't know what does!

Surrounding the lake are the various buildings of the Kunstmuseum, housing the works of Munch, Picasso, Miro, Klee, Dahl, etc. As we wandered through the galleries we couldn't help but notice the lack of security, I think I saw one the entire time. You'd think they would tighten things up since they seem to have an ongoing problem with this around the country.


During the holidays Bergen has the World's Largest Gingerbread City on display. This cavern of sweet smelling creations included amongst other things, an aquarium, a brothel, trains and even Michael Jackson's Neverland. Last year there was some issue with a man, aquavit and midnight hunger... the gingerbread police seemed to have everything under control when we were there though. 
We enjoyed a very nice dinner at Bergen's best restaurant Potetkjelleren, the best of our trip. Meaning "potato cellar" it's in the cellar of a house, the stairs leading down to the dining room quite steep and the doorways being quite low (cute video of the space on their site). Monkfish ceviche, Jerusalem Artichoke soup, duck breast and an amazing selection of cheeses. All perfectly paired with wines chosen by the sommelier. 


And of course we found Bergen's best cocktail bar, Biblioteket Bar where JP warmed us all up with Blue Blazers!
I really enjoyed Bergen and I'm sure it's just as beautiful in the summer, but this little city really charmed me with its holiday spirit and I'm glad I got to experience that. 


Lots of pictures of snow, sleds, and gingerbread here.