Seattle Wind-up

So, now that I am back home in Sydney, I have a confession about my time in Seattle: I never went up the Space Needle. And we stayed right near it. Less than a 7-minute walk from it. In fact, it was my beacon when I navigated Seattle. I just headed towards it, because I knew I lived pretty much right underneath. But I never went up. A bit of a visitor’s faux pas, I know, but I do tend to get more from less expected adventures.

To be fair, I was told – by everyone – not to bother if it was raining. And, well, it rained most of the time I was there. The sun did come out my last full day in Seattle, and Ben and I were walking right past the Space Needle at the time, but by then I was kind of over it. Next time. Maybe.

Another confession – just a little one. I nearly hated Seattle. Well, I did hate it, for about 30 minutes on my third day there. I was meeting Ben at his office at the end of day. It was a one mile walk, so about 15-20 minutes. We were going out to dinner from there, so I was dressed nicely, and had bothered with my hair and make-up. As it does in Seattle – at least half of the time – it was drizzling when I left the apartment. No problem. I had my new compact umbrella. After I put up the umbrella, it really started to rain. I pushed on, head down, umbrella shielding me from the incoming weather front.

I was about half way to Ben’s office, when I turned a corner and a huge gust of wind lifted my hat from my head and blew it into traffic. My muffled cry of, “No!!!” was drowned out by the wind and the traffic, just as a car ran over my hat. My new, very cute, ‘I got two compliments on this hat today’ hat. Bugger! Just as I had resigned myself that my hat was gone forever, another gust of wind turned my umbrella inside out, then scooped it up, and blew it into traffic. It was hit by a truck. I did not scream, “No!”, rather various swears for which I deserved to have my mouth washed out. Bugger! At this point I had no protection from the wind and rain, and was quickly saturating.

I ducked into the nearest building, where a very nice woman showed me the appropriate level of sympathy about my hat and umbrella that had been murdered by the wind and the traffic, and about how it was summer in Sydney and NOT freezing cold and miserable, and about how I was wet through and was supposed to go for dinner. I knew I sounded like lunatic, but perhaps she just thought, “Oh, she’s an O-ssie.” Americans do tend to find us endearingly quirky.

I called a cab. If I waited for it, it would arrive in 40 minutes. I called Ben. He got a cab in minutes and rescued me. He too showed me the appropriate sympathy for someone having endured such trauma. His understanding – and the understanding of the nice woman in the warm building – calmed me. I started to dry out in the warmth of the cab, and by the time we got to where we were going, the storm had subsided. As we walked towards the restaurant, I decided that my argument with Seattle should be put behind me, and we should make up. I wanted to give this city another chance for me to love it, and in the end I did.

Cool stuff I did do in Seattle:

  • Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour from Pioneer Square. So, the short story is that Seattle was once at sea level – or slightly below – which meant the city was flooded twice a day when the tide came in. The founding father’s put into action a plan to raise the city, a feat they accomplished in only 30 years! Much of the original city still exists – at basement level – under the newer city, and for only $14 guides will take you to the underground world of Seattle. These guides not only possess the keys to the city, they know lots of brilliant stories and historical stuff, so it is an interesting way to spend two hours.

  • The Seattle Children’s Theatre. By day I am an unassuming Drama teacher, so discovering the Charlotte Martin Theatre at the Seattle Centre (a collection of arts buildings, museums and performance arenas surrounding the Space Needle) was an unexpected treat. This is where the Seattle Children’s Theatre is based. I emailed them, and one kind lady let me come and meet her. She talked me through the work they do, showed me around the facilities – “Wow!” – and invited me to watch their current production, The Never-ending Story. The organisation produces high-quality children’s theatre with professional adult actors, as well as running a diverse learning program for children ages 3 to 18. Perhaps one day they will be in desperate need for an Aussie girl with vast experience and copious enthusiasm.

  • Experience Music Project. Also at the Seattle Centre is this an incredibly cool music museum. Frank O. Gehry designed the building, which is a futuristic exploration of form and colour. It reminded me of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. And with good reason: Gehry designed that too. Inside is a mini concert hall and on the day we visited an 8-piece Jazz band was playing – part of the 2008 Jazz Festival. The strains of their music filled the giant structure and we could hear them playing intermittently throughout our visit.
    The centrepiece of the museum is a 30-foot tall sculpture made entirely of guitars – all types of guitars – forming a giant funnel – like a musical tornado sweeping through the lobby. That is remarkable enough, until you realise that some of the guitars are actually playing. If you put on the headphones at the base of the sculpture, you can hear the music being created by automated guitars suspended above your head. Other exhibits include a rock memorabilia journey through Seattle’s modern music history. I was thrown back to university days, and many a night groaning along with Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain, but the roots of Seattle’s music scene are in underground jazz from early in the 20th century, much of it actually taking place in Seattle’s Underground labyrinth. My experience of Seattle’s history came full circle.

  • Uptown Espresso. I finally found a place that made brilliant coffee. On my last day in Seattle, Ben and I went in search of pancakes. Rather, we wanted a big cooked breakfast, with no thoughts given to calories or healthy eating. We did a net search, which wasn’t particularly helpful, and I was starting to get grumpy for lack of food. We decided to just head out into our ‘hood, Queen Anne. After some fruitless meandering, we happened upon an old-style diner, called Mecca Cafe. It smelled like bacon and maple syrup, so we made our way in, our eyes adjusting to the darkened room. We took a booth with red vinyl seats, and pondered the extensive menu. Exactly what we were looking for and we had nearly missed it.
    When the waitress came, with a pot of brewed coffee, and I asked about espresso, she directed me across the street, saying we could bring the coffees in to have with our breakfast. She then poured Ben a cup of diner coffee. He could have stood his spoon up in it. I offered to make the dash across the street to Uptown Espresso. I had walked past it a few times on my way back from the grocery store, each time promising myself to give it a shot when I didn’t have hands full of shopping bags. I had never made it back, until this moment. On entry, the warm and inviting smell of smooth coffee hit me like a physical force. I ordered, my latte no foam, and a soy latte for Ben. I watched the barrista make it with care and skill. I was almost in tears. I ran back across the street with both in hand, waiting to share my first taste with Ben. “I think we’re going to love this,” I said as I sat. We both tasted, we both smiled, and Ben said, “Oh yeah.” We drank in silence. The food arrived – waffles, pancakes, eggs, bacon. It was all great. We ate with gusto. Perfect. We then spent the rest of the day in the city, walking, shopping, exploring and burning off breakfast.

I also never went to the flagship Starbucks store, but I did walk past it several times, and I did stop to take a picture. Next time. Maybe.

Post-travel Blues

Coming home is one of the best things about travelling. I mean, what can beat coming through the door after a long absence and being greeted enthusiastically by a pet? Well, this was not exactly the homecoming I received from my cat yesterday morning. She was so ticked off about my extended absence that she ignored me completely for most of the day, and when she did speak to me it was only to ask for dinner.

Coming home is also one of the hardest things about travelling.

I write this post from my home in Sydney, and outside the sun is bright and the air is warming up to today’s 26C maximum. It feels wrong. After a month in the cold weather of North America, this bright, hot, sunny day is completely incongruous with what feels normal to me.

These feelings, these ‘post-travel blues’, are more than just the physical adjustments to spending 30 hours in transit, and being 5 hours behind in the day (Seattle is 19 hours behind Sydney, thus is 5 hours ahead throughout the day – don’t spend too much time thinking about it). The physical stuff is jet-lag and while I am suffering that too, P.T.B.s are about acutely feeling the differences – large and small – between where you’ve been and home.

For me, the weather is the most obvious difference between Sydney and Seattle – my last port of call. I got on a plane wearing a coat, long pants and knee-high boots, which were all stifling when I landed in Sydney. Easily rectified, however, as after Immigration, baggage claim and then Customs, I was home within 10 minutes of hugging my friend, Lisa, ‘hello’. The boots were off before I got through the door. And within an hour of landing, I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt.

The real feelings of despondency didn’t hit me until I saw Lisa off, and was walking back down my driveway. It was then that I started to sob, and I didn’t stop for some time after I was back in my apartment. This place, where I keep my stuff, and where I sleep more often than not, and where my cat lives, felt – at once – familiar and foreign.

I have spent most of the past month in one place, which means I unpacked while in Seattle. I had drawers for my clothes, and the suitcases were put away. I learned the neighbourhood, our little corner of Seattle, Queen Anne. I knew shortcuts, places of business and used the monorail to get about. I knew the aisles of the local supermarkets, and I even knew people, whose faces I saw everyday, enough to say ‘hello’. The corporate apartment where Ben and I were staying (he is still there and will be for the next month), was ‘home’. I had a mere two suitcases full of stuff, and that was enough. Besides clothes, I had my laptop, a book I subsequently finished and left on a plane, and my journals.

Back in Sydney, I have already filled half a dozen shopping bags with things and clothes that I do not want or need. Living in another city – even for just three short weeks – has made me realise that I am not attached to most of the things I have accumulated in my 7 years of living in Sydney, even things I so desperately wanted at the time. This realisation is one of my great gifts from this past bout of travelling: stuff is just stuff after all.

Now, I am not going to take a vow of poverty and rid myself of everything. I have not had such a grand epiphany as that. I am just reminding myself of something that I have known for some time: I am ‘at home’ most when the feelings about that place reflect what is truest to me at the time. This is not a new concept, just that ‘home is where the heart is’.

My travels over the past years have been a combination of tours, trips, visits and adventures. I did not feel ‘at home’ in Bali, but did in Greece, like I had deep roots there. I have felt ‘at home’ in Vancouver, a truly favourite city, and L.A., where I have long-time friends. I have even felt at home while swinging in the hammock of my rainforest hut in Peru. It is not the place, but what is in my heart and mind while I am there that brings me to this inner peace.

I fell a little in love with Seattle, and now I hurt because I am not there. It is a beautiful city with diverse people, a multitude of terrific restaurants, many artistic pursuits, and yes, I even got used to the weather. My last day out and about I wore only a denim jacket for warmth, which would be unlikely if it was 6C in Sydney. And of course, more than anything else, Ben is still in Seattle, which makes being home in Sydney bitter-sweet.

So, to cope with these post-travel blues, I will head to the gym, see my Sydney friends, and go to favourite cafes for coffee(!). I will celebrate Australia Day this Saturday, and then psych myself into going back to work next Tuesday. I will likely fall back in love with Sydney soon enough, remembering why I chose to live here. In the meantime, the cat is now cuddling with me on the couch – how quickly she forgives – and I am looking ahead to future travels. I head to the south coast of Western Australia in February to see my family and celebrate my dad’s 60th. It is a truly spectacular part of the world, one which I have yet to see in warm weather. Beyond that I am not sure, but I do know that my April holidays cannot come soon enough. Then I can get back off the beaten track.

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Flying Fish

I am not a food critic by any means, and I will not attempt to become one in this post, but Ben and I have been really impressed with restaurants we have eaten at in Seattle.  And there are so many to choose from.  Ben and I are staying close to downtown, so we are spoiled for choice within walking distance – or at most, a short cab ride away.

Last night we went to Flying Fish in Seattle’s restaurant district, Belltown.  What an extraordinary meal.  We ordered carefully, so that we could share bites, and we chose a local bottle of white on recommendation of the waiter.  We know we like New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs – and there were several on the menu to choose from – but we have wanted to stay true to the region when ordering wine here.  I have mentioned that Washington and Oregon do a ‘good red’, so when our waiter admitted this to us and still recommended the Washington Pinot Gris – “It partners really well with our menu” –  we agreed to try it.

We were not disappointed.  While we ate crusty bread with butter, our wine arrived, and he was right.  It was a terrific bottle of King Estate, which partnered well with the Thai crab cake I had to start, and the crispy calamari Ben ordered.  We both ‘ummmed’ as we tucked in.  We swapped bites a few times, and admitted ‘yes, you chose well too’, but ultimately we were happiest with our own selections, and we savoured them.  The portions were not skimpy, but we took our time. 

Before we knew it, and before I had a chance to find the bathroom, our mains were sitting before us.  Ben had the seared tuna and I had the mahi mahi.  I looked over at his plate with menu envy.  I took a bite of the mahi mahi and it was a little oily, and not quite what I expected.  I saw Ben’s obvious enjoyment, and put my cutlery down.  “Not good?” he asked patiently.  I have sent stuff back before, and I don’t really like being that person.  “It is okay.  I think I just ordered badly.”  Within seconds our waiter, Jeff, was by my side.  “Are you not enjoying that?”  I looked up at him, “It is just a lot heavier than I thought.  I think I just ordered poorly.”  He said he would be back in a second and he returned with the menu. 

We read it together, and yes, the fish was served with an apple butter sauce.  I guess I just thought it would be more apple than butter.  He did not hesitate and asked me to select something else.  I looked over at the tuna, and Ben offered me a bite.  It was delicious.  “I’d like the tuna please?” I asked, humbly.  He whisked the menu away with a genuine smile and went to get my tuna.  Ben kindly suggested I find the bathroom; he would wait for me to get my main, and then we could finish together.  When I got back to the table, the tuna was placed before me (it is seared for a micro-second).  Magic.  A little glitch of my own doing smoothed over within minutes, and we were off on our food Odyssey once again. 

If the wine had proved a good match for the starters, it was an even better pairing for the salty crusted tuna and risotto cake with Asian-style sauce and bok choy.  We ate slowly.  Mostly to savour the exceptional combination of flavours, but also to pace ourselves.  The portions were generous, and we wanted to finish every bite, because the food was so damned good!

We both cleaned our plates, again.

The bottle of wine was coming to an end, and Jeff poured the last glasses as he appeared with the dessert menu.  “See?” I said, looking up at him, “You look like butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth, but you are in fact the devil.”  He laughed, and recommended his favourite dessert, the chocolate grappa brownie.  Our eyes flew to the menu.  There it was, “Warm Grappa Brownie, vanilla ice cream, milk and bittersweet chocolate sauces”.  Oh my.  We chose that and the cheesecake, because we both love a good cheesecake.  Jeff returned to take our order, “We’ll have the brownie and the cheesecake – we’re just going to put them both in the middle of the table and fight it out.” 

Ben and I have been fortunate enough to have had some extraordinary meals in vast corners of the world, including Hawaii, Greece, and New Zealand, but I have to say, and I know he agrees, more often than not the desserts just do not complete the meal as they should.  We will have brilliant starters and mains, even great house-made bread, paired with terrific regional wines, but then dessert comes and it is an anti-climax.  We did NOT have this experience last night. 

The desserts arrived just as we were finishing our wine, and they looked good.  Both of us took pause to appreciate how pretty they were.  “I don’t think we’re supposed to eat them.  I think we should just look at them,” offered Ben.  I agreed, asking if he had his camera so he could take a picture of me with dessert.  He didn’t, so we turned our attention back to the table, and we got up the nerve to break the brownie.  We approached with care from both sides and dipped into the flourless brownie, soaking up some sauce and nicking the scoop of ice cream on the way to our mouths.  The ‘mmmm’s that followed were involuntary.  It was so unbelievably good.  And it was served with a chocolate/vanilla shortbread cookie, which added a whole other dimension of crunchy buttery goodness.  Praise all that is good!

We looked over at the poor cousin, cheesecake, and wondered how it could possibly compare.  But it did.  It was created with a ginger biscuit crust, served with poached pears, and throughout the filling was a cacophony of spices.  “It tastes like Christmas,” said Ben.  I just nodded and ‘mmm’ed in agreement; I had momentarily lost my ability to speak, but he nailed it with that description.  Both desserts were fantastic and we happily alternated back and forth between the two, commenting on how, at last, we’d shared a brilliant meal, complete with a brilliant dessert. 

The check came as we sat in blissful silence with two more empty plates before us.  Ben compared the desserts with his favourites ever, at Chino Latino in Minnesota, and at the Lindt Cafe in Sydney.  These two desserts were at least on par.  I mentioned that the brownie was remarkably similar to a molten chocolate pot I make back in Sydney when I have people for dinner.  “You can make something like that?” he asked incredulously.  “Um, yeah, I can,” and I promised to make it for him as soon as I am back in my own kitchen – and he is there to eat it.  I was inspired by presentation and accompaniments at Flying Fish, and it was outstandingly good, but, yes, I can make a fine dessert.

Flying Fish is the brain child of Christine Keff, who was inspired by a trip to Thailand where the menus at beach-side restaurants are simple, changeable and reflect only what is fresh that day.  Her philosophy translates in Seattle to a high-end restaurant where the complex menu changes daily to reflect the fish and produce that is fresh that day.  In fact, in researching this blog, the menu has already changed since last night – you could still get the brownie today, but even the desserts are changeable, as the cheesecake is missing.  The mahi mahi is still there, but no longer served with an apple butter sauce.  Did I do that?  Doubtful, but a timely change on the menu. 

To create a new menu daily based on what is fresh and available, is not an innovative concept for restaurants.  It is just that Flying Fish does it so well, and that the menu is highly creative, diverse and extensive.  So, next time you’re in Seattle, check it out.  Or, live it vicariously at the following site:

Bon appetit!

Seattle Surprises

Seattle Surprises

In Seattle, the seagulls are freakishly huge, the homeless call me ‘Ma’am’, and the sunsets are incredible. 

I have taken to buying something extra when I go to Safeway, which is the neighbourhood grocery store.  There is always a homeless man standing outside, asking for change – and it is never the same one.  I have grown tired of avoiding their eyes, because, quite honestly, I don’t like ignoring a human being who has spoken directly to me, but I do not want to give money to every homeless person I see either.  In Seattle, it is an unfortunate thing to say, they are everywhere I go.  More so than any other city I have spent time in, and they are unfailingly polite, “Excuse me, Ma’am, could I please have some change for some chowder.  I love chowder.”  Today I met this man’s gaze and said, “I have bananas I can give you.”  He smiled, “I love bananas too.  Thank you,” he said as he tucked them into his coat.   

I had bought the bananas with this interaction in mind.  There was no homeless man standing outside Safeway when I went in, but as I had figured, he was there when I came out.  I just didn’t want to be empty handed.  I will have to go back to the store tomorrow for bananas, but they don’t mean the difference to me between eating tonight and not.  And I am mindful that the cold, although quite a bit colder here than I am used to in Sydney, disappears when I walk through the doors of our centrally heated apartment.  I just feel particularly fortunate here, and like I can do a little thing for someone.  I had been warned about the number of homeless here by a friend who recalled it as a stand out feature of the city.  I just forgot about it, until I arrived and was confronted with it daily.  What am I supposed to do?  The etiquette escapes me, as I do not encounter the homeless on a daily basis back home. 

Fortunately, Seattle has much more to offer than the sad faces of cold and hungry men and women, although, it is not outstanding coffee, but I have already covered that. 

The seagulls here freak me out a bit.  They are huge, and strangely compelling in their hugeness.  I naively asked a local, “What type of birds are these?”  She smiled at me rather oddly, and simply said, “Seagulls.”  Okay, so when I say that they are huge, I mean it; the wing span of some is over a metre.  I think that qualifies as ‘huge’.  If one of these gulls was diving for my chips as I sat on the beach, I would recoil in horror, go indoors, abandoning said chips without a second thought. 

We were quite mesmerised by these Uber-gulls in flight the other day.  Ben (my boyfriend who is currently working in Seattle while I am a lady of leisure) and I hopped a ferry out to Bainbridge Island last Sunday.  It was one of those rare winter’s days when the sky is brilliant blue and although the air is crisp with cold, you still want to get out in it.  So we did.  The ferry ride revealed much about Puget Sound on which Seattle is situated.  With great appreciation we got our first glimpses of the Olympic Mountain Range, which lies west of Seattle.  It is beautiful.  I could use more clever superlatives, but it is a rocky, snow-capped mountain range, and when seen across the water, ‘beautiful’ is the perfect description.   

To the south is Mount Rainier, which on Sunday was not quite clear, but silhouetted against the milky blue of the southerly sky.  It stands alone, about 70 miles from Seattle, and is a northwest Mecca for climbers.  Once out on the sound, we looked back at Seattle and saw what is not wholly evident from being in Seattle looking out at the sound; it really is a spectacular-looking city.   
Seattle City Skyline

The skyline reflects the diversity of a multi-cultural city built on the back of rough, 150-year old industries, like logging and mining.  The architecture is eclectic, with Art Deco-style buildings sitting beside strikingly modern circular and angled buildings.  The restored dockside buildings are another contrast, fringing the city with colour and bustle.  With the Cascade Mountain Range in the background, and the still waters of the sound (the deepest natural harbour in the world), Seattle is simply, a stunning city. 

Our attention was called skywards as we watched the giant seagulls soaring above the ferry, effortlessly, and keeping pace as though they were tethered to it.  They flew in a formation more reminiscent of Top Gun fighter pilots than geese flying south.  And once in a while, one would peel away from the formation, gliding past us, as though a surfer catching a great wave.  A gentle flap or two of the wings and the same gull would be over our heads again at the front of the ferry.  This whole dance was mesmerising, and we realised we were watching the sky for a good portion of the trip.  I took some video footage that barely captures how ‘cool’ they looked.  And that is the best way to describe them – just super cool. 

Bainbridge Island is a pretty spot.  It is the closest of many islands that populate the sound.  And I got the sense that it is populated by people who know full well that they live somewhere special.  Lots of beautiful wooden homes out on the point looking out over Puget Sound back to Seattle.  They are a 25 minute commute to downtown Seattle, yet they live in relative tranquillity and amongst the pine trees.  If the town seemed lovely, but just a tad ‘smug’, well then I supposed there is good reason.   
Bainbridge Island back to Seattle

We wandered up from the ferry, a little adventure really, because we knew nothing about the island beyond how to get there.  Within two minutes we came across a wine store.  It came to our attention because of the sign that said ‘wine tasting’ and ‘open’, which registered with our great love of wine, and our even greater love of tasting new wines from an unknown region – for free.   We were the only ones in there when we entered, immediately we were engaged in an interesting conversation with a guy in his mid-thirties, who admittedly got into the wine business because of ‘alcohol’.  He and his father had been consuming it in great quantities when dad mentioned that the wine store down the road was for sale, and they should buy it.  And so they did.   

He was knowledgeable, if not a little arrogant, but perhaps that was the whole ‘I live on this pretty island’ thing.  He talked to us about wines in the immediate regions – Washington and Oregon.  I was fairly naïve about how good these wines were before I came here and tried them first-hand, but have been impressed with many, particularly the reds.  I have also enjoyed the fact that, like Australians, these north-westerners, really know and love their wines.  Even the corner stores here have a decent selection, and there is a large gourmet grocery store a few blocks from here (the apartment) that has a huge and varied collection.  We browsed there the other day for a long while and left with three bottles.  Now we just have to drink it – and the bottle of red that we bought from the unusual man in the wine store. 

The rest of the day on Bainbridge unfolded pleasantly.  The wine man sent us to Café Nola for lunch, which was a popular pick.  We waited about 10 minutes for a table, but arrived at the right time, because a dozen people followed us in and sat watching us eat, willing us to finish quickly.  While we waited for our food, we watched the servings leave the kitchen and make their way to other tables: huge!!  I was glad we had ordered fairly light, although the pancakes and bacon looked amazing.  I am a little in love with American pancakes, and even more so, their waffles.  NO OTHER COUNTRY IN THE WORLD DOES PANCAKES AND WAFFLES LIKE THE AMERICANS.  There, how is that for a bold statement?  It is true though, although that day we had salmon sandwiches.  I have consumed my body weight in salmon here.  It is so fresh and affordable, compared to back home.  

We strolled back down the main street via those little shops where you look but rarely buy – ‘lots of shiny things’ says Ben.  Our last stop was the wine shop where we picked up the bottle Ben had eyed earlier and then we were back on the ferry, a little tired from our big day out.  The cab ride to the apartment from the ferry revealed what I had guessed: the sun setting beyond Seattle on a sunny day is absolutely heart-stopping.  It falls behind the Olympic Mountains, which stand resolute in a grey silhouette while the tendrils of red and orange mingle with wispy clouds.  Nice.   

So, how much good food, good wine, breath-taking views and good company can two people take?  Not much, because at the end of our mini-adventure we were pretty much shattered, and had a quiet Sunday night in with a simple salad, oh and a bottle of wine.       

Seattle is the Home of Starbucks

I am naïve. No, really, I am. Until I was on my way to Seattle, where I am for the most of January 2008, I did not know that Starbucks was born here. I have subsequently walked past the flagship store – twice – and it looks very nice, but today I actually went into the Starbucks closest to where I am staying. And in Seattle, that is close, because you cannot swing a dead squirrel in Seattle without hitting a Starbucks.

Before I go any further, I must clarify two things: one is that I am a coffee snob. I like my coffee made by a qualified person – a barrista – with freshly ground, well-selected beans that are hand tamped, and brewed through a machine that is cleaned frequently to avoid that burnt taste. I like my milk to be heated to the perfect temperature, not overly frothy, not scorched, and not lukewarm. I am the Goldilocks of coffee lovers. I am painfully fussy and have returned more coffees than I have had hot dinners. Okay, an exaggeration, but only slightly. I have some favourite places in Sydney where I will drive out of my way to drink the coffee, and they take care. As a result, their coffees are hot, creamy and smooth. They look like bowls of liquid caramel, which is why ‘cappuccino’ is a colour; coffee should not look like grey dishwater.

The second thing I must clarify is a popular misconception about North Americans. Americans do like Starbucks. Well, many of them do, but on the whole Americans are not as obsessed as their northern cousins. Canadians LOVE Starbucks, like it is a form of communion, or something. In Seattle there are Starbucks stores dotted all over the city, but they are in competition with Seattle’s Best Coffee (I have yet to see if they are right, but I am beginning to think that is a weak mantle to wear), Tully’s and the Cherry Street Coffee House chains. In Calgary and Vancouver there is literally a Starbucks on every corner; every third person walking down the street carries a green cardboard cup.

Back in Seattle, today, I approached my local Starbucks with trepidation, because let’s face it, I know their coffee is not good. BUT, I was 20 minutes early for an appointment, so I decided to give them a chance to prove me wrong. I waited in line for approximately 8 seconds, and my order was taken by not one, but two employees behind the counter. A good start to the whole experience.  Now, I have been ordering coffees in North America long enough to know that a ‘flat white’, which is what I order at home, does not translate, so instead I asked for a small skim latte, no foam. No problem, I am understood and I pay the US$2.78. I do not have to wait long for my coffee, as the line formed behind me after I came in.

I am given a rather large cup, lid on, and when I take the lid off to add my sugar I am staring at anaemic froth. Confusion must have crossed my face, because the woman who made the coffee asks me if it okay. “I just get a little confused ordering coffee here,” I say with my best Aussie accent, “Is this a small?” She says it is a ‘tall’ – which is the smallest coffee on the menu board, but there is a smaller cup available. She is kind when she tells me to order a ‘short’ latte in future. Oh, how silly of me.  I wasn’t misheard, a ‘small’ is a ‘tall’. I look at the foam, “And if I don’t want any foam on my latte?” I am not being a smart ass, but there is an inch of foam staring at me. She is even nicer when she remakes the whole thing into a ‘short’ cup, but to be refunded the 33c difference between the coffee I ordered and the first coffee they made, required a manager and my signature.

At last my skim flat white – a Starbucks short skinny latte, no foam – is ready. I take the lid off, add my sugar, and taste. It is so weak, and the coffee flavour so bitter I add more sugar and sprinkle some chocolate on it. I stir it again, and take another sip. Lukewarm, and grey. Nope, can’t do it. I should have just thrown my two dollars in the bin, because that is where the coffee ends up after three sips. I truly wonder how they can mess it up – how can the coffee be burnt first thing in the morning? Surely they clean the machines at least once at the end of the day?

I peeked behind the counter to watch them make the coffee; it is all automated. They do not grind the beans as they use them, they do not tamp the grinds they need for each coffee, the system is automated. A machine makes the coffee; there is no other human input beyond the pressing of a button. And having tasted the result of one shot in the smallest cup they offer, the machine must be set to ‘weak’.  I realised it is no wonder that so many people add a flavouring to their Starbucks coffee.  It is so it tastes like something worth consuming.  It is a shame, really, because there must be staff behind that counter who love coffee and want to make something great.

This was not my first Starbucks coffee; I have had it before, several times. And each time I hope to be pleasantly surprised; today was no exception. I just wasn’t, and life is too short to drink bad coffee. It is too short for other things too, like finishing boring books, but that’s a whole other discussion. I still plan to go to the flagship store at the Pike Place Markets. I am curious now, to see if they have barristas or automation.

One last thing: I had coffee at a Cherry Street Coffee House the other day – on Cherry Street, so perhaps the flagship store of that chain – and it was good. I will go back before I leave the city.

Okay, and just one more last thing: Caffe Artigiano is a small chain of coffee houses in Vancouver, and their coffee is outstanding. They can actually claim to have the best baristas in Canada from 2003-2006 (Canadian Barista Championship) AND they can make a flat white to cry for (although it is called a ‘latte, no foam’). I had one 6 days ago and the sweet, smooth memory lives on.

Off the Beaten Track

‘Off the beaten track’ is a state of mind as well as a way to travel.  Many of my travels have been on well worn roads, but my approach allows me to have experiences far beyond the brochures.   

In the past decade travelling has taken me to incredible parts of the world, where I have met people who have influenced my life, and done things I had never considered.  I have greatly embraced the surprises that travel brings, even on ‘well-planned’ trips, and especially when those surprises could have been considered disastrous.   

One of the best days of my life started with a head cold and a scooter ride through torrential rain, but on a Greek Island in the Cyclades, this was the beginning of an incredible adventure and the forging of an important friendship.   My mindset is what takes me ‘off the beaten track’, which is why my Blog carries this name.  

My passionate affair with travel took hold when I was given a life-changing job with Contiki Europe as a Tour Manager in 1997.  With Contiki I travelled Europe extensively and even though our tours stuck mostly to well worn paths, my experiences during that time marked an incredible change in my view of travel.I ran organised tours, yet I saw a diverse range of clients, from tourists who saw Europe through the lens of a video camera, to travellers who sought out their own adventures.   

Armed with these powerful observations, I vowed from then on to always be a ‘traveller’.  Mostly, I have succeeded.  This does not mean that I enjoy five-star luxury travel any less, just that a backpackers’ hostel in New Zealand, serving free soup at 6pm, can bring me as much joy.  The diversity of my experiences is what keeps me addicted to my drug of choice: travelling.    

My focus for this Blog, and the accompanying photographs will be the travel I have done most recently.  In the past 15 months I have been sailing through the Cyclades Islands of Greece, traversed Peru by plane, train and motor cycle, had adventures in Hawaii, New Zealand and Canada, and discovered treasures in the cities of Las Vegas, London, Seattle, Christchurch, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Denver and my home town of Sydney. 

Where next?  This is a lengthy list peppered with must-returns and must-sees. 

I invite you to read, comment on and contribute to “Off the Beaten Track”.